Growth of Immigration Detainee Deaths in UK Reveals Flaws of Broken System
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Video by Sushmita Chatterjee
A combination of official torpor, detainee despair and the Kafkaesque nature of detention without trial has led in recent months to a growing number of deaths of individuals caught in what many say is the United Kingdom’s broken immigrant detention system.
Little is known about the deaths: all that the Home Office - which oversees the country’s immigration and counter-terrorism efforts -- will confirm is that on July 31, a 35-year-old male being held at Colnbrook Immigration Removal Center located outside London died. Neither his name, nationality nor the circumstances of his death were released.
Just days later, another unidentified man believed to have been facing imminent deportation was found hanged at Campsfield removal center near Oxford. Weeks earlier, a 47-year-old Pakistani migrant, Muhammed Shuket, died on his way to the hospital from the same immigration center, while a Jamaican immigrant who had overstayed his visa cut his own throat on a deportation flight from the UK to Jamaica in June (The man survived).
The British government is facing a barrage of litigation from human rights law firms over the deaths and other incidents of self-abuse involving immigrant detainees.
According to the UK Border Agency, which oversees the country's immigration affairs, "The police and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman always investigate deaths in immigration detention centres and it would be inappropriate to comment until these were complete.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, however, an official with the government’s internal legal department said that the United Kingdom’s immigration system is increasingly dysfunctional and the branches of the government dealing with it so moribund and riddled with low morale they are in near meltdown.
“There’s just a constant barrage of litigation from those either seeking redress for having been held illegally or separated from their children - and some people are held for years in legal limbo without knowing what’s going to happen to them,” he said. “I look at some of the cases that land on my table with growing regularity and am finding it disturbing.”
The UK is one of a mere handful of European countries that have not set a limit on how long they lock up immigrants scheduled for deportation - Ireland has one of 56 days; France a limit of 32.
The official continued, “It’s also extremely hard to assign responsibility or investigate when it comes to some of the accusations made with regard to their treatment when they’re detained, as both detainees and staff are moved around so much that people’s movements can be hard to trace.”
It’s a concern echoed by the Ministry of Justice’s own inspectors at their most recent visit to Dover Detention Center, a formidable looking building that occupies the site of Napoleonic era fortifications in the country’s southeast. Now an “immigration removal center” run by the Prison Service, it holds appellant and failed asylum seekers for the Immigration Service pending repatriation.
The government’s Chief Inspector of Prisons Anne Owers slammed the site following a recent inspection for failing to “Prevent unnecessary moves around the detainee estate and explain to detainees why they are being moved... [It is] not uncommon for a detainee to move to Dover pending removal on a particular flight and then to be transferred between centers again the following day.”
The report, despite being couched in the legalese of a crown inspectorate, pointed to issues faced across such centers nationwide: “On-site UK Border Agency (UKBA) induction interviews we observed were poor, reviews of detention were uninformative and sometimes late, and responses to Rule 35 letters (claiming that a detainee was unfit to be detained) were sporadic.”