Perspectives · Society

Exposing Inhuman Treatment in Detention Centers

“I was handcuffed in the airport and that is the most heartbreaking thing for me because in my mind I thought people who were handcuffed were prisoners, people who have committed crimes, people who needed handcuffs. I was really distressed and I asked the officer not to do it because of the way I was feeling.” – Becky (‘Moving Through Borders‘, Rudy loewe)

I first came across the concept of detention centers (or direct provision as it’s called here in Ireland) about 4 years ago. It’s not a commonly known system, and the way it operates is well hidden within our society. The detention center is a system that allows the government to detain refugees, asylum seekers and migrants for purposes related to establishing a person’s identity, processing asylum claims and facilitating deportation orders. It removes a person’s freedom of movement and monitors them 24/7. Usually a person should only be detained as a last resort. However, over the past few years there has been an increase in the unnecessary imprisonment of people. 

Nevertheless, in the UK, there’s been a growing awareness of the mistreatment of people in detention centers. In 2015, Channel 4 released a documentary called “Yarl’s Wood: Undercover In The Secretive Immigration Centre. This is one of the detention centers that keep women locked up. From some of the revealed footage, you can clearly hear a guard referring to the detainees as mere animals: “They’re animals. They’re beasties. They’re all animals. Caged animals. Take a stick with you and beat them up. Right?. Since then there’s been a lot of reports of abuse, and victims of detention centers have started to speak up against the abusive system.

Rudy Loewe, whom I met at a Comic Book festival in Leeds last year, is one of the many people tackling the social issue surrounding detention centers. Rudy’s work mainly focuses on people of colour, with the main goal to empower and give the less fortunate a voice. It was there where I discovered their book, Moving through Borders, which is both written and illustrated by them.

The book centers on detention centers around the UK, and the experiences of the people who have been detained. Rudy has chosen to keep the work as authentic as possible. Therefore, none of the interviews have been edited, allowing you to read the stories as if they were coming right out of the person’s mouth. 

I believe work like this is really important, as the number of people being detained in recent years has increased, with a 7 percent increase in just 2015 in the UK. The only way that we can hope to shut down these centers is to spread awareness and encourage people to support each other and empower those in detention.  

The insight offered in this book gives a rich look into the world of detainees. The stories vary from person to person but underlines the same problem they all face; an inhumane system that strips their basic human rights and sets them up to fail.  

Most people are under the impression that you have to do something really unlawful in order to be detained. However, this book tells a different story. That this can, in fact, happen to anyone. We have cases of people who used to work and had their visas revoked. People who were students but denied a working visa, and of course, people fleeing various persecutions such as homophobic attacks, sexual violence and war. A person in detention center is extremely vulnerable because they are isolated and removed from their communities with little access to legal advice. Some people have experienced rape and domestic abuse, and others have fled war-torn countries.

When somebody has gone through something traumatizing, the worst thing you can do to that person is lock them up and make them feel like a criminal. While in detention centers, people often can’t gain the mental health support they need in order to treat their trauma. One story in the book describes receiving 24/7 health-care in prison while waiting, at times, 3-6 months to see a doctor in the detention center.

There are even situations where people are denied emergency care such as the story told by Tacko in Moving Through Borders. Tacko gives us an account of a detainee who was in critical condition who was denied healthcare, and as a result died from a heart attack. This is not a unique case; has highlighted other cases of people’s health being neglected in similar situationsThe rate of suicide which in detention centers also proves that the system does not work. In the UK, at least 1 attempted suicide happens every single day.  

Sexual abuse is also a major issue in detention centers, which is expressed by both Becky (a migrant who has experienced detention center) and Cristel (an organizer from the BWRAP (Black Women’s Rape Action Project) in the book.

They describe situations where women feel pressured to sell their bodies in order to survive, especially in cases where one has become destitute. This means that the detainee has been released from a detention center because their case is either still pending or has been dropped.

A lot of those people end up homeless, as they are not allowed to work. This leads to an increase in prostitution. However, it’s not just outside the detention centers where women are taken advantage of. Yarl’s wood has been repeatedly reported for the sexual abuse of its detainees. There are instances where guards use their power of authority in order to take advantage of the detained person. Women are promised that they’ll be helped with their asylum cases if they give in to sexual advances. Furthermore, there are cases of guards walking right into women’s rooms in the middle of the night without announcing their entry. 


In terms of women’s rights while in a detention center, Ireland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. The 8th amendment constitution act, which was signed into law in 1983, has allowed the state to value the life of an unborn more than that of the pregnant woman. This has had huge implications for women in detention centers, especially because the law only allows a woman to travel in order to obtain a termination. As detainees are restricted from travelling they are in no position to make choices about their own bodies. Ms Y, an asylum seeker in Ireland, was one of the unfortunate women who endured the horrors of this constitution. She had been raped in her country of origin and sought a termination in Ireland but was denied the procedure. Despite being suicidal and refusing to eat, the doctors force fed her and carried out a C-section against her will. 

It just shows that as long as detention centers exist, there will always be someone who can control and take advantage of the detained person’s safety and security.  

Groups such as Movement for Justice, Right to Remain, All African Women’s Group, and many others, have done an amazing job of exposing the cruel treatment of detainees in the UK. By contrast, there’s been little talk about it here in Ireland, which is a surprise considering that Ireland actually ranks as one of the worst countries in terms of dealing with immigration. Data collected from the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) shows Ireland as ranking 55th out of 183 nations worldwide. This is lower than Bulgaria, Armenia and the UK. Between 2012-2014, Ireland granted asylum in only 677 cases. This is an incredibly low rate for a developed and an EU member state.  

There’s a clear pattern here that shows that more cases are being rejected rather than accepted, with a high number of pending cases that sometimes take years to be processed.  

Possibly the most striking comparison to Ireland is Malta, which ranks as the second nation to grant the highest percentage of asylum claims in comparison to their population.

Malta has a population of only 418,000 people, and has experienced some of the heaviest impacts of immigration. Yet, the country accepted 3,185 applications since 2012. With a population smaller than one tenth of Ireland’s, a tiny landmass and a GDP 20 times smaller than ours, the number of cases accepted has almost been 5 times more than that of Ireland’s.

Unfortunately, the future doesn’t look any brighter. The UK currently runs a fast track system to process asylum claims. This was initially set up to speed up asylum cases but it has been criticized for increasing the rate of rejection in asylum claims. This is mainly due to the lack of legal advice, and lawyers who either refuse to represent a candidate or have little time to prepare their cases. It’s also due to people who may not speak English well and are therefore unable to defend themselves. It’s said in the UK that after being detained you have 2 days to prepare your interview with a home officer. This interview is the key to having a chance at winning your case, but it means telling a complete stranger horrendous experiences that have happened to you and making sure all the dates and details are correct.

Unfortunately, this is where most people fail in their asylum cases.  

People either don’t have the required language proficiency to express what has happened to them or recounting certain experiences is too painful to talk about. Imagine you had been raped, or your whole family was murdered in front of you.  How would you even begin to talk about that?  It’s hard enough to acknowledge what has happened to yourself. But being demanded to tell such stories to someone who clearly won’t believe you is much harder.

To make matters worse, asylum seekers are often told that they are lying. This is true even in cases where there is clear evidence that being deported would result in harm being done to you. One such example is of an asylum seeker called Aderonke Apata. She fled Nigeria after being discovered to be a lesbian, which is illegal in Nigeria. You could serve up 14 years in prison, or worse, be stoned to death by your own community as punishment. Aderonke has been repeatedly denied asylum, and even felt desperate to the point where she presented the court with a DVD documenting her sex life with her girlfriend. The court still denied her claim. 

Meanwhile, In Ireland, The International Protection Bill was just signed into law in December 2016. This provides a Single Procedure which allows asylum seekers to apply for both refugee status and subsidiary protection at the same time. Previously asylum seekers had to go through a split procedure that meant that they had to wait for their refugee claim to be rejected before they could apply for subsidiary protection. According to Human Rights Groups this was the main cause of huge delays in processing People’s Asylum claims.

While the bill has been positively welcomed by different political parties and even the UNHCR, I fear that we might see a similar outcome as in the UK. Initially the bill should allow asylum seekers to seek protection in a more efficient and timely manner with a focus on particularly vulnerable people. But if the aim is to only speed up the process, I wouldn’t be surprised if an even higher number of cases get rejected and more people get deported in the future. Just as we’ve seen in the UK, it could possibly mean that asylum seekers will get little time to prepare, seek legal advice and gather all the evidence they need in order to win their cases. If we don’t work hard to end detention centers and deportation in 2017, many more people will undoubtedly suffer this inhumane system as a consequence.

You can check out more of Rudy Loewe’s work via their website:


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