Updates, commentary, training and advice on immigration and asylum law

Desperate times


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There was some sort of riot at Campsfield Detention Centre last week, as anyone following the news more carefully than I will know. I’ve been attending a training course all week and am therefore a bit out of the loop. The BBC cover the story, and there’s also a statement in Hansard by Liam Byrne, the relevant minister.

Campsfield probably has the worst reputation of all the immigration detention centres, although it certainly has close competition. The relationship between detainees and screws is appalling, which is why Charles Clarke, the previous Home Secretary, was proposing to close it down some years ago after a review of what is euphemistically called the ‘immigration detention estate’. The atmosphere at Harmondsworth is also pretty bad. Strangely, most lawyers and visitors find that the staff at Colnbrooke detention centre, literally across the road, are far more humane and co-operative than at Harmondsworth. At Harmondsworth, no opportunity to obstruct or obfuscate is left untaken.

Off the top of my head, I can remember two major riots at Campsfield, one at Harmondsworth and one at Yarl’s Wood, all resulting in extensive damage and several injuries. The reasons for the behaviour of the detainees are not hard to imagine and are explored in the reports of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, currently the indominatable Anne Owers (she has been brilliant and definitely lived up to the billing she received on her appointment in 2001). Essentially, the detainees have nothing to lose, they are desperate to avoid being returned to their countries of origin for various reasons, their detention is often for a prolonged period but is of unknown duration and their treatment within the centres is often darkly Kafka-esque. Time and time again any visitor will hear detainees complain with frustration and confusion that they haven’t done anything wrong. The sense of injustice and grievance is acute and all pervading.

To reinforce this point, the horrifying statistics on self harm attempts by immigration detainees recently obtained by the National Coalition of Anti Deportation Campaigns (NCADC) show that there is roughly one reported self harm attempt every two days.

This leads me to another cheerful and related topic. In 2005 the Court of Appeal held in the case of J v SSHD that a removal cannot take place if it would cause the removee to commit suicide or attempt to commit suicide. However, if the Home Office can put in place measures that would prevent the removee from commiting suicide, the removal can go ahead. This has led to a number of cases being brought where there is medical evidence, sometimes very strong, to suggest that the person concerned has a serious suicidal ‘ideation’. The Asylum and Immigration Tribunal has proven very keen to avoid allowing appeals on this basis, probably because the judges believe that this would lead to asylum seekers threatening and actually attempting to commit suicide more often than they already do – which it turns out is quite a lot.

There’s an interesting difference of approach and terminology between the medical profession and the courts on this issue, as on many others. The medical professionals are concerned with suicide risk in the sense of the feelings and emotions that would cause a person to reach such a state of mind where he or she wants to commit suicide. As far as the medical professionals are concerned, any risk factors likely to cause that level of mental suffering should be alleviated. It is not the mere manifestation of self harm that is damaging and must be treated, it is the underlying causes and mental illness that must be addressed. The courts are concerned purely with whether the person can be removed without actually attempting to commit suicide. This is what the courts mean by ‘suicide risk’.

As an aside, I, in common with all other immigration lawyers, have become accustomed to immigration judges rejecting such medical evidence on the basis that:

(i) the clinical diagnosis is based on self-reporting by the subject, but

(ii) it is for the immigration judge to decide whether the subject is telling the truth, therefore

(iii) the clinical diagnosis isn’t worth the paper on which it is written and should be ignored.

Examples abound, but see the case of SSHD v AE and FE for one of the least celebrated. I’d be very interested to know whether this happens in other areas of law, such as personal injury. I strongly suspect not.

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The Free Movement blog was founded in 2007 by Colin Yeo, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers specialising in immigration law. The blog provides updates and commentary on immigration and asylum law by a variety of authors.