Sunak’s heartless proposal to force refugees to live on barges is a mental and physical health catastrophe waiting to happen

For survivors of torture, living on overcrowded barges like the Bibby Stockholm can have a devastating effect. In this blog, Ann Salter (Clinical Services Manager North West) makes a case for providing adequate accommodation for refugees.

Almost all of the hundreds of traumatised people I have treated have endured horrific journeys across water to reach safety, whether that’s the English Channel, the Aegean Sea or the Mediterranean Sea. These crossings are almost always traumatic – the vessels aren’t seaworthy, those on board typically can’t swim, or there aren’t enough lifejackets. People who’ve made these crossings may also have seen fellow travellers drown.

But now, Rishi Sunak’s heartless and unworkable proposal will see refugees, including survivors of torture, crammed onto floating detention centres on the sea. For many of these people, being on the water will inevitably lead to re-traumatisation.

I can state without a doubt that the use of barges as sites to house refugees who have fled war and torture is totally inappropriate. Conditions are bound to be cramped and overcrowded and may be reminiscent of the places of detention in which they were tortured, which can lead to re-triggering of the trauma. Every day we speak to survivors in our therapy rooms who describe the horror, isolation and hopelessness that they feel from being housed in these kinds of dangerous accommodations. I can’t stress enough how this is a mental and physical health catastrophe waiting to happen.

At Freedom from Torture, we help survivors who are experiencing the debilitating symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to develop coping strategies to help manage their symptoms. Survivors and refugees who have experience of flashbacks talk of how just being able to go outside is vital in supporting their mental health and recovery. We know that being part of a local community or being able to attend services at churches or mosques, go to English lessons, and access therapy services like ours, are essential. People can recover from their trauma and cope with their symptoms by having agency over their own lives, things like just being able to leave the house whenever they want. Something that we all take for granted every single day will not be freely available to the people housed on these barges.

We can see that the effects of living in cramped accommodation, distanced from communities and services... can have a devastating impact on people’s mental health.

We welcome that the Government has said that they will not be placing vulnerable people or survivors of torture onto this type of accommodation. But we know that their word alone is not enough. Time and again, torture survivors are not identified at screening and are placed in inappropriate sites and detention facilities. Lots of people may not feel able to talk about their mental health struggles or haven’t had the opportunity to disclose vital details about their stories. It feels completely inhumane to make anyone live in a place like this, let alone some of the most vulnerable people in our society, those who need our support and care. Even people without pre-existing mental health issues would struggle in an isolated barge out at sea. I am certain we will see an increase in anxiety and distress among refugees if people are forced to live in spaces like this.

The Home Office hasn’t got a good track record when it comes to providing adequate accommodation for refugees, asylum seekers and survivors of torture. I speak to clients all the time who have lived, or are currently living, in hotels provided by this Government. We can see that the effects of living in cramped accommodation, distanced from communities and services, in which people are unable to cook for themselves and their families, can have a devastating impact on people’s mental health.

It’s well-documented that all of this can lead to an increase in severe mental health issues, sadly including an increase in suicidal feelings and attempts. Tragically, we know that there are some people who have ended their own lives. This is a really serious issue, and we have ongoing concerns for the safety of people accommodated by the Home Office in any location.

Cruel and undignified accommodation won’t reduce the asylum backlog and we know it won’t deter refugees from seeking safety in the UK. Now, with the Illegal Migration Act in place, all it will do is condemn thousands of people to desperately unsafe conditions and a life in limbo for who knows how long.

Instead, it's vital that this Government makes sure that refugees are housed within communities with proper access to medical and social care, so they have the very best chance to rebuild their lives.

Article originally published in the Daily Mirror.

Banner image credit: Dan Kitwood via Getty Images