news analysis of damning inspection reports on removal centres

Fears about the welfare of asylum seekers being detained in
immigration removal and reception centres were confirmed last week
by the publication of highly critical inspection reports into five
of the UK’s eight centres.

The reports, carried out by the chief inspector of prisons Anne
Owers last year, reveal “a pattern of disregard for the needs of an
extremely vulnerable group who have committed no crime but are
still being locked up”, according to the Refugee Council.

Some centres fare better than others, but none emerge as ideal
environments in which to accommodate asylum seekers. The worst two
– Haslar, in Hampshire, and Lindholme, in South Yorkshire – are run
by the Prison Service.

Both are criticised for, among other things, failing to provide a
safe environment. In Haslar, 90 per cent of detainees felt unsafe,
feelings that were worsened by the absence of doors on most of the

Lack of access to mental health services was also noted, staff had
little or no training in race relations and very poor legal advice
was offered to detainees by “unscrupulous advisers who were able to
prey on their vulnerability”.

Leigh Daynes of Refugee Action says: “These reports are very timely
because we have heard from many refugee agencies of the inadequacy
of mental health provision and services for traumatised vulnerable
people, who need help to make sense of their experiences.”

The consequence of failing to provide such services was tragically
illustrated by the suicide of a mentally ill asylum seeker detained
at Harmondsworth removal centre, near Heathrow. Robertus Graybs,
who had a history of depression, hanged himself two years ago. A
report into his death by the Home Office, which was released last
week, criticised the centre for not having a formal suicide
prevention policy.

Concerns have also been raised about the protection of the children
placed in two of the centres. Reports into Oakington in
Cambridgeshire, and Tinsley House in Sussex, which held children
and families, say “we did not consider that they were suitable
places for lengthy detention, of anything other than a few days at

The Children’s Society, which has campaigned against accommodating
young people in such institutions, has renewed its calls for an end
for what it describes as an “inhumane” policy. Alison Harvey,
refugee policy manager, says that although the reports recommended
that children should remain for no longer than seven days it is
“shocking” that they are being locked up in centres at all.

She adds: “These centres cannot give children the care and
protection they need and deserve. They fail to guarantee a child’s
rights – in particular, a child’s right to freedom and

Worryingly, the report on Oakington says that “children aged over
12 were left to roam the centre under the theoretical supervision
of a parent” because the unit did not provide facilities for

Harvey also says that she knows of cases where children have
remained in a removal centre for three months, adding that there is
no evidence that families will choose to abscond because they are
less mobile.

The use of bail conditions or reporting requirements for all asylum
seekers would be better than detaining them in centres, says the
Refugee Council.

Acting chief executive Margaret Lally says detaining people who
have committed no crime is “an affront to Britain’s tradition of
safeguarding basic human rights and liberties”.

Breaches of human rights, including the random strip searching of
asylum seekers in rooms lit only by fluorescent tube lighting,
litter the five reports. The practice of strip searches, which took
place in Haslar and Lindholme, is condemned as “unacceptable and
unnecessary”. The process showed no sensitivity to the fact that
many might have been subjected to torture in stark environments and
may have been frightened, says the report.

The publication of the documents is yet another blow to the
government’s controversial asylum policy, which encountered
problems at each stage of its parliamentary journey and has
continued to face fierce criticism and opposition now it is being

Questions may now be asked about the suitability of placing asylum
seekers in four 750-bed accommodation centres, a central plank of
government’s asylum policy. Daynes predicts that the centres may
not open for many years, despite a September deadline, because
local communities have protested about the plans.

But, however long it takes for the accommodation centres to be
opened, these reports will undoubtedly strengthen the critics’
belief that they are inappropriate. The government has attempted to
sell the concept of accommodation centres by saying that asylum
seekers’ needs would be best served in an environment specially
tailored for them.

That argument has been considerably weakened by the findings of
these reports which show that, far from providing a home
environment, these centres often operate a prison-like regime. In
many cases asylum seekers are living in conditions in which they
are afforded no privacy and feel unsafe, where they are guarded by
staff with whom they are unable to communicate and in which they
must wait for months to find out their fate.

Immigration minister Beverley Hughes’s response has been to say
that asylum seekers are generally unhappy about being detained so
it is “unsurprising that they express dissatisfaction with their

It is a response that seems far from adequate, considering the
catalogue of criticisms that the Inspectorate of Prisons has
documented. She provides no explanation for the failure to provide
mental health provisions for the often vulnerable and traumatised
people housed in the removal centres or, for example, the lack of
staff training in race, cultural and ethnic issues.

The failure to get the basics right in the already established
centres gives little cause for optimism that those intended to
accommodate asylum seekers for longer periods will be any

Summary of recommendations:

– All removal centre staff must be trained in the specific issues
that affect immigration detainees and aware of the cultural,
national and ethnic background from which they come.

– The Prison Service, if it is told to hold detainees, must ensure
that removal centre staff are specifically recruited for this

– Translated information should be available in all centres.

– Staff training should be in place to deal with suicide,
self-harm, bullying and race and ethnic relations.

– The detention of children should be avoided wherever

– Establishments holding children should have effective liaison
with local area child protection committees.

– The Immigration Service should ensure that all detainees are kept
informed about the reasons for their detention and the progress of
their cases. On-site staff should be able to communicate up-to-date
case information directly to detainees.

– The Immigration Service commissioner should pay particular
attention to monitoring the quality of legal advice for detainees
and information about properly regulated advisers should be
available in all centres.

– The Immigration and Nationality Department and the Legal Services
Commission should consult with professional bodies to ensure that
access to competent independent legal advice and representation is

– Protocols should be agreed for the release of information to the
immigration authorities and detainees’ representatives, if such
information is relevant to the fitness to detain or to the
detainee’s asylum claim, and the action that should follow.

– All removal centres should follow best practice in relation to
visits and phone calls, allowing extended family and legal visits
and issuing a weekly £5 phone allowance or phone cards to
those without means. Consideration should be given to making e-mail
facilities available to detainees.

– Detainees who wish to do so should be allowed to undertake paid
work while in detention; alternatively, or in the meantime, there
should be incentives for participation in centre activities.

– Removal centres should have independent welfare support advisers,
able to assist with family and home problems, and to advise and
support detainees on release, transfer and removal.

– Immigration and centre staff should give detainees adequate
notice of any movement.

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