Inspector lambasts migrants' detention centre

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Indy Politics

Almost half of the failed asylum-seekers at Britain's largest immigration removal centre have complained of bullying by staff, the jails watchdog will say today.

Anne Owers, chief inspector of prisons, will give a damning verdict on almost every aspect of the regime at the Harmondsworth centre in west London.

Describing her report as the worst she had issued, she discovered that high levels of force were used in the centre and 60 per cent of detainees reported feeling unsafe. Ms Owers said the regime was more appropriate to a high-security prison than an immigration detention centre.

Two thousand foreign nationals are brought to Harmondsworth every month, prior to removal from the country from nearby Heathrow airport. There have been repeated complaints of ill-treatment of detainees, and a riot broke out two years ago after a Kosovan was found hanging in his cell.

Ms Owers reported that detainees' main fear was of intimidation by staff at the centre, which is operated by the private company United Kingdom Detention Services, with 44 per cent claiming to have been victimised during their spell in custody.

They described some officers as "aggressive", "intimidating" and "unhelpful", especially to detainees who did not speak English, and complained of being treated "like animals".

The inspector blamed the poor relationships between staff and detainees on the "over-emphasis on physical security and control", which she said was not appropriate for a detention centre. She also found that some serious complaints against officers were not properly investigated.

Such basic items as tins, jars, nail clippers and leads for audio equipment were confiscated from inmates, and high numbers were put into solitary confinement as a punishment for poor behaviour. Detainees found their movements around the 500-bed centre heavily limited, and "unacceptable" restrictions were imposed on their 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 judged a "purely bureaucratic exercise which has had no impact on the centre's practices".

Ms Owers 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 said some of the blame lay with the Home Office for not resolving problems at the centre, which opened five years ago.

Anna Reisenberger, acting chief executive of the Refugee Council, said it was "horrifying" that so many detainees felt victimised. She said: "Asylum-seekers are not criminals - they are people who are vulnerable and scared. Their treatment should reflect that."

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "Any society should be ashamed when human beings are treated like this just because they are to be deported. The Government's attitude seems to be that these individuals are out of sight, so they are out of mind."

Liam Byrne, the Immigration minister, said he took the report's recommendations seriously. He said: "An action plan responding in detail is being drawn up to ensure further improvements are made. Detention is an essential part of an effective immigration system, but it is critical that it is done with humanity and dignity."