Being detained for long periods of time and without reason, poor health care and weeks without talking are among the factors that explain the deaths of 29 people since 1989 in some detention centres in the United Kingdom.
Marcos Ortiz F.
Only a pair of shoelaces and certain that day he would be deported to his native Ukraine led to the decision for Mikhail Bognarchuk to take his own life.
At age 42, his body was found hanging in one of the restrooms at Haslar Detention Center. It was January 31, 2003.
“The immigration people who visit detention centres handle a lot of cases. This man was waiting for deportation, thought he was going to be deported, but then the immigration department eventually forgot about him”.
Harmit Athwal’s words sound particularly sad. After more than two decades of work as a researcher at the Institute of Race Relations, this case has affected her the most. “He languished in detention and ultimately ended up taking his own life”, she explains
The case of this asylum seeker who took his life in this former prison finally closed in 2016 is not unique. In fact, she is among the 29 people who have died in an immigrant removal centre since 1989. The details of this dark succession of deaths are well known to Harmit Athwal. She has the responsibility to gather all possible background information on these cases.
“If you look at these deaths, people have been detained for a very long length of time and for no reason. They are not being told why they are detained or there is a lack of translation”, Athwal added.
“Some of these deaths have involved people who have been in detention and then not spoken to anyone for weeks”, she said.
An Angolan soon after turning 35 hung himself the day he was due to be deported from Yarl’s Wood; A Zairian of 24 took his life at Harmondsworth after four days in detention and in the absence of an interpreter had not spoken to anyone; A 47-year-old Pakistani did not survive a heart attack while locked in Colnbrook.
“All these deaths are particularly sad because in the vast majority of cases families either don’t know or they can’t actually do anything about them”, she says.
“I’ve been to a number of inquests involving such deaths and I’ve been the only person there. I’ve been listening to the details of what happened to the person and the only person there has been myself. I find that truly shocking, says the investigator who spoke with The Prisma about this and other aspects of detention centres.
What’s your general opinion on detention centres?
In the UK overwhelmingly they are run by private companies. You have a company running a detention centre, someone will die in their care, an inquest will then happen, but unfortunately the inquest normally takes a number of years, by which time there is either a new firm in place who has taken over the contract from the other firm, or if the same firm is still running that place they will say well we’ve taken the necessary actions so these deaths will never occur again.
To be honest, in terms of what we’re seeing, it’s the same issues again and again and again, particularly in terms of healthcare of asylum seekers. They are not well treated and when they have issues those issues aren’t treated.
Is there a pattern regarding all these deaths?
Literally they’ve taken their lives because they are about to be deported the next day. There are a number of cases like that. There are a number of cases involving the indeterminate detention of people who have been held for long lengths of time and actually haven’t been told why they are being detained, and as a result have taken their own lives.
And there’s a whole lot of other deaths involving the issue of healthcare in immigration detention. And again, this healthcare is more often than not further subcontracted, so for example G4S may work the immigration detention centre, but they will further subcontract healthcare to another private company. So private companies are able to say we’ve changed, we’ve put processes in place, or simply a new firm takes over so you can’t necessarily hold these companies accountable.
Do you think these deaths are a priority for the Home Office?
In terms of the Home Office I should think they probably couldn’t care less. As I said, immigration detention in the UK is externalised and if people die then I’m sure that it will probably deter people abroad if they hear about these deaths.
Has anyone ever been held accountable for these deaths?
No. There have been no successful prosecutions involving deaths. The only accountability as far as I have been able to work out for private companies, when a death occurs in an immigration detention centre they are fined.
So it’s just money?
It’s a financial penalty. There have been critical inquest verdicts, but obviously an inquest verdict has no real standing in law. So a company will have been criticized publicly but that doesn’t necessarily mean there is any comeback following from that criticism.
Would you say these deaths are avoidable?
Absolutely. You get the same things repeated over and over again. Particularly in terms of health care. And I find it shocking that these things don’t change and there are the same mistakes repeated again and again.
You would think there would be more interest from the media for example.
There is absolutely no interest from the media generally speaking. And families often don’t even know about these processes and what’s happened after a death. Quite often you come to an inquest and you will hear that the Home Office has been trying to inform the family but hasn’t been able to trace them. So, how are they going to be represented if they don’t even know the person’s died?
Photos: Pixabay – (Intro translated by Gareth Trevor)