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No end to the horrors of detention

The invisibility of immigration detention centres and the trauma of detention has meant that the heavy psychological baggage many migrants bring back with them into UK communities following their release has also gone unseen and unaddressed.

Barbara, a young Nigerian woman, had sat in silence throughout the group-evidence session in Middlesbrough. She had listened intently as others had offered their testimonies, but had said nothing herself. Only at the end, when the discussion turned to the long-term impacts of detention, did Barbara speak: “The murder happens inside detention,” she said. “But they let you die outside.”

View from within Colnbrook over to Harmondsworth (Photo: MF Bosworth) View from within Colnbrook over to Harmondsworth (Photo: MF Bosworth)

Barbara was giving evidence for a North-EastCommunity Submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry into Immigration Detention. The inquiry has held three oral sessions so far, each one as harrowing as the last.  Former minister Sarah Teather and her cross-party panel of parliamentarians have heard from an acclaimed cast of policy experts, legal and medical practitioners, independent inspectors and migrants, like Barbara, with direct experiences of detention. Together, they have helped paint a vivid picture of the UK's detention estate. Violent, unchecked, it is the picture of a system in crisis - one riddled with inadequacies, crippled by inefficiencies, subjugated by political priorities, almost wholly indifferent to the UK’s commitment to human rights, bloated and expanding still.

To those of us who work with the people trapped within this system, it is both a deeply distressing and worryingly familiar portrait. And yet, this inquiry – jointly led by the All Party Parliamentary Groups on Refugees and Migration – has also shed light on some other, less well-documented (albeit equally unwelcome) realities facing migrants incarcerated in the UK. In a bid to go beyond the scope of previous parliamentary attempts to examine the use of immigration detention, the inquiry panel have sought to look at the detention system as a whole, and the journey through it from 'beginning' to 'end'.

Trying to determine precisely when the end actually is the end, however, has proved illuminating in of itself. The key finding here is that one’s experience of detention does not necessarily come to a close when the gates of Colnbrook, or Campsfield, or Yarl's Wood, finally swing open. In other words, there is no conclusive end to the horrors of detention. Or, as expert-by-experience Shariff poignantly put it in a recent piece for the Unlocking Detention tour entitled 'A Letter to Harmondsworth': “Do you think that when I left Harmondsworth, Harmondsworth left me? I think about you guys every day.”

There has of course been extensive research into the brutal, sometimes lethal, psychological and emotional impact of immigration detention (see Medical Justice's excellent 'Second Torture' report, the Royal College of Psychiatrists' position paper on mental health in detention, or Jesuit Refugee Service Europe's 'Becoming Vulnerable in Detention' study, to name but a few). This has been supplemented by mounting evidence on the extent to which detention causes as well as exacerbates mental illness. Articles in this very series, have highlighted precisely how and why the safeguards in place to protect vulnerable migrants simply do not work. The truth is that the UK is generating a unique quantity of evidence on the harm done to migrants in detention and no-one can plead ignorance.

But whilst research into the emotional impact of detention has understandably focused on the deterioration of mental health in and/or during detention, much less has been done to explore what Dr. Katy Robjant and Professor Cornelius Katona of the Helen Bamber Foundation have referred to as the 'longitudinal impact of detention on mental health, as well as the subsequent social acculturation process' post-release. To their credit, the inquiry panel have specifically attempted to address this issue. Included in their list of prompts for those submitting evidence was the call for information about “the longer-term impacts of detention on you, your family and/or your wider community.”

The event attended by Barbara was just one of several group-evidence sessions across the UK organised by Detention Action in collaboration with other members of the Detention Forum.  It was shocking to hear participants speak about the extent to which detention continues to exert a mental toll on their everyday life. In some instances, participants were still feeling the effect of their experience of detention years after they had been released. Many felt as if they had never left.

Esther said that after five months in Yarl's Wood (over two years ago) she still heard the sound of doors slamming and keys turning every few minutes. Gabriel, a male survivor of trafficking, noted how three years of sitting in the shadows of Colnbrook had altered his sensitivity to light and almost a year on, he only felt comfortable in dark spaces. Others reported problems with memory recall, mental disorientation and repeated flashbacks: “Even now, I am not really out of detention. It is still with me. Every night I think of Colnbrook. I have night-terrors.”

Abdal, an activist from Sudan, stressed that detention in itself was a site of extreme trauma, comparable in its lasting effect to his previous experiences of torture: “Detention is harder than physical torture. And it never ends, even when you are out.  Even now, I am now in total depression. I think about detention all the time and I am on seventeen different kinds of medication.” Such psychological suffering has subsequently made re-integration into families, friendships, and local communities extremely difficult for many people. Numerous participants spoke about how detention had affected their ability to socially interact with others post-release:  “Because you have been kept locked up for no reason, against your will, and all of the staff in detention are there to deport you, you don't trust anyone. When I came out I realised how scared I was of other people.” In turn, those welcoming back loved-ones also, inadvertently, bare the emotional scars of detention.  A woman from Newcastle told us how detention had not just changed her husband, it had transformed him. “Now he sleeps all day. He cannot remember anything. He is not himself. This experience [detention] has ruined us.”

Underlying all of these testimonies was the sense that there simply was not enough structured support - emotional, practical, and financial - for individuals who had experienced the trauma of detention. Amadou, now based in Gateshead, said he felt like a 'new-born baby' when he was released, unable to care for himself: “I was there for years in detention. I am institutionalised, I know it. Now no-one helps me with that grief. I have got to process everything that was done to me on my own. It is impossible. I have lost everything. I need help.” Mohammed from Algeria expressed disbelief that, after detention had left his mental health in tatters, he was the one who had to pay for his own healthcare, not the Home Office: “The Home Office detained me for no reason, gave me mental health issues, released me, and then made me pay for my own treatment.”

This testimony-based snapshot of the 'longitudinal' impact of detention is rudimentary and unscientific but it issues several warnings nonetheless. First and foremost, there is clearly a need for more research into the long-term impact of detention on migrants released back into British society – on them as individuals, but also on the families and communities they are returning to.

Second is the relevance of trying to understand detention as trauma. Many of those individuals who have experienced detention in the UK clearly continue to demonstrate symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other depressive disorders - such as flashbacks, panic attacks, feelings of incapacitation, anger, and anxiety - long after leaving detention. (This, incidentally, echoes research in Australia which found that mental health effects persist for a prolonged period after detention, independent of other established predictors of psychiatric morbidity in migrants, such as past exposure to trauma.) The fear here is that, as is the case with many other kinds of trauma, proper rehabilitation following detention could take an extremely long time and even then, might only be possible if accompanied by a degree of mental, physical and financial stability. For those recently released from detention in the UK, that is highly unlikely.

Instead, after having been warehoused in prison-like conditions for an indefinite period of time - maybe four months, maybe four years - they are much more likely to find themselves unceremoniously dumped back into the community as if nothing had happened. They will be housed far away from friends and family. They will receive inadequate financial support, inappropriate or no accommodation, and will be refused the right to work. Some will be strapped with electronic tags and governed by strict curfews. All will be expected to pick themselves up even though the odds of reintegration are crudely stacked against them. Such a lack of support only serves to compound the sense of vulnerability, powerlessness and isolation that defined life in detention.

The reality is that, unless someone tragically dies in detention, the suffering that takes place there usually goes unnoticed. Detention centres have long been our immigration system's 'black-sites'; kept at arm’s length from the general public, out of sight, out of mind. For many years, this invisibility has meant that, following their release, the heavy psychological baggage many migrants bring back with them into the community has also gone unseen, unappreciated, unpacked.

Perhaps, until now. For just as the Parliamentary Inquiry has highlighted the ongoing ill-effects of detention on individuals long after their release into the community, so too has it provoked a response from the communities themselves. For every participant with direct experience of detention at the group-evidence sessions we helped run, there was another who had never stepped foot in an IRC. They were there because they knew someone - maybe a family member, maybe a friend, neighbour, or a member of their church or mosque - who had been deeply affected by detention and they wanted to find out why. They were there because they represented local organisations who, in the absence of any structured governmental reintegration support, were trying to identify the needs of those recently released from detention. They were there because, like so many of us, they wanted an end. 

About the author

Ben du Preez is a campaigner for Detention Action, where he also co-ordinates the Freed Voices project. Detention Action is an organisation that provides practical and emotional support to individuals in immigration detention and campaigns for detention reform in the UK. From September to December this year they will be helping run 'Unlocking Detention', a digital tour the UK's detention estate. 


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