Brutality and false imprisonment – welcome to the UK!

by | Aug 10, 2020

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About Rona Epstein and Peter Walsh

Rona Epstein is an Honorary Research Fellow at Coventry Law School. Her work on unlawful imprisonment for council tax debt led to a change in the law in Wales. She has worked extensively on the sentencing of mothers and rights of the child. She is teacher of English to refugees at Coventry Refugee and Migrant centre. She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Laws by the Coventry University.

On 8 June, BBC One aired a gripping drama based on the real life story of Anthony Bryan, one of the Windrush generation.  After 50 years of living in England, bringing up his family and working, having arrived from Jamaica as an eight-year-old, he found himself labeled an ‘illegal resident’ and was detained, to be deported.  

It is not only members of the Windrush generation that experience the UK’s immigration system as bewildering, even hostile. In 2019, some 45,000 people arrived in the UK seeking sanctuary, many travelling long distances to escape war, persecution, or ethnic violence in their homelands. While awaiting a decision on their claim, destitute asylum seekers must live on £5.66 a day. Around half of all asylum seekers will be granted protection, and many refused applicants will, like Anthony Bryan, find themselves detained pending their removal.

In 2012, the Conservative government with Theresa May as Home Secretary, announced the ‘hostile environment’, instituted by the Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016. This included a raft of measures to prevent irregular migrants from accessing employment, healthcare, housing, education, and banking. But it has been argued that the hostile environment has led to a broader culture of hostility towards legal migrants and asylum seekers, one that has engulfed even British residents, as the Windrush scandal attests.

Brutality: Panorama reports

In June 2019, the High Court ruled on MA and BB v The Secretary of State for the Home Department. The case was brought by two former immigration detainees, who were featured in Panorama programme, broadcast in September 2017. The film of detainees held at Brook House Immigration Removal Centre (IRC), a privately run centre then managed by G4S, showed the first detainee being throttled by a member of G4S staff. The covertly recorded material showed scenes later described by the Immigration Minister as ‘appalling’, including a detainee with mental health issues being ridiculed and physically assaulted by staff. The programme revealed a culture of abuse, prompting the security firm to order an independent review. Of the 21 staff involved in the allegations, 11 were dismissed or left the organisation after the BBC programme. Three staff involved in the allegations later resigned.

The Home Office asked the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman to investigate the issues raised by Panorama. However, this investigation would be conducted behind closed doors with the G4S officers involved not required to give evidence if they would prefer not to.

The judge, Mrs Justice May, said that an effective inquiry into the allegations of abuse should have a power to compel the attendance of witnesses.

False imprisonment: the Supreme Court decision

On 27 November 2019, the Supreme Court gave judgment in R (Hemmati and others) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2019] UKSC 56.

Five individuals arrived in the UK illegally and claimed asylum. Two had already claimed asylum in Bulgaria, two in Austria, and one in Bulgaria, Hungary and Austria. All were to be sent back to the countries where they first claimed asylum. They were all detained in the UK for periods between five and 16 weeks. They brought judicial review proceedings challenging the lawfulness of their detention.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Home Office was not entitled to detain these five asylum seekers for removal under the Dublin III Regulation. In January 2014, the Dublin III Regulation introduced new protections for asylum seekers being moved around within the EU.  From January 2014 until 15 March 2017, the British government routinely sent asylum seekers into detention centres while their cases were being considered. The Supreme Court ruled this to have been unlawful imprisonment. Such detention amounted to false imprisonment and these five asylum seekers were therefore entitled to damages.

All those detained for the purposes of Dublin III removal between January 2014 and 15 March 2017 were unlawfully detained and falsely imprisoned and are entitled to damages. Since detention was routinely and unnecessarily used in Dublin III cases, the numbers affected will be high.

A mystery for you to solve

So, here is a real-life mystery to solve: how to find the hundreds of asylum seekers unlawfully detained between January 2014 and 15 March 2017. The Supreme Court says they have a valid claim for compensation for false imprisonment.  But where are they and who will tell them about this?

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