Home Office ministers should be put on trial for allowing the abuse of refugees.
The Guardian – Comment Is Free – 19 November 2007
Britain’s asylum system is a regime that includes government-tolerated criminality. Illegal acts and the abuse of asylum applicants are allowed to happen and are not punished. Many of these violations of the rule of law are perpetrated by the private companies that are contracted by the Home Office to run asylum detention camps and the deportation of would-be refugees.
This outsourcing of asylum abuses echoes the US policy of extraordinary rendition and torture of terror suspects in third countries. It does not, however, relieve the government of ultimate responsibility for criminal acts committed by others on its behalf and in pursuit of its objectives. The buck stops with the Home Office.
Home Office ministers and officials should be sacked. They should also face criminal charges of failing in their duty of care.
The latest evidence against them comes in a shocking new report by the government’s own watchdog, the Border and Immigration Agency Complaints Audit Committee.
The report is one of the most damning condemnations ever made concerning the Home Office and its private agents. It reveals “glaring failures” and widespread abuses of people facing deportation, including allegations of racism, discrimination and physical assault by contractors hired by the Home Office’s Border and Immigration Agency.
The Audit Committee said complaints about mistreatment by immigrants and asylum applicants were often not followed up. It found that only 8% of complainants were interviewed and 89% of investigations were “neither balanced nor thorough”.
The committee revealed that 19% of misconduct complaints against deportation agencies in 2006/07 concerned criminal behaviour – a rise of 12% over 2005/06.
It condemned the denial of legal and human rights to deportees by the private firms who act on behalf of the Home Office; detailing “glaring errors” in dealing with complaints about the mistreatment of people being deported from the UK.
The committee’s report says investigations into misconduct complaints have been “poor”; with 71% of complaints not being completed within time targets. In 95% of cases, those investigating the complaints had been from the companies under investigation. “Upwards of 20%” of records sought by the committee were missing and 83% of replies received were “indefensible”.
The report says complaints of wrong-doing are of “grave concern to us because of the risks of injury or death, wrongful arrest and civil liability arising from the arrest, detention and removal of failed asylum seekers”.
In a case highlighted by the BBC in its report on the committee’s findings, asylum seeker Apollo Okello said he had been bundled onto a plane at Heathrow Airport and refused permission to see his lawyer, despite having an injunction to stop him being deported. He says he was beaten up in the back of a van: “That’s where I was punched – my ribs, my eyes, my neck, my back.” One of the guards told him: “these black monkeys don’t want to go back to their country”, claimed Mr Okello.
I can corroborate these abuses from my own recent work with asylum claimants.
Although they have committed no crimes, they are held in detention centres, such as the notorious Campsfield House in Oxfordshire. They are prisons in all but name. People mostly get put in detention if the Home Office thinks their claims are unfounded and or if they come from a white list country which is deemed to be safe. In other words, the Home Office prejudges their application.
In detention centres, run by private contractors appointed by the Home Office, asylum claimants are at the whim and mercy of the guards. Many guards are caring, fair and commendable. But in cases bought to my attention, some guards are bigoted and brutal.
Violent assaults do sometimes take place. They happen mostly in the ‘blind’ areas, where there are no CCTV cameras. They also occur in the internal prisons within the detention centres – the high security segregation units – where ‘trouble-makers’ who try to assert their legal rights are sometimes punished.
As well as racist, misogynistic, anti-Muslim and homophobic insults, abuses include unjustified strip-searches and internal genital examinations. There are no checks and balances to protect against these violations. The systems of redress are woefully inadequate. Detainees are virtually powerless.
A Ugandan torture and rape victim I am supporting, KM, was held in detention for six months, without receiving any medical treatment or psychological counselling. He says requests for treatment are frequently ignored and people suffering severe trauma are sometimes fobbed off with aspirin.
Some claimants are deported illegally, without removal orders being served. Others get deported, even though they have a pending judicial review of the decision to refuse them asylum. Having an upcoming case in the High Court is no bar to the Home Office forcibly removing someone from the UK.
Despite filing for a judicial review of the decision to deny him asylum, a Jamaican national, EB, was forcibly repatriated. When he got off the plane in Kingston, he could barely walk. EB alleges his injuries were from violent beatings by Home Office-contracted security guards who forced him onto the plane and held him down in his seat during the flight.
I have experienced people being served with deportation notices while awaiting medical examinations to confirm their claims of torture. Their removal looks like a deliberate attempt to thwart medical corroboration. Even those who have their claims of torture confirmed by the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture are not safe. Some still get deported, without any court ever being allowed to consider the medical evidence.
It is not unknown for the Home Office to serve removal notices with little or no warning, perhaps just an hour before asylum applicants are carted off to the airport. This leaves lawyers insufficient time to challenge the deportation.
I am also aware of detainees who have had phone access confiscated when they are due for removal. This means they cannot contact their solicitors. They end up on the next plane out of Heathrow.
One of my asylum applicants in a London detention centre was bussed to Scotland shortly before his deportation order was served. His removal from English legal jurisdiction seems to have been calculated to make it as difficult as possible for his solicitor to take last minute action to halt him being sent back to Uganda.
Asylum seekers scheduled for deportation can be shackled, bound and forcibly injected with sedating medication, according to eye-witness accounts I have received. To stop deportees screaming en route to the plane, some escorts allegedly apply semi-strangulating thumb pressure to the throat and twist handcuffs so tight that they pinch wrist nerves and cut the flesh, leaving some victims complaining of semi-permanent nerve damage.
Home Office ministers cannot blithely claim they are unaware of these abuses. If they don’t know, they should. It is their responsibility. If they do know, why are they allowing it to continue?
The Border and Immigration Agency Complaints Audit Committee has highlighted many complaints of abuse and the failure of the government to remedy them. The Home Office is responsible for the Border and Immigration Agency and its private contactors. The buck stops with the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith MP, and her Immigration Minister, Liam Byrne MP.
This report is so damning, and the abuses so serious and widespread, that these ministers should be sacked and face criminal charges of negligence in their duty of care towards immigrants and asylum applicants.