£ … per incident

Melanie McFadyean

Nusrat Raza, a young Pakistani woman, was seen by a passer-by as a ‘great ball of fire coming down the stairs’ of her house. Raza, an asylum seeker who lived in Bradford, had recently been told that the Home Office had refused her claim to stay in the country.

At least 221 asylum seekers, refugees and migrant workers have died violent deaths in the UK in the past 17 years. They have committed suicide or been the victims of racist attacks; or they have suffered accidents while in transit or at work, mostly in the black economy. In Driven to Desperate Measures, Harmit Athwal has gathered information from press reports and from interviews with asylum seekers and refugees, NGOs, charities and social workers. Her research makes clear that Britain, far from being somewhere to escape to, is, for thousands of asylum seekers and migrants, a place of misery and danger.

Athwal works at the Institute of Race Relations and the incremental force of her findings is immense. I’ve had a chance to follow up some of her cases. There is much to say in particular about the obscure world of privatised detention, where the abuse of detainees and the violation of their rights are hard to document and hard to redress.

Athwal’s list includes 97 people who have died in transit to the UK since 1989. Only the barest details are given: ‘unidentified African boy, 12, 23/3/97, crushed to death after stowing away in the wheel arch of a Boeing 747 travelling from Kenya to London . . . 58 Chinese stowaways, 18/6/00, found dead in the back of a refrigerated lorry in Dover’ and so on. There have been 18 deaths as a result of racist attacks; there have been 71 suicides. Athwal lists four people who jumped or fell to their deaths when they thought immigration officials had arrived to deport them.

Joseph Nnalue, 31, 23/10/94, a Nigerian, died after falling from a balcony in a flat in Stockwell – police and immigration officials were calling at his flat at the time . . . Noorjahan Begum, 35, 15/3/96, a Bangladeshi woman, died after falling 30 feet from the balcony of the flat where she was living; two immigration officials were calling at the flat at the time . . . Kwanele Siziba, 27, 27/4/94, a Zimbabwean woman, fell 150 feet to her death, attempting to flee visiting officials she believed were immigration officers. In fact, it was bailiffs who called at the flat and were heard threatening to kick the door down . . . Joseph Crentsil, 39, 25/11/01, a Ghanaian asylum seeker, died after falling from a third-floor window of a flat in Streatham when two immigration and two police officers were questioning five other men at the flat.

Eight of the suicides have been cases of self-immolation. Israfil Shiri, a destitute Iranian asylum seeker, for example, set himself alight in the offices of Refugee Action in Manchester.

These vivid cases account for only a fraction of the deaths Athwal lists. Here is a passage taken at random from the report:

Lejla Ibrahimovic, 1994, a Bosnian asylum-seeker, took an overdose of sleeping pills after a year-long struggle for her husband to be granted a visa to join her. The Home Office granted her husband a compassionate visa after her death to look after the couple’s two children . . . Zinaida Mitzofanova, 63, and Valentina Featherstone, 39, 2/95, a Latvian mother and daughter were found hanged in County Durham before they were due to appeal against a deportation order.

There have been 11 ‘self-inflicted deaths’ in detention centres; six other people killed themselves in prison. The majority of suicides, however, have been of people living ‘in the community’, where fear, stress and a strong feeling that they do not belong – that they are forbidden to belong – compound the difficulties they face.

Of the five men who killed themselves in Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre, four died by hanging, and one burned to death after barricading himself in his cell. An Iranian died in Lewes prison in 2002, a Ukrainian in Haslar in Hampshire in 2003, a Palestinian in Belmarsh in London in 2003, a Kenyan in Leicester prison in 2004, a Vietnamese man at Dungavel near Glasgow in 2004, a Chinese man in Barlinnie in 2005, a Kurd at Campsfield detention centre near Oxford in 2005.

One suicide that made the headlines – it was a front-page story in the Independent – was that of Manuel Bravo, an Angolan who died at Yarl’s Wood. He had fled Angola in 2001 after his parents, political opponents of the regime, were murdered. He was living in Leeds, where his son was at a local school. His wife and daughter had returned to Angola a few months before he died to care for an orphaned niece, and were arrested on arrival. In September 2005 Bravo and his 13-year-old son were seized in a dawn raid and taken to Yarl’s Wood. Informed that his claim had failed and that he and his son were to be deported, Bravo hanged himself in a stairwell. ‘Be brave,’ he had told his son. ‘Work hard. Do well at school.’ The coroner said that Bravo had killed himself in the belief that it might secure his son’s future in this country. Under the Children Act, the boy will be cared for here until his 18th birthday, when he could legally be deported.

Detainees can be forcibly returned to the countries from which they have fled. In 2004 the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture found that ‘excessive or gratuitous force’ was used during the transport of a number of detainees from immigration centre to port or airport, and suggested that there might ‘be a systemic problem of abuse, rather than a number of isolated incidents’. Medical workers at Wishaw General Hospital and Hairmyres Hospital in East Kilbride raised concerns about the treatment of Dungavel detainees: one woman was shackled to her bed while awaiting surgery; a man was escorted away by armed guards following treatment for mental health problems.

A young man I spoke to, who had been detained at both Harmondsworth and Colnbrook, described both regimes as petty and punitive. Denied legal aid because his case was thought unlikely to succeed, he had had to represent himself. But after joining a hunger strike in protest against detention, he was told he was breaking the rules and denied access to legal papers. When he protested peacefully about this he was locked in a room from 8 p.m. until 7 a.m. He persisted in asking to see the legal papers and was put in solitary confinement for eight days. A senior officer, he told me, referred to him in his presence as a ‘black bastard’.

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