“I MET people so depressed that they couldn’t talk. People were banging and kicking doors, sometimes crying or raising their voices during the night – like an asylum where you have people with mental illnesses,” says Charles Atangana.
The 44-year-old refugee is recalling his detention at Dungavel House, Scotland’s only immigration detention facility near Strathaven in South Lanarkshire. According to rules laid down by the Home Office, which has responsibility for Dungavel, he should never have been there.
Atangana came to Britain from Cameroon seeking political asylum in May 2004 but was only granted refugee status by the government seven years later in April 2011.
While his application was being processed he was housed in Glasgow and despite being a torture survivor he was later detained on five separate occasions between 2008 to 2010 in three detention centres across Britain, including two spells in Dungavel.
The irony is not lost on him or his supporters that he has spent more days in detention in the country in which he has been legitimately seeking asylum than in his native West African nation.
“In my country,” he reflects, “I spent 40 days in arbitrary detention. I came over here to seek sanctuary and I spent 52 days in detention. At any time, they [the UK Borders Agency] can detain you while they are processing your case.
“Can you imagine you fled from somewhere where you were arrested, unlawfully detained, tortured, and kept somewhere where nobody knew about your whereabouts. They [asylum seekers] lived the same thing back home and they are now living the same thing here.”
According to the Home Office rules on detention, vulnerable individuals – including survivors of torture – should only be detained in “exceptional circumstances”.
Atangana’s problems arose in his homeland because he worked as an investigative journalist and between June 2002 and March 2004 he was arrested four times while pursuing allegations of corruption among members of the government. During his last period of detention he was held in a military police cell for more than five weeks and says he was routinely whipped and beaten and his genitals subjected to electric shocks
After bribing a guard, he escaped custody and travelled to Britain to ask for political asylum.
Rule 35 of the Detention Centre Rules 2001 requires medical practitioners in immigration removal centres (IRCs) to prepare a “Rule 35 report” for any individual who claims to have been a victim of torture. The report should be reviewed by UKBA and the detainee released if their account was verified.
Atangana says he informed UKBA he’d been tortured as soon as he arrived in Britain in 2004. In 2008 – on first being held at Dungavel – he says no-one mentioned Rule 35. “They don’t care if you have a story or history of abuse. It’s just paperwork,” he said.
His initial application for asylum was subsequently refused and, as a result, he faced deportation back to Cameroon and the very real prospect of torture again. UKBA did not accept his story until a medical examination proved conclusively that he had been tortured, six years after he first arrived in Britain.
Scotland On Sunday has seen the medical report prepared for UKBA’s Judicial Review Unit in October 2010. Dr Frank Arnold – a doctor with a legal duty to a court to independently investigate torture claims – examined Atangana and concluded that multiple scars on his thighs and shins were a result of being tortured. Injuries and damage to his feet were “highly consistent” with beating of the soles, a practice known in Africa as “falaka,” Arnold’s report added. Atangana’s case is not isolated. Medical Justice says another torture survivor – known only as Ali – was held at Dungavel for 12 months. A Rule 35 report was prepared for ‘Ali’ but it was incomplete and unsigned by medical staff who made no mention of his scars. When a doctor with Medical Justice examined Ali, they found 10 scars consistent with his account of abuse, along with associated psychological trauma. The charity noted this information had not been passed on to UKBA, nor did it accompany Ali when he was moved to Harmondsworth IRC in England almost one year later. Dr Kate Wrigly, who volunteers with Medical Justice, says the process of detention is “re-traumatising” for torture survivors. “If you’ve already been through traumatic experiences then being locked up isn’t helpful because it brings you face to face with the prison environment again.
“This is one of the things I find most heartbreaking. You meet people who have stood up to their governments; they’ve survived torture; people have tried to kill them; they’ve made a new life; they’ve been resilient and the fact that the worst time for them mental health-wise is in detention in the UK – after everything they’ve been through – just makes me fairly ashamed that that level of harm can be done to them in the country where they’ve come for safety.”
In 2010, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons noted a number of issues with Rule 35 at Dungavel including that while detainees were asked upon arrival whether they had been the victims of torture, “healthcare staff had not been trained in its recognition or treatment”.
Wrigley and her colleagues say medico-legal reports (MLRs) are often overruled or that it can take several months for them to be taken into account, meaning that, rather than being exceptional, the detention of torture survivors is, in their view, common practice.
Their views are backed by Freedom from Torture, which last year reported on UKBA’s treatment of medico-legal reports.
The FFT report said: “It was found that 13 of the 37 cases in the sample (35 per cent) had MLRs submitted at the initial decision stage and in all cases this medical evidence had been rejected, accorded little weight or treated negatively by the UKBA according to the record in the determination. At appeal stage, the immigration judge in nine of the 13 cases (69 per cent of the sample of 13 cases) overturned this assessment and accepted the findings of the MLRs in full. All the appeals were allowed.”