Harriet’s story: Ugandan survivor, British prisoner

Jason N Parkinson
12 December 2005

The British government faces rising criticism over its apparent complicity in the United States’s global policy of “extraordinary rendition”, the transfer of prisoners without due legal process to regimes with questionable human-rights records, including the routine practice of torture. It should not be forgotten that another form of forced, long-distance export of human cargo from Britain silently continues with minimal public outcry: the deportation of asylum-seekers whose bid to remain in Britain has failed back to war-torn countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda.

A leading United Nations official – Christian Mahr, of the London office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees – has condemned such removals as a recipe for “chaos”. The government department responsible, the home office, argues that these removals are legal because they ask the “receiving” countries in question for written human-rights assurances. But when these written declarations come from the same governments the asylum-seekers were forced to escape, can any such declarations be trusted?

Now the introduction of new deportation laws under the revised anti-terror bill is drawing greater concerns about the safety of failed asylum-seekers. Several have already been moved to desperate measures: a hunger-strike by Zimbabweans at the Yarl’s Wood removal centre near Bedford, the suicide of Angolan-born Manuel Bravo in September over the prospective removal of his son.

One of the most disturbing cases is that of ten Ugandan women at Yarl’s Wood who began a lengthy hunger-strike in July 2005, protesting against deportations to Uganda – where they fear imprisonment, torture and death – as well as highlighting alleged abuse by private immigration-service staff.

In the northern part of their homeland, nineteen years of war have raged between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) of President Yoweri Museveni. Both forces are accused of arbitrary imprisonment, rape and torture. A Human Rights Watch report found that from June 2002-July 2003 the LRA had abducted 8,400 children, forced 20,000 minors onto the streets and that more than 800,000 northern Ugandans were displaced by the conflict.

Many of the thousands displaced end up in camps for internally-displaced persons (IDP) which quickly become concentration camps. Rape is routine, even of very young girls, and children are kidnapped and forced to be child soldiers. Those who step outside the camp boundaries risk execution.

Welcome to democracy

One of the ten Ugandan hunger-strikers is Harriet Anyangokolo, 26, from Amuru in northern Uganda. She was arrested, tortured, raped and left for dead at a “safe house” prison in Gulu by UPDF soldiers.

“I was persecuted, accused of supporting the LRA,” said Harriet with a weak voice. She was still recovering from five weeks of hunger strike. Harriet escaped and hid at a friend’s house in Opuru, where she was reunited with her children, a boy of seven and a girl aged three. That night the UPDF came for her. Certain she would be killed Harriet leapt from the rear window of the house and hid in the bush land, watching the soldiers search the house, abduct her children and burn the home to the ground.

Aided by an Italian priest, Harriet managed to join a flight to Heathrow airport, west of London, where – after a night of sleeping rough – she declared herself to the airport authorities. At first things went well. The Refugee Council found her a solicitor, arranged a home office interview, and organised accommodation and state benefits. But after several months the benefits stopped without warning. “I became homeless,” she explained, “I had nothing.”

In desperation, a friend arranged a job for Harriet under a false name. She used it to work for five months. This is against home office rules. In May 2005, police officers arrived at Harriet’s workplace with immigration officials and sent her to Colnbrook detention centre near Heathrow airport. Her room was small, dark and cold, with a camera in the wall inspecting her every move. The bath leaked, she was often refused toilet access, suffered extreme pain when given wrong medication – and had her telephone access removed when she tried to complain.

“In there I cried for days,” Harriet recalls. “I was very depressed. We were allowed outside our rooms for twenty minutes a day and were not allowed to talk. Even criminals are not treated like this and I am not a criminal.”

The home office found her asylum claim “not credible” and told Harriet she would be deported. She was sent to Yarl’s Wood removal centre, near the town of Bedford, in preparation for this. On 16 July, immigration escorts took Harriet to Gatwick airport where she joined a long queue of failed asylum-seekers awaiting their removal. “They were lined up with their belongings in black bin-bags, like slaves”, Harriet says. “One man stripped naked and refused to board his plane. The guards grabbed him by the neck, dragged him to the floor and handcuffed him.”

Harriet refused to board the plane, stating she would rather die than return to Uganda. She was sent back to Yarl’s Wood. A week later she started refusing food; nine other female Ugandan detainees in the Dove unit at Yarl’s Wood joined her in solidarity.

On the morning of 13 August, Harriet spoke live by telephone to BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour programme about her deportation, the crisis in Uganda and her experiences in Britain’s UK immigration system. Later that day, she found that her 71 pence-a-day phone account had been closed. Yarl’s Wood officers said she was being moved to Colnbrook that night, refusing Harriet’s explanation that she was expecting a fax from a medical examination stating that she was unfit for deportation.

Harriet was escorted to the Kingfisher unit, Yarl’s Wood solitary-confinement ward, to await removal to Colnbrook – but at the last moment a home office phone call reprieved her by saying that her deportation was cancelled.

The next day, 14 August, Harriet witnessed an attempt lasting several hours by her colleagues physically to prevent guards from attempting to seize and transfer her friend Charity Mutebwa – a survivor of rape and torture at the hands of the UPDF in Uganda, and considered one of the hunger-strike ringleaders. Harriet used a telephone to report the incident to campaigners at the Crossroads Women’s Centre and Women Against Rape.

Early on Monday morning, 15 August, guards entered Harriet’s room to move her back into solitary confinement on grounds that she was “non-compliant and obstructive to staff”. Harriet was put in a room near Charity – cold, damp with no mattress or bedding, but unlocked. Harriet went to Charity’s room and they talked for a while. A guard halted the conversation, but not before she could see that Charity’s wrists and ankles were visibly injured. By this stage both women were in the fourth week of their hunger-strike.

Charity was later moved to Dungavel detention centre, near Glasgow, but returned to Yarl’s Wood several days before a removal scheduled for 18 October. On that day, immigration escorts put her on the plane and the engines roared before the removal was halted. Charity remains incarcerated at Yarl’s Wood.

For three days Harriet lay in her room in the Kingfisher unit without water. She became ill, and her mouth bled. Medics measured her blood pressure and found it dangerously low. On 18 August, she was removed from solitary and taken back to her room on the Dove wing. She lay in her room for four more days. On 22 August a guard came to her room, and said: “Harriet, you’ve been released”. “I started to cry”, Harriet remembers.

She was taken to the exit of Yarl’s Wood removal centre and given a one-way travel card back to London. Even though she had no strength and could barely walk, officials told her: “you’re not our responsibility anymore”. She was picked up in a friend’s car and taken to Bedford hospital, where she was immediately given vital medication. By 9pm that evening, she was back in London, staying at a friend’s house.

A sliver of hope

Asylum-seekers like Harriet Anyangokolo are targets not just of the immigration bureaucracy in which they become enmeshed on entering Britain, but from two prevalent misunderstandings of their experience and that of other non-British residents – refugees and immigrants. First, the fear that Britain is being flooded with foreigners is assiduously cultivated in many sections of the media and is lodged in the minds of many citizens. Yet government records show that 220,000 immigrants entered the country in 2002 while 359,000 emigrated.

Second, the notion that immigrants are a drain on the country’s economy is a myth. An Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) study in 2005 found that the non-United Kingdom workforce makes up 8.7% of the population and contributes 10.2% of all income tax collected. The total revenue to the exchequer from migrant workers was £41.2 billion in the 2004 tax year – £2.5bn more than the government pays out in benefits and public services to immigrants.

Meanwhile, there is grave concern among civil-liberties campaigners about the way that the proposed new anti-terror laws in Britain – especially if they contain clauses associating support for resistance against unjust regimes – could increase the chances of asylum-seekers and immigrants being deported to countries with poor human-rights records.

The security of asylum-seekers depends partly on the work of such campaigners, and partly on the justice system. October 2005 offered mixed legal signals: the home office reinstated removals to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – where some 4.7 million people have died in the inter-state and internecine conflicts of recent years – yet a high court ruling also stated that the safety of failed asylum-seekers removed to Zimbabwe could not be guaranteed and was therefore illegal under the Human Rights Act (1998). This decision set a precedent in UK law.

Harriet Anyangokolo is not giving up. “I am going to carry on campaigning for all other women in the detention centres and at home”, said Harriet after her three-month detention. “In Uganda there are women being raped, children are in the streets. This must stop after nineteen years. We need peace. We are all children of God.”

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