Another damning report questions why we are still treating torture victims like criminals

Almost a quarter of detainees at Dorset immigration removal centre did not understand why they had been taken there


Last Friday, an asylum seeker from Uganda was found dead at The Verne, an immigration removal centre in Dorset. The man, in his thirties, had committed suicide. Yesterday the prisons inspectorate released a fairly damning report into conditions at The Verne, but it received little attention as it coincided with the Yarl’s Wood review.

Reclassified as an immigration removal centre (IRC) in 2014, The Verne is housed in a Victorian fort complex, on an island. It looks like a prison and, the HMI found, it operates too much like one. 549 adult men were held at the centre at the time of the inspection, 54 per cent of whom were former prisoners.

Leaving aside the question of the former prisoners who have completed their sentences as required by law, this means that 46 per cent of these men had never been in prison – they are asylum seekers who, while their cases are heard, are treated like criminals.

Here are some of the HMI’s most worrying findings:

1. 22 per cent of detainees had not been told why they were being detained in a language they could understand.

2. The centre operates a punishment and reward scheme deemed to be ‘illegitimate’ for The Verne’s (non-criminal) population. The review found that punitive sanctions – including loss of internet access, gym, work and shop access – were often administered for ‘petty’ reasons and were not helping to improve behaviour. (Sound familiar?)

3. The exercise yard was ‘stark and cage like’. Cells were dirty, some toilets filthy, and ‘there was an unnecessary amount of razor wire’. Many of the staff had formerly worked in prisons and had not been trained in how to manage this transition, ie. were still acting like prison staff despite the different profile of detainees.

4. Detainees with mental health issues were being placed in ‘separation’ because of a lack of more suitable accommodation. The separation unit environment was ‘stark and untherapeutic’ and was used frequently. Some detainees were held there for several weeks.

5. One man describing torture, who had arrived more than three weeks before, had still not been seen or assessed by a doctor because of ‘administrative failings’.

6. A third of detainees who said they required a lawyer did not have one. Only about a quarter of those who had a lawyer had received a visit from them. Detainees had to wait about 10 days for an appointment with a duty legal adviser, which was too long. Too many legitimate websites of possible assistance to detainees were blocked.

The report repeatedly states that these kind of isolating circumstances are not appropriate for a detainee population. So why are UK authorities continuing to treat asylum seekers like prisoners? How has it come to a situation where people fleeing torture are kept in institutions surrounded by razor wire, and placed in isolation when they display signs of mental distress that may result from their ordeal?

Rule 35 of the Detention Centre Rules is supposed to act as a safeguard against detaining torture victims. But HMI found that the quality of R35 reports at The Verne was variable, with many lacking meaningful diagnostic assessment. Only 16 per cent of detainees at the centre said a qualified interpreter was available during healthcare assessments.

The problem stems from the ambiguous legal status of the detainees – at least there is ambiguity about how we view their legality from an ethical perspective. Some of these men may be ‘illegal immigrants’ – but there must be a distinction what it means to ‘be’ illegal and to do something illegal.

As the report from Yarl’s Wood has shown, detention centres are continuing to blur this line, due to lack of resources or proper understanding of the histories of the people who end up there.

If migrants must be detained while their futures are decided, it is imperative that they are kept fully abreast of the progress of their case. It is clearly unacceptable that almost a quarter of respondents to HMI’s survey said they did not understand the reasons they were being detained, and that on the day of their arrival they received no information about what was going to happen to them.

One of the most terrifying things about arriving at an IRC is the open-ended nature of detention time; there is no limit for how long someone can be held there. The HMI describes how ‘in one of the most shocking cases of unnecessarily prolonged detention that we have seen, one man had been held for over five years.’

There has been no shortage of hyperbolic talk of a ‘migrant crisis on our shores’ recently. But there is a very real migrant crisis already happening in the UK – the fact that it is taking place behind bars doesn’t mean we should ignore it.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward.

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