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A combination of official torpor, detainee despair and the Kafkaesque nature of detention without trial has led in recent months to a growing number of deaths of individuals caught in what many say is the United Kingdom’s broken immigrant detention system.
Little is known about the deaths: all that the Home Office – which oversees the country’s immigration and counter-terrorism efforts — will confirm is that on July 31, a 35-year-old male being held at Colnbrook Immigration Removal Center located outside London died. Neither his name, nationality nor the circumstances of his death were released.
Just days later, another unidentified man believed to have been facing imminent deportation was found hanged at Campsfield removal center near Oxford. Weeks earlier, a 47-year-old Pakistani migrant, Muhammed Shuket, died on his way to the hospital from the same immigration center, while a Jamaican immigrant who had overstayed his visa cut his own throat on a deportation flight from the UK to Jamaica in June (The man survived).
The British government is facing a barrage of litigation from human rights law firms over the deaths and other incidents of self-abuse involving immigrant detainees.
According to the UK Border Agency, which oversees the country’s immigration affairs, “The police and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman always investigate deaths in immigration detention centres and it would be inappropriate to comment until these were complete.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, however, an official with the government’s internal legal department said that the United Kingdom’s immigration system is increasingly dysfunctional and the branches of the government dealing with it so moribund and riddled with low morale they are in near meltdown.

“There’s just a constant barrage of litigation from those either seeking redress for having been held illegally or separated from their children – and some people are held for years in legal limbo without knowing what’s going to happen to them,” he said. “I look at some of the cases that land on my table with growing regularity and am finding it disturbing.”
The UK is one of a mere handful of European countries that have not set a limit on how long they lock up immigrants scheduled for deportation – Ireland has one of 56 days; France a limit of 32.
The official continued, “It’s also extremely hard to assign responsibility or investigate when it comes to some of the accusations made with regard to their treatment when they’re detained, as both detainees and staff are moved around so much that people’s movements can be hard to trace.”
It’s a concern echoed by the Ministry of Justice’s own inspectors at their most recent visit to Dover Detention Center, a formidable looking building that occupies the site of Napoleonic era fortifications in the country’s southeast. Now an “immigration removal center” run by the Prison Service, it holds appellant and failed asylum seekers for the Immigration Service pending repatriation.
The government’s Chief Inspector of Prisons Anne Owers slammed the site following a recent inspection for failing to “Prevent unnecessary moves around the detainee estate and explain to detainees why they are being moved… [It is] not uncommon for a detainee to move to Dover pending removal on a particular flight and then to be transferred between centers again the following day.”
The report, despite being couched in the legalese of a crown inspectorate, pointed to issues faced across such centers nationwide: “On-site UK Border Agency (UKBA) induction interviews we observed were poor, reviews of detention were uninformative and sometimes late, and responses to Rule 35 letters (claiming that a detainee was unfit to be detained) were sporadic.”
Immigration is a red-button topic in the UK. “Illegal immigrants” and “bogus asylum seekers” have become a national bugbear and newspapers like the Daily Mail delight in flagging up stories of Somali or Pakistani families “milking” the government benefits system, hammering home the myth that immigrants are given top priority on public housing waiting lists. (A myth roundly rebuffed in a 2009 study for the Equality and Human Rights Commission that found that only 1.8 percent of public housing tenants are immigrants who had moved to the UK in the past five years.)
Meanwhile, many of those who have had their requests for asylum refused, languish in custody — not quite gone, but very much forgotten. And their forced deportations, when they can be arranged, are increasingly and unavoidably in the public eye for the simple reason that they take place largely on commercial flights – making for a lot of witnesses when someone dies under excessive restraint, as did Angolan Jimmy Mubenga, who was pinned face down by three security guards during his forcible deportation on a British Airways flight last October.
Law firms specializing in human rights issues, such as Bhatt Murphy Solicitors, continue to release a steady flurry of case results that serve to illustrate quite how dehumanizing the system is proving. Examples from this year include a mother separated from her three children while unlawfully detained by the Home Office.
“The children were scattered across the UK in separate foster care arrangements of varying degrees of stability, isolated from each other and their mother,” said Janet Farrell of Bhatt Murphy solicitors. “Section 55 of the Borders Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 places a statutory duty on the UKBA to take the best interests of the children involved properly into account. Unfortunately, this case is another example of the Home Office not complying with their duties towards children.”
A judge with the High Court issued a statement after hearing the case condemning the Home Office. “It is plain from the material from the Children’s Society, as well as the submissions of the Children’s Commissioner, that such circumstances are not unique, and that the circumstances in which such detention continues has caused considerable concern.”
Then there is the issue of actual, physical deportations.
A medic, who spoke on condition of anonymity, for Aeromed365, the sole supplier of specialist medical personnel to the Immigration Service, whose remit includes the removal of immigration detainees, said that simple removals had become nigh impossible. “When it comes to immigration, the shit has hit the fan in every conceivable way. It’s getting impossible to remove people.” He added that dragging people “kicking and screaming to a plane is never going to be pretty but it’s just enforcing the law…”
That was the case at least for 50 Tamil asylum seekers who, this past week, were sent back to Sri Lanka despite a firestorm of protest from NGOs who warned they could face immediate detention and possible torture. According to the London-based Tamil Guardian, a bid to halt the deportation failed, although two people were removed from the flight.
“42 men and 8 women were arrested and questioned by Sri Lankan police on arrival at Colombo airport,” the paper notes. “There is now serious concern for the wellbeing of the deportees.”
“Some of these people may have been let down by the asylum system and have a genuine fear of being returned to their country,” said Jonathan Ellis, Director of Advocacy at the charity Refugee Council. “If people have to be returned in this way, it must be done in the most dignified, respectful and safe way possible… These are human beings we are talking about.”