Editor’s notes: Names marked with an asterisk* have been changed to protect identities. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, these organizations may be able to help.
London, United Kingdom – Refugees being detained in Britain who are scheduled to be deported to Rwanda have told Al Jazeera that they are on hunger strike as they struggle with severe mental health conditions, with one saying he has suicidal thoughts.
The United Kingdom announced a controversial plan to offshore asylum seekers to the African nation in April. The first deportation flight is set to take off on June 14.
Ahmed*, from Syria, said he fled the war-torn country after refusing to join the army and arrived in the UK without documents. He is due to be deported on the first flight.
“I escaped and came to the UK through the Balkan countries,” the 20-year-old, detained at the Colnbrook Immigration Removal Center near London Heathrow Airport, told Al Jazeera by phone.
“Unfortunately, on May 20, the Home Office notified me of the decision and gave me a ticket to Rwanda.”
He said he is on hunger strike to protest against the move and does not understand why he is being sent to Rwanda, given the language and cultural differences.
“I don’t see any reason why I should go to a country in Africa where I don’t have relatives and family. I don’t know the people there. I will refuse to go, but if the UK government insists on my deportation to Kigali and forces me to the plane, I will take my own life.”
Ferhad*, a 23-year-old Kurdish detainee from Iran at the same centre, said the prospect of deportation is especially bleak when compared with the European welcome for Ukrainian refugees.
Now, when he hears a plane flying above the center, he feels nervous. He is also on hunger strike and scheduled for the June 14 flight.
“When the war in Ukraine started, all Ukrainians were welcomed and given better treatment,” he said. “Since we are all refugees, I didn’t understand why I would be relocated to Rwanda when Ukrainians are welcomed, given a better life, shelter and everything they need.
“Regardless of our origin, we are all human beings. Kill me here or let Iran kill me, instead of taking me to Rwanda.”
Al Jazeera spoke to 15 detainees at Colnbrook, where more than 60 people are scheduled for deportation to Rwanda. More are understood to be held in other detention centers near London.
Al Jazeera contacted the Home Office to ask how many people overall are scheduled to be deported, but a spokesperson at the department refused to comment.
Asylum seekers from Africa were also among the group of detainees this reporter spoke to.
Asim*, a 25-year-old from Sudan who arrived in Britain in early May via France by boat, said he risked his life traveling through Libya and over the Mediterranean Sea to reach the UK. But days later, on May 17, “I was given the decision to send me to Rwanda,” he said by phone from Colnbrook.
“I fled Darfur due to conflict. Kidnapping and taking me to Rwanda is against my basic human rights and to protest that, I am on hunger strike.”
British Home Secretary Priti Patel, who signed the multimillion-dollar deal to relocate refugees to Kigali with Rwanda, has touted the arrangement as an efficient way to process the growing number of irregular migrants.
She also claims it will prevent trafficking and reduce deaths in the English Channel, the stretch of water between France and southern England where some have died while trying to reach Britain in unsafe boats.
While most of the immigrants being removed have spent thousands of dollars on their journeys, the introduction of the UK Nationality and Borders Act in April allows the government to transfer irregular migrants to a third “safe” country.
About 20 of the 60 detained at Colnbrook are understood to be from the Middle East.
Rights groups and opposition politicians have said the deportation move is unethical.
Home Office documents received by some refugees, seen by Al Jazeera and dated June 1, say that the individuals cannot appeal the decision to send them to Rwanda on June 14.
As they described a distressing atmosphere, the detainees also spoke of questionable conditions.
They claimed that guards at the center seized their smartphones on arrival and provided them instead with mobile phones without internet access. One Muslim detainee said he did not feel assured that the food being served at the center was halal.
“We are hearing tragic stories about the severe impact on mental health, with reports of self-harm,” Enver Solomon, head of the UK-based Refugee Council, said of the information his organization has received from detainees. “We are concerned the government is not seeing the face behind the case and it should be doing far more to exercise its duty of care towards vulnerable people.”
A Home Office spokesperson responded to these claims, saying residents have been able to contact their legal representatives by telephone, email and video call – and receive 30 minutes of free advice through a legal aid scheme.
The spokesperson also said residents are provided with three good quality meals each day meeting religious, dietary, cultural and medical needs.