It really is inconceivable to me that something as significant as the protests and repression at the Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre aren’t getting picked up by the mainstream media at all; it’s shameful really. On April 1st a majority of detainees went into the exercise yard to protest against their detention and the poor conditions they face (which include universally inadequate legal representation, which I’ve mentioned in previous posts). The following day they followed up with hunger strikes. Be aware that asylum seekers are not locked up at Harmondsworth for having committed any crime, and that protests such as this have occurred there many times before, each time having been broken up violently by the police.
This too was broken up by police violence. On April 5th about 50 riot police broke the hunger strike, putting detainees into solitary confinement and other prisons in order to stop them from communicating with each other and the outside world. The mainstream media ignored this too, and the whereabouts of about 30 detainees are currently unknown. State violence is not supposed to be happening in the United Kingdom, nor is it supposed to be allowed to happen by the mainstream media. This has gone on in November 2006, April 2006, January 2006 and July 2004 merely at Harmondsworth, not to mention Yarls Wood in 2002 and 2004:
Arbitrary detention, dispersal, vouchers, deportations, self harm, suicides, racist attacks, snatch squads, are all part of the daily life of asylum seekers in the UK.
That’s not just a quote, as confirmed by Harmondsworth’s most recent inspection by the Chief Inspector of Prisons:
Over 60% of detainees said they had felt unsafe at Harmondsworth. This was much higher than the comparator for other centres. More worryingly, the main fear was of bullying by staff: 44% of detainees (compared to 28% in other IRCs) said they had been victimised by staff. In structured interviews, five of the 10 most common concerns about safety related directly to staff behaviour. Detainees described custody officers as ‘aggressive’, ‘intimidating’, ‘rude’ and ‘unhelpful’, especially to those without English – though they found senior officers better, and were extremely complimentary about education staff. Some staff also expressed concerns to us about language and behaviour they had witnessed from colleagues. We ourselves saw relationships that were often distant, and evidence of a lack of care or understanding of detainees’ situations and anxieties.
We attributed these poor relationships, which were worse than any we have seen elsewhere, at least in part to the centre management’s over-emphasis on physical security and control. Many of the rules and systems would have been considered over-controlling in a prison, let alone a removal centre. Detainees were unable to have basic possessions, such as tins, jars, leads for audio equipment and nail clippers. Their movements were strictly controlled. Use of force was high, as was the use of temporary confinement in segregated conditions – sometimes as a response to poor behaviour rather than for reasons of security or safety as specified in the Detention Centre Rules. The incentives scheme operated rather as a punishment system, sometimes depriving detainees of basic entitlements, such as the ability to attend religious services.
By contrast, the systems that should exist to support detainees were underdeveloped. Suicide and self-harm work was weak, in spite of the efforts of a good and committed coordinator. Reviews did not involve healthcare, support plans were poor, and night staff had limited access to ligature cutters. Most worryingly, a so-called action plan, to deal with problems identified by the inquiry into the recent self-inflicted death, had been shared with neither the suicide prevention team nor the staff in the centre. It was a purely bureaucratic exercise which had had no impact on the centre’s practices. Equally, the complaints system was distrusted and ineffective. It was not sufficiently confidential and tracking systems were ineffective. This was of particular concern as a third of complaints were about staff, and some that raised serious allegations had not been investigated properly.
If it seems the greatest problem is the management of the centre, I wonder also why noone seems to be asking why it’s run by Kalyx, a subsidiary of Sodexho, whilst known by the government to underperform. In 2006 it was fined £5 million for undisclosed ‘performance failures’. Baroness Scotland said in December 2006 that ‘rigorous attempts to manage the situation (in Harmondsworth}’ had been put in place. Without being able to confirm this either way, the treatment that these latest protesters have received suggests the opposite, and the Independent Asylum Commission found the UK’s asylum system as a whole ‘marred by inhumanity’. It’s pointless trying to improve conditions within one centre, if the system under which it operates is ‘inhuman’, and this seems to be the principle grievance which triggered the latest unrest. The evidence:
“They are denying asylum to people who needs protection without giving them the opportunity to prove their cases. Legal representation is of bad quality and some legal representatives work for the Home Office, not in the interest of the asylum seekers.
In the meantime people are kept in detention, some have been there up to 21 months.
The fast track system is unjust and unfair, it is not practical becuse it gives decisions in 5 days and two days to appeal. People cannot prepare they cases in such short time.
Some people are in fear to go back to their countries where they were persecuted because of their sexuality, political opinion or religion, some are victims of torture, that’s why they are seeking asylum and the UK are sending them back.”
All common refrains, being picked up from numerous sources, not just Harmondsworth. The Mehdi Kazemi case, the repeated attacks on legal aid, the poor training of immigration officials, inadequate country information and ignorant attitudes by senior Home Office officials all point to a system geared up to abuse the most vulnerable, in flagrant defiance of the 1951 Geneva Convention.
The food is disgusting.
The medical facilities are appalling.
Some people have mental problems and should not be kept with the others and some are going crazy because they lock them up too long in deteintion.
We are not treated like human beings.
People get beaten at airport and they come back full of injuries. People are deported illegally when they still have cases pending.
Apart from the barbarous deportation of Ama Sumani (who died as a result of it), these further complaints are backed up in yet another damning report to precede the latest unrest at Harmondsworth. The report commissioned by the Border and Immigration Agency itself found:
The centre was found to be under-performing against any of the Race Relations standards that were set. … Only 2 managers were felt to represent principles of good practice in the way that they treated detainees with dignity and respect, whereas the rest of the managers treated detainees with disdain. It is this culture that causes the centre problems in terms of relationships between custody officers and detainees. There is a ‘taunting’ of detainees by some custody officers and a distinct lack of flexibility in treating detainees as individuals.
The detainees that were interviewed all reported either personally experiencing or witnessing harassment and intimidation perpetrated by staff. Banter and taunting of detainees was not seen as discriminatory behaviour or harassment, but as part of the natural relationship between a detainee and custody officer. This demonstrated a distinct lack of understanding and concern for the detainee’s situation.
Both staff and detainees reported incidents of detainees being taunted by some officers. There was no reason to disbelieve these reports, as an auditor overheard a senior officer saying to the CRALO, who is of Asian descent, ‘talk proper I can’t understand you.’
This behaviour wasn’t confined to Harmondsworth, although it scored the worst in the race relations audit of all immigration detention centres.
This petition has been sent to John McDonnell MP and the European Court of Human Rights, as well as other agencies. The hunger strike appears to be over, but with the evidence from official, unconnected reports and interviews with detainees showing no improvement either to the institution or the system it’s part of, it’s only a question of time before this happens again. The Border and Immigration Agency’s own conclusion says:
The audit findings highlighted areas for improvement with regards to race relations, but did not support serious allegations of racism or mistreatment of detainees.
even though the audit did support serious allegations of racism and mistreatment. It’s not to say that good practice doesn’t exist within the asylum detention system – that would be unfair and inaccurate. But Harmondsworth is a demonstrable problem, the Border and Immigration Agency has shown itself again and again not to be interested in its improvement, and government policy and attitudes only entrench and justify their failings, whilst sending ever more people who deserve only compassion and asylum into their hands.