This week a man died in a UK Immigration Detention Centre. He leaves his partner and a baby born on the day of his death behind. It is the third death in UK immigration detention in five weeks. Since 2000, 39 people have died in or just after being released from detention centres. Last year, Amir Siman-Tov, a Moroccan man who had converted to Judaism died in Colnbrook detention centre. Independent investigations are launched every time a death occurs in detention. Some of those investigations point towards failures of healthcare support but the problems that lie at the heart of UK detention policy expand further than poor healthcare.
The UK does not have a time-limit on how long someone can be kept in immigration detention. This policy of indefinite detention, of not knowing how long you might be locked up in prison-like conditions, has time and time again been shown to be the root cause of so many mental health problems. Around 30,000 people go through the UK detention system every year, around 3000 are locked up as you read this, some stay for days, some for months and some for years. More than half are ultimately released back to their communities in the UK, with their incarceration having served no purpose other than damaging their mental and physical health.
In 2015 indefinite detention was described by a group of cross party parliamentarians as ‘expensive, ineffective and unjust.’ In the same year an independent review commissioned by the Home Office provided over 60 recommendations for reform and stated that some of the situations within detention amounted to ‘an affront to civilised values.’ Under mounting pressure, the Government promised detention reform, yet little has materialised so far.
Just before Pesach, René Cassin, the Jewish voice for human rights, took Rabbis into Harmondsworth detention centre, near Heathrow airport. I still have ingrained in my mind the image of one of the Rabbis having his matzah confiscated as we went through the prison style security. The Rabbi’s remonstrations that the matzah was the ‘bread of affliction’ not moving the security guard one iota. As a result of lobbying for reform throughout the passing of the Immigration Act 2016, pregnant women can now be held in detention for a maximum of 72 hours and further amendments promised automatic bail hearings after four months inside a detention centre. The latter of these two reforms has yet to be enforced.
When you speak to individuals who have been through immigration detention, none of them are surprised when they hear someone else has died in these centres. In response to Amir Siman-Tov’s death last year the group Freed Voices (experts by experience of detention) stated that ‘this is not really surprising to anyone who has experienced indefinite detention first-hand. Detention kills your mind, it kills your soul…and sometimes it just kills.’
Indefinite detention is one of the clearest examples of UK Government policy oppressing the stranger. There are community-based alternatives that can enable migrants to engage with immigration procedures while remaining connected to their families, friends and support in the community.
The promised reforms need to arrive quickly or it is unlikely that the man who took his own life on the day his child was born will be the last tragic death in UK detention.