02 March 2016, The Tablet

Heathrow’s immigration detention centre is 'among worst' in the UK

A report into Europe's largest immigration centre finds conditions substandard

A report into conditions at Harmondsworth immigration centre near Heathrow Airport has found evidence of substandard facilities and lack of suitable care for vulnerable adults.

Europe’s largest immigration removal centre, housing 661 men, is holding detainees for unacceptably long periods and failing to provide adequate risk assessments in the first few days of arrival, the report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons found.

Among the complaints: dirty, run down accommodation, unsanitary toilets and showers, overcrowding and poor ventilation.

Chief inspector of prisons, Peter Clarke, who said there had been little discernible change in the findings over the course of the previous three inspections, said: “The centre should never have been allowed to reach this state.

“We saw little positive engagement between staff and detainees, and staff had too little understanding of the backgrounds and needs of the people in their care.”

The report, published yesterday (1 March), said the vulnerability of detainees appeared to have increased since the last inspection in 2013 in which the GEO Group – who was running the facility at that time – was found to be under-investing in the residential units.

“In our survey, 80 per cent of men said that they had had problems on arrival and nearly half said they had felt depressed or suicidal,” Clarke continued.

Many of the men detained at Harmondsworth are asylum seekers, refused or awaiting visas, or people who have overstayed their visas. Some are non-British criminals who have completed jail terms in the UK. The unannounced inspection was carried out between 7-18 September 2015.

Despite Home Office rules which state detention in immigration centres should be used sparingly and for the shortest period necessary, 18 detainees were reported to have been held for over a year, with one man detained on separate occasions adding up to a total of five years.

Responding to the release of the report, Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service UK which works in Harmondsworth, Sarah Teather, said: “Peter Clarke is the second Chief Inspector of Prisons to draw attention to the unacceptably long periods in which people are warehoused in detention and to call for a time limit. The conditions he describes bring shame on the Government, but cleaning up is not enough. The problem is that Britain detains far too many people for far too long. They should invest in alternatives to detention, not new shower blocks.

“Our teams meet many whose mental and physical health is wrecked by the experience of indefinite detention.  It is heartening to read in the report that visitors like ours bring some relief to people in this situation, but we long for the day when our ministry will no longer be needed and when all are treated with more dignity and respect.”

Managing Director, Danny Spencer, from MITIE Care and Custody – the private company responsible for maintaining standards at Harmondsworth – agreed that there were areas that needed improvement: “We were aware of most of them and have been working on an improvement programme since we commenced the service. This has continued in the six months since the inspection, addressing the recommendations and the operational and cultural challenges that we faced as the incoming operator.”

The company also pointed out that occupancy levels, length of detention and the movement of detainees were not within the scope of their operator contract.

In the areas that were commended, the report praised the support provided by the chaplaincy for the centre's 559 religious detainees, 150 of whom are Christian.

The service improvement plan outlining the Home Office response to the report’s recommendations will be published on the HM Inspectorate of Prisons' website in due course.

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