LEICESTER, United Kingdom – After it was announced a 51-year-old Algerian died at a UK immigration detention center, an official from the Jesuit Refugee Service said she fears it will happen again.
The death happened at the Harmondsworth immigration removal center near London’s Heathrow airport on Dec. 2, but was announced on Friday.
The center does not hold criminals, but either asylum seekers trying to establish their identity, or undocumented immigrants waiting to be deported.
“When I was visiting Harmondsworth this week, it was clear that the news had deeply affected everyone there,” said Beatrice Grasso, the Jesuit Refugee Service UK’s detention outreach manager.
“A number of people came to see JRS this week to speak of their distress and upset about the death of their fellow detainee, as well as a failed suicide attempt of another person in the past week. This aggravates already high levels of stress and anxiety,” she said.
Earlier this year, government prison inspectors issued a scathing report on Harmondsworth, noting that many detainees identified as “vulnerable” – nearly a third of those being detained – were not being adequately safeguarded.
The March 2018 report said that many detainees described a “a sense of purposelessness and boredom” and that the mental health needs of detainees were often not met.
The next month The Independent newspaper documented that between January 2016 and August 2017 there were 647 cases of detainees receiving medical treatment following incidents of self-harm at all immigration detention centers in the country – more than one a day.
“[Sunday’s death] is not the first death in detention this year, and I fear it will not be the last time something like this happens,” Grasso said.
“It is a testament to the detrimental effects on both physical and mental health that indefinite detention innately causes, often compounding existing vulnerabilities and corroding an individual’s dignity,” she said.
Grasso said that while some people are held in detention for a short period, others can be detained for a much longer time before ultimately being released back into the community.
“The trauma of detention coupled with the anxiety induced by this uncertainty have a damaging effect on the physical and mental health of those who are put through it,” she said.
The UK is the only European country that has no time limit on detaining asylum seekers, with the longest recorded detention lasting over five years.
In October, JRS UK issued a report showing victims of human trafficking are also being held in indefinite detention by the British government, in violation of UK policy.
The report said the system used to determine whether an asylum seeker is a trafficking victim – called the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – is not working correctly and said there are “good reasons for thinking that the Home Office’s interest in immigration control undermines the system for identifying and supporting victims, resulting in their continued detention.”
The Home Office is the UK government department that deals with immigration.
“It is time to end the structural injustice of immigration detention, the negative effects of which last long after a person has been released. It’s time for a time limit,” Grasso said.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster visited the Jesuit Refugee Services UK in July to meet with asylum seekers and refugees, and called the British government’s treatment of asylum seekers “a shame on our country.”
They are here in this kind of ‘twilight world’, and what we’ve heard this afternoon is how deep that darkness is, and, in a way, how deliberately that darkness is created,” Nichols told the BBC.
“It seems that there is a deeply mistaken sense that treating people this badly will prevent others seeking sanctuary in this country,” the cardinal continued.
When they announced the death of the Algerian detainee on Friday, a Home Office spokesperson said their “thoughts are with his next of kin at this sad time.”
“As is the case with any death in detention, the police have been informed and the matter referred to the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman,” the spokesperson said.