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Inhuman treatment of elderly detainee a symptom of our broken immigration detention system

The appalling case of Alois Dvorzac, an 84-year-old man with dementia and heart disease who suffered a fatal heart attack whilst an immigration detainee, has given a shocking insight into the broken immigration detention system currently operating in the UK.

Mr Dvorzac was detained by the UK Border Agency at Gatwick airport in January 2013 whilst attempting to travel from Canada to Slovenia to see his estranged daughter. He was taken to Harmondsworth Immigration Detention Centre and was held there for three weeks until he had to be taken to hospital for emergency treatment.

Last week, the inquest into his death heard how he died of a heart attack following an emergency hospital admission; prior to his death he had been in handcuffs for five hours. The jury found failings at Harmondsworth citing “a lack of unified procedures and training and access to relevant data records in dealing with a person of this age and capacity”.

A report by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, who also have a role in oversight of Immigration Detention Centres, stated that the end of Mr Dvorzac’s life had been “shameful” and “wholly unacceptable”, concluding that his detention by the Home Office was on “the threshold of inhuman and degrading.”

The treatment of Mr Dvorzac, an elderly, frail man, during his detention by the state was truly shocking. After being found wandering in a confused state at Gatwick airport Mr Dvorzac was held overnight there in a holding room. There was no bed and he would have had to sleep on chairs. Thereafter he was held for weeks in detention, and the inquest heard that he did not understand why he was being detained.

Mr Dvorzac’s treatment is by no means an isolated incident. Unfortunately poor treatment of immigration detainees, many of whom are in poor health or who suffer from mental illness, is all too common. We know this from our own cases, having seen physical violence from staff, failures in medical care, shambolic record keeping, poor understanding of mental health issues, inadequate communication between staff and people who should not have been detained in the first place. Such failures can lead to devastating consequences such as the preventable death of Brian Dalrymple, an American tourist detained at Harmondsworth in 2011. We represented his family at the inquest into his death which delivered a verdict of natural causes contributed to by neglect. The jury considered that there were failures in the medical care that Brian Dalrymple, a 34-year old suffering from schizophrenia and hypertension, received. These failures ultimately contributed to his death from a ruptured aorta.

Independent reports, such as the one into Yarls Wood Immigration Removal Centre published by the Chief Inspector of Prisons in the summer, show major failings. The report found conditions at Yarls Wood had deteriorated to the extent that almost half of the women held there feared for their safety.

The state not only has a duty to protect life but also not to subject people to inhuman and degrading treatment. It is essential that these duties are taken seriously by those responsible for immigration detention. They must invest the necessary time and money, develop and monitor proper procedures and employ competent and properly trained, committed staff. They need to ensure that detainees are properly looked after and are enabled to live with some dignity and respect, whatever their nationality or entitlement to be here. This should be the case whether state bodies are running detention centres or in the increasingly common scenario of privately managed facilities – the state cannot wash its hands of its human rights obligations to vulnerable people through privatisation.

Mr Dvorzac’s death prompted a review of Home Office policy on restraints. His inquest heard that nine out of ten people in immigration detention were taken to hospital in handcuffs. There is now a presumption that sick detainees should not be restrained on hospital visits. Further change is needed however, including an urgent and thorough review of the operation of our immigration system and the welfare of detainees, including assessing the impact of privatisation on the service. We need to question whether private companies that lack a culture of public service and whose primary obligation is to deliver a profit to shareholders, should really be responsible for vulnerable detainees.

The Home Office must act now to ensure detention centres are capable of fulfilling their duties under the European Convention of Human Rights and that alternatives to detention are found for the vulnerable such as the 84 year old Mr Dvorzac.