Illuminating the UK’s lethal detention and deportation conditions

Public interest groups challenge immigration authorities' hazardous policy and practice.

Medical Justice, a charity that arranges for independent doctors to visit immigration detainees, convened a meeting last week to examine Parliament’s ability to monitor and hold to account the UK Border Agency and its contractors.

The first Children’s Commissioner for England and the medical colleges representing GPs, paediatricians, psychiatrists and public health professionals, have repeatedly warned the UKBA that the conditions for those held in immigration detention centres are severely damaging and may be life-threatening. Medical Justice, End Child Detention Now and many other public interest groups and faith groups have sought to raise awareness. But little acknowledgement - and still less action - has been forthcoming.
The meeting sought to debate and agree on ways to redress this inaction. The ultimate aim was to gather support to call for a robust inquiry into the inhuman, degrading and potentially lethal conditions of detention and deportation. It was chaired by Labour MP for Islington North, Jeremy Corbyn, who sponsored a draft Early Day Motion, circulated to attendees. A similar draft NGO declaration from the meeting was also tabled.

Attendees heard an emotional appeal for justice from Adrienne Makenda Kambana, widow of Jimmy Mubenga, as she cited the obstruction of inquiries by the UKBA and private contractors G4S. Deborah Coles, of INQUEST, who has assisted the Mubenga family, noted that the culture of secrecy within the UKBA is a huge concern and has inhibited the family’s pursuit of information and justice. Police investigations are usually held in isolation from each other and there are often no relatives available in the UK to carry them forward. The main challenge is to ensure that these problems are properly debated in parliament.

Other speakers included Harmit Athwal, editor of the Institute of Race Relations News Service and Dr Ben Robinson, Medical Justice Trustee. Athwal noted the rarity of legal representation for deceased detainees, yet the Home Office, medical staff, and private companies to whom detention work is outsourced are always represented. Dr Robinson highlighted the appalling standard of healthcare for detainees and a culture of disbelief regarding requests for medical treatment. He recounted an incident in which Muhammad Shuket, a detainee at the Border Agency’s Colnbrook holding facility, suffered a heart attack. He was left virtually unattended for over an hour, despite repeated requests for help from his cellmate, until the scheduled doctor’s rounds the following day which came too late.

Two recent High Court Rulings were highlighted by Mark Scott, of Bhatt Murphy Solicitors. Both found detainees with severe mental health issues were unlawfully imprisoned – despite repeated warnings from medical practitioners — and Home Office actions were deemed to have breached the exceptionally high threshold of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, prohibiting inhuman and degrading treatment. In one case the UKBA, although unwilling to responsibly manage the detainee’s health, was shown to have nonetheless considered plans in the event of his death. Assistant director, detention services, Philip Schoenenburger noted “there will be significant press interest if he does subsequently pass away. We have made sure that healthcare are keeping good and accurate details of his care and this record will be available to the PPO should he die.”

Jeremy Corbyn invited contributions from delegates. Emma Norton of Liberty said they were preparing a leaflet on how detainees can use the Data Protection Act to access their personal record, while plans for a major inquiry into the UK asylum system were announced by Julian Huppert, Lib Dem MP for Cambridge. This is due to be launched within the next few weeks.

Malcolm Stevens, former advisor to the Children’s Commissioner for England, suggested the West Sussex local authority Safeguarding Children Board should be put on the alert, since its jurisdiction covers the new ‘pre-departure accommodation’. A highly critical report from the equivalent body in Bedfordshire, forced the closure of the Yarl’s Wood family unit.

Medical Justice's Emma Ginn concluded the meeting, drawing attention to the circulated draft text for a declaration from the meeting and for an EDM to be sponsored by Jeremy Corbyn. She requested comments and feedback from organisations, particularly in regard to their willingness to co-sign the declaration.

The Parliamentary Meeting on ‘Lethal Detention and Deportation Conditions’ was held on 28th November 2011

About the author

Tom Sanderson is a freelance researcher, and volunteer campaigner with End Child Detention Now. He currently works for City University London.