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Oscar Okwurime, a 34 year old Nigerian man, was recently found dead in Harmondsworth detention centre, one of the largest detention centres in the United Kingdom located next to Heathrow airport. Although the cause of Okwurime’s death is yet to be examined, the Home Office are said to be investigating the circumstances.
Okwurime, was reportedly unwell and was denied medical care. Oscar’s older brother of 44 who wished to be named as Alex, told The Independent. “I told him (Oscar) straight away tell the authorities there and they will get you checked.” Alex further commented “It was a pure case of negligence. If someone is in your custody and telling you they’re not feeling well, it’s your duty of care to get them checked.”
The Independent reported that Emma Ginn, director of the Medical Justice charity, said Okwurime’s death was “a tragedy” that was “acutely felt by detainees left behind, locked in immigration removal centres”. Lucy McKay, policy and communications officer at the Inquest charity, said that there have been a number of recent inquiries that have revealed the “dismissive” culture of healthcare and detention staff in immigration detention centres. Detainees also reported hearing Okwurime calling out for help on the night he died. “We are all locked in during the night”. “If we had not been locked in, I would have gone to his assistance when he cried out for help.”
After Okwurime’s death, a note was reportedly shared with the detainees from Mitie Care & Custody, which has a Home Office contract to run the centre. The centre manager, Paul Rennie, said his company had launched an internal investigation alongside other investigations through other parties. Rennie described it as a “very sad and tragic event,” adding ”please be assured we are doing all we can to reduce the risk of such incidents happening again in the future.”
Karen Doyle, of the Movement for Justice campaign group, said: “Fellow detainees responded to the horrendous discovery of Okwurime’s death with a determination to expose the truth and stop a cover-up. Despite being incarcerated they got their voice out. They are the only voice Oscar has left. And until all of them are safe from removal the truth will only be partial and justice will be jeopardised. Mitie and the Home Office must jointly be held to account.”
The life of fellow human beings should not be reliant on poor policy, process and practice. The tragic loss of Okwurime reflects an immigration structure that is failing, with resources stretched in terms of medical and health provision, quality of care and support that detainees receive, as well as robust policies, informed practice and growing demand for greater legal representation. Importantly, the public have a right to transparent information, as do the witnesses associated with this case.
It is worrying to see such a horrific tragedy is met with investment in risk averse approaches, opposed to enhancing immigration infrastructure, provision and delivery. Ultimately, this questions the intention of the decisions to override the legal appeals without fair consultation from witnesses surrounding Okwurime’s death. And therefore, one questions the integrity of the Home Office, and that of the organisation running the detention centre, Mitie Care & Custody.
As reported in The Independent, the government recently refused to dismantle the indefinite detention of immigrants in the UK, claiming that a time limit on detentions would “severely constrain” the ability to maintain effective immigration control.
Former Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes, who was replaced in July 2019 by Seema Kennedy, had written a letter to Harriet Harman, the Labour chair of the joint Parliamentary committee on human rights. The letter contained the official response to a series of recommendations formed by the committee on the use of immigration centres to detain people who the government is trying to deport from the U.K.. The committee recommended that individuals should be held for no longer than 28 days unless there were exceptional circumstances. The proposal was supported by refugee groups, legal campaigners and a large number of MPs across the political spectrum.
However, the BBC reported that an annexe to the letter said the Home Office had decided a time limit would “severely constrain the ability to maintain balanced and effective immigration control, potentially incentivise significant abuse of the system, and put the public at risk.”
Harman has said that they are committed to secure support when the immigration bill is brought back to Parliament. It is important to note that the new Immigration Minister, Kennedy, will not attend cabinet like their predecessor did. One could argue that mirrors the value being placed on immigration generally, including a seat at the table to reflect the voices who are tragically like in this case, voiceless.
A former detainee who wishes not to be named said “they’re supposed to check through the door in the night. Why didn’t he get help on time?” Oscar Okwurime was arrested and detained after entering the UK on a visitor’s visa. But he reportedly told the authorities he wished to seek asylum.