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Man’s inhumanity to man: why and how the UK asylum system must change

'Do as you would be done to.' This elementary human principle does not apply to the way the UK expels asylum seekers. It should do and many organisations will continue to make the case until it does.

Studies over the past ten years consistently demonstrate the callous disregard for human rights and human dignity that accompanies asylum seekers who are being removed from the UK. Medical Justice, Amnesty International and the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture — now called Freedom from Torture — have reported on research that shows brutal physical violence and traumatized and ill-treated children. The UK Border Agency (UKBA), responsible for removals, has from time to time claimed to improve their systems, but the abuses continue, as this month’s reports by HM Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, confirm.

Reporting on private escort removals to Jamaica and Nigeria, Hardwick found, “a shamefully unprofessional and derogatory attitude”, the use of unnecessary force and restraint, and “highly offensive and sometimes racist language”.

The way failed asylum seekers are handled before their eventual removal has been cause for concern for many years. One huge barrier to achieving a humane regime in detention centres is that the UKBA hires private contractors — such as SERCO and G4S — to do the job. One might argue that they are an equivalent of bailiffs and are there only to execute what has been ordered by the courts, but they should not be accountable only to themselves – or to the UKBA. The mandate of the UKBA is to remove failed asylum seekers. As long as the contractors demonstrate to the UKBA some semblance of success in removing refugees that is deemed self-satisfactory — the end justifies the means.

Leading human rights organisations including Medical Justice and Amnesty International have issued repeated warnings about the conditions in UK detention centres but these have been effectively ignored. There is no properly independent monitor to record and investigate allegations.  Two particular concerns are the use of excessive force in removals — as in the case of Jimmy Mubenga — and dawn raids, which traumatise children, and have a profound effect on adults too.  There is cause for acute concern too about how sexual orientation is determined and the consequences of returning people to countries where they are likely to be persecuted.

The right-wing press keeps up the pressure about how this country has been ‘swamped’ by immigrants, so the UKBA has an important role to play in getting rid of everyone whose immigration claim has been deemed to fail, at any cost. This disregards the fact that any ‘immigration problem’ is largely created by the influx of low-paid workers from the newer EU members, not by the dwindling number of asylum seekers.

Let us look at it this way. Imagine if British citizens were brutalized and denied medical treatment so they succumbed to chronic diseases like heart attacks while in detention; or children were detained awaiting removal for months without any explanation being given at the airports in Myanmar; or the US port authorities transported British citizens who were accused of stealing information accompanied by vicious barking dogs on loose dog-leads, the whole country would be making an outcry. This is exactly what happens to citizens of other nations whose immigration applications have been refused by the UK authorities and are who are being detained before removal by merciless private contractors whose primary duty is to their shareholders.

Such problems have been long recognized by those who care for human rights, but rarely acknowledged with any degree of commitment by the relevant authorities. While the UKBA has a carefully formulated guide to complaints procedures for the benefit of its staff, these procedures are conducted by UKBA’s own Professional Standards Unit, not by any sort of independent body, such as the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC).

Where official monitoring of removals has taken place, as in a Nick Hardwick’s reports, it is clear that the behaviour and attitudes of the private contractors’ personnel leaves much to be desired. Abuses still occur even when removals are relatively transparent to the public.

It is easy to produce a ‘shopping list’ of desirable improvements to the current set-up. First, the removal of asylum seekers should not be a source of private profit: in Germany, this is handled by the Federal Police. Second, there should be independent monitoring of all removals, at the airports, including a presence airside, which is where the worst abuses occur. Guidelines for the care of detained asylum seekers in the 11 regional detention centres need to be properly followed, especially those concerned with medical care and the well-being of children. Training for personnel responsible for removals should be improved, and subject not just to Home Office approval of programmes, but to properly-monitored official accreditation of the people being trained.

The lessons not only of high-profile cases but also of those less well-publicised, but which run through the reports by Medical Justice, Amnesty and others, should be taken on board by the authorities, and acted on. Britain is, allegedly, a civilized country. It’s about time we started to behave that way.

About the author

Tindyebwa Agaba holds a BA in Politics and International Relations from Exeter University and an MA in Human Rights Law from SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies). A former child refugee, he is starting a social entrepreneurship movement to help ex-combatants become more productive in their respective African societies.


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