Saturday, April 30, 2011

Europe's Dignity Gap between Punishment and Immigration Control

During my year in Scotland I've become increasingly impressed with the way dignity as a public value promoted by the European Convention on Human Rights and various European governmental bodies has influenced prison law and policy, setting limits on popular punitiveness and preventing the formation of something like California's humanitarian crisis of prisons. However as sociologist Vanessa Barker pointed out to me during a seminar in Stockholm last week, the great gap in European human rights involves immigrants who have been subjected to detention and deportation practices that seem far out of line with European norms in the penal field. The mass deportations of Roma in France last summer, and Italy's treatment of Tunisian and Libyan nationals (some of whom may be refugees) evidence an indifference to human dignity that is at odds with the respect for dignity in the exercise of the power to punish (even though the practices themselves may be functionally the same including detention, involuntary removal, and even death).

One case in point is the death of Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan man who died while being forcibly deported on a commercial flight waiting to take off from Heathrow airport last fall. Most recently, his wife and others have asked the United Nations to investigate his death (read Matthew Taylor and Paul Lewis reporting on this story in Guardian). Mubenga, whose deportation to Angola after years of living in the United Kingdom was separating him from his wife and five children who remained in England, died while being forcibly restrained by a team of employees of G4S, a private security firm with a contract to conduct deportations for he UK government. Alarmed fellow passengers were told rebuffed by the security guards when they expressed concerns about Mubenga's apparent pain and difficulty breathing.

Whether or not the death is ultimately ruled criminal, there is a lot about the episode the raises grave concerns from a dignity point of view. First of all, private firms should not be delegated to carry out functions that necessarily involve extreme coercion in the name of the state. The employees of G4S are there to make money for the company, not to make sure that the public values of the United Kingdom are protected (as they were not). Second, the fact that Mubenga was deported on a commercial flight meant that the predictable anguish he was going to experience in being forcibly separated from his family (not to mention being killed) was going to be witnessed by numerous strangers; it become a kind of public punishment.

The US also relies heavily on private firms to exercise coercive functions with immigrants, but our penal system is also deeply degrading.

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