Asylum assault claims may be tip of the iceberg
Reprinted from The Big Issue magazine, 1117 April 2005, No 637
By Michael Parker and Judy Kerr, 11 April 2005
The cases of 35 asylum seekers who allege they have been assaulted by security guards charged with their care - the vast majority of which only came to light through reports from volunteers who visit them - are being examined by leading solicitors, it has emerged.
The claims, most involving incidents at, or in transit to, airports, with a minority concerning detention centres, are contained in a preliminary report co-authored by the National Coalition Of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC) and the Campaign Against Racism And Fascism. Part of research due out in June, the study is also the first to produce a "league table" of security firms accused of being responsible for abuse.
Co-author Emma Ginn, the north-west co-ordinator of NCADC, said: "These 35 cases are just the tip of the iceberg. Visitors, who referred nearly all of them, only get to see about 10 per cent of the detainee population.
"We know they, and support groups, receive calls from distressed injured detainees on a daily basis, but don't have the resources to log all the allegations.
"Most allegations also do not get taken up by solicitors for a host of reasons, including witnesses not wanting to come forward, victims being intimidated and threatened with counter prosecution, and not being able to identify which contractor employs the person who assaulted them."
The latter problem is borne out by the league table, in which 20 per cent of alleged victims cannot specify which contractor's staff assaulted them.
Said Ginn: "The most serious cases are referred to solicitors, but as this report is based on data from just the handful who were able to give us information in a short time, there are undoubtedly many more out there. Access to legal aid is also extremely limited and we believe most detainees assaulted are removed from the UK before they can complain anyway."
Injuries allegedly sustained by victims include nerve damage (from handcuffs), sexual assault, a cracked shoulder, urethra/groin damage and serious head injury.
In at least six of the 35 cases, the detainee was eventually "successfully" removed, with two females out of the six claiming they were so badly injured they needed hospital treatment in their home countries. Although independent doctors have documented injuries in some cases, the report points out that it is often not possible to obtain medical verification.
"It is extremely difficult to find an appropriate, qualified doctor to go into detention centres at short notice to do a free examination. Independent doctors can be commissioned when a legal action is initiated, however, often by this stage injuries are no longer visible," it states.
Ginn added: "It can also be very problematic to get emergency services to come out. In one case, an ambulance refused to come to aid one distressed female detainee, who says she was beaten up. The security firm always gets to talk to the emergency services, and they tend to be seen as the credible ones."
Worryingly, the report reveals there is anecdotal evidence guards have a financial motivation for making a "successful" removal.
"One detainee being transported for deportation to Angola told me that his escort complained he had six kids to feed, and if he didn't get him off, he could 'lose his money'. The same man heard a figure of £500 or £600 mentioned on another attempt to deport him in connection with successful removals. He told us a friend of his was offered half a sum of money available if he agreed to get on the plane with no trouble."
The report also questions the police response to complaints from detainees - in almost two thirds of cases they took no further action. "There are indications that many allegations are inadequately investigated and in some cases, not investigated at all. Particularly worrying are instances such as the one case in which the contractor agreed to compensate the victim, but the police complaint led to no arrests, let alone a prosecution."
The league table shows that three particular security firms are "named and shamed" by over half the detainees in the 35 cases.
Global Solutions Limited (GSL, which became independent of its parent company Group 4 last July) is cited in 30 per cent of cases; Loss Prevention International (LPI) in 17 per cent of cases, and UK Detention Services (UKDS) in nine per cent of cases. Wackenhut and RSI Immigration Services International are named by six per cent of detainees, followed by the Home Office and Securicor Justice Services (now merged with Group 4) on 3 per cent each.
LPI's Tom Davies said that the company had ceased trading since it lost the contract for escorting detainees from centres to airports to Securicor and added that only the Home Office (HO) had the authority to comment on individual cases, as did a spokesman for UKDS, which runs the Harmondsworth centre near Heathrow. But an HO spokeswoman said that it does not release details of individual cases. Although the government does not publish general figures on numbers of assault complaints by detainees, in answer to a parliamentary question, immigration minister Des Browne revealed in January that detainees had made 71 allegations of "improper treatment" regarding escorts in 2004. He added all allegations were passed to police.
Despite repeated attempts, The Big Issue was unable to get a comment from RSI or Wackenhut. GSL/Group 4, the company implicated in the shocking recent BBC documentary Asylum Undercover on Oakington Reception Centre, is the largest private security firm in the UK. A GSL spokesman said: "Our policy is clear that racist and abusive behaviour is totally unacceptable. Problems do exist in the workplace, and these are being looked into by us and by Stephen Shaw, the Prison Service Ombudsman. Fifteen members of staff have since been suspended pending disciplinary proceedings."