Shine A Light

Is the Death of a Detainee a BBC story? It depends where they're from

The horrible death of Canadian Alois Dvorzac in UK immigration detention was big news. What if he'd been from Eritrea or Zaire?

Clare Sambrook
24 January 2014

"He was on his way to see his estranged daughter. Instead, he disappeared in the maws of the British detention system." So Canada's Globe and Mail last week summarised the horrible ordeal of Alois Dvorzac, the 84-year-old Canadian who died, handcuffed in hospital, after being seized by Gatwick Airport immigration officials and locked up at Harmondsworth immigration removal centre, near Heathrow.

The British Home Office ignored medical advice in January last year that Dvorzac was frail, demented and "UNFIT for detention or deportation", according to last week's report from the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick. (Three months earlier another Harmondsworth detainee had died after undergoing surgery, handcuffed. Also cuffed, a stroke patient in a wheelchair being taken to hospital.)

Horrible things happen every day to people in UK immigration detention. The writer Hazel Healy observes: “abuse is the natural outcome of detention without charge.”

Undignified deaths are routine and rarely mentioned in the media.

Hardwick's report provoked a 500 word story in the Daily Telegraph (“A frail 84-year-old Canadian man died in handcuffs . . .”). The BBC’s flagship Radio 4 Today programme gave five minutes: “This frail elderly Canadian gentleman with dementia died in the most undignified and disgraceful circumstances possible really," said Hardwick on last Friday's show.

Back in October 2010, Jimmy Mubenga, a 46-year-old father of five from Angola, died on a plane at Heathrow airport while being heavily restrained by three men who were trying to deport him. (They worked for G4S, a security company contracted to the Home Office.) Mubenga's was the first deportation death since 1993, when Joy Gardner, a 40-year-old Jamaican, died following an immigration raid on her home in London. (Police had bound her head in 13 feet of masking tape in the presence of her five-year-old son.)

The Home Office claimed Jimmy Mubenga had been "taken ill" on the plane. G4S said he "became unwell". Two days after he died the Guardian revealed the truth in a story supported by eyewitness evidence. Guardian on-line carried an audio recording of one witness: “he was saying I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe”.

The BBC didn't report Mubenga's death until five days after the Guardian's report. I asked a BBC home affairs reporter why? He said: Busy week; it was perceived as the Guardian's story.

What made Dvorzac’s ordeal so much more compelling?

HM Prisons Inspectorate made it easy and safe. They gave the ugly details to journalists two days early in a press release. Plain-speaking Hardwick was put up for interview.

There was Dvorzac’s age and fragility. The Today Programme's Mishal Husain asked Hardwick: “I'm trying to work out what kind of culture was in place where someone looks at an elderly man with dementia and cuffs him and when he is dying, doesn't uncuff him?"

Then there was the Canadian factor.

At the Institute of Race Relations, near London's King's Cross, Harmit Athwal tries to keep count of the detainees and asylum seekers who have died in UK government care or shortly after release — 25 or more since 1989. They'd come originally from Pakistan, Turkey, DRC, India, Iran, Angola, Vietnam, Zaire. Ghana, Moldova, Zimbabwe, Cameroon. Kenya, Eritrea.

One more name: Brian Dalrymple.

He died, aged 31, in July 2011, after being moved from Harmondsworth to neighbouring Colnbrook, the UK's most secure detention centre, run by highly profitable Serco. (Harmondsworth is run by America's GEO Group, a spin-off from the old sinister Wackenhut Corporation.)

An Inquest into how Dalrymple died is due later this year. GEO Group, Serco, and the Home Office have got some explaining to do.

This case is likely to catch the media's attention. Brian Dalrymple is the one white American on Athwal's list.


Author's note: Thanks to Simon Parker.

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