Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Asylum seekers are big business

Running detention centres for asylum seekers is big business for global corporations like Sodexho, which has the contract for Harmondsworth in west London. It is also a brutal and violent business, as today’s report on the centre by the chief inspector of prisons confirms. High levels of force and intimidation are routine and half of those held have complained of bullying by staff, says Anne Owers’ report. She describes her report as the worst she has issued. Two thousand foreign nationals are brought to Harmondsworth every month, prior to removal from the country from nearby Heathrow airport. There have been repeated complaints of ill-treatment of detainees. Two years ago a riot broke out after a Kosovan was found hanging in his cell. Earlier this year, 26-year-old Bereket Yohannes, from Eritrea, was found hanged in the showers at around 5.25am after several warnings that he would kill himself if deported. The following day, fellow inmates declared a hunger strike, demanding a meeting with the prison’s management. All those involved in the peaceful protest were moved to "secure cells" – a polite term for solitary confinement. Owers reports that 44% of detainees claim to have been victimised during their spell at the centre, which is run by United Kingdom Detention Services. UKDS is part of the global corporation Sodexho, which specialises in providing catering facilities in schools and colleges. Students at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London have tried to remove Sodexho from the site in protest at UKDS’s operations at Harmondsworth.

The number of detention centres in the UK has expanded quickly over the last decade and there are now 10 used solely to detain people subject to immigration controls. Seven are currently run by the private sector. Five new pieces of New Labour asylum legislation have created an atmosphere of fear and whipped up the right-wing press. As a result, the capacity of the centres has risen from 250 places in 1993 to the present capacity for 2,644 persons. Contracts with the Home Office provide the private contractor with a fee per inmate per day, which encourages them to keep the centres full at all times and costs down. UKDS reported a turnover of £12.18 million for its operation at Harmondsworth immigration detention centre for the year ended 31 August 2002. Asylum seekers, who are not suspected of or charged with any offence, are stripped of many of the legal safeguards suspected criminals are entitled to. Time limits are imposed on the detention of people arrested on criminal charges, while an immigration detainee can be detained for an indefinite period. Asylum seekers are among the most vulnerable and scared people. They have fled oppression in their own countries and endured unimaginable hardship to make it to Britain. Here they are placed at the disposal of profit-driven corporations, deprived of any rights, subject to indiscriminate violence and then thrown out of the country. So when Liam Byrne, the immigration minister, in response to the Owers’ report, says that it is "critical" that detention is "done with humanity and dignity", the only thing to do is reach for the sick bag.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

No comments: