One week ago, 50 detainees in Oxfordshire’s Campsfield House detention centre went on hunger strike in reaction to the abusive treatment of Mauladad Kakar, a 21-year-old Afghani fleeing persecution from the Taliban.
Mauladad’s treatment at the centre for asylum seekers reveals a cases of staff bullying and racism. It highlights the urgent need for review of the complaints system which leaves detainees voiceless.
In an interview with The Oxford Student, Mauladad claimed that he was forced to sign a “voluntary disclaimer”, a document which would prevent him from legally challenging his deportation. It is further alleged that when he refused to sign the form he was threatened and called a “stupid Paki” by a Home Office Immigration Officer. He claims that he was provided with neither legal advice nor sufficient translation during this dispute.
Mauladad came to the UK in the back of a lorry five months ago. He was arrested by the UK Border Agency on arrival and transferred to the Campsfield detention centre in Kidlington to await removal to Italy, the country he came through before travelling to the UK.
Detainees are held at Campsfield for entering the UK illegally or staying in the UK after their visas have expired. Mualadad spoke of how, at the start of the month, he was called before members of centre’s Welfare Team and a Home Office Immigration Officer, who informed him that he would shortly be removed to Italy and handed him legal documents for his deportation. Despite a UN recommendation that Italy is unsafe for immigrants, it continues to receive migrants from the UK.
However, Mauladad claims that the Immigration Officer had not contacted the relevant Italian authorities to notify them of the deportation. He requested that Mauladad return his deportation documents.
According to a number of witnesses, when Mauladad asked that the request be made in writing, the immigration officer became aggressive, began shouting, and racially abused the detainee. Mauladad’s request that the “first response staff video cameras” be switched on was repeatedly denied by the centre employees. Mauladad said the officer then forced him to sign the “voluntary disclaimer” for his removal and threatened to put him in solitary confinement. Mauladad explained that he felt “terrorised and frightened at the threatening behaviour of the Immigration Officer”.
Although an independent board has been established to monitor the “humane treatment” of detainees, complaints of abuse and bullying by staff members are usually investigated by the centre itself. A 2013 report on Campsfield found that 65% of complaints, often made against staff members, were “unsubstantiated”. Throughout Campsfield’s history, numerous reports of mishandled complaints have been made to charity workers at the centre.
When approached for a response, neither Campsfield House nor the Home Office were able to comment.
The incident with Mauladad was witnessed by a number of other detainees. One of these was Musawar Khan, a 27-year-old Pakistani national with a British wife, who studied in England on a student visa for three years before being detained. He has been at Campsfield for six months.
In the the visitor reception area – a sparsely furnished, white room where portraits of David Cameron and Prince Charles smile down on detainees from the walls – Musawar spoke about the Mauladad’s experience and its aftermath. A fluent English speaker, he has been trying to ensure that there is an enquiry into the abusive behaviour of staff.
Musawar began by contacting Mauladad’s case worker, at the Croydon branch of the UK Border Agency. “To our surprise,” Musawar explained, “she told us that she was unable to do anything about what happened because she does not work in the detention centre”.
Musawar then brought Mauladad’s case to the Chair of the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB), the body charged with ensuring “the humane and just treatment of those held in Immigration Removal Centres”. The complaint was passed from one committee member to another, and for the twelve days since the Board was contacted, the detainees have heard nothing regarding the status of their complaint.
Musawar is doubtful that the Board will have any effect: “Normally, the IMB just tell those making a complaint that they cannot deal with issues regarding staff behaviour. They only respond to complaints made about the services provided to inmates”.
Musawar’s scepticism is not without reason. According to the IMB’s most recent annual report, 31 of the 45 complaints made by detainees were referred back to the centre to be dealt with internally. Four complaints were passed to the Professional Standards Unit, but of these three were rejected and returned to the centre to investigate. The report states that there had still been no response to the one remaining claim, relating to an assault by a Detention Centre Officer. The other complaints related to incidents on arrest and were referred to the UKBA; seven of the remaining 10 have received no response.
Frustrated at his inability to make an effective complaint against the centre staff, Musawar and 49 other detainees declared a hunger strike. “After turning to both the IMB and the UKBA we realised that there was no way for us to make a complaint about staff members and immigration officers that would lead to an enquiry. We decided, in desperation, to go on hunger strike”.
Cases involving complaints about institutional abuse are not rare in the history of Campsfield. A charity worker, who has been involved in assisting detainees at the detention centre for over 12 years told The Oxford Student: “Recent events at Campsfield House are not unique. In the past, my experience is that almost nobody has felt confident enough to make formal complaints because they have felt so frightened that it would affect their case and that they would be forcibly removed from the centre”.
“Visitors to detainees have heard stories of attempts to force them to sign a voluntary return request or “disclaimer” of their asylum claim with the threat of prison as an alternative. Often the detainee is unable to read what he is being required to sign and content is not explained to him”.
Since beginning the hunger strike, Musawar has received a series of disciplinary warnings. These are his first ever warnings since being detained. Issuing these warnings will allow Campsfield to label Musawar a criminal asylum seeker and transfer him to a higher security detention centre.
“Now they are trying to silence me. They issued a warning for ‘vandalism’ when I simply wrote ‘IMB’ on the faded and illegible sign for the IMB complaints box in the library. They then gave me a warning because I argued with a security officer who turned off my computer when he realised I was writing an email about the incident with Mauladad.”
Campsfield has also removed Musawar’s right to work in the detention centre, a common method of punishing detainees at the centre. A 2011 report by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons strongly recommended that the centre terminate this form of punishment.
Under the current system, detainees are employed by the centre in various types of menial labour, half of which a HMP report from 2009 called “mundane and repetitve” jobs such as cleaning. Detainees work for £1 per hour, filling roles which Mitie, the centre contractor, would otherwise have to pay a living wage for. Even that money, however, rarely reaches inmates after their removal from Campsfield.
Musawar and Mauladad’s attempt to raise awareness of conditions in Campsfield is not the first in the centre’s history. Since opening in 1993, there have been three other recorded hunger strikes and in 2005 a 19 year-old detainee from Turkey committed suicide after three failed bail attempts. In 2012, there were 14 reports of self-harm by detainees. “Anyone thought to be suicidal is kept on constant watch,” Musawar explained. “At any time since I have been here there have been at least four or five detainees on suicide-watch”.
According to the Close Campsfield website, detainees at Campsfield are held “without charge, without any time limit”. The website also claims: “their detention seems to indicate that they are presumed guilty before the Home Office”. Deportation cases can take years to be resolved and complaints seem rarely to be heard.
And yet there have been few efforts to reform the running of Campsfield. Recommendations have been made by inspectors but all bar one have been ignored. There was no enquiry made by the Home Office into the centre’s failure to implement these recommendations. Frequently, detainees are forced to wait over a year to hear the result of their cases. Currently there are over 200 detainees at Campsfield, many living in cramped conditions, sometimes four to a room.
Sarah Jacobs, a fourth-year at Wadham and a member of the Oxford Migrants Society spoke about her experiences of working at the centre: “Last week’s events are just one example of the injustices that take place in immigration centres everyday. These are run for profit by giant security companies, in which thousands of innocent people are held indefinitely every year. it shows some of the culture of stress, fear, and veiled threats that many detainees experience”.
Musawar and Mauladad are calling on the Home Office to carry out a comprehensive enquiry into the allegations of abuse and bullying at Campsfield House