The latest report by the Prison Watchdog published today (1 March 2016) reveals that the UK had let its largest immigration detention centre, Harmondsworth, deteriorate to an “unacceptable” level, with some parts “among the worst in the detention estate”, while continuing to incarcerate migrants without a time limit for an administrative purpose. 

The Chief Inspector of Prisons found that 18 men had been held at Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre, over a year, including one man detained for a total of five years, amidst the increase level of vulnerability among the detained population with 50% of them stating that they were depressed or suicidal.  

In his first inspection report on a detention centre, the new Chief Inspector, Peter Clarke also repeated a call for a time limit on the length of the length of detention, first made by his predecessor, Nick Hardwick, in August 2015 in his inspection report of Yarls Wood Immigration Removal Centre.  

Under the contract with the Home Office, Harmondsworth is run by a private security company, MITIE, which also manages the adjacent Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre where Amir Siman-Tov, a Moroccan Jew in his 30s, was found dead a few weeks ago.  Harmondsworth detains up to 661 men, making it the largest detention centre in the UK. 

The inspection report comes at a time when the Government is under increased pressure to commence its detention reform programme, demanded by the parliamentary inquiry into the use of immigration detention and the government-commissioned Shaw Review into the detention of vulnerable persons.  The UK’s practice of detaining mentally ill migrants indefinitely was described by the Shaw Review as “an affront to civilised values”. 

While the Immigration Minister, James Brokenshire, accepted the broad thrust of the Shaw Review recommendations, that the harmful practice of immigration detention is reduced “without delay”, politicians have been frustrated by the fact that no detailed plan for detention reform has materialised to date. 

UK is also facing another inspection visit by Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee this year, which monitors places of detention.  After their last visit in 2012, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment also recommended that UK ends its practice of indefinite immigration detention.  

Jerome Phelps of Detention Action, one of the Detention Forum members, said, “The detention system as a whole should not have been allowed to reach this state.  Once again, detention has been shown to be failing to meet the minimum standards that society demands.  The Home Office detains far too many people, with inadequate care, for far too long.  The Government has accepted the need for reform; this report shows that that reform must be urgent and fundamental.

Another member, Ali McGinley, AVID said, ‘Yet again the prisons inspectorate have provided overwhelming evidence of the systemic problems within the immigration detention system, and the impact this has on the individuals held. The continued detention of very vulnerable people leaves them exposed to risk of further harm. Today’s report clearly demonstrates the link between immigration detention and high levels of depression and suicidal ideation. This cannot be allowed to continue. The government, having broadly accepted the call for reform, must now take action promptly’ 

Eiri Ohtani of the Detention Forum added, “The responsibility for this deplorable neglect of the detention estate and those who are held inside lies squarely with the government who has made little progress with detention reform.  It is highly significant that both the previous and the incumbent Chief Inspectors have now recommended a time limit on the length of immigration detention, despite repeated refusals by the government to accept such a change is necessary.  It is high time that the government seriously engaged with this growing demand for a time limit and brought UK in line with other civilised countries in the world.

Mia Hasenson-Gross of Rene Cassin said, “This report once again highlights the lethal policy of indefinite detention – as evidenced by the tragic death of Jewish Moroccan Amir Siman-Tov at Colnbrook removals center last month. That detention is harmful is beyond dispute – locking innocent and vulnerable people indefinitely is inhumane. Last year, the government led celebrations marking the 800 anniversary of Magna Carta. Its  most famous clause – ‘to no-one will we deny or delay right or justice’ – seems insincere to the people in places like Harmondsworth.

Sarah Teather of JRS UK said, “Peter Clarke is the second Chief Inspector of Prisons to draw attention to the unacceptably long periods in which people are warehoused in detention and to call for a time limit. The conditions he describes bring shame on the Government, but cleaning up is not enough. The problem is that Britain detains far too many people for far too long. They should invest in alternatives to detention, not new shower blocks.  JRS has long had a ministry to visit those held in detention at Harmondsworth and Colnbrook and our teams meet many whose mental and physical health is wrecked by the experience of indefinite detention.  It is heartening to read in the report that visitors like ours bring some relief to people in this situation, but we long for the day when our ministry will no longer be needed and when all are treated with more dignity and respect.

Last updated on 6 March 2016