Revealed: two suicide attempts every day in UK deportation centres


Suicide attempts have become more frequent in British deportation detention centres, with on average about two attempts every day this summer, according to a freedom of information request response passed to the Guardian.

Between April and June of this year there was a 22% rise in the number of detainees who tried to kill themselves, according to the FoI response from the Home Office, obtained by the organisation No Deportations. In all, 159 attempts were recorded, more than half of them in two sites near Heathrow, Colnbrook and Harmondsworth.

A second FoI response passed to the Guardian on Thursday reveals that in the past four years, medical professionals made more than 10,000 reports to Home Office officials about detainees believed to have experienced torture outside the UK. The Home Office’s policies say that survivors of torture should not usually be detained.

The revelations provide further evidence that the UK’s network of 10 immigration removal centres are holding many people who are deeply unwell and/or are victims of torture. On Wednesday, the Guardian reported that from a sample of almost 200 migrants held in detention centres, more than half were suicidal, seriously ill or victims of torture.

How many people does Britain lock up, pending deportation?

More than 27,000 people were detained in 2017, according to the most recent figures. At any one time, there may be up to 3,000 people in detention. In 1993 there were 250 detention places. By 2005 there were 2,644 places.

Who are they?

The nationality of detainees change over time. The Guardian survey found Nigeria and Algeria were most commonly represented among our responses, while Home Office open data for the second quarter of 2018 showed that South Asian countries made up the largest proportion of detainees. TDetainees are overwhelmingly male – women made up just 15% of the total detention population in 2017. 

In one recent case made public on Thursday, an immigration detainee killed himself two days after staff determined in a three-minute meeting that his distress was down to toothache.

The 28-year-old Polish national, understood to be Marcin Gwoździński, became increasingly distressed after being held in Harmondsworth for months.

Staff placed him under suicide monitoring, but the next day a review concluded his distress was a result of toothache and that he was no longer a risk. A dental appointment was arranged. Two days later, in September 2017, he killed himself.

The Home Office said it treated incidents of self-harm very seriously and was “strengthening the process by which vulnerability is assessed in detention to differentiate more strongly among vulnerable cases to ensure that the most complex get the attention they need”.

But opposition politicians condemned the flurry of revelations as more proof that the system was not fit for purpose.

The Labour MP Yvette Cooper, who chairs the Commons home affairs committee, said the detention system was “causing huge and often irreparable damage to peoples’ lives” and needed urgent reform.

Jonathan Bartley, the co-leader of the Green party, said the immigration system was “rotten to its core”. “The government’s promises to protect the vulnerable are empty, with those most at need on the sharp end of this ineffective and inhumane system,” he said.


Calls for medical help go unanswered for more than an hour – video

Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: “Locking up vulnerable people for months on end, without any idea when they’ll be released, is clearly inhumane. It’s also unnecessary and expensive.

“We demand that eight of the UK’s 10 detention centres are closed and replaced by community-based alternatives, so that detention is only used as an absolute last resort. This will free up resources to enable vulnerable people to get the support they need.”

Lewis Kett of Duncan Lewis Solicitors, who obtained the FoI responses, said: “This freedom of information response shows that the number of recognised vulnerable people in detention is increasing.

“This includes survivors of torture as well as those about whom there are serious concerns that they are a suicide risk. The ‘adults at risk’ policy was introduced two years ago to reduce the number of vulnerable detainees. The evidence shows it’s having the opposite effect.”

The Guardian’s survey of detainees, while not a scientific exercise, provided more evidence that of the 25,000-plus people interned every year, many hundreds if not thousands are deeply unwell. The snapshot, taken on 31 August with the help of lawyers and NGOs, found that almost 56% of detainees were either physically or mentally ill, or had been tortured.

More than half graphic

The Home Office’s latest annual report acknowledges that the government paid £3m to 118 people unlawfully detained in the 2017-18 financial year. It made two separate payouts of £300,000 and £400,000 respectively to two individuals unlawfully detained.

Sajid Javid promised to improve the system when he took over as home secretary in May.

A Home Office spokesman said: “As the home secretary has made clear, we must have an immigration system in place which protects the most vulnerable.”

In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.



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