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UK >

Detention Inquiry launches with oral evidence

MPs are shocked by testimonies they hear at Inquiry, writes Madeleine Davies


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Placards: campaigners at Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre call for it to be closed down, during a protest against the fast-tracked deporation of immigrants earlier this month


Placards: campaigners at Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre call for it to be closed down, during a protest against the fast-tracked deporation of immigrants earlier this month

WHEN Chibong, a 28-year-old Nigerian, told the Betty Boothroyd room in Portcullis House that he has been in Colnbrook Centre for three years, there was an eruption. "Three years?" "No!" A woman in the third row had her head in her hands. The MPs present looked chastened.

Chibong was giving evidence via telephone to the first evidence of a parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention, held by the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on Refugees and Migration.

He described how he was trafficked, aged 16, to Hungary, where he was put in a basement, beaten, raped and tortured. He escaped, and eventually found his way to London. He was arrested in 2010, and sent to Colnbrook.

Eight attempts have been made to deport him, but a land dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon has made this impossible. The Red Cross has spent two years trying to trace his family. He doesn't know whether they are alive. He has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and referred for cognitive behavioural therapy, but has yet to receive treatment. The highest possible dose of medication has been prescribed instead.

The UK has one of the largest networks of immigration detention facilities in Europe: at any one time, there are between 2000 and 3000 migrants in detention. They are held while their applications are being processed, or have been refused. About half are asylum-seekers. About 94 per cent of detainees are held for less than four months. But last year, 50 were detained for more than two years.

The director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, told the inquiry that the treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers had "worsened considerably" in the past decade. Detention, once a last resort, had become a "routine . . . part of the denigration of the whole concept of the refugee". There were examples of "brutal and even lethal force" being used to remove people from the country; furthermore legal advice for detainees was not consistenly available, and hearings were not automatic.

The director of Detention Action, Jerome Phelps, called for the UK to follow the example of "every other developed country" in setting a time-limit on detention, ideally 28 days. The charity estimates that, every year, £76 million is wasted by detaining migrants who are ultimately released.

Former detainees gave evidence. Maimuna Jawo described how she had fled Gambia in 2009 after refusing to support the practice of female genital mutiliation. She sought asylum in 2012 and was taken to Yarlswood. "I never committed any crime," she said. "The only thing I was asking for was protection."

She was highly critical of the practice of suicide watch, and said that guards could be overheard discussing women's bodies and laughing. This claim was corroborated by Alice, who described how guards denied a doctor's request to speak to her alone.

Two psychiatrists called to give evidence were highly critical of the present system. The head of therapies at the Helen Bamber Foundation, Dr Katy Robjant, described how the experience of detention had a particularly harmful effect on those who had previously experienced torture. Those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder were unable to distinguish between the past and present, and thus would struggle to provide consistent information during interviews assessing their asylum claim.

The director of the Helen Bamber Foundation, Dr Cornelius Katona, said that the process of suicide watch was "distressing, dehumanising, and increases the risk".

The Inquiry continues and is still seeking evidence.

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