UK breaches article 3 ECHR in its treatment of immigration detainee

This post comes from Anna Morvern, an immigration lawyer at Law Centre (NI) who writes here in a personal capacity.  Anna has worked with and for immigration detainees for a number of years, as Legal Officer at Bail for Immigration Detainees and as an activist with various groups, including the Refugee Action Group in Northern Ireland.

Last month, Larne House, the first purpose-built immigration detention centre opened in Northern Ireland.  For anyone who believes in freedom of movement and the right to liberty, and stands against segregation and exclusion, this was a sad day and a day to resist the expansion of our own mental barriers against human equality and freedom, as I commented in an article for the Institute of Race Relations.

Less than a month after the opening of the Northern Irish centre, a UK court has ruled, seemingly for the first time, that detention at a UK immigration removal centre amounted to inhuman or degrading treatment in breach of article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The case is called The Queen on the application of S v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2011] EWHC 2120 (Admin) and its facts are tragic for the detainee and shameful for the government.

S had a history of serious ill treatment and abuse and had previously been held at a secure psychiatric hospital under the Mental Health Act.  An Indian national, at age 14, S was present in his house when his parents were murdered there and he was raped by gunmen.  He fled India via Russia, and lived in Germany for about 8 months, where he was forced into prostitution and raped.  He entered the UK on a false passport in 1995 and was later convicted of violent criminal offences, but also formed a relationship with a Polish woman and her four children, with whom he had built up a family life.

Being detained by the immigration authorities at Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre, S began to have psychotic symptoms and to self harm, was identified at high risk of serious self harm and suicide and placed on special watch.

Harmondsworth is part of the grim constellation of immigrant detention centres around the UK, in which the Larne centre is now included.  It is run by the Geo Group, who pride themselves on being world leaders in ‘private correctional and detention management’:  the Geo Group also runs the migrant operations centre at Guantanamo Bay and, to the shock of many people, has just been awarded the contract to manage Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre in Scotland.  Dungavel is the centre where most immigration detainees from Northern Ireland are taken, by way of transfer from police custody suites or from Larne House by ferry from Belfast to Stranraer and on.

The High Court decided that the detention of S was unlawful from the outset, and that the UK Border Agency had breached its obligations under article 3 ECHR, so that S had been subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment.  The Judge said:

“S’ pre-existing mental condition was both triggered and exacerbated by detention and that involved both a debasement and humiliation of S since it showed a serious lack of respect for his human dignity.  It created a state in S’ mind of real anguish and fear, through his hallucinations, which led him to self-harm frequently and to behave in a manner which was humiliating.  It also led to his humiliating treatment in the hands of other detainees…”

Within the last month, two people have been found dead in the UK immigration detention centres:  a 35-year-old man died in circumstances not yet fully disclosed at Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre and an unidentified man was found hanged at Campsfield Immigration Removal centre, outside Oxford.  These deaths come just a few months after the very saddening death of Jimmy Mubenga who was forcibly restrained during his deportation, which I wrote about in a Guardian piece criticizing the brutality of UK deportations.  Last month, Amnesty International highlighted the use of ‘dangerous and improper control and restraint techniques’ by the private security companies contracted to carry out immigration removals.

The law is unequivocal:  article 3 ECHR, the right to be free from inhuman or degrading treatment by the State is “absolute….irrespective of a victim’s conduct”.  Yet, concerned individuals, civil liberties and human rights campaigners often face questions about whether a person who has been convicted of violent offences, albeit they have already served their sentence for that, as both S and Jimmy Mubenga had, deserve fair treatment themselves.  To my mind, there is absolutely nothing that justifies a lack of compassion, dignity and humanity meted out to immigration detainees by the State and the arguments for open borders grow ever louder as we continue to witness the inevitable cruelties of a system set up to imprison and remove foreign nationals from the UK jurisdiction.