Death In Detention: Suicide Reveals Mental Health Strain of Deportation Wait

Osama Jebari died alone in his room, after telling fellow Joutseno detainees he planned to kill himself.

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Composite picture showing Osama Jebari and interior of Joutseno Detention Centre / Credit: News Now Finland

The last time anyone saw Osama Jebari alive was a Saturday night at the end of January.

The following morning Finns would go to the polls to elect their president. But at Joutseno Detention Centre near Lappeenranta it was just another mundane day of waiting, for the dozens of detainees at the penultimate stop of their deportation journey.

When Jebari didn’t go to breakfast, nobody thought it was strange. Like many of the men at Joutseno, the young Moroccan didn’t keep a regular sleep schedule.

And when he didn’t show up for lunch, this also didn’t raise any alarms. Jebari frequently skipped the midday meal.

It was only after dinner, around 18:00 on Sunday 28th January, that his friends became concerned. When they went to his room, they found Jebari hanging from a ventilation pipe on the ceiling. An electrical extension cord was wrapped around his neck. He had likely been dead since the night before.

Mental Health Issues In Detention Centres

Human rights campaigners and mental health professionals say Osama Jebari’s death highlights the issues faced by people in Finnish detention centres, whose uncertain situation exacerbates anxieties, depression and suicidal thoughts.

“When we complain to [Finnish Immigration Service] Migri or the detention centre that [detainees] don’t get the proper health care and mental health care, they say everything is okay, the system works, and they won’t comment on individual cases” says Outi Popp, Spokeswoman for the Stop Deportations advocacy group.

“Mental disorders and distress are much more common among people in detention centres than among asylum seekers in the community. The longer the detention, the more mental health problems” explains Kristian Wahlbeck, a psychiatrist who works with the Finnish Association for Mental Health MIELI.

The most common mental disorder is depression, which can be seen in about half of the detainees. Many, especially failed asylum seekers, have post-traumatic stress disorders due to traumas suffered in their home country or during the journey to Finland.

Anxiety disorders are not uncommon, and suicidal tendencies connected with mental health issues seen in detention centres are all-too-frequent, according to Wahlbeck.

Officials Respond

When Osama Jebari arrived in Joutseno in the middle of December, there were some clues that things weren’t going well for him.

Although he had a permit to stay in Finland, he’d been convicted of several crimes, and now faced deportation back to Morocco.

A few days after arriving, another detainee told Joutseno staff that Jebari had talked about self-harming.

“We reacted immediately. Within minutes” says detention centre Director Antti Jäppinen.

“His situation was checked by an Arabic-speaking staff member and simultaneously our nurse” he says.

The second clue that something was amiss with Jebari came a few days before his suicide, when he told staff in the middle of the night that he was having trouble sleeping.

“Our staff discussed with him, and we were assured the rest of the night would go smoothly. The anxiety was brief, and then it was relieved. And that was the last time we had any clues or hints of his possible suicidal tendencies” Jäppinen says.

A few days later Osama Jebari was dead.

Detainees Tell Similar Mental Health Stories

“For two months he was telling everybody that he wanted to kill himself. But they didn’t put to hospital, no doctor, nobody talked to him, left alone. They make him to kill himself!” says Kahie Abdi Khalif by phone from Joutseno Detention Centre.

Kahie was a friend of Jebari, and says the Moroccan told other detainees he planned to kill himself. He reportedly said he would rather die in Finland, than be sent back home.

“I feel for this guy, he was mentally sick. He should go to a psychiatric doctor, but they make him to kill himself” he states again.

Originally from Somalia, Kahie Abdi Khalif has his own deportation worries. After six trips to prison for what he says were small-time crimes like drugs possession, public intoxication, fighting and assault, Kahie is being sent back to a country he doesn’t know.

He arrived in Finland age nine with his whole family, and now has two children of his own after marrying a Finnish woman. He’s been living in Finland for more than 25 years and says this is all he knows.

“I don’t speak the language, I don’t know the culture. When I go there they say I am a kafir, a non-believer. They will kill me. My children cry every day. My whole family is here and I am a Finnish citizen”.

The worries about being sent to Somalia at any moment, or whether a reason for last minute reprieve might be found, are taking a toll on his mental health.

And he’s not alone.

The Congolese Story

Salomo Mbondo is not a sympathetic character. He was released from Mikkeli prison last week after serving a sentence for aggravated rape of a 17-year-old girl in Lahti.

Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mbondo is HIV-positive, and now he’s living in the same room where Osama Jebari killed himself.

Back in 2016, Mbondo’s case became a minor cause celebre for everything that Finnish right-wing groups say is wrong with multiculturalism; and extremist websites MV-Lehti and Nordic Resistance Movement have both written about his conviction. “Gorilla has a gorilla nature. Gorillas live in Africa not in Finland” reads one post on a right wing bulletin board.

“I never closed my eyes in this room, I am living under depression” says Mbondo on the phone a few days after arriving in Joutseno.

He says the thought of the persecution he could face in DR Congo is causing that depression.

It seems likely that Mbondo will be sent back to DR Congo, a place he hasn’t lived since the late 1990s, when he fled to Tanzania after speaking out against the regime.

“I talked a lot about the change in my government, and about the peace process. My government always target people like me, people who speak out loud. If you see what [President] Kabila is doing now, he refuses to step down and he doesn’t want people to speak out” explains Mbondo.

He worries that when he’s deported, government security agents will kidnap and interrogate him to find out what he might have told authorities in Europe.

“This is what is making my life in fear”.

The Tunisian Story

It’s clear to anyone who hears his story that Faouzi Mersni faces mental health challenges.

The 51-year-old has been living and working in Finland for 18 years, and has two children with a Finnish ex-wife. But after custody battles; a restraining order against him; and a short spell in Suomenlinna prison, Mersni reached breaking point over access to his children.

In November 2017 he lead police on a chase in the countryside around Lohja. Officers used cars and a helicopter in the search, and when they found him he was slumped by his car, doused in petrol, and threatening to set himself on fire.

He’s been in Joutseno for only a few days, transferred after almost three months at  Metsälä Detention Centre in Helsinki.

“The judge asked me, why you try to kill yourself with benzine? It’s because nobody helped me” Mersni says during a phone conversation, describing his extreme frustration with his legal troubles.

“I was seeing a psychologist, they gave me some medicine. The doctor in Helsinki knows my case very good, but I have to start a new doctor now here in this place [Joutseno]” he says.

Centre Makes Help Available

The criticism of life in Joutseno and a perceived lack of access to mental health help are not something Director Antti Jäppinen is hearing for the first time.

He knows the detainees are lashing out more at the circumstances they find themselves in, rather than any failings at the detention centre.

The detainees – or ‘clients’ as Jäppinen calls them – have access to a nurse everyday who has a background in mental health. There’s also a general practitioner available with a specialty in psychiatry who visits twice per week. Referrals from the nurse are made within a few days.

“If we get the slightest hint that our detainees might have suicidal tendencies of course we react on those clues or hints. That’s for granted. Of course we do that” says Jäppinen, who adds that his staff were devastated by Osama Jebari’s death.

Local journalists say Jäppinen was visibly distraught when they tried to interview him the day after the suicide.

But Jäppinen concedes there is always more that could be done with regards to providing psychiatric help in detention centres. He recounts a working visit to a facility in the Netherlands where there were five or six nurses on 24-hour call, for 150 clients.

At Joutseno they have one nurse during the day for nearly 70 detainees.

“We don’t have the means, we don’t have the resources to provide 24/7 psychiatric care. And that’s something if we were provided the funds to do that, I would be more than happy to provide. It would create the opportunity to reach out to the detainees more. It’s now a bit reactive” says Jäppinen.

Since Osama Jebari’s death there hasn’t been any major change in the way the detention centre staff operates. More room checks are seen as invasive and counter productive. But they have tightened up procedures for detainees who are prescribed psychiatric medication.

“If every detainee had one appointment per week with the nurse, it would be a better service for them. it would provide us a bit better picture of the whole situation there and be more outreaching towards our clients and be more proactive”.