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UK immigration centres record 218 hunger strikers in three months

More than 200 detainees in UK immigration centres staged hunger strikes in a three-month period, the Guardian has learned, prompting warnings of “desperation, frustration and helplessness” among asylum seekers arriving in Britain.

According to figures released following a Freedom of Information request, 218 people refused to eat in July, August and September this year. It is thought to be the first time data revealing hunger strikes in detention centres has been made public.

Human rights campaigners said some of those striking wanted to die from starvation, while others were refusing food to protest their incarceration or urge reconsideration of their immigration application.

The data was obtained by No Deportations, an organisation that provides signposting information to people who are subject to immigration controls, after a lengthy battle with Home Office, which had declined to release the information.

A further FoI request by No Deportations revealed that over the same period there were 109 suicide attempts with 649 detainees on suicide watch. Approximately 30,000 people are detained each year, meaning that over a three-month period the numbers detained are likely to be about 7,500.

A wing at Brook House, pictured when the centre opened in 2009. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA Archive

The highest number of detainees on hunger strike was 66, at Brook House near Gatwick airport. The detention centre also had the highest number of people on suicide watch – 106.

Theresa Schleicher, the acting director of the charity Medical Justice, which works to improve the health of people in immigration detention, said: “Medical Justice is concerned about the high numbers of detainees refusing food and/or fluids revealed in response to this FoI request. It illustrates the degree of desperation, frustration and sense of helplessness.

“We are frequently contacted by detainees who are refusing food and/or fluids. Their reasons vary and sometimes overlap: some have mental or physical health problems that mean they do not or cannot eat.”

She added: “Some express a wish to die by not eating. Some feel their case has not been properly considered and hunger striking is the only way to make their voice heard. Some are protesting against their detention. Several of the hunger strikers we have seen have later been found to have been unlawfully detained and were found to have valid protection claims.”

The Home Office finally agreed to release the data after an appeal against non-disclosure was made to the information commissioner. The commissioner found that the Home Office had breached the Freedom of Information Act by failing to complete its public interest test considerations within a reasonable time period.

In its response when providing the information on hunger strikes, the Home Office said: “Competent individuals (ie those that have been assessed as having mental capacity) are considered to be engaged in a food and/or fluid refusal when they fail to partake in scheduled meals for a period of 48 hours (for food) or 24 hours (for fluids), and have not been confirmed as eating food and/or taking fluid from another source (ie items purchased from an IRC shop) and have stated that their reasons for not eating or drinking is as a result of a protest or other grievance.”

In its response to the separate FoI about suicide attempts, it said: “All incidents of self-harm are treated very seriously and every step is taken to prevent incidents of this nature.

“Staff at all centres are trained to identify those at risk of self-harm so that action can be taken to minimise the risk. Notices in various languages are displayed in immigration removal centres setting out that where there is a concern about a fellow detainee this should be brought to the attention of a member of staff.”

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