A Punjabi Sikh who was caught while trying to escape from Campsfield House immigration detention centre near Oxford has spoken out for the first time about his ordeal.
Parminder Kumar, 21, hobbling on bandaged feet cut on the razor wire which tops the 18-foot-high fence surrounding Campsfield House gave an exclusive interview to ... from inside Tinsley House Immigration Detention Centre near Gatwick Airport.
Kumar tried to escape with fellow Sikh Amrit Singh because both were facing deportation back to the Punjab. Kumar said that the choice facing the two of them was a stark one.
"We knew that if our deportation went ahead this country would surely be sending us back home to our deaths. Although escape meant risking injury or recapture it was our only hope. We had both been tortured by police in the Punjab and felt that this escape bid was our only hope."
Singh suffered serious head injuries after he fell back from the wall inside the Campsfield enclosure crashing onto concrete while Kumar although cut and bleeding from the wire, managed to get over the wall and hid in bushes on the other side waiting in vain for Singh to join him.
The two men hid in bushes inside Campsfield following a period of early evening association in the Campsfield grounds instead of returning inside with the other detainees. they made their escape bid at about 9.30pm.
"The first time Amrit tried to climb the wall he fell backwards but was not hurt. i got over although i cut myself badly and waited and waited for Amrti but he didn't come and there was silence on the other side of the wall. Eventually at about 3am I asked a passer by to call me a taxi. Instead he called the police and I was recaptured and taken to hospital. It was there that they told me Amrit was seriously injured. I have been able to think of nothing else since then. I do not know if he will survive or what the future holds for either of us."
The escape bid comes as the Medical foundation for the Victims of Torture launches a report called Lives Under threat: A Study of Sikhs Coming to the UK from the Punjab. the report medically documents 95 Sikh torture victims examined between November 1991 and March 1999 revealing that torture in police stations and interrogation centres in the Punjab is routine but largely ignored by the British government when considering asylum applications.
Kumar was examined by the Medical Foundation and found to have scars consistent with his account of being beaten several times by police in the Punjab.
Sherman Carroll of the Medical foundation said: "Sikh asylum seekers face an uphill battle in convincing the authorities here of the realities they face at home. The home office consistently fails to give accounts of torture in India proper credence."
Suke Wolton from the Campaign to Close Campsfield said: "This desperate and suicidal attempt highlights the dangers and brutality of imprisoning asylum seekers. It is wrong to lock people up just for the 'crime' of asking for sanctuary."
Diane Taylor, September 1999
The case so far:
20 August 1997: Riot at Campsfield House. In the days following, 13 West Indians and West Africans charged with violent disorder and moved to a remand prison. Three are placed in Reading Young Offenders Institution because they are 16, 17 and 19.
January 1998: Charges dropped against four defendants. One is given refugee status and is released on bail. Another is granted refugee status in February and is released on bail.
1-17 June 1998: trial at Oxford Crown Court. Examination of prosecution >witnesses only. Before the prosecution case had finished the prosecution >QC admitted to the court that he 'could not ask a jury to convict on this evidence'. The Judge instructed the jury to acquit all nine. During the trial, two Group 4 staff had admitted to smashing the telephones, which detainees had been blamed for by the Home Secretary. Staff admitted to not knowing the names of the defendants. Serious mistakes in Group 4's statements to the police were shown by contrast with CCTV video evidence and also with written statements made by staff to their superiors. One seventeen year old remains sectioned under Mental Health Act at end of trial. Five others are taken to Rochester Prison. Three have refugee status.
July 1998: Two in Rochester are served with removal notices. UNHCR is persuaded to look at their cases. After much press coverage, the campaign succeeds in having all five released from detention. Section removed on teenager in September.
August 1998: Eight of the defendants instruct lawyers to advise on civil proceedings against Group 4 and the Home Office for 'malicious prosecution'.
November 1998:Home Office move to remove one of the Nine: John Quaquah
February 1999: Divisional Court grant permission to challenge the decision of the Home Office
17August 1999: Judicial Review of removal of JQ - adjourned at last minute as Home Office accept that JQ needs to see video evidence of trial.
18 October 1999: Judicial Review heard in part. Remainder moved to 18 November after 'strike out hearing' because of the issue of the same legal entity removing someone who is engaged in a civil action against it creating the appearance of bias.
12 November 1999: Hearing before a master postponed because listed for too short a time (Home Office had underestimated the issues involved). The Home Office had requested that the civil proceedings against them be 'struck out' . Also Group 4 have applied for the proceedings to be 'struck out'. In John Quaquah's case this would leave Group 4 staff member Chris Barry to take the sole blame. The hearing may raise the issue of contracted out public services. Unlike 'next steps' (civil service) and prisons, there is no statutory provision for contracting out immigration detention. The current Asylum Bill has an entire section devoted to this legislation.
Arbitrary detention, arbitrary transfers, arbitrary charges?
Campsfield Nine Defence Campaign
Latest on the Campsfield Nine
The Campsfield Nine: histories of persecution
Open letter to Jack Straw
A detainee's report on the press visit to Campsfield
Pornographic videos - again
Conditions at Campsfield: a detainee comments
Plain rice, scalding water and an injury in segregation
Poem from an unnamed detainee
Scene witnessed over a Campsfield Fence
Are there children in detention?
Letter from Oxford University academics
Professor Michael Dummett's speech at the public meeting
Government policy and the Ramsbotham report
This government and its predecessors talk repeatedly of 'bogus' asylum seekers but most of the people at Campsfield have had horrendous experiences of persecution - usually by the Third World regimes which the West supports with aid and weapons. Most, far from being so-called 'economic refugees', have given up the possibility of lucrative careers in government or the private sector - in order to struggle against corruption, for democracy and against poverty. Others have been caught up in civil wars. Some are women, or young boys, whose families have been persecuted or killed.
Two things are now increasingly acknowledged: (1) detention of asylum seekers is arbitrary, and (2) it is used as a deterrent. In other words, the people who are detained are being punished not for anything they themselves have done, but in an attempt to stop others coming here.
This was said with great clarity in a recent seminar in Oxford by Louis Gentile, the British representative of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The arbitrary nature of detention was also acknowledged in the report on Campsfield by Sir David Ramsbotham, chief inspector of prisons, who said 'it is abundantly clear' that 'there is little or no consistency, or logic, in current arrangements for deciding upon detention' (§I-25). Dr Evan Harris MP, and others, have said that whether or not a person is detained depends on whether spaces are available, in detention centres or prisons.
If immigration officials are asked why people are detained, their stock answer is that 'we believe they might abscond'. When a visitor asked one official what evidence he had for this belief, since the person she was asking about had been detained at the airport, he simply said 'we are not a court of law'. Both the UNHCR guidelines and the Ramsbotham report say that decisions to detain should be subject to judicial process. In addition, even the government sometimes acknowledges that detention is used as a deterrent. A visitor to Campsfield reports that in a meeting at the Home Office, Jack Straw said detention is a useful means of cutting down the number of asylum applications. His officials apparently winced. (See article below on the government review and Ramsbotham's report for both these points.)
It can similarly be argued that removals from Campsfield to regular prisons, and now criminal charges, are also used as deterrents - and that they are just as arbitrary. There have been many protests at Campsfield since it opened four years ago - including a mass hunger strike early in 1994, two mass protests with considerable physical damage on 5-6 June 1994 (involving 70 people and police intervention according to Mike O'Brien, Hansard, Written Answers No.129, 12 March 1998) and 20 August 1997, a rooftop protest in May 1997, and several smaller hunger strikes and protests. This is not surprising, since the people in Campsfield are innocent, many of them are here precisely because they resisted oppression in their own countries. Detainees say that Group 4 provoke them and behave in a blatantly racist manner. They also report that Group 4 call people 'fucking niggers', 'lazy pussies', 'black monkeys', tell them to go back where they came from if they don't like it here and make insulting jokes about people's religions (see below). When an article in the Independent in December 1997 made some of these points, Group 4 took a complaint to the Press Complaints Council which turned it down.
Group 4's main method of keeping control in Campsfield and deterring complaints by detainees is to get people transferred to other prisons, or tothreaten them with transfer - as Ramsbotham puts it:
'the only available co ntrol option appears to be removal to prison detention, which is a grossly inappropriate and unsatisfactory sanction.' §I-37, p.17
It's also, like detention itself, very arbitrary. Sometimes no reasons are given for transfers. Sometimes Group 4 concocts reasons. For example four people were transferred to HMP Winson Green in Birmingham, accused of setting fire to a toilet. None of them had done it; one of them (who now has refugee status) has a letter admitting he didn't, but what he did do was to complain about Group 4 showing a pornographic video in the room next to where they were trying to say their prayers (see Monitor No.10). Another detainee was transferred to Winson Green after he had been accused of using obscene language to a Group 4 guard; he spoke no English and little French and is quiet, polite and very good-looking; he received a partial apology from an immigration official (see Monitor No. 10). But they spent months in Winson Green. The most discernible pattern of such removals is that they follow complaints - about scalding water in the showers, about the food, about Group 4's behaviour. Therefore, as also reported to Sir David Ramsbotham, HM Inspector of Prisons, detainees say they are frightened of making complaints.
Under the Labour government the authorities have gone one step further, and done something which did not happen under the Tories. They have charged nine detainees (initially 13) with riot (with a possible maximum sentence of ten years) and violent disorder. The charges arise from events on 20 August 1997 in which at least 100 detainees were involved, following the violent removal of a Nigerian, who was ill and seemed to the detainees to be being strangled, and a Gambian teenager. The decision to prosecute the nine, although in theory a matter for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, is a political one, whose purpose is to deter further protests at Campsfield and other places where refugees are locked up.
The singling out of these nine people to be charged is almost certainly as arbitrary as is the process of detention itself (and as are the decisions to remove people to prisons).
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The campaign was set up in October 1997, mainly on the initiative of the Campaign to Close Campsfield, but with broader membership, including notably Candis Roberts, secretary of Asylum Welcome, and Professor Michael Dummett of Oxford University.
Ten West Africans, two Caribbeans and one Lebanese boy were charged with riot and violent disorder after 20 August 1997. Since then, charges against the Lebanese boy, the two Caribbeans and a Liberian have been dropped. The remaining nine are all West Africans, including six Nigerians. Two of the Nigerians now have refugee status and are out on bail. Four (three Nigerians and a Ghanaian) are in Bullingdon prison. A seventeen-year-old Gambian is in Reading Young Offenders' Institution. Another seventeen-year-old, a Nigerian, is now in a mental hospital, perhaps as a result of his experiences at Reading YOI and Campsfield. A nineteen-year-old Liberian was also in Reading YOI, but has made two attempts to kill himself there; at the time of writing he is in a general hospital in Reading.
There have now been three plea and directions hearings at the Oxford Crown Court. The trial is still fixed to begin on 1 June 1998, at Oxford Crown Court, in spite of delays in meeting the judge's requirements both by the prosecution and by some of the defence lawyers. In particular, the judge, following a request from the defence, directed that the prosecution must specify more clearly what each defendant is being charged with and which parts of the videos the prosecution are relying on; the prosecution failed to produce all of this on time. The trial itself may last for two months or, according to some lawyers, much longer. Alternatively it could collapse after a few weeks, if the judge decided to throw out the case.
The campaign has called for the dropping of the charges against the Nine. It has tried to ensure that all of them are visited and supported in prison. Its members have spent a great deal of time trying to help them to achieve good legal representation, with mixed results. Some of the defendants have had bad experiences with the immigration lawyers who were representing them before 20 August but have been unable to change. Judge King, in the Crown Court, has refused to authorize the transfer of legal aid for three of the defendants to lawyers of their choice, although he gave permission to one other (whose situation he said was exceptional). The judge also refused lawyers' requests for a second counsel, or for a QC (or senior barrister), although the prosecution is to have a QC. In addition potential witnesses, especially those who are still waiting for decisions on their asylum applications, fear the possible consequences of acting for the defence. One key witness, who had given statements to two of the defence lawyers, has recently been deported. One of the two detainees whose violent removal from Campsfield triggered the protest was deported last year.
The defence campaign has now held seven meetings mainly for lawyers, three of them in New College, Oxford and four at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants in London. A further meeting is planned to follow the first day of the trial. 14 lawyers have attended these meetings over the weeks (unfortunately not all at the same time). The main purpose of the meetings has been to find out what information the defence campaign can usefully provide to the lawyers. The campaign has also held organizing meetings in Oxford and with the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism in London.
The campaign has organized lobbies outside all of the court sessions so far, first at the magistrates court and then at the Crown Court, and filled the public galleries. It plans a national demonstration, from 8.30 onwards, outside the Crown Court at the start of the trial on Monday 1 June, and on subsequent Mondays, and to continue to fill the public gallery.
It lobbied the Crown Prosecution Service offices at Victoria on 29 April, with an effigy of a goat to symbolize the scapegoating of the Nine. It held a public meeting at the Oxford Town Hall on 12 May, at which one of the defendants spoke, together with Ritah Kaala (former detainee and now project worker at Asylum Welcome), Professor Michael Dummett, Dr. Evan Harris (Liberal Democrat MP for the constituency in which Campsfield is located), and Bill MacKeith (Campaign to Close Campsfield). A further public meeting is planned on 26 May at Westminster Central Hall, with the two refugees on bail, former Campsfield detainee Abdul Onibiyo, John Fulani, head of the UK section of Nigeria's United Action for Democracy, Evan Harris MP, John McDonnell MP, Dr Alan Ryan, Warden of New College, and Bill MacKeith.
Press coverage has been limited by the problems of sub judice, but there has been some very sympathetic coverage in the Oxford Times and Oxford Mail, and also coverage in a number of left publications. In addition, some of the mass publicity following the publication of the Ramsbotham report referred to the fact that the Nine have been charged. Members of the campaign have spoken and leafleted at numerous meetings and events.
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Another of the Campsfield Nine has received refugee status! Two of the nine now have refugee status: Edward Onabanjo Agoro, who received refugee status last autumn, and Sunny Ozidede. Sunny's immigration appeal hearing was held in Birmingham on 18 March 1998. The adjudicator said that he would write his determination the following day, but typing it would take several weeks. Eventually - after nearly six more weeks in Bullingdon prison - Sunny received notification that he had won his appeal, followed by confirmation that the Home Office would not appeal against the decision, and was granted bail at the plea and directions hearing at the Oxford Crown Court on 27 April. He is now living in East Oxford, spending time with his fiancee and twelve-week-old baby, and is overjoyed to be free, at least for the time being.
The rest of the news is not so good. One of the three teenagers among the nine was transferred from Reading Young Offenders Institution to Feltham YOI hospital wing when he became depressed; he hoarded anti-depressants and took them, and had to be transferred first to a general hospital and then to a mental hospital, where he still is. He has not appeared at the Crown Court. He says however that the doctors and nurses treat him sympathetically.
One of the other two who were detained in Reading Young Offenders Institution has attempted suicide twice, first by hanging (after which he was transferred temporarily to the hospital wing of Feltham YOI) and then, again, by taking an overdose of anti-depressants (he has had to be transferred to a general hospital, and has regained consciousness). The other minor has tried unsuccessfully for bail, on the grounds that he too is becoming increasingly depressed (he was 16 years old when he was first detained in Campsfield). Both complain of racist abuse from other prisoners and guards at Reading YOI. The remaining four are in Bullingdon prison, where they are relatively well treated, though kept on separate wings. All of them are finding their situation hard to bear. They have regular visits from Campaign supporters; they would welcome more.
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All of the defendants have histories of persecution in their countries of origin. We cannot report or name the three teenage defendants. For the others we have had to be brief because we do not want to prejudice their immigration cases or lay them open to reprisals.
Sunny Ozidede (Nigeria)
Sunny was a student in Industrial Chemistry in the University at Science and Technology Port-Harcourt. He is from Ogoni, and was among the first protesters against the devastating environmental pollution caused by the oil companies. He was arrested and imprisoned and severely tortured by the military.
Sunny arrived in Britain in May 1996, and was refused asylum but was given temporary admission while his case was on appeal. During the appeal hearing he was in hospital suffering from the injuries sustained during torture; there was no solicitor to represent him. Despite a letter written from hospital, the appeal was dismissed and he was then taken to Campsfield House detention centre. He was moved to HMP Bullingdon shortly after the disturbance and was on remand there for nearly eight months.
In April 1998, he was told his appeal against the decision not to grant him asylum was successful. The Campsfield Nine Defence Campaign had put him in touch with a good solicitor who investigated his case and sent a doctor to examine him. The doctor's report confirmed that his scars corresponded to his description of torture. Prior to this, there had been two unsuccessful attempts to deport him. He now has refugee status and is out on bail. He has a fiancee and a 12-week-old daughter.
Edward Onabanjo-Agoro (Nigeria)
Edward was a student in Agricultural Economics at Lagos Polytechnic for seven years, and was secretary of the student union council. He was arrested and put in prison after attending a pro-democracy demonstration. After his release he helped the Campaign for Democracy, an organisation declared illegal by the military regime. His name was then read out on the television as someone wanted by the military government. He immediately went into hiding, and escaped a few days later, obtaining a false visa and passport at a huge financial cost.
He was detained on entry in March 1997, and released in late August on temporary admission. Since then he has been given refugee status, and has been working in London. He has obtained unconditional offers to study for degrees from three British Universities this autumn.
Lucky Agbebaku (Nigeria), Enahoro Esemuze (Nigeria) and Stanley Nwadike (Nigeria)
These three were all members of the opposition movement to the military regime in Nigeria. Sunny and Stanley were involved in the Ogoni opposition to the environmental degradation of their region. Edward, Lucky and Enahoro were involved in the pro-democracy movement against the military refusal to hand over power after their failure to win the elections in 1993 and the imprisonment by the military of the presidential candidate Abiola. All five were imprisoned and severely tortured in Nigeria.
John Quaquah (Ghana)
John was an active member of the opposition movement and fled after being attacked by a member of the ruling party in Ghana.
On arrival in Britain he was immediately detained at Campsfield House, although the three Liberians that had travelled with him were given temporary admission. He remained there until being moved to HMP Bullingdon shortly after the disturbance on 20 August 1997. Campaigners demand 'Drop the Charges' and 'Stop Scapegoating the Campsfield Nine' Outside the Crown Prosecution Service in London, 29 April 1998
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In January 1998, following the absence of a reply or even acknowledgement to a request for an interview made jointly by the Campaign to Close Campsfield and Asylum Welcome in August 1997, representatives of the Campsfield Nine Defence Campaign delivered the following letter to Jack Straw's country house in Minster Lovell:
Dear Mr. Straw We are delivering this letter to your door in the hope that you will read it. We wonder whether you can be aware of the suffering you are inflicting on the nine West African asylum seekers who are accused of riot at Campsfield House. We find it hard to believe that you have so little heart.
The nine face a maximum sentence of ten years in prison, followed by deportation to the countries from which they have fled. Since eight of them were imprisoned last August, they have felt, as they express it, "low and tired, locked up in prison, wondering how we could survive the daily torment, fear and mental anguish"; they believe their situation is "brutally unjust". Half have talked of suicide; one has attempted it. Two are seventeen. One, who was transferred from Feltham Young Offenders Institution to Reading YOI after his seventeenth birthday in November, has become increasingly depressed. The other seventeen-year-old was diagnosed as clinically depressed just before Christmas. He was moved from Reading YOI to Feltham hospital wing and prescribed anti-depressants. He hoarded these and took them two days ago; he was moved to general hospital and was thought to be dying; it now seems that he is likely to recover and to be returned to Feltham. Four of the five detained at Bullingdon prison went on hunger strike in December. One young Nigerian was brought to court from the hospital wing, collapsed and was taken to the John Radcliffe hospital, where he remained, unconscious, on a drip and chained to a guard. On his return to Bullingdon he was put in a "strip cell", deprived of clothes, books, paper and all his belongings, on a mattress on the floor. Another traumatised Nigerian asylum seeker, a student of English literature, was given the same suicide prevention treatment. Another Nigerian, who was imprisoned and tortured in Nigeria, is expecting a child in February; his fiancee despairs as the date of his possible release recedes.
We hold you personally responsible for their suffering. A policeman at Banbury police station, where the police were taking statements from some of those charged, told the defence lawyers present that the police were reluctant to pursue charges (considering that the evidence was weak and Group 4 statements unreliable), but that they had received a telephone call "all the way" from yourself telling them to proceed. As presumably you know, none of the many protests at Campsfield gave rise to criminal charges under the previous government, although on 5 June 1994, for example, there was physical damage similar to that claimed on 20 August 1997. On 20 and 21 August your colleague, Immigration Minister Mike O'Brien, threatened criminal charges and said the detainees "need their heads examined". His press release was headed "Burning Their Books - in a Moment of Madness", thus condemning the detainees in general for actions which were carried out by one or two individuals (who have not been identified or charged), and which most detainees deplore. These statements, like other statements from the government on "bogus asylum seekers" for example, appear designed to inflame prejudice. This is clearly a political trial, desired by the government. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that you are pursuing it, not in the interests of justice, but in the hope that such severe punishment will deter future protests at Campsfield, and will reinforce the intimidatory regime which already exists there.
We do not believe there is any justification for picking out these particular nine West African asylum seekers for such punishment. You must surely know that the process was arbitrary - as is detention itself and the process of selecting detainees for transfer to other prisons. There are, already, cases of detainees being removed to other prisons on the basis of allegations by Group 4 which were subsequently acknowledged to be unfounded; the most discernible pattern for these removals is that they followed complaints which the detainees were rash enough to have made against racist abuse by Group 4 employees, or other aspects of their conditions. Another curious feature of the process of selection for criminal charges is that the initial thirteen, apart from one Lebanese boy, were all male black Africans or Caribbeans; the remaining nine are all West Africans. They may, or may not, have been among 50 or 60 detainees, of all nationalities and both sexes, who were milling about in the courtyards in Campsfield on 20 August 1997.
You are reported as having learnt from your experience of the British criminal justice system to have a healthy scepticism about its vagaries. You are nevertheless subjecting the nine to it. You must surely know that whether the jury chooses to believe the statements of the defendants, or of their white Group 4 accusers, is anybody's guess. And the chances of the trial being fair are diminished by the likely difficulty of finding defence witnesses. Potential witnesses are detainees or former detainees who are reluctant to come forward because of their extreme vulnerability to Group 4, the immigration service and their own governments. Some have, in any case, been deported - a decision which is made by the Home Office.
We know that you intervened to cause the charges to be brought. We ask you to intervene again and, this time, to show compassion. We believe the charges should be dropped and the prisoners freed, before more injustice is done.
The letter carried 97 signatures, collected in one evening. This time we did receive a reply, dated 2 March 1998, from Isobel Hopton on behalf of the Home Secretary. This said in part:
'On 20 August 1997, considerable damage was caused at the centre by a group of people who were clearly not suitable for detention in the relatively relaxed atmosphere of Campsfield House, which is run on the lines of a secure hostel. The library was destroyed by fire, the shop was smashed and looted, all the pay phones and other telephones were ripped from the walls, and extensive damage was caused to other areas...
Thames Valley Police conducted a thorough investigation at the scene of the crime and decided, in consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service, that where there was evidence that individual detainees had committed specific crimes those detainees should be prosecuted. I can assure you that, despite what you may have been told, the Home Secretary - who was not even in the United Kingdom at the time - took no part in that decision.
.... In his statement on 21 August, Mr O'Brien was careful not to condemn all the detainees for the damage caused, because he was aware that there were many who had wanted no part in it. It is clear from the police enquiry, however, that large numbers were drawn into the disturbance, and it is not accurate for you to say that the damage was caused by one or two people who have not been identified.'
What the letter from the Defence Campaign did say (see above) is that books were burnt by one or two individuals who had not been identified or charged; this action has been deplored by all the detainees and defendants we have spoken to. Yet Mike O'Brien in his statement of 21 August says: 'Yesterday in a moment of madness the detainees burnt their own books' and: 'The detainees destroyed their own facilities'. There is no mention of only some of them having destroyed either the library or the facilities (see Monitor No. 11 for full text of press release). O'Brien's statement concludes that: 'the police are now investigating whether to bring criminal charges against certain individuals'. The nine people who are charged, with one small exception, are not accused of destroying property.
On the other hand several detainees and ex-detainees state vehemently that they saw Group 4 guards smashing telephones. Detainees report that, when they asked afterwards why Group 4 guards had done this, supervisor Mo Stone (since transferred elsewhere) replied: 'We were trying to help you'.
Do write to the Director of Public Prosecutions asking for the charges to be dropped. Dame B Mills, Director of Public Prosecutions, 50 Ludgate Hill, London EC4M 7EK or fax: 0171 329 8366
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The press and television cameras were allowed into Campsfield on 15 April 1998. Afterwards a visitor received a letter from Campsfield; the following is the full text:
I begin my letter by describing to you the events which took place at Campsfield during the visit by a television team (I think the BBC?) and another team of journalists from the written press, accompanied by members of the Immigration Service, of the (official) Visitors' Committee and members of Group 4 staff, dressed in suits.I was called at 9.30 in the morning to interpret for some Rumanians. At 10am I went to the dining room to have some coffee and biscuits. As I returned to the library to read the newspaper, Mrs Dee (Intelligence) approaches me, offering me cigarettes and a telephone card. I am astonished and begin to ask myself questions: Why? Is it because I didn't shave? Is it because I haven't taken the medicine prescribed to me by Dr Lloyd? At 11am, a member of the Visitors' Committee approaches me and starts to ask me questions, and is trying to move me out into the corridor, so that I have no contact with members of the press, who wanted to ask me questions about conditions in detention, and about what has happened to my arm! At 11.05, a member of Group 4 staff came from the end of the corridor to interrupt my conversation with a member of the press! At 11.15 all the staff of Group 4 are mobilised to listen to what the detainees are saying about them. Another Group 4 staff member is especially mobilised to interrupt the discussions by seeming to invite the cameraman and the press to come and visit the library, and the gym, and they suggest to some Albanians who don't speak English that they should smile and to play in the gym; they were offered cigarettes, they were happy! At 12 o'clock, I was astonished again when I went to have lunch. I thought I was going to get 'self-choice'. Instead, they asked 'What would you like to eat?', even though I had not put in an 'order' the day before. All the staff were following me wherever I went, trying to listen to what I said to the detainees.
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In 1996 (as we reported in Monitor No. 10), a detainee was transferred to Winson Green prison after complaining that Group 4 had shown a pornographic video at high volume in the room next door to the one in which detainees were saying their prayers. After the events of 20 August 1997 the detainees who remained at Campsfield were herded together, men and women, including at least one very young African girl, in the visitors' room. According to one of the detainees Group 4 then subjected them to a pornographic video ('blue movie', as they put it) - to the great indignation of the detainees.
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At the end of a 24-hour shift, a Group 4 guard brought the detainees their letters. Instead of placing them, as usual, on the table, he chucked them in the bin. 'Go and get your own letters, black monkeys', he said, according to a detainee.
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'Before the press came to visit Campsfield, they brought in computers and books, and their attitudes changed. They told some newly-arrived detainees that they must play in the gym (which is something we never do, we are too depressed, we just stay in our rooms) - and they gave them cigarettes as an inducement. What they showed the press was not the reality. They subject us to racist abuse. I arrived in September last year; we had to knock on our doors if we wanted to go to the toilet, and we could only smoke in the corridors.'
'When you are under stress, they take advantage of it to provoke you. If you react, you are sent to prison. They have lists; the people they want to pursue get three stars on these lists. There are many very unhappy people here, they cannot telephone, they have no contacts outside. It's moral torture; I'm not exaggerating, I haven't invented anything.'
They are now building metal doors inside Campsfield, like prison. There are new microphones and loudspeakers, very disturbing. They have changed the door on the mosque, so that there is a window and a camera. When we asked a Group 4 guard not to walk wearing his shoes on the carpet in the mosque, he said 'I hate Muslims' - so there was trouble; a detainee was wounded and had to have an operation.'
'For three or four days all except one of the toilets and showers were closed; people were queuing.'
'The doctor is no good. When I was ill, from the effects of persecution in my country, the guards ignored me and stopped other people from helping me; eventually they took me in handcuffs. People are not examined when they are suffering. If there is a medical emergency, you have to wait for the doctor's hours, sometimes the next day.'
'All the Group 4 guards are the same. They don't care at all. They laugh at you, they try to ridicule people, they go into your room without knocking. It's they who provoke the detainees. They say and do really racist things. There are no good ones; if there were, I don't think they would last.'
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Detainees report that for several days last summer they were served with plain white rice 'without sauce', by which they mean rice on its own, unaccompanied by meat or vegetables; they resorted to butter and eventually complained, a bold act which may have led to the removals to prison and the events which followed on 20 August 1997. Others ventured to complain about the fact that the water was so hot that they could not take showers, and that 'drinking water' was available only from the toilets.
One detainee was removed to the new segregation unit in a Portakabin at the back of the camp; when he came out the next morning, his hand was bleeding and he told fellow detainees that he had been attacked with a screwdriver. After this he was so scared of Group 4 that he would only go to the toilet if friends came with him.
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I MET THEM ALL
YOU MET THE PRESIDENT
I MET THE GOVERNOR
YOU MET THE POPE
I MET THE MURDERER
YOU MET THE KING
I MET THE RAPIST
YOU MET THE QUEEN
I MET THE DRUG DEALERS
YOU MET THE PRIME MINISTERS
I MET THE CAR THIEVES
YOU MET THE SCIENTIST
I MET THE PSYCHOLOGIST
YOU MET THE GENERALS
I MET THE TERRORISTS
YOU MET THE POLICE OFFICERS
I MET THE PRISON OFFICERS, KNOWN AS GOVS!
YOU MET THE DOCTORS
I MET THE PSYCHIATRIST
YOU MET THE LORDS, LADIES, GIRLS, WOMEN,
CHILDREN AND BOYS
I MET THE CRIMINALS, GOVS! AND RACISTS
IT'S A POETIC FEELINGS WANTING TO BE FREE, BECAUSE I WAS BORN TO BE FREE.
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Institutional life will, I suppose, always throw up behaviour which is uncomfortable when looked at from an outsider's perspective. But - for the newly sen sitised, post-Ramsbotham report, ethnically sound regime we are told is now operating in Campsfield House, this snatched view over a fence seems not quite in line... It was a warm Saturday afternoon. The little yard was full of detainees clapping, cheering, waving to the people they could hear outside the fence, who were protesting against detention, protesting that "Refugees are welcome here". There were several guards out too, in their heavy uniform, lounging uncomfortably against the walls and the fences, patrolling between the two twenty-foot-high fences that separated the protesters from the detainees.
Suddenly - I'm sure in a light-hearted way, to liven up the afternoon - two of the guards - young ones, one male, one female - faced the crowd of detainees in the yard and began apparently, to mimic them, miming, gesticulating in an exaggerated mock performance. Their captive audience looked on uncomfortably - were they meant to smile? The guards clapped each other. To an outsider, peeping over the fence, it was a menacing moment, all the worse for its apparent good humour...
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Mike O'Brien said on Newsnight BBC2 16 April 1998: "We do not detain people knowingly who are under age." Colin Harbin, the deputy director of immigration enforcement, in a letter of 14 April 1998, suggested that the problem of detained minors was caused only because 'there are circumstances where a short period of detention in such cases is inevitable, usually when an unaccompanied child arrives at one of our ports, often late at night, in circumstances where the local Social Services are unable to make an immediate response to the Immigration Service's request for assistance. But such cases are rare, and the child is in any event usually released the following day.'
Sir David Ramsbotham's report noted only that: 'We were informed that there had been only three children received at the Centre since it had opened.' (§1.02) This, however, is a misleading picture. During 1997, TWENTY SEVEN children were released into the care of Bicester Social Services from Campsfield House. In detention, during 1997, there had been 49 minors, 33 of whom were UNDER SIXTEEN. (Refugee Council report, 7 January 1998)
Furthermore, in 21 November 1997, in a letter to Nick Hardwick of the Refugee Council, Mike O'Brien admitted that 29 (although no period was specified) children had been released from detention. Confusingly Mike O'Brien also stated that no minors were in detention on 10 December 1997 in a written answer to Parliamentary Question and that there were only 12 children in detention in Campsfield in 1997.
Since then... In December 1997 a Kashmiri boy was held in Campsfield and then released to a foster family in London later that month. In January 1998 an Angolan boy was admitted to Campsfield. In February the Immigration Service admitted that he was under age and should be released but Bicester Social Services (who are not instructed to budget for these cases) had 'no resources' and were not able to afford to pay for foster care until the end of March when he was able to be released.
The Home Office claim that minors, once accepted as children, are released from detention. However, they do not accept responsibility for checking minors' ages. Of the 49 children last year in detention, 12 were referred by the Refugee Council, 17 were referred by solicitors and visitors and other detainees, and 20 were referred by the Immigration Service. Even after referral there is no procedure to treat the disputed minor as a child while an investigation takes place.
Under the Children Act 1989, unaccompanied children should have separate accommodation and facilities, be provided with education, and their general welfare must be considered by social services. Furthermore, special staff training is required for the care of children, especially in detention. None of these procedures is followed during the period a detainee's age is under question.
Mike O'Brien, in his letter of 21 November 1997, stated that: 'Whilst the onus is on an asylum applicant to prove his age, the Immigration Service errs on the side of caution by releasing those who might be minors, particularly when presented with a medical report. There are cases, however, where the evidence is not sufficiently persuasive that a particular applicant is a minor. Although medical reports are a helpful indicator in determining age, they are not conclusive.'
Furthermore, Lord Williams of Mostyn (Hansard, Written Answers 22 April 1998), states that 'The UK ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on 16 December 1991, subject to the reservation that the UK reserves the right to apply such legislation, ..... we believe it is necessary to make clear that nothing in the convention is to be interpreted as overriding the provisions of our immigration and nationality legislation.' The question is whether the 'reservation' that the government retains includes the power to keep children in detention, and sometimes even in prisons.
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Led by Professor Michael Dummett and Alan Ryan (warden of New College) and helped by Students Against Campsfield, 125 senior academics of Oxford University, including four current and three former heads of colleges and 27 professors, sent a letter to Tony Blair asking the government to drop the charges against the Campsfield Nine. This is an abridged version of their letter.
'Dear Prime Minister, Many of us, current and retired senior members of Oxford University, wrote to your predecessor John Major to express our dismay at the detention of innocent asylum seekers at Campsfield House and elsewhere, and appealed for their early release. We write now to deplore your Government's continuation of this Conservative policy. The policy is inhumane, in flagrant conflict with international law and very unexpected from a Labour government. Asylum seekers are innocent of any crime. Those assigned to detention centres or to prisons are detained without trial, without knowledge of the reason for their detention or of the progress, if any, of their applications for asylum, without access to the courts or ready access to lawyers, without time limit, and with hardly any chance of bail: essentially without hope. .... In short, they are in all these respects treated much worse than criminals, their only fault having been to ask this country for refuge from persecution.
Decisions to detain applicants for asylum are not made by any court of law or under normal rules of evidence, but by immigration officers, whose decisions are frequently arbitrary and are subject to no scrutiny. This unjust procedure flouts the rule of law and conventions binding under international law. We are astonished that a Labour government should not summarily have abandoned it. ....
In one respect the treatment of asylum seekers under your Government is worse than that which they received under your predecessors. Since Campsfield opened four years ago, there has been a series of protests, several of them involving damage to the premises. Until last August, none of those alleged to be responsible was charged with criminal offences. We deplore the fact that nine West African asylum seekers, who may or may not have been involved in the events of 20 August, are now charged with 'riot' (carrying a maximum sentence of ten years). ...
We are concerned at the inflammatory and misleading nature of the press release issued by the Home Office Minister Mr Michael O'Brien on 21 August, headed 'Burning Books - in a moment of madness'. Eight of the nine West Africans have been held since August in Bullingdon and Reading prisons and youth detention, awaiting trial which may start next spring. ... We beg you to intervene to have the charges dropped.'
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Why should such a place as Campsfield House exist? Why does the Government shut up people who have come to our shores asking for refuge against persecution, some in detention centres such as Campsfield, some actually in prison? Why does that seem to politicians a natural and a proper thing to do? To answer these questions, we have to go back 36 years. If you do not go back so far, you may make false assumptions that have been dinned into us, by politicians and press, for all those years.
Up to 1962, Commonwealth citizens had an unrestricted right to come to this country and settle if they wished. In 1961-2 a furore about immigration from the 'new Commonwealth', stirred up by some right-wing Conservative politicians, was backed by some newspapers and responded to by those who feared or disliked the presence of people with dark skins. The then Government responded, against strong Labour opposition, by passing an Act restricting the entry of Commonwealth citizens. This Act embodied a legal fiction: it imposed controls, not only on citizens of independent Commonwealth countries, but on people living in the colonies, who held the same citizenship as everyone born in Britain or Northern Ireland. The fiction was that their passports were not issued by the British Government, but by the colonial administration. But a passport cannot be issued on behalf of a colonial government, which is not represented abroad and cannot treat with foreign governments; it cannot protect any of those subject to it who visit other countries. The passports of those living in the colonies resembled those of everyone here in every particular save one: the stamp to indicate "where issued".
The Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 was thus a fraud. But it accomplished what was intended: it temporarily damped down the racist agitation that had demanded it. And it shaped the response of all future governments to racist agitation. For it had a declaratory effect: it said, very plain, "We don't want them here". Not in so many words: it applied in theory to everyone alike. It did not in practice apply to everyone alike: immigration officers quickly learned to whom they were expected to exercise their wide discretion with the greatest severity, and to whom they were meant to exercise it leniently. But everyone knew that immigration controls were a code intended to be understood by all: decoded, they said, "We don't want them here, and we're doing our best to keep them out".
Racist agitation did not die down: it had tasted blood, and wanted more. In 1965 the Labour Government yielded in its turn, screwing down the controls far more tightly by new administrative regulations. It also introduced the first, tentative, Race Relations Act. "Once they are here", it was said, "they have to be treated fairly"; but the new immigration rules said plainly enough, "But we're trying to stop them from getting here". Those dismayed by the Government's capitulation to racist pressure were appalled when, in February 1968, it did one of the most shameful deeds in all our history - rushing through all its stages in a single week a new Commonwealth Immigrants Act. This denied to our citizens in East Africa, then under great pressure from the African governments, the right to enter Britain. When the African countries attained independence, we negotiated for the Asians living there a choice between becoming citizens of those countries and retaining citizenship of the UK & Colonies: it was clearly understood on all sides that they would in the latter case have the right to come to Britain, since their passports would not have been issued by a colonial administration. In introducing the 1968 Act, Callaghan, then Home Secretary, spoke of the "solemn obligations" we had to these citizens of ours. His point was not that these made it impossible for us to keep them out: it was that it was of such importance to keep them out that we must override obligations, however solemn.
What a lesson for the public to learn! Neither government nor opposition spelled out why it was so important: that was taken for granted as understood by all. It was left to Enoch Powell to spell it out. He was not the first to speak about immigration: from 1961 on we had heard about little else. Powell's crime, in his fellow politicians' eyes, was to make explicit what they had left tacit: the paranoid fears that "they" would get "the whip hand over us" that fuelled the demands for ever harsher controls on the immigration of people with dark skins which those politicians meant never to resist.
The 1968 Act brought forth a new pretext for excluding black people. A government minister toured the local race relations councils, pleading with them to understand what a great thing the Government had done for race relations by passing the Act. Whisper the word "race" or "immigration" to any politician today, and he will at once reply, "Firm but fair immigration control is the key to good race relations": in other words; "Keep them out, and then those we didn't manage to keep out may not be treated so badly". The slogan is absurd: nothing could have been a more effective education in racism than the constant harping of politicians on the need to tighten immigration controls. Over 36 years, the British public has been taught that immigrants are a threat to be warded off at all costs: that nothing worse could happen than that a single person should enter the country whom there is any means of keeping out. In the mind of every politician, of almost every journalist and of most white people, that has become an unquestionable axiom.
The two major parties started an auction for votes. Long after primary immigration from the 'new Commonwealth' and Pakistan had been rendered quite impossible, each party, while in opposition, accused the other of doing nothing to stem the flood of immigrants and promised to do so when it achieved office. There were, of course, only wives and children still coming: they had about a 50-50 chance of not being told, "I am not satisfied that the relationship is as claimed". Once in power, each party invented some new cruelty in order to appear to the electorate as the party that Kept Them Out. Care was taken that the public should never suspect that no great waves of black immigrants were daily arriving. Nor was it told, "We are doing these things reluctantly to appease the senseless racism that prompts your needless clamour". Quite the contrary: it was told, "You are quite right to feel anxiety; you are entitled to object". Not much of a service there to 'good race relations'.
Now it has become possible to play the same tune on a new instrument: refugees began to arrive in significant numbers. Like its predecessor, the present Government very effectively blurs the distinction between the two very different categories of immigrants and refugees by using terms like "economic migrant", "illegal immigrant" and the like. The great advantage of refugees over immigrants from the Third World is that the former actually exist, if in no great numbers: no need any longer to maintain public belief in a total myth. The public, so long indoctrinated, is easily persuaded that we must keep out refugees if any means presents itself of doing so; and the government curries favour with that public by doing everything it can to keep them out.
That is the reason for the visa requirements clamped down on many countries, including Commonwealth ones. That is the reason for the £2,000 fine per head imposed on carrying companies for bringing people in without 'proper papers'; who but a numskull supposes that someone fleeing persecution can easily obtain proper papers? And that is the reason for the existence of places like Campsfield House, where those who ask for asylum are shut up, not knowing why or for how long, or what is happening about their appeals: if they cannot be prevented from coming, perhaps they can be deterred from doing so. That is the reason why the Government talks of increasing the proportion of asylum seekers to be detained. And that is why a few detainees who were in Campsfield when a disturbance occurred are being prosecuted for an offence that could lead to their being put in prison for years before being deported to the lands from which they fled.
We used as a nation to be proud of offering a haven to persecuted people. We have now to rid our minds of the poison that has been pumped into them for three decades - the belief that immigrants are a threat and refugees all dissemblers. It is an inhumane sentiment and its supposed effect an error: the post-War German economic miracle was founded upon massive immigration. When there was the outburst of sentiment over Princess Diana's death, it was said that we were seeing the birth of a gentler, more compassionate Britain, and I foolishly believed this. But in very few weeks the Gypsies from the Czech Republic, who are genuinely persecuted, and many of whom have been deprived of citizenship, so that they cannot lawfully travel anywhere, arrived in Dover, to be greeted by a clamour to remove them and a Fascist march. The Government at once obliged, sending them back without examining their applications, and talking as usual about illegal immigrants and economic migrants. We ought indeed to become a gentler, more compassionate nation. The Government of such a nation would not be allowed to take months and years to examine appeals for asylum; nor to refuse them on flimsy pretexts; nor to send people back to be killed or tortured; nor to shut people up for months without knowing what was happening; nor to prosecute those driven by uncertainty and hopelessness into making their feelings known. A nation in which compassion truly flowered would not let its Government do to the helpless things so cruel.
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The new Labour government has started a review of asylum policy and detention which is due to report in July 1998. So far it appears likely to conclude that more asylum seekers should be detained. It has claimed that this position is endorsed by the report on Campsfield by HM Inspector of Prisons Sir David Ramsbotham. Ramsbotham's report in fact stated that increased use of detention centres (instead of the use of prisons) was thought to be necessary only "if legislation still requires such numbers to be detained" (p.16). Moreover, he recommended that detainees should have the right to hear the Immigration Service's reasons for their detention in a court of law. Despite the best attempts of the Home Office to put their 'spin' on Ramsbotham, all the TV coverage highlighted the fact that the issue was detention without charge, without trial and without time limit.
The government gave the power of detention to the Immigration Service in 1971. When the 1971 Immigration Act was introduced it was largely envisaged to apply to immigration cases and only for a few weeks prior to deportation.
Since the 1993 Immigration and Asylum Act, detention has become increasingly commonplace and for much longer periods of time. People who claim asylum are detained as well as other immigration cases. But Britain is under obligation under the 1951 Geneva Convention and Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to accord refugees and asylum-seekers (who are not yet recognized as refugees) certain rights.
Under Article 5 (4) of ECHR, the deprivation of liberty (which most understand to be more than a few hours required for an initial interview at customs) requires an early judicial examination of the case for detention and further judicial process at regular intervals. Sir David Ramsbotham repeatedly noted in his report that this is not the practice in Britain. Ramsbotham makes a clear recommendation to the Home Office that 'judicial oversight', as it is called, be instituted immediately (see box). Mike O'Brien, the Home Office minister for immigration, has yet to comment explicitly on this suggestion. Lord Williams of Mostyn, Home Office spokesman in the House of Lords, when pressed, suggested that the government might examine this as part of their review:
"As regards judicial oversight, we have taken due note of that recommendation. No decision has yet been taken, but it is only a matter of a few days since the final report has been published. I can tell noble Lords that detailed discussions have been taking place with the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Crown Prosecution Service." (Hansard, House of Lords, 29 April 1998)
Furthermore the European Convention of Human Rights is due to gain Royal Assent in a few weeks and then the government may find, according to Nicholas Blake QC, that many of its cases are detained unlawfully. Blake has pointed out that:
"detention of those arriving in the UK is only permitted under Article 5 (1) (f) of the Convention in order to prevent unlawful entry to the territory of a Contracting State. A person who claims asylum at the port of entry is not acting unlawfully whatever incidental ruses have been adopted in order for the claim to be made." But asylum seekers are detained from Port of Entry which means that they claimed asylum on arrival in Britain; they did not seek unlawful entry into the UK, but they were still imprisoned. The figures for 1995 and 1996 are:
1995 1996 Asylum applications from Port of Entry 14,410 12,440 Asylum seekers detained from Port of Entry 1,945 1,785 Percentage detained from Port of Entry 13.5% 14.3%
(Numbers of asylum seekers detained from Hansard, Written Answers No.96, 30 June 1997 and No. of asylum applicants at Port of Entry is from Home Office Statistical Bulletin, October 1997)
The government commissioned its review of immigration in May 1997 and asked, in September, twelve non-governmental organisations to give comments. The NGOs asked were: UNHCR, Amnesty, Immigration Advisory Service (IAS), Law Society, Refugee Council, Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), Churches Commission for Racial Justice, Refugee Legal Centre, Charter 87, Immigration Law Practitioners Association, The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, and Justice. Some other groups have also submitted their opinions.
As part of this discussion on policy, the Medical Foundation commented on the Asylum Rights Campaign report on Campsfield which was published in April. They noted that the criteria for detention given in the 1991 Immigration Service instructions (para. 6 (f)) requires a 'subjective pre-judgement about the case from the same person who is to make the determination.' The 1991 instructions ask 'What is the likelihood of the person being removed (especially in asylum cases) and, if so, after what timescale?'
As the Medical Foundation rightly point out, 'If this question is asked by the interviewing officer before the initial determination is made, it has the obvious danger of encouraging, even requiring, the determining officer to predict the outcome of the basis of past refusals and before the particular asylum seeker is able to present his or her evidence.' (MFCVT November 1997 Comments on Asylum Rights Campaign draft report, §2)
The assumption that some cases are not reasonable obviously does influence the decision to detain. Asylum Aid have reported at length at the 'culture of disbelief' in the Home Office towards evidence and reports of torture when considering asylum cases. The percentage of asylum seekers detained from the port of entry seems to corroborate this. These high numbers indicate that people are detained not when their case has been assessed, their application refused or when they might be deported in the near future, but immediately on entering the country.
The Immigration Service's more recent guidelines (20 September 1994) state that: 'In general terms it is not an effective use of detention space... to detain people for lengthy periods if it would be practical to effect detention later in the process once any rights of appeal have been exhausted.' Unfortunately the large use of detention from port of entry, with temporary admission or bail only being granted after several months, suggests that the Immigration Service sees detention as a useful way of discouraging further applicants.
However, Sir David Ramsbotham has stated that 'It is clear that the threat of detention is not an effective deterrent to those who seek to enter the country illegally except in specifically targeted circumstances.' (§ I-13) It is almost certainly the case that the use of detention as a deterrent is unlawful under international law.
Despite this the government has continued the policy started under the Conservative administration of detaining an increasing number of asylum seekers in prisons as well as in detention centres. Any further increase in the numbers of asylum seekers in detention centres, as a result of the government review, would be a costly option as the per head cost of a detention centre is even greater than a prison and more building would be required to expand the number of places available. (Harmondsworth and Campsfield have cost between £511-532 and £490-735 per week per person over the last three years. Campsfield is more expensive in 1998 because it is operating under capacity. Average cost in prisons per prisoner per week is £464-476 over the last few years. See Hansard, Written Answers No.130, 12 March 1998)
Box Some points from Ramsbotham's report on Campsfield House (emphasis in original)
§I-20 'Rigorous examination of the need for detention should take place within a few days.'
§I-21 'I recommend that this country should move towards judicial oversight of immigration detention.'
§I-22 'We are reliably informed that Immigration and Nationality Department staff do tell people why they are detained. However, I am strongly of the view that reasons should be confirmed in writing. .... I therefore recommend that detainees should be given written reasons for their detention.'
§I-25 'The Immigration Service needs to re-examine the criteria and process of detention to ensure that they are readily understood by all involved and that detention is used for the shortest possible time.'
§10.02 'There should be judicial oversight of decisions of immigration detention.' end of box
The detainees themselves do not know why they have been put in prison or in a detention centre. Their lack of information on their imprisonment tends to exacerbate existing feelings of fear and frustration and tends to induce deep levels of depression. In the first week of May 1998, one Russian detainee sliced his ear off and had to be rushed to hospital to have it stitched back on. The regular occurrences of self-harm are a further indication of the level of mental distress that is caused by detention without time limit and without reason (Cases of self harm, according to the Home Office, were 14 in 1995 and 1996 each and 10 in 1997, while one detainee committed suicide in HMP Norwich in August 1995 - reported in Hansard, Written Answers No.127, 12 March 1998).
Sir David Ramsbotham has recommended that detainees are given written reasons why they are being held in detention. (See §10.03 'All detainees should be given written reasons for their detention.') The Home Office generally assume that the Immigration Service gives detainees a reason for their detention. Often the reason given amounts to no more than 'you are being detained under the 1971 Immigration Act.' Most reasons, if given at all, are given verbally and most detainees report not understanding or not remembering the reasons for their detention. When they do remember the reason for their detention, it is usually because there was something unreasonable about it.
Some recent (1997-98) examples...
1. A Sudanese man travelled to Britain on a coach. During the journey he was approached by a man who was not wearing an official uniform and asked for his passport. He presented his documents and only destroyed them when he reached Dover. When the passengers descended to go through customs, he asked for asylum. He was told that he had failed to ask for asylum in the 'right place'. As a result he was detained for nine months before he was allowed bail on surety of £6000. After another five months, the adjudicator ruled that he should be given refugee status but it took another month, with bail conditions still standing, before the Home Office sent the papers to confirm his refugee status.
2. A young man (22 years old) from Kosovo fled to avoid military service because he was Muslim. The Foreign Office had already stated that the situation was deteriorating in Kosovo and that young Muslim men were being forcibly drafted into the Serb army. However, when he arrived by Eurostar in Waterloo the Immigration Service, who interviewed him, did not consider this. He said he wanted refugee status but also was concerned that he was not seen as a 'scrounger'. He said that he was prepared to 'look after himself' and to work to do that. As a result of his declared intention to work, the Immigration Service decided to detain him in Campsfield House.
3. Last summer a young boy arrived in Campsfield from Uganda. He had done so well in his GCSE exams that his delighted parents had given him a trip to see his uncle in England in the summer holidays as a reward. Unfortunately his uncle didn't know how important it was to meet him at the airport and vouch for him. The boy was detained in Campsfield for over three months until it was time to go back to school. He then signed to go back, having lost his holiday and his parents' money. When he arrived back in Uganda he was detained on the grounds that since he had been detained in England he must have done something criminal. Luckily, a large bribe obtained his freedom and he is now back in school. He had never had the faintest wish to stay in England. If he hadn't agreed to go back, he might well still be in Campsfield waiting for his case to be decided.
4. A trader came to England from Ghana for a fortnight to buy cloth for her business. She had obtained a visa in the Ivory Coast and the immigration officials, on arrival in Britain, finding some irregularity in it, suspected forgery and detained her. She was in Campsfield for five months, increasingly concerned about the husband and children she had left behind, and her failing business. Eventually she decided she had to return, without her cloth, having wasted her money and unwillingly neglected her family.
5. A man from Sudan complained about the rude way in which he was questioned at the airport. When he said to the immigration official that he was surprised to be spoken to in such a way, since he'd thought England was such an admirable country, she said, "That's it, I am going to detain you." His lawyer is sure that he will be granted refugee status when his case comes up.
Sir David Ramsbotham is particularly scathing about the lack of clear rules and control at Campsfield and advocates, as the government review is likely to suggest, a more prison-like regime (see box).
contents of box: Ramsbotham on control (emphasis in original)
§I-30 'It is frankly unsound and unsafe to hold people within a secure perimeter without clear rules and sanctions governing their behaviour, and without statutory duties and obligations being imposed on the staff who look after them. It is the lack of clear rules and sanctions that is at the heart of the problems facing contracted Detention Centre staff.'
§I-33 'My major concern at the absence of detailed rules, regulations and obligations, governing the behaviour of detainees and staff, is the impact that this has on the safety of people held in detention and the staff employed there.'
§I-34 'Immigration Service Centres of detention are not governed by the Prison Act. Substantive legislation will be needed to set their operation on a clear statutory basis.'
§I-35 'In my view staff who run Detention Centres should be accorded the status of law enforcement officials within a Detention Service, and their conduct should be regulated by the professional codes applying to law enforcement officials.'
§9.02 'It is the absence of enforceable rules of conduct governing the behaviour of detainees and staff which convinces us that Detention Centres as currently constituted are unsafe for detainees.' end of box
Ramsbotham noted that as detention has no specified time limit there is no system of rewards such as parole. As a result, Group 4 use the threat of transfer to prison as a means of discipline (see arbitrary transfers above and Monitor No.10). Significantly, Ramsbotham confirmed suspicions that a new portakabin was being used as a place of punishment by solitary confinement:
'The purpose-built Secure Unit contained two identical cells which were ready for occupation ... Both cell doors had been fitted with a flap which could be opened if necessary to hand food etc in to the room. We could envisage no circumstance in which these flaps would need to be used and thought that this gave the wrong message to staff and detainees. We recommend that the flaps should be sealed and never used for any purpose. The unit had been open for ten months; we saw detainee location records and found that it had been used 15 times in total, for very short periods of time; 12 as a result of incidents, twice for detainees who threatened self harm and once for a detainee's own protection.' §3.34 (emphasis in original)
Sir David Ramsbotham spoke with women detainees during his inspection and recorded their comments that: 'staff were rude, racist, used inappropriate language, and teased and intimidated them.' ... 'there was a threat of being moved to a prison if they complained; therefore they tended not to complain.' (§2.05). He noted similar comments from the male detainees who said: 'some staff were rude, used abusive language and were provocative; however, some Detention Officers were nice.' ... 'the Doctor only issued paracetamol and did not always examine them' ... 'they were, on occasion, told by staff to go back to their own country if they did not like it here and were told they would be sent to prison if they did not behave.' (§2.06) But Ramsbotham made no recommendation for improvements in Group 4's behaviour. Finally, some of the recommendations of the previous inspector of prisons, Judge Stephen Tumim, had still not being carried out following his report on Campsfield House in 1995. Poignantly, Ramsbotham recorded the failure to implement Tumim's recommendation No.26 in the statement: 'We noted that none of the rooms had picture boards or shelving; this resulted in rooms either looking rather stark, with the walls strangely bare, or alternatively plastered with photographs etc which had been stuck to the wall with toothpaste.' §3.03
If you would like to comment on the government's review of immigration and asylum policy, you can write to: Jack Straw (Home Secretary) or Mike O'Brien (Immigration minister) Home Office, 50 Queen Anne's Gate, London SW1H 9AT or fax: 0171 273 3965
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Also see events
12noon Saturday 30th May at Campsfield House This month's theme is the detention of young people. Weather permitting, students are organising a big picnic. Do join us. Please offer transport by meeting people by the Taylorian on St Giles at 11.30am
8.30am Monday 1st June at Oxford Crown Court (and subsequent Mondays of the trial) Bring banners, music and lots of friends for outside. Also, if you have time, it is extremely important that we have people in the public gallery.
If you would like to help with the Campsfield Nine Defence Campaign, please ring 726804 or 558145 or 557282 to find out the details for the next campaign meeting.