The Home Office’s rush to deport asylum seekers who had crossed the Channel in small boats last year led to “unprecedented levels” of those at risk of suicide, a watchdog has found.
During the period between the end of July to December 2020, when the Home Office was operating a programme of “compressed” charter flights, one-third of the detainees at Brook House immigration removal centre near Gatwick were placed on constant suicide watch, the Independent Monitoring Board [IMB] found.
Numbers on a vulnerability register known as Rule 35 increased almost fivefold from the earlier months of the year from 85 to 392, the report added.
Mary Molyneux, chair of the IMB for Brook House, told the Guardian the findings in the new report were “exceptional” and “more distressing than other years” due to the vulnerability of those who were detained.
Government officials were trying to remove as many small boat asylum seekers as possible who had passed through one or more European countries before arriving in the UK to beat the Brexit deadline at the end of 2020. Under an EU agreement known as the Dublin Convention one EU country can return an asylum seeker to another they passed through first.
The report found that detention centre staff treaded the detainees well in challenging circumstances. However, the IMB found that treatment of the whole detainee population by the Home Office was inhumane.
The report found that, in the period from the end of July to December 2020, circumstances related to the charter programme amounted to “inhumane treatment of the whole detainee population”, and led to a dramatic increase in levels of self-harm and suicide ideation.
It said Brook House was “not a safe place” for vulnerable detainees who had crossed the Channel in small boats. At least 26 people were removed from the UK while on a register to monitor their risk of suicide and other vulnerabilities, and seven detainees were removed while still waiting to be assessed by a doctor.
“There is a noticeable increase in prevention of self-harm being given as the reason for use of force in 2020 compared with previous years and at 37% it was the main reason given this year,” the report said.
The report cited particularly disturbing individual cases, including that of one person who, after a suicide attempt, was taken straight from hospital to the airport for deportation. The report also described a person who was removed from netting at the detention centre following a suicide attempt and then taken to the airport, and a third who was taken bleeding and partially clothed to the airport following a suicide attempt.
The report questions the success of the charter programme estimating that although 26 flights were organised fewer than 120 people were removed. In one case 11 Syrians were removed to Spain and abandoned in the streets of Madrid. All have subsequently made their way back to the UK and lodged fresh asylum claims, while 72% of those detained were released from detention before being put on a plane.
Molyneux said: “The impact of the Home Office’s unusually compressed charter flight programme on an especially vulnerable population led to unprecedented levels of self-harm and suicidal thoughts and attempts in the last five months of 2020.”
Emma Ginn, director of Medical Justice, which supported many detained in Brook House during that period, also described the levels of despair among detainees as “unprecedented”.
She added: “Many of our clients were torture and trafficking survivors, and were self-harming and suicidal. During this time it felt like the Home Office was utterly fixated with removing our clients and that it would not stop at anything, whatever the cost.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The health and welfare of those in detention is of the utmost importance. We have clear, established processes to ensure people at risk are given extra support and the report demonstrates that these are used appropriately. We are glad that the report acknowledges the work done by staff in very challenging circumstances and that those detained were treated humanely. Immigration detention is always considered on a case by case basis and we will continue to work to ensure that the needs of those in detention are met. But, as the public would expect, we remain determined to remove those with no right to be in the UK.”