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Independent Monitoring Board slams Heathrow Immigration Removal Centres


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What were Harmondsworth and Colnbrook Detention Centres have been brought under the same management, and are now called Heathrow Immigration Removal Centres. Nonetheless, as the Independent Monitoring Board’s report shows, detention centres by another name still have their same old problems. The Board’s recommendations focus on treatment of vulnerable people, both mentally and physically.

The first point noted is that due to lack of facilities and care, the physically disabled are unable to live with respect and dignity in the detention centres. The Board note that matters have not improved since 2014. Given that the Board reported two years ago that access for physically disabled detainees needed to be improved, it is pretty unacceptable that this has not yet been done.

As reported in both the 2014 Annual Reports from Colnbrook and Harmondsworth, the Board continue to have significant concerns around the suitability of the housing and care of physically disabled detainees in HIRC. The accommodation is generally not suitable for detainees with physical disabilities; for example, the rooms are not equipped with adapted showers, and those available on the units have not been designed for wheelchair access.

Since the Government appears to be taking a stance that detention centres are to be run like the autocratic dictatorial regimes that many of their residents have fled, Facebook and Skype are banned. This stance has centralised backing as a nationwide order was recently made barring detainees from certain categories of website – as covered on Free Movement here. So it is unlikely that progress will be made in allowing Facebook access. The main point the Board make is to suggest that Skype should be available so that detainees can keep in touch with family and friends.

The most searing criticism is that of mental care. Central and North West London NHS (CNWL) have a contract to provide healthcare to detainees at the centres. CNWL have refused to provide the IMB with any part of its contract, with the result that the IMB cannot ascertain what service should be provided to the detainees. This opacity suggests that CNWL have something to hide.

The IMB has requested sight of the non-commercially sensitive elements of the contract, so that we can better understand the service that should be provided it is disappointing that this has been refused on the grounds that the whole contract is commercially sensitive. The IMB strongly believe that this is far-fetched.

CNWL only now in 2016 have a “shared occupancy agreement” with Mitie, the commercial entity running the centres. Lack of such an agreement for 16 months in 2014 and 2015 has led to confusion as to which organisation was responsible for hygiene in the enhanced care unit and care for detainees housed there. This confusion appears to have seeped into how to deal with detainees with mental health aspects.

This confusion has manifested itself in some cases by inappropriately using Rule 40, which has the purpose of allowing difficult detainees to be put in solitary confinement, on detainees with mental health conditions. This, rather than giving the detainees the care they require. These actions inevitably harm the mental health of the detainees in question and cause distressing effects – for instance, the Board reported the following case study:

Case study
A detainee with schizophrenic and bi-polar conditions arrived on 16 May. He was moved around various residential units until the end of May with a couple of short stays in R40. He was then housed in Healthcare for 5 days before he caused significant damage to his room at which point he was moved to and between R40 and R42 between 4 June and 27 July a total of 54 days continuously before his removal from the UK.

The Board notes that the Detention Custody Officers, while generally doing a good job of caring for them, are neither qualified nor trained to deal with those with mental health conditions. Perhaps sham doctors might, sometimes, adequately provide care to detainees with serious physical illnesses, too. The Board, after the above concerning sentence, rightly make a strong statement against this clear mishandling of those with mental health conditions.

The Board recommend that R40 should not be used to house difficult individuals with Mental Health conditions. They are vulnerable and confinement is not a humane way to address the problems they experience.

The IMB add that detainees held for longer than six months had an average stay of 18 months. They cite the case of an individual who was detained for 5 years and 6 months, and note that such long stays in centres which are not designed or acceptable for this can have a serious impact on mental health. Given that dealing with mental health conditions appears not to be an area of strength at the detention centre, this is even more concerning than it might otherwise be. They recommend an independent review system for those who are detained for longer than a year. This suggestion adds to the chorus of calls for some form of control over long periods of detention, which seriously adversely impact on a detainee’s life.

The final major criticism made by the Board was of the complaints procedure. It noted that complaints forms were sometimes not left by the complaints boxes, thereby adding an obstacle to making complaints. Furthermore, some detainees feared retribution if they complained, and that complaints which should have been marked as substantiated were not. The Board recommended that the complaints procedure be improved, and that this be transparently and swiftly communicated to detainees.

All in all, pretty worrying stuff. The results of the report are especially perturbing because mental health is such an important issue for asylum seekers, a large class of those detained. Yet mental health facilities at the Centre show poor levels of care and hygiene. Even worse, sometimes vulnerable people with mental health conditions are put in solitary confinement without those trained to deal with their condition appropriately. The intransigence with which this issue has been handled, leading to little change over the last two years, has to stop.

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The Free Movement blog was founded in 2007 by Colin Yeo, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers specialising in immigration law. The blog provides updates and commentary on immigration and asylum law by a variety of authors.