Two reports by the chief inspector of prisons Anne Owers into immigration holding centres at Heathrow airport and Calais have criticised conditions and called for “urgent action” to improve facilities.
The reports, published this week and based on unannounced visits in 2005, praised the attitude of staff at the centres. But Owers said none of the facilities were equipped to hold men, women and children separately or provide suitable child protection arrangements.
She also stated that none of the five centres at Heathrow offered basics for overnight stays such as blankets and toiletries, despite some detainees being held for up to 36 hours. The holding accommodation at one of the three Calais centres was “disrespectful and wholly inadequate”.
Owers also made damning criticism of the “dehumanising aspects” of the immigration removal process, saying that some detainees were treated as “parcels whose contents and destination were sometimes incorrect.” She highlights the case of a young pregnant woman “who had been passed around various places of detention without any appropriate care or attention to her individual needs.”
Maeve Sherlock, chief executive of The Refugee Council described the findings “deeply worrying” and called for “higher standards of care and compassion” in the centres.
Sherlock also called on the government to end the practice of detaining children saying: “A particular concern is that children are being detained in places which are totally unsuitable. Our current campaign, No place for a child, calls for a complete end to detaining children. The government could make a start by ensuring that children never end up in centres where child protection processes are not in place.”
According to the Refugee Council, over 2000 children were detained in 2004, with more than 30 per cent being locked up for over seven days. The effects of detention are extremely damaging with children often feeling they are being punished but not understanding why, says the charity.
The government has responded to the reports by saying the immigration service had already taken action to tackle issues raised by Owers including:
• Ensuring that all new immigration staff working with children have undergone enhanced Criminal Record Bureau checks, with existing staff receiving additional checks in the near future
• Full training for staff in dealing with children and their families
• Reviewing the use of one of the Calais short-term holding facilities
• Recognising there may be a need to put in place a system of independent monitoring of short-term detention facilities
However the government indicated that detention would still be used, with Home Office Minister Tony McNulty saying: “Short-term detention in the UK is used when further investigations are needed on individuals arriving in the UK, or, if an individual is refused entry, pending their removal on the next available return flight.”
McNulty did acknowledge that reviews were necessary adding:
“The power to detain is an essential part of protecting the integrity of and public confidence in our immigration controls and we take the welfare of detainees extremely seriously and as such we recognise that there may be a need to put in place a system of independent monitoring of these short-term detention facilities.”