By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter
Harmondsworth: Removal centre criticised
The UK's prisons watchdog is to begin surprise inspections of immigration removal centres holding asylum seekers.
Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, said she would demand access to detention facilities without giving advance warning to the Home Office.
Ms Owers said the prisons inspectorate was establishing a special team to monitor the treatment of asylum seekers being detained.
The move comes after the watchdog criticised a number of asylum removal centres, including the policy of detaining children.
The chief inspector of prisons was given powers to enter immigration detention centres in 1999.
Ms Owers said: "We will turn up without warning and I shall use these powers in relation to immigration removal centres.
Ms Owers: Wants time limits on child detention
"This is an important power because an announced inspection gives people the chance to prepare. It is also important to know what is happening when they are not expecting you to turn up."
Ms Owers said the first inspections of removal centres, known as detention centres until this year, had taken a long time to prepare and complete because she wanted to ensure that the views of asylum seekers being held were properly taken into account.
This confidential surveying of asylum seekers, often in their own languages, had caused "anxiety" within the Home Office, she said. But she called on ministers to accept it as a valuable part of improving conditions - just as the Prisons Service used confidential surveys.
Reports criticise centres
Asylum seekers can be held indefinitely in removal centres without being convicted of any crime. The government says they are an essential part of the immigration system to remove failed applicants who refuse to leave.
The chief inspector's first reports on immigration removal centres have produced a mixed but generally critical picture, especially over the treatment of children.
Yarl's Wood: Recently reopened
Ms Owers has criticised strip searches of asylum seekers following visits at Haslar removal centre, Hampshire, concluding the institution was "unsafe".
In the first inspection of Harmondsworth removal centre, near Heathrow Airport, Ms Owers' team found increasing levels of disorder.
A number of immigration removal centres have been hit by protests including sporadic hunger strikes and violent clashes. Yarl's Wood removal centre recently reopened after burning down amid rioting in 2002.
Dungavel removal centre in Scotland has become a major political issue with a growing campaign against the detention of families at the institution.
Speaking to the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees, Ms Owers reiterated her concerns at the holding of children in detention centres.
"The development of a child is bound to be affected no matter how long the detention," she said.
"It compromises the needs and welfare of children and the longer detention continues the more compromised these become.
"Even with the good facilities at Dungavel [removal centre in Scotland] their welfare is compromised after two weeks."
Ms Owers said her surveys and focus groups of those in removal centres tended to support the findings of her inspection teams, despite official suggestions the findings were not reliable.
"One of the perceptions of detainees is that they don't feel safe," she said. "It's not always because of the way the centre was being run, rather there was a sense of insecurity because they did not know what was going to happen to them and there was no one who could tell them what was going to happen."