Home Office detaining vulnerable people in ‘prison-like’ immigration centres for months at a time, report finds

A detainee identified as a victim of modern slavery was held for more than a year, with authorities unable to confirm to NationalWorld whether he has since been released

Home Office detaining vulnerable people in ‘prison-like’ immigration centres for months at a time, report finds (Photos: Leon Neal/Getty Images, Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)

People are being held in a “prison-like” immigration removal centre for extended periods despite evidence that continued detention is likely to cause them serious harm, a report has found.

A report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons found that over a six-month period last year, dozens of people who have dealt with severe trauma such as torture and/or modern slavery are being detained in “bleak and dispiriting” conditions at Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre in Middlesex, often with little prospect of removal.

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Amnesty UK has described the Home Office’s detention and removal practices as “excessive and often very harmful,” while the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) said the report “adds to the wealth of evidence of abuse of vulnerable people by the Home Office”.

JCWI’s CEO, Satbir Singh, told NationalWorld that “it is time for immigration policy based on evidence, compassion and respect for the rule of law”.

‘Bleak, dispiriting and prison-like conditions’

Half the people in Harmondsworth said they had mental health problems and 80% self-reported feeling depressed.

Under the Home Office’s three-level adults at risk policy, 45 per cent of detainees were assessed at the two higher levels, meaning there was professional evidence to suggest they were “particularly vulnerable to harm in detention” or “that ongoing detention was likely to cause the detainee harm”.

The reports cites experience of trafficking, mental illness and “a history of torture” among the reasons detainees were deemed to be at risk of harm from detention.

The inspectorate found that migrants are being detained in “bleak, dispiriting” and “prison-like” conditions at the centre.

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Health professionals considered many of those detained unfit for detention, and in at least 16 cases, there was professional evidence to show that ongoing detention was likely to cause harm.

On average, the report found, these people were held for a further 73 days after they were assessed to be at risk from further detention.

Rule 35 of the detention centre rules requires a medical practitioner to report to the Home Office if any detainee’s health is likely to be affected by continued detention, particularly in cases where the person is experiencing suicidal thoughts or is a victim of torture.

Over a six month period, more than 120 Rule 35 reports were filed relating to experiences of torture, seven related to health concerns and two were due to a detainee being seriously considered at risk of suicide.

It is clear that the Home Office uses a fairly high threshold to determine what is classed as torture, as, in one case, a detainee who had been beaten, burned with cigarette butts and cut with knives was not recognised as a torture victim, because there was “no clear indication the detainee was in a position of powerlessness”.

Of all the rule 35 reports - which come about if a detainee is considered to be at risk of harm from further detention - only 35% led to release.

Neither the Home Office nor Inspectorate could confirm to NationalWorld whether the two individuals believed to be at serious risk of suicide from continued detention are still being detained.

Victim of modern slavery held for over a year for removal

The average length of detention among people in Harmondsworth was 73 days, while there were at least eight people who had been held for more than a year.

Experts see these lengthy periods of detention as damaging, and potentially unlawful, while the inspectorate said the amount of time people assessed at the highest level of risk was a “serious concern”.

Speaking to NationalWorld, Annie Viswanathan, director of Bail for Immigration Detainees, said: “Detention is only lawful if it is being used to effect an individual’s removal from the UK, but this report by the government’s own inspector makes it clear that people were held for many months even though removal was not possible due to the pandemic.

“It is outrageous that even during the middle of a pandemic the Home Office would detain so many people that are by its own recognition highly vulnerable. Its disregard for the harm caused to human beings is staggering.

“These are symptoms of a broken system that has no place in a supposedly liberal democracy.”

The Inspectorate’s report found that “some vulnerable detainees did not have a lawyer”, and that in one case, the Home Office itself decided that a person held at the centre was a victim of modern slavery, but “nevertheless decided to remove him [from the UK]”.

The report, which was published 30 April, noted: “He has been detained for over a year because no flights were available during the pandemic.”

Neither the Home Office nor the Inspectorate could confirm whether this person has since been released.

‘Very harmful’

Speaking to NationalWorld, Steve Valdez-Symonds, the Refugee and Migrant Rights Director at Amnesty International UK, said: “This is a timely reminder of the excessive and often very harmful use of Home Office powers to detain and expel women and men from the UK, including people born and raised in this country and people who will be put at risk of torture and persecution.

“The inspectorate has once again highlighted the very long, and wholly excessive, periods of time for which some people are held - with terrible impact on their mental and physical health.

“As emphasised in the report, this is often even after it has been established that the person should not be detained at all.

“It is high time the Government acknowledged and acted on the need for a time limit on the use of immigration detention; and abandoned its determination - repeated in its most recent published immigration plan - to deprive even more people of the means to defend themselves against immigration powers that are frequently used improperly and unlawfully.”

Home Office takes detainees’ wellbeing ‘extremely seriously’

The Home Office said that it does not comment on individual cases, and that vulnerable people are only detained if “the evidence of their vulnerability is outweighed by the immigration considerations”.

A spokesperson said: “We take the wellbeing of those in immigration removal centres extremely seriously and we are pleased this report finds that the centre has adapted well to the challenges of the Covid-19 and that medical and mental health support is particularly good.

“There are a few areas for improvement and we are responding to the recommendations made in the report to set out how we intend to address these.

“Immigration detention is used sparingly and is always considered on a case by case basis. We will continue to work to ensure that the needs of those in detention are met.”