27 Feb 2017, 26 mins ago

Immigration detention hardly has a glowing reputation in the UK, with the practices, in particular, of the notorious Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) under frequent scrutiny. 

But despite a plethora of reviews, internal investigations and reports by NGO’s, things do not seem to be improving regarding the welfare of immigration detainees. In fact, they are getting worse. 

Last week saw the death of a third immigration detainee since the start of December, and the second at Morton Hall IRC in a month. The coverage in the Guardian was chilling: “Investigation after death of second immigrant in UK detention in a week” read the headline on 7 December 2016. A month later, an almost identical headline appeared, merely changing the number to “third.” 

29 people have now lost their lives in immigration detention since 2000.  The latest, on Wednesday last week, concerned a 27-year old unnamed Polish detainee, who reportedly killed himself, and was found hanged in his room. A spokesperson for the Unity Centre in Glasgow, which supports asylum seekers and other migrants including those in detention, claims the man was refused bail on 23 December because his heavily pregnant partner was unable to travel to a bail hearing to act as his surety. A statement from the Centre said: 

“[The deceased’s] baby was born on the day of the suicide. It is believed he was aware of the birth before he took his life, and that he had expressed enormous grief at not being allowed to see the birth of his child.”

Many NGO’s have raised concern about the number of deaths in immigration custody, lamenting in particular, systemic failures in mental healthcare. Suicide attempts at IRCs averaged one a day in 2015, an all-time high.

The Centre for Mental Health was recently commissioned by NHS England to analyze the mental health challenges faced by people held in detention centres across England. The report, released last week, highlighted the vulnerability of the vast majority of immigration detainees, many of whom had previously faced trauma, torture and oppression in their countries of origin. Depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder were found to be the most common mental health problems suffered by detainees, with challenges to wellbeing partly caused by loss of liberty, the feeling of staying in a prison-like regime, and uncertainty about the future. In addition, confusion and a lack of clarity about legal procedures was found to cause a huge amount of distress to detainees, with legal professionals alarmingly unsuited to provide reassures and certainty in the face of ever-changing and complex, highly technical immigration rules.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including the provision to all staff of training about mental health and trauma and offering a wide range of effective interventions to support the wellbeing of detainees and staff.

A statement from the Home Office after the most recent death in Morton Hall read: 

“We can confirm that a 27-year-old Polish man who was detained at Morton Hall immigration removal centre was found dead on Wednesday 11 January. Our thoughts are with the individual’s family at this very sad time. As is the case with any death in detention, the police have been informed and a full independent investigation will be conducted by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.”

Yet year after year investigations into deaths in custody reveal ongoing systemic healthcare failings, and few signs of improvement. The UK has one of the largest networks of immigration detention facilities in Europe. If it is to be adequately and humanely maintained (notwithstanding legitimate calls for reform of the system entirely), more funding and effort with regards to mental health training and support has to be guaranteed. Continued failure on this front will only lead to further deaths and tragically monotonous headlines in the Guardian.