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Sunday, 29 August 2010

Our national disgrace: The detainees wrongly held in UK 'prisons'

End Detention NowImage by Gareth Harper via FlickrSource: The Voice

By Merissa Richards

Hundreds of black people are currently being held in immigration detention centres - some have been held for several years. So, how fair is our system of deportation? Merissa Richards spoke to detainees, campaigners and the UK Border Agency.

The coalition Government announced recently that they will be closing down the family wing at Yarl's Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire, where in controversial circumstances women and children awaiting deportation from the UK are held.

While the move has been welcomed by immigrant welfare organisations, there is still a great deal of concern over the numbers of people being held in detention while their right to stay in Britain is being examined. There is also disquiet among lawyers and campaigners that many of those in detention are being held illegally and have a clear right of abode in the UK, and many have mental health issues or are victims of torture – grounds which should legally stop someone from being held in detention.

Earlier this year, a freedom of information request by the BBC as to the extent of compensation payouts made by the Government to those found to be held illegally, was refused. However, former immigration minister Phil Woolas admitted that millions of pounds had been paid to migrants for wrongful detention.

A survey of solicitors by the BBC found evidence of payments totalling at least £2m. According to the BBC in the past three years five legal firms have won compensation for a total of 121 individuals. In one case a Congolese family were paid £150,000.

There are currently around 2,800 people in detention, of which over a third are of African or Caribbean origin. Last year a total of 1,065 were deported to Africa and the Caribbean. Many detainees have claimed that they are being unlawfully detained and in some cases wrongly refused asylum, with the tacit support of immigration lawyers who they claim do little to help them.

In many cases those held in detention centres have been convicted of a criminal offence and, therefore, their cases arouse limited public sympathy and support.

During The Voice’s own investigation we came across one detainee who had been held for three years while his case was investigated. Someone being held in prison-like detention for three years without a trial or conviction may shock many Britons unaware that this is going on right now in this country.
It has been claimed by campaigners that the Home Office has misled courts over the likelihood of deportation for those convicted of a criminal offence. Often those held in detention spend more time in custody awaiting deportation than the time served in prison for a criminal conviction.

Habib Rahmon, chief executive of Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, told The Voice: “Our position is that detention is the last resort and that the people should be left in the community. If necessary their address should be taken and confirmed.”

Rahmon added: “People are detained routinely. We know of people who have been detained routinely for the wrong reason and we detest that. If the people haven’t done anything wrong they should be left in the community.

“It is disproportionately people from African backgrounds. Routinely detaining people for fear they may run away is not right. The conditions in the detention centres are like prison.”

Home Office guidelines state that detention is appropriate in cases where removal is imminent, or within a ‘reasonable period’, or where there is a risk that a person might abscond.

The stories of those being held in detention rarely get heard in the mainstream media. The Voice visited and spoke to a number of detainees in detention centres. We visited under the guise of being a ‘friend’ of those being held. Here are some of their personal stories...



Carlton Mcloud: ‘I HAVE TRIED TO COMMIT SUICIDE THREE TIMES’


Carlton Mcloud, 34, from Camberwell in south London, is being held at Brook House detention centre in West Sussex. He has been held in detention centres for three years.

“I came here at the age of 16, I was born in America and my mother was Jamaican. My mum died when I was 14 in America and one of her friends brought me to this country.

“I was abused by them and exploited to make illegal money. I have no travel documents.

“I was imprisoned prior to this for three-and-a-half years as I got into an altercation with someone who had robbed me previously, so when I saw him I did the same.

“However, now I feel as though I am being further imprisoned and punished. I have served my time. I have a child who was born here and I am missing out on witnessing her growing. The Home Office is running my life and breaching my human rights.

“I have tried to commit suicide three times, I feel all alone and helpless I am not taken seriously due to being in here. I have been put on medication as I sometimes get extremely depressed. I have been told that in this vulnerable state I should not be in here.

“There is no way I should be kept here for three years, they should either give me bail or release me. This does not represent ‘imminent removal’. I am being detained without trial.”

Mcloud’s MP Simon Hughes said: “I am clear that he has served his time and he ought to be given a clean break. We’re trying to get this sorted and we will not give up easily. He ought to be able to start here in this country. If all else fails I will be taking this case to the (immigration) minister. His treatment is inhuman. However, it is always conditional. If he misbehaves he could have his right revoked.”



George Oringa: ‘I HAVE LIVED HERE SINCE A BABY, BUT FACE DEPORTATION TO UGANDA’

George Oringa, 20, from Lewisham in south London, is also being held at Brook House detention centre. He came to this country from Uganda at six months old.

“One of my brothers was held in a detention centre not long ago and they had to let him go, because he was not supposed to be there. When I went to court I had no one to represent me so they had to adjourn the case. They even tried to deport me, but then cancelled as I was about to board the plane.”

His father, Alex Oringa, now an immigration solicitor, said: “I was a politician in Uganda and my life and my family’s lives were endangered so we fled Uganda and came to the UK.

“I am confused as to why they would want to send my son George back to Uganda when they know his life will be in danger. He went to school in England, all his family are in England, including his siblings. We have all received refugee status including George, he has nothing in Uganda.”

His father, Alex Oringa, now an immigration solicitor, said: “I was a politician in Uganda and my life and my family’s lives were endangered so we fled Uganda and came to the UK.



Moxen St Louis: ‘I AM BEING DETAINED UNLAWFULLY’

Moxen St Louis, 45, from Kensal Rise in north London, has been held in Brook House detention centre near Gatwick Airport for one year. He says he came to the UK in 1967 aged two and England is his home.

“I arrived from the Caribbean island of St Lucia, part of British Commonwealth, so its population was classed as British citizens.

“In June 2009, I was arrested for shoplifting and was sentenced to 16 weeks in prison. While in prison the Home Office contacted me and said they had no information on me other than my criminal record. I was viewed as a foreign national, who could be deported.

“I have never travelled abroad since I came to Britain, I attended school here, I even have a British driving licence and national insurance number. As I had a phobia of flying I never travelled abroad and so never applied for a passport. If I had got a passport I would have some proof to show that I’m a British citizen.

“I am being held unlawfully, but no one from the Home Office wants to listen to me.

“The immigration laws are not the problem. The problem lies with those whose hands the laws have been placed in, and the way they apply them.

“They steamrolled ahead trying to acquire papers to remove me, while they knew who I was. They show a reckless disregard for the laws they impose, and we are expected to respect the law. It’s as though they are operating above the law, and are behaving as if they are a law unto themselves.

“Its been horrible for my family who are all UK citizens, I am missing out on quality time with my children, I have lost everything since being wrongfully detained in here. My home, my possessions, all I have acquired is now gone. My relationship also broke down.

“My family were paying my rent and keeping my possessions in the hope that the Home Office would realise their mistake and release me, but they did not and my sister could not continue paying my rent and her mortgage. This has definitely been a strain on my whole family.

“The Detainee Welfare Group has been helpful, but the Home Office are the ones who make decisions. When one Home Office representative takes on my case and I think things are progressing, they disappear and someone else takes over my case. They all say different things.”

Moxen’s lawyer Nicole Chambers, from Chartwell and Sadlers solicitors, said: “He doesn’t deserve to be deported, he has been in this country since December 1967 and the immigration laws came into existence in 1971, which would make him exempt. He should be given indefinite leave to remain.

“He is being detained unlawfully. There is no reason why he should not be released, he should be entitled to a damages reward.”



Verna Joseph: ‘WE WERE TREATED WORSE THAN ANIMALS’

Verna Joseph, 36, a single mother from St Lucia, was granted leave to remain in the UK on the grounds that her life would be in danger if she was sent back. The Home Office appealed and she spent a further five months in Yarl’s Wood detention centre in addition to the two months she had already spent. She has now been released from detention.

She said: “I was detained for seven months. I won my case and they still kept me detained as the Home Office refused to release me. I applied for bail three times. I wasn’t getting any monthly reports or anything. After winning my case they had no right to detain me. Just imagine being held in prison and you don’t know for how long.

“My friend Denise was knocked to the floor by an officer with a riot shield during a peaceful hunger strike, it was horrible. And they were left outside in the cold while it was raining. Officers treated us terribly. People were urinating and they were all packed together.

“I now have flashbacks of what I saw and am on medication. We were treated worse than animals. I would prefer to be in a prison than in Yarl’s Wood. Everything is covered up and the women in there have no one to turn to.

“There’s no justice, I am happy to be away from that place. The officers were racially abusive and very physical. I saw someone try to commit suicide in front of me. So many in the detention centre do not deserve to be there.

“If the Home Office wants to fight against a judge’s decision that someone has won their case, they are not supposed to be detained. This is against the law. I am now putting in a claim of unlawful detention.

“They don’t even treat animals the way they treat people in there.

“I shouldn’t have been detained, which they knew. If I were deported the lives of myself and my family would be at major risk. I would be dead. This is why I went on the hunger strike that made news. Many women have won their cases, yet the Home Office is not willing to release them.

“There are also people in there with mental illnesses that have been in there for five years.

“I am a human being and I have been through so much. What they did was wrong and I will fight to the end. Even the judge apologised for the treatment that I faced.

“I have been given right to remain in the UK and I am waiting to go to court. I am expecting a substantial pay out.”

Cristiel Amiss, from the Black Women’s Rape Action Project, who have supported the women at Yarl’s Wood and helped fight their claims, said: “Seventy percent of all women who contact us from the detention centre are either victims of rape or torture in the countries they have fled from.

“They usually have their cases dismissed or disbelieved by the Home Office and, like Olive, they can’t get help anywhere else. Lawyers are either over-stretched or promise to do things and can’t do them, or they are just plain negligent. As a result, most cases never get put before the authorities.

“A large number of women who are trying to get justice are being sent back to what they suffered. It’s difficult to get an asylum claim properly and fully considered. It’s particularly difficult if you’re black or have a criminal record. Often it’s a minor misdemeanour, or a crime borne out of poverty

“The hunger strikes brought the horrendous things that happen in places like Yarl’s Wood to light, and showed how brutal the detention centre is.”



Olive Noble: ‘A LOT HAPPENS HERE, BUT NO ONE OUTSIDE KNOWS ABOUT IT’

Olive Noble, 50, fled Jamaica to Britain with her son 13 years ago in fear of her life, after witnessing her brother’s girlfriend being murdered. Olive was one of the 70 women who went on hunger strike at Yarl’s Wood detention centre in February to draw attention to what they say was unfair and degrading treatment.

The women claimed that they were locked in an airless corridor for up to eight hours and many collapsed, deprived of food, water and toilet facilities, and medical care. The women’s testimonies are extremely similar.

Olive was sent to Yarl’s Wood detention centre after serving a four-year and a half-year prison sentence for intent to supply drugs. She claims she was the victim of an unfair trial and is innocent.

She said: “I have children and grandchildren over here. I was granted leave to remain on October 27, 2009 but the Immigration appealed against it and I am still here. I am now awaiting a high court ruling.

“An officer called me a monkey and when I put in a complaint last July they made it look like it was nothing. He said he was running a joke. I am a black migrant and don’t have any rights. I saw a woman being put on flight naked.

“A lot happens in the detention centre that no one knows about. Officers abuse detainees verbally and I have seen an officer kick a woman and dislocate her shoulder, and many other things. I believe the Jamaicans get treated the least fairly in here.”



WHAT THE AUTHORITIES SAY…

The Voice asked Alan Kittle, director of detention services for the UK Border Agency, three important questions:


1) Why are so many being detained for long periods of time without being informed of what it is taking place?

 “The UK Border Agency does not wish to detain people for any longer than is absolutely necessary, and seeks to conclude their immigration cases as quickly as possible. However, it is a fact that in many cases, the length of detention is extended unnecessarily because detainees fail to co-operate with the removal process. In some cases the UK Border Agency has to wait for an embassy to issue a passport or travel document, a process which can take several months depending on the level of evidence provided by the detainee to prove their nationality and identity.“

2) In some cases people are being detained for more than three years, how does this reflect the Home Office’s policy of ‘imminent removal’?

 “The number of persons detained for such long periods of time is very small, and in all cases they have committed crimes in the UK and are, therefore, being deported to protect the public. However, where a detainee refuses to cooperate with the removal or deportation process, detention may be unavoidably prolonged.

“The legality of detention in such cases has been considered by the courts and found to be lawful. Every detention decision is made on a case-by-case basis and is reviewed on a regular basis by a senior manager at a level appropriate to the length of detention. The detainee also has the option of applying to an immigration judge for bail.”

3) What is the justification for returning detainees who have received refugee status?

 “We can’t comment on an individual case without being given the details. However, the above scenario sounds inaccurate. We can be absolutely clear that we do not remove or indeed seek to remove recognised refugees back to countries where they face persecution.

“The UK has a proud tradition of offering protection to those in genuine need of our help. However, when someone is found not to have a right to be here, they should leave voluntarily. If they fail to do so we will seek to remove them.”

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