I am not in the least legally minded. I become easily confused by the archaic jargon and machinery of our legal systems. This naivety aside, one thing has become clear as I have watched the situation of the asylum seeker and hunger striker Isa Muazu unfold over the past few weeks: with each new appeal for his release being rejected it is apparent that the rulings, as they pile up one by one, are in effect building a funeral pyre.
A pyre for Isa, but also a deadly flame that is a warning to others in detention. Eleanor Grey QC, for the Home Secretary Theresa May, could not have been clearer – granting Isa any interim order, Grey said, could result in “copycat cases”. The QC as a political soothsayer, practicing the dark art of transmuting the implicit into the crystal clear – should you dare to protest against the injustice of your imprisonment, using the only resources you have left – your body and your willfulness – we will take those away from you as well.
The ironies and paradoxes of Isa’s case are ludicrous as much as they are tragic and morally repugnant. Elisabeth Laing QC, who represented Isa at the high court this week has pointed out that Isa’s continued detention undermines the very legal basis of immigration detention, which is to achieve deportation. Laing said,
It is not for the purpose of punishment or deterrence or for the purpose of illustrating that the secretary of state will not give way to emotional blackmail, such as is exerted by people who go on hunger strike.”
It appears that the Home Office has an ‘end of life plan’ for Isa. In other words it is expecting him to die. In a recent briefing to the Home Office, the campaigning group, Medical Justice, noted a letter that was sent to Immigration Removal Centre managers in July, asking that they ensure that doctors ‘should not state that someone is not fit to be detained rather they should advise on the consequences of detention in terms of medical conditions’.
Although, the letter may have been subsequently withdrawn, Medical Justice remain concerned about the medical needs of those on hunger strike in detention centres and the inconsistent ways in which doctors are being directed. And over at the Department of Health the government has been pursuing its End of Life Care Strategy that is committed to ensuring that ‘high quality services should be available in all locations, including prisons’.
Isa began his hunger strike in July because he felt that his health needs and dietary requirements were not being met. As well as hepatitis B, kidney problems and stomach ulcers he has been diagnosed with psychosis and severe depression. On Tuesday the high court ruled that the home secretary, Theresa May, was not holding Isa unlawfully because it has been Isa’s decision to go on hunger strike.
Yesterday three judges ordered an urgent hearing of Isa’s case that will now take place on Monday, but they refused his release. Lord Justice Maurice Kay, vice-president of the Court of Appeal, reiterated the view that Isa’s ‘choice’ to refuse to eat was a key factor in the judgment,
that is his prerogative and we do not think he is entitled to interim relief”, he said.
That Isa’s life should pivot on the matter of his ‘prerogative’ shows just how threatening the notion is that asylum seekers should exercise or indeed have any choice or agency. Choice in the current political climate is a dangerous moral attribute for asylum seekers and those in detention. It is both a practical and a symbolic problem. It must be curtailed, if not extinguished.
One of Isa’s supporters, Jasmine Sallis, a volunteer caseworker at the Unity Centre in Glasgow that supports asylum seekers, fears that Isa is now perilously close to death. She has questioned what the Home Office will achieve with Isa’s continued detention,
They disregard his life in favour of their new even harder immigration stance. The UK condemns other countries for human rights abuses but what is worse than condemning someone to death?”
After nearly 90 days of starvation, every system in Isa Muazu’s body is now failing. When the body is starved biochemistry changes, organs begin to shut down, muscles weaken, you become more vulnerable to infection and the psychological effects include depression, apathy and impaired judgment. Yesterday, it was reported that Isa has lost his sight, has chest pains and is finding it difficult to breathe. The idea that Isa has any ‘prerogative’ in these circumstances is medically uncertain and morally unpalatable
Isa doesn’t have any choices. We do. Campaigners are staging a protest and vigil outside Harmondsworth and have asked the Home Secretary for Isa’s immediate release. You can also write to your MP and MEP.
Yasmin Gunaratnam is a writer and academic, interested in illness, death, migration, the body and feminism. She teaches in the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths College on research methods, culture, representation and difference and feminist theory. Yasmin is the curator of Media Diversified’s academic space. Her latest book Death & the Migrant (Bloomsbury Academic) is about transnational dying and care in British cities. She’s on twitter @YasminGun
- Isa Muazu, the hunger striker and us, the monster (opendemocracy.net)
- When will we acknowledge that asylum seekers are human beings? | Ellie Mae O’Hagan (theguardian.com)
- Home Office issues ‘end of life plan’ to hunger-striking asylum seeker (theguardian.com)