How Britain killed Rubel Ahmed

In the days after Rubel Ahmed died, there were two competing stories about what happened.

Authorities at Morton Hall immigration detention centre, where the 26-year-old was held, said he had committed suicide. There had been no cries for help. He had sat alone in his cell and killed himself. Fellow detainees at the centre said he had been banging on the walls and complaining about pains in his chest, but that no-one came.

I wrote at the time that whichever story was true, he was killed by Morton Hall. But that's not quite right. It wasn't just Morton Hall. It was the system of detention, of stuffing ordinary people into prison buildings, often among foreign criminals, with no sense of how long they'll be there and no sense that anyone is really listening to them. It was the Home Office, which presides over this system and refuses to even allow a maximum time limit on detention. And because of our continued tolerance of this state of affairs, it was Britain which killed him too. In so far as we allow this situation to continue, we are responsible.

Now that the coroners' court has delivered its verdict, we know which of the stories was strictly true. Ahmed committed suicide. But we also know that Morton Hall did indeed kill him. The open verdict delivered by the jury highlights a systematic failure to look after detainees.

I'm told management are shocked by the outcome, as are staff. They're hoping management cops the flack for what happened, although that seems unlikely, given the centre's track record.

Ahmed had been told he was about to be deported to Bangladesh just a few days before he hung himself.

He'd been locked in the room for hours when he did it. In court, the detention centre manager admitted that locking up detainees in their rooms was a risk factor. But an inspectorate report calling on Morton Hall to stop locking detainees up in the evening and overnight from two years ago has still not been implemented.

As Ajmal Ali, Ahmed's cousin, said after the verdict:

"Locking Rubel up in his room early in the evening prevented him from being able to talk to his fellow detainees in the hours before his death, leaving him alone with his own thoughts and worries.  We believe that being unlocked would have made a difference to him that night."

The evening lock-up is typical of Morton Hall. It's a former category B prison, with many of the features of its previous function intact. It holds a disproportionate number of foreign criminals.

As a guard, who wished to remain anonymous, told me at the time:

"It's very tribal. The Vietnamese hang together, the Afghans, the Nigerians. If one Nigerian has a problem with an Afghan, then it's the Nigerians versus the Afghans. We don't get a lot of trouble, but when we do, we get carnage. The incidents have gone up since the Home Office decided to send us former foreign national prisoners. We're getting far too many."

An all-party parliamentary inquiry panel and HM Inspectorate of Prisons have raised concerns about detainees being held in prison-like conditions. Nothing has been done.

Ahmed got lost in the system. As another cousin said, he was considered "irrelevant" by those detaining him. The jury found "inadequate" communication between the teams meant to be overseeing him. There was no system in place for checking on how he was once he learned he was going to be removed. Staff were supposed to check on changes in behaviour, but they didn't even know who he was. An off-duty member of staff had to be called to identify him.

As the guard said:

"No-one knows who he was. He'd never come to our attention for any reason. He wasn't being watched closely because he wasn't a suicide risk."

Once he was found, experienced staff had not been trained in resuscitation techniques for years and couldn't remember what to do in the case of hanging.
Clare Richardson, the family’s solicitor, said:

"The jury heard that two of those responsible for Rubel’s welfare had not received training in resuscitation techniques for over ten years, and none of them could remember much of what they had been taught about working with immigration detainees. This reflected a wider malaise in the training regime at Morton Hall which needs to be addressed urgently by the Ministry of Justice."

Even news of his death got lost in the system. The coroner said there had been a "very significant" delay in confirming the death to the family.

As I wrote at the time about the centre's response to the death:

"Not only did they not announce it, but they failed to even get in contact with journalists until hours after the story had broken. Morton Hall directed calls to the Ministry of Justice, who answered an hour later and passed the call on to the Home Office, who did not answer until several hours later."

This was how the British state acted when confirming reports of a death under its care.

Even the facts we now have at our fingers are not completely reliable. As the guard said of the management:

"They are fucking liars. They don't tell the truth, not by a long way. I've been in this job a long time and I know it's a load of bollocks. We're being told no-one is in the frame for this. Whatever the truth is, it's never going to come out."


But even with the details we have, the ultimate truth is clear: Ahmed's death is the responsibility of this country, where we lock people up indefinitely among hardened criminals, without trial or information about when they will be released. Where we care so little for the people in our care that we don't bother checking on them when we know they are going through a traumatic experience. Where we leave it to detainees to secretly tell journalists about the death and solicitors to tell the person's family.

It's not the guards' fault. It's management's fault. But the blame for their indifference must ultimately be laid at the door of the Home Office. And the Home Office only gets away with it because we don't cause a fuss.

Britain killed Rubel Ahmed.

The left needs to address the rise of identity politics

Last month, Bahar Mustafa, the welfare and diversity officer at Goldsmiths university, asked white men not to attend a meeting for ethnic minority women and 'non-binary' people. She also sent out a tweet with the hashtag #killallwhitemen.

Her actions kicked off a predictable cycle of online outrage. There is a perverse trend for dominant groups in modern Britain to portray themselves as victims, so they seized on her actions as proof that white men are actually some sort of highly-marginalised class. Petitions started circling demanding her sacking.

It probably is untenable for Mustafa to stay in her job. If you're a diversity officer and you tweet that a certain racial group should be killed you are unsuitable for the job either on a political basis or a presentational one. It's very unlikely she really wants to kill white men. It was a joke, but you can't hold down that position while being foolish enough to make it.

Nevertheless, a kick-back soon came from those defending Mustafa. And that's where things got murky. Many of the people jumping to her defence strongly backed her claim that she could not be racist or sexist, because she is an ethnic minority woman.

Here's her quote in full:

"I, as an ethnic minority woman, cannot be racist or sexist towards white men, because racism and sexism describe structures of privilege based on race and gender.

"And therefore women of colour and non-binary genders cannot be racist or sexist as we do not stand to benefit from such a system."

A similar line of argument was pursued yesterday by the excellent Labour List journalist Maya Goodfellow. She does so with admirable clarity and patience, but the conclusions are depressing.

For all the good intentions of Mustafa's defenders, and for all the frankly questionable ones of many of her detractors, this is a terrible place for the left to find itself. How did it end up defending gender and racial segregation on a university campus? How did it end up defending someone who says ethnic minorities can't be racist?

The answer to these questions lies in the way identity politics has developed over recent years. When Mustafa's defenders say 'racism' they do not mean what most people mean. Most people mean: 'negative thoughts towards another individual on the basis of their race'. That is the commonly accepted usage. But for many radicals – and particularly young radicals – racism is something different. It is structural. Black people, for instance, cannot be racist towards white people, because it flows against the structure of racism. This might be discrimination or prejudice, but it cannot be racism.

This sounds like a semantic point and to some extent it is. But the battle for the semantics is a political one, with political intentions and repercussions. Most on the left would agree that racism and sexism have structural underpinnings, not least because of the way capitalism favours those who start with capital. Because capital flows tend to disadvantage ethnic minorities, the entire system is weighed against them. So racism isn’t just the despicable thought of idiots, it's embedded in economics.

But whether we agree with this view or not - it is a political view. What they've done is inject that political argument into the word 'racism' so it cannot be used any other way. The left often confuses changing language for changing the world and this is a case in point. It attempts to semantically disenfranchise those who have a different view, in the same way that Orwell's Newspeak made certain thoughts impossible.

Except of course it doesn't work. The public look on in bafflement at those saying ethnic minorities can't be racist, or that someone writing 'kill all white men' isn't racist. These silly semantic games have merely made anti-racism campaigners incomprehensible to the public and ghastly hypocrites to their political opponents.

But the tactic is not just wrong on a level of political strategy. It is also wrong as a point of objective truth. We already have the phrase 'structural racism'. Injecting it into the word we use to designate 'negative thoughts towards another individual on the basis of their race' just deprives us of the opportunity to understand the world.

There is nothing in modern British politics as laughable as a men's rights activist, or one of those people who act as if white Christians are an oppressed minority. But let's be clear: many of those who have experienced racism will become racists themselves, just as those who are bullied will often turn into bullies. Often marginalised groups will be vitriolic towards any of their members who associate with the dominant group.

This often makes itself felt in mixed race relationships. White people going out with black or Asian partners will often be subject to disapproval from their partners' racial group, from hostile looks in public to outright aggression. Usually it's aimed at the partner, sometimes it is aimed at them. Let's call that what it is: racism.

Ethnic minority women will often have fathers who angrily tell them not to date anyone who is white. If they're Asian, they usually don't like them being black either. Let's call that what it is: racism. And we can't do anything about it unless we accept that it exists. It will not do to say 'it's prejudice, you can call it that'. It deserves to be called by the name it has earned for itself.

Let's call blocking white people from political meetings what it is too: racism.

On matters of race, campaigners are instituting a racial hierarchy of intellectual worth. It is based on the idea that only those with 'experience' can properly assess a political issue pertaining to it.

There is obviously a grain of truth of truth in that – all the most powerful falsehoods are based on a grain of truth. But what happens when we embed that fact into how we conduct political discourse? We are saying that the race of the person speaking is more important than the content of their words. We base our assessment of their intellectual and moral validity on their race. This is, quite plainly, 'negative thoughts towards another individual on the basis of their race'. It may be racism with a positive purpose. It may be a drop in the racist ocean compared to the horrors and abuses ethnic minorities go through every day. But that does not change what it is.

The colour of one's skin has been given primacy over the content of one's character.

Most depressingly of all, it is a rejection of the power of moral imagination. It turns its back on empathy as a political force. It does not perceive us as people fighting for the rights of others as well as ourselves. In fact, it is a highly capitalistic and right-wing vision of humanity, as self-interested units only capable of improving their own lot.

A recent article by Yomi Adegoke said:

"It appears that, in a world where the default is white and male, comprehending why something for once may not and should not concern you simply isn't possible."

The notion that racism does not concern white people and, most devastatingly of all, "should not" concern white people, is a real low point for the left. It gives up on the motivating human force which drives progressive thought. It is a rejection of the very concept of solidarity.

If the left has a single unifying belief it is that 'no man is an island'. We are in a society. We affect each other and we must help one another. The idea racism does not affect the people it benefits, and that they must be separated out from those they wish to help, is a betrayal of that central left-wing idea.

The Mustafa story should be a watershed moment. Not, as her critics want, because it shows how whites are some poor hard done-by minority in a politically correct Britain. But because some on the left need to look at the tactics they are defending and recognise they are betraying the values they wish to protect.

Is this the most inane law of all time? Cameron promises to make illegal immigration illegal

Even by the usual standards of anti-immigration rhetoric, David Cameron's announcement that he would make illegal immigration extra-illegal was remarkably idiotic.

The press release to go with the announcement said there would be a new offence of 'illegal working'. Asked how this made any sense on the Today programme this morning, home secretary Theresa May admitted it was predominantly to discourage undocumented immigrants trying to find work – implying it will rarely be actually used. But even on this level the law is bizarre. The discouragement - or the realisation that "illegal working doesn't pay" - would only be pertinent when you were caught by police.

But undocumented immigrants already do not want to be caught by police, because it would mean being deported. So what is the discouragement exactly? That people who do not want to get caught by police will now be even keener not to be caught by police?

There certainly won't be much financial discouragement. Most undocumented immigrants are paid pittance, exploited by unscrupulous employers who are aware of their vulnerability. They survive day-to-day, week-to-week. The state will seize pennies and pretend it's gold.

Except of course they won't. There's no task force for this, no extra funding for it. This isn't a serious proposition. It's theatre.

To call this idea intellectually inadequate is to give it more credit than it deserves. What this really is, at heart, is the old tactic of legislation as press release.

Cameron needed something to neutralise the news impact of today's official numbers, which showed immigration had gone up from 298,000 to 318,000. The government has failed to get immigration down to the tens of thousands – a silly promise which was not in Cameron's power to keep but which he nevertheless made the mistake of repeating.

Crowded out? Critics of immigration say Britain cannot handle the influx.

Today's figures show, entirely predictably, that as Britain's economy performs strongly, people want to come here. When its economy performs less well, fewer will want to come. Immigration is not some conspiracy to wipe out the personality of good old England. It is about supply and demand.

At least the illegal working law is merely silly. Some of the other ideas in Cameron's package are actively harmful. There are plans to make all banks check accounts against details of people thought to be in the UK illegally – thereby expanding the surveillance requirements from the Immigration Act, which turned estate agents, banks and doctors into de-facto Home Office staff. This poisonous response will turn us all into agents of the state in order to solve a problem which does not exist.

Deport-first-appeal-later will be expanded to "stop people frustrating the system". In this context, that translates as 'having access to justice'. As most immigration lawyers will tell you, once their clients are out the country, their chances of a fair hearing dwindle significantly. Deport-first-appeal-later is itself an abuse of the system. It deprives people of justice when faced with unfair immigration decisions – and as anyone who has come into contact with the immigration system will know, it is a pit of incompetence and thoughtlessness, with people's ability to live in their home or with their family regularly put at risk by inadequate decisions made by bureaucrats.

But buried deep in the document, uncommented on, is a nugget which contains the solution to our debate over immigration.

"And we're going to get far better at training our own people to fill these gaps from overseas."

Here is the boring old truth to a demand and supply problem. In so far as you can, tailor supply to what is being demanded. People blame immigrants for an economy with no place for them. It is not surprising that areas reliant on declining industries are particularly open to this message. The solution is not the negative one of pulling up the drawbridge. It is a positive one of equipping people with the skills to compete. But that is a long-term plan which demands investment. It is so much harder than scrawling down a press release in crayon and pretending it is legislation.

Legislation keeps being proposed on immigration - but is often little better than a press release.

We can’t get there until we treat immigration honestly. These fictional pieces of legislation are not coming out of nowhere. They are a response to fictional newspaper coverage.

Take the Bank of England story earlier this week. Governor Mark Carney said having more older workers, more people doing longer hours, and more people in the economy was containing wage growth. The solution was to increase productivity.

How was this reported? The Daily Mail said he'd made an "explosive intervention" in the immigration debate by saying "foreign workers drag down UK wages". The Telegraph took the same line. He was quoted selectively and his position completely misrepresented.

On the Today programme Carney was asked if migration dampened wages. "I would really dampen down that explanation," he said. Whereas additional older workers and extra work via more hours over the last two years added up to an equivalent of 500,000 more workers, the increase in net migration over that period was 50,000.

The press twists all events – all comments – into proof of its anti-immigration argument. Reality no longer matters. Everything must service the anti-immigrant message. The government then responds with legislation which also has no anchor in reality.

The argument about productivity got lost in a fuzz of fictional nonsense. Migrant workers who come to this country are frequently overqualified for the jobs they take. They come with educational and vocational standards which are usually beyond the role they are employed in. Maximising their productivity in the economy improves everyone's living standards.

We can use those abilities to our common benefit while developing and encouraging the skills of our domestic workforce. But that requires a commitment to reality and positive long-term planning, rather than the damaging fiction we were treated to today.

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