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British Embassy failed to support and protect a person detained overseas

Organisation we investigated: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Date investigation closed: 28 October 2019

The complaint

Complainant R complained that a British Embassy did not do enough to support them when detained abroad. They said the Embassy did not visit them at a detention centre and did not follow up concerns for their health and welfare, including after they were injured while in the detention centre.

Complainant R also complained about the lack of communication from the Embassy during their detention. Complainant R said the Embassy did not respond to emails and did not provide enough information about what detainees should expect.

Finally, Complainant R complained the Embassy did not contact the local authorities when he faced being deported.

What we found

The Embassy failed to respond adequately to Complainant R’s reports of mistreatment. The Embassy did not raise concerns with local authorities for two months and did nothing further when Complainant R told staff they were not happy with the local authorities’ response. The Embassy did not follow Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) guidance, which includes the requirement that Embassy staff take follow-up action if they receive unsatisfactory responses.

The Embassy also failed to respond to a letter Complainant R wrote to the Ambassador, which was in part a request for exceptional levels of support, beyond which the Embassy would usually provide. The Embassy did not reply to Complainant R for seven months, and this reply was not actually a response to the initial letter and did not respond to all the issues they raised. The Embassy was not ‘customer focused’, as all public services should be. This is set out in the Ombudsman’s Principles of Good Administration.

Complainant R was held at a police station for over a month. Embassy staff had visited them immediately before this transfer to the police station and were aware both of Complainant R’s condition and their concerns about mistreatment. Yet staff did not visit them at all during this time. This did not follow FCO guidance and advice on how often staff should visit people detained, particularly in circumstances such as those reported by Complainant R.

Complainant R had repeatedly reported mistreatment to the Embassy, and staff were also aware of his poor health and welfare. There was a lack of action taken to respond to this and make representations to local authorities. Staff did not act when Complainant R was cuffed to a bed to understand why the local authorities used this restraint, and they should have done more to ensure he had a bed when in prison.

The Prisoner Pack the Embassy gave Complainant R did not accurately reflect conditions in the prisons and other detention centres they were held in. This information should have been updated more frequently to reflect the conditions at the time.

The Embassy also did not consider contacting immigration authorities in relation to Complainant R’s impending deportation, although Complainant R had made it clear they wished to stay in the country.

Background

Complainant R contacted the British Embassy after being detained while trying to leave the foreign country they were living in. Embassy staff spoke to Complainant R to understand their situation and provided a Prisoner Pack. Embassy staff sought to make sure Complainant R would be safe after Complainant R reported threats from other detainees.

A few days later, a friend of Complainant R contacted the Embassy to tell staff that Complainant R had been transferred to a different detention centre and had fallen ill. Staff visited Complainant R in hospital, finding them cuffed to a bed by an ankle. Records show that Complainant R reported mistreatment.

Complainant R was moved to a police station away from other detainees. Complainant R made further reports of mistreatment by the police. Complainant R was later transferred to a prison. Embassy staff visited Complainant R when they raised further concerns about the conditions in detention.

The next month, the Embassy raised the allegations of mistreatment with local authorities. There was also a riot at the prison Complainant R was being held, during which they were shot in the eye with a rubber bullet. Complainant R’s family asked the Embassy to seek medical attention for Complainant R.

Over the next two months, the Embassy continued to seek medical attention for Complainant R. Local authorities provided a response to the allegations of mistreatment. Embassy staff visited Complainant R twice, noting they were still waiting for medical treatment. Two months later, Complainant R was still waiting for treatment.  They then wrote to the Embassy to complain it had failed to represent and protect them.

Over the following months, Complainant R continued to communicate with the Embassy and received occasional visits. They were deported later that year.

Putting it right

Complainant R suffered mistreatment during his detention, which took its toll on their physical and mental health. The lack of support from the Embassy contributed to their feelings of isolation and stress. Although we could not say whether, had the Embassy done more, the conditions Complainant R was held in would have improved, we recommended the FCO:

  • Write to Complainant R to apologise for the impact of the failings we found and explain what it had done to prevent a repeat
  • Consider what it could do to recover their belongings
  • Update the Prisoner Pack
  • Make a payment of £2,950.

FCO has complied with our recommendations.

This case summary is featured in the Ombudsman's Casework Report 2019.