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Detention is going nowhere

Former duty director at Brook House, the Rev NATHAN WARD tells Linda McTurk why he is committed to speaking out against indefinite immigration detention without trial

Men could be kept in prison-like settings for years

‘I SAW a lot of people in detention who were struggling with mental health problems,’ says the Rev Nathan Ward, who, before becoming a priest, worked

from 2011 to 2014 as a manager in two immigration removal centres (IRCs).

‘One of the most disturbing instances I experienced was when a man threatened to kill himself while he was on the phone to his nine-year-old son, saying goodbye to him,’ Nathan says. ‘I was in charge of managing him. Thankfully, the man did not kill himself. But the incident shows how desperate people

are. This man would rather have taken control of his death than go back to a country where he feared for his life and where he would have been parted from his son who was going to remain in the UK.’ Every year in the UK, some 30,000 people are detained in IRCs, known colloquially as ‘detention centres’. At any one time, about 2,700 people are held inside the centres. According to government figures, in the year ending March 2015, fewer than half of detainees (45 per cent) were removed or voluntarily departed the UK on leaving detention.

The decision to detain someone, explains Nathan, is not made in a courtroom ‘A person is detained in an IRC by a fairly low-level civil servant as opposed to a judge,’

he says. ‘In the case of the man threatening to kill himself, I could only offer human comfort to him in that moment. I couldn’t prevent his deportation, because his immigration case was managed by the Government. His situation was just one of many.

‘I have had men cry in my arms, who have shown me their scars of torture and yet are holding a letter from the Government stating that it did not believe their claims.

‘As part of my job, I had to meet anyone who was on suicide and self-harm watch. I became concerned about the way that single men were being treated compared with families.

‘Men could be kept in prison-like settings for years, whereas families were kept in more open units and most would only be held in custody for a maximum of 72 hours.’

Despite the challenges that Nathan faced, he was determined to use his influence to improve the living situation for detainees.

‘I wanted to make the centres I worked in as humane as possible,’ he says. ‘I tried to improve detainees’ physical conditions. I was unable to change the wider system, but I made small improvements. For example, I changed a policy so detainees could have unlimited tea or coffee throughout the day and night instead of rationed drink sachets. I also made arrangements so that detainees could have duvets on their beds instead of blankets.’

As time progressed, however, Nathan found it impossible to reconcile his Christian faith with the experiences he faced in his job.

‘There was a limit to how much help I could offer to detainees while I was running an IRC,’ he explains. ‘As a Christian, I felt called to transform unjust structures, but then I got to a point when I realised that transformation was impossible.

‘I realised that all I was doing was sustaining an unjust structure. It was incompatible with my faith. That was the point when I knew I had

to leave.’

Since leaving, Nathan has been featured on the BBC television programme Panorama and given evidence to the Home Affairs Committee about his experiences of working inside IRCs. His faith, he says, was crucial in his decision to expose the problems of immigration detention.

‘God prompted me to speak out on behalfm of detainees,’ he says, ‘I felt called by the verse in the Bible which states: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me … to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.”’

Nathan’s decision to talk publicly about his experiences has come at a personal cost. He has received threats. Despite the risks, however, he remains committed to speaking out on behalf of detainees.

‘There should be an immediate end to indefinite immigration detention,’ he states. ‘Detention should be capped at a maximum of 28 days. There should be judicial oversight after 72 hours. There needs to be a new immigration policy that has less emphasis on detention, simply because it is costly and completely ineffective. Detaining people does not lead to their removal.’

Beyond implementing a more effective policy, Nathan says that detainees should be treated with appropriate care because they are bearers of God’s image.

‘We are all made in the image of God – Muslim, Sikh, Jew or Christian,’ he explains.

‘All detainees bear that image and, therefore, how we treat them is actually how we treat God. If you want to see the image of Jesus in society today, look into the face of a detainee.’

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