REVELATIONS of abuse and mistreatment of detainees at an immigration centre near Gatwick Airport show that the system must be urgently reformed, bishops and other church leaders have said.
The BBC’s Panorama programme broadcast an undercover exposé of Brook House, an immigration removal centre, on Monday, which included footage of officers mocking, abusing, and violently assaulting detainees.
In a letter to The Daily Telegraph on Wednesday, 17 bishops, the former chief inspector of prisons, and representatives of the Methodist and Baptist Churches, and the Church of Scotland, demanded that, in the light of the scandal, the Government end indefinite immigration detention.
“We fear that this treatment is symptomatic of a rhetoric fostered by some politicians and sectors of the media that dehumanises immigrants and paints the public as ‘victims’ of immigration,” the signatories wrote.
“As a nation we must demand better than this — both for our own citizens in whose names this takes place, and for all who find themselves in the system.”
The Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd James Langstaff, who is also Bishop for Prisons, said that the footage “raises serious questions, not just of those who run our immigration detention centres, but more crucially about how we as a society treat people that we don’t know what to do with.
“This system fails not only those directly affected by it, but it fails us as a nation. Those featured in the documentary are human beings with friends, families, and personal stories. And yet the alleged treatment they have received can only be described as inhumane.”
The Panorama documentary found that self-harm and suicide attempts were common at Brook House, and detainees were also smuggling and using drugs.
The Bishop of Dorchester, the Rt Revd Colin Fletcher, spent more than a decade as the bishop responsible for chaplains inside immigration detention centres, where people whose immigration status is unclear, or who are being prepared to be deported, are held. He said that chaplains played a “key role” in maintaining relations between detainees and staff, but that they could not prevent all breakdowns in standards.
“The Church has got a part to play,” he said on Tuesday. “Bishops in the Lords certainly have a part to play . . . in making sure that these folk are never forgotten, and reminding people to treat all people with humanity. Someone may be a detainee, but that doesn’t dehumanise them. It’s really important to say that.”
The Revd Nathan Ward, a non-stipendiary minister at Holy Trinity, South Chatham, contributed to the programme. Mr Ward used to work as a manager for G4S, the private outsourcing company that runs Brook House, before leaving to be ordained in 2014.
Part of the reason he left G4S was because his employers failed to heed his warnings about a “bad culture” and unacceptable behaviour among staff at Brook House, he said.
He said that the abuse uncovered by the BBC was shocking, even to those who had spent decades in the immigration system. “This isn’t a case of ‘a few rotten apples’. Instead, it reveals only the tip of the iceberg — this demanding, specialised work cannot solely be the responsibility of £10-an-hour workers,” he said.
“It stands to reason that that we should now be asking what is happening in other detention centres up and down the country and — most importantly — what the Government should be doing about it.”
The Government should place a 28-day upper limit on immigration detention, Mr Ward said, and require a judge to sign off on any detention longer than three days.
“The UK is a developed nation with high standards: we must demand better than this for our detention centres. The wider issue of immigration control in the UK has become a humanitarian crisis to which the Church has a moral duty to respond.”
Bishop Fletcher said that it was obvious when he first visited Brook House, shortly after it opened in 2009, that it had been poorly designed.
Another problem faced by immigration detention centres was recruiting staff — many were former prison officers, and it was “really hard” to teach them how to work with detainees, many of whom had no experience of the justice system or prison, and were not criminal offenders.
Commenting on the footage of officers aggressively restraining detainees, Bishop Fletcher said that it was not uncommon for people to resist being taken to an airport for deportation, but that “there is no excuse” for the force used.
He also said that it was “frightening” how young some detention officers were: the undercover reporter for Panorama began working at Brook House when he was 18.
He said that he did not think that there had long been a systemic problem of officers’ mistreating detainees across the immigration system, however. “There have been individual cases before, and to the best of my knowledge there may have been one or two bad apples in the past, but, on the whole, not.”
Sarah Teather, the former Liberal Democrat MP who is now director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, said that society needed to “move away from our obsession with detention”.
G4S has suspended nine members of staff at Brook House, including a nurse, six detention custody officers, and two managers. The managing director of G4S’s detention services, Jerry Petherwick, told the BBC that the behaviour of some officers had been “despicable [and] disgraceful”.
The Revd Nathan Ward, a former G4S manager, writes:
MONDAY’s edition of BBC 1’s Panorama on Brook House Immigration Removal Centre exposed an alarming culture of abuse and neglect. These institutions form part of society, and those carrying out the abuse are agents of the state ultimately acting on our behalf. Therefore, when barbaric acts take place, we have to question how civilised we are.
The Old Testament prophets in ancient Israel spoke about a society that had an ideology that led to a denial about the facts on the ground, an ideology that closed its eyes to the human abuses and need within the society. It was an ideology that simply refused to recognise that their system produced victims. The Psalms are a critique of institutions that don’t listen. Move forward a few thousand years, and what’s changed?
The ideology at work today is one sustained by a government culture that seeks to distance itself from the dirty work of incarceration by outsourcing to the private sector. Inevitably, the interests of shareholders are prioritised over those of prioners, detainees, and front-line staff. It is the Home Office, media, and the electorate who have created the context in which these institutions operate.
Brook House is yet another case in a long list of abuse scandals in society over the past few years. However, the wider issue of immigration control in the UK has become a humanitarian crisis to which the Church has a moral duty to respond.
Although there are good examples where the Churches are working alongside migrants, all too often the Church is asleep in the light, soon to become irrelevant to wider society if it has nothing to say about this moral outrage.