Youth Against Racism in Europe

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"You take your frustration out on them"

Detention undercover: exposing racism & violence in the asylum system

Ten police officers have been disciplined as a result of the BBC documentary "the secret policeman" which exposed racist views and practice by trainee police officers last year. In response to a similar programme on 2nd March 15 members of staff have been suspended from "front line" duties by Global Solutions Ltd, after they were captured on camera describing how to beat up detainees and racially abuse them without getting caught.

Two undercover reporters worked for three months as employees of Global Solutions Ltd (GSL), the PFI wing of Group 4. One worked as an officer in Oakington Reception Centre, where asylum-seekers are detained immediately while their applications are processed. The other was an escort, responsible for moving detainees around the country and ensuring they are "removed" from the UK.

GSL receives many millions of pounds a year from its government contracts to detain and remove people under the immigration laws, including asylum-seekers who have been refused and people who have overstayed their visas.

The programme was clear that many officers do their best to treat detainees humanely in difficult conditions. However "Detention Undercover" exposed the fact that a minority of officers and escorts use their position to racially abuse detainees, assault them and trump up accusations in order to put them in solitary confinement.

Undercover

One anonymous officer at Oakington said: "You haven't heard this from me but the guys in [the secure unit, which includes detainees on suicide watch], they're a bunch of fucking bullies - they shouldn't be in there... very rightwing. They got put in there because they caused problems in block 30 with various racial allegations.

Many of those put in the secure wing in Oakington were there because they were judged likely to try to escape - not because of their behaviour, but because their nationality and age fitted the profile of those likely to escape. One guard admitted: "We've banged East Europeans up that have done fuck-all wrong... just because of their nationality and their age-group."Another explained how this was justified: "You say 'that guy's looking at the fence'. If he's not, he fucking is at the moment."

There was at least as much racism and much more violence in the escort services: "There's plenty goes on. We've had... to knock seven kinds of shit out of them.... you take a little bit of frustration out on them, but you be very careful, know what I mean? You can tweak the irons, you can give them a bit of pain... but on certain places, be very careful - when you've got immigration around you, or airline reps."

One escort described how a combination of staff shortages and attitudes contributed to what may have been serious injury to a detainee: "There was only two of us escorting him [when there should have been three] So we thought, fuck it, we'll take him down. Got into the aircraft, he kicked off, so we took him to the floor. I had one arm and my mate had his legs. No one on his head. Head off the floor. Concrete floor. And he's like that... dazed. We wrapped him up, took him back and got to do the doctor and that was it."

This documentary was an extremely important expose of the reality of New Labour's immigration policy on the ground. Sadly it has received very little coverage in the press, even from many of the newspapers that devoted pages to the revelations of racism in "the secret policeman".

GSL say they are "shocked" and "dismayed" and will make a full investigation; the Home Office have asked the ombudsman to conduct another investigation. Yet it's hard to take them seriously when the "equal opportunities" training for escorts/officers shown on the programme is so similar to the training received by police officers.

All they were told is that they mustn't get caught using racist language; nothing seems to be done to deal with the attitudes behind the language. As one of the officers who made racist comments said: "Well, that's to cover their arse, isn't it."

"burden"

Admittedly dealing with racism and prejudice in immigration staff is bound to be difficult in a political climate where the Home Secretary states publicly that he views some migrants as a "burden" on society who should be "driven out". It is the Home Office's own policies and language that have encouraged and legitimised these abuses.

New Labour has consistently scapegoated asylum seekers for the disastrous destruction of public services caused by their own pro-big business policies, leading to prejudices and resentment amongst large sections of the population.

Privatisation - one of New Labour's favourite policies - means that the contracts for immigration escorts and detention centres are cloaked in commercial secrecy and abuses can be blamed on the companies but quietly continued.

For example, many detainees brutalised during removal attempts report comments from escorts suggesting that they receive bonuses for each successful removal - something easy to check for public sector workers, but harder with employees of private companies.

After the Medical Foundation for Care of Victims of Torture reported a number of cases of what they considered to be unlawful force used during attempted removals (see the socialist issue 380), the Home Office agreed to install CCTV in all vans used to escort detainees to the airport. What they didn't publicise is that they only plan to introduce a requirement for CCTV in vans when the current contracts for escort services run out and firms have to bid for the new ones.

The view from inside: detainees speak

The YRE spoke to detainees in a detention centre run by a different company:

"Everyone was interested in the programme - detainees and officers.  When it was time for the lockdown all the detainees were already in our rooms watching it.

"All the officers on our wing were horrified by the programme, saying: "That wouldn't happen in our company.  We can't act like that - if we did we'd be prosecuted, but GSL are protected by immigration."

"In every group of people there are some who are bad, and there are a few who act like that here. When you arrive they are meant to give you a toothbrush, soap etc but some don't like to. If you ask for it they say no, you're not at a hotel - you are a detainee, you shouldn't have all the comforts. They were the officers who would always respond badly to detainees. If you need something and it's sitting on the table in front of them, they won't let you have it: they always say "no, I'm busy" "give me five minutes" "give me ten minutes". They don't want to do the work.

"We complained. We organised a petition, all the detainees on our wing signed it. Management said they wouldn't send these officers back to our wing and now they work on other wings, or during the night when we are locked in our rooms.

"There's never enough officers. Shifts start at 7.30 am and end at 14.30; sometimes people will start at 7.30 and they're still there at 22.00 when the next shift finishes, then they're back again the next morning at 7.30. When you see people working that long you know there's not enough staff.

"Plenty of people work for one week, take their days off and never come back. When they read about the job before they start, they think it will be OK but when they get here they don't want to stay. When they come they think that perhaps the detainees are all criminals, but when they talk to us they find that the majority of us are here because we're asylum seekers and shouldn't be locked up.

"Some officers don't like working in the wing - they get worried when someone gets angry. But some prefer working in the wing where they can talk to people - they understand that if someone gets angry it's because they are locked up, because of their situation."