Our immigration detention system – yet more evidence that it is not fit for purpose

People subject to immigration controls in the UK can be detained without any time limit. A renewed campaign to end this practice is gathering pace, championed by organisations such as Detention Action, Amnesty International and Liberty. It comes on the back of numerous government-backed and independent inquiries and reports documenting the problems with our current system and how it works in practice. In 2015, a joint inquiry by two All Party Parliamentary Groups found that "the UK detains too many people, for too long a time, and that in far too many cases people are detained completely unnecessarily". The Home Office-commissioned Shaw review of 2016 called for a "smaller, more focused, strategically planned immigration detention estate". Despite this, Amnesty International's recent report has found that detention is still used on a routine basis instead of as a last resort; detention is often based on flawed decision-making; once detention has commenced, it is in many cases maintained as a matter of default; and harm is being done to detainees' mental and physical health.

Harmondsworth Inspection Report

Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, has today (13 March 2018) published his highly critical inspection report on Harmondsworth. This is an Immigration Removal Centre ('IRC') based near Heathrow holding up to 676 men, with the dubious distinction of being Europe's largest detention facility. The Home Office is responsible for Harmondsworth but its day-to-day operation has been contracted out to a division of the Mitie Group who run it for profit; they also run neighbouring Colnbrook IRC.

The report makes for very concerning reading and the criticisms that are levelled go to the heart of the UK's system of indefinite immigration detention. The inspection found that "the continuing lack of a time limit on detention meant that some men had been held for excessively long periods: 23 men had been detained for over a year and one man had been held for over 4.5 years, which was unacceptable."

The Chief Inspector has found considerable failings in the areas of safety and respect for the third consecutive inspection since August 2013. The findings concerning the most vulnerable detained men are particularly troubling. The level of mental health need was very high and almost a third of the population was considered by the Home Office to be vulnerable under its own 'at risk in detention' policy. It was found that processes for safeguarding detainees were not good enough.

At Risk Groups

Certain groups are especially at risk, including torture survivors. 'Rule 35 reports' were found to lack rigour - these are reports completed by medical staff and are intended to give some protection to the most vulnerable detainees, whose health is likely to be affected by detention. Concern was expressed that in nearly all of the cases examined the Home Office accepted evidence that detainees had been tortured, but maintained detention regardless. Insufficient attention was given to post-traumatic stress and other mental health problems.

Another key at risk group is victims of trafficking. The Chief Inspector found that there were delays in referring potential trafficking victims to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) and there was widespread ignorance of the NRM. This flies in the face of the legal duties on the Home Office to protect and support victims of trafficking.

Traumatic Detention Experiences

Even for those who are less obviously vulnerable, the experience of being detained is very traumatic. The Chief Inspector found that:

  • reception and first night processes were superficial and left many detainees feeling anxious and ill-informed;
  • violence management processes were weak and a high number of detainees felt unsafe because of "the uncertainty associated with their cases, but also because a large number of their fellow detainees seemed mentally unwell, frustrated or angry";
  • detained men were "routinely handcuffed" when attending outside healthcare appointments without evidence of risk;
  • "many areas were dirty and bedrooms, showers and toilets were poorly ventilated", with an endemic bed bugs infestation;
  • "many detainees on the newer and more prison-like units found being locked into their cells at night upsetting and stressful";
  • only 29% of detainees said they could fill their time and "many described a sense of purposelessness and boredom";
  • "drug use was becoming an increasing problem"; and
  • detainees taken to the separation (segregation) unit were routinely handcuffed and strip-searched, regardless of individual risk.

This is reflected in the finding that only 58% of detainees in the Chief Inspector's survey said that most staff treated them with respect, well below the average figure for IRCs. Staffing levels were found to be too low and around a third of staff said that they did not have sufficient training to do their jobs well.

We are experienced in representing individuals who have been unlawfully detained under immigration powers and in bringing claims against the Home Office on their behalf. We help clients to achieve a settlement recognising the harm they have suffered, or if necessary, to fight their case in court. If you or a loved one have been detained and you think that the Home Office might have acted unlawfully in arresting you or in continuing your detention, please get in touch to see if we can help. We may also be able to advise you if you have suffered abuse or ill-treatment at the hands of Home Office or immigration detention staff, whether lawfully detained or not.


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