84-year-old dies in handcuffs: xenophobia’s destructive power

By Savi Hensman
January 20, 2014

Chief inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick accused staff at Harmondsworth removal centre of "a shocking lack of humanity" after two gravely ill men were kept in handcuffs. For 84-year-old Alois Dvorzac, who had dementia, these were not removed until after his heart stopped beating. Such cases show the damaging effects of xenophobia.

Hardwick’s report, issued in January 2014 after an unannounced inspection, called for a “refocusing on individual needs of the most vulnerable people in detention, some of whom had been utterly failed by the system”. Harmondsworth immigration detention centre, near Heathrow airport, is managed by the GEO Group Limited on behalf of UK Border Agency.

Among other failings, he described “grossly excessive use of restraints during hospital escorts: in one, a dying man remained handcuffed while under sedation in hospital; in another, an 84 year-old man who had been declared unfit for detention was still in handcuffs at the point that he died. Neither had been in any way resistant or posed any current specific individual risk.”

Channel 4 News gave more details about Dvorzac, who had Alzheimer’s disease. Though he was a citizen of Canada he had no relatives there. As his health deteriorated he set off to try to find his estranged daughter in Slovenia before it was too late. He made it as far as Gatwick airport.

He was detained there because he did not have the correct paperwork and taken to Harmondsworth. Apparently he turned down the Canadian high commission’s offer of help, probably because he was too confused to understand fully what was happening to him.

A doctor declared that he was not fit for detention. An attempt to remove him failed because of medical advice that he was unfit to fly and he was taken back to Harmondsworth. Suffering from heart failure, he was escorted to hospital. He had been in handcuffs for five hours when he died.

As reporter Paraic O’Brien put it, “A lonely, elderly man in the twilight of his life decides to reach out to someone he cares about. He embarks on a quest for companionship, closure, perhaps repair. A quest that ended up handcuffed and gasping for breath.”

There have been many human rights abuses against migrants, immigrants and refugees in recent years in the UK, each involving a human tragedy. Yet xenophobia, on an individual and also a systemic level, undermines the humanity not only of victims but also perpetrators, and ultimately all in the societies it infects.

Alois Dvorzac was not seen as a frail, confused elderly man but rather a menace. Where xenophobia takes hold, people are no longer seen as they are: as someone’s parents or children, workers or retired, people who have made or can make a contribution to society, as – in some religious frameworks – humans made in God’s image. Compassion and even common sense can be overridden, acts of shocking cruelty seen as routine.

The Movement Against Xenophobia is a new campaign, promoted by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and supported by a range of organisations. Such initiatives are important if fear and hatred of foreigners, so often fuelled by politicians and sections of the media, are to be countered, and justice and compassion upheld.

© Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare, sexuality, theology and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector.

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