The death of Jimmy Mubenga is and will remain a stain on Britain’s reputation as a civilised country. What is still worse is that the lessons of the despicable affair do not appear to have been consistently learned.
The 46-year-old died in 2010 while waiting on a plane at Heathrow airport to be deported back to Angola; and the details that emerged at the inquest, which concluded last summer, are as harrowing as they are shameful. Mr Mubenga was heavily restrained for more than half an hour while waiting for the flight to take off. Although his three G4S guards subsequently claimed not to have heard him shouting that he could not breathe and was doing to die, several other passengers reportedly did, and after four days of deliberations, the jury returned a nine-to-one majority verdict of unlawful killing.
It should not, of course, have taken a person’s death to establish the mistreatment of those being deported from Britain as wholly and unequivocally unacceptable. With the dark underbelly of one of the more troublesome areas of law enforcement so starkly revealed, however, it might have been reasonable to expect a thorough overhaul of relevant training and procedures, to ensure the racism, violence and gross unprofessionalism revealed at the Mubenga inquest was thoroughly stamped out.
And yet it would seem not. According to the most recent research into treatment of detainees published by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, while the majority of escort procedures appear “well organised”, with detainees dealt with “sensitively and effectively”, there are notable exceptions. Indeed, the report – which covers the treatment of deportees for the first time, directly as a result of Mr Mubenga’s death – raises specific concerns over the “disproportionate use of force and restraint”, as well as “unprofessional behaviour” such as the use of offensive language. All of which adds up to a picture of activities that are still far from the standards of safety, decency and disinterestedness to be expected from those acting on behalf of the British state.
There are a number of suggested remedies. Not only should the UK Border Agency ensure that all escort staff are suitably trained, particularly in the appropriate use of force, ad hoc techniques should also be subject to “rigorous management scrutiny” and the detainee should be the centre of staff attention throughout. That such apparently obvious recommendations are needed at all can only be a cause for concern. Moreover, with one life already lost to excessive restraint, it is difficult to credit that there are still “no recognised safe procedures” for subduing the unruly while on an aircraft. Such lack of clarity is simply unacceptable.
By its very nature, deportation is one of the more inhumane activities in which the state must engage. It is therefore incumbent upon us both rigorously to establish appropriate procedures and equally rigorously to monitor their use. The death of Jimmy Mubenga cannot be undone. At best, all possible attention must be paid to ensuring that such barbarity is not repeated. Sad to say, we cannot yet be confident it is.