Detention is no solution
Sixty years ago, at a time of optimism and compassion in the aftermath of the second world war, the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was created to protect people seeking asylum. And in this spirit at the same time the Refugee Council was set up.
For my part, said Nick Clegg in May commemorating the anniversary of these two events, we have never shied away from taking the right stance on asylum, even when it has been controversial to do so. the UK should be aiming for nothing less than the most compassionate, efficient, dignified asylum system in the world.I hope our first year shows that we want to reaffirm the UKs place as a caring and compassionate nation. No one should ever be forced from their home. But when it happens they must know that nations like ours will provide the safety and security all people deserve. Thats a promise we made 60 years ago. It is important today as it was then.
What happened to the promise made sixty years ago? What became of compassion? Dignity? Safety? Until this week (two weeks ago now)there were ten immigration detention centres in the UK, most of them run by private companies for profit. Now there are eleven as this week Immigration Minister Damian Green cut the ribbon on Morton Hall, a former prison, now an immigration detention centre, thereby expanding the detention estate by 392 places to 3400.
The story of the UKs immigration detention centres is one of indignity, danger, and misery as catalogued by many authorities among them Her Majestys Inspector of Prisons (numerous times), Al Aynsley Green, former Childrens Commissioner, Bail for Immigration Detainees, Medical Justice, Amnesty International, The Institute for Race Relations, Women for Refugee Women, Asylum Aid and others. In the UKs detention centres there have been 16 suicides, alarming rates of self harm, hunger strikes and appalling levels of mental and physical illness. Thousands of innocent men women and children have been put through the detention wringer and despite Coalition pledges to end the detention of children, 10 were held in the first quarter of this year.
Clegg may grandstand and blather about the marvels of the UKs human rights, but meanwhile he and his coalition partners are ignoring the death, damage and distress caused to people in detention centres in order to push through the Home Offices Five Year Strategy for asylum and immigration published in 2005. Their pledge then was to move towards the point where it becomes the norm that those who fail can be detained. Three years later they announced plans to expand the immigration detention estate by sixty percent to speed up and remove more detainees. Under the fast track system cases are dealt with rapidly resulting in very high rates of refusal. The beauty of fast tracking is that it doesn’t allow for subtlety, so people who are too traumatised to deliver their full story in the short time given, which would include most torture and rape victims, for example, are shunted back to the terror they tried to escape.
Morton Hall is partly designed to lock up foreign national prisoners who have replaced asylum seekers as the prime pariahs in our midst. In the public imagination, no differentiation is made between those people classified as foreign nationals who stand accused of minor crimes such as using false documents and those convicted of serious crimes. Either way, the assumption that it is justifiable and desirable to boot them out needs serious challenging. We know relatively little about foreign national prisoners despite their fearsome reputation. Many have complex cases, have lived here for many years and have families. Jimmy Mubenga, convicted of a violent crime, died during deportation last year. He had lived in the UK most of his life and had a wife and family. Three guards employed by G4S to escort Mubenga out of the UK, were arrested and bailed in connection with his death. (G4S runs four prisons, three immigration removal centres and almost 700 court and police cells. It is the second largest private employer in the world with a turnover of 7 bn.) They could face manslaughter charges and G4S could be charged with corporate manslaughter. The arbitrary deportations conducted under dubious circumstances, are not justifiable. This week a man attempted to slit his throat on a Virgin flight bound for Jamaica. Press reports dwelled on the fate of the passengers they were given counselling and meals while waiting to reboard the plane. We were told nothing of the fate of the passenger, nor why he was being deported, nor what his crime had been.
Between 2007-2010, 43 foreign national prisoners committed suicide in UK jails, a little known fact sent to me in response to an FoI request. Numbers committing suicide have since returned to what the Ministry of Justice FoI officer described as expected levels.
Morton Hall is not the only new detention centre. In order to honour their pledge to stop detaining children, the UKBA plans to open a new ‘pre-departure family accommodation centre in Pease Pottage, Sussex. It is to be run, surprisingly, by Barnardos whose former chief executive, Martin Narey, speaking in December 2010 in an end to the detention of children, said: Incarcerating [children] simply because they have parents who wish to live here was unnecessary, expensive and more to the point, just plain wrong.
Families and children will be taken there against their will and kept behind a two and half metre fence with electronic gates and 24 hour staffing. Family members might be allowed to leave the grounds under escort if officials believe they will not abscond, says the UKBA. The justification for detaining asylum seekers has always been that they may abscond before they can be removed. Research shows that a maximum of 10 per cent would abscond and families with children are least likely to.
If what Clegg told the Refugee Council on its 60th anniversary had any credibility none of this would be happening. Nor would his government have slashed funding for advice services for refugees and asylum seekers by 60% in April. We can only suppose the money saved there will come in handy when locking up asylum seekers prior to fast tracking them back to hell. And without that irritant advice and professional help it will be easier to round up, detain and get rid of people. And what of the very organisation Clegg was commemorating with his grand speech? Recent Government funding cuts to the Refugee Council have all but decimated it.