Most will have seen the pictures of Harmondsworth Removal Centre on television of the papers yesterday and today. Detainees placing sheets on the ground in courtyards spelling out their appeal for "Help."
Harmondsworth is in my constituency. Next to it is also the large scale Colnbrook Detention Centre. I deal with two to three deportation cases a week from the centres and at times a case every day or more. People often in the most desperate circumstances. They are not criminals but generally people who have come to the end of their asylum claims process and the Government has designated them for removal from the country. If allowed to remain my experience is that most would contribute to our society as any other citizen.
The decision by the Home Office to detain them is often a complete mystery to many of us who deal with these cases. Once they get detained they become trapped in what can be an incomprehensible, often demeaning and sometimes brutal bureaucratic system.
On Tuesday Anne Owers, Her Majesy's Inspector of Prisons, published a devastating report describing the dreadful and at times inhumane conditions detainees were experiencing at the hands of the private company running the Harmondsworth centre.
Her report found that 60% of detainees reported that they felt unsafe in the centre. As the report states "More worrying the main fear was of bullying by staff. 44% said they had been victimised by staff." The Inspectorate found an "over-emphasis on physical security which was more appropriate to a high security prison than a removal centre"
This not the first disturbance at Harmondsworth. In 2004 there was a riot and fires after a detainee committed suicide. From the Owers' report it looks as though few lessons have been learnt from that incident.
I wrote yesterday immediately to the Home Secretary and spoke to Minister of State at the Home Office explaining of course my worries for the safety of both detainees and staff but making it clear that in the first instance the centre should no longer be run by a private company and should be returned to the direct management of the Home Office. If people want to understand the implications of privatisation and putting profit before people, look no further than Harmondsworth.
The riot throws up wider questions though than just the management of one centre. We need an urgent review of the whole policy of mass detention of asylum seekers being pursued by the Government. Everybody understands that a Government has a duty to detain criminals but we were assured that these centres were not constructed to house criminals and that the detainees are not criminals.
The scale of detention taking place and the harsh and at times inhuman treatment being meted out to detainees reflects the fact that Government policy appears to be based more upon responding to the xenophobic attacks on all migrants by the Daily Mail than a rational approach to upholding our international duties to assist and shelter those who come to our shores in need.