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In 2019 the then immigration minister, Caroline Nokes, promised to introduce schemes that would reduce the number of vulnerable female refugees and asylum seekers in UK immigration detention centres and instead house them in the community. The vow seemed like a step in the right direction towards a more humane British immigration system. Now, however, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, has gone back on that promise and new detention centres for women are being built all over the country. The first is to open in County Durham in autumn on the site of a former youth prison. This news comes amidst a range of other recent proposals by the government to send asylum seekers abroad to be processed; a move which has been said could have “grave humanitarian consequences” by Mike Adamson, the chief executive of the British Red Cross. These new plans signify a worrying hardening in the UK government’s response to immigration after our withdrawal from the EU, making us even more isolationist than before. 

In 2016 the Shaw Review was carried out which laid out some recommendations on how to improve the UK immigration system and as recently as 2018, Sajid Javid, the former Home Secretary, took these recommendations on board and promised to get vulnerable refugee women ‘a programme of support and care in the community’ instead of in detention centres. This would have meant that women could live in flats, houses, hostels or bed and breakfasts while receiving a weekly allowance from the government and also having access to the NHS. Yarl’s Wood, a detention centre for women, was emptied just last year and the detention of women was at a historic low. It seemed like change was on the horizon and that the British government was finally viewing refugees and asylum seekers as humans rather than statistics.

Nevertheless, the reversal of the promise to house women in the community has shattered this trust in the government to treat refugees in a compassionate manner. These women are some of the most vulnerable in society. Many may have fled from unstable countries and suffered gender based violence which has resulted in a high prevalence of mental health problems. Putting them into detention centres rather than housing them in safe spaces within the community only serves to make these mental health problems worse as there is inadequate access to healthcare. Agnes Tanoh claimed asylum in the UK after spending three months locked up inside Yarl’s Wood and has now started a petition to stop the new detention centres as she has seen how ‘detention destroys a women’ as they ‘become depressed and suicidal’ due to the inhumane conditions that they are forced to live under. These are the people who the UK should prioritise rather than imprison. To risk your life escaping persecution is something which no human should have to go through. When refugees reach what is supposed to be a safe country they should be treated with the utmost care and sensitivity rather than being put into detention centres that only meet the most basic of their needs. 

A study was carried out into the effects that detention has on the mental health of refugees and asylum seekers and the results are clear – detention is extremely damaging to mental health (Werthern et al., 2018). The most commonly reported mental health problems were anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and they found that ‘detention duration was positively associated with severity of mental symptoms’. This finding is especially worrying due to the fact that there is no time limit on immigration detention in the UK, unlike in most other European countries, meaning that mental health problems that refugees may face are being allowed to continue getting worse and worse. Furthermore, non-detained refugees who were living in the community had lower symptom scores than those in detention centres, showing that it is the detention centres themselves which are extremely damaging.

Prompted by calls from activists and charities, the government released many of those in detention centres into the community in May 2020 due to fears of Covid spreading rapidly through the centres. This was the perfect opportunity for the government to trial alternative methods of housing refugees and asylum seekers. Now that we have seen that these centres can be emptied quickly and easily it is shocking that Priti Patel has still chosen to continue building new detention centres for women. Werthern’s study also found that greater trauma exposure prior to detention was associated with symptom severity. The gender based violence that many female asylum seekers have been through will, therefore, continue to negatively affect these women far more severely in detention than if they had been housed in the community – a fact which Priti Patel has willingly accepted. These women need to be protected and it is extremely embarrassing to be a British citizen under a government that refuses to do so.

Written By Sofia Bassani


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