UK immigration detention deaths on the rise

A record number of people lost their lives in UK immigration detention centres in 2017, writes Felix Bazalgette.

A record number of people lost their lives in UK immigration detention centres in 2017. Eleven people died last year – one shortly after being released – which is more than double the number of deaths in 2016, and the highest figure since Britain began locking up migrants in 1970.

When the first detention centre was built 48 years ago, close to Heathrow Airport, prisoners could be counted in the dozens and were mainly those people who had been refused entry on arrival. According to the latest figures, just over 3,000 people are being detained at any one time, with roughly 30,000 individuals going through the system every year.

The government argues that detention is a necessary prelude to deportation. But half of those detained end up being released; detaining these 15,000 individuals who are later released causes great emotional distress and costs an estimated $105m a year. The majority of the deaths in 2017 were self-inflicted and across the detention estate there is on average more than one suicide attempt a day.

Last year’s figures also reveal an alarming trend since Britain voted to leave the European Union (EU) in June 2016: over half of those who died were EU citizens; and the number of EU citizens in immigration detention in the UK has increased dramatically.

Most detainees come from the Global South, specifically former colonies. But in the year after Britain voted for Brexit, the number of EU nationals detained rose by 27 per cent, and between 2015 and 2017 the number of EU nationals removed from the UK rose by 47 per cent, according to the latest Home Office figures.

The charity Bail for Immigration Detainees fears that EU citizens are being targeted by government agencies, either as part of a reaction to perceived public opinion or as a result of direct instruction.