By Ed Gillett
It is well documented that asylum seekers regularly face serious risk of harm as a result of being detained, with torture survivors particularly vulnerable.
Freedom from Torture works with more than 1,000 survivors of torture every year, all of whom have fled abuse in their home countries to seek refuge in the UK. We've seen that being wrongly detained can have life-changing impacts on our clients' rehabilitation from the brutal torture they've experienced, and reinforce their ongoing physical and psychological trauma.
We've repeatedly called for stronger protections to identify and secure the release of vulnerable adults over recent years. 2016’s Shaw Review of detention conditions, commissioned by Theresa May when she was home secretary and to which we submitted detailed evidence, echoed many of our concerns and called for a dramatic reduction in the use of detention. However, since then the situation has got worse rather than better.
One of the biggest problems has been a set of changes made to immigration law in 2016, introducing considerably more stringent requirements for identifying people who need help. The Home Office agrees that torture survivors shouldn't be detained, because of the heightened risks to their welfare, but their new "Adults At Risk" policy requires survivors to supply detailed evidence that they are likely to suffer harm before they can qualify for release.
Freedom from Torture's ongoing work with survivors has revealed that this is an extremely difficult bar to clear: doctors working in Immigration Removal Centres are reluctant to make speculative assessments of risk, and instead default to a 'wait-and-see' approach. This means that decisions aren't made until after survivors' mental or physical health has already deteriorated as a result of their detention, subjecting these very vulnerable people to avoidable and long-lasting harm. We know that significant numbers of torture survivors continue to be detained, even though the Home Office says this should only happen in 'very exceptional circumstances'.
These problems have been compounded by the Home Office's misguided attempts to narrow their definition of torture. In October, the High Court ruled that this narrower definition had led to torture survivors being wrongfully detained.
The High Court's judgment underlines the concerns we've been raising since 2015, and has finally forced the government to address the shortcomings of their "Adults At Risk" policy. We now have a vital opportunity to address these critical issues and prevent further harm.
As the government reviews this policy, and detention conditions as a whole, it's vital that politicians of all parties stand up for basic human rights values, and ensure that some of the most vulnerable people in society receive the right protection.
In parliament this week, Joan Ryan MP introduced a bill, supported by politicians from all sides, which would improve immigration detention and introduce stronger safeguards for survivors of torture and other forms of violence. She highlighted the deaths of 11 detainees in 2017 and argued that "the torment faced by many individuals in the government's immigration detention system runs counter to this country's proudest traditions".
Her bill would create protections which are inclusive, applying to all torture survivors; preventive, rather than waiting for harm to occur; and effective, by introducing new measures to ensure the Home Office lives up to its promises.
It is a measure of the importance of this issue that such a strongly worded Commons motion attracted cross-party support.
As it addresses the varied and deeply harmful problems of immigration detention, the government needs to deliver a more risk-averse approach: not waiting until vulnerable people have been damaged and re-traumatised, but taking pre-emptive action to ensure that people who've experienced such horrific abuse are not subjected to further harm.
Ed Gillett is the media & communications officer at Freedom from Torture
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