By Mark Townsend
Torture survivors seeking sanctuary in Britain are being wrongly held in government detention centres, despite independent medical evidence supporting claims of brutal violence against them in their home countries.
According to Home Office guidelines, in cases where there is evidence that a person seeking asylum has been tortured they should be detained only in "exceptional circumstances". But medical charities that carry out hundreds of independent assessments of torture survivors every year have accused the government of routinely ignoring their reports, with victims held in detention centres until their asylum claims are heard – and, in almost every case, rejected.
Sonya Sceats, a spokeswoman for one charity that carries out medical assessments for the government, told the Observer: "It's very clear there is a systemic and increasing problem here. The corollary of their dismissal of independent medical evidence is that the protection [asylum] claim is invariably rejected and this means a survivor of torture is at risk of being returned to further torture or at risk of detention."
The allegations come in the wake of strong criticism last week of the UK Border Agency, which was condemned for failing to investigate claims of mistreatment by failed asylum seekers in abuse allegations up to July 2008. Ministers now plan to review the use of force against asylum seekers by British security guards after a Border Agency report on abuse conceded that serious injuries were suffered by detainees who had been handcuffed or physically restrained.
The new allegations further highlight systematic mistreatment in Britain's asylum system. One 43-year-old torture victim from Zimbabwe, who is on hunger strike in Yarl's Wood detention centre, Bedfordshire, alleged she was detained despite independent verification of the abuse in her home country.
Her arms are scarred from repeated stabbings during an incident in Zimbabwe in which she was also beaten and raped. The woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, has been in Yarl's Wood for five months and alleges medical mistreatment and racist abuse by staff, claims that have been denied. She told the Observer: "The officers are racist and are not sympathetic. We have suffered and don't want to be tortured here, but inside here it is a form of torture but nobody can see us locked up."
Bibiche Lutete, 36, was beaten and repeatedly raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where the UN has confirmed rape is used as a weapon of war. After seeking asylum in the UK, she said she had been further traumatised while being illegally held in a British detention centre. She also claimed to have suffered "medical abuse" and had anxiety attacks after witnessing a naked woman dragged from her room in Yarl's Wood by private security guards, claims robustly denied by the Home Office.
"Everybody was shocked," she said. "She had no clothes on and she was photographed. I still get flashbacks."
The Medical Foundation For the Care of Victims of Torture, the UK charity dedicated to the treatment of torture survivors, said it had lodged complaints with the Home Office over concerns that its assessments documenting evidence of abuse among asylum seekers were being increasingly dismissed by officials. The foundation cited figures from the last 18 months showing only seven people had been released from detention out of 250 cases where clinical evidence of abuse had been presented.
The Border Agency denied it dismissed the evidence of independent medical experts. Hugh Ind, the agency's director for protection, said: "We consider all evidence submitted in support of asylum claims very carefully, including claims of torture. Where an individual sets out a credible case that they are in need of protection, we normally grant asylum."
An Observer investigation has also found that the number of "assaults" against refugees in detention centres remains high. The charity Medical Justice Network has documented at least 15 recent cases where a detainee claims they were assaulted, while allegations by asylum seekers of inadequate healthcare are running at eight a month.
A number involve torture survivors, including one from the DRC who ended up in hospital last March after sustaining severe handcuff injuries during an attempted deportation from the UK by private security guards. His complaint to the Border Agency tells how six guards restrained him on a plane and that "one turned round trying to strangle me by my throat while the other was banging my head on the seat in front".
The government is trying to clear a backlog of 200,000 asylum cases, though the border agency admits it can process fewer than half its target applications a month. Three Russians refugees leapt to their death from the 15th floor of a block of flats in Glasgow last Sunday, prompting further concern over the treatment of asylum seekers. Yesterday hundreds of people joined a rally in the city and called for an end to the "enforced removal of refugee families".