Britain — the detention capital of Europe

Submitted by AWL on 6 May, 2014 - 5:53

In February of 2013 Alois Dvorzac, an 84-year-old Canadian national who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, died in handcuffs at the publicly-funded and privately-run Harmondsworth detention centre.

Immigration officials stationed at Gatwick Airport, where Dvorzac had made a transit stop en route to visit his native Slovenia, had detained him in Harmondsworth, even though a doctor’s report declared him unfit for detention.

The circumstances surrounding Dvorzac’s death did not come to light until January of this year, when HM Inspector of Prisons published its report of an unannounced inspection of Harmondsworth.

The following month the then Tory Immigration Minister Mark Harper (whose ministerial responsibilities included immigration detention) discovered that the Colombian part-time cleaner at his London flat had neither permission to be in the UK nor permission to work.

Harper felt compelled to resign. Not because he bore ministerial responsibility for a detention centre in which an 84-year-old suffering from Alzheimer’s had died in handcuffs. But because he had unwittingly employed someone lacking permission to be or work in the UK.

The uncovering of Dvorzac’s death, on the other hand, resulted in no more than a run-of-the-mill statement by Harper (“The use of restraint in this case seems(!) completely unjustified.”) and a call for “significant improvements” in the way Harmondsworth was run by the (multinational) Geo Group.

The callousness with which Dvorzac’s death was brushed aside by Harper — whose “achievements” in office had included the notorious “Go Home” billboards and advertising vans — sums up the brutality at the core of Britain’s migrant-detention regime.

Britain’s immigration detention “estate” is now one of the largest in Europe. In 1993 it had a total capacity of just 250. By 2003 its capacity had increased to 1,600 places in seven immigration removal centres. By 2011 it had more than doubled in size again, reaching its current figure of nearly 3,500 places.

Last year’s decision to reclassify Verne Prison (Dorset) as an Immigration Removal Centre will have added another 580 places by September of this year. And in March of this year the government announced plans to almost double the number of places at Campsfield Immigration Removal Centre, from 260 to 510.

The eventual total detention capacity of over 4,000 places will be split between ten Immigration Removal Centres, three Short-Term Holding Centres and one Pre-Departure Accommodation Centre. Three of the Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) have security levels equivalent to those in operation in a high-security prison.

When five new high-security wings were opened at Harmondsworth in 2010, HM Inspector of Prisons described the new wings as “prison-type accommodation, in small and somewhat oppressive cells”, while the centre’s Independent Monitoring Board, which reports directly to the Home Secretary, commented:

“The new rooms, to be shared by two people, are based on prison cells, with toilets located inside the room, behind limited screening. It is shocking that brand new facilities have been built that are ill-suited to their intended purpose and that offer lower standards of decency than the facilities they replace.”

Just as the number of detention centres has increased, so too, inevitably, has the number of detainees.

26,000 persons were detained in the course of 2010, 27,000 in 2011, and 29,000 in 2012. Between 2009 and 2012, between 2,000 and 3,000 people were held in detention at any given time. But now the average monthly figure for immigration detainees has begun to exceed 3,000: in June of 2013 3,142 people were held in detention.

Official statistics on immigration detention do not include non-British nationals detained in prisons following completion of a criminal sentence and awaiting deportation. Estimates of the numbers held in prisons vary from around 650 to over 950.

Nor do official statistics include migrants subject to relatively brief detention in police cells, short-term holding rooms at ports and airports, and reporting centres in the main cities.

Just as Britain can “boast” of one of the largest detention estates in Europe, so too it can “boast” of the length of time for which migrants can be held in detention.

On paper, the UK Borders Agency policy is that “detention must be used sparingly, and for the shortest period necessary.” In practice, Britain detains migrants for longer than any other country in Europe.

Apart from two other member-states, Britain is the only European Union state which has not signed up to the EU Returns Directive, which allows for a (hardly restrictive) maximum of 18 months on immigration detention in exceptional circumstances.

Most EU countries have a much shorter time limit. In France the maximum permissible period of detention is 45 days. But in Britain there is no time limit at all.

According to Home Office statistics, around 60% of immigration detainees are detained for two months or less. But by way of comparison: even terrorist suspects can be detained only for a maximum of fourteen days.

The same statistics also show that nearly 10% of immigration detainees are held for over a year. And detention statistics for late 2012 revealed that the twelve longest recorded lengths of detention included one for over four years, two for over three years, and nine for over two years.

Average detention times for foreigners detained in prison after completion of their sentences vary from 523 days to 755 days (where the detainee’s country of nationality refuses to provide a travel document).

In 2011 the High Court found the five-year detention of an Algerian national to have been illegal from day one. For three years prior to his detention the Home Office had tried unsuccessfully to obtain an Algerian travel document to allow his deportation from the UK. His detention could therefore never have been considered to be “pending removal”.

And when HM Inspector of Prisons made an unannounced visit to Lincoln Prison in 2012, he discovered a Somali migrant who had remained in detention in the prison for nine years. Apparently, he had been “forgotten”.

Despite Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s claim of December 2010 that children would no longer subject to immigration detention, children continue to be detained (even if Britain no longer holds the EU record for detaining minors: between one and two thousand a year in the closing years of the last Labour government).

Although the number of children detained in 2011 fell to about a hundred (compared with a thousand in 2009), the number of detained minors increased to 240 in the course of 2012, split between Tinsley House (a high security centre with space for families deemed too “disruptive” for non-custodial pre-departure accommodation) and the Cedars centre near Crawley.

Cedars was opened in August of 2011 — just eight months after the closure of the family unit in Yarl’s Wood detention centre which had accompanied Nick Clegg’s announcement — and is run by G4S in partnership with … Barnado’s.

Barnado’s Values Statement includes: “…working in partnership with children and families of all races, challenging discrimination and disadvantage, and creating positive opportunities.”

When Barnado’s took on the contract for Cedars it set out a list of “red lines”, including no use of force against children, no repeat periods of detention, and no detention for longer than seven days. All those “red lines” have been breached.

Asylum-seekers continue to represent by far the largest single category of detainees. In 2012 asylum detainees constituted just under 50% of the total detainee population.

In the early 2000s the “justification” given by the Home Office for increasing the size of its detention “estate” was that the increase was needed to cope with the record number of asylum claims being lodged in Britain: by 2008 75% of the detainee population were asylum-seekers.

The then Labour government argued that asylum claims could best be dealt with by detaining selected asylum-seekers for seven days and processing their asylum claims during that week. Britain thus became the only country in Europe to detain asylum-seekers simply for the purpose of processing their asylum claims.

(Bizarrely, one of the criteria in deciding which asylum-seekers to detain was that they were low-risk absconders. Under normal circumstances, this would have been a reason not to detain them.)

Since then, the number of asylum applications has slumped. Between 2002 and 2010, for example, the rate of asylum applications lodged in Britain fell by 79%. The original “rationale” given in the early 2000s therefore no longer applies (not that it ever did).

Even so, asylum-seekers continue to be detained in large numbers: 30% of all new asylum applications are dealt with under the so-called DFT (detained fast-track) procedures. But while the detention is real the “fast-track” is a chimera.

Under the DFT procedure asylum-seekers are meant to: have an interview about their asylum claim on day two of detention; get a decision on their asylum claim on day three of detention; have their appeal against refusal — 99% of DFT claims are refused — on day nine; and have their second-level appeal heard and concluded by the 21st day of detention.

But research by the Detention Action NGO has found that asylum-seekers were in detention for a fortnight on average before being interviewed about their claim, and nearly 20% of asylum-seekers were in detention for over a month before being interviewed.

Most had no access to legal representation during that period and met their legal representative only minutes before their asylum interview. 60% of detained asylum-seekers received no legal help in pursuing their appeals. And once their appeal rights had been exhausted, they then spent an average of another 58 days in detention awaiting their removal from Britain.

Detained asylum-seekers are also at risk of seeing their asylum claims dealt with under the Detained Non-Suspensive Appeals process, under which asylum-seekers are liable to removal from the UK as soon as their asylum claim has been refused. If they want to appeal, they must do so from their own country.

For detained asylum-seekers the detention system therefore functions as nothing other than a mechanism geared to frustrating their chances of being able to properly present their asylum claim.

As the size of the detainee population has increased, so too has the number of attempted suicides and the number of detainees on suicide watch. In fact the number of such incidents has increased disproportionately.

The number of attempted suicides increased from 159 in 2007 to 215 in 2009, and to 325 in 2013. The latter figure equates to one attempted suicide every 27 hours. The number of detainees on suicide watch increased from 1,517 in 2007 to 1,588 in 2009, and to 2,379 in 2013.

The increase in the number of detainees on suicide watch is not to be attributed to any increased awareness on the part of detention centre security staff. In fact, investigations into detainee deaths and general conditions in detention centres have consistently been critical of the security staff.

Security staff are predominantly provided by private-sector companies, working under contract to the Home Office. Apart from three Immigration Removal Centres staffed by HM Prison Service, all other detention centres are variously run by: G4S, Mitie, Serco, GEO Group UK, and Tascor (formerly Reliance).

All five companies are global organisations, running prison and detention facilities in countries round the world. And all of them are engaged not just in providing “services” in prisons and detention centres but also in lobbying governments to make increased used of their services.

Apart from allowing governments to distance themselves from responsibility for the failings inherent in the detention regime —it was not the handcuffs that killed Dvorzac; it was the detention —the use of private companies is also justified on the grounds of cost-effectiveness.

In fact, the use of private companies has proved to be cost-effective only for the companies themselves.

Although the Home Office is reluctant to publish figures for the financial costs of immigration detention, a Freedom of Information Act request of 2007 uncovered that the weekly cost of detaining an individual ranged from £511 (Lindholme IRC) to £1,344 (Colnbrook IRC) and £1,620 (the now closed Oakington IRC).

According to a government report published in 2010, the average cost per place per day in a detention centre was £120, equal to an annual cost of £44,000. On that basis, the cost of running Campsfield House IRC in Oxforshire amounts to more than £8.5 million per year.

These figures do not include compensation paid out by the Home Office for unlawful detention. In 2010 this amounted to £12 million.

Operating standards in detention centres are meant to comply with those laid down in the government’s Detention Centre Rules and in the UK Border Agency’s “Detention Services Operating Standards Manual for Immigration Service Removal Centres”, published in 2005.

In fact, such standards exist only on paper.

In 2008 a coalition of NGOs detailed some 300 cases of alleged assaults by security staff in detention facilities in the period 2004-2008. The allegations covered detainees of 41 nationalities, the majority being African migrants. The complaints procedures in operation in the centres were dismissed as ineffective.

In 2010 the charity Medical Justice published “Outsourcing Abuse”, which also documented 300 cases of alleged abuse. All reported incidents involved the use of excessive force, with the majority of injuries resulting from the use of restraints. Some of the attacks involved families and resulted in injuries to children.

In October of the same year Angolan deportee Jimmy Mubenga collapsed and died from suffocation after three G4S guards forcibly “restrained” him during his forced deportation. Eye-witnesses to his death testified that the Home Office and G4S accounts of his death were false. But in 2012 the Crown Persecution Service closed the case without pressing charges.

2010 also saw the publication of a damning report of an unannounced visit to the G4S-run Brook House IRC by HM Inspector of Prisons:

“We were disturbed to find one of the least safe immigration detention facilities we have inspected, with deeply frustrated detainees and demoralised staff, some of whom lacked the necessary confidence to manage those in their care. At the time of the inspection, Brook House was an unsafe place.”

“Bullying and violence were serious problems and — unusually for the immigration detention estate — drugs were a serious problem. Many detainees were ex-prisoners and a number compared their experience in Brook House negatively to that in prison.”

The HM Inspector of Prisons report on Harmondsworth (January 2014) which uncovered the death of Alois Dvorzac was equally scathing of the topic of its report:

“A major concern is an inadequate focus on the needs of the most vulnerable detainees, including elderly and sick men, those at risk of self harm through food refusal, and other people whose physical or mental health conditions made them potentially unfit for detention.”

“A lack of intelligent individual risk assessment had meant that most detainees were handcuffed on escort and on at least two occasions, elderly, vulnerable and incapacitated detainees, one of whom was terminally ill, were needlessly handcuffed in an excessive and unacceptable manner.”

“The Rule 35 procedure that identifies victims of torture and others with special conditions was failing, as we often see, to safeguard possible victims.”

“Some rooms were overcrowded and much of the centre was dirty and bleak. Engagement between detainees and staff was just adequate and too many staff seemed confined to their offices. In our survey too few detainees felt respected.”

“Although more detainees felt they had enough to do (regarding educational and recreational activities), attendance, punctuality and access were constantly undermined by needless security and control impediments which served little discernable purpose.”

A failure to care for the most vulnerable detainees. Excessive and unacceptable handcuffing. A failure to protect victims of torture. Dirty and bleak physical surroundings. A lack of respect for detainees. And security measure which served no particular purpose.

What is true of Harmondsworth is equally true of Britain’s detention “estate” as a whole.

Harmondsworth protest

On 2 May, 150 prisoners in Harmondsworth detention centre occupied the main courtyard with a sit down protest and began a hunger strike. Their demands included: “To be taken off the unfair fast track system; to not be treated as criminals by being locked up; for communications with lawyers to stop being interfered with; access to adequate legal representation.”

The Home Office agreed to negotiate and the protest was suspended.

• More here.

Iraqi detainees

The UK government has restarted detaining Iraqi refugees and threatening them with deportation.

Since 2005 more than 6,000 Kurdish and Iraqi asylum seekers have been detained by the UK and other European governments. Following detention they were forcibly deported to Baghdad or Kurdistan.

But in the last two years International Federation of Iraqi Refugees has successfully organised demonstrations, blockades and other activities forcing both the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi government to not accept any forcible deportation flights.

Many refugees become unemployed and homeless when they return to Iraq and Kurdistan.

Now Iraqi refugees living in Britain are living in a state of fear. Many have partners and children who are either UK nationals or have status to live in the UK. Some have been under such pressure they have chosen suicide rather than face deportation.

Please support to IFIR campaign by writing to the Home Secretary Theresa May demanding that all Iraqi and Kurdish refugees are released from detention and deportations to Iraq and Kurdistan are stopped immediately.

Rt. Hon Theresa May MP, Home Secretary, 2 Marsham Street, London, SW1P 4DF, telephone number: 020 7035 4848. Please send IFIR a copy of your support  to or to IFIR, P.O. BOX 1575, ILFORD IG1 3BZ.

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