UK warned that Rwanda Bill could lead to suicide among asylum seekers

Campaigners have pointed to Australia's Pacific Island deportation scheme as a cautionary tale for Rishi Sunak.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves Dorland House in London after giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry during its second investigation (Module 2) exploring core UK decision-making and political governance. Picture date: Monday December 11, 2023. (Photo by Jordan Pettitt/PA Images via Getty Images)
Prime minister Rishi Sunak is fighting to get the Rwanda Bill through Parliament. (Getty Images)

Rishi Sunak's government has been warned its controversial Rwanda deportation scheme could lead to suicide and self-harm among asylum seekers if the bill is passed.

The legislation, which MPs are set to vote on tonight, proposes sending some asylum seekers to Rwanda, depending on how they reached the UK. It is designed as a deterrent to prevent small boat crossings across the English Channel, but many charities and NGOs have condemned the scheme and say it is wrong to criminalise people upon arrival.

They have also questioned the government's claim that Rwanda is a safe country for refugees, pointing to the east-central African country's record of torture and suppression of political activists. The risks, campaigners fear, could have a potentially fatal impact on the mental health of asylum seekers, and a similar scheme re-introduced by Australia in 2012 shows there is precedent for this.

On Monday, the executive director of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) UK, Dr Natalie Roberts, said: "We saw the devastating medical and humanitarian consequences of a similar ‘offshoring’ approach by Australia.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 08:  Protestors rally outside a venue as they wait for Australian Prime Minister Malcolm  Turnbull to arrive on April 8, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. Protesters from the Refugee Action Collective are demanding the closure of detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island as well as continuing their campaign for the 267 asylum seekers at risk of being sent offshore. The Liberal Party is hosting the dinner to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of the Howard Government's election.  (Photo by Luis Ascui/Getty Images)
Australian protesters rallying in Melbourne in 2016 against the treatment and conditions of asylum seekers deported to Nauru. (Getty Images)

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"Almost two thirds of our patients forcibly expelled to Nauru suffered from suicidal ideation and self-harm. There, our medical teams witnessed some of the worst mental health suffering in our organisation’s history."

Dr Roberts called on the UK government to reconsider its "inhumane approach" and to instead focus on "establishing safe routes to the UK and focus on creating a functioning, fair and efficient asylum system".

She added: "This draft legislation is just yet another attempt by the government to push through its abhorrent, expensive and unworkable Rwanda policy which contravenes the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention and other international obligations, as well as UK domestic law.

"Forcibly expelling people seeking safety, most of whom have already endured unimaginable horrors in their home country and on their migration journey, to Rwanda – or to anywhere – is cruel, harmful, and apparently designed to torment those who most need protection and compassion."

London, UK. 15th Nov, 2023. A protestor holds a placard outside the Supreme Court in London where the UK Government's Rwanda asylum policy was judged to be unlawful. Last April, the Court of Appeal ruled that Rwanda asylum policy was unlawful because the East African country was not a safe country. (Credit Image: © Tejas Sandhu/SOPA Images via ZUMA Press Wire) EDITORIAL USAGE ONLY! Not for Commercial USAGE!
A protestor holds a placard outside the Supreme Court in London where the UK Government's Rwanda asylum policy was judged to be unlawful. (Tejas Sandhu/SOPA Images via ZUMA Press Wire)

MSF's warning has been echoed by London-based humanitarian charity Freedom From Torture, which has also warned people could take their own lives as a result of the bill.

"We know from our clients – survivors of torture who’ve fled the most unimaginable horrors – the awful toll that the Rwanda policy has taken on them," it said.

The charity added that clinicians have reported some people being "so terrified of being shipped off thousands of miles away" that they'd contemplate suicide if they were sent a removal notice.

In fact, there is already a precedent for this from 2022, when then-home secretary Priti Patel said the first group of asylum seekers would be sent to Rwanda on 14 June that year.

The flight was halted in a last-minute intervention by the European Court of Human Rights, but prior to this, the Independent spoke to an Afghan asylum seeker who tried to take his own life after being threatened with removal to Rwanda.

Rwanda scheme will have a 'human cost'

In September last year, UK charity Medical Justice published a report examining the mental state of 36 asylum seekers being held in detention centres who faced being deported to Rwanda.

The report, titled "Who's Paying the Price? The Human Cost of the Rwanda Scheme", said: "11 people had suicidal thoughts in detention, including one who attempted suicide twice.

"Some were clinically considered to be at high risk of suicide if threatened with removal to Rwanda."

The report found that even though the first removal flight didn't deport, the health and wellbeing of those targeted had still been "severely impacted".

It points to an "accelerated and unclear process" faced by asylum seekers, riddled with "procedural deficiencies, a lack of legal advice and a lack of translated documents".

A report by Liberty Investigates said Home Office documents showed a number of suicide and self-harm instances on 14 June 2022, including one man smashing his head into a plane seat screaming "No, No."

A Home Office spokesperson told Yahoo News: “There are binding provisions in the Rwanda treaty which place obligations on the government of Rwanda to provide, for those relocated under the partnership, support and accommodation in line with international legal standards, including providing access to mental health and psychological support where needed.”

'Indefinite despair in Nauru': A cautionary tale for Rishi Sunak

Médecins Sans Frontières, also known as Doctors Without Borders, worked in the Micronesian island of Nauru from November 2017 to October 2018, providing free psychological and psychiatric treatment.

Its patients included asylum seekers who attempted to reach Australia by boat and were sent to remote Pacific islands for an indefinite period to have their asylum requests processed. MSF said many of the people it worked with in Nauru had been there for five years and were starting to lose hope.

Among the 208 refugees and asylum seekers the charity treated in Nauru, 124 patients (60%) had suicidal thoughts and 63 patients (30%) attempted suicide, it said in a report. Children as young as nine were found to have suicidal thoughts, committed acts of self-harm or attempted suicide.

In October 2018, MSF said it had been forced to end its work in Nauru and was given just 24-hours' notice to leave. The island's government accused it of "conspiring against us" in a bid to "advance political agendas".

MSF said the abrupt marching order meant it didn't have time to hand over vulnerable patients to other services. Whatever the political posturing, at least 14 people in Australia's offshore detention system have died since the scheme was revived in 2012.

Some took their lives, were murdered by guards or died due to medical neglect. This is perhaps why MSF is treating the suffering experienced in Nauru as a cautionary tale for Sunak.

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