Fresh questions today about the way our society treats vulnerable children.
Firstly, the Welsh Refugee Council has taken the unusual step of going public with concerns about an individual case – an Afghan refugee named Mashal Jabari, an orphan who arrived in the UK last October.
At the heart of the case is a dispute over Mashal’s age.
When Mashal arrived in the UK, he was assessed as being over 18 and was sent to Cardiff where he was initially placed in a hostel for adult new arrivals.
The Welsh Refugee Council was convinced he was clearly only 14 rather than 18. It says that both his GP and social workers in Cardiff also believe he is under 18 (although social workers never got to carry out a full age assessment).
However, they have not been able to persuade the UK Border Agency.
In November, Mashal was refused asylum. On Monday, Mashal went to the Border Agency office in Cardiff with documents from his brother, Zaki, asking for his case to be reassessed because his brother has been given refugee status.
Mashal was taken into detention and spent a day in a police cell. He has now been sent to Campsfield detention centre in Oxfordshire ready to be “removed” on March 9.
According to the Welsh Refugee Council: “Our children’s advocacy officer visited him in Cardiff Bay police station and he was distraught beyond description. He had been put in padded clothing for fear of self-harm.”
One wonders how our society could treat a traumatised person of any age like this.
Secondly, figures revealed by the office of South Wales West AM, Alun Cairns, today again highlight the desperate shortage of social workers in Wales. The shortage means that hundreds of children have not been allocated a social worker.
“These figures show a worrying number of at-risk children in Wales have not been allocated a social worker,” said Mr Cairns.
“I was very concerned to learn that councils in my own region had large numbers of at-risk children, with 116 unallocated cases in the Swansea Council and 120 in Bridgend.”
The figures reveal a snapshot of the situation on September 1 last year but council funds are going to be squeezed further and recruiting social workers remains a difficult task.
And while vulnerable children wait to be allocated a social worker, it is impossible to know whether or not they are at serious risk.
Around 1,000 children are locked up every year by the UK’s immigration system.
They have often fled countries where they experienced violence, war and discrimination.
The children have committed no crime but, according to the Children’s Society, many experience “depression, weight-loss, bed-wetting and even self-harm”.
The Society has joined with Bail for Immigration Detainees to create the OutCry! campaign to demand an end to this Government policy.
It has already gained a great deal of support.
The Royal Colleges of Paediatrics, GPs and Psychiatry, and the Faculty of Public Health last year issued a joint statement which said the “immigration detention of children is harmful and unacceptable” and demanding that the Government “stop detaining children without delay”.
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has called on Gordon Brown to end “what is, in effect, state sponsored cruelty”.
And just before Christmas Dame Anne Owers, chief inspector of prisons, published her report on an unannounced visit to Tinsley House immigration detention centre, at Gatwick Airport, calling the conditions there “wholly unacceptable” for women and children.
At the time of that report, the UK Border Agency issued a statement to say that “treating women and children with care and compassion is a priority (for us)”.
But it is a Government policy without compassion and OutCry! believes that General Election year 2010 should be the year politicians shut the door on it.
There is growing concern in Scotland about a decision to award the multi-million pound 2011 Census contract to a marketing and information company called CACI Ltd.
CACI Ltd is a wholly-owned subsidiary of CACI International Incorporated, an American company which is doing rather well in these troubled times.
It is a publicly-listed company on the New York Stock Exchange with an annual revenue in excess of US $2bn.
But it is how it makes its money that concerns campaigners: it is a key partner in George Bush’s homeland security and “war on terror” – and its staff worked with the US Army in the prison and interrogation blocks of Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
The US Army was forced to close Abu Ghraib after news reports of the torture and humiliation of prisoners. Eleven US soldiers were convicted of breaking military laws for mistreating prisoners, and five others were disciplined.
CACI International Incorporated has produced a book defending itself for its part in the Abu Ghraib scandal and says “we were not involved with horrendous abuses such as death or sexual assault at Abu Ghraib”.
But it is one of two private contractors who are the subject of lawsuits from four Iraqis over allegations that they were tortured there.
CACI’s growing role in UK information systems prompts another concern: in a world which has become one big database and surveillance job, do we really want our personal information handled by a company so closely linked to the US intelligence services?
As CACI International Incorporated boasts in its mission statement: “(Our) mission is to be a leader in providing the information technology and consulting solutions America needs to defeat global terrorism, secure our homeland and improve government services. We are ever vigilant in aligning our solutions with the nation’s highest priorities.”
Realistically, CACI Ltd already plays a larger role in our lives than we know. The UK Government uses the company’s ACORN (“A Classification of Residential Neighbourhoods”) model in areas such as the monitoring of crime to classify us (some of us are “wealthy achievers”, some “hard pressed”).
The company is a major collator of health information too.
Welsh local authorities regularly use their expertise on retail matters. Ceredigion County Council and Bridgend County Borough Council are recent customers.
Bruce Springsteen’s new song Radio Nowhere features one of his old rallying cries – “Is there anybody alive out there?”
Yesterday, he turned up on the Today show in the United States to ask that question again.
Whereas ‘regular’ superstars write easy listening love songs and elegies to Princess Diana, Springsteen has cast his net wider than any other major artist. He wrote a whole album about the exploitation of migrant workers (The Ghost of Tom Joad), and has written songs about police brutality and the Iraq war.
He defended the Dixie Chicks against right-wing America and attacked President Bush over his failures in New Orleans.
During the Today appearance he listed many great things about America.
Then he added: “But over the past six years we’ve had to add to the American picture: rendition, illegal wiretapping, voter suppression, no habeus corpus, the neglect of our great city New Orleans and its people, an attack on the Constitution. And the loss of our young best men and women in a tragic war.
“This is a song about things that shouldn’t happen here—happening here.”
Always a pleasure to report on the latest successes of an old friend, Pontypridd MP and Middle East minister Kim Howells.
Last time Howells had a walk-on part at What Is Wales? it was over some silly old stuff about Iraqi Oil.
But now he’s back – and thanks to Private Eye for bringing this one to my attention. This time he causes a return to a grim topic, so-called “extraordinary rendition”.
As Private Eye reports: “Even on the last day of the Blair regime, Howells was sticking to the line that the US does not fly torture victims in and out of British airfields”.
The report takes its lead from this fascinating exchange in the House of Commons (anoraks should click back over previous sections of the Hansard record for the full debate).
Suffice to say the following exchange confirms the former NUM firebrand remains reluctant to burn bridges to Bush.
Tory Geoffrey Clifton-Brown asked him: “May I again press the Minister to make a statement here today that the British Government utterly refuse, refute and condemn anything to do with what is commonly known as extraordinary rendition involving torture?”
“Absolutely,” said the good doctor. “I give that undertaking totally. We are completely opposed to such activities. They are a violation of every international treaty that we have signed up to and of British law, and I hope that that is clear.”
Then, chipped in another Conservative Andrew Tyrie, “Will the Minister clarify whether in saying that he is condemning the policy that the United States has developed during the past seven or eight years for large numbers of extraordinary renditions? Is it British policy publicly to make our Government’s dissociation from that policy crystal-clear to the Americans?”
Er. “No,” responded Howells, “I am not criticising American Government policy. The honorable gentleman assumes that the Americans are torturing people. I certainly do not have such information, but he is very clear about it. I disagree entirely.”
Tyrie bit back: “Is the Minister seriously suggesting that the overwhelming body of evidence that has been produced in Washington to show that the Americans have been engaged in rendition, a policy that involves cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment that amounts to torture, does not exist or has been made up? Is he suggesting that it is just a figment of the imagination of people on the Opposition Benches?”
Howells replied: “No, it certainly is not a figment of the imagination. Such treatment would not take place in Britain, in British prisons or in prisons that Britain is responsible for administering in any other territory.”
So, just like the Americans, it’s a case of ‘not on our soil – someone else’s’. How convenient.
As noted here in December, extraordinary rendition is a way of using one’s power to cause unpleasantness at third hand. Like the gangster don who has never seen blood but has the power of life or death by silently waving his hand and sending a killer on his way.
Police have launched an inquiry into allegations that CIA “torture flights” have landed in Britain, it was reported today.
Michael Todd, chief constable of Greater Manchester, is expected to review evidence collected by human rights campaigners and interview senior police officers from 10 forces across England.
Liberty is appealing for anyone with information about the flights to come forward. They can do so anonymously.
The CIA’s use of so-called extraordinary rendition to transfer terror suspects, or whoever it likes, I suppose, to other countries for ‘robust questioning’ has turned the spotlight on a shadowy world.
It’s a place in which suspects are drugged like BA Baracus for ‘ghost flights’ which disappear them into the hands of interrogators who believe the infliction of pain aids the search for an absolute truth.
But illegality, brutality and inhumanity aside, the intelligence community’s reliance on torture seems to ignore a truth known to every school child.
You can make anyone say anything. Remember the Chinese burn? One determined twist by an expert and you’d hand over your penny chews or admit you fancied the smelliest of your classmates.
Take this scenario. Someone sits opposite you in a room. They ask if you went into town that afternoon. You tell them you did not because it is the truth.
They take your little finger of your right hand and slowly bend it back. It hurts and you wince but they keep applying the pressure. But you know they will stop because people do, don’t they?
Well, no, this person does not. He keeps bending your finger until it breaks.
The sound of cracking bone fills the room. You are in agony and you scream out.
Calmly, the man takes your second finger. He grips it and begins to slowly bend it back. His face is expressionless.
This time you instantly know how far he will go.
He asks you again if you went into town that afternoon.
What do you say now? And, in the end, what wouldn’t you say to make it stop?
I would admit to anything – probably even to watching OFI Sunday.
Imagine then, if you are locked in an underground cell for ten months, given regular beatings and threatened with electric shocks and the ‘metal chair’, a device for stretching the spine.
That’s what happened to a Canadian named Maher Arar in 2002. Arar was detained by US officials in New York and flown to Syria, where he made a false confession. A campaign later obtained Arar’s release.
George Bush has highlighted a number of countries for their roles in torture. Among them is, you’ve guessed it, Syria. Someone should tell Dubya he should have then condemned not employed the interrogators.
The CIA is reckoned to lease 30 aircraft. Over the last four years, according to Amnesty International, just six of these have made 800 ‘ghost flights’.
How many people might we be talking about in total then? Amnesty can only suggest the number is in the thousands.
“Amnesty would be the first to say governments have the right to protect their people but this is not the way,” said Eleanor White, of Amnesty Wales. “This is sidestepping the law, claiming you have diplomatic assurance from a country that no torture will take place. It’s an attempt to get away with it.”
There is no defence for this. It is objectionable on every level. Hiding behind abduction and political double speak to subcontract violence. Putting pressure on smaller countries to do your dirty work while pretending your hands remain clean.
It’s a way of using one’s power to cause unpleasantness at third hand. Like the gangster don who has never seen blood but has the power of life or death by silently waving his hand and sending a killer on his way.
Not only that. But it provides as poor intelligence as the Iraqi exiles who told the Americans exactly what they wanted to hear about the ‘stockpiles’ of weapons of mass destruction before the invasion.
It was a relief to see no Welsh airports on the suspect ghost flight list. The country felt cleaner for it.
But we are all drawn into what our governments do or condone by their inaction.
(A version of this article appeared in last week’s edition of The Big Issue Cymru, no. 489)