Refugees deported from Britain are at risk of ill-treatment and abuse by immigration officers and security guards, a damning report into the system for removing immigrants and failed asylum seekers has found.
In most cases the use of force during the deportation process had the opposite effect and led to the removal attempt being abandoned.
The findings, published today by Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, echo earlier concerns published in the Independent nearly two years ago.
Ms Owers’ report also found “worrying gaps and weaknesses” in the system for complaints made by asylum seekers and in the monitoring of the removal process.
But of greatest concern was the inconsistent use of force by immigration officers as well as failures to provide medical help.
In one case identified by the inspectors, intimidating behaviour towards detainees by overseas escort staff appeared to have led to an immigrant's last-minute refusal to comply with the removal. In another incident a detainee who refused to board a flight only found out that he had been granted a court reprieve on his return to the holding area.
And in an illustration of the chaotic nature of the refugee removal system, two members of an escort team were arrested and detained for two days in Mozambique after the African state refused to recognise the validity of the returning refugee’s documentation. The report also said that Iraq was one of the countries most likely to refuse entry to a asylum seeker being returned by Britain.
Ms Owers said: “It [the investigation] also found variable practice, with no evidence that the good and thoughtful approach of some staff was mirrored in clear and consistent standards of treatment, support and communication. This heightened the risk of ill-treatment or abuse, and was also likely to lead to failed removals.”
Ms Owers added: “We also found examples of cases where reports of incidents that we had observed or noted should have been raised, but had not been. A number of detainees had medical problems, and medical assistance was not always at hand. In other cases, removals were cancelled because of the absence of escort staff, or detainees were returned from countries that refused to accept them.”
The report follows inspections at Heathrow airport from 9–11 December 2008, and at the short-term holding facility within Colnbrook IRC from 17–19 November 2008. A total of 37 detainees were interviewed, mostly at Heathrow.
Ms Owers said: “Most escorts behaved in an appropriate way with distressed detainees, and there were several examples of firm but sensitive and discreet behaviour. However, several staff unnecessarily drew attention to removals or raised tension levels.”
Emma Ginn, co-ordinator of the immigration charity Medical Justice, claimed that the report corroborated many of its own findings published last year which included nearly 300 cases of alleged assault during detention and removal.
“We can see no justification for the use of force, which HMIP says in most cases led to failure of attempted removals – detainees are getting harmed unnecessarily,” said Ms Ginn. “Injuries we have seen include fractured bones, nerve damage, a punctured lung, a dislocated knee and detainees being hurried through airport buildings in wheelchairs as a result. The private escort companies the Home Office contracts shouldn’t be allowed to use force if they have no proper monitoring of it, no routine medical examinations of injuries and no effective means of complaint against its misuse.”
Diane Abbott MP added: “I am highly concerned that the Home Office has shown little motivation in addressing these issues which have been raised with them time and time again. We were told almost a year ago that there would be an investigation into the abuse of immigration detainees during escort and removal. I dearly hope that this is not a case of the Home Office sweeping scandal under the carpet in the hope that it will go away.”
She added: “It is s my hope that the Home Office will get their act together and do what they should have done years ago – ensure full and appropriate training of immigration officials, introduce a rigorous and fair complaints system, stop the removal of people with medical problems, and stop the removal of people to unsafe countries.”
David Wood, director of the Criminality and Detention Group for the UK Border Agency said: “HM Chief Inspector of Prisons found overwhelmingly that our escort staff carry out removals with sensitivity and discretion.
We expect the highest standards of behaviour from staff and contractors. Anyone involved in the detention and removal of detainees is highly trained. We use CCTV and monitors to make sure detainees and staff are safe and secure during removals. Our complaints processes are clear.
Many detainees refuse to leave the UK voluntarily, even when the courts say they must. In some cases individuals become violent toward themselves, the public or our staff when it is time to go home. Detainee escorts have a very difficult job to do in carrying out what the public expects of the UK Border Agency in enforcing our immigration laws. The report of HM Chief Inspector will be carefully considered.”