A recent inquest into the death of Ukrainian asylum seeker Sergey Baranyuk provided a glimpse of how asylum seekers are treated behind the closed doors of removal centres in the UK – detained, forgotten and slowly driven to despair.
Sergey Baranyuk travelled from the Ukraine to the UK and claimed asylum. He died awaiting voluntary removal. He was found hanged in a shower room at Harmondsworth removal centre near Heathrow airport in July 2004. His death sparked a night of disturbances at the centre and all of the detainees were transferred out of the damaged centre. More recently, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, issued an inspection report that was ‘undoubtedly the poorest report we have issued’. It described an ‘over-emphasis on physical security – which was more appropriate to a high security prison than a removal centre’ where ‘over 60 per cent of detainees said they had felt unsafe’. The report was also critical of suicide prevention policies, finding that: ‘Most worryingly, a so-called action plan, to deal with problems identified by the inquiry into the recent self-inflicted death, had been shared with neither the suicide prevention team nor the staff in the centre. It was a purely bureaucratic exercise which had had no impact on the centre’s practices’, such inadequacies prevailed two years after the death of Sergey Baranyuk.
Sergey Baranyuk, 31, arrived in the UK on 24 May 2004 and claimed asylum the following day at Lunar House, Croydon. At his screening interview an immigration officer found his behaviour ‘strange’, he was seen speaking into his crucifix as if it were a phone. He was interviewed in Russian and was told that his claim would be dealt with in detention through the fast-track system at Oakington reception centre in Cambridge. The following day he was taken to Oakington.
On 27 May, Sergey was seen by a doctor at Oakington because of his ‘disturbed behaviour’ and, because Oakington was seen as less secure a decision was made to move him to Harmondsworth. On 28 May, Sergey apparently decided to withdraw his asylum claim and agreed to voluntary removal from the UK. He was certified fit to travel by a nurse and the following day this decision was endorsed by an immigration officer. At some point before his transfer (at around 1.30pm) he signed a disclaimer to withdraw his asylum application, however he was still transferred to Harmondsworth where he was incorrectly assigned to the fast-track system. At the inquest, it was pointed out by an immigration officer from ‘MODCU’ (management of detained cases unit) that once Sergey had signed the disclaimer on 29 May his case should have been transferred to MODCU.
Locked up and forgotten
On arrival at Harmondsworth, a medical screening was carried out by a nurse who claimed Sergey spoke English well. The nurse examined Sergey and found him to be anxious. She noticed marks on his arms and he said that they were from 1994 and that he did not want to talk about them. She did not consider Sergey to be at any risk of suicide or self-harm. But she was not supplied with any records from Oakington, nor did she have transfer records which had noted that Sergey had special needs, had been ‘disruptive’ and that he was a suicide risk.
After the initial medical screening Sergey did not come to the attention of the healthcare unit at any other point during the time he was detained. Neither did he make an impression on the detention custody officers or immigration officers who worked at Harmondsworth.
On 7 June, at an interview with an immigration officer, Sergey signed a further disclaimer. He also told the immigration officer that he would try and get some ID papers to facilitate his travel arrangements. A decision was also made not to release Sergey on bail, as immigration officers did not anticipate any problems in returning him to the Ukraine, it was also noted that he was likely to abscond as Sergey had ‘shown a complete disregard to immigration rules’ and ‘used the asylum system to delay his removal’. The immigration officer failed to lodge an application for travel documents. Sergey’s case should have been reviewed every seven days but there was no paperwork evidence to show that this was done. Sergey was left to his own devices, detained and expecting to be sent home.
Sergey was not seen (in person) by an immigration officer again. But a month later on 5 July, an immigration officer checking Sergey’s immigration file found that no travel documents had been applied for or received from Sergey, so he was transferred into long-term detention and became the responsibility of MODCU.
On 11 July, MODCU accepted Sergey into long-term detention and on 16 July sent Sergey a two-line letter confirming this. No one is sure whether Sergey would have understood this letter. Then on 18 July, an immigration officer at MODCU sprang into action and sent a fax to the Immigration Service at Harmondsworth asking Sergey to fill in documentation as no application for emergency travel documents had been made. This ‘urgent action’ prompted the interview the following day, on 19 July, for which Sergey could not be found.
Sergey could be seen (on CCTV) at 10.50am heading towards the shower room (C310 in C Wing). Two attempts were made to find him for a visit by an immigration officer. At 7.15pm, a senior detention custody officer (DCO) was alerted to the fact that Sergey was missing; he had not had lunch or dinner and had missed the appointment with immigration officials. The residential manager issued instructions for staff to guard the centre perimeter, as he was concerned that Sergey had absconded or was trying to. Sergey’s body was found at 7.50pm by DCOs, some nine hours after he was last seen alive.
Ali McMurray of the Prisons and Probation Service Ombudsman (PPO), which investigates deaths in prison custody, told the inquest that the single most distressing feature of the case was that no one seemed to know anything about Sergey. She also raised concerns that nothing happened after 7 June – Sergey was effectively in indeterminate detention. Concerns were also raised that information from Oakington was not sent with Sergey to Harmondsworth, which meant the information about his bizarre behaviour was not available to the examining nurse.
Who was Sergey Baranyuk?
Very little is known about Sergey, as officers at Harmondsworth do not remember him. In written statements to the to police, Sergey’s roommate described him as introverted and quiet. After Sergey’s death the Immigration Service were unable to contact Sergey’s family. At the inquest, on finding that Sergey’s family had not been contacted, the coroner and her officers made every effort to contact them. Surprisingly they were able to do so, through the undertakers firm that repatriated Sergey’s body to the Ukraine. On the final day of the inquest, the coroner’s officers spoke to Sergey’s family (through an interpreter) who were able to give some basic details about Sergey and his reasons for travelling to the UK. Sergey’s sister had said that he was a divorced man with an 11-year-old child. He was happy, healthy, outgoing and good-natured. He had travelled to the UK as his mother had fallen ill and he wanted to send money home for her. He was a construction worker by trade. His family was very poor. He had no knowledge of English other than a few words. They were unaware of any scars on Sergey or that he had self-harmed. They said that he did not suffer from depression and had no knowledge of any history of mental health problems. The last contact he had with his family was at the end of May 2004, when he spoke to his father to congratulate him on his birthday.
The inquest jury delivered a unanimous verdict that Sergey Baranyuk ‘took his own life’.
Download a copy of the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman report into the Circumstances surrounding the death of a detainee in Harmondsworth Removal Centre on 19 July 2004 (pdf file, 141kb)
Download a copy of HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Report on an unannounced inspection of Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre 17-21 July 2006 (pdf file, 460kb)
Read the introduction to the IRR’s report: Driven to desperate measures
Download a copy of Driven to desperate measures (pdf file, 401kb)