Inspectors have raised concerns after finding people’s arms are being tied to their waists for hours on board deportation flights. New reports published today highlight the use of “waist restraint belts”, which inspectors described as “almost equivalent … to the most extreme and very rarely used” restraint equipment in prisons.
The belts were introduced by the Home Office as part of a new training program for deportation staff, after Angolan deportee Jimmy Mubenga died at the hands of G4S guards in 2010. An independent panel, which advised on the use of this new equipment, warned last year that “indiscriminate use of the restraint belt was not justifiable ethically or legally”. It said ministers would have to approve its introduction and it should only be used as “an exceptional measure”.
However, inspectors have found that the waist restraint belts “were now embedded in practice” and that they risked “being overused”. On three flights to Nigeria and Ghana, the belts were used on ten deportees by private security guards from the Capita-subsidiary Tascor. Inspectors said that “the justification for several of these uses was not explicit in the records” which they examined. On another flight, the belt was used on eight passengers, even though five of them did not resist being put on the flight. Nick Hardiwck, the chief inspectors of prisons, said in his report that “while risk factors were used to justify each case, the evidence was sometimes minimal.”
The reports refers to one passenger, Mr A, who was on suicide watch. He was strapped into a waist restraint belt, “although there was no clear evidence of a risk of harm to others”. Corporate Watch tracked down a detainee who was on the same deportation flight as Mr A. Speaking under the condition of anonymity, he described the scene on board: “A lot of people were tied up, in like a vest on your tummy and arms. They tightened up the back so you cannot move and you have pain in your back. You cannot move your hands. They put people on that plane like animals,” he said. (A commercially available waist restraint belt is pictured above.)
Inspectors are also concerned that the belts were kept on for longer than necessary. A woman was strapped into a waist restraint belt for a deportation to Pakistan until after the plane took off, “which was too long in view of the fact that she was compliant and cooperative throughout the process”, inspectors said. One man, who had refused to board a flight, was strapped into a restraint belt “continuously for eight hours … which was inappropriate”, the reports say. It caused swelling to his wrists and he had to be examined by a paramedic.
The advisers who tested this belt said it was: “a custom-designed piece of restraint equipment, manufactured from manmade fibres and using plastic snap-locks and Velcro fasteners, designed to be worn around the subject’s waist. Soft cuffs, with plastic snap-lock and Velcro fasteners, are attached to the belt by retractable cords.”
They said that: “In the ‘free’ position, although still connected to the belt, the cords are long enough to allow the subject relatively free movement of his arms and hands (for example, for eating). In the ‘retracted’ position, the subject’s hands are pulled in to the front of the belt, where they can be further secured by a snap-lock fastened mesh.”
The authorities initially proposed that the belt “should be worn by all, or nearly all, detainees subject to enforced removal”. However, the independent advisers said that “such indiscriminate use of the restraint belt was not justifiable ethically or legally. The belt therefore remains part of the proposed set of techniques only for use on the most disruptive and difficult detainees.”
However, the inspectors found that waist restraint belts were used six times on three flights to Pakistan, and that approaches to security were “unduly indiscriminate in some respects.”
Belts, chains and shackles
The Home Office’s use of restraints came under fire last month at an inquest into the death of Alois Dvorzak. The 84 year old Canadian detainee died at hospital in handcuffs, shackled to a detention custody office by a six foot long chain. Staff justified the restraints on the grounds that he might try to escape.
Karen Abdel-Hady, who was the Home Office’s director of detention operations at the time of Dvorzak’s death, said that nine out ten people in immigration detention centres were taken to hospital in handcuffs. She said a new policy had since been introduced and there is now a presumption that detainees should not be restrained.
Although the Home Office insists that lessons have been learnt from Dvorzak’s death, the deportation flight inspectors found that some authorisation forms for using restraints “did not indicate what specific risk factors might have existed”, and lacked sufficient detail. This appears to falls short of the Home Office’s own guidance on the use of these belts, which requires a senior manager to record “whether the restraint was reasonable, proportionate and necessary”.
Corporate Watch spoke to one former detainee who claims he was recently restrained by guards in a device which sounds similar to the new belts. He says it blocked his airflow and caused him to pass out. He spoke anonymously, fearing reprisals from the Home Office:
“The guards tried to pin me down with their legs and their knees. After some time they put a belt from under my my armpit down to my abdomen. They started tightening it and I was screaming and screaming ‘This is too tight for me!’ After some time I passed out – there was no air”, he said. “Someone shouted that they should put me in the recovery position. I was in panic and hyperventilating. They held my head and tried to force a tablet into my mouth. I was choking and gagging for 30 minutes.”
Despite passing out, the guards continued trying to deport him. “They put me in a wheelchair and moved me into the deportation van. On the way to the airport my condition deteriorated and they called an ambulance on the motorway and I went to hospital for some hours.” He says he was taken to hospital in handcuffs, despite the new Home Office policy. “I was still handcuffed on the way to hospital. The handcuffs cut the bone of my wrist and I’m having pain in the scrotum and lower back from the assault”, he said.
These inspections of deportation flights also describe some of the situations asylum seekers have to face. Two detainees arrived at the airport, “in a small van that had been contaminated with their urine”, inspectors found. The men were then kept in the van for several hours, “which was unacceptable treatment.”
One man, who was on suicide watch, had lived in Britain for 15 years and was being taken away from his mother who was very ill in hospital here. Another man, who was placed in one of the waist restraint belts, had been on suicide watch for the last six months in a series of detention centres.
In the days before one of these deportation flights featured in the inspection reports, volunteers at the Unity Centre in Glasgow spoke to many of the men facing deportation. Among them were fathers leaving behind their partners and young children. The sense of fear and desperation was so strong that it was clear something might happen on the day of the flight. In the event, one young man, ‘Fred’, scaled the fence at Harmondsworth detention centre. The inspectors said this caused “considerable delay” in taking people to the airport. He threatened to jump whenever Home Office officials tried to come near him, and a mattress was placed underneath him. In the end, the flight left without him, and he came down from the fence at the end of the night.
Corporate Watch visited Fred in detention a week later. He said he was born in Sierra Leone, where his father, an aid worker with the British Red Cross, was killed during the civil war. He had lived in the UK since he was 11 years old with his surviving family. He said all the detainees were talking about not wanting to go on the flight, “but no one was doing anything. So I got up the fence and they couldn’t touch me.”
At 24, he had spent the last two years of his life in detention, apart from a brief spell when he was released on tag, and made to walk miles each day to report to the Home Office. His face was vacant and expressionless. Detention was sucking the life out of him. He was being deported on the basis of police ‘intelligence’, not evidence or convictions, of association with a London gang. Operation Nexus allows the Met Police to remove people from the UK if officers believe it would be ‘conducive to the public good’. Despite Fred’s desperate resistance, he was later deported to Sierra Leone.
But the protests will not go away. There will be another deportation flight for dozens of Nigerians from London to Lagos, on Tuesday 24th November. Campaigners from Movement for Justice rallied outside the Nigerian High Commissioner on Wednesday, and women in Yarl’s Wood detention centre have published a statement opposing the flight, saying “we refused to be slaves to the British government”. The latest revelation that deportees are being strapped up in restraint devices will only add fuel to the fire.
The reports are available on the HM Inspectorate of Prisons website:
Detainees under escort: Inspection of escort and removals to Nigeria and Ghana (28 – 29 July 2015)
Detainees under escort: Inspection of escorts and removals to Pakistan (30 June – 1 July 2015)