​Kids locked in adult migrant camps, subject to physical & mental abuse - rights activist

Every year, thousands of refugees leave the hardships behind and undertake a journey - sometimes a dangerous one - to begin a new life in the UK. But some find, not a promised democracy and humanity, but prison-like confinement in conditions that sometimes dwarf the problems at home. Migrant camps are locked down to the press, but still breed reports of abuse and suffering; many are stuck in this immigration detention limbo for years. Sophie speaks to the chief executive for the Refugee and Migrant Forum for Essex and London, Rita Chadha on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Rita Chadha, chief executive for the Refugee and Migrant Forum for Essex and London, thank you for joining us, it’s great to have you on our show. Now, thousands of immigrants are being held in UK immigration detention centers, and they're supposed to be at a brief stop-over before removal from the country. Yet, UK government figures show that last year, half of those detained were never sent back. It’s called a “detention center”, but in reality, is it like a prison?

Rita Chadha: Very much so. The situation is with detention centers in the UK, that they all virtual prisoners. We are one of the few countries in the world that has indefinite detention, people can remain there indefinitely, no barriers on time, no easy way out - and there are very-very harsh regimes run by private security companies.

SS: But is there a reason for keeping these people locked up?

RC: There are many alternatives to immigration detention. You can try and get people to report at police stations, you can get report in their reporting centers, which goes on frequently throughout London and the UK. The reason for detention centers by the UK government is to show that they’re strong on immigration and that they can challenge those who oppose immigration in this country by saying - “well, actually, we got a police state that manages immigration”.

SS: But do I understand this correctly, that innocent people are being locked up just because they aren’t welcome in the UK?

RC: Absolutely. The detention centers… let’s not forget, there are families in detention centers as well - we have in this country a system of detention centers where people are confined to for no other reason other than not having the right papers to be in the UK. Now, they could be people who still are having their case accessed, who may be subject to a great deal of a mental and physical harm if they go back to their country of origin - but a decision hasn’t been made on their case, the Home Office, the UK government may have lost their papers, and mistakenly, they are put inside the detention centers. Three thousand people last year alone.

SS: But, the term “indefinite detention” just sounds so horrifying - so, if you don’t have a passport, you can’t return to your home country, you can’t stay in the UK, so will the government just keep you in detention forever?

RC: The idea of the detention centers is that it should be the first stop before removal - so, in theory, those awaiting in their detention centers, should have been provisioned to be removed from the country. But that’s not happening. Basically, the Home Office is being very-very protracted in trying to remove people from the country, and people also have a right of appeal - so if you launch an appeal or an application while you’re inside the detention center, then obviously you can’t be removed until due justice is done and you’ve had a hearing held.

SS: Now, the Home Office said “detention is used a last resort, when attempts to make individuals leave voluntarily have failed” - is that true? Because according to one detainee’s account, he was ready to buy his own ticket and go back home, but really wasn’t allowed.

RC: It’s a very interesting story that the UK government tells about immigration detention. They have invested a lot of money in a large national charity called “Refugee Action” to help people voluntarily return to their country. Now, until last July it was a case that you could be in the detention center and “Refugee Action” could help you out of detention center by giving you voluntary return. That’s been removed. The government said it cost too much, so they removed that facility from a detention center. So, it begs the question - what are the government really holding people in detention for? Is it more of a show of a visible force, than actually trying to deal with immigration?

SS: My colleague was banned from visiting a detainee she was in touch with in Harmondsworth detention center on the grounds that she’s a journalist. Aren’t detainees allowed to see whoever they want? What are authorities trying to hide?

RC: I think that secrecy around detention centers, it’s very dubious. Detention centers are inspected by the inspector for the UK Border Agency, so there’s an inspection regime above there. But there is secrecy, and definitely there’s been a lot of campaigning done by some organisations like Detention Action and Detention Forum where they’ve tried to get people to actually open up and explain the real reality of what’s happening in detention centers. For example, people made to work for£1 an hour, which is less than a minimum wage in the UK.

SS: We can actually get to the whole part of the cheap labor in the detention centers, which is a whole other issue, which seems just so bizarre. But before we get there, the government says that the detainees are treated with dignity and respect. Inmates have phones, access to internet and gym, a place to sleep - I mean that doesn’t sound that harsh. Why are some attempting suicide then, and why are we seeing hunger strikes, like at Harmondsworth facility, for example?

RC: The government's got a very good publicity regime regime about how it deals with immigration, and the emphasis is always on that these people are here illegally, that they don’t have a right to be here, and they should go back as soon as possible. So, by saying that there's gyms, there’s TVs, there’s Internet available in those detention centers, paints a picture of “these people are just in a hotel, waiting to be removed from the country” - the reality that the equipment in the gym doesn’t work, gyms don’t exist in every detention center, health services are easily available, and if you look at internet access, website Amnesty international are blocked from detention centers. Why?

SS: In addition, I just want to quote some of the detainees’ accounts of their experience at immigrant detention centers. For example: “The food in here is rubbish, people spit on the floors, people using showers as toilets” - now that’s from Dover IRC. Now, there’s detainee from Yarl’s Wood, she says: “The guards give these ladies the impression that if you sleep with them they can help by putting in a word for you to be released” Another lady, actually, commented on the medical help and she says: “The health care? You go there, they tell you you are faking it. Any time you go to healthcare, they say you trying to help your case.”Now, you work in organisation that helps asylum seekers and migrants in London. What have your clients told you about the conditions in these centers?

RC: When people are released from the detention centers, when they come back into the community, they describe the most horrific events. They describe physical violence from guards in the detention centers, they’ll describe being put in virtual solitary confinement, because they’ve had an argument with somebody. They’ll talk about their phones being taken off them. I’ve heard numerous stories about people having spit in other people’s food; and really-really hostile abusive language used by guards.

SS: On the other hand, I was thinking about this as well, those who end up in detention centers, sometimes have nowhere to go. Isn’t it better to stay in the facility and not in the street?

RC: Well, the immigration system is quite complex in the UK, and it is the case that if you’re released from the detention center, you should be able to access some sort of accommodation, even on a temporary basis, while you are released. Let us not forget, if you’re released from the detention center, then the UK government has actually said: “you’re not an immigration offender”. You either have an appeal going on, or you have some sort of resolution to make on immigration case - so there is accommodation available, but navigating and negotiating that accommodation is extremely, extremely bureaucratic. You need specialist agencies and you need solicitors to actually help you get your legal rights.

SS: That’s another thing. The hunger strikers in one of these detention centers are saying legal consultants assigned to them in the centers are reluctant or refuse to help them with their appeals. Why is that?

RC: What we have had in the UK over the last 10 years is a reduction in what’s known as “legal aid”. So, the ability for people to access free legal services when they are destitute, when they are in difficult situations like detention centers has been pulled away again and again. Now we’re in a system where actually you can’t get solicitors to work in detention centers easily because they know they are not going to get paid for their work. They can’t recover money from their client, they can’t recover money from the government.

SS: So, do I understand that these legal-illegal immigrants aren’t getting any legal help whatsoever?

RC: Very much depends on the individual person. If you are networked within a community, you may be getting some immigration advice. Free immigration advice in the UK is actually now only available for asylum seekers and very-very small minority of other cases; and because asylum-seeker numbers are dropping, most of the people who end up in detention centers aren't really aware of their legal rights.

SS: Do you know cases where criminals were prevented from settling in the UK, thanks to the detention centers? Do these camps help filter out terrorists, for example?

RC: What we have in London is a relationship between the police and the Home Office, where they manage immigration together. So, there are targeted operations to pick up criminals who may be foreign nationals, from the streets of the UK, and actually put them in detention centers - but in most cases, those individuals will be trialed on their criminal issue first, and will be imprisoned. They will be released from a prison and then put in the detention removal center.

SS: Now, horrible living conditions anger people, they provide a breeding ground for radical thoughts. That’s actually how terrorism is born. Is no one afraid the conditions at these centers will actually push some of these people to extremism?

RC: I think there are a lot of factors that influence somebody into extremism. Political ideology, their background, their family life, their support network. Now, the Home Office has issued guidance for detention officers inside the detention centers to identify people who are radicals or people who are at risk of extremism. But, it’s a quite an easy solution, just as extremism in a national context: if you deal with the issue at their core phase, you can actually stop people from becoming radicalise - and it’s quite simple. Treat people with some dignity and with some respect, and you won’t push them into extremism.

SS: So you do agree that these horrible conditions at these detention centers actually may add to the factor of people becoming terrorists, or becoming radicalised?

RC: I think, as I said, there are host of factors that push people into radicalism. It may be an influencing factor, but I don’t think it would be a defining factor. Just because you are in the detention center, doesn’t make you an extremist, it makes you the victim of circumstances, which may then lead you to think differently about your political ideology.

SS: But on the other hand, you are against these detention facilities, but how would you have government act? Just let all these people to stay inside the country illegally? Could the UK really help everybody? In 2013 alone, 30,000 immigrants passed through the detention centers.

RC: The issue around the UK's relationship with immigration is confused. There are two types of immigrants that actually the UK is concerned about - there are European nationals and non-European nationals. It’s all got very confused and very dirty and very messy in the UK at the moment. What we’re seeing is people battling for political upper ground to actually say that immigration is a bad thing. Now, our NHS, our public transport system would absolutely collapse if we didn’t have some of the immigrants that come into this country actually working for them. So, to say that immigration is a problem only paints half of the story. Our problem is not the immigration or immigrants that come in - our problem is how do we deal with immigration. We have no exit controls, we have no clear idea of how we actually manage immigration. People can be waiting for decision for 10-12 years on a very basic case - that’s not acceptable.

SS: Now, you’ve said earlier on in a show that one way to keep someone indefinitely in one of these detention centers is actually to have their case appealed. Can you give me a quick number of how many people actually are allowed to stay in the UK after having gone through these camps?

RC: I am afraid I wouldn’t have those figures.

SS: But does it actually happen? I mean, can you really appeal and get your case solved and stay in the UK, or do you always get deported or do you stay in those camps indefinitely?

RC: From our organisation’s point of view, we have seen people released from detention centers. We’ve seen people go back into the community and then wait to hear the outcome of a case. I think - and I’ve worked for organisation for 9 years - in those 9 years I’ve seen one person with a successful resolution and 2 people go back. So that gives you some sort of idea.

SS: Now, I want to talk a bit more about the horrible living conditions at those camps. Actually, Yarl’s Wood is one of the most controversial detention centers, and women have made allegations of bullying from staff, being called names, sexual abuse, including rape - why does there seem to be a little oversight when it comes to detention center guards?

RC: What we must remember about the detention centers is that they are private firms, and because of the privatisation regime, there’s always an assumption that actually they don’t have to be inspected, they don’t have to be looked at in the same way. Now, fortunately, there is an inspector that looks at detention centers. We’ve now onto another public inquiry to actually look at the condition and physical and mental well-being of inmates in the detention centers - and I think, this is quite telling, because the government had to organise that because of number of suicides, the number of serious sexual assaults and just the general media outcry about how badly people are being treated.

SS: Tell me something. Why are mainly men guarding predominantly women’s facility? Even though it is a private firm running it.

RC: It’s a very good question, as to why males are guarding female inmates. You wouldn’t get that in any other prison system. I think, partly, that has to do with economics of the detention center. These contracts are huge, lucrative, and private companies need to make the best out of them, and it may possibly be cheaper to employ a fewer number of people, men, rather than apply specialist recruitment, which may be more costly.

SS: Going back to the cheap labor topic that was touched upon at the beginning of this show. The immigrants that are detained are unable to work in the UK, but they are used as cheap labor in these detention centers. Why are operating companies allowed to profit from the inmates?

RC: It’s a very interesting question, it’s been a part of the campaign that a lot of organisations fighting against the detention centers have been asking. What right, when we have a minimum wage in this country, why are people being paid a seventh of that to actually work for private profit? It’s not clear. I mean, the fact that this information only came out by accident as well, shows you how tightly controlled the whole detention environment is.

SS: But for me, I guess, the bigger question is also why have a private company run this center. Why can’t the government do it on its own? I mean, immigration is a government problem in the first place, right?

RC: In the UK, well before the current wave of cuts and austerity measures, there has always been constantly a push towards privatisation. So, it is still the belief of the UK government that it is cheaper to outsource practices like detention centers rather than have them in-house and have them managed by the Home Office. So, it’s cheaper to give it to another company, give it the responsibility and reliability to deal with this rather than take it on themselves.

SS: One of the guards at Yarl’s Wood was recorded as saying “they are all slashing their wrists apparently - let them slash the wrists, it’s attention-seeking”. So those facing problems are not getting any help?

RC: No, they are not receiving the support that they need. There are no counselling support services, what you do have in the UK, is a very good system of detention network friends groups, so there are organisations that will go in an befriend people, but they are voluntarily organisations. They are run by volunteers. And when somebody needs to speak to somebody at midnight it’s not always possible to get a volunteer in there. So, there is a real issue about mental and the physical well-being of inmates, while they are held inside detention centers.

SS: People die in detention: an 80-year old man died in handcuffs while authorities were actually deciding on his fate, at theColnbrook centera man had a heart attack, later attributed to medical neglect at the facility. Who bears the blame for this deaths? The authorities, the police, the prison operators?

RC: What’s interesting about this is when somebody dies, a serious accident inside a detention center, there seems to be a long inquiry that goes on for ages, months if not years, and out of that, it all becomes very fuzzy. Now, we do have the issue, we do have a charge of corporate manslaughter in the UK as well, and it remains to be seen if any of those private companies will be charged with corporate manslaughter for actions that have led to individual’s death. But, ultimately, the real blame for this, for the mess of the detention centers, has to lie with the UK government. It has commissioned the private contractors, it has allowed these bad practices to go on unscrutinised.

SS: The Prison Reform trust said “Harmondsworth immigration center had forgotten the basic principles of humanity and decency.” It’s not the only organisation to document abuse in these facilities, it has been all over the news for years. Why does the government not act upon it?

RC: I think the government’s response to that would be “we are acting, we’re taking it seriously”. And if you think about it, the relative small numbers of people going through detention centers, 25,000 last year - is a relatively small number in overall immigration situation. So, detention centers have been very much left to be thought of as the Cinderella service of the Immigration and of the Home Office. So, the government has not really thought it is important, until all this publicity, until organisations like Detention Forum and Detention Action have actually started campaigning and shouting out about it.

SS: The UK Refugee Council also says children are being held in adult refugee centers often because it is difficult to determine their age. Does that mean they get the same treatment as adults? Are kids locked up and guarded?

RC: Absolutely. There was a big national campaign, just before the last general election in the UK, that actually asked for the end of child detention. Although initially a lot of campaign groups thought we’d won on the case, what indeed had happened was that one of the UK largest charities ended up opening and going into partnership to actually run one of the detention centers. So yes, children are locked up. Families are locked up - and still, same issues apply to them, about the way they are treated harshly by guards.

SS: Michael Fallon, the UK Defence Secretary recently said British towns are being “swamped by immigrants and their residents are under siege”. Is that what the detention centers are for - to stop the tide?

RC: The detention centers are the visible aspect of immigration enforcement. They are what the UK government and ministers can say to their constituency when they say immigration is a problem. Their answer is “we’ve got these detention centers which can hold people, we’re working through the detention centers”. That’s not where immigration lies. The people in the detention centers aren’t the people that will be encountered on the everyday street. The problem with the immigration system is that it’s not effective in the UK. We don’t make decisions quickly enough, we don’t make the right decisions quickly enough.

SS: Rita, thank you so much for this interview and for this insight. We were talking to Rita Chadha, chief executive for the Refugee and Migrant Forum for Essex and London, talking about Britain's immigrant detention camps, discussing what they are like and if there’s an effective measure in the fight against illegal immigration. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.