“People detained under the Immigration Act powers are unique among the prison population in that their future is entirely uncertain…The degree of uncertainty which is facing detainees in this position is undoubtedly a source of great distress and anxiety, and it is not surprising that some of them emerge from their ordeal suffering from severe mental ill health.”
To anyone engaged in the fight to change the UK’s detention policy, these words might feel as familiar as they do urgent. And yet, they were first pronounced by Lord Avebury in the House of Lords in 1978. Eight years earlier, the opening of the Harmondsworth Detention Unit had given birth to the British detention estate as we know it. For the first time, the now normalised conflation of imprisonment and immigration control was materially translated into a space specifically designated for the short-term administrative detention of ‘undesired migrants’. Crucially, although the practice of detaining foreign citizens was already in use, the construction of the Harmondsworth Unit had symbolic as well as practical implications. Not least when we consider that the very material existence of ad hoc holding facility for migrants “actively inscribes differences, distance, and otherness” (A. Hall, Border Watch, 2012: 16), reinforcing their supposedly self-evident legitimacy.
The historical cornerstone of the UK immigration detention system, Harmondsworth detention centre today boasts the largest capacity for potential detainees across Europe – 661. The centre’s oppressive internal conditions are equally infamous: the recorded number of incidents of self-harm requiring medical attention appears starkly, disproportionately, higher than in any other detention centre. Stephen Shaw’s review into the state of welfare in detention found the Harmondsworth “claustrophobic” and with “the feel and look of contemporary gaols”, while the Independent Monitoring Board 2014 annual report concludes that “Harmondsworth IRC is in large parts a depressing, dirty place and in some cases has a destructive effect on the welfare of detainees.” Most recently, Harmondsworth has been given zero food hygiene rating, after a serious mice infestation was found in the main kitchen, with related cases of food poisoning. A telling indication of the disjointed manner in which Harmondsworth operates, the investigation revealed that, despite staff reporting the presence of mice in the kitchen this was not passed onto any pest control company, and subsequently, no action was taken.
I last visited Harmondsworth IRC a couple of weeks ago, along with four other members of the Detention Action team, for our monthly drop-in session. In our oversized bright purple Detention Action T-shirts, we walked through the labyrinth of corridors and stairs. Through one locked door after another, we were finally escorted into the Welfare Office – a common room where people can access the only fax machine available, ask for information and support, or book for a legal appointment. Despite the chaos that characterises this space, it is an important one for us – it is often our first point of contact with new clients, but it also allows us to link a face to the individuals we are emotionally and practically supporting on the phone from our office.
A young man shows us his birth certificate from a London hospital. He tells us of his shock when, at the completion of his criminal sentence, he first learnt that his case would be dealt with by the foreign-national ex-offenders team. He had never left the country in his entire life, how could he possibly be a foreigner? The Home Office is trying to deport him to Nigeria, where his mother is from. Since his mother didn’t have status when he was born he is not eligible for British citizenship, despite having been raised in this country. Astonishment made way for anger and despair when he realised that, however incredible this might seem, he is trapped in what appears to be an irreversible bureaucratic nightmare.
The next person who sits with us has only one request – he asks us to call and reassure his pregnant wife. Since he has been detained she had a nerve problem which is affecting her pregnancy. Years together in a partnership, followed by a religious marriage, and now a child on the way, and their family life has been deemed a sham by the Home Office. He might be issued removal directions at any moment. He shows us pictures of his wife, emails, private texts, intimate details of their love story that they have been urged to collect to document even their most private memories.
Another young father approaches us, he is livid and visibly impatient, he doesn’t want to sit down. His first baby was born a few days ago back home in Albania and he can’t wait to see him, but he is stuck in detention. His wife has bought him not one, but three tickets to come back but because of bureaucratic delays he has been unable to leave. Although most of the people we meet would never voluntarily leave the country he is not the only one who is paradoxically refrained from leaving by the same bureaucratic machinery which is supposed to facilitate his removal. A young man in his early twenties explains that he urgently needs to go back to his home town as his brother has just been killed by the Taliban. He knows it will be dangerous for him to return but needs to be there for the funeral and to support what’s left of his family. He would like to expedite the documentation process and withdraw his asylum claim, but communicating with his Home Office case-owner, the person responsible for his immigration case, has proved impossible so far.
The last person we meet in Harmondsworth is quietly sitting on a couch. He smiles politely at us. He has only a few teeth in his mouth and shows signs of mental health issues. He doesn’t speak a word of English but another individual we support offers his help to translate. The little information I manage to gather is shocking. After being trafficked into the UK this man has been detained for almost one year. After a few months in Harmondsworth, he was offered accommodation for his temporary release but he refused to leave the centre. I don’t understand – I ask why didn’t he leave detention when he was given the option? Because he was scared, my improvised interpreter explains. Because nobody told him why he was detained in the first place and what would happen next. Because after 5 months in detention without any form of psychological support and guidance facing the world out there seemed just too much. The man’s gaze is still lost in space as we are called to leave the room.
Walking back towards the external gate we cross the tarmac courtyard where a bunch of young Afghani men are playing football. For the first time, I notice that there is a net high over our heads. A couple of unfortunate birds have got entangled in the meshing and have died there, a grim metaphor for those entangled and deprived of their liberties beneath. I cannot help but think of the bitter irony of this highly-secure holding facility with its high walls, nets, wired fences, locks and gates, where, for the sake of security, no fresh air is allowed inside as all windows are locked, but where the health and safety of the population inside is constantly under threat.
Immigration detention is bleak and alienating for whoever experiences it. The indefinite confinement of people for administrative purposes is structurally unfair and has proven dysfunctional even by its own supposed purposes of facilitating the removal of individuals from the country. The human cost of places like Harmondsworth is immeasurable, only visible in the eyes of those held there, but devastating for anyone part of their lives. Forty-six years old, Harmondsworth IRC remains the outstanding emblem of this country’s blind, harmful and unnecessary abuse of immigration powers.