State violence and distress: the false separation between migrant justice and mental health

text on a colourful background. Text reads: State violence and distress: the false separation between migrant justice and mental health

We are four hundred people

Four hundred lost souls in a tightly confined space

Four hundred prisoners 

Anticipating the nights

…so we can leave

…and enter our nightmares.

-Behrouz Boochani, “No friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison”

It is possible for prison walls 

To disappear,

For the cell to become a distant land

Without frontiers

-Mahmoud Darwish, “The Prison Cell”

The immigration system is violent by design and attacks the minds, bodies, spirits of migrants, particularly those forcibly displaced and seeking safety. When I was a child refugee carrying the heavy weight of loss, violent border policies robbed me of my identity, stripped me of my dignity, and disconnected me from my wholeness – my birthright to life ended up becoming a daily struggle for survival. It’s been almost 20 years since my first memories of this land in temporary detention/hotel/camp-style asylum accommodations. It’s been 13 years since I became a ‘naturalised British citizen’. I could give explicit accounts of displacement and my experience of the asylum system as a child and highlight its links to my mental ‘illness’, except Grace Lee’s question of ‘what time is it on the clock of the world?’ always echoes in my ears.

Contextualising realities

It’s been over a decade since Theresa May declared “the aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants”, and followed through with punitive anti-migration policies and practices to control the illusion of a ‘migrant crisis’ by actively causing harm to migrant communities, particularly those undocumented or with precarious immigration status. From right to rent and work checks, to denying access to healthcare based on status, to healthcare professionals acting as border security, to border controls in classrooms, to unethical data sharing practices, to inhumane detention-style accommodations whether in hotels, camps or military barracks, to No Recourse to Public Funds, to racial surveillance and monitoring of migrants with GPS tags, to the loss of so many lives in/outside of detention – the hostile environment is rooted in criminalisation, securitisation, surveillance, and ultimately the dehumanisation of migrant lives. 

The Nationality and Borders Act passed into law in April 2022 giving the Home Secretary new powers to decide how to further criminalise those seeking safety, including prison penalties for crossing the English Channel by boat, an increase in detention and deportations, new standards for what counts as legitimate evidence in asylum applications, and the introduction of an offshore ‘processing’ centre in Rwanda. As much as the UK has taken inspiration from Australia’s offshore immigration detention centre in Manus Island – Papa New Guinea to formulate and implement its fascist plans for immigration detention centres in Rwanda, racist nationalist borders are not unique to British borders. It’s only a matter of time before other Western countries use our border rule policies as a case study to strategise and implement their own racist plans.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency’s latest global trends report, at the end of 2021, over 89 million people were forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations and climate change. It doesn’t come as a surprise that the United Nations – an institution known for its bureaucratic violence, undemocratic politics and practice, and a commitment to centering Western powers strategically erases the fact that we are in a displacement crisis created by Western powers. As Harsha Walia argues what is “most troubling about liberal welcome culture is the erasure of European complicity in creating displacement through colonial conquest, land theft, slavery, capitalist extraction, labour exploitation, and war profiteering”. Borders, prisons, walls and cages are sites of power and control – what are the historical and ongoing realities of white supremacy, racism, imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism that shapes understandings of migration, ‘immigrants’ and ‘illegal immigrants’? The complicity of the West in the displacement of people who then become asylum seekers, refugees, migrants and experience institutional racism and violence is clear. No one is illegal. 

People seeking or refused asylum in the UK not only face social exclusion but are systemically denied their rights, including their rights to health care at policy level which then trickles down to implementation and practice which has no regard for their dignity – a denial of life. 

There is an increase in suicides linked to the bureaucratic distress of the asylum process, the torture of indefinite detention, and the violence of precarity and waiting. One-third of detainees are constantly being monitored because of self-harm and the high risk of suicide.  During the height of the pandemic, inhumane 23 hours curfews in detention style hotel accommodations led to the tragedy in Glasgow where 6 people were stabbed by a resident whose cries for help were structurally ignored and denied prior to the incident. He was eventually shot dead by the police. 

As Ruth Wilson Gilmore says: “racism, specifically, is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” and in the UK, we can see how systemic racist immigration violence leads to premature deaths of displaced people that are not reported or investigated. How is it possible for those on the receiving end of such brutal state violence to live their right to life with good health, dignity, autonomy, safety and joy? 

Perpetuating injustice through artificial policy silos 

Migration policies do not account for the mental health of migrant communities, and mental health policies do not account for the specific needs of migrant communities. Mainstream narratives around health tend to focus on the primary determinants of health as produced by social, economic, and environmental factors. In such discourse, wellness is often decontextualised and disconnected from wider systems; systemic oppression and state violence are not seen as active producers of mental and physical ill-health and distress, and there is no acknowledgment of how health care has become complicit in the violence of borders. 

In the mental health sector, mainstream narratives in policy and in services tend to place the sole focus on migrant experiences prior to arriving in the UK and remain silent on state violence, deliberate exclusion, and the torture of precarious status causing significant mental and physical harm and trauma to people who are already vulnerable and left without care.

Mental health strategies and policies laid out by civil society do not take into account the unique contexts and needs of undocumented migrants, asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants, never mind shifting power and resources to their communities or centring their voices as part of decision-making processes or design of services. NHS England’s £1.4 billion investment in mental health services includes no specific funding allocations or guidelines to support the mental health of asylum seekers, refugees and other vulnerable migrants with undocumented migrants actively excluded from formal health care settings through the hostile environment. Yet, migrants are continuously used as scapegoats in the austerity programme where false narratives of scarcity are supported through a false migration crisis that aims to put ‘citizens’ and ‘illegal migrants’ fighting against each other for state resources.  

While racism is at the heart of anti-migration narratives, mental health campaigns aiming to highlight the links between racism and health tend to forget about people who have experienced the violent racism of the asylum system. This separation between migrant justice, racial justice, and mental health issues is a pattern repeated and held by the refugee/migration sector itself, and we see similar patterns across the charity and funding sectors as a whole. White leaderships ignore or perpetuate internal/external structural racism and oppression, uphold the status quo, create siloed and depoliticised strategies, continue harmful practices based on outdated models and analysis, pay no attention to care and well-being, and fundamentally perform false charity instead of a redistribution of power and resources and practice of genuine solidarity and accountability. 

Building alliances for care and justice towards a future that sustains us all

We might get closer to migrant justice if instead of corroborating a system that creates false narratives about who is a legal or illegal ‘immigrant’ or grants a ‘refugee’ status to those it deems worthy, we abolish borders and reimagine the rights of migrants as part of a system of reparations. We might get closer to good mental health and care for all if we fight to dismantle all systems, structures and walls that keep people in survival and away from self-determination to life. Funders and policymakers have the resources and responsibility to break away from false charity, shift power and commit to remembering, repairing, and reimagining. We need to centre those who have been forcibly placed on the margins of society by the current systems, those who have survived and resisted these structures against all odds, those working to abolish them, reimagine new possibilities, and learn what it takes to embody liberation. 

Even if momentary, even if the fight is ongoing, we can see how the unimaginable can become real with more of us organising and mobilising. The multilayered and interconnected coalition organising that went into stopping the Rwanda flight, the Peckham community that stopped immigration and police officers from forcibly removing a man from his home and the wider anti-raids movement that’s taking place, the RMT union for organising the largest workers strike in 30 years – I am reminded of James Baldwin‘s words: “Those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by others doing it”. We need people power and connections across struggles, we need each other more than ever, and we need all of us to be holding ourselves and each other to account for doing our part. 

As Audre Lorde asks us: “I am myself – a Black woman warrior poet doing my work – come to ask you, are you doing yours?” 


Anti Raids Network
SOAS Detainee Support
Movement for Justice
These Walls Must Fall
Stop Deportations
FIRM Charter
Migrants Organise
Refugees for Justice
Abolitionist Futures
Books Against Borders