Botched deportation of dying man highlights need for humanitarian overhaul of asylum system

On Wednesday, Roger Roberts wrote an extremely moving article about the fate of Isa Muaza, a Nigerian asylum seeker who had been on hunger strike for 90 days in protest at the conditions in which he was being kept at an immigration detention centre. His removal from the UK, even in his frail, close to death condition, was planned for Friday morning.

Through Thursday, many of our readers signed the petition asking for Theresa May to reconsider her decision to deport Muaza. Huge effort was put in by Liberal Democrats including Sarah Teather, Julian Huppert and Tim Farron as well as Roger Roberts to try and prevent this brutal deportation. What exactly were they planning to do? Dump him on a stretcher in the arrivals hall.

When I read on Friday that the removal had gone ahead, I felt so ashamed as a citizen that my government could treat anyone so cruelly.

My shame turned to fury when Roger Roberts said on Facebook yesterday that the private jet carrying Muaza had been denied entry into Nigeria, diverted to Malta and had then taken him back to the UK where he was returned to the detention centre. What an utter mess and evidence of total incompetence. What a horribly stressful thing to put anyone through, let alone someone so weak that he couldn’t stand up.

The Observer covers this in some detail this morning, carrying quotes from both Roger Roberts and Sarah Teather:

Lord Roberts, a Liberal Democrat peer, told the Observer he was delighted Muaza was back in the UK but horrified that he had been forced to endure the attempted removal. “I saw him on Tuesday when a doctor had judged him too sick to fly,” he said. “Goodness knows what state he must be in now the poor man. He needs hospital treatment. We should know the cost of this private jet. We’ve already heard this case has cost some £180,000.

[The home secretary] Theresa May must consider her role immediately. She has caused immense harm to one individual and spent an extraordinary amount of taxpayers’ money. I hope there will be no question of sending this poor man away again

Sarah Teather expressed her horror at what had happened:

On Saturday night Teather said she was “truly, truly, appalled” at the treatment of Muaza. “To put a well man through this kind of stress and journey would be bad enough, but to do it to a man in such a desperate condition? Well done, Theresa May, you proved your toughness at the expense of your humanity. This should give everyone pause for thought. I cannot see why this was in anyone’s interest.

That the government is rushing to deport a man prepared to starve himself to death rather than be returned says everything about the culture of disbelief towards individuals fleeing persecution that is a defining characteristic of the UK’s asylum process.

I wrote earlier this week of my annoyance at Nick Clegg’s decision to go along with Cameron’s benefits restrictions for people from the EU. I suggested that if he were looking for things wrong with the immigration system, there were rather more important issues that should be higher up in his priorities. The benefits thing might save a tiny bit of money, but we lose so much more by appearing to legitimise the false, ill-informed UKIP/Tory right argument. Nick Clegg’s language may be different and moderate, but that makes no odds. We need a robust liberal voice to stand up for fairness and humanity within the immigration system.

There are three things that need to happen in the light of the botched attempt to remove Muaza:

  • The asylum system must been seen to be fair. Whatever the Daily Mail says, those caught up in it don’t feel that it is.
  • The way it treats people should be more humane. I’m not convinced of the need to lock people up unless they have committed crimes which merit that anyway. If that does happen, the deprivation of liberty is serious enough. You don’t need to take their dignity as well. They should be treated with respect and humanity. The reason Isa Muaza started his hunger strike in the first place was that he wasn’t being given the diet and healthcare his many physical and mental health conditions needed. That should never happen to vulnerable people.
  • It goes without saying that Muaza should be released so that he can receive the medical care he so desperately needs.

Liberal Democrats have ended child detention for immigration purposes. That is great but we can’t just sit back when the system is so clearly still flawed. There are limits to what we can achieve when we are only a fifth of the Government, and there is no sign that the opposition would do anything any differently. Appalling, inhumane things happened on Labour’s watch. Just ask Janipher Maseko, the then 18 year old breastfeeding mother who was threatened with deportation without her baby, or any gay asylum seeker told to go back and be discreet. That means that a strong liberal voice, challenging the ill-informed misconceptions has never been more important.

I don’t think Nick Clegg is getting his approach right and I fear that the immigration policy paper being drawn up by Andrew Stunell will make me feel very uncomfortable. If you feel strongly about these issues, you may wish to register now for Spring conference in York where it will be debated. The price goes up by £30 at the end of December, so do it now.

And you might also think about joining Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary who campaign on these issues.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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11 Comments

  • Paul in Twickenham 1st Dec '13 - 10:52am

    In general I shy away from anecdote, but I have to say that the only Bulgarian “economic migrant” in this country that I personally know is someone with a Computer Science PhD from Dartmouth College (the smallest and perhaps least well known US Ivy League schools) whose parents were aid workers in Zimbabwe.

    When the Liberal Democrat leadership sign up to the “populist” agenda of The Daily Mail then we have surely reached a tipping point. In today’s Observer the latest opinion poll puts UKIP on 19% and the Liberal Democrats on 8%. Mr. Clegg could have chosen to take on the irrational prejudice that has driven UKIP so high, but instead he has been supine – pandering to prejudice in a way that will play badly with whatever remains of the party’s “core” support and that will (if it’s even possible) drive this already ludicrous number even lower.

  • A brilliant article. Well done to Lord Roberts, Sarah, Tim and Julian.

    Sarah is probably going to be one of the single biggest loses to our party and the political system overall.

    I am also concerned about the Andrew Stunell is taking towards immigration, both morally (I think that speaks for itself) and practically.

    One thing which frustrated me when I worked in politics was that our higher-ups did not seem to get that we are never going to win the ‘anti-immigration’ vote because that vote is already overcrowded with far more extremist groups than ours trying to court it – this means, no matter how far we go, it will not be enough to win that vote,

    Furthermore, right now, statistics produced by this Government show that even at its max, the ‘concerned’ (note how weak a word concerned is) about immigration vote is only made up of about 65% – 75% of our population. That means there is no ‘openly’ pro-immigration voice in the major political arena appealing to the 25% – 35% who are either in favour of immigration or just do not care.

    It should also be noted that even the vast majority of those in the ‘concerned’ box seem to find things like ‘go home vans’ either ridiculous or detestable.

    Finally, it is just, politically, not a healthy way to deal with this issue. Politicians either shying away from or out scape-goating immigration has made this area so toxic, it now threatens our economy, social cohesion and already compromised position on the international scene.

  • Richard Dean 1st Dec '13 - 1:42pm

    It is truly astonishing that this attempt went ahead against medical advice and apparently without any prior arrangements with the Nigerian government. I’m also astonished that the original plan was to put a sick man onto a commercial flight. The comments on the previous article are worth reading – not just mine.
    https://www.libdemvoice.org/lord-roger-roberts-writesplease-try-to-prevent-the-imminent-death-of-a-seeker-of-sanctuary-37330.html#comment-272229

    It now appears that there have been four previous attempts to use self-harming as a way of coercing the government into granting asylum. This means that Isa’s situation is taking place in a more complex context. The tougher line on Isa looks like it’s an attempt to prevent future repetitions. As Richard S wrote in the previous discussion, a system which requires you to go on hunger strike to achieve your aim is a very brutal one indeed.
    http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/nov/19/asylum-seeker-hunger-strike-stay-custody-death-nigeria-muaza

    I previously suggested that this deportation should not go ahead, and I also suggested the basic problem is the liberal approach to immigration. The endless possibility of appeal extends the period of uncertainty and thereby allows – perhaps even encourages – this kind of situation. What about trying to develop a system that is able to judge an application within a few days, and deport immediately if that is the decision, with appeals available through the embassy in the source country? Would this be feasible? Would it be right?

  • Peter Hayes 1st Dec '13 - 4:08pm

    Richard, fast tracking appeals in UK makes sense but not appeals from home country. If they appeal they are not in detention so the appeal fails. If they do not appeal have they given up, are they being prevented from getting to the embassy, or are they already detained or dead? Will the embassy know? Will the embassy care?

  • Richard Dean 1st Dec '13 - 4:19pm

    A simpler way to address the problem of coercion by self-harming might be to make that into grounds for immediate deportation, overriding any ongoing application or appeal.

    I agree that asylum seekers should be granted the right to be heard, but I think we should avoid assuming that an asylum seeker has a right to be granted asylum automatically. The media seem to want to convince us that there are plenty of people willing to tell any lie to get into this country.

  • Tony Greaves 1st Dec '13 - 10:13pm

    At a time like this, true Liberals should be standing up and demanding that this man is treated humanely, not arguing about changes to policy. I am proud of the lead that Roger has taken on this issue. But I wonder if there are many true Liberals left.

    Tony

  • Meral Hussein Ece 1st Dec '13 - 11:19pm

    I too am shocked and ashamed at the way Mr Muaza has been treated by this country, and pay tribute to my colleague, Roger on how he’s persisted with this case. The Home Secretary has some serious explaining to do, while it’s disappointing how silent the Opposition has been, while joining the race to the bottom to demonstrate who is tougher on immigration. It’s also disappointing how silent senior politicians on all sides have been.

  • Richard Dean 2nd Dec '13 - 12:26am

    Funny how different people are. Crises are often the best times to talk about policies, other times people aren’t so engaged, aren’t always seeing the issues quite so well. This man’s suffering has brought into sharp relief an otherwise hidden side of immigration control. We insult him if we do not learn policy from this, as well as humanity.

  • Certainly incompetent not to have arranged that he would have been received by Nigeria. But we cannot be blackmailed by self-harmers.

  • Chris Randall 2nd Dec '13 - 11:37am

    It can only bring us greif this sort of stupidity whu oh why wasn’t ncik or Vince asking questions about this it makes the country look silly and what a waste of jet fuel.

  • David Allen 2nd Dec '13 - 12:37pm

    “At a time like this, true Liberals should be standing up and demanding that this man is treated humanely, not arguing about changes to policy.”

    Hmm, sounds a bit like ducking the issues. We could alternatively try to walk and chew gum at the same time. This case could reasonably be treated as an exceptional emergency and hence not necessarily something that sets a precedent.

    Meanwhile, as Richard Dean suggests, the case demonstrates the need for some clear thinking. Unless we believe that all asylum seekers should be admitted, we can’t simply accept that self-harmers should always get what they want. On the other hand, whilst Richard should be commended for trying to find a better solution, I don’t think his ideas (fast tracked decisions, and instant deportation for self-harmers) actually get there, either. In practice, removing the right to appeal just means a victory for the hardliners and a chuck-them-all-out policy.

    The contention in this case is that Muaza wasn’t just gaming the system: he had real health problems, before his hunger strike, that were serious and were not being addressed. That’s what he says. Is it true? I would suggest that anyone in that position should have the right to a fast-track medical review. If it’s true (like the horrible case a few months ago when we chucked out a Ghanaian woman dying of cancer), then the removal process should be stopped. But if the applicant is fibbing or deliberately exaggerating a lesser medical condition, then no dice.

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