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'In the UK's detention centres, you don't count your days down, you count them up'

The UK has more than 30,000 migrants and asylum-seekers who are currently being detained indefinitely whilst their immigration status is resolved. This can take months or even years, leaving people indefinitely in detention – a system that was only established in the mid-90s. Detainees find themselves in detention either due to visa overstays, until they facilitate a '"return", or if they are seeking asylum or have protection status, like refugees for example. Another category of people in custody are those who have claimed asylum and committed a crime, or something that can be accumulated to a crime over the space of a year. It is important to note that these people have already served whatever sentence they may have been given, in a real prison, before subsequently being channelled into the merciless detention system – with no unspent convictions against them. With limited protection and health care, and suffering isolation and the deprivation of their human rights, many have protested from within and without the centres against England's notorious detention system.

I met with ex-detainee *Oluwa, who fled his home country as a victim of torture to seek asylum in England last year. Arriving here not out of choice, but necessity, he had no idea about the conditions he was about to live in. Like thousands of other UK detainees, Oluwa was ushered into prison-like cells with other hopeless people serving their "sentence" for having a rejected, retracted or pending asylum claim. Innocent, vulnerable and voiceless, the detained are isolated from the rest of the nation by default and come under strict surveillance if they are lucky to have their asylum claim approved.

Psychologically and physically torn, Oluwa was met by the accelerated Detention Fast Track system (DFT). According to research done by London-based NGO Detention Action, the system is designed to push people through the asylum process with maximum disadvantage to the asylum-seeker. Due to the speedy processes, health checks have proved inadequate, and the repeal of a case is very stressful, giving the asylum-seeker only a small window of a few days to gather evidence to support their case against a potential decline. Oluwa had no idea how long he would be detained for and no one told him what evidence they would need to support his claim for asylum. After being sent to two different centres, his mental condition worsened. The centres were haunted by desperate souls hoping for a life starting after this complete social isolation they were put in.

After only a couple of days, Oluwa had his first interview with a solicitor. During the 45-minute session, he tried to explain how he had been tortured and was escaping a life-threatening destiny in his home country. He had no time to gather the right evidence and was not told exactly what kind of evidence materials they needed. After he was rejected, he had an authority from his village write a letter explaining his situation, but it was in the local dialect and he needed time to have it translated. Furthermore, to support his claim he was told he needed a doctor to fill out a report to testify the torture he had experienced. It took him weeks to get an appointment and when they presented this evidence at his second hearing, he was told that he needed a specialist to fill out the form instead. The lack of sufficient healthcare and long-winded system has had clear effects on not only people's health also on detainees' claims to asylum.

As a result of the bureaucracy coupled with the emotional stress of having already fled torturous conditions, Oluwa, like most other detained, started having concentration problems. Reliving past traumas, their fate was unknown for however long time their claims would be pending: days, months or years – the feeling of imprisonment and isolation seems almost designed to drain the hopes of the detained. With limited health care, Oluwa told me, the most common drug given out is paracetamol – something to numb the pain rather than address it.

Finally, when all his evidence was gathered, he was bailed out based on the evidence of torture he had suffered. The bail conditions can sometimes mean that the individual would have to become "tagged", i.e. bearing an electronic chain that detects the whereabouts of the ex-detainee. The person would have a curfew imposed dictating what time they would have to be at home to prevent them from "absconding" and are required to "check in" at an office. The detention authorities decide on a case-by-case basis the conditions of bail — limiting and disciplining the asylum seeker's movement as they see fit.

The DFT was suspended by the government earlier this year amid concerns over safeguards, particularly for vulnerable applicants such as Oluwa. But the horrific isolation conditions and the limitless detention continue. At the end of last year, 25 per cent of all those detained were on the DFT, despite the UNHCR only recommending such rash process only be given occasionally and case by case.

Last week, a House of Commons debate on immigration detention saw MPs from the four main parties in agreement – demanding more humane conditions in detention centres and time limits on custody. Conservative MP Richard Fuller, who was responsible for sparking the debate along with fellow Tory David Burrowes and Labour's Paul Blomfield, called for an urgent end to the detention of rape and torture victims. There are also issues with regards to health services and the detection of vulnerabilities and the traumas people develop after they have fled their situation. The Home Office does not have a maximum time limit for detaining immigrants, but denies it can be indefinite, though most immigrants have no idea how long they will be locked up for and there have been cases of refugees detained for up to three years.

"The difference between a prison and detention is that in prison you count your days down, whereas in detention you count them up," said Ben du Preez, who leads Freed Voices, a focus group for ex-detainees. This is a very stressing position to be in, especially for asylum seekers who have already had to flee war and persecution; many of them psychologically or physically damaged by torture or other forms of violence.

Thus, asylum seekers who come to the UK are suffering speedy, inefficient processes that on the one hand are totally inhumane, even torturous ways to treat a human being who is already in a vulnerable situation; on the other hand, it is a very costly and wasteful system. As Du Preez explains, just among his group of a handful of ex-detainees, they calculated that the UK had caused over 123 months of people lives to be wasted in limbo and distress and spent over £330,000 on having to cater for them and lock them up.

Hunger strikes, assaults and suicides

Just off the coast of Dorset, there is a remote island on which the high security prison, Verne – a 19th century citadel – is keeping detained individuals isolated. Numerous incidents of detainees who have committed suicide or attempt to harm themselves have been reported here. Du Preez told me that his NGO sometimes receives contact from detainees at Verne asking for support or advocacy, but that they can barely hear their voices on the phone as the signal is so bad on the island. This kind of isolation is lethal and creates a very stressful situation for detainees waiting for freedom from such imprisonment conditions.

Due to the lack of agency and voice bequeathed to the detainees, claims that they have experienced assault, harassment and disparagement within the centres have been ignored or silenced in fear of it affecting their cases. Organisations such as Women for Refugee Women have reported detainees as having experienced such conditions and also a general degrading, prisoner-like treatments such as curfew and rooms resembling prison-cells with toilets in them. Hunger strikes have been seen in the women's detention centre Yarlswood and many other centres. People die in detention centres, but no commemoration is made; no one cares about them. At least 26 people have died in UK detention centres according to the organisation No-Deportations, and many suffer self-harm. Since January 2007 there have been 1,837 attempted suicides, and there over 14,189 people have been put on suicide watch across the UK detention estate.

Protest outside Yarlswood Detention Centre, source: Alamy

Engagement over enforcement

The UK is the only country in Europe with no time limit to detention. As 51 per cent of detainees are eventually released, at a cost of £76 million per year (roughly £32,000 per person per year), the system also proves itself to be financially senseless. According to Detention Action, the detention system holds symbolic meaning as it supports a narrative of "fortress Britain" – leaving people, undignified, in its ditches for unlimited time before they can perhaps attempt a life here. It is a harmful, inefficient system, wasteful of UK tax-payers money and the only parties benefitting from the current system are the companies to whom the centre management and security has been lucratively outsourced.

MEMO spoke to the director of Detention Action, Jerome Phelps, who explained how Britain has a "culture of locking up" people, whereas many other European countries have a lot more humane asylum systems. The main issues are the accelerated process in the UK and the fact that it locks people in detention centres, often ex-prisons in isolated areas under unnecessarily high security measures.

Caught in "no man's land", detainees in the UK have no way of accessing society outside and attempt to prepare themselves for what might come next. In other words, the design of the UK's asylum-system is to expect detainees to return to their country of origin, rather than preparing people for a successful claim and integration into society. Furthermore, Phelps sees it as a symptom of Britain's fortress-building that pragmatic reforms in detention have not been initiated since the systems inception in the mid-1990s. This gives the organisation hope to suggest cost-effective humane alternatives

According to the International Detention Coalition (IDC), alternatives to detention need to meet requirements of freedom of movement and relieve taxpayers from fund top security prisons to keep captive people seeking detention. Isolation is a major problem. As Du Preez told me, no consideration of the person's kinships or network are taken into consideration, and ostracising people further from their existing social networks further inhibits the possibility of a successful reintegration.

The most effective alternatives to detention have been based on engagement with migrants rather than enforcement, as seen in other countries like Switzerland, Sweden or Australia. In Sweden, the system secures the return of 81 per cent of refused asylum seekers, which is far higher than the British rate. The IDC has found that migrants are more likely to accept and comply with negative immigration decision if the decision-making process is seen as fair, if they feel they were well-informed and supported throughout the process and if they were allowed to explore all options of remaining in the country legally. They were also better able to comply with immigration requirements if they could meet their basic needs in the community. This is, perhaps, something we should learn from.

*Some names have been changed

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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