By Zita Holbourne 

Artwork by Zita Holbourne

For over a decade now I have been working with and supporting individuals and their families, impacted by detention and deportations. I have seen first hand the impacts on their wellbeing and mental health. 

Most if not all, will have already experienced or be experiencing post-traumatic stress. Those who came to the UK as refugees, will have fled climate change, conflict, persecution or extreme poverty and very often a combination of more than one of these. They have been separated suddenly and sometimes brutally from loved ones and embarked on incredibly perilous journeys over rough terrains and dangerous seas to get to the UK and on the way experienced life threatening situations, hostilities and discrimination. Getting to the UK, they are hopeful that they have now reached a safe place to rebuild their lives again, to be reunited with loved ones. They would hope to recover from the trauma they have encountered, only to face being criminalised, categorised and institutionalised, facing prison like conditions in detention centres with the prospect of being deported any day, hanging over them. Some are told they will be deported to the country they were born in; others may be deported to the country they entered via and with the Rwanda deal, others facing deportation to a country they have no connection with at all and an unknown and uncertain future. Even for those not placed into detention but having to report to the Home Office weekly or fortnightly, there is the possibility hanging over them, each time they go to sign on, of not returning.  

When the Windrush Scandal became more widely exposed, we became aware of parents and grandparents taken with no notice, children they were caring for on the day they signed on, torn from them and family members waiting outside for hours. People would contact me and say I am going to sign on today if you do not hear from me after a few hours please ring the alarm. They would talk of their fear building up to the next day they had to sign on. Others had houses raided, or immigration officers knocking on family members doors. So, the knock-on impact on mental health, extends to families, partners and friends.  Partners left behind may have lost the main earner or the main carer in their family unit and unable to do both work and caregiving as a single parent or without the support of a grandparent, they find themselves destitute, unable to feed their families or pay bills. Children suddenly separated from a parent or key adult in their lives, wet the beds, develop behavioural problems, fail exams.  The parent left behind experiencing panic attacks, anxiety, stress and depression. The mental health impacts extend to whole communities and the racist natures of immigration policies mean that these are people that very often are already having to navigate racism and xenophobia in all aspects of life already. 

The mental health impacts extend to whole communities and the racist natures of immigration policies mean that these are people that very often are already having to navigate racism and xenophobia in all aspects of life already. 

I have had people contact me who are suicidal, and we know that some have taken their lives once deported sadly. Screaming headlines branding those deported, untruthfully, as the worse of the worse of all types of criminals means that they are stigmatised, ostracised and / or harassed once deported and for many who fled persecution, their lives are in danger. They struggle to get support, to get jobs or safe housing and these issues, combined with the trauma of separation from loved ones and little or no hope of ever being reunited has a profound impact on mental health. 

Those people impacted by the hostile environment and racist immigration policies are also denied access to the NHS and this means they cannot even get professional medial help for mental health conditions and  are denied access to medication or therapies for example. One former commonwealth soldier who I supported, was released from the army because of post traumatic stress caused by active service and denied access to medical help for this, released back into society and then threatened with deportation which led to his mental health deteriorating further and lifelong impacts of the untreated conditions he had. 

Artwork by Zita Holbourne

UK medical professionals and organisations have spoken out publicly about the mental health impacts of the Rwanda deal, stating it must be halted because of the irreparable harm it will cause to those removed. An open letter,  coordinated by the Royal College of Nursing, in March 2024,  states that such removals are unconscionable on medical and human rights grounds, they point to the impacts of similar policies in other countries which have led to higher rates of self-harm, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. They talked about the threat of deportation to Rwanda triggering fear, uncertainty, confusion, exacerbation of existing mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress and depression. 

The right to not live in fear is enshrined in human rights legislation.

The right to not live in fear is enshrined in human rights legislation. Article 3 of the Human Rights Act on prohibition of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, protects against serious harm including mental abuse and lack of care or medication, leading to extreme or long periods of pain or suffering. It sets out that treatment is inhuman or degrading if it makes you frightened or worried and worthless or hopeless. But this right is ignored by government who have sought to dehumanise migrants to the UK for decades, from the Windrush Generation to those targeted for deportation to Rwanda, singled out because they had no choice but to take unsafe routes such as small boats, to get to the UK, because safe passage was denied. 

These impacts are not just lasting for the individuals and their families but impacts their communities and trauma can pass to future generations.