The death of a young man in immigration detention last month raises questions about the purpose the British government’s detention policy. Who is detained and why?
In the early hours of Wednesday 17 February Amir Siman-Tov was found dead in his room at Colnbrook IRC, a British government detention centre for foreign nationals just outside Heathrow Airport.
Siman-Tov, originally from Morocco, had been detained for three weeks and was on suicide watch before his death. He was under constant supervision and at night centre guards would check his room every 15 minutes.
How and why Amir Siman-Tov died is unclear. It is unlikely the circumstances of his death will be made public until an inquest is held, which could take months or even years. Alois Dvorzak, an 84-year-old Canadian detained at Harmondsworth detention centre, died in February 2013, and it was only two years later that the harrowing details of his death were revealed at the inquest. According to the Institute for Race Relations 89 people died in detention or shortly after release from detention between 1989 and 2014. Last year there were two more deaths, both at the Verne detention facility in Dover, which up until 2014 was a prison.
When someone dies in detention it reveals again everything we don’t know about the UK’s detention estate, where more than 30,000 people are detained each year. Among its inmates are people with particular vulnerabilities such as victims of torture and sexual violence, pregnant women, people with severe mental health needs and asylum seekers.
Stephen Shaw, a former prisons and probation ombudsman for England and Wales, raises the lack of transparency issue in a critical report published in January. The report was commissioned by the Home Secretary and is the result of a six-month inquiry into the detention of vulnerable people. Shaw writes: ‘It is regrettable that the Home Office does not do more to encourage academic and media interest in immigration detention. Indeed, I think its reluctance to do so is counter-productive – encouraging speculative or ill-informed journalism, while inhibiting the healthy oversight that is one of the most effective means of ensuring the needs of those in detention are recognised and of preventing poor practice or abuse from taking hold. It has been argued internationally that immigration detention is “one of the most opaque areas of public administration.” It would be in everyone’s interests if in this country it were less so.’
“It is regrettable that the Home Office does not do more to encourage academic and media interest in immigration detention. Indeed, I think its reluctance to do so is counter-productive – encouraging speculative or ill-informed journalism, while inhibiting the healthy oversight that is one of the most effective means of ensuring the needs of those in detention are recognised and of preventing poor practice or abuse from taking hold.”
This sense of isolation is a recurring theme in interviews with detainees. The detention centres are built on the outskirts of towns and cities, and to reach them by public transport can be expensive. David, who is held at the Verne in Dover, said his relationship with his children was disputed because they rarely visited him. ‘They [the Home Office] have this thing they write on our monthly report, “you don’t have enough family ties”. They say it to me and to everybody else. But they put you far away from your family knowing that you are going to have financial problems with the distance. We don’t have money we are not rich. For my daughter to travel such a long distance, she came once last year, it takes a long time to save that money. It’s extremely frustrating, they break our families.’
When a detainee dies the people detained with them feel more alone. There is the emotional impact and there is the paranoia that comes with indefinite detention and being isolated. David was friends with Thomas Kirungi, a 30-year-old asylum seeker from Uganda who killed himself last summer. In the lead up to his death, David says Kirungi became depressed and was in and out of healthcare. When the Home Office refused his asylum claim and threatened deportation he committed suicide. ‘It depresses you in a way that I cannot even explain. It gets you down. You just think, “that is going to be me”.’
Earlier this year, David entered the shared bathroom at the Verne to find a Croatian detainee ‘dangling from the ceiling’. Terrified, he raised the alarm and guards arrived to cut down the ligature. The man survived, but David still sees his limp body dangling whenever he enters the bathroom.
Worse than the uncertainty – over immigration status, length of stay in detention – that crushes many immigration detainees is the looming fear that they will die inside. With each bail application refusal, every time the embassy refuses to issue emergency travel documents, comes less control over the months and years ahead. David raises this, and women I’ve interviewed at Yarl’s Wood and other centres have expressed this fear too. When you’re stuck in detention for days, weeks and months, it feels rational to think this way. So when someone does die, for whatever reason, it can act as a premonition for some.
Adel is haunted by the death of Amir Siman-Tov. It seemed to confirm a dozen suspicions accumulated over several years in and out of detention. They are murdering us with medicine, he tells me several times. When I spoke to him the day after Amir was found, he was angry, upset and sometimes incoherent in his distress. Adel is in room six on the healthcare block at Colnbrook detention centre, Amir was in room three. There are six rooms in healthcare, a small isolated block where inmates live in locked cells with a single bed, basin and toilet. Adel says he knew Amir was ill in the run up to his death and is convinced more could have been done to help him. ‘Mr Amir was a strong man,’ he says. ‘He was normal. We had coffee together.’ A few weeks in detention took its toll, says Adel, but the day before his death Amir became seriously ill. Adel says he saw Amir vomiting and coughing, his face red, on Tuesday evening. ‘I said, “Officer, excuse me that guy is sick, help him.”’ A few hours later Amir was dead.
Adel will give evidence to the coroner about what happened in the hours leading up to Amir’s death, but for now it’s his own story that raises questions about the purpose and necessity of immigration detention.
Adel will be 50 this year, which means he has lived here in Britain for longer than he lived in Lebanon, the country of his birth.
Adel rarely talks about his life in Lebanon, but there are two bullets still lodged in his thorax, and recurring nightmares and flashbacks. His memories are a muddle adhering to no particular chronology. He recalls past events in intense detail and when he has finished recounting his eyes glaze over and he slips into a stupor. When he comes to there is a moment of confusion and he begins again on a new tangent.
On the day I visited Adel in detention he wore a new outfit, which he was pretty pleased with. He leaned awkwardly on one crutch and used his free hand to lift the long black shirt, for me to better appreciate it. Beneath the robe he wore faded tracksuit bottoms, black socks and loafers. With his small skull cap and wiry grey beard he looked dressed for Friday prayers. But, he told me blue eyes twinkling, his attire and beard are an attempt to annoy ‘immigration’. He does have faith, but he also likes to tease. A picture of Adel, who used to work as a mechanic, prior to his latest incarceration shows a smiling clean shaven man with close cropped hair and a body builder’s physique. The man I met was frail, thin and unable to walk without the aid of crutches.
When we met he carried a canvas shoulder bag full of loose papers, which included a letter he wrote to the Queen. The letter ends: ‘I have done my best during my prison term and at Brook House to show that I am sorry for my mistakes by working with the prison and Brook House authorities. I think that my daughter has sent a number of reference letters, which show I am not criminal and I am not a danger to the public.’ A letter stamped with the Buckingham Palace logo signed by the Queen’s correspondence officer explains that Her Majesty had taken careful note of Adel’s troubles and referred the case to the Right Honourable Alan Johnson MP, then Home Secretary.
The shoulder bag full of papers is useful in piecing together the chaotic events of the 27 years Adel has lived in the UK. Adel forgets things; who he is talking to, where he was yesterday, what his home address is. He blames the memory loss on his epilepsy; during a seizure he often loses consciousness and on more than one occasion has smashed his head and bitten his own tongue drawing blood. Before this latest spell in detention he experienced convulsive seizures every three to four weeks, but recently he says the fits have been happening more frequently. According to a detailed doctor’s report about Adel’s physical and mental health, the memory loss could be part of his post-traumatic stress disorder, which was diagnosed in 2013 but which he has lived with since his time as a young soldier in Lebanon during the civil war. He takes anti-depressants, pills for his epilepsy twice a day and wears morphine patches, but it isn’t always possible to manage things. He has attempted suicide in the past, once by slashing his own throat with a razor. And the memory lapses occurred even before his PTSD diagnoses.
Take the year he spent in prison in 2008. His estranged wife and three children believed him dead. He wrote to his family but got confused and sent the letters to their neighbour’s address. His 13-year-old son was heartbroken and began to lash out getting into trouble at school. The school referred him to a specialist mental health service, while the other kids played sport, he went for an hour of counselling. Adel’s 16-year-old daughter meanwhile ran from court to prison to the town hall trying to find her father. Her mother, long since divorced from Adel, was in remission from cancer and dealing with issues of ill health and poverty. This left Adel’s daughter in charge, as she watched helplessly as her little brother grew angrier and she tried hard to bury her own feelings of despair. Eventually they found him at an immigration removal centre near Gatwick, where the rush of happiness she felt would quickly vanish as the years passed and her father remained in detention. Looking back aged 20 in a letter written in 2012 she writes: ‘If it wasn’t for all this I would have liked to go to university, but I had to earn money as mum never has any. We couldn’t even afford [her brother’s] school clothes sometimes. It is a struggle. Now I work full time, try to support [brother] emotionally (which I feel like I really can’t do on my own) and help in the house. When I imagine my Dad here I can feel like all the pressure would be lifted…We could be more stable and share the load of family life.’
“If it wasn’t for all this I would have liked to go to university, but I had to earn money as mum never has any. We couldn’t even afford [her brother’s] school clothes sometimes. It is a struggle.”
Adel’s recent troubles began in 2008, two years after the foreign national prisoner’s crisis where it was revealed that more than one thousand foreign nationals had been released from prison (having served their time) without being considered for deportation. Soon after that the immigration division within the Home Office was declared ‘not fit for purpose’ and the law was changed allowing for automatic deportation in cases where foreigner national offenders are sentenced to 12 months or longer. Adel fell into this category having been sentenced to 21 months in prison for robbery and assault in 2008 (a charge he still disputes. He claims that his lawyer urged to him to switch his plea to guilty to obtain a reduced sentence, which didn’t happen). Immediately after serving his sentence, Adel was kept in prison under immigration powers, where he stayed for two years and three weeks.
Subsequently he was detained again in 2012 for nine months and released on bail. Then again in 2014 for a little over one month, but he was released after healthcare decided he was not fit to be detained for long periods due to his physical and medical heath. Last December Adel was picked up by police and arrested for ‘acting suspiciously’ but not charged with anything. Because of his outstanding asylum case he was taken to Colnbrook, the securest of the government’s 10 detention centres, built in 2004 to category B prisons standards, which means that if it was a regular prison the people held inside would be considered a danger to the public. While some of the people detained at Colnbrook are former offenders, all have completed their sentences and are held only for administrative purposes related to their immigration status.
In theory the Home Office only uses detention as a last resort when removal from the country is imminent. Adel was served deportation papers for removal a few days ago – and yet he has been detained at immigration centres on and off since 2009. There is no time limit on how long the Home Office can detain foreign nationals for immigration purposes and as long as the government says removal is imminent a person can be detained indefinitely. That only 45% of the 32,446 people that passed through detention in 2015 were deported or left the UK voluntarily, means removal isn’t imminent for everyone detained.
There is no time limit on how long the Home Office can detain foreign nationals for immigration purposes
The latest immigration statistics showed that in 2015 most (62%) people were detained for 29 days or less, 18% between 9 days and two months, and 12% between two and four months. Across the detention estate 255 people were kept in detention for between one and two years, and 41 people for more than two years. There is a wealth of evidence from the last decade or so, much of it referenced in Shaw’s report, highlighting cases where increased detention has led to deteriorating mental health and further traumatises victims of torture and rape. In a report on the use of segregation in detention, the charity Medical Justice borrows an angry passage from Charles Dickens, where he rails at the cruelty of solitary confinement, to rouse 21st century consciences. But today, in the public consciousness, there still lingers an element of distrust towards immigrants detained, particularly those with criminal records. This isn’t helped by politicians perpetuating falsehoods about the immigration process.
However, people are beginning to question the purpose of immigration detention. In a critical report published last year a cross party group of MPs said the Home Office’s use of detention was disproportionate and inappropriate. They called for a 28-day time limit on detention, automatic bail hearings and an end to the detention of vulnerable people. Channel 4’s undercover footage from inside Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre revealed staff verbally abusing women held in their care. In July last year the Court of Appeal ruled that the detained fast track – a system of determining asylum cases in detention – was ruled structurally unfair and suspended.
Adel has obtained a new solicitor who is pursuing a claim to judicially review the Home Office’s decision to detain him.
Building on the growing body of case law challenging the unlawful detention of foreign nationals, his lawyers will argue that Adel suffers from complex PTSD and is not suitable for detention. His ties to the UK, that he has lived here lawfully since 1990 and has British born children, will also form the basis for a fresh claim to stay in the country.
Doctors and psychiatrists who have treated Adel over the years have provided evidence detailing a history of self-harm and depression. They say that the cycle of detention is ‘exacerbating his already fragile mental health making him vulnerable and a heightened risk of suicide’. His daughter still pleads his case. In a letter to support the new claim she explains that he needs full time care (something she’d been undertaking herself before his detention in December) and that she works full time so could financially support her father on release. Meanwhile Adel remains in detention, where is consumed by the death of Amir and speculation about who was involved. Every night at 9pm he is locked in his room, where he sleeps fitfully waking up to change his sheets drenched in sweat.
The Home Office and Mitie gave the following responses when I contacted them for a comment on the death of Amir Siman-Tov:
A Home Office spokesperson said: ‘We can confirm that a detainee at Colnbrook immigration removal centre died in the early hours on the 17 February. It would be inappropriate to comment further whilst the police, coroner and Prisons and Probation Ombudsman conduct their enquiries.’
A spokesperson for Mitie, the private contractor running the detention centre, also refused to comment in detail while the investigation is ongoing. They said: ‘We are saddened by the death of a detainee on 17 February at the Colnbrook Centre and our thoughts are with his family and friends at this difficult time. It is far too early to make any comment or speculate on the cause of his death before the formal investigations have been concluded by the relevant authorities. We continue to work closely with the Home Office, Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and NHS England to conduct the necessary reviews.’
I wrote this article first for Lacuna magazine as part of the issue I edited on migration. It was also published by the New Statesman magazine.
Featured photo by Aapo Haapanen. Some rights reserved.