The planned increase in detention risks a rising death roll
Trigger warning – this post includes references to self-harm and suicide
Medical Justice is deeply saddened and disturbed by the death on Friday of a detained Albanian man who tried to kill himself in Brook House Immigration Removal Centre (IRC). This is the actual human consequence of the UK’s dehumanising and unjust detention system. We agree with the British Medical Association’s call to phase out immigration detention otherwise the deaths and harm are bound to continue. IRCs should be closed down before another person dies.
Each death in detention is a tragedy and is acutely felt by detained people left behind, locked in IRCs. Medical Justice has clients, including vulnerable torture and trafficking survivors, who have witnessed self-harm by fellow detained people and become immensely distressed by the experience. After a death in detention, some of our clients have called us, frightened, in severe distress and inconsolable. We are deeply concerned that little help or support is provided to extremely distressed people after the death of a fellow detained person.
“Our independent clinicians visiting clients in detention have observed extraordinary levels of despair and suicidality, describing the atmosphere in detention as desperate. People who are distressed and suicidal are taken to segregation. Many detained people have witnessed suicide attempts, and our clients describe not knowing if their former wing-mate is still alive. People are unable to trust security or healthcare staff and feel terrified.”
Dr Rachel Bingham, Medical Justice Clinical Advisor
A Medical Justice detained client, ‘Aaron’ (not his real name) – a trafficking and torture survivor – expressed having suicidal thoughts and told Medical Justice that knowing about others having attempted suicide affected him. Aaron said officers told him that they had dealt with seven people attempting suicide and in the middle of talking with him would say ‘I have to go because someone did a suicide attempt’ and had to run off. Aaron explained that “even knowing that, having that information, the feeling of death around you. It feels awful, terrible.” He told us: “I don’t wish anyone to suffer like that”. He said that if he was asked to go to detention again, he would rather take his own life.
Medical Justice research published this year notes that 49 of 66 detained clients assessed by Medical Justice between June 2022 and March 2023 were recorded as having self-harmed, having had suicidal thoughts and/or attempted suicide. It’s not uncommon for our clients to get dragged off suicide prevention netting having attempted to harm themselves.
The daily reality of extreme levels of distress was depicted by official records noting 24 self-harm incidents in the Heathrow detention sites in March 2023 and an “attempted mass suicide” days after a detained man killed themselves there. A complete failure of clinical safeguards meant that not a single medical report flagging detainees at risk of suicide, which should trigger a reconsideration of continued detention, was issued as it should have been.
The Brook House Inquiry’s report in September 2023 found a dangerous use of force, a wholesale failure of safeguards and a culture of dehumanisation led to mistreatment in immigration detention. The public inquiry – in which Medical Justice acted as a Core Participant – found 19 cases of inhuman and degrading treatment in one detention site alone over just 5 months, which indicates a level of abuse that risks becoming routine. The extent of this abuse, coupled with the fact that the government is fully aware of the continuing failures that the inquiry’s report found, means that this harm and abuse is not accidental.
The Illegal Migration Act calls for the mass incarceration of asylum seekers, including men, women, and children on an unprecedented scale. The government did not contest the extensive evidence of continuing systemic failures during the inquiry, yet it plans to massively expand detention, knowing the harm that detention causes and the risk of more deaths in detention. This is both shameful and cold-blooded.
In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 988 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counsellor.