How UK immigration treats young torture victims

Picture of Yarls Wood immigration detention centre in UKYesterday I watched a programme about the extent the British immigration “services” will go to get rid of child and teenage refugees. It told the stories of three cases, a family from Iran in which the father (killed in an accident) was accused of distributing passages from The Satanic Verses, a young man from Afghanistan who says he is 16 (with strong evidence) but who the authorities insist is older, and a refugee from Uganda who was obviously tortured, but who the border agency persists in finding excuses to send home, calling her a liar even as they admit she had been tortured. (You can watch the programme on the Channel 4 website if you’re in the UK.)

Cases like the Sadeghi family’s (that’s the Iranian family) are pretty difficult, because it is difficult to gauge whether the document they had presented in their defence was genuine or not — the court said it was not — but they do have the support of the local community and the way the border agency have repeatedly harassed the family, putting them in detention and then releasing them twice, has clearly been traumatic for the youngest son, 10-year-old Mehrshad, as testified to by one of his teachers. I wonder what expertise the judge has, or who he used, to decide that their papers were forged — how fluent is his Persian, I wonder, and what is his knowledge of the composition of Iranian and British paper? There was a report in the Guardian today that says that all their legal avenues have been exhausted and they face deportation fairly soon.

The young Afghan man in the second section of the programme said he was 16, and said that when he first arrived in the UK, he told the Home Office in Croydon that he was 14. The officials he said that to gave him documents that said he was 19, and put him in adult accommodation. Local authorities have a vested interest in overestimating the age of a teenage asylum seeker, as assessing them as an adult means they are not responsible for their care as a minor, but it is a fact that most Afghans do not know their exact ages as birthdays are not marked. The man was the son of a brigadier at a British prison in Afghanistan, and the family was attacked by the Taliban which caused him some injury and his mother much more serious harm. The authorities refuse to believe his connection to the brigadier, so Channel 4 went out and got him to record a video to testify to being the refugee’s father. He, too, has been repeatedly arrested and incarcerated, and reports that he was often bullied in the prisons, and had the self-harm scars to show for it.

However, it was the last story, of the young woman named as Mary from Uganda, which was most troubling. She had first come to the UK at age 16, and was allowed to stay as a minor (presumably she had documentation to prove this) and told her claim would be assessed when she was 18. Her father had been a businessman until the government accused him of supporting rebels, at which point they stormed their house, raped Mary in front of her mother, killed her father and injured her mother and brother. However, when Mary’s asylum claim came up, she was called an unreliable witness. It should be added that her testimony would have concerned traumatic events that happened at least two years earlier. She exhausted all her avenues and was expelled; after bribing her way past Ugandan border officials, she ended up living on the streets before being taken in by a church, but was found by the police, rearrested, and subjected to terrible torture which produced very visible marks on her body. She was again helped out of the country, and made her way to an organisation in the UK which helps torture victims. The woman interviewed said that this was the most clear-cut case of torture they had ever seen, but the judge still called her a liar and rejected her claim.

I’ve been following the issue, on and off, for a number of years and I recall a number of reports about the tendency of British immigration judges to flatly disbelieve stories of torture and rape from refugees, particularly those from Uganda. There were accusations that the system is ridden with racists, that there is a culture of disbelief and that the same lines are used by judges again and again; it was reported that one judge “described rape as a terrible crime, but said it was also terrible to make false allegations because genuine complaints were more likely to be disbelieved”, using this line to reject numerous asylum claims.

It’s obvious that immigration policy is targeted at the hostile media, but I do not believe that the persistent refusal to entertain asylum claims, even in the face of very strong evidence, from Ugandans can be solely based on racism — has our government done some sort of deal with the Ugandan regime, for intelligence in return for the return of dissidents, or do they still cling to the regime’s relatively progressive reputation, which it no longer really deserves? We have a historical link to Uganda — one that this country chose for itself — and we do not have a vast influx of immigrants from there anymore, but mostly desperate refugees. It is grotesque that we are sending people back knowing that they have been raped and tortured, particularly after having been deported from the UK a first time.

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