Punched in the head and face, kicked in the abdomen, dragged along the ground, thumbs forcibly bent, pressure applied to the jaw and the neck, kneed and elbowed. It reads like the all too familiar catalogue of torture and abuse that has been widely reported as occurring at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and Mosul. According to a recent report, undertaken by the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, this type of abuse may have been occurring much closer to home.
It is alleged that whilst in the custody of the British state, a number of individuals whose claim for asylum in the UK had been unsuccessful, were subjected to both verbal and physical abuse, as state or private detention custody officers attempted to remove them from the UK.
The report, Harm on Removal: Excessive Force against Failed Asylum Seekers, was undertaken following growing concerns amongst human rights organisations, refugee agencies, legal practitioners and detainee visitor groups about a growing number of allegations of ‘harm occurring in detention, during transfers and on attempted removal.’
Doctors working for the Medical Foundation found clinical evidence consistent with the allegations of abuse.
During a fourteen-week period from 19 April – 30 July 2004, twelve out the fourteen individuals who claimed they had been subjected to ‘excessive or the gratuitous’ use of force during an attempt to remove them from the UK were examined by doctors. In twelve out of the fourteen cases, significant enough levels of harm were evidenced, to suggest the occurrence of certain patterns of abuse, including:
- The use of inappropriate and unsafe methods of force
- The use of force even after termination of the removal attempt
- The misuse of handcuffing
Medical attention was required by many of the fourteen individuals. Loss of consciousness, bruised and swollen limbs and ligaments, testicular pain and inability to eat solid food were just some of the medical problems identified.
The injuries documented through the research suggest that, ‘In some cases the force employed cannot have resulted from either the use or misuse of any recognised or established control or restraint technique’. Despite the obvious potential for physical harm during the removal process, medical check-ups following the use of ‘control and restraint’ were not provided. They are not a routine part of ‘removal’ practice.
Use of force
In a number of cases, it was reported, that force was allegedly used, even after the removal attempt had been abandoned. This occurred inside the escort vehicles and out of sight of potential ‘witnesses and airport staff.’
The ‘use of excessive force’ against individuals who are in state custody raises significant legal implications under human rights provisions for both the state and the private security company involved, particularly around the issue of responsibility. Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights states that ‘no one shall be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.’ The disproportionate use of force against an individual in state custody would automatically give rise to a breach of the Article’s standards. In these circumstances the state, according to the report, is under a clear legal obligation to investigate any allegations of abuse, and ensure any perpetrator is properly tried. The Home Office have refuted all allegations of abuse.
Reaction to the findings
All those subjected to the use of force in this study are Black. And a number were allegedly subjected to verbal abuse, including ‘racial slurs.’ However, as the report notes, ‘while the detention centre rules make reference to the need to respect the dignity of the detainee and to deal sensitively with issues of cultural diversity, they are silent on the specific issue of racial abuse.’ As has been the Commission for Racial Equality – despite allegations of behaviour that clearly breach laws prohibiting racial discrimination.
In the one concession to the report’s findings, the Home Office has agreed to install CCTV cameras in vans used to deport asylum seekers from next April. A spokesman said:
‘CCTV cover in the rear of escort vehicles will be a part of new escort contracts which begin in April to ensure protection of both detainees…’ and more tellingly ‘…escort staff who may face allegations of this nature.’
Calls for a far-reaching investigation into the treatment of detainees and the establishment of an independent watchdog have fallen on deaf ears, despite an ever-increasing number of civil law suits being launched by asylum seekers who claim they have been assaulted by detention staff and escort teams. The findings of Harm on Removal now make such an investigation imperative.