Matthew Smith 1st February 2019
“Indefinite? Can you imagine trying to get your head around no certainty? The day becomes the month, becomes the year, becomes the decade.”
Poh Lin Lee knows the devastating effect of indefinite detention more than most. As a torture and trauma counsellor at Christmas Island detention centre, she saw people feel the effects of torture, and healthy people decline to the point of suicidal ideation. Her work is featured in Gabrielle Brady’s recent documentary Island of the Hungry Ghosts, a haunting film that shows the therapy sessions of those detained by the Australian government.
The detention centre on Christmas Island was one of the Australian government’s controversial off-shore facilities, where asylum seekers arriving by boat would be transferred until their applications were considered — for some, this process could take years to resolve.
Lee still remembers her first sessions on the island and, despite her previous work and social justice stance, recalls it was “shameful how many assumptions surrounded me about the person I was meeting with” just from how the media report on asylum seekers and refugees.
In the film, a mother admits to feeling broken by the system way beyond what she’d expected, while another asylum seeker cries while talking about being separated from his family for more than four years, and one admits that he’d started to feel suicidal as his detention continued. In a powerful sequence, Lee admits that “when your life is the only thing that you have a choice over in the end, you’d probably contemplate it too”.
Lee explains that the majority of people she and other counsellors saw “didn’t have family histories of mental illness or [had been] medicated on arrival to Christmas Island” instead, people “were suffering the effects of torture and trauma more rapidly”. She adds, “That’s completely understandable as detention is a constant reminder of past experience.”
In the same way that detention may mirror past trauma, Lee had to avoid asking people to retell stories in a “singular, linear fashion” in the way government officials do — and instead allow space to “co-research”.
This would include discussing “the multiple effects of trauma, displacement and being in limbo; exploring the context of people’s lives and the socio-political situations to contextualise trauma and effects, and to invite people to tell stories about how they’re responding and actively engaging in reducing the effects of trauma”.
The focus of the sessions were very much on the ongoing trauma of detention
But it wasn’t just those with past experiences of trauma or detention that were being referred to Lee. As the number of asylum seekers on the island increased, she spoke to more people who hadn’t suffered from mental health problems before arriving on Christmas Island and the “focus of those sessions [were] very much on the ongoing trauma of detention”.
During the filming of Islands of the Hungry Ghosts, Lee became concerned she had become complicit in the system and powerless to the people who needed help until ultimately she decided to leave her role. Christmas Island and other detention centres have since closed, but last year a working group for UN’s Human Rights Council (UNHRC) condemned Australia’s current approach to detention.
And while it’s easy to wince at Australia’s policy while watching the film, it’s worth looking closer to home too. Britain’s system is different — and the average length of time in detention is significantly lower — but there are some uncomfortable similarities.
The organisation No Deportations found that between April and June 2018 there were two suicide attempts a day in British deportation detention centres, and still there are examples of torture victims and vulnerable asylum seekers being detained — despite Home Office policies saying this should only be in exceptional circumstances.
In his latest report for the government on the state of detention, Stephen Shaw wrote that sections of “the current system must be regarded as happenstance”.
It’s a point repeated by Sam Grant, policy and campaigns manager for human rights charity Liberty, who says the system has grown from being a small operation in the 1970s to covering more than 27,000 people in 2017 while being ill-equipped for such major changes.
It’s just a really expensive way to be really inefficient and inhumane at the same time
Without any concrete process or long-term planning, the UK has been left with a system that is broken and bursting at the seams. “It is so, so inefficient that it’s not even meeting the government’s own reasons for detention — the majority of people who go through it are released back into the community, which makes the inhumanity of it even more pointless,” Grant adds, “It’s just a really expensive way to be really inefficient and inhumane at the same time.”
Until recently there had been no rush from the government to reform their ‘hostile environment’ approach. Grant calls any political resistance “mind-boggling, considering the growing evidence from so many different cross-party voices that are saying this flouts the rule of law”.
The UNHCR’s guidelines state, “Detention can only be resorted to when it is determined to be necessary, reasonable in all the circumstances and proportionate,” and, “Maximum limits on detention should be established in law.” However, in 2017 the Home Office detained over 27,000 people, with over a fifth of those spending more than two months in removal centres.
Grant also refutes the idea that the Home Office need the time to process asylum seekers. “We operate time limits in all other kinds of deprivation of liberty before charge,” he says. “There are parallels in the criminal justice system with very strict time limits on having someone held without charge, and Liberty doesn’t see why administrative immigration [is any different].” Liberty is fighting for a 28-day limit on detention.
As Grant notes, Brexit provides a chance for the government to draft new legislation to introduce the limit. However, despite immigration minister Caroline Noakes saying she would look “very closely” at ending the practice, it has so far not been included in the draft bill. It now rests on a cross-party group to use an amendment to force a change, although these MPs, including Labour’s Harriet Harman and Conservative Dominic Grieve, have recently said they were increasingly confident that it will be included in the final bill.
And while the Home Office is trialling new systems to move away from detention, Grant suggests action is needed more urgently. He notes that if a time limit isn’t enforced before Britain leaves the EU there could be three million more people who would come under domestic immigration policies — and then be liable for detention.
We are locking people up and they don’t know when they are going to get out
As a stop-gap, the government introduced Adults at Risk guidelines in 2016, which was intended to limit the number of vulnerable people entering detention. Although the latest statistics show that numbers dropped marginally, with 27,348 people still detained in 2017 and over 18,000 in the first three quarters of 2018.
And while numbers are slightly lower, the conditions inside centres are often criticised by independent inspectors. There are notable instances of racism within centres and Grant cites Shaw’s report that suggested centres were overcrowded and a report from Brook House that said the centre was unhygienic.
Although Grant adds an essential caveat. “Even if the conditions were perfect — even if it was a palace — we are locking people up and they don’t know when they are going to get out.”
Respect for human life unravelled so quickly
During the documentary, Lee says that through her time on Christmas Island she experienced the horror of seeing “respect for human life unravelled so quickly; spiralling down and bringing all kinds of harm to everyone who’s tangled in the system”.
Everyone who comes close to the practices, whether in the UK or an island in the Indian Ocean, seems to tell a similar story and reach the same conclusion — that indefinite detention is a cruel way to treat some of society’s most vulnerable.
Britain might be about to move away from the practice but for the 3,000 people currently in centres, it won’t be a moment too soon.
Matthew Smith 1st February 2019