Lord Roger Roberts writes…Please try to prevent the imminent death of a seeker of sanctuary

Yesterday I met Mr Isa Muaza who, until last night, was due to be forced on to a plane to Nigeria this evening. Though his removal directions have been moved – and set – for 29 November he remains at death’s door.

Isa is a failed asylum seeker who has been held in detention at Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre. The case is one of enforced removal, although very little real force will be necessary in his case. He has been on hunger strike and has lost 40% of his body mass. He is close to death.

Isa was not well when his period of detention began, immediately following rejected leave to remain and failed asylum bids. He suffers from Hepatitis B, kidney problems and stomach ulcers. The failure of the conditions of detention at Harmondsworth to meet his dietary and health needs was his first cause to reject food. Not then a grand, well-publicised, considered political gesture but administrative inadequacy. From this sad and banal inception his strike has continued in protest at what he argues are the inhuman conditions at the centre for all detainees.

Perhaps the death of seekers of sanctuary like Isa will become as mundane as the administrative system he has been condemned by. Staff at Harmondsworth IRC have been warned to expect the death of those who engage in hunger strike as a form of protest as the Home Office enforces a clampdown on what it deems to be a form of ‘playing the system’. As Isa told me yesterday that he’d ‘rather die than be deported’, I suggest it’s the system that’s playing him and his life.

Perhaps though the Home Office will take account of those voices that have come out against such disregard for human life – voices that put life before administrative convenience or short-term political point-scoring; voices that condemn Theresa May’s vision of Britain as a ‘hostile environment’ for so-called illegal immigrants.

To borrow the words of one Elie Wiesel, Nobel Laureate and holocaust survivor, ‘No human being is illegal’. Sadly, what should be the guiding principle of an immigration system in any civilised society is instead a small reminder of a compassion that we are quickly losing and, perhaps, we have already lost.

Writing to Theresa May MP (for the third time) yesterday evening, in a letter co-signed by more than forty other MPs and Peers, I argued that the decision to continue Mr Muaza’s detention and pursue his imminent deportation is deeply flawed. Despite compelling evidence to act otherwise, including a medical examination which deemed him unfit to fly, his ongoing detention and removal contradicts expert advice and shows no regard for the intrinsic value of his life. I have appealed to Ms May to show clemency and free Mr Muaza who is now on the verge of death.

This letter has, at the time of writing, gone unanswered. There are other avenues by which a Peer may raise an issue s/he feels is of the utmost urgency, amongst them Private Notice Questions and Topical Oral Questions. Despite several attempts, leave has not been granted to me. Julian Huppert MP has similarly been denied Urgent Questions in the Commons. Although a judge indicated on Monday that Isa’s appeal would be dismissed, no formal decision has been issued and the matter remains sub judice. Though I’m glad that Isa’s lawyers are seeking judicial review (or an injunction preventing removal) I cannot raise the case directly in the House – a depressingly grim case of ‘Catch 22’.

However, I am pleased to report that a Government e-petition (founded by Julian Huppert MP and myself) is now live.  Please do sign and please share.

Even before this protest began – and before he ever came to the UK – Isa Muaza was a deeply vulnerable person. He fled Nigeria fearing for his life at the hands of the terror group Boko Haram, a group he says have already killed several members of his family and as he told me yesterday, if returned this week he will have no one to meet him off the plane. He is penniless, blind and incapable of standing on his own. In his current state this on its own is a death sentence.

In deporting Mr Muaza on Friday the Home Office seems to be seeking to avoid another death in immigration detention. But the Home Secretary cannot – and should not – escape responsibility for her actions. In this case, for forcibly detaining a man the system so evidently could not care for. Those held in the thousands of beds in immigration detention centres across the UK are some of the most vulnerable people in the country. Striking out at them is not the sign of a strong immigration system, but a desperately weak one.

I call for clemency in this case. The Immigration Minister, Mark Harper MP, insists Isa has no legal basis to remain in the UK. But I urge you all to act quickly in persuading the Ms May to release Isa, at the very least, so that another death in immigration detention may be avoided.


* Lord Roberts of Llandudno is a Liberal Democrat Member of the House of Lords

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  • Richard Dean 27th Nov '13 - 5:42pm

    Obviously we should not be deporting a blind, crippled, and penniless man like this. Something will have to be done to mitigate this case.

    Equally, we must recognize that Isa seems to have brought this on himself. Plenty of people in Nigeria are at risk from Boko Haram, and it would be impractical to give them all sanctuary, and would not be in Nigeria’s best interests either. The Home Office may possibly be thinking, too, that letting Isa through would open the door to more suffering like this, with more people becoming encouraged to gain entry through self-harming in UK custody. In other words, Isa’s deportation may be thought of as the least bad of the bad options.

    Isa would probably have benefitted from being deported a long time ago, well before things got to this point. He was not fleeing from the Nigerian government, and there should have been some arrangement in place so that deportees with no money would be given some help by the Nigerian authorities on return to Nigeria.

    Something also needs to e done about the detention conditions. However, it seems like it is the liberal approach to immigration that is to fundamentally to blame here, and the consequent ability for endless appeals while in “temporary” detention. This needs to change to prevent this kind of suffering from being able to happen. One possibility might be to deport quickly, but allow subsequent appeals to be made from the source country. Is that practical?

  • @RIchard Dean – Obviously making an appeal from the source country if you are claiming asylum due to persecution in that source country is not particularly realistic – if your appeal was valid, chances are that you won’t be able to make that appeal.

  • Richard Dean 27th Nov '13 - 11:00pm

    @Lennon, Sure, I agree, but there are lots of cases that are not like that. This seems to be one – Isa does not appear to be claiming to be fleeing from the Nigerian government. According to the Noble Lord’s information, Isa says that he’d “rather die than be deported”, but the hard truth is that that’s his choice. Nigeria is not a savage place, there’s a government there, people are civilized and have compassion.

  • From the facts as presented in the article (which of course may be missing something crucial), I have to agree with Richard Dean. There is often an implicit idea that “abroad” is such a terrible place that we can’t possibly expect anyone to live there and therefore everyone has the right to live on our small island, whose population is already approaching half that of Russia. I don’t see that he would be at risk from Boko Haram in the coastal cities of his own country.

  • So we should relent on any case where the individual embarks on a hungerstrike. Good plan. Not.

  • Richard Dean 28th Nov '13 - 12:07pm

    This is not so much about mercy, though of course all our actions should be merciful. It is more about whether we should allow the UK Borders people to be pressurized by people who are willing to use self-harming as a way of getting what they want.

  • I wouldn’t express myself in terms of sending a message or gaming the system. What I want to say is a system which operates on the basis that you can stay in the UK if

    1) you win your case
    2) you lose your case but win your appeal or
    3) you lose yourcase, lose your appeal but are willing to self-harm to the extent of going on a potentially fatal hunger strike.

    is a very brutal system indeed.

  • Initially I was reluctant to get involved believing the man had a weak claim to asylum and hunger strike was a form of blackmail to which our country should not surrender. However when, despite being declared unfit to travel, he was put on a plane for a stressful botched round trip to Nigeria and back at enormous cost to us taxpayers, indifference changed to sympathy. Apart from wasting our money, what the immigration authority did to Muaza on that plane was tantamount to torture and the least the Home Secretary can do to atone for her action might be to make an exception which would not be a precedent, acknowledge that mercy is a virtue rather than a vice and let the man live in the UK as he has done for the past several years .

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