Asylum Seekers in the UK
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Asylum Seekers in the UK

A new AIUK report exposes the growing extent of arbitrary incarcertion of hundreds of asylum-seekers in Britain. This practice is cruel, pointless and costs £2m a year, says Amnesty International Refugee Officer, Richard Dunstan.

"I'm in such a hopeless situation that I wish I was never born. This prison, without hope and faith to survive, is hell. Please help me!" - Every day of every week, Amnesty International's postbag contains letters like this, from prisons in countries as diverse as Algeria, China, Iraq, Nigeria, Turkey and Zaire. This one is different. Sure enough, the writer had previously been brutally tortured by the Algerian security forces. But the letter was written in Wormwood Scrubs prison, west London, where the writer, a 28-year-old Algerian asylum-seeker, had been incarcerated for the past four months while the Home Office considered his asylum claim.
(Cartoon David Austen)

The writer was to spend a further six months in Wormwood Scrubs before being released and granted asylum. But his ten-month incarceration was not due to any conviction by a court. No British court ever considered his position. In common with hundreds of men and women whose only crime is to have sought asylum, the writer was incarcerated on the mere say-so of low-ranking immigration officials, acting without reference or effective accountability to any court or independent review body.

Over the past decade, the British government has implemented a seemingly endless stream of new and ever more oppressive measures against asylum-seekers, all intended to prevent or deter new arrivals. Not least among these deterrent measures has been the arbitrary and prolonged detention of many asylum-seekers, in purpose-built detention centres and criminal prisons, while their claims are examined. Driven from their homes by repression and state terror, these vulnerable individuals have made long and dangerous journeys to reach what they hope will be a safe haven only to find themselves incarcerated, often for many months, in the United Kingdom.

While the overwhelming majority of those seeking asylum in the United Kingdom are granted "temporary admission" pending the Home Office's decision on their claim, the Immigration Act 1971 provides immigration officers with extraordinary and discretionary powers of detention. Asylum-seekers detained under these powers may be held indefinitely, are not properly informed of the reasons for their incarceration, and, unlike persons charged with serious crimes, do not benefit from a legally-prescribed right to bail. For, whereas in criminal cases the Bail Act 1976 creates a presumption in favour of liberty (by means of bail), the Immigration Act 1971 contains no such provision. Moreover, the decision on whether or not to grant bail is taken at an automatic court hearing. In short, detained asylum-seekers, who have committed no offence, have fewer rights than persons charged with murder, rape and other serious crimes. In 1994 an Amnesty International report, Prisoners without a voice: asylum-seekers detained in the United Kingdom, demonstrated that this practice violates a number of international human rights norms including Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights and called on the Government to introduce effective procedural safeguards. Not only has the Government since failed to do so but, with the opening of additional detention facilities, the number of asylum-seekers incarcerated at any one time has now grown to over 850, a three-fold increase since 1993. And, increasingly, the detention centres are run by private security firms such as Group 4 and Wackenhut (UK) Ltd, a subsidiary of the Wackenhut Corporation which runs many privatised prisons in the United States.

Now a new Amnesty International report, Cell culture: the detention & imprisonment of asylum-seekers in the United Kingdom, provides further evidence of the gross ineffectiveness of the existing procedural safeguards, and of the resultant arbitrariness of such detention. Based on a survey of 150 asylum-seekers detained at 1 June 1996, it shows that, despite an average duration of detention exceeding five months, in 86 per cent of cases the immigration officer's decision to detain had not been subjected to any independent scrutiny or review a gross violation of fundamental human rights standards. It demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of detainees are held from the time of application for asylum subverting recent ministerial claims that detention is not used during the initial stage of the asylum process. And it suggests that a great deal of this arbitrary incarceration, costing some 20 million a year, serves little if any purpose.

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