There have been more than 3,000 hunger strikes in UK immigration removal centres since 2015, according to the Home Office’s own figures.
There were 1,024 hunger strikes – when someone refuses to eat or drink for at least a 48-hour period as a form of protest – in England and Scotland in 2017, according to a freedom of information request. In 2018 there were 421 and in January to March 2019 there were 260.
But campaigners who have worked in the centres say that, while shocking, they believe the true numbers to be even higher: “The reduction in numbers last year seems to be due to a huge collapse in numbers of hunger strikes in Brook House: from 499 in 2017 to nine in 2018,” said James Wilson, director of the campaigning group Detention Action. “But that drop doesn’t seem accurate to me: I was working in Brook House over 2017 and 2018 and I continued to see just as many desperate people over that period.”
The data, requested by the SNP, covers detention centres including Brook House, Campsfield House, Colnbrook, Harmondsworth, Dungavel House, Morton Hall, Tinsley House, Yarl’s Wood, Larne House, Pennine House and the Manchester short-term holding facility.
The figures show that, as well as Brook House, the number of hunger strikes is consistently high at Yarl’s Wood and Harmondsworth.
Wilson said that while the numbers are “shocking”, they are not surprising: “Look at the 2017 Panorama documentary on Brook House,” he said. “Nothing has changed. We work with over 1,000 immigration centre detainees a year and we still see high levels of desperation, suicidal feelings, attempts at suicide, self-harm and mental health problems. We often hear of food and fluid refusal.
“These statistics are indicative of a brutal and punitive system that [locks up] detainees, many of whom are very vulnerable, en masse and without adequate safeguards,” he added. “The most vital safeguards that need to be introduced as a matter of urgency are to ensure that detention is only used as a last resort, and that there is a 28-day limit because at the moment, people are detained as a matter of course and without any time limit: they can be detained for months and sometimes years.”
SNP MSP Linda Fabiani, who has led calls for the UK government to stop detaining children at the facility as was promised in 2010, said: “That people are taking such drastic action is a damning indictment of some of the shameful practices employed at immigration facilities across the UK.
“Given the drip-feed of controversies coming from these privately-run centres, it’s clear that detaining people for immigration purposes causes more problems than it can ever hope to solve,” she added.
The Home Office has come under sustained criticism over its approach to immigration detention. Earlier this year, an influential parliamentary committee concluded it had “utterly failed” in its responsibility to oversee the safe and humane detention of people in the UK.
Just a month after the scathing report, new figures revealed that detainees at UK immigration centres were being hospitalised at the rate of almost one a day, raising fresh concerns over the safety of vulnerable people held inside the centres.
At the end of December, there were 1,784 people held in the detention estate, a fall of 30% compared with the same date 12 months earlier and the lowest level since comparable records began in 2009. In 2018, 24,748 people entered the detention estate.
But fewer than half of the people in the removal centres will actually be deported. According to Home Office statistics, about 55% are released back into the community – rendering, say campaigners, their incarceration pointless. Many former detainees say they will never recover from this experience.
Steve Valdez-Symonds, the refugee and migrant rights programme director at Amnesty International UK, said: “It’s appalling, deeply disturbing to see so many people resorting to hunger strikes, but at the same time, it’s unsurprising. Immigration detention in this country, as has been reported for a long time, is used to routinely – albeit arbitrarily and excessively – subject people to incarceration without any knowledge of when it’s going to end. The system makes these people helpless and hopeless. It’s terrible.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The health and welfare of those in immigration detention is of the utmost importance. Immigration detention is an important part of the wider immigration system, and we are committed to using detention sparingly and only when necessary.
“All immigration removal centres have trained medical staff on hand to provide medical care to those in detention,” they added.