UK immigration detention centres ‘dehumanising and traumatic’

As thousands are placed in overcrowded and unsanitary immigration detention centres during the pandemic, journalist Harriet Morphy-Morris outlines the failure of the UK Government to manage its immigration systems. 

A Home Office logo on a wall.
A Home Office logo on a wall.

Image: Ethan Wilkinson

Harriet Morphy Morris

The UK Government continues to favour the use of inhumane immigration detention centres, forcing people into crowded and unsanitary conditions during the coronavirus pandemic.

A dehumanising, overcrowded and traumatic experience, yet it is something the Government continues to force on people, despite the consequences. It is a decision that proves the Government favours the quick immigration administrative process over the safety of deeply vulnerable people who are seeking permission to remain in the country. 

In October, hundreds of migrants were left isolated in Dungavel Detention Centre after an outbreak of the virus. Poor conditions, including a lack of PPE, unsanitary facilities and mismanagement, all contributed to the rapid spread. The outbreak was bound to happen – during the first lockdown, the Government placed 19,000 people in crowded detention centres, despite knowing about the lack of health precautions.

As coronavirus restrictions continue under the second national lockdown, so do the inhumane conditions. There has been no action from the government despite conditions pushing detainees to breaking point and campaigners warning of a surge in self-harm incidents. The Independent reported a 2000 per cent rise in self-harm in detention centres, pushed by the Home Office’s lack of accountability to provide support for those dealing with the emotional stress of being split from their families. 

The crisis of self-harm within the centres is evident. Home Office statistics recorded 474 self-harm related incidents in 2019, and as of March of this year the figure stood at 149, but it is unknown how many cases were left unrecorded due to the coronavirus pandemic. Brooke House Removal Centre, near Gatwick, reported 80 incidents needing urgent medical treatment. This is alarming, considering at the time capacity was low, at 100 people. 

The exposed cases of mistreatment and neglect have sparked calls for the permanent closure of detention centres. Individuals placed without safeguarding and access to community support is arguably a breach of human rights. The level of hostility throughout centres is becoming ever more apparent; it is forcing detainees to risk their own health in protest of living in filthy conditions, a right to self-determination. In-between August and September, the charity No Deportations recorded 141 hunger strikes.

Other cases of neglect are apparent through the neglect of children. The Immigration Act clearly states it is illegal to detain a child unaccompanied for longer than 24-hours. However, the Home Office has repeatedly let this slip. Detention Action reveals children were left locked in rooms with unknown adults without substantial food or water. This experience for any child would be extremely traumatic, but under the burden of a poorly managed system, it is starting to define Britain’s treatment of migrants.

Another failure to protect the human rights of those detained is highlighted by the lack of human-trafficking support. The system used by the Home Office failed to identify victims of human trafficking, and therefore placed people with the right to asylum into detention against their will.

It must be reiterated that the UK does have the power to detain people for a short amount of time, and during this time, the asking of questions pertaining to immigration status is permitted. But the current system, designed around cost-effectiveness rather than compassion, has resulted in potentially law-breaking oversight of people’s rights.

It is evident the system is crumbling in on itself. Governed by Priti Patel, it is in charge of letting down thousands of asylum-seeking children and their families fleeing potentially catastrophic backgrounds.

Harriet Morphy-Morris writes for, a media platform that helps to raise awareness about migrant injustices, socio-economic issues and current affairs