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Robert Verkaik: Lack of accountability is at heart of this mistreatment

Wednesday 14 January 2009 01:00 GMT

A disturbing feature of Britain's record on immigration is the treatment of failed asylum-seekers. Successive governments have overseen the establishment of a system that is best suited to meeting deportation targets, rather than the care of some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Immigrants who have committed no criminal offence can be locked up for as long as three years. Failed asylum-seekers have few rights and often know very little about the legal system in which they are held. In such a climate, it is easy to see how those employed to guard them are in a position to abuse their power.

Allegations of racism and brutality are not new. Three years ago, the BBC uncovered evidence of ill-treatment against detainees at one immigration removal centre. The revelations, which included claims of serious assaults, led to the suspension of 15 employees of a security company that had a contract to guard them. But despite the hundreds of allegations of brutality made over the past five years, only a handful of guards have ever been disciplined.

Last year a report, Outsourcing Abuse, identified nearly 300 allegations of abuse and assaults. Many of the refugees said they had been racially abused. The authors – the law firm Birnberg Peirce, Medical Justice and the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns – party blamed "arbitrary targets" on deportation and a near doubling of detention-centre capacity in recent years.

But at the heart of the problem, they said, was the Government's reliance on private security companies to carry out ministers' bidding in the guarding and forced removal of failed asylum-seekers. The Government has made some progress in investigating complaints and says it always treats allegations seriously. But many of the individuals who choose to work in this industry have only the minimum of training for such a sensitive and difficult job. And the Home Office has no power to sack or discipline a privately-employed individual; it can only withdraw accreditation.

Surely the time has come to give a directly-accountable government agency such as the Prison Service the job of guarding and deporting asylum-seekers?

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