Lawyers and charities have predicted an unfolding crisis in immigration detention following the death of a detainee and reports of subsequent suicide attempts by others.
The Home Office confirmed that investigations have been launched by police and the prisons and probation ombudsman into the death of Frank Ospina on 26 March. He was being held at Colnbrook immigration removal centre near Heathrow next to the adjoining Harmondsworth immigration detention centre. He is believed to have been 39 and from Colombia. Detainees said he took his own life although this has not been confirmed.
A notice to detainees from the centre manager Paul Rennie dated the day the man died states: “It is with respect that I have to announce that resident Mr Frank Ospina sadly passed away today.”
It adds: “Please be assured we are doing all we can to reduce the risks of such incidents happening again in the future.”
The Guardian received reports from several detainees that shortly after reports of Ospina’s death circulated a number of detainees attempted suicide and that some detainees staged a protest at the centre earlier this week.
Charities have also highlighted delays in carrying out what are known as rule 35 reports, which assess vulnerabilities of people in detention such as whether they are a suicide risk. The Home Office did not comment on these reports.
The detention problems come at a time when the Home Office has announced it will be expanding the use of immigration detention. In a fact sheet published on 31 March officials said that under the new rules “it is for the home secretary rather than the courts to determine what is a reasonable time period to detain an individual”.
One detainee at Harmondsworth told the Guardian: “We are all feeling very frustrated after the death on Sunday. I met him when he was on the induction wing and was shocked when I heard he had died. There are a lot of tensions here because more detainees attempted suicide after the news of Mr Ospina’s death circulated. The centre is at full capacity at the moment.”
Pierre Makhlouf, (corr) the legal director of Bail For Immigration Detainees, said: “We are distressed to receive news that a man has died and others have attempted suicide at Heathrow IRC. We have serious concerns that the situation is deteriorating at the centre. We have received reports of self-harm and a worsening of overall conditions. The atmosphere at Heathrow IRC is described as tense.”
Emma Ginn, the director of Medical Justice, said: “The crisis in immigration seems to have deepened. The tragic death of Frank Ospina is shocking. There always has been, and continues to be, a complete failure of clinical safeguards in immigration removal centres. We fear that as long as these failings continue to go unaddressed there will be more deaths.
“Medical Justice is greatly concerned about the massive expansion of immigration detention that the illegal migration bill calls for. The more people are detained, the more deaths there are likely to be.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Any death in immigration detention is a tragic event and will be subject to investigation by the police, the coroner, or procurator fiscal in Scotland, and the independent prisons and probation ombudsman.
“All our IRCs offer physical and mental wellbeing support to all individuals in detention, with access to 24-hour primary healthcare and welfare teams on site. Policies and procedures are in place to safeguard and provide support to individuals in detention deemed to have suicidal intentions. This is in place to safeguard vulnerable people in detention.”
On 7 March the Home Office confirmed another death, this time of an asylum seeker in accommodation in Liverpool. He is understood to have taken his own life. A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are saddened to hear of the death of a person in asylum accommodation. The health and wellbeing of asylum seekers will always be our priority.”
Clare Moseley, the founder of the charity care4Calais, said: said: “It is devastating to hear of people who come here seeking safety but find only pain. A full investigation is essential to ensure asylum seekers receive the care they deserve.”
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 988 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counselor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org