“I woke up around 6am and saw Uncle lying on the floor. It was extremely hot in the room and there was no window. I said to him ‘Uncle, Uncle get back into bed’ but he didn’t respond to me. Then I pressed the emergency button. I went back to Uncle and tried to wake him up. An officer looked through the small window in the door without opening the door and asked what had happened.

“Officer, it’s an emergency.” I said. I tried to wake him up again and he did wake up but he wasn’t able to sit up. Then I gave him some water and said: ‘Uncle, don’t worry.” Ten minutes later a nurse came into the room. Uncle was still not able to sit up properly.

“The nurse asked him if he was OK. He said: ‘No, I’m not good.’ Uncle told the nurse that he had chest pain. The nurse said, “OK, doesn’t worry.”

This is part of a testimony from Abdul, a 19 year old Afghani man. For Abdul, and ‘Uncle’, a term of respect for the older man from Pakistan, Mohammed Shukat, there was a great reason to worry. Despite repeatedly calling for help and asking to see a doctor,  help did not come and two hours later Mohammed died in front of Abdul in a cell in Colnbrook detention centre.

Just a few weeks later, there was another phone call to our office about another piece of paper pushed under doors in Colnbrook announcing that someone else had died. Almost no information about this death has come to light and there are only rumours that he was American and had died of a heart attack in the short term holding cells. This was swiftly followed up by the suicide of a man in Campsfield who was due to be removed that same day. It is pointless to lay the blame at an individual nurse or officer for these deaths and instead we have to dig deeper and look at the policies that detain people in the first place.

There are currently hundreds of people from all over the world from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe held in the prison like conditions of immigration detention centres that are dotted across the UK. Torture and rape survivors, people with highly complex mental health diagnoses, people with HIV and serious medical needs are all detained for weeks, months and years. Sometimes they are held in detention for the full duration of their asylum claim, i.e. they lose their right to freedom for the ‘crime’ of claiming asylum, and they struggle to access legal advice and representation. Sometimes they are held for years, and the UK is one of the few countries in the world where there is no time limit set on the length of detention.

In light of the potential for an endless stretch in a highly stressful and frightening environment full of distressed, ill people who are frightened for their lives, it is perhaps surprising that this recipe for disaster does not turn into a lethal cocktail more often. The current use of detention wastes lives and money because the system is fundamentally flawed. And these devastating deaths confront us yet again with the evermore urgent need for a governmental rethink into the use of detention in the UK.