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How a Moroccan immigrant died in a British detention centre

Negligence and indifference to the plight of immigrants culminated in a lonely death for one Moroccan man

Amir Siman-Tov died at some time in the early hours of Wednesday 17 February at Colnbrook immigration detention centre in London. His death at the centre should not have been possible. He was on constant watch, the system imposed when a prisoner or detainee is likely to try and commit suicide. Constant watch means exactly what it says: Inmates are put in a cell with bars on the fourth wall so a guard can watch them at all times. They are accompanied to the toilet and the exercise yard and to use the internet. The guards rotate shift every hour.

"There's clearly something not right," a detention centre guard from another facility, speaking on condition of anonymity, whispers down the phone to me as news spreads of the death. "Something's not right. This doesn't happen. The look of shock on guards' faces when they said he was on Constant can't be measured."

Rumours and truth

What happened to Amir Siman-Tov? Answers are always difficult after a death in Britain's immigration detention centres. The Home Office don't comment, the police don't comment, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman doesn't comment. The only eye-witnesses are fellow detainees, but they can be unreliable. Many have mental health problems – often brought on by the indefinite detention they have endured, if nothing else. Many don't speak English or speak it very badly. Many are so desperate for someone to finally listen to them that they will make up stories. Rumours fly around detention centres constantly. So you can't even really be sure of the story when you double-source it with detainees. They may just have heard the same rumour.

The best way of ascertaining what happened is to double source what you hear from detainees with someone on the other side: a guard, someone in management, someone in the company running the centre, a member of the investigation team, a civil servant. That's hard, but it's getting easier. More and more people involved in the running of detention centres are sick of what they're seeing and willing to risk their careers to talk to the press.

This is what we can piece together. The 41-year old Moroccan Jew, who left behind a pregnant wife, arrived in Colnbrook detention centre three weeks before his death. "They put him in Health Care straight away," a detainee who lived in the room opposite him told Little Atoms. He had been in Health Care himself for months and says he has been in detention, on and off, for five years. We'll call him Detainee A.

Most people with severe physical difficulties are spared detention, so Health Care units are usually full of people with mental health problems. They are incredibly grim places. "They put an officer watching him 24 hours a day," Detainee A says. "When he sits, they watch him. When he goes to fresh air, the officer takes him for 15 minutes and then take him back. Mr Amir, he was sick. That guy was stressed."

The quality of care in the centres is very poor. Detainees complain that they rarely have contact with a doctor after their arrival. "After two days he never talks to you no more," Detainee A goes on. "Only if you say: 'Doctor, please I need to talk'. I tried that once. He said: 'I've done everything for you, I can't do anything else'."

"He was a gentle man. He was tiny"

In the first week Siman-Tov was at Colnbrook, he and Detainee A started having breakfast together in the mornings. But after a few days, Siman-Tov appears to have gone into a serious decline. Detainee A is convinced it is because of the medication they put him on. "He started acting strangely," he says. "He slept more than 18 hours every day. He was a gentle man. He was tiny. I see how he changes. His face after one week and a half was completely changed."

A guard at another detention centre – we'll call him Guard A – says he's seen that type of sudden change in a detainee before. "Yeah, I've seen that. We've had some lads completely monged out. They've almost had a lobotomy with some of the medication they've taken."

Detainee A said he repeatedly told authorities that Siman-Tov looked unwell and that the medication was clearly to blame. He says he was ignored by staff and nurses alike.

Fast forward to the day before his death. A source says Siman-Tov told officers he had taken an overdose. He was taken to hospital, treated, and then released, even though he was still vomiting.

Detainee A described his state as he returned to Health Care:

"I hear someone come up the stairs. Amir was vomiting on the stairs all the way. He cannot hold himself up. No-one is helping him."

After this point, there is no eyewitness. Detainee A is locked in his cell and Siman-Tov in his. But Detainee A says he can hear a commotion outside. He makes several accusations with a detailed timeline – about cries for help, about guard indifference, about nurse incompetence – which I can't substantiate and which are not corroborated by other sources. The timeline does not match the timeline mentioned elsewhere.

Damning moment

CCTV footage will reveal whether any of it is accurate. Toxicology reports will address the drugs angle, which remains the most likely cause of death. If Detainee A's allegations about the effect of the medication are correct – and if authorities did indeed ignore attempts to warn them of the change in Siman-Tov – it will be a damning moment for the British immigration system. A man who would have been alive today will be dead because of the bureaucratic incompetence of the detention estate.

It's possible the death was not related to a change in the medication, but instead was a result of Siman-Tov taking an overdose and being wrongly released from the hospital. If so, it remains a damning moment for the detention system. How could he have taken an overdose when he was supposed to be on constant watch? Why did a hospital release him when he was still vomiting from the thing which would eventually kill him? How are we tolerating a detention system which so clearly damages people?

"You do get the impression that we're not learning from this, that we're not learning from the incidents that we're having," Guard A says. "Jesus Christ we need to learn. We need to improve. We give it lip service for a couple of weeks and then the bad habits slip back in." There's a long silence. Then he says: "When I joined here I thought I'd be helping. I thought I could make a difference. I didn't know that all decisions are in the Home Office's hands. All I can do is show the lads where the forms are and how to use the fax machine. It’s not like when I was a prison officer. Back then you were dealing with rehabilitation. These people don't need to be rehabilitated. They haven't done anything wrong."

Last month the Shaw Review into immigration detention found it "incontrovertibly" damaged detainee welfare. It demanded urgent reform – fewer detainees, less time spent inside, protections for people with mental health conditions and victims of rape and torture. Ministers have had the report for months but no reforms have been presented or implemented. While they failed to act, Siman-Tov died. He is another casualty of the British government's refusal to deal with immigration detention centres.

Ian Dunt is editor of, political editor of the Erotic Review and a commentator on various TV channels, radio stations and newspapers