On Tuesday 14 March 2017 a few women from the All African Women’s Group (AAWG) attended a debate at the House of Commons organized by Anne McLaughlin, MP for the Scottish National Party (SNP).
The debate was regarding the detention of vulnerable persons.
Anne McLaughlin said she has always been against the detention of people who have not committed any crime and she once more brought this issue to parliament in order to discuss with government ministers the impact that this sort of treatment has on vulnerable people.
She recently supported an Eritrean woman who was detained in Dungavel with her son, who became so depressed that every day he was telling his mother that he would rather be dead than be in detention. This is extremely revealing of the detrimental impact that detention can have on someone’s mental health, and is especially concerning given the continued detention of children – in 2016, 71 children were detained.
She added that she also received information from a lot of organizations that work with refugees and asylum seekers and she paid tribute to these organizations for the work that they do.
McLaughlin stressed that victims of torture and people with mental health problems should not be detained. She added that even when someone does not enter detention as a vulnerable person, they become vulnerable due to the environment of the detention centre. The fact that detention does not have a time limit is also very harmful. She mentioned people who have been in detention for 12 months, 24 months or even more, simply because the government is not legally able to deport them to their home countries. McLaughlin added that the Tory government seems to be concerned with the cost of everything yet when it comes to immigration detention, money becomes no object. The estimated cost of running the dysfunctional and inhumane detention estate was £164 million in 2013 – more expensive than case-working them in the community.
The Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott MP, said that when the Labour Party initially brought in immigration detention they intended that people should only be detained for a short period of time. However, in the current context this is far from the case, meaning the human rights of detainees are being violated on a large scale.
Abbott mentioned the “Stephen Shaw report” (Review into the welfare in detention of vulnerable persons) which recommended that victims of rape and other forms of sexual or gender-based violence such as female genital mutilation; people who have been diagnosed with PTSD; pregnant women and people with learning difficulties should not be detained. In this regard, she wanted to know what the ministers have done to implement the recommendations in Shaw’s report.
Robert Goodwill MP, The Minister for Immigration, responded by saying that detention is an effective way for the government to control immigration. He added that people with no right to be in the UK are given plenty of information about how to return home voluntarily. When these people refuse to go of their own accord, the government detains them before removing them, he insisted.
We in the All African Women’s Group (AAWG) know this is not true because many women from our organisation have been detained despite the fact that they had an application pending with the Home Office. In addition, many people who are detained are subsequently released, meaning that the government’s policy is unfair and deliberately punitive.
The immigration minister added that the government takes the welfare of detainees very seriously which is why they commissioned Stephen Shaw to carry out an independent review of detention centres in 2015. Following his review the government has taken steps to change the way mental health is accessed in detention, he argued.
This is also a lie because women are sometimes refused access to health care while in detention. Most of them are victims of torture and rape survivors. However, when they make an application to be released on these grounds, their application is often refused by the Home Office despite the fact that the Home Office itself has ruled that torture victims should not be detained. One of our members Erioth Mwesigwa is an example of this. She reported that she is a rape survivor to the Yarl’s Wood in-house doctor who spent just five minutes with her. She recorded that Erioth was having “flashbacks of the torture she suffered” since being detained, but refused to recommend that she be released saying: “I’m not worried that continued detention will affect the lady’s mental health.”
I will not conclude without saying that Dr Cameron from Medical Justice was also present and he explained how difficult it is to go into detention centres to assess detainees’ mental health. Research has found that detention centres are largely ill-equipped to respond to the mental health needs of asylum seekers and that detention often has a further detrimental impact on the mental health of detainees.
We from the All African Women’s Group were disappointed because we were not invited to take part in the debate. It was a debate amongst the MPs only.