Home Office undermines investigations into deaths in detention

Georgina Andrews, is a member of the YCL’s Birmingham branch

Amid the renewed onslaught against asylum seekers and immigrants, new claims have emerged that suggest many potential key witnesses to deaths in detention have been deliberately deported, preventing them from giving evidence in inquests. Furthermore, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has ignored the concerns from a coroner, voiced last year, that the actions of the Home Office could have impaired investigations.

Last August, it was made known to Patel that a coroner feared that Home Office staff had deliberately overlooked the fact that witnesses to the death of a black detainee, Carlington Spencer, still had to give evidence before undertaking to oust them from the UK.

Patel’s response to the issue raised did not actually deal with the question at hand in spite of the coroner requesting Patel’s intervention into the Home Office’s practices affecting investigations into deaths in detention centres.

A multitude of failings was identified in the 2017 death of Spencer, including multiple missed opportunities to adequately monitor him, and an inability of the medical staff to identify symptoms of a stroke. Instead, they assumed that Spencer had taken spice, ultimately leading to his death.

On Wednesday (14 April 2021), Patel was held responsible by a court ruling for failings to establish proper investigation of deaths in detention centres. The ruling specifically appertains to the case of Ahmed Lawal and Oscar Lucky Okwurime, who were detained in Harmondsworth in September 2019 when Okwurime was found dead in his cell.

Five days after Okwurime’s death and due to give evidence to the inquest, the Home Office tried to deport Lawal, despite him being a key witness. It was subsequently revealed that Okwurime died due to poor medical care.

After the death, the Home Office did not determine any possible witnesses. Subsequently, as many as 20 potential witnesses willing to provide evidence for the inquest have suddenly vanished.

A particular key witness, who was detained in the cell next to Okwurime, could’ve verified whether Okwurime shouted before he died and if the alarm system in the cell was functioning but he disappeared before he could give evidence, thwarting the investigation. The Home Office had not approached him prior to his deportation and thus he wasn’t able to speak to investigators.

Despite a statement from the Home Office detailing that it has learned from Okwurime’s death about gathering evidence, it has not released any details of possible witnesses or the deceased person following a suspicious death in Morton Hall, where Carlington Spencer died, in February.

With the overhaul of the asylum system, these barbaric actions of the government are set to increase in the next few years, as new laws aim to deport people who have travelled through a “safe country” before reaching the UK, intensifying the number of people who will have to live in already overcrowded detention centres.

The deliberate deportation of key witnesses and other asylum seekers is an obvious sign of the institutional racism engrained in the government’s actions, which is being swept under the rug by the Home Office, but it’s also a sign of the sheer power the government has over the freedom of the working class. The government will never willingly address this issue when it still benefits from the consequences of the systematic dehumanisation of immigrants and asylum seekers, such as the enhanced repressive capabilities of the state over its subjects in all aspects of life.

To commit these atrocious abuses of power against non-UK nationals, there has to be a concerted effort to propagandise stereotypes and prejudices against asylum seekers and immigrants. We have seen this take place in the “hostile environment”, with discriminatory stereotypes such as the idea that immigrants steal jobs and are criminals. This attack on immigrants has led to the government’s ability to act with impunity and deport witnesses, who could lay the blame of preventable deaths at the feet of the Home Office.

The carceral nature of the asylum system is one that cannot be reformed. Locking people up, who seek safety and a chance to rebuild their lives, in military barracks and other squalid buildings, sequestered away from society, will never cease to dehumanise and persecute every person who enters a detention centre. Only under socialism can the insidious treatment of asylum seekers and other non-UK nationals be eradicated from our society.

Georgina Andrews

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