HARMONDSWORTH IMMIGRATION REMOVAL CENTRE (IRC) near Heathrow, Europe’s largest detention facility, was found by inspectors to have limited the threat of Covid-19 to a population that had reduced significantly during the pandemic.

The IRC can hold up to 635 adult male detainees but there were fewer than 100 detainees when inspectors visited in March 2021. Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said: “The numbers had declined markedly from March 2020 as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, partly because, if there is no reasonable prospect of removal, immigration detention ceases to be lawful.”

Since February 2021, two units in the centre had also been used on an occasional basis as a short-term holding facility to accommodate people crossing the English Channel in small boats.

There had been only eight confirmed Covid-19 cases among detainees since the start of the pandemic and subsequent measures to prevent further transmission of the virus had been effective.

Mr Taylor added that the centre had taken advantage of the relatively high staff-to-detainee ratio to improve key areas, such as safer detention, equality and diversity. There was little violence and governance of force by staff was good.

There was a high level of vulnerability and a substantial amount of self-harm among detainees. Most detainees subject to assessment, care in detention and teamwork (ACDT) procedures for those at risk of suicide or self-harm in IRCs were reasonably positive about the care staff provided.

Mr Taylor said, however: “It was a concern that some detainees had been held for very lengthy periods – often, we were told, as a result of systemic problems with the provision of suitable release accommodation. Eight people had been in detention for over a year and 26 for more than six months. Yet the majority (58 per cent) were simply released after a potentially damaging period of detention.”

Many detainees had complex needs and a very high percentage – about 45 per cent – were assessed by the Home Office as being at the two higher levels of risk under the adults at risk in detention policy. “More detainees than we have seen before were assessed at level 3, the highest risk level”, Mr Taylor commented.

Health care provision at Harmondsworth was good and detainees could access a good and improved range of activities each day, despite some proportionate restrictions intended to support Covid-19 safety.

The centre was prison-like, however, and detainees were still locked in their cells for significant periods. Living areas were rundown and the general environment was bleak and dispiriting.

Overall, Mr Taylor said: “The centre had adapted well to the challenges of the pandemic and we found that centre staff cared for detainees reasonably well. However, Harmondsworth needed significant refurbishment to bring it up to an acceptable standard. The lengthy detention of people with substantial vulnerabilities who had, in some cases, been declared unfit for detention, was also a serious concern.”

* Read the report here.

* Source: HM Inspectorate of Prisons

Note: Ekklesia opposes the UK Government’s immigration and removal system. But it is important to understand how it is functioning, especially in a time of pandemic.