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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 July, 2004, 09:04 GMT 10:04 UK
Harmondsworth: A life inside
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre
Lawyers have received complaints of abuse at Harmondsworth

What's life like inside Harmondsworth Detention Centre? After a death and disturbances, insiders say they are not surprised at what has happened.

Harmondsworth's centre is not a happy place - an institution which deals with deporting people is unlikely to ever be so.

But in the nine months since the prison's watchdog criticised the west London immigration detention centre, there have been growing concerns among refugee communities about what goes on behind its walls.

The Metropolitan Police have confirmed to the BBC that earlier this year they arrested and interviewed five members of staff after an allegation of assault against a Turkish detainee.

Police say the five have been bailed to return to a west London police station pending further inquiries.

People being held there are really frustrated - they don't know why they are there and what the outcome is going to be
Former Harmondsworth detainee

According to some of those who have been held at the centre and other sources within the refugee community, Monday night's trouble was far from unexpected.

One former insider, who asked to remain anonymous, was there in May when detainees launched a five-day hunger strike.

He was recently given bail to fight his case from the outside.

"People being held there are really frustrated. They don't know why they are there and what the outcome is going to be.

"They are just living day by day," he told the BBC.

"I don't know how the hunger strike started, other than I went into the dining hall and people were refusing food.

"Many of us joined it in different ways, though a lot of people simply couldn't because of their medical condition.

"A few days into it, immigration came along and said they would address the concerns - fears about abuse and the quality of food. The violence shows that people think nothing has changed."


In her report last year, prisons watchdog Anne Owers described Harmondsworth as "unsafe", despite the efforts of some conscientious staff and managers.

Harmondsworth is partly used to "fast-track" more clear-cut deportation cases. But the constant flows of new people exacerbated a situation which had led to disorder, damage and escape attempts.

Anne Owers
Prisons watchdog Anne Owers described the centre as "unsafe"

"The entire language and behaviour in detention is different," said the former detainee.

"Inside, when someone tells you that a detainee has tried to commit suicide, then it's the normal stuff of conversation.

"I have been inside two removal centres and seen people slicing into their arms, that kind of thing."

The chief inspector's key concerns were that the Immigration Service was failing to adequately process cases one way or another, and that detainees were not getting proper legal advice to help them understand what was happening.

"You feel that immigration don't want to give you any help," said the former Harmondsworth detainee.

"I got a bail hearing because I saw someone else going off to court. I asked him what he was doing and he explained to me what I had to do."

Paranoia and concern

The Home Office says that it has made substantial improvements to Harmondsworth and it is thought that an informal committee of detainees and management may have been trying to deal with some of the tensions.

But campaigners with inside knowledge say the regime remains typical of removal centres - an atmosphere of paranoia and concern that cases or complaints are not taken seriously enough.

"The key thing about the relationship between staff and detainees in removal centres is some detainees are so scared they are ready to believe that some staff are quite literally going to kill them, especially when they witness a deportation turning violent," said one observer.

"In Harmondsworth, we know of one man who has been held for 11 months without being served a removal notice and a number of suicide attempts before this week.

"There are people who say they would rather die on the runway at Heathrow than be put on a plane home."

There are a lot of people in these centres who say they have come from hell - people with bullet scars, people with signs of torture
Former Harmondsworth detainee

Harriet Wistrich, a solicitor with Birnberg Peirce and Partners, said: "What has happened now does not surprise me because there is a lot of distress among detainees.

"The government is shoving so many people into detention to increase the numbers being removed. But you are working with a group of people who are, by their very nature, very vulnerable.

"Added to that, if you are locking them up even though they have not committed a crime, and they don't understand why, then the high level of distress can reach boiling point."

"There are a lot of people in these centres who say they have come from hell - people with bullet scars, people with signs of torture," says the former Harmondsworth detainee.

"They know they would die if they return to their own countries.

"So I think if they are that desperate, they will fight to their last not to be deported."

Immigration centre 'improved'
29 Jan 04 |  London
Immigration centre 'not safe'
29 Sep 03 |  London

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