From persecution to prosecution

July 24, 1998

Oxford academics are up in arms over government immigration policy. At their head is philosopher Michael Dummett, who argues that recent asylum seekers, including students fleeing persecution, have experienced 'the grossest cruelty short of torture' under our system

Four heads of Oxford colleges have written to the home secretary to ask that five asylum seekers being held in Rochester prison be released immediately because of all they have suffered.

The asylum seekers were among nine West Africans from the country's largest immigration detention centre, Campsfield House near Oxford, who had in early June been tried for riot after a disturbance there on August 20 last year. The trial collapsed when the evidence of the prosecution witnesses, guards at Campsfield, was shown to be unreliable. The five were then sent to Rochester, the others having meanwhile been granted asylum. Two were held in the hospital wing for fear they would commit suicide. Another, a minor, is in a north London mental hospital.

Only two of the nine now remain at Rochester prison; the rest released temporarily or permanently. One of these, Enahoro Esemuze, a young Nigerian student who tried to hang himself in prison at the beginning of this month, has been given temporary admission to Britain, but is still threatened with eventual removal to Nigeria, where he was tortured by the military regime for being involved in the democracy movement. Meanwhile, other detainees at Campsfield have begun a hunger strike: two, a Nigerian and a Russian, are persevering and their lives are feared for.

In laying criminal charges against detainees, the present government's policy appears worse than that of its predecessor, which never did this. The August disturbance was prompted by the removal, very early in the morning, of one of the detainees to prison, something that occurs periodically. Detainees said they had seen guards from the private security firm Group 4 (which runs the prison) tightly holding the unfortunate man by the neck. One need not condone disruptive actions to understand the despair that provokes them. If any of the nine charged with riot, technically a grave offence, had been made to suffer additional imprisonment on top of their long, hopeless detention, they would have been among those refugees whom Britain has treated shamefully.

The trial was dramatically concluded when the prosecution withdrew the charges. The witnesses, Group 4 guards and a chief immigration officer, contradicted themselves, admitted being unable to identify individual detainees they had previously identified, and were repeatedly shown, by tapes from video cameras they had set up around the detention centre, to have made wildly false statements. One admitted to having destroyed the telephone, an act of which the detainees had been accused.

There is a concerted effort by European Union countries to prevent anyone entering them from outside the EU. This effort is being made by national governments. They are determined to keep out would-be immigrants, and, equally, to keep out people of that quite different category, refugees: those fleeing persecution in their own countries to whom other states are bound by an international convention to give refuge.

The governments colluding in measures to keep out refugees try to gain public acquiescence in their policies by deliberately blurring the distinction between immigrants and refugees, speaking of the latter as "illegal immigrants" and the like: of course, to be refused asylum for which you have legally applied does not convert you into an illegal immigrant.

Britain led the way in the effort to exclude refugees. From 1980 onwards we imposed visa requirements on many countries, some of them in the Commonwealth, from which refugees were likely to come: Iran, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Uganda, the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, the Ivory Coast, the Gambia, Tanzania and Kenya. The 1987 Carriers' Liability Act, which fines the carrying company Pounds 2,000 a head for bringing anyone who does not have proper papers, has now been copied by virtually every other state of the EU: its intention is to put the onus on airlines to prevent refugees from even reaching a country of refuge. It must be obvious to the merest numskull that those subject to persecution cannot be expected to obtain proper papers.

Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on Refugees expressly forbids the punishment of those fleeing persecution for illegally entering the country to which they apply for asylum; yet British courts have imposed prison sentences on refugees for the possession of forged passports; their sentences served, these individuals have then been held in detention centres.

This policy, known to its opponents as "Fortress Europe", is flagrantly unjust and contrary in spirit, and sometimes in the letter, to international law. It is also short-sighted. Immigration is almost always economically beneficial, since the proportion among immigrants of people of working age is normally higher than in the general population; it was one factor that contributed to the German economic miracle.

Britain was once proud of offering refuge to the persecuted. That it is so no longer is the outcome of 35 years of propaganda, from press and politicians, that immigrants are a menace and must be kept out.

It was Conservative policy to place a number of asylum seekers into detention, held either at centres like Campsfield House or in prison. The present government has continued this practice. Since 1989 the number of those detained has been increasing year by year, and now stands at about 800. The government has expressed the intention to increase it still further.

The applicants for asylum thus denied their liberty do not know why the immigration service has selected them for detention. They have no idea how their applications are progressing, nor for how many months they are to be held: it can be for up to two years. It is a situation driving even the most resolute into despair. The stated reason for thus incarcerating people who have come to this country for refuge is that they might go underground if their applications are refused and the authorities wish to remove them from the country. Since a substantial number are detained immediately on their first application for asylum, it is difficult to believe that this is the real reason.

It is widely suspected that the system is intended as a deterrent to discourage refugees from coming to Britain to ask for asylum; if so, the government should heed the words of Sir David Ramsbotham in his report on Campsfield House: "The threat of detention is not an effective deterrent to those who seek to enter the country illegally." Still less, presumably, to those who seek to enter it legally.

In his report on Campsfield House, Ramsbotham asks for the following:

Clear criteria for detaining would-be refugees;

That the decision to detain should be overseen, and frequently reviewed, by judicial process, instead of being in the hands of the immigration service alone;

That detainees should be given written reasons for their detention; and detention should be "used for the shortest possible time"

That complaints made by detainees should be carefully recorded and tracked, and replies sent in writing

That a list be compiled of local solicitors who have genuine experience

in immigration and asylum cases and displayed at the centre.

We should reverse our policy and our attitude towards refugees. All states have the duty to offer refuge to the persecuted of other lands: it is shameful to evade it by trying to keep them out when they ask for refuge. No one could read an account of the experiences of those who are detained without realising that we practise the grossest cruelty short of torture.

Shutting up in detention for months people who seek asylum with us, without legal process, is a brutal action. Sir David's recommendations will certainly mitigate its injustice to a great degree, if the government thinks fit to act on them; that will not make everything all right, but it will be a step in the right direction.

To go all the way, that justice and compassion demand requires a change of heart on the part of our leaders and of all of us.

Michael Dummett was formerly Wykeham professor of logic at the University of Oxford where he is now an emeritus professor.


Enahoro Esemuze is a -year-old student activist who came to Britain over a year ago from Nigeria. Auniversity student of English literature, he was a member of the pro-democracymovement that protested against the country'smilitary dictator, General Suni Abacha, who diedlast month. In Nigeria he was tortured and heldin jail.

He arrived in Britain inMay last year and endedup in the Campsfielddetention centre near Oxford, which is run by Group 4. He claims he was wrongly charged with being involved in the riot at the centre in August. He has since made repeatedsuicide attempts and isterrified of being forcedto return to Nigeria.

He has been given temporary admission to Britain and has been granted legal aid topursue a case in the High Court against the Home Office and Group 4 formalicious prosecution.

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