Home Office was told Rwanda policy was making asylum seekers feel suicidal

<img src="https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/QSzqtFP16Phv2bJauIOyuA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3NjtjZj13ZWJw/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/66f7606c64544ceca5c937db47349766&quot; alt="<span>Photograph: Tom Pilgrim/PA
Photograph: Tom Pilgrim/PA

The Home Office was warned that its Rwanda policy was causing a rise in the number of asylum seekers reporting feeling suicidal and vanishing from hotel accommodation, an internal safeguarding document has revealed.

The Labour peer Helena Kennedy KC has called the Home Office “heartless” for pursuing the policy despite officials knowing how much damage it was causing to people.

The minutes of an internal Home Office safeguarding board on 27 April 2022, two weeks after the former home secretary, Priti Patel, announced the Rwanda deal, show Home Office officials asking accommodation contractors – including those from Serco and Clearsprings – how asylum seekers were reacting to news about the deal.

The contractors responded that they had seen an increase in asylum seekers threatening to harm themselves and that some had left hotel accommodation.

The minutes, obtained by the Scottish Refugee Council in a freedom of information response, show one contractor saying: “It has certainly raised tensions within the service user population. There has been a steady trend of service users who are saying they could potentially harm themselves if they were facing the prospect of Rwanda. This was from all demographics of the group.”

Another added: “We have seen in the last week or so a definite increase in those that are leaving hotels saying they are going to live with family or just going absent from hotels.”

Doctors, lawyers and human rights campaigners have said repeatedly that the threat of being sent to Rwanda was seriously damaging the health of asylum seekers.

Emma Ginn, the director of the charity Medical Justice, said: “This freedom of information disclosure shows that the Home Office’s own contractors back up our medical evidence warning that there is an increased level of self-harm and suicide risk following the Rwanda policy announcements, yet the Home Office seems to be carrying on regardless. It is heartless and most disturbing, and makes one wonder if the Home Office has any limits as to what it is prepared to subject human beings to.”

According to a 21-year-old Syrian asylum seeker who spoke to the Guardian, the main topic of conversation in his hotel was how people would commit suicide if the Home Office forced them to board a flight to Rwanda.

He said: “I have seen many asylum seekers leave the hotels because of the Rwanda threat. In the hotel we talked a lot about doing suicide here in UK to avoid Rwanda. I am in constant fear of both the present and the future. I do not know what my fate will be and this instability haunts me and haunts every asylum seeker in the UK.”

A report in September from Medical Justice found that the threat of being sent to Rwanda increased the risk of suicide among some asylum seekers. Of 36 asylum seekers surveyed by independent clinicians, 26 showed evidence of having been tortured before they arrived in the UK, 15 showed evidence of PTSD, 11 had suicidal thoughts and one had attempted suicide twice.

Lady Kennedy said: “This freedom of information disclosure reveals the truth. It shows that the Home Office knows perfectly well that people already in the asylum system are living in fear of being exported to Rwanda and their mental heath is suffering greatly as a result.

“These are people whose persecution and past experience makes them very vulnerable. Rwanda has virtually no mental health provision. The politicians who advocate this policy are heartless and unworthy of their positions.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Rwanda is fundamentally a safe and secure country. No one will be relocated if it is inappropriate or unsafe for them, and we take the wellbeing and safety of those in our care incredibly seriously. There are robust safeguarding measures in place to ensure everyone within our care, including vulnerable people, are treated with dignity and have access to the support they need – this includes mental health support.”

  • In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org.

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