Asylum-seekers abused by security guards, says report

Official investigation backs claims first raised by The Independent two years ago
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The Independent Online

Ministers are to review the use of force against asylum-seekers by British security guards after a report found serious injuries suffered by detainees who had been handcuffed or physically restrained.

The move follows an investigation into allegations of abuse involving private firms employed by the Government to forcibly remove failed asylum- seekers from the UK. And it comes two-and-half years after The Independent first raised concerns about the mistreatment of immigrants in detention centres and during transit. At the time ministers and immigration officials dismissed these concerns as groundless. But today Nuala O'Loan, the former Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman who has investigated the abuse claims, said in many of the cases there was, "no evidence of consideration of the proportionality of the use of handcuffs and leg restraints both before, during and after that use of force."

In one case a Cameroon asylum- seeker was handcuffed in her hospital bed when she was recovering from an operation while a woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo was physical restrained during an intimate medical examination. In a further three cases serious physical injury was identified – those cases involved a broken finger, a punctured lung and a dislocated knee.

Baroness O'Loan said: "In the first two cases there was no satisfactory explanation as to how these injuries occurred. In the third case there was no clear evidence as to how the injury was sustained."

Highlighting a further example of the misuse of force, Baroness O'Loan said: "There was one case in which a very young woman was lifted almost naked and carried through an Immigration Removal Centre to another location. She was handcuffed behind her back, and the blanket which was supposed to shield her from view fell off. There was no evident consideration of whether this was necessary and proportionate."

Calling for a government review of the use of force by security guards, Baroness O'Loan said: "On all occasions on which force is used officers should be required to justify that use of force by reference to the necessity, proportionality and legality of the use of force." She added: "Over the period under investigation there was inadequate management of the use of force by the private sector companies. This resulted, on occasion, in failures properly to account for the use of force by recording fully the circumstances and justification for the use of force."

Of the 29 cases of alleged abuse which she was able to review she found two thirds of complaints had not been properly investigated or not investigated at all.

Many of the refugees investigated have gone on to be granted asylum in the UK. Other cases could not be examined properly because the files had been left in a rat-infested area and had become so contaminated they were a health risk.

But in her 115-page report, Baroness O'Loan rejects the claim of systematic abuse of asylum seekers by private security firms.

The Government says it will implement all the recommendations in the report.

David Wood, Strategic Director of the Criminality and Detention Group, UK Border Agency, said: "We welcome the unequivocal findings of Baroness O'Loan that there is no evidence of systemic abuse by UK Border Agency escorts when removing individuals from the UK."

He added: "We expect the highest standards of integrity and behaviour from our staff and contractors. We take all allegations of mistreatment seriously and the significant improvements made to our complaints procedures are recognised in this report." Dr Frank Arnold, clinical adviser to Medical Justice the charity which brought the evidence of abuse to the attention of the Government, said: "I am particularly perturbed about Baroness O'Loan's concerns about the improper use of handcuffs, because I have examined the resulting injuries, which can be serious and long-lasting."

Emma Ginn, also of Medical Justice, added: "At least 16 of the 46 claimants whose cases were highlighted in our Outsourcing Abuse [presented to ministers in 2008] now have leave to remain in the UK, begging the question why they were ever detained in the first place".

Harriet Wistrich, of Birnberg Peirce & Partners, one of the lawyers representing the detainees said: "What is often forgotten is that many in immigration detention are survivors of horrific violence, torture and abuse who, as a result may be suicidal or suffer from mental illness".

But Diane Abbott MP described the report as "a cover-up". She said: "Baroness O' Loan has cleverly played with language to claim there is no evidence of 'systematic' abuse. But this is because the incidents of abuse were so widespread that it is not possible to discern a system or a pattern. She excuses injuries by saying people are bound to get injured if you use handcuffs. But the police use handcuffs everyday without causing the sort of injuries you see in immigration detainees."

How ministers tried to deny the story

*In October 2007 The Independent ran a front-page article revealing 200 allegations of racist and physical abuse committed by British guards against failed asylum-seekers. When the story was raised in the House of Commons, ministers accused The Independent of failing to hand over full details of the claims. In short, they were accusing us of exaggerating or inventing the story. In July 2008, asylum groups and lawyers working for the victims of abuse were able to hand over a dossier of 300 complaints, around 50 of which were suitable for investigation by ministers. Today, Baroness O'Loan has found serious failings in the investigation on the part of the UKBA, and is concerned about the use of force by private security companies employed to remove people from Britain. This practice, she says, must now be reviewed.

Allegations of abuse

Beatrice Guessie

The 29-year-old from Cameroon claims she was taken by the private security company Independent Training Agency from Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre to Southampton airport for removal from the UK on an Air France flight on 28 August 2007. She was handcuffed, her knees bound together and immigration escorts pushed her head down and covered her mouth. The report claims on arrival in Paris she was handcuffed and was kneed in the groin before being transferred to another plane to Cameroon. She was refused entry apparently because of her poor physical condition and returned to Yarl's Wood.

Finding: "I have examined all the papers but have seen nothing which would indicate that further investigation is required."


The 32-year-old from Cameroon made three visits to Hairmyres Hospital in Scotland in 2004. She was handcuffed while a biopsy was taken from a breast lump and while being taken for surgery. On each occasion hospital staff asked for the handcuffs to be removed but were refused.

Finding: "There is no evidence of any consideration of the necessity of such force. Ms SK made a civil claim for damages and it was settled on 7 June 2007. She was granted refugee status and indefinite leave to remain in the UK on 13 February 2006.

Suren Khachatryan

The Armenian resisted removal on 4 April 2005 on an Aeroflot flight by clinging to railings near the aircraft at Heathrow. The removal was abandoned and he claims he was thrown into a security van where he was handcuffed, verbally abused, stamped on and kicked several times by immigration escorts employed by GSL UK Ltd. He says he was left in an immigration holding bay without medical support for hours. He suffered a punctured lung. A complaint about the alleged assault was made to the police, but no further action was taken. A complaint was also made to the Home Office. Mr Khachatryan was interviewed but no further action was taken.

Finding: "This was an inadequate investigation of a complaint by a man who had suffered serious injury."