ANNE OWERS, the Government’s chief inspector of jails last week delivered a damning report on the state of Britain’s largest immigrant detention centre at Harmondsworth, near Heathrow.
This is where 500 men, asylum seekers who have failed to convince the Home Office of their case and illegal immigrants are held pending forcible deportation to their country of origin.
Owers said the privately-run detention centre has fallen into “a culture wholly at odds with its stated purpose” since a riot happened there two years ago after a Kosovan was found hanging in his cell. She described her report as the worst she has ever issued. She discovered high levels of force used in the centre, with 60 per cent of inmates reporting that staff use bullying tactics and they do not feel safe. She said the regime was more appropriate to a high-security prison than an immigration detention centre.
Around 2,000 foreign nationals pass through Harmondsworth every month. Forty-four per cent complain of ill-treatment and intimidation by staff. The place is run by United Kingdom Detention Services.
Former inmates say the staff are “aggressive”, “intimidating” and “unhelpful”, especially to detainees who do not speak English. Some say they have been treated “like animals”.
Owers found that many complaints were not investigated. Basic items like tins, jars, nail clippers and leads were confiscated from inmates, many of whom ended up in solitary confinement as a punishment for bad behaviour. Restrictions were placed on inmates’ movements, including the ability to attend religious ceremonies.
Measures to combat suicide and self harm were “weak” and an action plan drawn up to tackle the problem was described as “purely a bureaucratic exercise which had no impact on the centre’s practices”.
Owers described an over-emphasis on physical security. She said: “Harmondsworth is not an easy place to run and the serious disturbance it had experienced had clearly affected the confidence of managers and staff. “However it had been allowed to slip into a culture and approach which was wholly at odds with its stated purpose, and inimical to the proper care and treatment of detainees.” She put some of the blame on the Home Office for not resolving problems at the centre.
The root of the problems lies in Britain’s harsh asylum laws, which do not give proper opportunities to desperate people to prove their cases. This ends up with terrified people being forced back to their home countries. Some are prepared to commit suicide rather than go back.
Any country must have an immigration and asylum policy but it must be fair and humane. It is no good blaming the low-ranking front-line staff for implementing inhuman policies that are decided at much higher levels.