Another sad death in a detention centre

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Another sad death in a detention centre

by Hazel Healy


In the US, pregnant women are shackled. (Imagens-Evangelicas under a Creative Commons Licence)

Stephanie Silverman studies the detention of immigrants. She says that almost every day she learns something that she was not expecting. It seems too strange or terrible to be true. I remembered her words when I heard about the latest terrible death in a detention centre on 16 January 2014.

The report from HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) has more than one shocking story. The press reported the treatment of Alois Dvorzac. He was an 84-year-old with dementia. He died in handcuffs after he was refused entry at a British airport a few weeks before. His death is in the news around the world because of his age, his illness, and perhaps his Western nationality.

The terrible treatment of Alois Dvorzac by the guards at Harmondsworth detention centre was shocking. But it was not surprising. This kind of treatment in detention is not unusual. It is common with too many border rules. These rules allow governments to put migrants, who have committed no crime, into prison.

There was another example of terrible treatment in Yarlswood detention centre in October 2013. The migrants in the centre said that staff promised to help women migrants with their immigration cases for sex. Tilia was a migrant in the centre. She said this is very common for guards: ‘having women was part of their jobs,’ she said. And then there were the G4S guards working in a culture of racism. They killed Jimmy Mubenga on a deportation flight to Angola.

It’s not just happening in Britain. While I worked on the New Internationalist issue about detention, there was news of many terrible cases in Australia. One manager decided to tell the truth about the detention centre on Manus Island. He described how guards did not protect migrants from sexual abuse. He said that the centre was not good enough as a home for dogs.

In the US, Human Rights Watch reported how pregnant women are shackled. Female migrants have made 185 complaints about sexual abuse since 2007.

Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick said in his report that the detention system did not help migrants with the biggest problems. Many are mentally ill and 85 per cent of detainees are very depressed at any one time. They and victims of torture should be released under Home Office rules. But these rules are not followed. . That’s why the Gatwick Detainee Support Group helped a man with the mental age of 11 who was in prison in isolation at Brook House detention centre for six weeks. That’s why the British government chartered a plane to deport a mentally ill Nigerian, Isa Muazu, even though he was on hunger strike for three months.

Britain says the detention centres are secure and humane. But allowing migrants to play badminton and celebrate Diwali does not change the serious injustice. Migrants in Britain, Australia and US can be kept in prison for as long as the system wants.

In these centres away from public view the guards keep strong control of the migrants. Visitors can come in only after very strict security checks and no journalists can visit. Anthropologists such as Alexandra Hall have reported all of this. In Border Watch, she describes how whispering, looking out of the window or moving too quickly are all seen as wrong behaviour.

Melanie Griffiths did research with migrants in Campsfield House in Oxfordshire. She writes how migrants with good behavior like keeping a tidy bedroom are given stars. With the stars migrants can get things like a private room or buy sweets. If migrants argue, become angry, or refuse a $1.60/ hour job, the stars are taken away. In the US, food is reduced to force migrants to do as they are told.

In these controlling centres migrants lose individuality and quickly become part of the system. And in this inhuman world, a guard can decide that a dying man might try to escape and is shackled.

The guards who made the decision to handcuff the dying migrants in the HMIP reports worked for the private prison operator GEO. It is GEO who are blamed for this latest terrible action. The G4S guards were reported in all the press when Jimmy Mbenga died. This must be good news for the Home Office press. They are responsible in the end but giving the dirty work to private companies means that you are a little less responsible.

The staff of private prisons can also say that they are not responsible in the end for what happens in a detention centre. The staff of MITIE said that after a sitdown protest against detention in Campsfield House, the demonstrators were not protesting against the conditions in detention – just against detention itself. But of course they are responsible for the problems and receive millions of pounds every year. The situation for the victims, the migrants, does not change. And with detention without charge abuse is the natural result.

Read Hazel Healy's report on detention for the January/February edition of New Internationalist: 'Why are we locking up migrants?'

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