Driven to Desperate Measures 
by Harmit Athwal.
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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’.

Harmondsworth is a ‘fast track’ centre, conveniently close to Heathrow: 99.6 per cent of the asylum claims considered there are rejected. The young man I spoke to believes – and he may well be right – that the high turnover ensures a profit for the private company that runs Harmondsworth. The company, United Kingdom Detention Services (UKDS), is a subsidiary of Sodexho. I asked under the Freedom of Information Act for the value of contracts between the Home Office Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) and the private companies that now run most of the detention centres. My request was turned down. A disclosure of this kind, according to the Home Office, would discourage companies from dealing with the public sector and the information might ‘damage them commercially’.

The private sector is responsible for the day-to-day treatment of most of the 1825 people detained indefinitely by the Home Office through the IND. In The Evolution of Immigration Detention in the UK (2005) Christine Bacon argues that the market-forces model the government is so keen on produces ‘a complicated and ever changing set of intertwined relationships’ between purchaser and provider and an unintelligible complexity at the level of provision. ‘The long list of aliases and subsidiaries used by the various companies, as well as the perpetual mergers, “sell outs”, “buy backs” and “rebranding”,’ Bacon writes, ‘make it extremely difficult to keep track of exactly which company has a stake in which UK facility.’ The identity of the contracting companies changes frequently. At present, Global Solutions Ltd (GSL), owned by Englefield Capital and Electra Partners Europe, runs Tinsley House at Gatwick, Oakington in Cambridgeshire and Yarl’s Wood. Colnbrook is managed by Premier Detention Services, a subsidiary of Premier Custodial Group, itself owned by Serco. G4S Justice Services (a division of Group 4 Securicor plc) has just taken over Dungavel. Harmondsworth is managed by UKDS, owned by Sodexho, and Campsfield is managed by GEO Group Inc. UK. (UKDS has just renamed itself Kalyx, explaining that ‘Kalyx is derived from the botanical term “calyx”, which is the whorl of leaves, or sepals, forming the protective covering of a flower bud.’) Dover, Haslar and Lindholme are run under detention centre rules by the Home Office and are staffed by prison officers.

Some companies are responsible for ‘operational’ or ‘turnkey’ services: health, food, cleaning, safety, record-keeping and so on. Others – the companies that won the contracts for Colnbrook and Harmondsworth, for instance – were also contracted to design and build the centres. Some of the centres belong to the Home Office, although Yarl’s Wood is built on land leased from Quiniteq, a public limited company, and Tinsley, near Gatwick, is leased from Lynton plc, owned by BAA.

If someone kills or injures themselves in a centre, the contractor may incur negative ‘performance points’. How often this happens is again a matter of commercial confidentiality, which means that the companies aren’t publicly accountable for what happens in the centres they control. Performance points are lost, according to a Home Office spokeswoman, if ‘the contractor fails to follow the agreed procedures in place to protect detainees at risk.’ The points ‘translate into a financial value which is deducted from the contractor’s monthly operating fee’.

A leaked page from a contract I recently saw states that a ‘performance measure’ – that is, a penalty – is levied ‘where self-harm results in physical injury requiring . . . healthcare intervention and involves failure to follow procedures for the safety of detainees’. An incident of this kind would incur 400 points, the second highest penalty. It is one of two possible ‘significant performance failures’; the other is ‘self-harm resulting in death (being any known incident of deliberate self-harm resulting in death which involves any failure to follow laid down procedures) £ . . . per incident’. The amount, it seems, is variable.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons has produced 38 reports on detention centres. They commend good practice but are frequently critical. The prisons and probation ombudsman, Stephen Shaw, reported on Oakington in July 2005 after a BBC documentary, Detention Undercover: The Real Story, exposed instances of racism and abuse by detention custody officers (DCOs) employed by GSL. Shaw, who believes that the real test of a society is what goes on ‘in its dark places – prisons, psychiatric hospitals and institutions for failed asylum seekers and other migrants’, made 54 recommendations. The private companies, he said, ‘need to reinforce an ethos of decency and anti-racism’ and management had to be ‘more robust and better focused’. He stressed the potential for abuse during forced removals.

When Shaw reported on a fire at Yarl’s Wood in February 2002, only three months after it opened, he was ‘critical of much I have learned’. A number of detainees were charged with violent disorder and affray. At their trial it emerged that, on the night of the fire, the main priority of Group 4 staff had been to secure the perimeter of the centre. One former DCO on duty that night told me that an officer in charge ‘said lock them in basically’. In a statement read out in court another DCO said he was ordered to ‘lock the detainees in the burning building’. Shaw expressed ‘incredulity’ that ‘no one has been able to say with absolute certainty how many detainees were present . . . or how many escaped’, though specialist investigators found no evidence of human remains. The Fire Brigades’ Union criticised the original Home Office decision not to fit sprinklers at the centre. Group 4 subsequently brought a civil action against Bedfordshire police, claiming £97 million under the Riot Damages Act of 1886, which allows companies and individuals to sue the police for losses resulting from disorder. The case continues – an object lesson in the pitfalls of outsourcing public services.

Various pressure groups have tried to shed light on what goes on in these centres. In 2004 three groups documented 35 cases of alleged assault against detainees. The cases were referred to four of the handful of law firms that still bring civil actions (restrictions on funding for legally aided asylum cases make it financially almost impossible for law firms to take them on). More than a third of the allegations had to do with the behaviour of employees of Group 4/GSL and Loss Prevention International, an ‘escort provision agency’. GSL no longer provides escorts but a spokesman for G4S Justice Services insists that its personnel are not ‘incentivised to treat people roughly’; nor, the spokesman said, is the company paid according to the success or failure of a removal.

The campaigners found evidence of assault ranging from minor bruising to serious head injuries, but independent medical corroboration is rare because few doctors will go to detention centres free of charge. In some instances a doctor has arrived only to find that the injured detainee has been ‘removed’. Of assaults in detention reported to the police, 5 per cent resulted in arrests, 5 per cent are still under investigation, 25 per cent have an unknown outcome and in 65 per cent of cases the police took no further action.

Harriet Wistrich, a lawyer at Birnberg Peirce, has taken on many briefs for civil actions. ‘Quite a number of companies have paid up rather than go to trial,’ she says, although they never admit liability, preferring to claim on their insurance for out-of-court settlements. Wistrich says she has

settled maybe a dozen cases with companies in the last couple of years for a variety of things – usually excessive or unauthorised use of force by detention custody officers, cases relating to people with mental health problems. There was also ‘misfeasance in public office’, which related to the segregation of detainees after the Yarl’s Wood fire – I had four Yarl’s Wood clients who brought claims against Group 4 and all were successful.

Because so few practices are taking on the work she has to turn people away all the time. ‘Asylum seekers are isolated,’ she says.

They know nobody, have no money, may not speak the language and popular ideology portrays them as dishonest freeloaders. This makes it easy for the Home Office and private companies to get away with abuse and not sticking to the rules . . . Often people are removed from the country before they have a chance to get advice about whether their rights have been violated.

The complexity of corporate identities and sub-identities makes it easy to pass the buck. According to Mark Scott, a solicitor with Bhatt Murphy, ‘You ask the Home Office about medical services and they say they subcontract them to GSL. You ask GSL and they say they subcontract to Primecare Forensic Medical. Privatisation makes it difficult because so many organisations are involved with different legal identities.’

In May, Bhatt Murphy brought a case through the High Court against the Home Office. The judgment found that there had been a ‘persistent and sustained failure’ by the Home Office to ensure that detainees had the medical examinations required by law within 24 hours of arrival at a detention centre. The court found that the two plaintiffs had been unlawfully detained in the first place. Primecare Forensic Medical, the judge said, made it a matter of policy not to inform the Home Office when a doctor told them that a detainee might have been tortured. This, Mr Justice Davis said, ‘subverted’ the medical examination, because one of its purposes is to make sure that torture victims are not detained unless there’s a very good reason for it.

Detention custody officers have themselves brought cases against their employers. According to Ed Blissett, the regional secretary of the GMB, which represents DCOs, there have been ‘many dozens of civil actions’. The vast majority, he says, were settled in favour of the DCOs, with the claims again paid by insurance companies and with no admission of liability. ‘There have been six-figure settlements,’ Blissett told me. ‘They settle out of court to avoid the danger of paying . . . the massive legal costs that would ratchet up against them.’

In 1995 Jack Straw described prison privatisation as ‘morally repugnant’ and said: ‘It is not appropriate for people to profit out of incarceration. This is surely one area where the free market does not exist.’ Shortly after taking office he gave the go-ahead for two new privately financed prison contracts. By contracting out, the government passes liability for ill-treatment to private companies: in May 2001 the High Court ruled that once the management of an immigration centre has been contracted out, the government cannot be held responsible for any wrongdoing suffered by a detainee at the hands of the contractor.

Since April 2004, there have been at least three ‘self-inflicted deaths’ in immigration detention. No names are given, but when Stephen Shaw writes about a death at Colnbrook in November 2004 the subject is clearly Kenny Peter, a 24-year-old who had fled from Nigeria. In a report published after the inquest, Shaw comments on a ‘lack of understanding by healthcare staff . . . failure in systems of psychiatric referrals and shortcomings in the communication between centre staff and the Immigration Service’; and although he has ‘serious concerns about some aspects’ of Peter’s medical care, he is ‘satisfied that generally speaking the care afforded to him . . . was adequate’. That doesn’t stop him making 12 recommendations for improvements. In his report into the death of Ramazan Kumluca, a Kurd from Turkey, at Campsfield in June 2005, also published following the inquest, Shaw writes that the ‘sad event appears to have been handled well’. But he is ‘critical’ of the fact ‘that there is no healthcare screening for self-harm and suicide’ and that ‘plans to increase medical cover to 24 hours have been delayed.’ In this case he makes 21 recommendations to ‘help prevent further deaths . . . throughout the detention estate’. His aim in compiling these reports, he writes, is ‘first, to enhance public confidence when someone has died while in the hands of the state’. A close reading of his reports would not enhance most people’s confidence.

Research by Dr Frank Arnold from the pressure group Medical Justice shows that, of 56 ‘failed’ asylum seekers examined in four detention centres, 33 showed evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. Many had harmed themselves or attempted suicide. As the group made clear in a letter to the BMJ, this is contrary to official policy, which stipulates that ‘people with serious health problems, including mental illness, should not normally be detained.’ Torture victims, according to the Home Office Operating Enforcement Manual, should not be detained except in ‘very exceptional circumstances’. The failure to address the health needs of detainees, Arnold concluded, is a major problem and detention itself is ‘frequently damaging to the health of detainees’. ‘The system of medical care at Yarl’s Wood and in those other detention centres we have visited,’ he said, ‘is incompetent, dishonest and brutal.’

In May 2006, after three attempted suicides at Colnbrook, an anonymous detainee sent out this letter to campaign groups:

Mr — has been in immigration detention for 19 months and two weeks. He had begged for an asylum that was refused, and has remained in detention since he has applied for bail, and has gone for bail hearings four times, but he was refused them all. He then begged to be sent back to Iraq and has filled voluntary return forms ten times, but the Home Office reply was that his country was too dangerous to remove him to. So he was abandoned in detention, and after receiving yet another monthly report telling him ‘your case has been reviewed and it has been decided that you remain in detention till . . .’ he sank into a deep depression and yesterday 11 May 2006 at 8.45 p.m., after looking at his family’s pictures, he went to the office, collected a shaving razor, broke the stem and extracted the razor, and was cutting himself when his friend walked in. His friend managed to prevent him from completing the cut across his neck, but not before he had opened a six-inch gash from the left side of his neck down to his breast bone. He bled so much the officers had to spread plastic bags on the ground to prevent permanent damage to the carpet. This happened in full view of detainees. The nurses were called and he was quickly stretchered out and taken to hospital outside . . .

This morning, at 8.30 a.m., an as yet unidentified Jamaican tried to jump from the second floor, but the alarm was raised by other detainees who managed to restrain him till the officers arrived. He has been placed on a Level Three Suicide Watch. Fifteen minutes later: Mr — from Iran was found by his roommate, hanging from the door handle, by his own bed sheet. He had earlier tried to cut his throat with a razor, but . . . instead of counselling, he was locked up in solitary confinement. That further aggravated his psychological condition, and led to this second more determined attempt . . . The tension and anger in the whole centre is palpable at the moment, inmates have witnessed three suicide attempts in 12 hours.

Two weeks later, Colnbrook detainees sent out by email ‘An Open Petition to the World’. John Reid, they reported, had made a secret inspection of the detention centre yet ‘no asylum seeker ever saw or spoke to the home secretary, he was surrounded by such a crowd of security and bodyguards.’ They also claimed that at Haslar and Harmondsworth detainees who protest or speak to the press are ‘routinely beaten and starved, stripped naked and exposed to extreme temperatures’.

John Wilson of the Immigration Nationality Directorate’s Detention Operations Management Unit investigated the death of Robertus Grabys in Harmondsworth in 2000. Wilson’s report was suppressed for two years, until Liberty threatened the Home Office with judicial review. Grabys was a 50-year-old father of two who claimed asylum on the grounds that he was being persecuted in his native Lithuania because he was an active member of the Communist Party. He had a history of depression and on arrival in the UK in April 1998 told the immigration official who interviewed him that he had been in a psychiatric hospital in Lithuania and was frightened of being sent back. Grabys hanged himself in Harmondsworth on the morning of 24 January 2000, the day he was due to be deported.

Wilson concluded in his report that Burns International, the subsidiary of Securitas that was then running Harmondsworth, had no contingency plans, no suicide awareness policy, very little suicide training and no properly equipped emergency first-aid kit. ‘I ran back to the rest room to get a knife from my locker,’ one of the officers who found Grabys admitted. Only when he returned with a table knife could they cut Grabys down and try to resuscitate him. Another member of staff claimed in a statement included in Wilson’s report that ‘the management have already tampered with my original log, instructed other staff to rewrite their original logs and intercepted and withheld documents.’ They withheld witnesses too, he believed. ‘It is not even safe for me to work for a company that is prepared to go to these lengths,’ he said finally. Mystifyingly, the inquest into Grabys’s death recorded an open verdict.

Until there has been an inquest, a death cannot officially be counted as a suicide. Last May the Home Office, responding to my questions, claimed that there had been only one death in immigration detention since 1989 that had resulted in a coroner’s verdict of suicide. They withheld the name, but it was clear that the death they were referring to was that of Mikhail Bognarchuk, a Ukrainian, in Haslar in January 2003. But the inquest into the death of Kimpua Nsimba, a 24-year-old from Zaire who hanged himself in Harmondsworth in June 1990, had also returned a verdict of suicide. To add to the confusion, the immigration minister Beverley Hughes told the House of Commons in 2003: ‘There have been two apparent self-inflicted deaths in immigration removal centres in the last five years.’ It was only after persistent and repeated requests for information about Nsimba that I received a curiously worded answer from the Home Office:

The journalist believes we did not tell her about the suicide of Kimpua Nsimba (a 24-year-old Zairean) who committed suicide in Harmondsworth in 1990. Why did we not supply this information when asked for a list of all verdicts of suicide? Suicide is a matter for a coroner to define. Due to human error the answer previously given was incorrect, for which we can only apologise. There have been two confirmed suicides in immigration custody since 1989.

Since May there have been five inquests at which coroners concluded that the detainees took their own lives. In Scotland, there is a Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths Inquiry after a death in custody. The inquiry dealing with the death of Tran Quang Tung, an asylum seeker from Vietnam who hanged himself in July 2004 at Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre (managed by a subsidiary of Serco Home Affairs), is revealing.

Before he went to Dungavel, Tran had been in Harmondsworth, but a riot following the death by hanging of Sergey Barnuyck, a Ukrainian asylum seeker, led to the detainees being dispersed across the UK. At Harmondsworth Tran had been assessed by a nurse who didn’t know what language he spoke and didn’t use an interpreter. Despite her difficulty in communicating with him, she ticked all the boxes on the form she had to complete in order for him to be registered. It was much the same when he arrived at Dungavel:

A nurse’s assessment is normally carried out within two hours of the arrival of a detainee at Dungavel. A physical and mental examination must be carried out by a doctor within 24 hours of the detainee’s admission . . . Nurse Robb recorded details of her assessment of Tran Quang on a form provided by Premier Detention Services. She relied on Mr Derek Goh to interpret for her when she carried out her assessment of him. Mr Goh, who speaks six Far Eastern languages, including Mandarin and Cantonese, does not speak Vietnamese. He communicated with Tran Quang mainly in English with a sprinkling of Cantonese but was not very successful in making himself understood.

Tran was then seen by Dr Kathleen Morrison, who relied on Nurse Robb’s assessment, in the belief that it had been made with the help of an interpreter.

No interpreter was present when an immigration officer served the removal notice telling Tran to leave the UK. He was being sent back to Germany under the third-country rule, according to which people who didn’t directly come to Britain can be deported to countries they stopped at on their way. At the end of the document is a box to be completed by the person serving the notice: ‘The contents of this notice have been explained to you in English/....... by me/....... (name of interpreter).’ That box was not completed. The form was signed by the immigration officer. Despite these procedural shortcomings, the sheriff’s remarks are mild: ‘I was not persuaded by the evidence . . . at this inquiry that the failures in communication which I have described contributed in a significant way to [Tran’s] decision to take his own life.’

Stephen Shaw also reported on Tran, though without using his name:

The deceased left a letter in Vietnamese which has been translated. The letter asks the authorities to help him to be a refugee in England. The man says who he is, that his father was shot and his mother left town and sold her body. He goes on to say that he came to England and on his way stopped in Germany. He says he did not want to seek asylum in Germany. The man says that he wants to stay in England and that he is in love and engaged to his partner. The man says they love each other and cannot be separated . . . The interpreter offers the opinion that, although on the face of it the letter does not appear to be a suicide note, it is a Vietnamese custom to make a wish before you die and that the deceased is clearly making a wish in this letter.

I don’t know how much money the government has saved by privatising its detention system. The pity is that the Home Office seems to have washed its hands of its detainees. Perhaps it should publish league tables.

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