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Abuse of detainees remains endemic in UK immigration system

17 May 2024

Jesuit Refugee Service: no change despite inquiry into Brook House scandal

Jesuit Refugee Service

The cover illustration for the report

The cover illustration for the report

ABUSE and mistreatment remain endemic throughout the UK immigration system, in spite of the public inquiry into the Brook House scandal, a new report by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) UK has found.

After Brook House: Continued abuses in immigration detention, published last week, reveals that little has changed since the mistreatment of detainees at Brook House, at Gatwick Airport, in West Sussex, first came to light in 2017. The abuse was revealed by a whistle-blower, an employee at Brook House, who worked with the BBC programme Panorama to expose what was happening.

A public inquiry, which concluded last year (News, 22 September 2023), found evidence of a “toxic” and “dehumanising” culture at Brook House. It identified 19 instances of abuse over a five-month period, which included the inappropriate use of force; forcibly moving detainees while they were naked; the use of dangerous restraint techniques; homophobic remarks; and humiliating comments made to detainees who had attempted to take their own lives.

The then Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, acknowledged the failings identified by the public inquiry. In a written statement in the House of Commons, she assured MPs that “significant improvements to immigration detention” had been made since the documentary was filmed.

The new report draws on the experiences of men and women detained within the last year at immigration detention centres in the UK. Their evidence was gathered in a workshop and through interviews. Clear parallels between the experiences of the current detainees and those whose experiences were documented in The Brook House Inquiry Report were identified.

JRS UK’s research concluded that immigration detention in the UK entailed incarceration in prison-like conditions, and that detention felt like prison. The UK was the only country in Europe without a time limit on immigration detention, the report noted; and indefinite detention was particularly harmful to detainees.

It also heard of routine deficiencies in health care, including the failure to provide necessary medicine and the routine ignoring of medical emergencies, and a culture of disbelief in relation to mental health. Vulnerable people, including survivors of torture and trafficking, were routinely detained and kept in detention — and detention was extremely damaging to mental health, the report found.

Detainees reported that force was used inappropriately and often gratuitously. The researchers also found that there was a staffing culture of abuse and humiliation in detention centres. Nor was there any effective complaints procedure.

In the words of Jonah, a detainee who provided a foreword, the JRS report “reveals a brutal truth” that should be spoken about. “The horrendous things that the Brook House Inquiry brought to light continue to happen in detention centres across the UK. Detention is a terrible place,” he writes.

The director of JRS UK, Sarah Teather, said that the research proved that the abuse at Brook House was not “some sort of anomaly” that could be brushed under the carpet as a “one-off mistake”. She said: “The experiences of the men and women who contributed to our research shows that the culture and practices brought to light by the Brook House Inquiry are still happening in detention centres across the UK. Immigration detention has destroyed too many lives, it must not be allowed to continue. It is beyond time to end the use of detention for immigration control.”

JRS UK is renewing its call for an end to detention for the purposes of immigration control, and the introduction of a time limit of no more than 28 days for as long as immigration detention continues — something that was also recommended by The Brook House Inquiry Report.

The charity argues that, because of its seriousness, the decision to detain must go before a judge. It is calling for the implementation of the recommendations of The Brook House Inquiry Report, and also calls for the repeal of the Illegal Migration Act 2023, and the rejection of the expansion of detention powers within it.

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