Select Committee on Home Affairs Written Evidence

13.  Memorandum submitted by Pamela Cressey MBE


  I act as an assistant chaplain at Oakington Immigration Removal Centre, and have done so for five years. I wish to address mainly the topic detention policy and conditions, which involves also race equality issues, and reporting, investigating and punishing immigration offenders. I write this from personal observation and consultation with the team of Religious Affairs Chaplains at Oakington. I am writing personally.

  1.  In many press articles there is an assumption that asylum seekers have no right to be cared for in Britain, that they take "our" housing, jobs, medical facilities and money. This is a false generalisation, which is not counteracted by the Home Office to the general public, in fact they seem to use this publicity as an excuse for their attitudes and actions "This is what the public wants". In many cases the asylum seekers are put into the worst housing in less safe localities, they are not allowed to work, even if their case continues over months or years, they often have difficulty receiving medical help, and they may be in bed-and-breakfast accommodation with no money at all.

  2.  The Prime Minister and members of the Government speak of asylum seekers as statistical problems, and not as humans who are in need of sanctuary in a world of strife and poverty, causing political divisions and violence. The laws are becoming harsher all the time, and human rights are not being honoured, as the following examples show.

  3.  Some asylum seekers are detained as being at risk of "disappearing" into the community. Prisons are still used, and in Detention Centres the detainees are treated as though they were criminals. At Oakington, for instance, the compound is surraouded by high barbed wire, there are four roll calls daily, and communication is often by loud "tannoy" announcements from 8am to 10pm. Many asylum seekers have been traumatised by capture and detention in prisons, and this makes them very frightened of the atmosphere of uniforms, padlocks and barbed wire.

  4.  Lack of adequate information and communication causes distress. Language barriers are great, and though often addressed by good interpreters, in other cases the interpreters harass the detainees during interviews, making it impossible for them to speak about embarrassing and painful subjects such as rape, torture or bullying. They may be told that they must just answer the questions the IND staff wish to ask.If interpreters are used who are of a different tribe or political group there may be painful tensions. Legal representatives may also be unhelpful, though most are helpful. Detainees have no options or choice of who gives them legal advice, especially if they have no money.

  5.  Though there is a complaints system if detainees feel they have been unfairly or roughly treated, or are misunderstood, they are frightened to complain in case it counts against their case. Sometimes they are "discouraged" from making formal complaints. If unfairly accused of a misdemeanour the record is not corrected or erased, and SIR's remain on their records, which may penalise them later.

  6.  Dawn raids and arrests of individuals and families, from the community where they may have lived for years, cause much distress. People are not treated with adequate respect. Six or seven people (up to ten) arrive at their doors to enforce their removal from their homes—they are given about ten minutes to prepare themselves and gather posessions. They arrive at Oakington very frightened, without most of their possessions, and shocked at being behind barbed wire fences, having committed no crime. A few weeks ago a middle-aged woman was brought in with her son and 18-year-old daughter. She was so shocked at being handcuffed for the journey that she developed a heart condition which necessitated her admission to hospital. Her daughter was bewildered and frightened, and did not understand what was happening.

  7.  Detainees are often not able to retrieve their possessions before they are deported if they are arrested in this way. Possessions often include important documents, family heirlooms, money and valuable equipment as well as clothes and other precious articles. We gather that these are often disposed of, sold or stolen. Bank accounts are left unsorted when people are deported. We consider that the Immigration Service is responsible for detainees' possessions. We try to retrieve and return the possessions of failed asylum seekers when we can, but can only do this for a few.

  8.  Under-age asylum seekers are often detained at Oakington if there is an age dispute, and this is very distressing to them. When they are released to the Social Services they have nothing to do, and are not allowed to earn, so are in danger of becoming involved with drugs, crime or prostitution. I understand there is some move by the Immigration Authority to remove failed asylum seekers at the age of 16 years, even though they are traumatised by their experiences, and may have no base in their country of origin, so it is dangerous for them to be abandoned as soon as they become 18.

  9.  The whole question of trafficking of people, usually vulnerable young people and children, needs urgent action. It is a huge issue, which is very inadequately addressed.

  10.  It is increasingly difficult for asylum seekers to get proper legal representation, especially if they have no money. If they wish to apply for a judicial review they are often told they must pay (eg £1,000). The removal of one tier of appeal has made appeals more difficult for them—presumably the object of the changes.

  11.  Decision-making by the IND is often inaccurate, perhaps because of the inexperience of the staff, and reviews of the political situation in the countries to which people may be returned are too infrequent—recently it was said to take place every six months. It is vital to have up-to-date information when considering whether return is safe—examples are Niger, Eritrea, Zimbabwe, Iraq.

  12.  There is much concern about the "living ghosts", who are in the community in this country with absolutely no help because they have refused to sign a paper to return to their country—they fear it is dangerous or very unsafe to do so. In some cases the Foreign Office has said return is unsafe. These people are on our streets, without food, shelter, money, medical treatment or hope. Their children may be taken into care. They can get emergency help if they sign a paper (which they are urged to do) to say they are willing to go home, even if they are not. This situation needs urgent investigation, especially in the winter.

  These are some of my present and immediate concerns.

Pamela Cressey MBE

Assistant Chaplain at Oakington Immigration Removal Centre

1 December 2005

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