The High Court has ruled that the UK government has been unlawfully holding survivors of torture in immigration detention. The challenge was raised by Medical Justice with solicitors from Bhatt Murphy and Duncan Lewis, on behalf of seven people, and could open the way to hundreds more legal claims of unlawful detention. It all stems from a cynical change in policy last year.  According to the rules, and for reasons that should be obvious, survivors of torture are not meant to be held in detention. As part of a review into the detention of vulnerable people, the government changed the definition of torture. Put simply, the way the policy has operated is: it’s not what happened to you, it’s who inflicted it that matters.  If the abuser is working for Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime, then it’s torture. If they are working for ISIS, then it’s not. Same wounds, same trauma, same re-traumatising by being locked up in indefinite detention in UK, but only the person tortured by official state actors comes under the rules as in need of protection from the harm of detention. One of the people represented in the legal challenge described the impact of being detained, and said that although he had won the case he would not be able to erase the damaging effects of his time in detention:

“What happened to me in detention is in my life every day. I’m having nightmares about the trauma I experienced in that place and have been diagnosed with PTSD. I felt very bad because of the torture I experienced in Nigeria but doctors confirmed that my mental state deteriorated as a result of being detained here. In detention we are not regarded as human beings but as waste products.”

In 2015, following numerous reports of abuse and medical mistreatment in detention centres, and the publication of an All Party Parliamentary Group report, the government commissioned Steven Shaw, former Prison & Probation Ombudsman, to carry out a review of the welfare of vulnerable people in detention. Steven Shaw’s report found a catalogue of deep flaws in the identification and treatment of vulnerable migrants. In response to the Shaw review, the government introduced a new “adults at risk” policy. There was almost no discussion in parliament, and no formal consultation with stakeholders. Crucially, as Medical Justice point out, parliamentarians’ attention was not drawn to the intention to narrow the definition of torture when the policy was laid before parliament. Emma Ginn, coordinator of Medical Justice, said:

“Narrowing the definition of torture by the Home Office demonstrates its sheer contempt for vulnerable detainees whose lives it is responsible for. There is ample justification for immediately releasing all detained adults at risk so they can access the care and support they need in the community.”

As a result of this policy, many people have been suffered great harm, harm that was unlawful and preventable. This policy is one of the more extreme examples of abuse in the immigration detention system, a system that harms everybody in some way. We need more legal challenges like this, to protect people from harm, and we need to keep on challenging the whole rotten system. Read the statement from Medical Justice here and a report in the Guardian here