Immigration centres 'like dog kennels'

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Indy Politics

Holding cells used by British officials at a French freight terminal were so basic that staff nicknamed them "the dog kennels", watchdogs revealed today.

The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, criticised conditions at three immigration detention centres near Calais.

She warned that staff seemed confused about their own powers - and were even unsure whether they could stop a detainee trying to escape.

The centres - at Calais Seaport and the freight and tourist terminals at Coquelles - were set up on French soil, under an international treaty to hold detainees seeking entry to the UK.

Ms Owers said: "Accommodation at Coquelles freight terminal was disrespectful and wholly inadequate, and hygiene arrangements were insufficient to cope with detainees who might have travelled in the backs of lorries in unsanitary conditions."

She added that it was described by staff as the "dog kennels".

The six 13ft by 10ft cells at Coquelles freight terminal featured hole-in-the-ground toilets. On busy days, one cell could be used to hold six people. Furnishing, ventilation and heating were all inadequate, the report adds.

Records suggested average detention time was seven and a half hours, with the maximum nearly 12.

Ms Owers said holding rooms in the privately-run facility at Calais had no proper light and ventilation, no blankets and no soap for washing. They were "completely inadequate" to hold people, particularly women and children, and people were being held for "many hours".

She said on the the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that her report also found that staff were unsure whether English or French law applied and this raised issues about staff and detainee safety. She said: "It meant that staff didn't know whether they could intervene to stop fights to prevent escapes to prevent suicide or self-harm."

Staff did not know about health and safety or child protection laws.

Ms Owers added: "In practice, people are held for many hours, up to 11 hours, or up to 36 hours they can be held in the Heathrow facility. These are not conditions in which you should be holding people at all."

The chief inspector made 49 recommendations for improvement, including one that an independent monitoring board - formerly known as prison visitors - should have regular access.

Figures for May to July last year showed 661 detainees had been through Calais Seaport detention centre, 11 of whom were children.

Average period of detention was four hours, although the longest was 17. In all, 17% were given permission to enter Britain.

At the third centre at Coquelles tourist terminal, average detention time was three hours but the maximum recorded was nearly 16 hours.

None of the facilities - run by private firm Group 4 Securicor - could appropriately separate men, women and children.

The chief inspector also published a report on detention facilities at Heathrow airport, including the Queen's Building, which handles the greatest number of forced removals from the UK.

People could be detained there for up to 36 hours.

She commended the staff's approach to welfare of detainees but criticised the system generally as inhumane.

Ms Owers said: "There was little evidence of individual care within the immigration removal system itself.

"Some of those we observed in detention had been dealt with as though they were parcels, not people, and parcels whose contents and destination were sometimes incorrect.

"Immigration decision-makers appeared to be focused on cases, files and targets, rather than people.

"This is neither humane nor, in the end, efficient."

She added: "The process could and should be better managed in dignity and safety."

Home Office minister Tony McNulty said: "The power to detain is an essential part of protecting the integrity of, and public confidence in, our immigration controls and we take the welfare of detainees extremely seriously and as such we recognise that there may be a need to put in place a system of independent monitoring of these short-term detention facilities.

"It is important to emphasise that these facilities are non-residential holding rooms and are intended to hold people very briefly - usually for no more than a few hours.

"It will always be the case that we aim to keep the time an individual spends in these facilities to a minimum, but with arrivals at ports operating 24 hours a day, there is a clear need to use holding rooms during the night."

He added: "It is not possible to comment in detail at this stage on each of the recommendations contained in these reports.

"When we have had the opportunity to consider the reports in full, we will draw up action plans dealing with each individual recommendation."

Refugee Council chief executive Maeve Sherlock said: "These reports are deeply worrying.

"Asylum seekers are being treated as packages to be processed and removed rather than as very vulnerable human beings.

"There really should be higher standards of care and compassion in these holding centres.

"A particular concern is that children are being detained in places which are totally unsuitable."

The chief inspector's report revealed that one third of detainees brought to the Queen's Building to be removed from the UK were not in fact deported for various reasons.

Inspectors examined 1,591 cases over 33 days in September and October last year.

In 2.6% of cases the immigration offenders arrived too late for removal or there was no staff or vehicle to take them.

In 6% of cases there were problems such as having a ticket with the wrong name or destination, no passport or no ticket at all.

Shadow immigration minister Damian Green said: "This is yet another report which exposes the chaos in Britain's immigration system.

"This government has an appalling record on removing failed migrants.

"We now discover it cannot even remove people it actually has in detention at Heathrow.

"Until ministers get a grip on the basic administration of the immigration system no one will have any confidence that our borders are properly controlled."

The chief inspector's report revealed that one third of detainees brought to the Queen's Building to be removed from the UK were not in fact deported for various reasons.

Inspectors examined 1,591 cases over 33 days in September and October last year.

In 2.6% of cases the immigration offenders arrived too late for removal or there was no staff or vehicle to take them.

In 6% of cases there were problems such as having a ticket with the wrong name or destination, no passport or no ticket at all.

Shadow immigration minister Damian Green said: "This is yet another report which exposes the chaos in Britain's immigration system.

"This Government has an appalling record on removing failed migrants.

"We now discover it cannot even remove people it actually has in detention at Heathrow.

"Until ministers get a grip on the basic administration of the immigration system no one will have any confidence that our borders are properly controlled."

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