Rwanda detentions ‘made conditions worse’ in removal centres as watchdog slams ‘decrepit’ state

9 July 2024, 00:47

Harmondsworth, by Heathrow Airport, was found to have high levels of violence and drug use among its detainees during an inspection in February.
Harmondsworth, by Heathrow Airport, was found to have high levels of violence and drug use among its detainees during an inspection in February. Picture: Alamy
Fraser Knight.

By Fraser Knight.

Part of Europe’s largest immigration removal centre in London has been described as ‘filthy and unsafe’ by inspectors - and the worst they’ve ever seen.

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Harmondsworth, by Heathrow Airport, was found to have high levels of violence and drug use among its detainees during an inspection in February.

Almost half of people the inspectorate spoke to reported feeling suicidal.

Charlie Taylor, His Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons, found the conditions were so bad, he wrote to the then Home Secretary but didn’t get a response.

Speaking to LBC, he also said detentions made under the now-scrapped Rwanda scheme have made the state of sites worse, as he warned people are being held with “no reasonable chance of being deported”.

“It was pretty grim, a depressing place to be with lots of people with mental health difficulties who shouldn’t have been there at all. It was an extremely concerning inspection - the worst we’ve seen of an immigration removal centre.

“Numbers in immigration removal centres were growing significantly just before the election in preparation of people being deported to Rwanda.

“When these places get too crowded, when people are being kept there despite having no reasonable chance of being deported, we find they feel more chaotic, less safe and you find the sort of things we came across at Harmondsworth.

“The idea of it is that people will spend a few days, possibly weeks there, before they’re deported. But what we saw was enormously disappointing - the level of care just simply wasn’t good enough. 

“There weren’t enough staff around the place and those who were there lacked experience - they didn’t know how to manage the poor behaviour. I was really surprised to see people wandering around openly smoking cannabis.” 

Harmondsworth detention centre
Harmondsworth detention centre. Picture: Alamy

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The watchdog also mentioned the increasing prison capacity as having an impact on the number of people in Harmondsworth detention centre. It criticised the fact that failed asylum seekers with no criminal convictions are being locked up with former inmates, who have been moved out of jail.

It said: “The centre had doubled up cells so they could hold more men and the only exceptions to this were for those at risk of serious harm.  After two days, men who refused to share a room were taken to the separation unit by a team dressed in full personal protective equipment and kept there until they agreed to share.”

Kolbassia, who spent time in Harmondsworth in 2005, now works with the charity Freedom from Torture and told us he’s “not surprised” by the findings.

“You find yourself with criminals, who have done time and you’re mixed together and it’s not easy for people like myself; you’re shocked that you’re even in detention and then you see people organising - and it’s very intimidating and fearful.

“It’s absolutely no place to mix vulnerable people who are seeking protection [from their home country] and seasoned criminals.

“Since I was released, I’ve been saying immigration detention centres are not fit for purpose and we shouldn’t be detaining people - in my experience, it’s very damaging.”

Boeing 767 at Boscombe Down, Wiltshire, in June when it was due to take seven asylum seekers to Rwanda
Boeing 767 at Boscombe Down, Wiltshire, in June when it was due to take seven asylum seekers to Rwanda. Picture: Getty

The inspectorate said the new director of Harmondsworth had a "good understanding" of many of the challenges faced by the centre and was "beginning to make good progress" in improving conditions.

Mr Taylor added, though, that she will "need strong and consistent support at every level to succeed.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: "We take the welfare and safety of people in our care very seriously and it is vital that detention and removals are carried out with dignity and respect.

"The number of custody officers and dedicated welfare staff at Harmondsworth IRC has increased since the inspection."

The report also criticised the “shambolic retendering process” from the Home Office, run by Mitie Care and Custody, which meant “that leaders had no idea whether they would still be running the centre in the next few months.”

A statement from Mitie said the company acknowledged that the conditions and standard of care "fell below the level we would expect at this facility" when the inspection took place.

It said conditions at the time had been affected by factors including "an interim increase in room occupancy rates, due to restricted capacity at the Immigration Removals Centre, with one wing (out of four) being closed for refurbishment".

Mitie added: "The demographic of the population at the IRC has changed significantly over the past 24 months, with Time Served Foreign National Offenders (TSFNOs) now representing between 50 and 60% of the total IRC population at any time. 53% of all residents now arrive from police custody or prisons, up from 31% in 2022.

"The change in demographics has led to a material increase in disruptive behaviours and incidents: between June and November 2023, there were 97 fights and incidents of violence, up from 26 incidents during the same period the previous year, all of which involved TSFNOs.

"In response to this change in demographics, we agreed a new staffing model with the Home Office (with improved pay and contracted hours for all Detention & Custody Officers (DCOs)), which has led to an 40% increase in the number of DCOs deployed at the IRC, with further DCOs still being recruited."

Mitie also said it was enforcing a smoking ban introduced by the Home Office last month across all IRCs.

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