'Alarming' rise in self-harming at detention centres

Home Office figures reveal the desperate mental state of asylum-seekers locked up within the UK's immigration system
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The Independent Online

Incidences of self-harm in immigration detention centres rose 73 per cent in the first six months of this year, Home Office figures have revealed. The sharp increase has provoked calls for the Government to re-examine its policy of treating asylum-seekers as prisoners. .

In the first six months of this year there were 109 cases of self-harm requiring medical attention. Colnbrook detention centre in Berkshire had the highest number, with 32 incidents so far this year. The numbers on self-harm watch have also risen – with 722 cases in the first half of 2008, up from 678 in the last six months of 2007. The total population of the country's immigration detention centres is typically below 2,300.

When the Independent Asylum Commission concluded a review of the entire system earlier this year, it recommended the detention of asylum-seekers be reconsidered. Sir John Waite, the former High Court judge who chaired the commission, said: "This alarming figure confirms the anxiety which was expressed by us about the appropriateness of detention for asylum-seekers. It also confirms the need for a root-and-branch review of the entire policy."

The UK Border Agency has already been criticised for its detention of vulnerable migrants and for the extended stays that many are forced to endure. Contrary to UN recommendations, there is no legal limit to the length of time a person can be held in a UK immigration detention centres. The Home Office no longer publishes a breakdown of the length of detention. Experts say it is not uncommon for asylum-seekers to be held for more than six months at a time. Donna Covey, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: "It is unacceptable to detain people without charge for long periods. There is only one proper response to the unacceptably high level of self-harm in detention, and that is for the Government to end the use of detention as part of its asylum policy."

Despite the latest figures, the Government is determined to expand the immigration detention capacity from 2,500 to 4,000. Dr Cornelius Katona, of the asylum charity Medical Justice, said: "There is an enormous body of evidence that says detaining asylum-seekers is bad for their mental health. These are people who are very vulnerable." Dr Katona estimates that at least half of the UK's detainees suffer from mental illness. John O, of the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns, said: "I speak daily to people in detention and there is no solace you can give to a detainee who does not understand why they have been detained."

A Border Agency spokesman insisted detention centres were "safe and secure".

A detainee's story: 'They don't treat you like a person'

Terri Matsvimbo, a 28-year-old asylum-seeker from Zimbabwe was held in Yarl's Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire for four months this year. She was so distressed by her incarceration and her fears that she would be sent home that she began to self-harm.

In the worst of these incidents, she slit her wrists with razors that were provided by staff at the centre, despite her medical history of depression.

"I was just desperate," she says. "They don't treat you like a person there; people keeping animals would treat them with more respect.

"Being in Yarl's Wood was the lowest I've ever been: it was mental torture at its worst. Now I've got mental and physical scars that will stay with me for the rest of my life."

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