Britain’s immigration detention regime has been subjected to a damning condemnation by prison inspectors this week, revealing that detainees are not given basic information about their cases, are exploited by unscrupulous legal representatives and are routinely strip-searched without reason. In one centre, Campsfield House, 12 per cent of detainees said that they had experienced sexual harassment.
The first ever independent report by the HM Prison Inspectorate on so-called ‘removal centres’ provides a detailed account of conditions faced by asylum seekers at five establishments:
- Tinsley House, at Gatwick Airport, run by Wackenhut UK Ltd, with 97 detainees at the time of inspection.
- Haslar, at Gosport, Hampshire, run by the Prison Service, with 141 detainees at time of inspection.
- Oakington, near Cambridge, run by Group 4, with 253 detainees at the time of inspection.
- Campsfield House, Oxfordfordshire, run by Group 4, with 168 detainees at the time of inspection.
- Lindholme near Doncaster, run by the Prison Service, holding 98 detainees at the time of inspection.
The report, drawing on interviews with detainees conducted about a year ago, paints a depressing picture of life behind the barbed wire fences of the detention centres. Two-thirds of detainees told inspectors that they did not feel safe in detention, with insecurity growing as they spent more time inside. This insecurity was heightened by the fact that they were unable to obtain reliable information from the immigration authorities about the reasons for their detention or the progress of their case. For asylum seekers who may well have fled their home countries in the first place because of the fear of arbitrary detention, this denial of information was, for many, the greatest insecurity of all.
To make matters worse, the report says, detainees are targeted by unscrupulous legal advisors who are ‘able to prey on their vulnerability’ and are allowed to extract large sums of money for little or no work. In Oakington, the situation was rather different because the centre is designed to provide legal support on site. However, the inspectors were concerned that the speed with which cases are pushed through Oakington’s ‘fast-track’ system did not allow for cases to be processed with full consideration of all their complexity and, because legal advisors are embedded in the detention regime, their independence may be questioned.
At Haslar and Lindholme – the two centres run by the Prison Service rather than private firms – the report reveals that staff routinely imposed random strip-searches after visits, rather than on the basis of reasonable suspicion. And detainees are also strip-searched on admission to the detention centres as a matter of routine, without any reason being given. According to the inspectors, staff at both these former prisons treat detainees as offenders, rather than recognising that they have not been convicted of any crime. At Lindholme, the prison atmosphere was compounded by detainees being made to wear prison clothes and by detainees’ own money being withheld from them and channelled into prison-like ‘incentive schemes’.
Lindholme, in particular, requires ‘fundamental and far-reaching changes’, say the inspectors, before it will be suitable for holding immigration detainees. The report describes poor food, poor heating and poor healthcare. Intimidation and hostility were present, with some individuals being made to hand over property. Detainees there do not feel safe ‘from one another or from fire’.
At Haslar, the facilities are also described as being in a state of disrepair with concern over fire risks and inadequate heating. Rooms were not separated by doors, leaving detainees feeling unsafe. There was inadequate staff supervision in the dormitories and staff made little effort to check on the wellbeing of detainees.
Legal rights denied
In all the detention centres except for Oakington, a significant proportion of detainees had no legal representation at all, implying that they had virtually no information on their cases, let alone a fair chance of winning them. Information on how to get legal help was not provided. Worse still, arrangements for making sure that detainees appeared at bail or appeal hearings were often unreliable, leading to a denial of individuals’ basic legal rights. For others, access to legal advice was made impossible simply because they had insufficient funds to communicate with their legal representatives by phone.
Except at Oakington, it was standard practice to rely on other detainees as translators, which, the report points out, is totally inappropriate for any kind of sensitive discussion of an individual’s case. About half the detainees had no working knowledge of English which meant that significant numbers did not understand why they were being held, the rules and routines of the centres, or what legal representatives and doctors might have said to them. In Lindholme, staff were reduced on one occasion to singing ‘happy birthday’ in unison to one detainee in an attempt to work out his date of birth.
The culture of withholding information from detainees was at its worst when deportations were due to be implemented. Rather than providing individuals with a reasonable amount of time before deportation, so that they could sort out their affairs, notify family and contact their legal representatives, the authorities tended to leave this to the last moment before informing the detainee. This inevitably caused unnecessary stress and fear.
The inspectors were also concerned about the lack of care for the mental health problems of detainees, many of whom had suffered trauma in their countries of origin. This was then made worse by their being locked up in Britain in centres that offered little in the way of help for any mental illness.
At Campsfield House, the scene of serious disturbances in 1997, detainees reported ‘quite high levels of, though not frequent, verbal and physical victimisation by staff and other detainees’. In Oakington and Tinsley House, there were insufficient safeguards to prevent suicide, self-harm and bullying.
Both Oakington and Tinsley House also held unaccompanied children and family groups. The report recommends that children should never be held for more than seven days and that their detention should be avoided wherever possible.
Lost in the system
In all, there were over 1,000 immigration detainees at the beginning of this year. 795 of these had been detained after claiming asylum, of whom 72 were women. The two most common nationalities of those detained were Sri Lankan and Pakistani. One in three of all detainees were held for over four months. During 2002 as a whole, 8,595 cases were processed at Oakington.
There are concerns that the management of the government’s detention system is falling apart, leading to cases being ‘lost in the system’. One example noted by the Prisons Inspectorate is that of a group who were put in Winchester prison en route to another asylum centre. They were meant to be there for only one or two nights but, weeks later, were found to be still in Winchester.
The miserable account of life in Britain’s detention centres, described by the Prisons Inspectorate, echoes the findings of other organisations which work with detainees. The Bail Circle, a network of individuals who offer bail to detained asylum seekers, recently complained that an unacceptably high number of detainees were victims of torture who, although they had stated this fact in their initial interviews with the Immigration Service, had not had a trauma expert reporting on their case. Added to this was the problem of limited access to competent solicitors. The Bail Circle was able to provide effective legal support to a number of detainees, leading to their release and, for some, even a successful judicial review of their cases, but many others were either unable to get this basic help or received it too late in the process.
Anne Owers, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, has described the immigration detention system as ‘a sector that is not used to scrutiny’. This has been her first opportunity to make use of new powers allowing the Prisons Inspectorate to examine detention centres.
But the Home Office’s response has been to question her findings. Beverley Hughes, Home Office minister, commented: ‘A large proportion of the findings reflect only the comments of the detainees themselves’. On the issue of the detention of children, the Prisons Inspectorate recommended that children should not be detained for more than seven days. But Hughes said that the detention of children, ‘whilst regrettable, is at times essential’ and that it was impractical to put a time-limit on it.