A landmark court ruling yesterday found the Home Office’s policy for investigating deaths in immigration detention is in breach of human rights law. Oscar Lucky Okwurime was found dead in his cell in Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre on 12th September 2019. The JRS UK Detention Outreach team provides regular emotional and practical support to several men detained at Harmondsworth and its adjacent site Colnbrook.
The Home Office has a legal requirement to assist inquests into deaths in detention by identifying and securing evidence from potential witnesses. But in this case, the department continued to pursue its plans to remove a number of potential witnesses. Ahmed Lawal, Oscar’s friend and fellow detainee, was one key witness to what had happened, but the Home Secretary tried to remove him 5 days after his friend’s death before he was able to give evidence. A judge halted the removal.
Ahmed was able to give evidence in person at the inquest in November 2020. The coroner in the case later said Lawal would not have been able to give evidence adequately via video link. Had the Home Office been successful in removing Lawal it is possible that the inquest into Oscar’s death may have reached a different conclusion and justice for Oscar would never have been reached.
Sophie Cartwright, Senior Policy Officer at JRS UK said: “In both the profound neglect that led to Oscar’s death, and the lack of care about investigating it, we see a wanton disregard for human life. This is not an anomalous incident. Detention fosters a culture of death. It is time to end detention.
“In the attempt to remove Ahmed, once again, immigration control was deemed more important than anything, to be pursued without thought for other consequences.”
The inquest in to Oscar’s death found that he had died unnaturally, as a result of neglect following a subarachnoid haemorrhage, and associated hypertension. A lack of basic follow up medical tests on Oscar, a vulnerable person, contributed to his death which was a result of multiple failures to adhere to healthcare policy.
Will Neal, JRS UK’s Detention Outreach Officer said:
“Sadly, the repeated challenges Oscar faced in accessing adequate healthcare, which ultimately contributed to his premature death, are not uncommon. Over the many years we have supported individuals in immigration detention, issues around accessing healthcare are frequently raised and many feel that their medical concerns are not taken seriously.
Time and time again we see how Home Office policies and practices fail to take any consideration of the individuals at their centre; stripping the system of any dignity. Unfortunately Oscar’s, and many others’ stories of inadequate access to healthcare is just another example of the Home Office’s blatant disregard for human life.”
Our report ‘Detained and Dehumanised: The impact of immigration detention’ found that the culture of death and trauma that pervades the experience of being detained is one in which self harm is commonplace.
Between 2000 and 2019, an estimated 54 people died either whilst held under immigration powers or very shortly after release.The Home Office does not routinely publish statistics around suicide attempts in detention, but a Freedom of Information request made by the NGO No Deportations found that 159 suicide attempts were made in UK detention centres between April and June 2018 – that is an average of more than 50 per month over a 3-month period
As one refugee friend supported by JRS UK told us,
“They should close detention. They kill innocent souls.”
Read more about the harm caused by detention in our recent report, drawing from the accounts of 27 forcibly displaced people supported by JRS UK, with direct experience of detention spanning the last 20 years.