The mental distress of detained asylum seekers

People denied asylum in the UK but unable to return to their country of origin are being detained in immigration centres, in some cases indefinitely. Louise Hunt reports

Ahmed Abu Bakar Hassan, 24, came to the UK in 2004 after fleeing persecution in Darfur, Sudan, where he was a political activist. His application for asylum was rejected. When he later tried to claim asylum in a false name he was sent to prison for four months. But when his sentence ended, rather than being released or deported, he was sent to Colnbrook immigration removal centre and then transferred to Oakington Immigration Removal Centre, near Cambridge, in October 2006.

“My mood is bad. I feel I have no life,” he says through a translator. “Prison was better than detention. I am in a room with 12 people. Life is hell here. I am paying the price for nothing.”

Hassan wants to return to Sudan, where he risks being killed, but the Sudanese Embassy has refused to give him travel documents and he says the Home Office has not offered any assistance. “I asked to be deported but there was no answer from the Home Office,” he says. “For two years I have been writing that I need to be deported or released, but no answer. I feel I am forgotten. No officials, no lawyers, nobody can do anything.”

Strain of uncertainty

The strain of uncertainty is taking its toll on his health. “It has made me ill mentally and physically. Now I take sleeping tablets and have many illnesses.”

He feels he has been treated unfairly by the UK authorities. “This country has freedom and human rights and people can speak their minds, but where are my human rights?” Asked about his hopes for the future, and his response is bleak. “I’m lost, my life is lost. Hope: where does hope come from?”

Hassan’s experience is one of many documented in a report published in January by the London Detainee Support Group, a charity that assists immigration detainees. Detained Lives identified 188 refused asylum seekers who have been detained for more than a year – in one case eight years – at the Harmondsworth and Colnbrook immigration removal centres in west London. There is evidence that this situation is replicated at the other nine detention centres in the UK.

Twenty-four of the detainees were interviewed about their experiences of long-term detention. The report found endemic psychological deterioration.

“Indefinite detention has a devastating impact on mental health,” says LDSG director Jerome Phelps. “These people are strong individuals, they have often fled horrific civil wars only to be trapped in limbo. It is scary to think what condition they will be in when they are released.”

Human rights abuse

He points out that, unlike in prison, there is no emphasis in the detention centres on rehabilitation for re-integration into society because the assumption is they will be deported.

“We see this as possibly the most serious human rights abuse in the UK,” says Phelps. “Nothing like this can take place in the criminal justice or mental health systems.”

The report also argues that long-term indefinite detention is a waste of taxpayers’ money – it cost more than £22m to detain the report’s interviewees alone. Separate data collected from six detainee support groups (including at Harmondsworth and Colnbrook) on 1 March showed that in total 128 people were detained for more than a year and 72 for more than 18 months.

In the LDSG’s report, the average length of stay was two years and the research found those who were detained the longest came from countries too dangerous for forced deportation, including Iraq and Somalia and those that refuse to admit people unless they can provide an original passport, such as Algeria and Iran. The result is stateless detainees remaining in detention for years.

Maximum length of detention

This situation has arisen because the UK is one of a small number of member states that have not signed up to the new EU Returns Directive that introduces an 18-month maximum length of detention for illegal immigrants. “What’s changed over the past few years is the increased emphasis on detaining foreign ex-offenders over long periods,” Phelps says. “Detention centres were initially built to hold people about to be deported, but now it seems the Home Office policy is to build more detention centres and to detain people for as long as possible.”

The report suggests the Home Office has veered towards a hardline policy because of the media pressure since the discovery in 2006 that nearly 1,000 illegal immigrants had apparently disappeared into the UK after serving prison sentences, a debacle that led to the resignation of former home secretary Charles Clarke.

Although most interviewees in the LDSG’s study were ex-offenders and had finished prison sentences, the report suggests there is no clear link between serious criminal offences and indefinite detention. Most of the convictions were for immigration-related offences such as using false documents and 11 had no criminal convictions at all.

Richard Lumley, a protection adviser at the Refugee Council who also chairs a sub-group on detention representing visitors’ groups around the UK, agrees. “Many people in long-term detention have committed offences, but a lot are not serious, they are immigration-type offences, not all rape, murder and terrorism,” he says.

Home Office support

But the Home Office denies that it is detaining refused asylum seekers for longer than necessary. “It’s always open for people to leave voluntarily and they will receive Home Office support to do this,” says a spokesperson. “We only detain people for as long as is reasonably necessary. It depends on the circumstances of each case, if people are appealing decisions this could take longer, but it is not the case that nothing is happening, they are not forgotten.”

He insists detainees would have access to lawyers and a case worker and could apply for release through bail. But the LDSG’s interviewees tell of difficulty accessing this.

With the Borders, Immigration and Citizenship Bill currently going through parliament and the Immigration Simplification Bill expected later this year, support groups and refugee organisations are lobbying for better rights for detainees.

Sandy Buchan, Refugee Action chief executive, says: “It is appalling that people who have come to the UK to seek protection, and who have committed no crime, can be held for months and sometimes years in detention with no idea of when their incarceration will end.

“As the Home Office expands its detention estate, we urge it to adopt the recommendations of the Detained Lives campaign, bring an end to indefinite detention and explore community-based alternatives.”

Change in practice unlikely

But an imminent change in practice looks unlikely, because the Home Office confirmed it has no current plans to sign up to the EU Returns Directive. “If people know they could be released after a certain time they may not be compliant with immigration procedures,” the spokesperson says.

If there is to be no policy change to end indefinite detention, Phelps says “there is a real need for the issue to be mainstreamed”. He urges community service providers to be aware of the needs and issues of refugees and asylum seekers. “Everyone working with vulnerable people is likely to come into contact with refugees and asylum seekers and it is crucial they are aware of their rights and the issues they face,” he says.

● Ahmed Abu Bakar Hassan has just been released.

This article appears in the 9 April 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline “Why are they here?”

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