Shine A Light

A call to action in memory of the woman I never knew

At least 20 people have died in immigration detention in the UK: how many more must die before the UK changes its detention policy? The public must shout louder, says Eiri Ohtani. 

Eiri Ohtani
18 June 2014

This article was first published on 1 April 2014.

A woman died this weekend, on Mother’s Day, in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. It has been reported that she was 40 years old, a few years younger than me.

The manner of the woman’s death was sadly familiar for those of us who have been witnessing the deadly growth of immigration detention. At least 20 people have died in detention so far in the UK. 

If the brief description in the newspaper is to be believed, the deceased woman complained of being unwell and of having a chest pain before passing away. This hints that this could be the case of yet another heart-failure related death, which seem to be spreading in the UK’s immigration detention estate.

In July 2011, a Pakistani asylum-seeker, Muhammad Shukat, died of a heart attack at Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre near Heathrow Airport. At his inquest, it was found that his death was caused by neglect by medical staff who failed to attend to his symptoms. In March 2013, Khalid Shahzad, collapsed and died within hours of being released from the same centre after having been deemed unfit for detention. We can only speculate at this stage and, besides, knowing the truth will not bring her back to life. Still a question remains: how many more people in detention must die before we change our detention policy? 

Many thousands of men and women will be staying in one of the UK’s 12 detention centres tonight, feeling anxious that they could be nextThe latest statistics show that 30,423 people entered this vast, prison-like infrastructure, scattered around the UK in 2013. Most of these people were detained for the administrative convenience of the state while waiting to be removed or deported from the UK. Others are there while going through the world infamous Detained Fast Track, a system designed to process people’s asylum claims so fast that they do not have a chance to make a proper case for safety. The statistics are misleading, since many people also experience immigration detention in prisons. Only this information is not included in the detention statistics, leaving the general public, the politicians and the NGOs none the wiser as to the true scale of UK’s detention practice.  

Not having what seems like the most basic information about their detention practice has not deterred the UK government from increasing its detention capacity, however.  Campsfield Immigration Removal Centre in Oxfordshire is rumoured to be adding extra 90 beds to its capacity.  Meanwhile, the Verne in Weymouth, initially marketed as a new addition of the UK’s detention estate, remains undecided as to call itself an immigration removal centre or a prison. This indecision comes well past the originally planned opening day of 24 March 2014, indicating the casualness with which the UK government plays with the lives of ‘unwanted’ migrants. 

People who are in detention rarely get a proper look in, except when they tragically die. There was public outcry in response to a very thorough investigative piece by Channel 4 into the death of Alois Dvorzac, the 84-year Canadian man who died while handcuffed in detention. It was a brilliant piece of journalism, detailing a fully-lived life that ended in such a degrading and inhumane way.  It even prompted Keith Vaz MP, the Chair of Home Affairs Select Committee, to announce on the national TV that he wants a full inquiry into his death (and if anyone knows when this inquiry is taking place, I’d love to know the answer...). It says something about us when the death of a detainee can only be taken seriously when the life that is lost is dramatically humanised.  

So how about this woman’s death?  Will we let the predictable happen yet again?  Each time someone dies in immigration detention there is usually a flurry of media activity, sombre speeches made in Parliament (if any), calls of inquiry and investigations made – and then what?  Usually, it is business as usual after a few weeks if not days. Detain first, ask questions later.   

After each death, some stand up and argue that detention should be made safer and improved, just as the Immigration Minister did in yesterday’s debate in response to an Urgent Question tabled by Labour MP Yvette Cooper.  While improvement is of course welcome, and no one in their right minds would argue for the opposite, it is important to remember that ‘improved’ detention is still detention, and here in the UK, that detention is indefinite – you don’t know when it will end and it can go on for months and years. 

The largest ever study on the impact on detention in Europe concluded that detention makes everyone vulnerable: ultimately, it takes someone’s liberty away and makes that person entirely dependent on others for survival.  And those who are responsible for their care, regrettably, are bound to fail from time to time because they are human.

When we are shown over and over again how dangerous the practice of detention is and how it can be lethal to people held there, a logical step to take is to minimise the use of detention. Alongside improvement, it is time to start talking about reducing detention, with the long-term aim of ending it. It could be that the length of detention is reduced, or that we scrap some of the expensive detention spaces to accommodate people in the community instead.

And this is not just about the politicians; we need to talk democratic accountability. The country is brimming with polls and surveys leading up to the 2015 General Election, many of which have focused on migration. Yet we know very little about public attitudes to immigration detention. The British public may often poll as being ‘anti-immigrant’, but what price are they willing to pay? Did the decision to convert the Verne into an Immigration Removal Centre receive any public scrutiny – or did we not demand any?  What are we doing letting this deadly machine expand untethered, exposing more and more to the humiliating and dehumanising practice of detention?  How do we stand politically on the issue of detention?

Many people have already done their homework to demonstrate that detention must change. Just last week, The Council of Europe's Committee for the prevention of torture urged the UK government to reconsider its practice of indefinite detention. A report by Women for Refugee Women has helped their #SetHerFree campaign gain momentum amongst those who are concerned about detention of women. Other organisations, such as Medical Justice and Detention Action, have also produced a number of reports and briefing papers that outline not just the impact but injustice of immigration detention. Importantly, there is also substantive research on alternatives. The material is there: what is lacking is action. 

I have never met this woman who died on Sunday and I now never will. I do not know anything about her personal story and the little I know of her through the news outlets might not even be accurate.  However, I do not think it is necessary to postpone the mourning until her ‘story’ comes out. I see this woman as a fellow human being whose civil liberty has been violated. As a fellow human being, I feel ashamed that she died in a cold, prison-like environment, most likely to be away from her friends and family, because the state thought it was convenient for her to be locked up there. To know her death is to be touched by it, to change the way we live and shout louder against detention and immigration enforcement. That’s how I will remember her, the woman I will never know. 

Refugee Week: Women's Voices: To mark Refugee Week, from 16-22 June openDemocracy 50.50 presents a range of articles written by refugee women authors and refugee rights' activists around the world. All articles are taken from People on the Move, 50.50's migration, gender and social justice dialogue, edited by Jennifer Allsopp.

Read Death at Yarl's Wood: Women in mourning, women in fear and Refugee women in the UK: Pushing a stone into the sea.

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