There is a lot to be said for 'bringing human rights home'.
I personally believe that, as individuals and humans, we have the moral authority to criticise other countries and others' governments for human rights abuses. If this was not a core moral belief of mine, I doubt that I would be such a strong supporter of Amnesty International. But I would probably go a step further and say that, as individuals and UK citizens, we have the moral obligation to criticise our own country and our own government for abuses.
London lawyers, Birnberg Pierce and Partners (whose Gareth Pierce will be familiar to many for her representation of the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four and latterly Guantanamo Bay detainees) along with the excellent Medical Justice Network and NCADC have this week published a report which reveals evidence of widespread and systemic abuse of people who have fled their own countries seeking safety and refuge.
"Outsourcing Abuse" which can be read online, catalogues systematic abuse by private security companies who are both running the UK's 'detention estate' and deportations and removals. The report also notes:
"Mass deportations may follow if the Government puts into effect its announcement to deal with 450,000 unresolved asylum cases within five years or less. The increased use of detention and target-driven deportations may lead to further injuries and assault allegations."
When I worked in London as an immigration and human rights lawyer, I will never forget representing one of the most resilient and bravest people I have met. She was a 24 year-old Ugandan woman who was HIV positive and weighed only six stone (38 kg), detained for having sought asylum, who, with help from myself and a committed BBC investigative journalist, decided to speak out about her treatment by officers inside Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre:
"Two were holding my arms, two were holding my legs and then they hit my head on the floor," she said.
"I was feeling pain and then they twisted my arms and pressed my head on the bed.
"I couldn't breathe and then I was shouting 'I can't breathe, I can't breathe' but they were just twisting it harder."
Listening to her speaking these words from inside the detention centre, broadcast first on Radio 4's Today Programme at breakfast time, I felt that hers was a voice that not many would have heard. Or, if they had heard it, they might first have thought that Suzan was speaking from inside Mugabe's repressive regime or from a jail in Kinshasa rather than from a UK government-run building a few miles from London Heathrow.
But, by now, enough stories have come out of the immigrant detention centres for such testimonies no longer to surprise.
Over recent months, Belfast has witnessed the high-profile removals of 'failed' asylum-seeking families in spite of protests and consensus across the political spectrum here that they should be allowed stay. The UK government is publicly committed to increasing the machinery of border controls and deportations and boasts that it removes a migrant from the UK every eight minutes, so, with an agenda with so little humanity, it can surprise no-one that human rights abuses such as these occur.
The challenge is to know what to do with such stories, how to deal with such systematic injustice. How to criticize our government which does this and how to act.
Along with Paul Kazadi, who is himself an asylum-seeker from the DRC, I co-chair the Refugee Action Group (RAG). Last summer in Belfast, we ran a Campaigning Tactics Workshop facilitated by Emma Ginn of NCADC (who co-wrote 'Outsourcing Abuse'). A few weeks ago, in collaboration with Belfast Exposed, we held a public discussion about anti-deporation campaigning with guest speakers from Dublin's Residents Against Racism and the Immigrant Council of Ireland and Glasgow's The Unity Centre (as well as local speakers). If you would like to act to support refugees and asylum-seekers who find themselves in this abusive system, please get involved with RAG.
“There comes a time when the operation of the machine is so odious that you cannot even passively participate. You’ve got to place your body on the gears, the levers, all the apparatus. You’ve got to indicate to those who own it, and those who run it, that unless you are free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”
– Mario Savio
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.