Immigration detention: more evidence of contempt for the mentally ill

Immigration detention: more evidence of contempt for the mentally ill


Written by: Frances Webber

Another case of unlawful detention demonstrates that UKBA officials intent on detention and removal sometimes don’t even read psychiatric reports suggesting detention might be damaging.

Previous cases involved foreign national offenders (FNOs),[1] whose detention was an important political priority for UKBA. But the hard line on detention appears to have spread to refused asylum seekers. A recent case provides alarming evidence that relevant, available psychiatric reports are not considered before someone with mental health problems is detained, or during their detention.

Mrs D, an Indian domestic worker who claimed she had been trafficked to the UK and subjected to severe ill-treatment, was refused asylum in 2008. Following appeals and further representations, she was detained for removal in November 2011. By that time, psychiatric reports had been submitted to UKBA by the psychiatrist who had been treating her as an out-patient, describing the woman’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and severe depression, exacerbated by an earlier period of detention. According to the psychiatrist, she was distressed, had frequent suicidal thoughts, and feared detention.


According to the UKBA case notes, when she was detained she ‘appeared to collapse, was clearly emotional and distressed’ and explained that she had PTSD and had difficulties sleeping, nightmares, a memory problem and suicidal thoughts, She said she was receiving psychiatric treatment including anti-depressant medication. The caseworkers responsible for her detention were thus aware that there was relevant psychiatric evidence which might rule out detention. But they failed to obtain it. On the ‘reason for detention’ form they indicated that detention was to effect her removal and was ‘necessary to prevent absconding’ (although there was no suggestion that she had attempted to abscond in the past), and they added that she had evinced ‘no health grounds to preclude’ detention. When, later that month, the woman’s solicitor sent them a copy of the psychiatric evidence, no one apparently bothered to look at it, to check whether further detention was likely to cause psychiatric damage. Detention reviews at 24 hours, three days, seven days, fourteen days, five weeks and seven weeks made no reference to her psychiatric condition – even though the risk assessment prepared for the detention centre referred to potential risks of ‘self-harm/attempted suicide, psychiatric and medical problems’. Mrs D was kept in detention for two months, until being granted bail in January 2012. She was removed to India later that year.

The judge noted that UKBA had not co-operated with the court at the hearing, failing to put in a statement to explain what evidence the officials had when they decided to detain her. He found that officials were in breach of their legal obligation to inform themselves about Mrs D’s mental state before detaining her. They needed to do this to comply with the UKBA policy of not detaining anyone with serious mental illness which could not be managed in detention. Their failure meant that she was detained in breach of the policy and so unlawfully.


But the judge went on to award Mrs D only nominal damages. Although she and her boyfriend claimed that she had been very distressed by her detention and had lost weight, the judge ruled that she had clearly ‘coped’ with the ordeal –  which retrospectively vindicated the UKBA decision to detain her, since her mental ill-health had not been so serious as to be unmanageable in detention. ‘Serious mental ill health’ which would justify not detaining someone who would otherwise be detained meant more, the judge ruled, than risking ‘mere’ deterioration in the person’s condition – it meant that the person must be in real danger of ‘slipping into a state of serious inability to cope with ordinary life’.


Read the judgement here.

References: [1] Frances Webber, ‘Judge brands detention irrational, unlawful and degrading’, IRR News 26 April 2012; Frances Webber, ‘Second immigration detention ruled inhuman or degrading’, IRR News, 22 December 2011.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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