Chief Inspector of Prisons Anne Owers’ ‘Report on an unannounced inspection of Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre’ is another damning indictment of the brutal system of detention centres for refugees.
Owers last inspected Harmondsworth in September 2000, though there have been some improvements, 44 of the recommendations she made in that report have been ignored and a further 24 only partly achieved.
Approximately 12,000 detainees move in and out of Harmondsworth each year.
At the time of the report the centre held 476 persons, the highest number of detainees by nationality were Nigerians 58, Jamaicans 46, and Turkish 44.
Thirty-three per cent of the detainees were Muslim the rest were of various Christian denominations, Sikh, Buddhist, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Hindu, five per cent professed no religion.
The National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns has highlighted extracts from the report.
‘Unannounced Inspection of Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre.’
In it Owers says that ‘we were mindful that detainees were not held because they had been charged with a criminal offence and had not been detained through normal judicial processes.’
She adds: ‘Harmondsworth will continue to be a difficult environment to manage safely: holding a large and transient population, some with little to lose or much to fear.’
Owers says: ‘We had significant concerns about whether vulnerable detainees who spoke little or no English were being identified and given support. . .
‘Detainees had difficulties in accessing legal advice, which reflected the serious shortage of specialist independent legal representatives now undertaking legal aid work.
‘. . . Those detainees involved in the fast-track process were particularly vulnerable due to the speed of the process, the possibility of case-working errors and a lack of support.
‘. . . . The regime in the segregation unit was impoverished . . . Although detainees were given written reasons for their segregation it was in English only.
‘. . . Detainees did not have direct access to racist incident complaints forms. When these were submitted, they were not logged or investigated by suitably trained staff.
‘. . . Detainees had to apply for general complaint forms from staff, which impeded their access to the formal grievance system. The monitoring of the quality of replies was unsatisfactory.
‘. . . The testing for infectious diseases was inadequate, and the provision of a regime for mental health inpatients was poor.
‘. . . As with other immigration removal centres, little was done to prepare detainees for transfer, removal from the country or release.
‘. . . A document, agreed with the local police, outlined basic procedures in the event of criminal allegations involving detainees or staff. However, there was no joint protocol covering assault allegations involving other agencies, as recommended in the full inspection.’
Owers was concerned that: ‘Most detainees had been detained unexpectedly, and many had been held initially in police stations, in poor conditions, and were unable to receive visits or have easy access to a telephone.’
Owers stressed: ‘The absence of legal advice was a prime concern for detainees.’
She added: ‘Monthly reviews were frequently late, arriving only when prompted by on-site immigration officers.
‘They were frequently repetitive, adding nothing to the previous month’s review to demonstrate that casework had been progressed, or that all factors relevant to continued detention had been balanced. Those we saw were in English only.’
Revealing more of the humiliation asylum seekers are subjected to, Owers says: ‘Detainees at Harmondsworth were often escorted to their embassies or consulates in London to progress travel documents for removal.
‘This involved the detainee walking along a busy London street, from parking space to embassy, handcuffed to an escort who released them to the consular official inside the building.
‘They were again handcuffed to return.
‘Foreign embassies were not listed on the Immigration (Places of Detention) Direction, issued in accordance with the 1971 Immigration Act, schedule 2, paragraph 18.
‘Rule 8 of the Detention Centre Rules required that, outside of detention centres, detainees should remain in the custody of an appointed officer.’
Owers stresses: ‘Detainees should not be deposited at foreign diplomatic offices where care and protection cannot be guaranteed.’
She notes: ‘All the detainees we saw in the segregation unit had been given written reasons for detention in English, (Detainees should be given written reasons for their segregation in a language they understand.)
‘. . . Incidents of self-harm were not presented or discussed at any suicide prevention meetings.
‘We were told that they were discussed at daily operational managers’ meetings instead.
‘However, these meetings were not multi-agency forums with a focus on suicide prevention issues, and could not assist staff to understand and improve shortcomings in practice and procedures.
‘. . . One member of staff said that if a detainee who did not speak English was distressed, they used sign language and continued speaking in English even if he did not understand.
‘. . . Staff should be trained to help detainees overcome the impact of detention in a foreign country, and be informed about the economic and political conditions in detainees’ home countries.
‘There was no access to an independent ombudsman.
‘There was no specific racist incident reporting or investigation system.
‘Although some complaints may have been identified as involving racist incidents, this was not effective.’
Owers said: ‘A document outlined basic procedures, agreed with the local police, in the event of any incident in the centre involving detainees or staff.
‘It stated that UKDS (United Kingdom Detention Service) staff should ask detainees if they wished for police to be called in the event of them making a criminal allegation.
‘This document had been drawn up by centre managers and did not affect the contract monitor’s duty under detention centre rules to investigate complaints against staff.
‘The chief immigration officer told us that removals were always deferred pending police investigations.
‘However, there was no joint protocol detailing the responsibilities of other agencies and no explicit focus on allegations of assault.
‘. . . Most of the detainees in the departure area were being removed from the country, rather than transferred to another centre.
‘Reception staff kept some information on other centres for detainees to look at before departure, but there was no evidence that detainees were given written reasons for transfer.
‘Neither reception staff nor the detainees in the departure unit had seen such a document.’