Asylum seekers were shackled for up to 17 hours while being forcibly removed from the UK by a private firm, with one “frightened” woman handcuffed, put in leg and waist restraints and carried onto an aircraft.

A new report by Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (HMCIP), has raised concerns over the use of constraints on people who presented “no risk” during a Home Office operation this year, when 23 people were removed by private companies.

Thirteen of 23 detainees taken from immigration removal centres (IRCs) were placed in waist restraint belts, and all remained in them until they arrived at destinations in France and Bulgaria, up to 17 hours later.

One man was put in a waist restraint belt – where hands are clamped to belts – because he took too long calling his solicitor. He was kept in it despite apologising and being fully compliant throughout.

Two women were among the group removed including one who was clearly distressed while force was used against her.

HMCIP said the use of constraints “seriously marred” the removal and that asylum seekers must be treated with dignity. The report added that staff should only use force against people under escort as a “last resort”.

In response, critics described the removals as “horrific” and “shocking” while condemning the UK Government’s immigration policy as “morally bankrupt”.

The Home Office’s Third Country Unit (TCU) manages immigration removals but concerns have been raised over how people are treated by private firm, Tascor, and its use of restraints.

The detainees had been taken from Colnbrook and Harmondsworth IRCs in southern England and the flight was from Doncaster Sheffield Airport, which led to some long journeys.

Some people spent nine hours on a coach before the flight, the report says, adding that four detainees had been on suicide watch in an IRC, prior to being removed.

Many detainees who presented little or no obvious risk were placed in belts, with little justification, and stayed in them for very long periods. Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons.

There were 74 escort staff to remove 22 people including two “actively resisting detainees” who were carried onto the aircraft. The Home Office chartered the aircraft, which was an Airbus A320.

HMCIP – which had two inspectors observing – described the operation as “poor”. It said: “Many detainees who presented little or no obvious risk were placed in belts, with little justification, and stayed in them for very long periods. This seriously marred what was otherwise a generally efficient operation, during which we saw some good practice.”

The report added: “Escort staff have a difficult role to perform, but there can be no compromise on their duty to treat detainees in a dignified and proportionate way while they are being removed from the country.”

People removed included two female detainees who had been held in the Sahara women’s unit at Colnbrook. One was compliant throughout, but the other appeared “frightened” on seeing staff who came to collect her.

The report said: “She shouted ‘no’ repeatedly and would not leave the unit. Force was used only when it became clear that she would not leave and her family would not encourage her to do so.

“Two female officers and one male officer struggled for a couple of minutes to establish a hold on her and apply. She was then carried to the discharge area, where Tascor escorts applied a waist restraint belt, which was appropriate in this case; she was carried to the aircraft in the belt and a leg restraint.”

The UK is party to the Dublin Convention, an European Union law that determines which member state is responsible for an asylum claim. It also allows states to transfer an asylum seeker to the responsible country.

The Home Office’s TCU manages removals to and from the UK, and many detainees are returned to third countries using scheduled flights. But in February 2017 the Home Office started to use charter aircraft to remove groups of people.

HMCIP’s report covers a second inspection of a TCU charter removal. The first inspection took place in January 2018.

We may look on in disgust at Trump's immigration policies but the same horrors are inflicted in people, including children, every day in the UK as well. Ross Greer, Scottish Greens MSP

Clarke said his new report should be read alongside HMIP’s earlier inspection, when “serious concerns” about the excessive use of restraints were identified.

He wrote in the latest report: “During that (January 2018) removal, nearly all detainees were placed in waist restraint belts for the entire journey, usually without justification. We raised these concerns with the Home Office and its contractor, Tascor, shortly after the inspection.”

HMCIP conducted a second inspection soon after the first, in order to establish if any action had been taken to address the concerns raised.

“We found that practice had improved but was still poor,” the report said. “Escort staff have a difficult role to perform, but there can be no compromise on their duty to treat detainees in a dignified and proportionate way while they are being removed from the country.”

There was also criticism of the Home Office over its response to the first inspection. “Regrettably, the Home Office responded to the evidence presented in our first report with an ill-informed defence,” said the latest report.

“It soon became clear that senior managers were unaware of the shortcomings in their own internal assurance mechanisms. The complacency of this initial response has latterly been replaced with an acceptance of the evidence and an assurance that things will change. We will judge in due course whether this more constructive approach leads to better outcomes for detainees.”

Critics of the operation included Ross Greer MSP, the Scottish Greens’ immigration and asylum spokesperson.

He said: “The report highlights two key issues. The first is the moral bankruptcy of the UK’s immigration and asylum systems, which we can only change by devolving responsibility to the Scottish Parliament. The second is the deliberate and repeated use of private contractors by the UK Home Office, for the sake of ‘efficiency’.

“What this means in practice is the lowest possible cost, with the inevitable abuse of vulnerable people which comes with it. This is no accident or by-product though, the system is cruel and abusive by design. We may look on in disgust at Trump’s immigration policies but the same horrors are inflicted in people, including children, every day in the UK as well.”

Pauline Diamond Salim, of the Scottish Refugee Council, said: “These reports are horrific and shocking but will come as no surprise to campaigners working to support people at risk of removal from the UK.

“If Government-contracted security firms have to physically restrain people and force them, in shackles, onto planes, that has got to be a sign of failure within our asylum system and, it goes without saying, a disregard for humanity within that system.”

The dignity and welfare of all those in our care is of the utmost importance, and the latest HMCIP report observed that staff were polite in their direct dealings with detainees. Home Office

Pauline McNeill, a Labour MSP, said it was “completely unacceptable” that private companies involved in the deportation process were placing vulnerable people “who pose little or no risk in hand, wrist and waist constraints”.

She added: “Asylum seekers being removed from the UK should be treated with far greater dignity than this report shows to be the case. Sajid Javid needs to bring some humanity to his department and reverse the ‘hostile environment’ policies of recent years.”

Alison Thewliss, SNP MP, said: “I have seen for myself the damaging effects that government policies can have on people seeking asylum in the UK. A number of my constituents have had to engage with the ‘Third Country Unit’ at the Home Office, and have faced deportation to the EU country that they first entered upon leaving their home nation, despite having sound reasons to be in the UK.

“The delays that this often causes, and the risk of destroying any efforts that an individual has made to assimilate, are bad enough, but the HMIP report shows that clearly there are more serious issues than just administrative ones.

“The Home Office must get its house in order. It is unacceptable in this day and age that people are being subjected to such barbaric treatment”.

The Home Office said it would be reviewing the use of constraints. A spokesperson said:  “The dignity and welfare of all those in our care is of the utmost importance, and the latest HMCIP report observed that staff were polite in their direct dealings with detainees.

“The use of force must be justified and proportionate and only used as a last resort. Physical force and the use of waist restraint belts or handcuffs, should only be used after a thorough assessment of risk, and in consideration of each individual’s personal circumstances. Restraints should be removed at the earliest opportunity.

“We are already taking the opportunity to review use of restraints during escorted removals with Mitie Care & Custody, as they take over the new escorting contract.”

Tascor said it would not be appropriate to comment as its contract ended in April.

Header image: Steph Grey | CC | https://flic.kr/p/8xQQ3x