THE UK government’s flagship counter-terrorism policy Prevent is “fundamentally incompatible” with the country’s international human rights obligations. says Amnesty International
It disproportionately violates the human rights of young minoritised people, sweeps up innocent children and operates with insufficient transparency or oversight, the international NGO said on 2 November, as it published a detailed new report into the controversial scheme.
In the 92-page report, This is the thought police, Amnesty raises serious concerns about the Prevent strategy where teachers, doctors and social workers are forced to identify those deemed at risk of committing terrorist acts, with a worrying lack of transparency or oversight and a significantly disproportionate impact on certain groups. In writing the report, Amnesty met with more than 50 professionals, including police and other organisations, as well as legal experts and people directly impacted by Prevent.
The report highlights a series of fundamental flaws in the system, including discriminatory decision-making that operates on a “gut feeling” basis and a deeply concerning lack of transparency where people often do not know why they have been referred. Amnesty believes the programme is having a chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent.
Islamophobic stereotypes of ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ play a major role in Prevent referrals, with people of Muslim faith referred eight times more than non-Muslims in the healthcare sector. There are also a disproportionate number of neurodiverse people and young people aged between 15–20 who are referred.
People interviewed for the research described the harmful impacts of a referral, including a loss of trust in the authorities, stress, anxiety and other mental health problems; significant financial costs; and concerns about privacy and data protection.
Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s Chief Executive, said: “Prevent is fundamentally incompatible with the UK’s human rights obligations. Prevent has a chilling effect across many human rights, including freedom of expression, assembly and the right to equality and non-discrimination. There is no transparency and individuals are having to pursue costly multi-year battles for information about their own referrals.
“The dragnet approach inevitably sweeps up innocent people and can destroy their lives and futures. People have no way of knowing what the authorities do with their information, what it can mean for them, or if they will be flagged as a danger for life.
“The shroud of secrecy is alarming. We are especially concerned about the growing number of young people, particularly minoritised, Muslim and neurodiverse people who are being referred to Prevent. The problems run so deep that Prevent should be abolished and replaced with greater investment in child protection and education, and safeguarding methods with a proven track record.”
Prejudice against Muslims
The report documents a pattern of racial discrimination and the stigmatisation of Muslims in Prevent referrals.
Irfan, a Muslim teacher in the north of England. was referred to Prevent after he made a formal complaint about his manager’s Islamophobic harassment, including taunting his beard and calling him a ‘terrorist’. Irfan was not given any reasons for the referral and subsequently resigned from his post. The only documentation he received about his referral was heavily redacted. The school’s discrimination, the Prevent referral and police visits put a significant strain on Irfan and his family.
Irfan told Amnesty: “I put on a brave face but [during the police visit] my kids were looking at me and my heart was beating 300 beats per minute. It had a huge impact on my mental health.”
Targeting Gen Zs
According to the latest official figures, children under 15 accounted for nearly a third (29 per cent) of Prevent referrals, while young people aged 15 to 20 accounted for the largest proportion with 30 per cent of Prevent referrals. Nearly half of the children referred are Muslim or of Asian descent. The very high number of children referred to Prevent and the cases examined for Amnesty’s report raise serious concerns about Prevent’s compatibility with the UK’s obligation to give primary consideration to the “best interests of the child” under international human rights laws.
Zain is 14 years old and lives in the north of England. His school referred him to Prevent in October 2020 when he was 11. During a fire drill, Zain had said he hoped the school “burned down”. Six weeks later, a student reported that Zain had wanted to “blow up the school” with the “teachers inside it”. His mother, Jasmine, had previously raised concerns to the school about his stress, workload and anxiety, exacerbated during Covid-19. Even after Zain had told the school the comment was a “joke” because “I am stressed with the homework/rules”, the school referred him to Prevent without his mother being informed.
The school denies discrimination, but Zain’s mother Jasmine, said: “She [the teacher] looked at my son, saw a brown Muslim boy, and she made the Prevent referral not based on evidence but based on her own bias. The referral had a detrimental impact on the family. The case shows no behaviour suggesting ‘radicalisation’; it appears that widespread stereotypes linking Muslim boys with ‘extremism and terrorism’ and Prevent influenced the decision to refer him.”
Bias against neurodiverse people
There is a high incidence of neurodiversity among Prevent referrals, and those with autism are the highest among these. There is no evidence that links autism to terrorism. Jonathan Hall KC, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, has said that the incidence of autistic people being referred to Prevent was “staggeringly high” and that “it is as if a social problem has been unearthed and fallen into the lap of counter-terrorism professionals”.
In one case, a 24-year-old autistic man called Conor was referred to Prevent by social workers in order to access “other means of support and education”, not for terrorism-related fears. However, the referral took a significant toll on Conor and his family. Conor told Amnesty: “Social workers are meant to be people you trust. After the whole thing [Prevent referral] with the social workers, you don’t know who to trust.”
Secrecy and limited possibility of challenging the system
People who are referred to Prevent are left in the dark with no clear explanation given to individuals or, in the case of children, their parents, on any next steps, and the authorities are routinely failing to provide information in writing.
A barrister told Amnesty that the stigma of police involvement and being considered a potential ‘extremist’ means that individuals often want to distance themselves from Prevent as simply and confidentially as possible, rather than pursue often lengthy and costly legal remedies.
Strict timelines also apply to many claims arising from the Prevent interventions – three months for judicial review, six months for discrimination claims under the Equality Act, and one year for claims under the Human Rights Act. Many people miss these timelines because they are focused on the Prevent process itself which can, especially when social services are involved, take many months.
While the Home Office does provide data on Prevent referrals, it has frequently refused campaigners’ freedom of information requests for more details, often citing national security.
In the case of Conor, his father Edward approached multiple law firms but none would take the case, despite him making clear that it would be privately funded. Edward said: “There is no mechanism for saying ‘we’re sorry, we made a mistake’ because there cannot be a mistake when there is no threshold for a referral to Prevent.
“This whole process is outrageous. I’m lucky to be in a position to fight it; I know how to navigate these processes. I speak good English; I know how to put in complaints … but it’s been stressful, and I’ve reached my limit in dealing with it.”
Educational and social work methods needed
Based on the evidence presented in the report, Amnesty concludes that the Prevent strategy does not comply with international human rights law and should be abolished.
Instead, facilitated by greater investment in child protection and education, teachers and other professionals should use educational and social work methods and safeguarding processes to engage with children whose behaviour would otherwise lead them to make a Prevent referral. A teacher or social worker-led response, which prioritises the welfare and development of the child and in which the child’s best interests are a primary consideration, is preferable to the current system, which prioritises national security and involves counter-terrorism police in the lives of children who are not accused of any crime.
The Government should also refrain from associating non-violent groups and their views (‘non-violent extremism’) with terrorism. Amnesty has also raised concerns about attempts to delegitimise criticisms of the Prevent strategy by journalists, academics and civil society, and advised that the Government should instead engage meaningfully with the issues raised.
The Government must establish and implement alternatives to the criminal justice system for children accused of terrorism offences, and ensure victims of human rights violations under the Prevent strategy have access to an effective remedy, including access to justice, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition.
* Read: This Is The Thought Police: The Prevent duty and its chilling effect on human rights here.
* Source: Amnesty International