Harmondsworth: Detained asylum-seeker sews up mouth in protest at conditions

Detainees inside the centre have been holding rolling hunger strikes

Chris Green@cghgreen
Tuesday 24 March 2015 18:51
The Harmondsworth Detention Centre near Heathrow airport holds 615 people
The Harmondsworth Detention Centre near Heathrow airport holds 615 people

Conditions inside the UK’s largest immigration detention centre are “depressing” and “dirty” and one vulnerable asylum-seeker sewed his mouth together in protest at being held there for nine months, a report has revealed.

Harmondsworth, the immigration removal centre near Heathrow Airport which holds more than 600 men awaiting removal or deportation from Britain, has in some cases “a destructive effect on the welfare of detainees” being held there, according to the investigation by the local Independent Monitoring Board (IMB).

Detainees inside the centre have been holding rolling hunger strikes in protest at its overcrowded, prison-like conditions which they claim are “comparable to animal cages”. Undercover footage broadcast earlier this month showed staff complaining of being at breaking point and having to work 13-and-a-half-hour shifts.

Some of the men inside Harmondsworth have been held in detention for over a year. The report highlighted one “shocking example” in which a detainee described as “Mr U” sewed his lips together in protest at his prolonged incarceration.

“He could not eat, drink or medicate,” the report said. “He wrote a note which said ‘Release me or send me home’. He spent nearly nine months in detention and was later released. This makes the IMB question the Government’s use of detention for such an extended period of time when the man was released back into the community anyway.”

Footage shows a detainee being attended to following an epileptic fit

Harmondsworth has a range of other serious problems including poor maintenance, dirty conditions and an inadequate complaints process, the report said. Staffing levels are barely adequate and morale among those who do work at the complex is “low”, it added.

The UK is the only country in the EU with no limit on the length of time asylum-seekers can be detained. The report said the Government should “urgently” set up an independent review into the practice of keeping detainees locked up for more than a year. “It is unacceptable that the welfare of a detained person should be so adversely affected by a system that is not intended to accommodate long-term detention,” it added.

The private company Mitie took over the running of Harmondsworth from US firm GEO in September. The report said that while some existing procedures were “currently suffering under Mitie” as the transition took place, the firm had introduced many positive changes.

Migrants rights groups told The Independent that the report highlighted the need for urgent reform of the UK’s policy on asylum-seekers. Jerome Phelps, the director of Detention Action, said: “If Theresa May still doubted that the dysfunctions of immigration detention cause real harm to migrants, it has been confirmed again by her appointed independent monitors. It is unacceptable to lock people up indefinitely, for no crime, in depressing and unsuitable conditions.”

Maurice Wren, chief executive of the Refugee Council, added: “This report adds to the already substantial body of evidence that describes and documents the harmful effect of detention on individuals, some of whom have experienced unimaginable and traumatic human rights abuses. To lock them up indefinitely and without adequate judicial oversight or medical care is an outrage that must be brought to an end.”

A further piece of footage shows a pigeon inside the detention centre

Corporate Watch, the group which obtained covert footage showing Home Office staff admitting that conditions in Harmondsworth were “shit”, said the new report was “shocking” and suggested that conditions inside had not improved since Mitie took over.

But Ruby McGregor-Smith, the CEO of Mitie, said: “We took over the running of Harmondsworth in September. We’ve come up with a plan that we’re putting into action now in co-operation with the Home Office. It’s still very early days for us, but we’re trying to make the environment the best it can be.”

The Home Office has yet to respond to a request for comment from The Independent.

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