The case for a time limit on immigration detention has never been clearer

Posted by Rachel Robinson on 01 March 2016

Another week, another depressing reminder of the desperate state of the UK’s immigration detention estate. Tuesday’s report by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (HMIP) on Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre makes for disturbing reading.

Beneath the low-flying plane traffic of Heathrow Airport, more than 600 men of all ages and backgrounds – including those seeking asylum in this country – are currently detained in conditions which offend all notions of decency.

Overcrowded and unclean

An unannounced inspection – conducted last September – uncovered overcrowded and unclean conditions, poor ventilation, inadequate provision for clean clothes and bedding, reports of bed bugs, unsanitary showers and toilets and ingrained dirt in surfaces.

Meanwhile, “the enhanced care unit was a depressing environment”; “some wings had a depressing air, as a result of rooms being bare and/or locked off” and “rooms for people with disabilities did not give sufficient decency or privacy”.

To add insult to injury, the Inspectorate also found much of the accommodation had actually deteriorated since a previous inspection “so that some areas now lacked decency”.

Basic standards of respect

Living conditions aside, the inspection found few centre staff took the initiative in engaging detainees and exposed incidences of “abrupt and unhelpful staff behaviour”.

Unsurprisingly, HMIP concluded Harmondsworth failed to meet basic standards of respect for detainees and to provide them with a safe, clean and decent environment.

At the last inspection in 2013, HMIP made 45 recommendations designed to ensure adequate respect for detainees – more than two years later, just 15 of these had been achieved.

Too prison-like

And it isn’t just in respect and decency that this detention centre falls down. Safety outcomes did not meet required standards, with “too many detainees subjected to exhausting and deteriorating night-time moves from other centres for reasons of administrative convenience alone”; “some instances where restraints were applied without justification” and failure to carry out proper age assessments, designed to identify and safeguard children.

Generally the environment was “too secure and prison-like” and separation was used inappropriately as a punishment. Of 31 safety recommendations set out in 2013, only six had been achieved – and many detainees reported feeling unsafe or victimised.

Calls for urgent reform

These findings are shocking – but they will come as no surprise to anyone following the escalating debate around the Home Office’s casual use of immigration detention for its own convenience.

In a report published in January, former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman Stephen Shaw concluded that "detention in and of itself undermines welfare and contributes to vulnerability" and called for urgent reform.

Yesterday's report echoes many of the failings highlighted by the Shaw review – particularly findings around the impact of detention on mental health and failures to provide properly for those with particular vulnerabilities or needs.

HMIP found vulnerability of the population had increased since the last inspection, with half of detainees reporting feeling suicidal or depressed. Meanwhile, “risk assessment and support processes were underdeveloped”.

The Rule 35 procedure – designed to identify those whose health is likely to be adversely affected by detention, including victims of torture – came in for further serious criticism.

Indefinite detention

HMIP also highlighted the length of incarceration faced by those detained under our indefinite detention regime. More than half the men at Harmondsworth were detained for over a month and others for significantly longer – including 18 held for more than a year, and one who had experienced a combined total of five years in immigration detention.

This is a tragic waste of human life and a pointless squandering of public money. The Government argues detention is only used in cases where removal is imminent – which is what Home Office policy actually demands – but how can it possibly be argued that this test is met for those languishing in dirty, prison-like conditions for more than a year?

The case has never been clearer for a time-limit on immigration detention, and for the introduction of serious judicial oversight of the detention system.

Unlimited detention will come to the fore once again when Peers debate the Immigration Bill in the coming weeks. With evidence mounting that the Home Office is unwilling or unable to enforce its own policies on detention, the case for proper, legal safeguards is getting stronger by the day.

Rachel Robinson

Rachel Robinson

Policy and Advocacy Manager