Written by Melina Fernandes-Padron 

My name is Melina and I have the privilege to work as a human rights advisor for Prisoners Abroad. I have been on this role since September 2017. My primary task is to advise on human rights concerns which arise in cases of British nationals detained or imprisoned overseas, although I also work on other related tasks and projects such as delivering training. As such, my time is split between working at the consular assistance department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), where I am a secondee, and at Prisoners Abroad.

My day starts early, when I catch up on queries which have come overnight from places in very different time zones. As the day progresses, many more queries are made by Prisoners Abroad and FCO colleagues, who work on well over 1,000 cases. The questions often relate to issues with prison conditions, health, allegations of torture or mistreatment, fair trial matters and the progress of one’s legal case. I communicate with colleagues in a number of ways: emails, telephone, instant messages and video conferences.

Some of the cases involve one serious, urgent matter to be dealt with, while others involve frequent monitoring and activity over a prolonged period of time. My job is to give consular officials and Prisoners Abroad case workers advice based on a combination of international standards on human rights and the consular policies under which the FCO operates. On any given day, I am both ‘firefighting’ and advising on preventative steps we might want to take to avoid the situation of a British national becoming worse.

My aim, as is that of others working on these cases, is to ensure as much as possible that British nationals’ welfare and rights are safeguarded, and that they are treated fairly. We try to secure this by taking practical steps including, but not limited to, working with Prisoners Abroad to deliver survival grants and medical fund, facilitate the delivery of vitamins and reading materials, and helping British nationals prepare for their release and return to the UK.

Importantly, where appropriate and with the consent of the individual concerned, we can make representations to the authorities about issues of concern. Examples include:

  • Relaying allegations of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and requesting an investigation in line with international standards;
  • Raising concerns about fair trials matters, such as the delays in conducting a trial, access to legal representation, adequate access to information about the charges or the legal case in a language the British national can understand;
  • Raising specific issues of prison conditions such as adequate provision of healthcare;
  • Making clear our opposition to the death penalty and judicial corporal punishment
  • Visiting British nationals in their places of detention and imprisonment, providing important information (such as prisoner packs and lists of lawyers);

My job is made challenging by the circumstances in which British nationals find themselves, sometimes being held in countries with poor human rights records and/or lacking the necessary resources to ensure the conditions of their prison and detention systems are adequate. It is not possible to achieve wholesale changes to such enormous problems in a short space of time through work carried out in consular cases. This can at times be incredibly frustrating. However, I am motivated by the chance to make a positive contribution, however great or small, to the lives of British nationals detained overseas, and inspired by the dogged determination of my colleagues, both at Prisoners Abroad and the FCO, to achieve that aim.