How UK detention policy worsens migrants’ mental health

By Kristy Siegfried

Migration Editor

This month, the UK parliament is due to release findings of an inquiry into the detention of migrants and asylum seekers, prompted by high profile incidents of sexual abuse and deaths. Unlimited immigration detention contributes to – and can even cause – lasting mental health problems among detainees, according to IRIN interviews with former detainees, aid and advocacy groups and UK court decisions.

Several studies have examined the impact of immigration detention on mental health. A review of 10 of these studies by specialists who gave evidence to the inquiry found that they all “reported high levels of mental health problems in detainees. Anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder were commonly reported, as were self-harm and suicidal ideation. Time in detention was positively associated with severity of distress.”

In the UK, there are 11 Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs), used to hold migrants and asylum-seekers on arrival, pending a decision on their status. Where applications have been rejected, IRCs also hold them prior to deportation.

In the EU, only Greece detains more people in such centres than the UK, according to London-based NGO Detention Action. More than 30,000 people spent time in them in 2013. The government held almost 800 people in prisons under immigration legislation in mid-2014.

The country now has more than 4,000 designated immigration detention beds compared to a few hundred beds 15 years ago and the Home Office, the government department responsible for immigration, plans to further expand its detention capacity in 2015.

Besides the mounting cost to British taxpayers - estimated at US$57,000 per detainee per year - Detention Action’s Executive Director, Jerome Phelps, points to the significant number of detainees who are being harmed “in lasting ways”.

“There is a crisis of mental health in detention,” he told IRIN.

A 2010 study by the Jesuit Refugee Service, which interviewed 685 detainees in 23 EU countries, found that “detention brings very negative consequences for detainees’ mental health” and that prolonged detention “compounds the adverse mental health effects”.

Both international and European law stipulate that migrants and asylum seekers should only be detained as a last resort and for the shortest time possible. The European Union Returns Directive sets a detention limit for irregular migrants of 18 months. Many countries have their own shorter time limits, but the UK has opted out of the directive and is the only member state with no time limit on detention.

Sharif*, who says he fled torture in a north African state he preferred not to name for fear of repercussions, spent a year in detention centres before being released. He told IRIN that conditions inside were oppressive.

“I lost my health in detention, after all this stress and bad feeling,” he said.

“A lot of people self-harm. My friend, he cut his neck with a razor… I wasn’t supposed to see all this.”

Four months after his release, Sharif, who suffers from claustrophobia and had to be heavily medicated during his incarceration, still fears being re-arrested and sent back home.  Even the sound of keys in locks puts him on edge.

Hassan Seguya, a Ugandan refugee who spent six months in two different immigration detention centres after his initial asylum claim was refused, told IRIN about one particularly stressful issues for detainees.

“I felt like I was in prison, but it was worse because you don’t know [the length of] your sentence,” he told IRIN.

“I was only waiting to be deported and I thought to die here [in detention] would be better because I knew they’d torture me back home,” said Seguya, who recounted how he spent three years behind bars in Uganda, where he was allegedly beaten and tortured, after being accused of complicity in a coup plot.

Another detainee who gave evidence by phone from a removal centre said he had been held for three years. He said efforts to deport him had failed because he came from a disputed area claimed by both Nigeria and Cameroon and neither state agreed to receive him, arguing it was the other’s responsibility.

He said while in detention he had been treated for previous traumatic stress, but inadequately.

 “I tried to use a sheet, my bedding, to stop my breathing,” he told the parliamentary committee. “[Some] days I wake up, I don’t want to wake up. I just want [them] to carry me out in a carrier bag and take me out of this place.”

The Home Office’s own rules are meant to protect “any detained person whose health is likely to be injuriously affected by continued detention.”  On-site doctors are supposed to notify managers as well as the Home Office of such cases, in particular those at risk of suicide and survivors of torture.

According to Phelps, these reports are routinely ignored. A 2011 study found that only nine percent of such notifications led to the release of a detainee.

On six occasions over the past three years, UK courts have ruled that the human rights of mentally ill detainees had been violated.

The most recent case concerned a young woman from Guinea who was detained upon her arrival at Heathrow Airport. During 17 months in a detention centre, she suffered a mental collapse and was frequently isolated or hand-cuffed to prevent her harming herself. In July 2014, the High Court ruled that her detention was unlawful and that her human rights were violated.


Phelps said he was “optimistic” the parliamentary inquiry could bring change. While there may be little public sympathy for detained migrants and asylum seekers in the current political climate, “there are powerful efficiency arguments for limiting detention.”

One specific aspect of UK immigration law being examined by the inquiry is the Detained Fast Track (DFT) procedure, which is used for apparently straightforward asylum cases and which often restricts the right of applicants to appeal rulings.

The UN Refugee Agency, in its submission to the inquiry, pointed to “serious shortcomings in the procedure including the lack of clarity in Home Office policy as to the scope and criteria for applying the DFT procedure; the undefined time limit on detention under DFT, leaving open the possibility of applicants being detained well beyond the period of time required to reach a decision; and significant and repeated errors in refugee status determination (RSD) decision-making within the DFT procedure.”

It was under DFT that Sharif had his claim and appeal rejected. He subsequently spent 11 months in detention while the Home Office made several unsuccessful bids to deport him.

One of the main concerns about DFT is that in the 14 years since it was introduced, it has morphed into a system that offers asylum seekers little opportunity to prove their case and that often leads to prolonged detention.

Certain aspects of how DFT works in practice have been ruled unlawful in UK courts.

A Home Office spokesman told IRIN, “DFT is playing a significant role in saving taxpayers’ money by allowing us to remove those with no right to be in the UK at the earliest opportunity.”

The Home Office did not comment on the issue of mental health in immigration detention centres. IRIN was given a statement by Immigration and Security Minister James Brokenshire, which blamed the previous government for many of the current problems.

"The immigration system we inherited was totally dysfunctional with systematic abuse of family, work and student visas and an agency overseeing it all that was completely incapable of the task,” it said.

"Turning around years of mismanagement has taken time, but it is now well underway. We have reformed visa routes to make them more resistant to fraud; cancelled failing contracts; and taken significant steps to deal with the backlogs we inherited."