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Wednesday, 8 November 2006

Is Harmondsworth Britain's equivalent of Guantanamo bay?

Source: Tribune

By Peter Tatchell

Harmondsworth immigration and asylum detention centre in west London is Britain 's equivalent of Guantanamo Bay . Well, not exactly but almost. Guantanamo detainees can spend three or more years in detention without trial, whereas most inmates at Harmondsworth are detained without trial only six to 12 months. Abuse by custody officers and deprivation of basic rights is, however, common in both facilities.

In theory, there are mechanisms for the redress of abuses at Harmondsworth. In practice, the centre is often above the law. Moreover, government cuts in legal aid mean that many detainees have no legal representation to challenge victimisation. Given the centre's inhumane conditions and inmate's lack of redress, last weeks' riot at Harmondsworth was entirely predictable.

Most detainees are refugees who have fled violent persecution in their home countries. Although they have committed no crime, our Labour government locks them up like common criminals. Many are not even so-called “failed” asylum seekers. They are awaiting consideration of their asylum applications. Yet these innocents are subjected to a high security prison-style regime and to alleged criminal abuse by officers.

I know of asylum claimants who have been detained for 18 months – the equivalent of a three year jail sentence. For what? Many are victims of tyrannical regimes. They seek refuge in Britain and are incarcerated without charge, with fewer legal rights than people arrested for murder and rape.

MPs rightly defeated the government's bid to detain terror suspects for 90 days. When will these defenders of freedom vote to overturn the even longer detention inflicted on innocent asylum seekers?

The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, issued a damning report last week, describing conditions in Harmondsworth as the worst she has ever seen in an immigration and asylum detention centre. She revealed that 60% of inmates felt unsafe and 44% said they had been victimised by officers. There have been four suicides since 2000. Many officers are, she said, "aggressive", "intimidating", "rude" and "unhelpful."

Based on my personal contacts inside Harmondsworth, I can confirm what Anne Owers has documented – and more. I have received persistent reports of serious human rights abuses. There are, of course, some outstandingly good officers who go out of their way to help detainees. They deserve honours. But many other officers should be prosecuted and jailed.

The allegations of abuse I have heard involve physical violence, sexual assault, racism, homophobic harassment and corruption, including alleged collusion with drug de ali ng and extortion within the detention centre. There are no proper checks and balances to stop these violations. Detainees are virtually powerless.

Criminal gangs reportedly operate inside Harmondsworth, with impunity. These are mostly convicted criminals awaiting deportation. They are free to prey on vulnerable, law-abiding asylum applicants who have committed no crime. A small, slight teenage refugee alleges that these gangs openly abused and threatened him, while officers stood around watching and laughing.

It is claimed that some of these gangs are regularly allowed access to staff offices to use the phones and computers. Office access is normally unavailable to other inmates. One can only speculate as to who authorises their use of these facilities and why.

Denial of proper medical care is routine. A torture and rape victim I helped was held at Harmondsworth for six months, without receiving any treatment or counselling. Detainees suffering severe illness and trauma are often fobbed off with aspirin.

Gay inmates, or those merely suspected (sometimes erroneously) of being gay, face a barrage of insults, threats and, occasionally, actual queer-bashing violence. Officers rarely intervene to discipline the perpetrators or protect the victims.

Known or suspected gay men are reportedly sometimes subjected to finger anal examinations, with no explanation and no apparent medical or security justification. One detainee described this examination as deeply traumatic, as it replicated the rape he suffered in Uganda . He says officers laughed and insulted him as they aggressively fingered inside his anus. When he later asked different officers if he could make a complaint, he was advised this could damage his appeal against the refusal of asylum.

This detainee alleges that Harmondsworth officers abused him as a “nigger” and a “batty boy”; denied him medical treatment for the effects of rape and torture in Uganda; forced him through the asylum system without legal representation; confiscated his asylum papers and asthma inhaler; despite his breathing difficulties forced him to share a room with a chain smoker; and attempted to deport him without serving him with a removal order.

Recently, a HIV-positive refugee was put in a room with a person suffering from TB – a potential death sentence for an immune-compromised person with HIV.

There are also allegations of the use of humiliating strip searches and punitive solitary confinement; sometimes for petty, unjustified reasons. Segregation and isolation were used in Harmondsworth as a punishment 129 times in the first six months of 2006 (in the same period, the right to free association was withdrawn from inmates 440 times). It is said that on some occasions solitary has been meted out for no other reason than a detainee's loud protest against abuses. Some officers would, it seems, prefer to silence critics rather than deal with their complaints.

What is needed is a comprehensive independent investigation of Harmondsworth and other asylum detention centres. But it won't happen. Look at the way the government has failed to remedy prison abuses. If there was an investigation, it would probably be a whitewash. From my experience of the bias of the Prison and Probation Ombudsman, these oversight bodies are not objective. They are part of the establishment. Their first loyalty is to the institution they are supposed to monitor, not to the abused victims.

If the allegations about Harmondsworth are true, they are so serious that criminal charges should follow against the officers concerned and against the management company, Kalyx Ltd. This private firm is allowed to profit from the misery and suffering of refugees. Has our Labour government lost its heart, as well as its head?

The allegations against Harmondsworth concern imprisonable criminal offences. Successive Home Office ministers have been alerted to these allegations, but have ignored them.

If the allegations can be proven, these ministers should be not only be sacked; they should also face criminal charges of negligence. The Home Office asylum minister, Liam Byrne, has ultimate responsibility for what happens in detention centres. Currently, he appears to be failing in his duty of care by allowing human rights abuses to continue unchecked.

Even before Anne Owers's report, the government had been informed about abuses at Harmondsworth by asylum support groups and campaigners like myself. Nothing was done by the Home Office, as far as I am aware.

Harmondsworth and the other asylum detention centres are a disgrace to a supposedly democratic, civilised nation. They are unfit for purpose, and should be closed down.

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