Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper

In immigration detention, people count up the days (drawing: Safwa Chowdhury).

Mental health challenges posed by immigration detention put lockdown strains in perspective

Safwa Chowdhury, who joined Hastings Community of Sanctuary during the first lockdown, has found the periods of restrictions hard to bear, but contact with refugees in immigration detention has convinced her they face a much tougher ordeal.

I was planning a day out in London with a group of old friends when the National Lockdown was announced. For a moment, I was overtaken by a childish disappointment at having to cancel the trip. Soon after, anxiety at this unknown and unprecedented situation began to set in, anxiety that intensified each day. Like many people, I was plunged into a period of limbo and uncertainty.

Disillusioned by my undergraduate degree, I was considering a career change and applying for job vacancies, but this came to a standstill with the onset of Lockdown, which I spent in my family home. As a young person with a love for travel, independence, and forming new connections and relationships, this was not the place I wanted to be, and reinforced the sense of regression I had about my life at the time.

Safwa Chowdhury

As the Lockdown continued, I found temporary ways to cope. I jumped on the banana bread baking bandwagon, went for long walks to the seafront, and caught up with friends in Zoom parties. I began to plan for the eventual return to normality, to count down the days according to the Government’s roadmap out of Lockdown.

These small certainties made a difference. But when I joined Hastings Community of Sanctuary at around this time, I found out about the policy of indefinite immigration detention, where people are not guaranteed a brighter normality, and can only count up the days. I learned that men, women and children, many of whom are asylum seekers with pre-existing trauma, have been forced to live in more repressive conditions, more uncertain situations, and more stifling physical spaces than anything imposed by the Lockdown, in a system sanctioned by the UK Government for over two decades.

Indefinite detention

Under international law, indefinite detention is illegal, and the UK is the only country in Europe with no time limit on immigration detention. Its purpose is to facilitate imminent deportations, but many people are detained for long periods, some for up to several years.

Imagine no time limit to Lockdown. This would have been a disquieting prospect, enough to unsettle most people. Add to this the hostile conditions that people held in immigration detention are forced to live in, conditions I witnessed when I visited Yarl’s Wood, a women’s immigration removal centre in Bedford, a few years ago. I saw a large, heavily guarded and gated building in the middle of nowhere, isolated, except that there were women barricaded behind the walls.

I recall their hands reaching out through tiny windows, voices crying for help and appealing for compassion. I wondered who listened to their voices when no one was there. At least I could express my voice on social media during the pandemic; my existence is acknowledged, whilst people held in immigration detention continue to be suppressed and minimised.

During the pandemic, in addition to the many people held in immigration detention, hundreds more were taken to former military barracks. About 400 people were held in Napier Barracks over autumn and winter; there was barbed wire on the fences, strict control of any movement of both residents and visitors in and out of the camp, and 28 people per room, two toilets and two showers between them. An outbreak of Covid-19 was inevitable, and in January this year, 178 residents were infected. People used sheets as makeshift screens to separate beds in an attempt at privacy.

Napier Barracks photographed by a former resident. Despite a High Court ruling that the housing of migrants in barracks is illegal, the Home Office has consigned more asylum-seekers to Napier.

An inspection in February of Napier Barracks and Penally Camp, another former army barracks in Wales, by the Chief Inspector of Borders and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons confirmed the cramped and unsuitable conditions, declaring them unfit for habitation. The report included testimonies from residents describing their suicidal thoughts and cases of self-harm in “prison-like” conditions.

Sheeting was used to separate beds in Napier Barracks, where there was a mass outbreak of Covid-19.

High Court ignored

A recent High Court judgement has declared the housing of migrants in barracks and failure to monitor their welfare as unlawful. Nonetheless, after the relocation of those 400 people, hundreds more have been brought into the camp: about 230 remain, with conditions still poor, and still unsafe in terms of Covid. A new legal challenge is pending on those grounds.

Despite my own mental health struggles during the Lockdown, restrictions on my freedom protected me from Covid-19. Yet those imposed on detainees did not concern their protection, health or dignity. Conversely, these restrictions increased their vulnerability to contracting Covid-19 and developing mental health problems.

People claiming asylum have fled danger and persecution in other countries and many are survivors of sexual assault, torture and trafficking. Detention criminalises them for circumstances beyond their control. However, International Law stipulates that it is not illegal to claim asylum, no matter how people arrive in the UK or another country in which they make their claim.

New legislation

New Home Office legislation seeks to change this. A two-tier system would be introduced, whereby people entering the country “irregularly” would be denied any right to claim asylum whatsoever and detained until they can be removed. Those whose removal is impossible will be granted only temporary protection and re-assessed every 30 months; they would never be able to gain full refugee status.

This undermines what it means to be a refugee, a person forced to abandon their former life and flee their country, certainly without the luxury of choice over means of travel. According to Together With Refugees, a coalition of over 200 organisations including Hastings Community of Sanctuary, over two-thirds of women and children who would currently be accepted as refugees would be rejected under proposed legislation. They make up half of people accepted as refugees in the UK.

Despite this, there are plans by the Home Office for a new women’s immigration detention centre in Durham. More voices silenced, more health needs neglected, more existences denied. As a young woman myself, I find the Home Office’s plans to legislate the violation of women’s rights and liberties, many of whom have experienced sexual violence, to be regressive and unsettling, and to compromise women’s safety.

If the past year has taught me anything, it is the value of the freedoms that I used to take for granted; to go for a walk to clear my head, to cook the food I’m craving, to video-call people I’m missing. Importantly, it was the realisation that I was not alone in my feelings, I had a support network which included people who were also experiencing mental health problems, and we could get through this collectively. I had my family around me, I was not detained in a foreign country with strangers, thousands of miles away from my loved ones.

Despite this, my mental health fluctuates, there are good days and bad days. This was the price of Lockdown for many people, the effects of restricted freedom, disruption and uncertainty.

But these restrictions, disruptions and uncertainties do not compare to the repressive experiences of people living in immigration detention, an impossible way of living for any human being, with long-lasting detrimental impacts to health. To justify immigration detention is to deny people their humanity.

But we can stand up for humanity. We can call out our Government’s infliction of mental and physical abuse on people held in immigration detention, treatment that reflects the Government’s general apathy towards mental health in our society today. We can change the narrative if we petition our MPs, post about it on social media, and talk more openly about mental health, an issue that affects everyone. Only then can we hope to live in a society where mental health is not stigmatised, and people’s existences are not diminished.


Safwa has set up an arts-based Instagram campaign on ending indefinite immigration detention. 

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Posted 20:07 Saturday, Jun 26, 2021 In: Point of View

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