Detention centre threatens safety of asylum-seekers

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The Independent Online

A removal centre for asylum-seekers is unsafe, after a spate of assaults and suicide attempts, Government inspectors will say today.

Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, painted a bleak picture of conditions at Harmondsworth, west London, warning it was experiencing growing disorder, damage and escape attempts. She said there were, on average, seven attacks and one case of self-harm every week.

Although staff responded swiftly to outbreaks, the centre was not well-enough equipped to ensure detainees' protection, she said. "Staffing levels were low, there was no means of locking down the centre in the event of concerted indiscipline, and no health and safety assessments of the risks to detainees had been [made]."

A riot and devastating fire at the Yarl's Wood removal centre near Bedford in February last year caused damage estimated at £38m. Yarl's Wood, which is run by Group 4, began accepting up to 60 more female asylum-seekers last night.

In Ms Owers' report, she registered alarm at allegations that detainees at Harmondsworth were assaulted by guards working for the private contractor LPI during failed attempts to remove them from the immigrants' country. There was also unhappiness at the failure of immigration staff to communicate effectively with detainees, supply them with adequate legal or welfare advice or provide activities.

In the month inspectors visited, there had been 11 suicide attempts, but there were no effective procedures for managing either suicide or bullying. Nor was there sufficient mental health support for detainees in the in-patient ward.

"There had been several cases of reported injuries sustained by detainees during failed removals, while in the care of the escort contractor. Inspectors were told allegations of assault were not always fully investigated."

Ms Owers concluded: "In spite of 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 staff and detainees. Some of this was undoubtedly the result of the actions of a few detainees, whose cases had reached the end, who had no incentive to co-operate with other detainees or the centre authorities during their short stay there, and who had taken part in acts of vandalism or arson."

Harmondsworth, run by UK Detention Services and opened two years ago, holds 550 "overstayers", illegal entrants or failed asylum-seekers before removal. In a year, 12,000 detainees pass through its doors, four times more than planned; 20 per cent are families with children and 15 per cent are women.

"This report throws into question the humanity of the policy of detention and fast-track removal. Its allegations are even more serious, given a large proportion of women and children detained in Britain are in Harmondsworth." said Tauhid Pasha, legal, policy and information director for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.

Bev Hughes, a Home Office minister, said that none of the complaints of assault were substantiated.