Appalling treatment of Heathrow detainees laid bare in damning report

UK Border Agency urged to improve conditions for foreign visitors and refugees
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The Independent Online

Thousands of foreign visitors and refugees who are detained at Heathrow airport each year are forced to endure degrading living conditions and "deep-seated" negative attitudes about their welfare, an independent report concludes today.

The findings will add to growing concerns about the treatment of foreign people held in detention in the UK before they are granted entry clearance or sent home. The report by the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) makes note of cockroaches in Terminal 4 kitchens and the absence of proper washing facilities for detainees held overnight.

The monitors were so angered by one case, the comprehensive failure to care for the needs of a disabled visitor who was travelling to the UK with her young son, that they sought personal apologies from the staff concerned. Some of the visitors held at Heathrow are incoming passengers detained for questioning or refused entry to the UK. Others are brought to Heathrow from immigration removal centres, prisons or police stations to be deported.

The authors said: "The generic term 'detainee' casts no light on the humanity of the men, women and children to whom it is applied. The IMB perceives a deep-seated negative attitude towards their wellbeing while in detention at the airport, at both policy and operational levels." Other language which the report said reflected these views included the use of the phrase "these people" to describe visitors held in what staff inappropriately referred to as "pens".

Between 2008 and 2009, 33,100 people were detained at the airport, of whom 22,000 were detained in holding rooms and 11,100 in Queen's Buildings, which is mostly used for holding failed asylum-seekers before they are returned to their own countries.

The UK Border Agency has hired G4 Securicor to staff the short-term detention facilities but the report makes it clear that the IMB thought the Government had "failed repeatedly to supervise its staff in key areas, all impacting on detainees' welfare."

The IMB called on G4 Securicor to address these issues urgently. It said: "We urge the [UK Border Agency] to take necessary steps, whether in terms of their own processes, or the performance of G4S as escort contractor, to drive down the length of time many are detained. Action is overdue."

There was further criticism of the Terminal 5 detention block which opened last year. The report said the facilities had a number of "design faults": lights could not be dimmed or switched off and air temperature in the holding room could not be moderated, meaning that it was cold all night.

But the monitors reserved their severest criticism for the Terminal 5 lavatories. "We first visited T5 two weeks before it opened and were shocked to see that the lavatory doors had large gaps at the top and bottom. Whatever went on within would be detectable outside in the holding room."

The Home Office denied that detainees were subject to inhumane treatment while held at Heathrow. The IMB has recommended that the Home Office require the UK Border Agency to set up an urgently-needed residential short-term holding facility at Heathrow.

The spokesman said that the UK Border Agency was examining the feasibility of a residential facility at Heathrow.

A UK Border Agency spokesperson said: "We are determined all removals from the UK are undertaken in a humane and compassionate way. The majority of people stopped at Heathrow airport for immigration questioning are on a plane home within eight hours.

"To keep the UK's border secure, we rigorously test all entry cases with fairness and impartiality."

Monitors' anger: A catalogue of failures

A disabled woman and her son held at Heathrow were the victims of a catalogue of "failures and inattention" that typified the experience of many detainees at the airport, the report found.

The woman, an asylum-seeker, had been left slumped in her wheelchair while her son looked on anxiously. "His patent anxiety had seemingly not been noticed. We took him to the bookcase. He jumped at the chance of some children's books," said the monitors.

When they spoke to the woman they discovered that she would be more comfortable lying down but could not do so unaided.

"The Detainee Custody Officers [DCOs] were not willing to help us lift her, because they had not been trained. A Chief Immigration Officer was willing when we told him the problem. We lifted her out of her wheelchair and helped her lie down, on some seats."

The woman's son then removed her socks and started to rub her swollen feet. "We put a couple of pillows under her head. There were no pillowcases and no clean ones in stock. The DCOs leapt into action and handed out crisps," the report stated.

Further failures led to the family spending unnecessary time in detention after they had been granted temporary admission to the UK.

"We were angry at the disgraceful way in which this family had been treated," said the monitors.

Their concerns were reported to UK Border Agency's Detention Services, who pursued them with Border Force and G4 Securicor.

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