Detainees under escort: an alternative perspective

The HM Chief Inspector of Prisons has published two reports into the “escort” and removal of immigration detainees, compiled after inspectors accompanied charter flight removals to Nigeria and Jamaica respectively.

The overwhelming impression given by the reports is of a system that treats detainees as objects that can be moved around at will to meet UK Border Agency objectives, with little regard to their welfare and without recognising them as individual human beings with distinct needs. It comes as little surprise to those involved with supporting detainees that they are routinely dehumanised and subjected to abuse both physical and verbal which tends to worsen throughout the deportation process.

The reports show that force is used routinely and when clearly unnecessary (even to meet the objectives of deportation) and was often counter-productive, raising tensions. While HMIP posits the lack of proper guidelines on using force and restraint as one causal factor, it naturally avoids the question of whether excessive force is an inevitable by-product of the dehumanisation of migrants endemic in the distinctions between escort and detainee, citizen and alien, legal and illegal. Inspectors witnessed handcuffing of female detainees even when compliant, “continuous force” being used on a male detainee who asked to contact his solicitor, and force,  restraint and handcuffs used on a male detainee who was specifically described by the report as “not violent” and who asked to see a medic due to an injury.

Phones were removed and detainees who expressed a wish to contact their solicitors were not told they had a right to do so using a G4S phone. Detainees were subjected to a violent, graphic film depicting scenes of rape which they were not allowed to opt out of. Staff made use of privileges not available to detainees (including hot food/drink and blankets) in their presence.  Officers clearly felt their own preferences and comfort were more important than the detainees’ feelings.

Examples of racist language used by officers included “gypos”, “pikeys”, “typical Asians” and “fucking pikey cunts”, sometimes in private and sometimes in the hearing of detainees.  Use of negative national or regional stereotypes was also prevalent, with Africans described as violent, and Sri Lankans as more likely to self-harm. That officers felt they could use this language and express these sentiments with impunity even while they were being inspected speaks volumes about the perceived inferiority of detainees. A serious debate is needed about whether the reports have flushed out a few bad apples, or whether escorts are led to believe this kind of behaviour is acceptable because the nature of the job requires them to treat detainees as their inferiors who have fewer rights.

During flights, toilet doors could not be closed meaning there was no possibility of privacy, a situation described as “undignified and embarrassing”. Additional stress was created by an inconsistent approach to property which often treated detainees as children who could not be trusted with their own property.

Treatment worsened considerably after arrival at their destination, including physical assault and verbal abuse. Prescription medicines were sometimes denied on arrival at the destination. Officers clearly believed they were not accountable to anyone once on foreign soil; that once leaving the UK detainees had no rights and it did not matter what happened to them – some officers stated this explicitly.  UKBA and G4S showed little or no interest in detainees’ welfare once they were no longer in their custody, with many detainees left in unfamiliar or even dangerous surroundings with no means of support.

The stark realities displayed by these reports should not be left unchallenged but fully exposed and a debate conducted about how these abuses can be combated and detainees supported.

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