“I would have preferred to take my own life than being in there.”
These are the words of Mukasa*, a gay man from Uganda, describing his experience of being held in an immigration detention centre. He’s not alone in feeling this way.
At the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG), we receive calls and emails from desperate people in detention centres almost every single day. The people we support and visit in detention centres have fled their countries in fear of being persecuted because they are LGBT+. They ask our government for protection as refugees, but the government locks them up and doesn’t tell them how long they’ll be held. Throughout that time, they are subject to homophobic, biphobic and transphobic harassment, physical abuse and even sexual assault.
For example, Achebe*, from Nigeria, told us of the abuse he suffered from other people who were also held in the same centre, and how detention centre staff hadn’t helped. “The guy grabbed me, saying he’s going to break my soul. I had to press the buzzer. The officer that came down said there’s nothing he can do. We had to deal with it. That was another nightmare for me.”
The lack of a time limit adds to the already traumatising experience of the government taking away your liberty. Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) and the Home Affairs Committee both published reports of inquiries into immigration detention this year, and both recommended that the government should introduce a 28-day limit. The Home Affairs Committee concluded that the Home Office had a “shockingly cavalier attitude in its approach to immigration detention” and “overseen serious failings in almost every area of the immigration detention process”.
Yet the government has flatly refused to take on the recommendations for a time limit. This flies in the face of basic decency. No other country in Europe practises indefinite detention. Our service users have told us that indefinite detention was like torture. Even the UN Committee against Torture called on the UK to implement a time limit in law.
The Home Affairs Committee also recommended that the government should recognise that LGBT+ people are vulnerable in detention. Once again, the government refused to accept this.
This neglect for the welfare of people who are simply looking for sanctuary has serious consequences. LGBT+ people are calling us from detention centres telling us that they are self-harming and describing in detail how they will kill themselves. Many hadn’t experienced any mental health problems before they were detained: it’s the experience of detention that has had such a deleterious impact.
And it doesn’t end once someone is released. LGBT+ people seeking asylum have come to UKLGIG after coming out of detention suffering from depression, flashbacks, social anxiety, difficulty sleeping, memory problems, self-harm and suicidal ideation. Some people never recover.
Detention centres are possibly the most dangerous places in the country for LGBT+ people.
This month, as part of the #LendYourVoice campaign, 28 LGBT+ celebrities and influencers are sharing the words of LGBT+ people who have been detained and are calling for a 28-day time limit on detention. In the words of Rav Bansal, the Great British Bake Off contestant and broadcaster, “People shouldn’t have to run away from their homes because of who they are, only to be held indefinitely when they reach safety. It’s time for a time limit.”
* Names have been changed.
Leila Zadeh is the executive director of the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group
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