A suicidal asylum seeker who fled persecution in Eastern Africa and is now set to be deported to Rwanda has been told by detention authorities to “get a haircut” or “try aromatherapy” to improve his poor mental health.
Moti*, who is currently being held at Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre, says he has suffered “horrific” treatment since arriving in England last month and would take his own life if he had the means to do so, adding that he has been denied counselling and mental health support.
Having suffered torture in his home country amid civil conflict and witnessed his own mother’s death, Moti suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicidal ideations — but officials at Colnbrook IRC have dismissed his “deteriorating” mental health, his lawyer says.
Instead, Moti has been handed a trauma handbook by the centre to “self-treat” his condition. In the document, written in English, which Moti cannot read, it’s recommended that mentally unwell detainees “get a haircut”, “try aromatherapy” or “learn an instrument”, among other suggestions.
His lawyer, Gina Skandari, has condemned Colnbrook IRC for failing to provide appropriate mental health support, describing the trauma handbook as “ridiculous”, while other campaign groups have also accused detention authorities of inhumane treatment.
Recent research published by Medical Justice, which campaigns for the health rights of detainees, found that 87 per cent of asylum seekers held in immigration removal centres (IRC) across the UK had experienced suicidal thoughts.
Of the 45 detainees who were assessed by the charity, not a single one underwent a safeguarding review, as they should have done, to identify them to the Home Office as at risk of harm and determine whether detention could impact their well-being. Only 51 per cent saw a GP within the required 24 hours of admission to an IRC.
Ms Skandari said her client’s experiences at Colnbrook IRC are symptomatic of the “inadequate” and “ineffective” safeguards deployed throughout the UK’s detention centres, adding that those typically being detained are “very vulnerable” and mentally unwell.
“On this occasion, the Home Office failed to take adequate safeguarding measures when notified of my client’s intention to commit suicide,” she said. “Trauma related mental health issues require expert treatment – this cannot be substituted with an information pack recommending aromatherapy and a new haircut.”
Moti left his country of birth as a teenager to avoid military conscription and relocated to a neighbouring nation, where he lived for 20 years.
After the country became gripped by civil war, he was persecuted, stabbed and tortured on account of his faith and culture. He says his mother was killed “in front of my eyes”.
Moti, now in his 40s, was forced to flee and went on to suffer “horrible treatment and terrible oppression” during his journey to the UK, arriving by boat in May 2022. He was subsequently detained and taken to Colnbrook IRC.
After Ms Skandari pushed Colnbrook IRC to conduct a safeguarding review, a doctor concluded Moti “that his scaring was consistent with his account and that he is probably a victim of torture”.
The doctor agreed he “presented with mental issues that need further examination and may deteriorate in the detention centre,” Ms Skandari added.
However, health officials told Moti that they were unable to provide one-to-one counselling “due to unforeseeable circumstances”. He was later provided with a trauma handbook, which which provides “information about trauma, techniques and strategies to support yourself”.
“I just cried and tried to explain my situation,” Moti told The Independent, speaking via a translator. “They were unable to provide counselling for me. I was told to read a trauma handout, a piece of paper, but I can’t understand English.
“I feel like they are toying with my life. The treatment I had received through my journey was really horrible. And still my situation is the same. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow or even tonight. So I need to be heard. I need my voice to be heard.”
Ms Skandari said Moti had “disclosed that he wanted to kill himself and would do so if he found the means to while in detention”.
She has since requested his medical records so “we can see whether they were aware that he had suicidal ideations and had intentions to commit suicide.” However, Colnbrook IRC said this will take 28 days.
Moti has been served with a Notice of Intent (NOI) to remove him to Rwanda. His solicitors have until Friday to respond.
Emma Ginn, the director of Medical Justice, said the detention system’s “inadequate” safeguards are failing vulnerable people like Moti, adding that the charity represents many asylum seekers set to be removed to Rwanda who “report a history of torture” and suffer from psychological conditions.
“Our clients tell us they feel fobbed off and that healthcare staff are not interested in their distress,” she said.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The health and welfare of those in immigration detention is of the utmost importance to us.
“All immigration removal centres have dedicated health facilities run by doctors and nurses who provide mental health support to NHS England standards while onsite welfare teams work to identify vulnerable individuals and provide support where necessary, including taking every step to prevent self-harm or suicide.”
*A different name has been used to protect the man’s identity
If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.
If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Helpline is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.
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