Sunday, December 03, 2006

Centres of barbarism - a view from Britain

"We treat asylum seekers as the lowest of the low - while private firms turn their plight into profit." Sound familiar? This article in The Guardian caught my eye. It seems refugee detention centres are managed in much the same way in Britain as they are here. Following is the full article by Melanie McFadyean:

"The riots at Harmondsworth immigration removal centre will surprise no one who knows what goes on behind the doors of privately run detention centres, where some 2,000 asylum-seeking men, women and children are locked up and a level of despair prevails that rarely gets media attention - what an irony that this week's riot was sparked by a custody officer turning off the TV as an item about a damning inquiry into the centre, near Heathrow, was coming on.

Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, has uncovered human-rights abuses time and again in more than 40 reports into immigration detention. But she described her new report on Harmondsworth as "undoubtedly the poorest ... we have issued on an immigration removal centre".

UK Detention Services, which runs the centre, recently rebranded itself as Kalyx - derived, the company explains, from "calyx", the name for "the protective covering of a flower bud". Protective covering? In Harmondsworth five people have killed themselves since 1989 - four since 2000. Despite this, Owers noted, suicide and self-harm work was weak. Moreover half the detainees she canvassed reported victimisation, and more than half said they felt unsafe.

Driven to Desperate Measures, a recent report from the Institute of Race Relations, catalogues the deaths of 221 asylum seekers, refugees and migrant workers in the UK in the past 15 years -suicides, racist attacks and accidents in the hidden economy account for many. In the past five years alone, as immigration legislation has got increasingly tough, there have been 41 suicides, 17 in detention centres and prisons.

Nobody, besides Home Office officials, ministers and the companies themselves, knows what profits are made out of locking up asylum seekers. Questions under the Freedom of Information act meet with the response that disclosure would discourage companies from dealing with the public sector and might "damage them commercially". You can see why, when some of the truth emerges as it has this week.

But what has come out under FoI are Home Office figures for self-harm and suicide in immigration detention for the 10 months up to the end of January 2006: 185 people had "attempted self-harm, requiring medical treatment" (how many were attempted suicides isn't known) and 1,467 were put on self-harm watch. Research by Medical Justice suggests the numbers could be higher: of 56 "failed" asylum seekers in four detention centres whom the group examined, 33 showed evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder or depression; many had harmed themselves or made suicide attempts; and nearly half had been tortured.

Torture victims, according to the Home Office operating enforcement manual, should not be considered suitable for detention except in "very exceptional circumstances". In a report published in the British Medical Journal last February, Mina Fazel, an Oxford academic, and her co-author Derrick Silove found that refugees "warehoused" and confined for long periods in immigration detention suffered from hopelessness, despair and suicidal urges.

It's our money that is spent on this barbarism, a barbarism most of us are happy to ignore while private companies fill their coffers. In its mania for privatisation the government is planning to sell us shares in the new prisons it is planning to build, while Britain now has the highest rate of imprisonment in western Europe. It gets away with it because asylum seekers are the lowest of the low - and so-called failed asylum seekers are our version of the Untermensch, the expendable."

One of the comments received from readers went as follows:

"We started this cruelty in Australia with private jails in the desert where tear gas is used on children, handcuffs to go to the doctor or dentist and people were beaten by batons and Woomera became more notorious than any place in Australia.

Who in the world could forget a young man flying off the 25 foot razor wire fence to have his sister and her children released because their dad was in Sydney?

Who could forget the BBC's and David Fickling's world wide coverage?

Woomera is supposed to be closed but my sister took photos last month and it is intact waiting for the man on the stairs. He wasn't there today and he won't be there tomorrow.

We are now building a high security prison for refugees on Christmas Island. Electronic gates, electric fences, sensor pads, prisons for babies and children.

In 1951 the west wrote a superb human rights instrument called the refugees convention in response to the horrors we helped to inflict on the Jews, the gypsied, the disabled, the homosexuals and communists sent to the gas chambers and death camps by Germany.

Today we have thrown that convention in the bin - article 31 says that punishment is forbidden - for political expediency and fear mongering.

The terrible irony of it all is that the very people the convention was written in response to are now treating the Palestinians in precisely the same way the nazis treated them. They haven't build the death camps in Israel yet but they don't need to. They are committing genocide without them and the west applauds them loudly.

It is disgraceful that Australia and England have gone down this road - article 1 of the Universal declaration of human rights says that we are all born equal in dignity and should be treated in a spirit of brotherhood.

We have failed refugees, failed migrants, failed the civilians of the countries we invade without cause, failed ourselves and most of all failed our own humanity.

Shame on us all."

For those who think Australian values should be about this type of barbarism, keep voting for one John Winston Howard.

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