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Thursday, 13 August 2009

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons: Removal from the UK is an invisible and stressful process


'Detainee escorts and removals', a short thematic review by Anne Owers, Chief Inspector of Prisons of escorts for transferring and removing immigration detainees has, "found worrying gaps and weaknesses in complaints and monitoring processes. It also found varying practice, with no evidence that the good and thoughtful approach of some staff was mirrored in clear and consistent standards of treatment, support and communication. This heightened the risk of ill-treatment or abuse, and was also likely to lead to failed removals."

The report was compiled in June 2009 and published Thursday 13 August 2009.

Introduction from the review

The behaviour of immigration escort staff involved in removing detainees, particularly those resisting removal, has been a focus of concern for some time. The 2005 investigation by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, following a BBC documentary, noted the potentiality for abuse and the need for robust management and more effective monitoring. More recently, legal and voluntary organisations collected a dossier of cases of serious concern in Outsourcing abuse, which are now the subject of independent investigation by the former Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman.

Independent inspection of escorts is particularly problematic. Those being escorted are, by definition, a transient population, many of whom will leave the UK afterwards. The presence of inspectors on escorts is itself likely to influence behaviour. It is therefore essential that there are built-in safeguards to minimise the possibility of over-enthusiastic use of force, or abusive behaviour, and to ensure that those being escorted have the fullest opportunity to complain if they believe they have been ill-treated. This short thematic inspection found, however, that there were considerable gaps and weaknesses in the systems for monitoring, investigating and complaining about incidents where force had been used or where abuse was alleged.

Inspectors interviewed detainees in the Heathrow short-term holding facilities, accompanied detainees being removed, spoke to detainees who had been returned to Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre following a failed removal, and examined 66 escort-related incident reports held by the UK Border Agency's Detainee Escorting and Population Management Unit (DEPMU).

The interviews in the short-term holding centres underlined problems that we have frequently referred to in previous inspections of such facilities: long and exhausting journeys, inability to access medication or possessions, and poor communication with non-English speaking detainees to relieve their anxieties. While the use of the separation, or 'returns', room was better regulated than previously, the care and support of those who were vulnerable or self-harming was inconsistent and sometimes inadequate.

Some of the detainees interviewed at Colnbrook had no concerns about their treatment. However, several others had been subject to force and some alleged abusive treatment or lack of proper medical attention. Equally, we were concerned that none of the Colnbrook detainees said that the complaints process had been explained to them.

Our observation of the inevitably stressful and distressing process of removal revealed variable practice. Most escorting staff behaved appropriately, but some acted in a way that drew attention to the detainee or aggravated the situation, without concern for the wellbeing of the detainee or indeed the eventual outcome. These extremes were evident in the same escort team. One officer was impatient and aggressive, inflaming the situation so that there was a swift resort to use of force; while another recovered the situation by quietly and calmly talking to the detainee on the plane and sorting out the practical problem that he was concerned about.

Safeguards in this process were singularly lacking. Not only were detainees not informed of how to complain, but escort staff themselves did not know what they would do if a complaint was made. DEPMU contract monitors were present at a proportion of escorts, but largely as observers: it was not clear what their role was, or the criteria that determined how and when they would intervene. Sometimes they appeared to be part of the escort team.

Incident reports, like observed removals, showed variable and inconsistent practice. It was not evident, for example, why force was used in one case but not in another. We also found examples of cases where reports of incidents that we had observed or noted should have been raised, but had not been. What was also clear was that in most cases the use of force did not assist removal, but in fact led to its abandonment. Medical examinations were not routinely carried out after the use of force or handcuffs, even when injuries were noted.

In three cases, detainees did not speak English, and no interpretation appeared to have been used, even though one self-harmed during the escort. A number of detainees had medical problems, and medical assistance was not always at hand. In other cases, removals were cancelled because of the absence of escort staff, or detainees were returned from countries that refused to accept them. One detainee whose judicial review had been successful at the last moment would have been removed had he not refused to board the plane.

Removal from the UK is an invisible and stressful process. It is essential that it is surrounded by effective safeguards to protect detainees, and that staff carrying out this difficult task are properly trained and supervised. This short report found worrying gaps and weaknesses in complaints and monitoring processes. It also found variable practice, with no evidence that the good and thoughtful approach of some staff was mirrored in clear and consistent standards of treatment, support and communication. This heightened the risk of ill-treatment or abuse, and was also likely to lead to failed removals.


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