By Niall McCracken
SERIOUS concerns have been raised about the human rights record of Northern Ireland’s main holding centre for immigrant detainees.
Larne House in Co Antrim can accommodate 21 immigrants for a period of up to seven days prior to their transfer, deportation or being granted temporary admission into Northern Ireland.
The facility can also hold foreign nationals caught illegally working in Northern Ireland and those who have overstayed their visas.
However a new report by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) states that detainees in short term facilities like Larne House are not afforded the same rights as those in long term facilities.
The NIHRC report is due to be submitted to the United Nations ‘Committee Against Torture’ in Geneva next week.
The commission will raise concerns about the length of stay for some detainees as well as the fact that there is no system to establish whether immigrants detained at Larne House bear signs of torture.
The commission notes: “The system to establish whether immigrants detained at Larne House bear signs of torture does not provide a role for a medical practitioner and relies extensively on self-identification of torture survivors.”
The commission has also advised that the UK Government ensure that immigration officials working in Northern Ireland – at Larne House, Drumkeen House in Belfast and in an escort capacity – be trained to identify potential victims of human trafficking.
At the moment the maximum period of detention allowed is five days, or seven if removal directions have already been served to transfer the detainee to an Immigration Removal Centre (IRC), or to finalise arrangements for their removal from the United Kingdom.
However, previous investigations by the Prison Inspectorate into Larne House have found that detainees have been held for more than seven and in some case more than eight days.
Normal detention centre rules do not apply to Larne House and official rules on short term holding facilities remain in draft form. The commission says this has lead to “a gap in protection for immigrants held in such facilities. “
On Monday (May 6 2013) the NIHRC will provide evidence to the United Nations Committee on the current human rights situation in Northern Ireland. The UN Committee is currently examining the UK’s compliance with the Convention Against Torture.
In the UK, immigration is a reserved matter, therefore responsibility lies with the UK Border Agency (UKBA) of the Home Office and not the Northern Ireland Executive.
In the NIHRC submission document seen by The Detail, the commission also outlines concerns in a number of other areas including the conditions in Northern Ireland’s prisons, dealing with the past, historical abuse and the use of restraint in health and social care settings.
In July 2011 the UK Border Agency (UKBA) opened the residential short-term holding facility in Larne to hold immigration detainees. The facility was the first of its kind in Northern Ireland.
A second, much smaller holding facility, is located at the UKBA Reporting Centre at Drumkeen House in Belfast.
The Human Rights Commission published a report in 2009 entitled ‘Our Hidden Borders; the UK Border Agency’s Powers of Detention’. It raised concerns about immigration detention in Northern Ireland.
One of the central recommendations of this report was that “detention of both asylum seekers and perceived immigration offenders should be used only as a last resort and when to do otherwise would prove a threat to the public. The over-arching preference should be for temporary release.”
The NIHRC’s new submission document to the UN committee raises five issues of particular concern in this area:
- Detention of immigration detainees in police custody, which is considered an unsuitable option
- Detention of mentally ill immigration detainees
- Detention of victims of torture and ill-treatment
- Identification of victims of human trafficking
- Inspection and oversight of Larne House short term holding facility
Under current rules, the commission says that detainees may be held in Northern Ireland for a “significant time period” – in police custody at times up to 6 ½ days and subsequently at Larne House for periods up to 7 days.
It recommends that the UK Government should ensure that immigration detainees are not held in police custody.
In relation to immigration detainees held at Larne house, the NIHRC’s submission documents states that these individuals are not afforded the protections provided under Rule 35 of the Detention Centre Rules.
The purpose of Rule 35 is to ensure that particularly vulnerable detainees are brought to the attention of those with direct responsibility for “authorising, maintaining and reviewing detention.”
At the moment the Detention Centre Rules do not apply to short term holding facilities like Larne House. The commission notes that UKBA Short Term Holding Facility Rules remain in draft form and in the meantime there is a gap in protection for immigrants held in these facilities.
A spokesperson for the Home Office said: "Detainees entering Larne House are screened by a healthcare professional within two hours of admission and the screening includes a check for self-harm or suicidal tendencies. Detainees also have 24 hour access to a healthcare professional.
“However, in the circumstances where a detainee is transferred to an Immigration Removal Centre, medical practitioners are required to report their concerns that an individual may have been the victim of torture, under Rule 35 of the Detention Centre Rules 2001.”
On Tuesday March 26 2013 the Home Secretary announced that the UK Border Agency would be replaced by two new immigration commands within the Home Office: an immigration and visa service and an immigration law enforcement organisation.
INSPECTION OF STANDARDS
In 2011 an unannounced inspection of Larne House by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons noted that in the three months before the inspection, records showed that 19 detainees had been held for more than five days, three more than seven days, with one detainee held for more than eight days. The inspector noted that this practice “may have been unlawful.”
The inspection report also outlined that “UKBA monitoring of the facility was irregular at one visit every two to four weeks” and recommended it should attend the facility regularly.
However in their submission to the UN committee the commission states that the number of visits has not increased. At the moment UKBA contract monitors visit the facility on a monthly basis and UKBA staff from Drumkeen House visit when necessary to liaise with detainees.
The commission notes that the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) in Glasgow has been given oversight responsibility for Larne House. The commission advises that the UN Committee should seek further information regarding the effectiveness of the inspection and oversight regime.
In a statement to The Detail NIHRC Chief Commissioner, Professor Michael O’Flaherty, said: “The commission is taking this invaluable opportunity to appear before the United Nations Committee to highlight the issues in Northern Ireland that require further attention from both the UK Government and the Assembly.
“The test of human rights is its ability to be meaningful for the most vulnerable people in our society. Detained immigrants, regardless of why they come here, are entitled to dignity and respect.
“When you keep in mind how many of them speak not a word of English and come from countries where the authorities are to be feared and avoided, the special needs of this group are clear. One special need is to provide the necessary support, services and legal recognition for those who may be fleeing torture elsewhere.”