Letter: Who is Britain to lecture others about human rights?

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The Independent Online
Sir: In 'Death of asylum-seeker may lead to charges' (5 August), following the inquest jury's verdict of unlawful killing of Omasase Lumumba in Pentonville, you say: '. . . the verdict also raised questions about government policy which allows asylum-seekers to be held in jail as though they were criminals'. It does indeed. Imprisoning asylum-seekers not only violates their basic human rights and is extremely cruel, it is also counter-productive from the Home Office's own point of view.

Jailing asylum-seekers induces shock and plunges them into depression and confusion, which can lead to suicide or attempted suicide. As the case of Mr Lumumba illustrates, the way potential suicides are treated in prisons is sometimes grossly inhumane. Imprisonment makes far more difficult a proper determination of asylum applications. The longer imprisonment continues, the harder it is to assess someone's credibility. Is the trauma the asylum-seeker is suffering from occasioned by what they experienced before they left their country of origin or by their present incarceration, or by both?

In recent months the Home Office has wrongly doubted one person's origins and jailed him for five months, and imprisoned other young lads in Feltham Young Offenders' Institution, one of our most unhappy jails. One was released only when he became dangerously suicidal. A group of Muslims held in Pentonville claimed to have suffered serious religious discrimination. Home Office figures show that on 15 May this year 284 asylum-seekers had been detained for more than one month, many of them for far longer, and that 137 of these were held in ordinary prisons. Those in immigration detention centres are a little better off than those in ordinary prisons.

Night after night this week Channel 4 has shown us something of the trauma refugees suffer. Imagine being imprisoned after such experiences just when you think you have reached safety. The Government should rethink its whole policy of detaining asylum-seekers.

Yours faithfully,

M. LOUISE PIROUET

Co-ordinator, Charter '87

Cambridge

5 August

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