Isa Muazu is currently languishing, emaciated, in an immigration detention center next to Heathrow airport. Barring a last ditch legal challenge, he will be on flight EDC684 back to Abuja, in Nigeria where he is originally from, at 8 AM on Friday morning. I was allowed to visit him yesterday and ask him what would happen to him in Nigeria. His answer was immediate: “I will be killed.” Isa says that two members of his family have been murdered by Boko Haram, an Islamist militant group, and he fears the same fate should he return. His advocates fear that it might not even come to that because, having been on hunger strike for almost 100 days, he could die in the detention center or on the flight.
After a failed appeal, he was due to return to Nigeria this evening, but for reasons that aren't yet clear, the Home Office unexpectedly delayed the trip. While they said this morning that they "do not routinely comment on individual cases," they maintain that Isa is fit to travel. The Home Office's claim might be more convincing if they hadn’t already drawn up an “end of life plan” for him which, it has been suggested, means that the decision to allow him to die has been taken at ministerial level. I guess if your imminent death has been accounted for, the meaning of "fit to fly" shifts a little. I went to meet Isa at Harmondsworth removal center, one of the more hostile parts of the “hostile environment” that Home Secretary Theresa May is determined to create for immigrants to this country.
After arriving at the center, I made my way through the airport-style security. The guards relieved me of any recording devices, and cameras, patted me down, and advised me very strongly not to lose my passport while inside. Then I met Lord Roger Roberts of Llandudno, who was there to meet Isa in his capacity as a Lib Dem peer and who had kindly invited me along.
We were led through a couple of locked doors and a courtyard with tall barbed wire fencing, up some stairs and past waiting rooms full of non-white people sitting on plastic chairs, who looked up hopefully at us as we walked past the door. The place feels very much like a prison, and it’s in depressing places like this that asylum seekers are kept in the purgatory of indefinite detention, as they wait years for a decision to be made on their claim.
As we waited in a meeting room, Roger asked one of the burly security men if they get many people on hunger strike. “Not many, no,” replied the guard hesitantly, looking a little embarrassed and dabbing sweat from his brow.
Isa was wheeled in on a wheelchair, as he is too weak to walk. We shook hands and he nodded. He looked gaunt and spoke very softly. We sat around him in a circle, craning our necks to hear. It was like visiting someone frail in an old people’s home, but Isa is only 45 years old.
He was clearly exhausted, as you might expect from someone who hasn’t eaten properly since August 25. He hadn’t slept properly for two months, either: “I can only lie on the bed, but sleep is not coming.” It wasn’t surprising, then, that he was only able to muster short sentences. Nevertheless, he was able to spell out in no uncertain terms his thoughts on returning to Nigeria: “I feel devastated. I’d rather die than go back. If they can take my body and bury it, that would be the only thing. I’m not going back, I’m telling you. There’s nothing there for me.” As for friends, family or anyone else who could look after him, “For more than two years I haven’t heard from anyone.”
Isa applied for asylum after a visa he was in the UK on ran out. His application was turned down in just seven days. He is understood to have started rejecting food after the centre failed to cater for his dietary needs—he has hepatitis B, kidney problems and stomach ulcers—but continued refusing to eat in protest at the asylum application process. He said he was 180 pounds before his detention and that when he was weighed that morning he was 110 pounds. He had been to hospital for an operation but he was too ill for it to be carried out. They tried to give him a sandwich, but “I vomited. It won’t stay in my stomach. Even with water, I vomit. Sometimes with blood. Even urine comes out with blood,” he said.
Roger asked if Isa would accept some kind of plan to get him eating again, put together by a nutritionist. “Not in detention,” said Isa. But in hospital? “I can try.”
An independent doctor has said that Isa has mental health problems and he was declared medically unfit for detention in October. On the other hand, a Home Office appointed doctor declared him well enough to travel: “He didn’t even touch me or take my blood or sugar level. He just looked at me.”
We asked him if there was a message that he would like to send to the government. “I need them to forgive me for anything I’ve done wrong. It happened without my intention. I want the government to temper justice with mercy.” That seemed like an admission of guilt of some kind, but when it was put to him that he was being punished for something he hadn’t done, he said, “That’s how I’m looking at it,” adding that he had never been in trouble with the law before.
Lord Roger Roberts of Llandudno
After a while it felt like an imposition to keep such a weak man chatting. We said our goodbyes to Isa and left the centre. “What’s the adjective that strikes you when you consider our detention system? ‘Brilliant’ or ‘inhuman’?” asked Roger as we walked along to catch the bus back to the station. “If the Home Secretary is trying to set up an inhospitable country with an immigration policy that is harsh and inhuman towards many people, then the sooner she goes the better.” Roger is meeting her today to lobby for Isa, and a letter has been published, signed by over 100 organisations and public figures. So far, it seems May and the Home Office aren't prepared to listen.
Later on, I called Kate Blagojevic from Detention Forum who helped explain how Isa ended up in this situation. “You declare yourself to the immigration authorities and say you want to claim asylum—they immediately lock you up in a centre where you don’t have any money, you might not have any phone credit, you might not have a lawyer and so you’ve lost your freedom and you have absolutely no way of getting out,” she told me. “It’s very difficult for you, while you’re sitting in your cell, to think about the evidence that you might need to claim asylum. The fast-track system allocates a solicitor to you, usually who you meet a few minutes before your interview with the Home Office officials. That’s the meeting when they decide if your asylum claim is credible or not. 99 percent of people on this fast-track system are refused.”
Isa said he feared for his life if he is made to return to Nigeria, but that he fears for his life if he is kept in detention as well. “I am tired of staying in this place,” he said, “All the time I have been here, I’m in pain.” A judge who backed Isa’s detention as lawful in spite of medical evidence showing that he was unfit for detention commented that, “It is important to appreciate that those who use a hunger strike to manipulate their position will not succeed in doing so, provided they have mental capacity.” In other words, if you let one man’s hunger strike sway the decision about whether or not to let him stay, all the "illegals" will be at it soon, downing forks in an attempt to pull on bleeding liberal heartstrings.
I suppose that could happen, but it would be a pretty high stakes way to game a system—a system which ought not to let things get to that stage in the first place. The Home Office will have to decide whether or not it is willing to allow someone like Isa to die in its care in order to call their bluff.