Comment: The case that tells us what kind of country Britain is

Ian Dunt: 'Politics is not about designing perfect systems. It's about priorities.'
Ian Dunt: 'Politics is not about designing perfect systems. It's about priorities.'
Ian Dunt By

His name is Isa Muazu. He is wasting away.

Locked in a cell just outside Heathrow, out of sight from the holidaymakers and business visitors, he can no longer get up off his mattress. He has not eaten in over 90 days. He can no longer stand or see. He struggles to talk.

On Friday, at 8:00 am, he will be forcibly put on board a flight and sent to Abuja, Nigeria, where he says he will be targeted by Islamic terror group Boko Haram. He was due to be deported tonight, but the Home Office has ordered new removal directions. Needless to say, he will be even weaker on Friday.

We weren't always like this. Last June, four men were released from Harmondsworth immigration removal centre after they went on hunger strike. The Home Office has a legal obligation to treat detainees with the same standards applied to NHS patients. But the compassion offered to these men clearly left a bad taste in Theresa May's mouth. She concluded it was the start of a trend.


When Muazu's case came to light, she held her ground.

In a chilling move worthy of Nurse Ratchet, she refused him his demand for freedom and instead put him on an 'end of life' plan. Instead of offering support, staff were sent to help him prepare his will. The home secretary prepared to allow a man to die. The last time this happened, to IRA fighter Bobby Sands, the world protested against Britain. This time, barely anyone has noticed.

In a decision which has no legal, medical or moral consistency given the 'end of life' plan, a Home Office doctor has branded Muazu 'fit to fly'. Yesterday morning, non-Home Office doctors visited him as he lay on the mattress in the detention centre and decided the precise opposite. There is a strong chance this man will die when he is deported.

And if he lands - what then? Dumped on the runway in Abuja. Left at the mercy of extremist fascists: another victim of May's commitment to create a "hostile environment" for migrants.

Muazu overstayed his visitor's visa. So by the time he applied for asylum he was fast-tracked to Harmondsworth.

Some believe that should be enough to warrant imprisonment. But Muazu was just one of many who had lost faith in our asylum system and its cruel intricacies.

A process which was designed to offer the most vulnerable people in the world a chance to tell their story has become a Paxman-like interrogation centred on the question: 'why is this bastard lying to me?'

Lawyers and campaigners tell the same story again and again. Rape victims, for instance, often fail to mention the attack because of the harsh, unsympathetic attitude of UK Border Agency officers and their own culturally-induced shame. Later, if it is brought up, the rape is written off as false because it was not mentioned from the start.

UKBA offers no childcare service, so women are forced to explain their rape and torture in front of their children.

It forces applicants to present themselves in person in Croydon regardless of circumstance, leading one pregnant woman to go into labour on the steps of the screening centre. It rejects asylum claims as a knee-jerk reaction, leaving it to judges to grant asylum on appeal, as they apply the proper legal decision-making procedure to the decision. This has been known for years. UKBA has made no effort to change its ways.

It is a cruel Kafkaesque joke, designed to disprove, to throw out. Someone's desire to avoid the system, while less than ideal, is no comment on the veracity of their claim.

It is little wonder that Muazu did not approach the system willingly. And it is little wonder that once he was in the system it behaved with all the mean-spiritedness which we have come to expect from it.

When he arrived at the detention centre he notified staff of his kidney problems, stomach ulcers and haemorrhoids and said he needed specific foods. The response was that they "do not have children in here". He was reduced to eating cornflakes for every meal. Soon afterwards, he went on hunger strike, first in protest at the food, then at his detention.

Now, months later, he is wasting away, weighing just 50 kilograms.

The Home Office is concerned that compassion would open the door to more hunger strikes. There is a better question to ask: Why are hunger strikes happening? Why would people go to such appalling lengths to escape detention?

It is happening because we have taken away the freedom of those who have committed no crime. We are breaking one of our fundamental standards as a society.

Detention centres were not meant to imprison people. They were meant to facilitate deportation in cases where they were specifically required. Now they have grown, unspoken, in the background, a shameful demonstration of the values and priorities of modern Britain.

When he became immigration minister in 2008, Liam Byrne immediately ordered a huge expansion of the programme, forcing through 1,500 additional places. Asylum seekers would now be locked up upon arrival in the country.

These are the most vulnerable people in the world. They are the people gullible enough to believe the dreamy rhetoric about Britain's role as a power for freedom and justice. The face they meet when they arrive is a different one altogether.

Some of them will be fake, although declining application rates combined with soaring appeal rates suggest that is relatively unusual.

But some will invariably be fakes. Maybe even Muazu is a fake.

Politics is not about designing perfect systems. It's impossible to catch every liar. Politics is about priorities.

In our justice system, we believe it is more important that innocent people do not go to jail, than making sure the guilty do. That is why we set the burden of proof so high.

In asylum, under international law, we set the burden of proof low because we believe it is more important to save those who are facing persecution than it is to catch those who are gaming the system.

Except Britain no longer abides by that priority. Its priority now is to disprove applications and deport whoever it can. It prioritises the stony gaze over the helping hand.

So perhaps Muazu is fake, perhaps he is doing a hunger strike, extraordinary as it is, to escape deportation.

Or perhaps he isn't. Perhaps everything he said is true. Perhaps Boko Haram have, as he said, killed members of his family in Nigeria. Perhaps, as he says, there is no-one to care for him there. Perhaps he will die on that plane. Or perhaps the damage to his organs is now so severe that death will come later, once the few people paying attention have forgotten about him.

Perhaps he was a man who had committed no crime, locked up by a country that claims to value political rights. And then dumped, in Nigeria, at the mercy of thugs.

There are no political priorities which would excuse this behaviour from Britain. It would be better to allow dozens of fakes into the country than allow this to happen to one man who was telling the truth.

The Home Office says it won't comment on individual cases. It's a lie of course. They do it all the time. May could barely shut up about Abu Hamza. And Home Office minister Mark Harper happily demanded an Iraqi asylum seeker "go home" on television. But when it comes to accountability, the blinds come down. There is no scrutiny of our deportation programme. There is just silence, and behind that: barbarism.

So far May has been unmoved by calls for them to refrain from the deportation. Bishops, human rights campaigners, MPs and peers have pleaded for mercy, to no avail. There is still a little time. You can write to her at mayt@parliament.uk or public.enquiries@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk citing Muazu’s Home Office reference as A1464395. You can sign the petition here or join the protest this afternoon outside the detention centre.

On Friday morning, we find out what kind of country Britain is.

Update (28/11/13): Muazu is being flown out of the UK on specially chartered private flight EDC684. The flight is being organised by Air Charter Scotland Ltd, a charter company based in East Kilbride. You can contact them here or on Twitter. There is a protest taking place on Thursday at 17:30GMT outside the Home Office. Details can be found here.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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