Phil Woolas’s defence of the inhumane Yarl’s Wood removal centre reflects Labour’s shift to the right on asylum
Simon Parker, The Guardian, Comment is Free, Thursday 25 March 2010, 15.00 GMT.
Phil Woolas’s response to a further damning report on Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre by the chief inspector of prisons shows that the government has to resort to scare tactics and lies to defend a policy that has been condemned by several royal colleges of medicine, the Faculty of Public Health, the former children’s commissioner for England, many leading Christian and Jewish faith leaders, all the major children’s charities, and 121 MPs — including 49 members of Woolas’s own parliamentary party.
It is simply untrue to assert, as the immigration minister does, that the only alternative to imprisoning children in high-security detention facilities such as Yarl’s Wood is separating them from their parents and putting them into local authority care. Australia and Sweden maintain families in the community even when their claims for asylum have been declared unfounded, and both countries have managed to achieve higher voluntary return rates than the UK’s as a consequence.
What is more worrying, however, is that Woolas appears to be backtracking on his own government’s commitment to seeking alternatives to immigration detention, such as the current community-based pilot scheme in Glasgow that is being run in conjunction with the local authority and the Scottish government.
In the runup to the general election it is increasingly clear that New Labour want to “out-nasty” the Tories when it comes to denigrating asylum seekers and refugees. Woolas described those detained in Yarl’s Wood as “illegal immigrants” even though he knows full well that the vast majority made perfectly proper and legal asylum claims. The fact that over half of the families in Yarl’s Wood are later released, as Dame Anne Owers points out in her report, completely undermines the minister’s claim that their removal has been properly decided by the independent courts. In fact hundreds of families who pass through Dungavel and Yarl’s Wood are subsequently granted indefinite leave to remain or refugee status because on closer inspection their claims turn out not to be “illegal” or “bogus” but well-founded.
An increasing number of families are being held in Yarl’s Wood under the “detained fast track” system – ie while their cases are still being determined by Home Office officials – a practice that has been condemned by the European commissioner for human rights and the European courts, but that the Leader of the House of Lords, Lady Royall, describes as “an unavoidable necessity for the DFT process”.
Woolas and his government are in clear breach of the council of ministers directive, which “provides for the special vulnerabilities of asylum-seeking children and minimum standards for arrangements for their welfare, treating the best interests of children as a primary consideration”. The directive came into force in UK law in February 2005 and requires states “to make special arrangements for the accommodation of children to meet their needs and best interests. This does not equate to detention”.
The Home Office’s increasing resort to scare stories about child trafficking follows on from a similar piece of nonsense that junior minister Meg Hillier came out with on the BBC’s Daily Politics show on Friday. She suggested that if the government stopped locking up children then childless asylum seekers would have an incentive to acquire a “get out of detention free kid” from a passing child trafficker.
The government’s constant talk of “illegal migrants”, “would-be child traffickers” and “frivolous” and “vexatious” abusers of the judicial system is intended to deflect attention from its own failed policies in treating asylum seeking families fairly and humanely, and to foster a climate of disbelief and contempt in relation to those who seek the sanctuary of our shores. No country can call itself civilised if it engages in the persecution of the persecuted, however popular the contempt for them may be among the public at large or how many votes a government that is desperately clinging to power thinks it may salvage.
Refugee and Migrant Justice, a charity that provides legal advice and support to asylum-seekers and other vulnerable migrants in the UK, today issued a report Safe at Last. Children on the front line of UK Border Control which found consistent evidence of the government’s failure to abide by its safeguarding duties under Section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009.
RMJ investigated the treatment of over 30 young unaccompanied minors who have been detained at the Port of Dover as “illegal entrants” – all of whom were subject to lengthy and improper interviews, often without access to urgently needed medical treatment or the presence of a responsible adult. Information gleaned from these interviews when the interviewee is exhausted, highly stressed and often in physical pain is frequently used to undermine the credibility of the young person for the purposes of denying their asylum claim. Contrary to UKBA statements there is no evidence that such interviews are held in order to secure the welfare of the child but rather that such children are made to endure the harsh detention and immigration control procedures to which adult suspected illegal entrants are subject. A typical case cited by the RMJ report is that of Ali.
Ali was 14 when he arrived in the UK. He had a very painful bladder condition and the UK Border Agency interviewed him without offering him medical care:
When I arrived in the UK I was arrested and handcuffed. I think the police arrested me. I was feeling very ill and I was tired and hungry. I told the police officers that I was tired and needed to sleep but they said I could not. I was interviewed that night and I don’t know what time it was, maybe 11pm or midnight. I was asked how old I was and I told them I was 13. During the interview I said I felt ill. I had a pain in my genital area and I could not hold my bladder. I told the officers this, but they did not do anything. They just wrote something down and asked the next question. I found it difficult to concentrate as my mind was on this pain. I was also very hungry because I had not eaten anything. I didn’t feel myself. I was too scared to say anything, I was scared that I would be sent back or maybe locked up. I didn’t have anybody there to explain what the interview was about. I can’t even say how long the interview lasted.
About five minutes after the interview finished I was given the opportunity to eat some food but then they locked me up for the night. They did not explain why. It was very cold. I had a short-sleeved t-shirt on. The floor was like concrete and it was freezing. I wasn’t given a blanket or anything for my arms. I didn’t sleep at all. A doctor did not come to see me.
Refugee and Migrant Justice is currently seeking a judicial review of the lawfulness of the UKBA’s detention and illegal entrant interview practices in relation to unaccompanied minors. Because the legal process can be lengthy time consuming, RMJ has called on the the UK Border Agency to discontinue immediately its policy of interviewing children before safeguarding their welfare. It further recommends that
- UK authorities, including the police, refer children to the children’s services department of the relevant local authority as soon as a child becomes known to them, to ensure their welfare needs are met
- Children are offered appropriate medical treatment, rest and food immediately after being brought into contact with the UK authorities
- Interviews only take place after children have recovered from their journey, are well, and have had access to relevant services
- Children are given access to legal representation prior to and throughout any interview with the UK Border Agency.
- The practice of interviewing children alone, by an untrained interviewer and without an independent adult and legal representative being present is stopped.
- The UK Border Agency recruits a wider range of qualified interpreters to ensure children are safeguarded and correctly understood, as well as understanding the questions put to them. These interpreters should be trained to work with children and have Criminal Records Bureau clearance.
- The UK Border Agency urgently publishes its Asylum Policy Instructions on how to assess asylum claims of unaccompanied asylum seeking children. This guidance has been missing for a number of years and without clear guidance to staff on the assessment of asylum claims for children serious problems such as those documented in this report will continue.
Campaigners for the release of young Afghani orphan Mashal Jabari were delighted to hear that following a judicial review being lodged the judge agreed the following interim measures: until another full age assessment is completed, Mashal is to be considered 14 years of age and placed with a foster family in Wales where he has some support.
After being transported in a caged van with an adult detainee on the long journey from Cardiff to Oxfordshire, Mashall was placed in a dormitory with seven adult men. The UKBA planned to put Mashal on a flight to Afghanistan on Tuesday 9 March where his parents and sister had been killed for collaborating with the allied occupation forces. His older brother who has been given refugee status is currently taking his GCSE examinations in Leicester and is frantic with worry at the fate of his younger sibling.
Mashal was released from Campsfield House IRC at around 7.30 on Thursday evening and is now with his foster carers in Cardiff. A full update including details of further action and support that would help Mashal’s case to be resolved quickly and to assist him in beginning to recover from the trauma he has experienced in his own country and here in the UK will follow.
Thank you to everyone who sent letters, faxes and emails to the Home Secretary Rt. Hon. Alan Johnson MP, Evan Harris MP and their local MPs.
The response has been overwhelming, heartening and invaluable.
A 14 year old orphan has been arrested & detained in Campsfield Immigration Removal centre near Oxford, which exclusively holds adult males, and is due to be deported because the authorities claim not to believe he is under 18. His older brother has refugee status — the authorities accept that the older brother is under 18. . .As they say, do the maths.
Welsh Refugee Council today called on UKBA and Cardiff Council to act quickly to release Mashal Jabari, 14 years of age, from Campsfield detention centre, and to suspend removal directions until a full assessment of his age can be made. Welsh Refugee Council does not normally comment on individual cases, but in this instance believes that there are compelling compassionate grounds why this boy should be allowed to remain in the UK.
Zaki Jabar, aged 15, arrived in the UK alone and extremely traumatised in November 2008. He came from Afghanistan and when he left his father was missing presumed dead and his mother was sick. His family had been attacked after his father had given assistance to the American forces, and Zaki had seen his sister killed. He was placed in foster care in Leicester by Rutland Social Services and given Refugee Status. He is currently sitting his GCSEs. He was anxious to trace his younger brother Mashal.
Mashal Jabari arrived in the UK in October last year, and claimed asylum on arrival. By then he knew that both his parents were dead. He was assessed as being over 18 even though he said he was 14. He was sent to Cardiff where he was initially placed in the hostel for adult new arrivals. He was refused asylum in November. Welsh Refugee Council staff working in the hostel, who have now known Mashal for 4 months, have been extremely concerned because he seemed so clearly to be 14 rather than 18 and because he has been depressed and suicidal at the fear of being sent home to Afghanistan.
Mashal’s GP has stated in writing that Marshal appears to be under 18. Social workers in Cardiff are on record as saying that they think Mashal is under 18 following an initial assessment, but they have not carried out a full age assessment and so it has not been possible to persuade the Border Agency of his age.
Mashal said he had an older brother called Zaki who was also somewhere in the UK. Eventually, through a chance encounter, it has been possible for the 2 brothers to be reunited – they met last month in Leicester. Photos of the meeting show them with their arms around each other – Zaki the tall broad shouldered one, Mashal the small, boyish one.
In an adjournment debate called by the Conservative MP for Bedfordshire North-East, Alastair Burt, the Home Office Minister, Meg Hillier, told the House of Commons that in the financial year 2008-09, 1,116 children entered detention. She went on to report that ‘some 539 of those children, slightly fewer than half, were removed, and 629 were released’-no fewer than 53.8% of all the children who had been detained.
Although the government issued its customary health warning that these figures are based on ‘management information’ and therefore not subject to the detailed checks that apply to the publication of national statistics, this nevertheless confirms the fact that the detention of families is not being used when the independent courts have determined that the parents or children have no lawful right to remain, but as an arbitrary instrument of policy in order to drive up removal figures.
Despite reassurances to Parliament that the detention of children and families would be used for ‘the shortest time possible’, as Diane Abbott MP pointed out the average length of detention has continued to grow. According to the Minister, the average length of detention for children was 16 days in 2008-09, which is double the figure for 2007. The snapshot figure for 30 September 2009, found that 25 children had been detained for seven days or fewer, five for eight to 14 days, five for 15 to 28 days and ten for 29 or more days but less than two months. No figures were provided on the proportion of children who may have been subject to re-detention in the previous 12 months.
Ms Hillier, conceded that a child going through this process [of being woken in the early hours of the morning by complete strangers in uniforms and forcibly driven in a locked van to an immigration removal centre] ‘will find it very challenging’. Alastair Burt asked if the Minister was ‘somewhat painting a picture that parents are making a deliberate choice to go into detention and have their children with them as if the alternative were an easy one’.
I would like her to recognise that for many parents, that choice is not easy at all. That is the dilemma in which they are caught and which the system has somehow to try to deal with – Alastair Burt, MP
The debate had been called by the Conservative Deputy Chief Whip, whose constituency includes Yarl’s Wood following a protest of women hunger strikers on Monday 8 February, during which 70 women were locked inside a hallway in the women’s wing of the removal centre without access to toilet facilities for several hours. One woman suffered a serious asthma attack, and the four alleged organisers of the protest have been sent to HMP Holloway. None of the women who were removed from Yarl’s Wood have been charged with any offences. Up to 5o women remain on hunger strike after more than 10 days.
The Minister was unmoved by the protests or the plight of families facing imminent deportation: ‘…many people will choose anything rather than willingly return to a situation. That can be for all sorts of reasons, and not just because they feel in physical danger. In the end, the parents make the choices that face them, however difficult they are, so some responsibility needs to lie there’.
In other words, it is the fault of the parents that their children are locked up, not the government or its agents who arrest and imprison them. However, the UKBA’s persistent claims that it always acts humanely and within the law are coming unstuck as a growing number of decisions by the independent courts are finding the Home Office guilty of wrongfully imprisoning asylum seeking families. Meanwhile hundreds of children continue to have their lives blighted by our country’s ‘firm but fair asylum and immigration system’.
The Guardian newspaper in its online edition, carries a report by Diane Taylor and Hugh Muir highlighting the shocking allegations of a former caseworker, at the UKBA office in Cardiff. The former UKBA employee, Louise Perrett, claimed that asylum seekers were mistreated, tricked and humiliated by staff working for the UK Border Agency. Ms Perrett reveals how
- staff kept a stuffed gorilla, a “grant monkey”, which was placed as a badge of shame on the desk of any officer who approved an asylum application
- boys from African countries who said they had been forcibly conscripted as child soldiers were made to lie down on the floor and demonstrate how they shot at people in the bush
- one method used to determine the authenticity of an asylum seeker claiming to be from North Korea was to ask whether the person ate chop suey
- interviews were conducted without lawyers, independent witnesses or tape recorders
One manager said of the asylum-seeker clients: “If it was up to me I’d take them all outside and shoot them.”
Another told her this was to be expected, adding: “No one in this office is very PC. In fact everyone is the exact opposite.”
Home Affairs Select Committee Chair, Keith Vaz said: “I am deeply concerned by a number of ex-UKBA workers who have spoken out about flaws in the points-based system and behaviour such as this. I will be writing to the chief executive, Lin Homer, to discover what steps are being taken to remedy this culture of disbelief and discrimination.”
Re-posted from the Stoke-on-Trent Sentinel, January 23 2010.
“..the handling of this case as a whole, both prior to and following the bringing of judicial review, fails in several respects to meet the requirements of both the public interest in an efficient immigration system and the protection of individual rights”.
– Judge David Elvin
A FAMILY of asylum seekers are in line to receive tens of thousands of pounds in damages after they were unlawfully detained for three weeks.
A High Court judge yesterday ruled that Fred Nukagem, and his wife and children, were held for too long prior to a planned deportation to Cameroon due to the “procedural ineptitude” of immigration authorities.
Negotiations are now underway over how much should be paid to Mr Nukagem.
And the legal team for the 38-year-old, from Middleport, is also hoping to reach an agreement over a compensation settlement for his wife and three children.
Solicitor Hani Zubeidi, of London-based Fadiga and Co, said: “We are looking at tens of thousands of pounds because, quite frankly, this is a shocking case.”
Mr Nukagem, who says he and his family will be killed for political reasons if they return to Cameroon, claimed asylum after initially arriving in the country in 2003 as a student and later working illegally.
No Borders Brighton is urging Crawley Borough Council to reject plans to turn the Mercure Hotel on Povey Cross Road into a removal centre, writes Miranda Wilson in IRR News. The group claims the design of the 254-bed hotel means it could only be converted to house families. It strongly opposes the detention of children who it says: ‘are especially vulnerable to the physical and psychological effects of imprisonment and many end up suffering from illnesses such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, effects suffered even after a brief period of detention.’
This news confirms the view of End Child Detention Now and fellow anti-detention campaigners that the UKBA continues to use detention of children and families not as ‘a last resort’ but as an instrument of policy with a view to removing as many asylum claimants who are initially refused leave to remain as possible, while ‘deterring’ any would be refugee or asylum seeker with the threat of destitution, detention and deportation. A policy that a recent Refugee Council research report has shown to have no significant impact on the destinations of would be asylum seekers.
Despite the overwhelming medical evidence that detention does long term harm to children who are already vulnerable and traumatised, it is clear that the planned expansion of the vastly expensive UKBA detention estate will require thousands more children to suffer what the Royal Colleges of Medicine have described as ‘signficant harm‘. An assessment which is backed up by the Chief Inspector of Prisons recently published report of an unannounced inspection of the Short Term Holding Facilty, Electric House in Croydon in June last year which discovered from the logs
that the four-yearold, who had been brought in out of hours, had not been accompanied by an adult. In addition, these out-of-hours logs did not record how long the person was detained or where they were sent afterwards.
The report also noted that ‘[i]nformation about the detention of children was not properly monitored, and although there was a child protection policy…it had not been agreed by the local safeguarding children board. While ‘i]mmigration staff had received child protection training’ – ‘Group 4 Securicor staff were not sufficiently trained in child protection issues and there was no child protection coordinator for the facility’. Suicide attempts are so common that the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons recommends that detention staff carry ‘anti-ligature’ knives at all times.
If these findings were published in relation to the running of a local authority children’s home the chances are it would be immediately shut down, but because these children are ‘in the care’ of the UKBA and their private contractors, the local authority child protection system either turns a blind eye, or in the case of Yarl’s Wood, actively cooperates with a child detention regime which the Children’s Commissioner has declared to be harmful to children. Not only should local authorities be denying planning permission for new immigration prisons, under national and international child protection law they should be demanding that the existing facilities are immediately closed.
END CHILD DETENTION NOW exposes UKBA’s misleading claims to parliament on damning medical report.
This piece was written by Clare Sambrook and first appeared at OpenDemocracy
Back in October, a study by NHS paediatricians and psychologists, Lorek et al, found that babies and children were being harmed at Yarl’s Wood detention centre.
The doctors recorded children’s ‘increased fear due to being suddenly placed in a facility resembling a prison’, their weight loss and tummy pains, how older children were so stressed they wet their beds and soiled their pants.
The study related the photographing and the fingerprinting, the roll calls and the body searches, the ID cards that children must carry at all times, the ten locked doors between freedom and the family centre, the steep deterioration in parents’ mental health and parenting abilities, the self-harm and the suicide attempts.
CUMBRIAN bookseller, Derek Robinson, spent Christmas Day making the 500-mile round-trip to Bedfordshire to deliver books and puzzles for the innocent children locked up at Yarl’s Wood detention centre.
Derek, whose trip is featured in this week’s Big Issue In the North, owns Penrith’s Bluebell Bookshop. He said, ‘I wanted to bring the very best books we could find, stories of other worlds beyond what the children are enduring, of love, amazing imagination, freedom and excitement, a chance to escape for moments from their distress, into artful and wonderful illustrations.’
He was inspired to act by children’s author Beverley Naidoo’s article in the Guardian about her visit to Yarl’s Wood,
Derek has mounted an End Child Detention Now campaign exhibition at the Bluebell, where customers may sign paper petitions or use the shop’s computers to sign on-line at http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/NoChildDetention/.
Our campaign’s Penrith-based co-ordinator, novelist Clare Sambrook, said: ‘We’ve had such encouraging local support. Greengrocers, Green Mangle Organic, are promoting the campaign at their stall. Hundreds of Cumbrians, including the Bishop of Carlisle, many clergy and churchpeople, have signed the on-line petition. Dozens of people have written to MP David Maclean asking him to join the 113 MPs who’ve signed Chris Mullin’s parliamentary motion opposing the detention policy.
‘The children’s authors’ and illustrators’ letter in the Observer, Beverley Naidoo’s chilling Guardian article, and the comment kindly forwarded by Michael Bond from Paddington Bear, have had an impact we could not have anticipated. Many many people are beginning to realise that there are real children locked up in those terrible places, children with the same imaginative and emotional capacity as our children’.
Anyone inspired to highlight the campaign is invited to email us at email@example.com. Schools, shops, faith groups, trade unions, anyone at all — we’ll be delighted to send images and text for exhibition.
Thanks to Fred Wilson for the picture of Derek Robinson at the Bluebell