Asylum detainee death sparks 'serious' disturbance

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A 'serious' disturbance at a detention centre for asylum seekers has broken out after a detainee was found hanging at the unit.

Staff at the Harmondsworth centre, near London's Heathrow airport, were forced to withdraw for their own safety in the late hours of last night, a Home Office spokesperson confirmed.

The incident flared after the body of the asylum seeker was discovered at 8pm yesterday. Police are investigating the death but it is believed that it is not suspicious.

All emergency services were called after the disturbance and contingency plans with the Prison Service were rapidly put in place, said the Home Office.

After initial damage within the centre the atmosphere is said to have "quietened". Prison and centre staff were working to bring the centre under control.

The trouble is said to have involved a number of fires being lit, the BBC reported.

Dozens of police vans and a fire engine were positioned outside the centre and a police helicopter was flying overhead.

The detention centre, opened in 2001, was said to be "failing to provide a safe and stable environment" for the detainees held there despite the best efforts of staff, in a report last September from Anne Owers, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons.

She stated: "In spite of some extremely conscientious work by staff and managers, the diversity and constant flux of the population, low staffing levels and the physical environment made Harmondsworth essentially an unsafe place for both staff and detainees.

"This was reflected in increasing levels of disorder, damage and escape attempts."

It added there were "increasing levels of disorder, damage and escape attempts, with an average of seven assaults a week".

The centre holds those detained by the Immigration Service as overstayers, illegal entrants or failed asylum seekers prior to their removal from the country.

It also holds a smaller proportion of detainees whose cases have not yet been determined, but who are considered to be at risk of absconding, or whose identities are being established.

In February 2002 Yarl's Wood Removal Centre in Bedfordshire was partially destroyed during an outbreak of violence.

A series of fires spread through the centre which caused an estimated £38m in damages.

Staff at Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire were forced to barricade themselves in offices as an angry mob, many in home made masks, brandished chair legs and fire extinguishers.

An attempted breakout from the centre sparked several major fires and a number of the refugees escaped in the confusion.

The £80 million Yarl's Wood centre was opened as a flagship site designed to hold 900 asylum seekers.

The Harmondsworth centre can hold up to 550 detainees.

The complex is run by UK Detention Services (UKDS), a private company which won an eight-year contract from the Home Office.

Like Yarl's Wood it offers far better facilities than most prisons including well-equipped health care units, multi-faith prayer rooms, a chapel, mosque, library, shop and classrooms.

However, in February 2002, nine immigrants scaled perimeter fences at the West Drayton centre.

It was believed that the runaway migrants had escaped using duplicate keys that allowed them to reach a second floor window.