Still no protection for asylum seekers

Still no protection for asylum seekers


Written by: Harmit Athwal

Last week, on 18 October, a fire erupted at Campsfield House detention centre near Oxford. The centre, which can hold up to 216 men, suffered serious damage and those held there were transferred to other removal centres and prisons across the UK.

Reports have emerged from the centre that the fire was allegedly started by a detainee who had self-harmed and then set fire to his room. Campaigners from Corporate Watch were able to speak to people as the fire took hold in the centre (listen to a witness here) while others watched the fire from outside and subsequent evacuation unfold (watch video of the fire here courtesy of Ewen MacArthur). Allegations are also emerging about poor evacuation procedures and alleged brutality against detainees in the aftermath of the fire.

Very little ‘official’ information has emerged about what happened. Mitie, the private firm which runs the centre, has refused to comment and refers queries to the UK Border Agency. A somewhat uninformative statement was issued by a Home Office spokesperson: ‘The fire at Campsfield immigration removal centre led to more than half of the detainees being relocated to other removal centres around the UK. All the detainees have been accounted for and two male detainees were taken to hospital. One has been released and the other remains in the hospital. The cause of the fire is being investigated by police and the fire service.’

However, the press release from Chief Fire Officers’ Association (CFOA) was a little more revealing: ‘Ten fire engines attended the fire at the Kidlington Centre and one casualty was rescued by fire crews, and remains in a critical condition.  One hundred and eighty people were evacuated from the accommodation block where the fire started, and there was substantial damage to the roof and second floor of the building. Campsfield House did not have sprinklers fitted, despite an earlier incident involving the same accommodation block, during which Oxfordshire FRS had strongly recommended their installation.

We had an incident at Campsfield several years ago, and formally wrote to the Home Office recommending the fitting of sprinklers due to the nature and behaviour of the occupants, plus the high probability of another similar incident. The Home Office elected not to fit sprinklers during the refurbishment. There is a precedent for sprinklers to be fitted in immigration centres – as they were in Yarlswood[sic], Bedfordshire, and Harmsworth [sic] in London – following serious fires at those facilities. We would call upon the Home Office to install sprinkler systems in all similar properties…’

CFOA President, Paul Fuller also commented that: ‘the extensive spread of the fire might have been halted before the lives of firefighters and the centre’s staff and residents were put at risk, had the Home Office listened to Oxfordshire Fire Service’s advice to fit sprinklers at the Campsfield Centre.’

The circumstances of the fire and its causes are currently being investigated. Eleven years after the fire at Yarl’s Wood which destroyed the centre, it seems the Home Office is still playing fast and loose with the lives of vulnerable asylum seekers.

Related links

Read an IRR News story: Yarl’s Wood trial – a miscarriage of justice?

Read an IRR News story: Harmondsworth expansion adds to risk

Corporate Watch

Listen to a witness here

Watch video of the fire here

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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