A man is seen at the window in the detention centre at Harmondsworth

'Unbearable’ conditions in British migrant detention centers during heat


Rocketing temperatures and poor ventilation are leading to “unbearable” conditions for detainees in immigration detention centers in the UK, as a recent heatwave (Met Office) reached rare temperatures of up to 37C.

Around the country, the usual green grass is scorched and brown, the London Underground has experienced temperatures of nearly 40 degrees, and farmers fear for both their crops and their livestock (Guardian).

But detention centers, where conditions have been criticized at other times of the year and for other inadequacies, have problems not everyone may consider.

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WikiTribune spoke to four charities, all of which all said detainees had special problems dealing with the extreme heat. Under-resourced facilities in “prison-like” environments were contributing to poor conditions, according to charities that regularly visit people confined in detention centers.

Their representatives said windows don’t open, there is no air-conditioning, rooms have too many beds, and  detainees are provided limited outdoor time to deal with the heat properly.

“It is very hot and that makes it pretty unbearable,” said Celia Clarke, director of advocacy group Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID).

But the temperature-related issues highlight wider issues of neglect and lack of resources at detention facilities, WikiTribune was told.

Up to 3,500 migrants with uncertain immigration status are held in Britain’s nine detention centers, also known as removal centers, at any given time, according to the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory. There is no time limit on how long people are detained and some are held for multiple years.

Immigration detention centers are routinely in the spotlight for controversy. “Degrading,” “abusive,” and “hellish” conditions were previously reported to WikiTribune. A BBC Panorama investigation uncovered what it said was a “toxic, brutal and failing environment” at Brook House immigration removal center near Gatwick Airport.

Detention center at Harmondsworth, London. REUTERS/Kieran Doherty

‘Unbearable and struggling’

Some groups of detainees are “struggling” as they persevere in “prison-like” conditions, said Maddy Crowther, co-executive director of Waging Peace, a human rights organization that supports Sudanese refugees in detention in the UK.

Crowther visited Harmondsworth, one of two detention facilities near Heathrow Airport. She said one detainee told her that to deal with the heat some men were “stripping off” in the courtyard. Harmondsworth is the largest capacity detention center in Europe, with room for 676 people. Like most such facilities in the UK, Harmondsworth does have a courtyard for exercise.

Crowther also went to Campsfield House, a detention center in Oxfordshire, on July 30.

“When we spoke to some people they said it was an ‘absolute sauna,'” she said. “If people are going to be held, they should be held in conditions that are humane and comfortable.”

There is no air-conditioning in the Campsfield center and there can be up to four people in each bedroom. However the facility staff made “appropriate” changes and moved some detainees to separate rooms to help them to cool down, according to Crowther.

“Those were too hot to have four people in the same room … people were really struggling,” said Crowther.  “It’s not like they [detention centers] were designed with the comfort of those inside in mind.”

Some people said [Campsfield detention center] was an ‘absolute sauna’ –Maddy Crowther of Waging Peace

A lack of ventilation is also making it difficult for some people in detention centers across the country to cool down. The problem is worsened because many windows in the centers are sealed.

“There are issues with heat in the detention centres, partly because a lot of the time the windows aren’t able to open,” Simon Hilditch, communications coordinator of advocacy group Detention Action, told WikiTribune.

Some centers are trying to alleviate heat-related issues, but the outcome is not always successful.

“Despite the extreme heat we are experiencing, we have had reports, ironically, that it’s actually too cold in the centers, as the air-conditioning is turned up very high,” said Marygold Lewis, an administrator for Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, a volunteer-run support group for detainees in two facilities in Gatwick, south of London.

Heat highlights poor conditions

Britain’s rare high temperatures may only be temporary but current concerns illustrate ongoing issues.

The charities WikiTribune spoke to warned that consequences from the heat, such as not being able to sleep, are only exacerbating existing fundamental problems of being in detention.

According to BID’s Clarke: “Our clients have far more to worry about than the heat – the whole process of detention is traumatizing: they don’t know how or when they will be freed, they have little access to legal advice, they are not free to move around as and when they wish, including having meals as and when they wish, and their basic personal agency is stripped from them.”

Crowther from Waging Peace said temperature-related issues are worse during winter.

“When I’ve been [to Campsfield] in winter before, I found it even more shocking in that the people inside are often walking around in flip-flops, are freezing, they only have the clothes on their back.

“There are two sides to the same coin.”

A spokesperson for the Home Office, the government department responsible for immigration, told WikiTribune in response to these claims: “We take the welfare of the detainees in our care very seriously.”

The Home Office said the companies that run immigration removal centers on behalf of the government are “contractually obliged to conduct monthly and annual health and safety inspections.”

“We are taking action to address recommendations made in individual inspection reports and improvements have already been implemented,” it added.

The Home Office reply did not address individual claims of heat-related issues.

‘Unacceptable’ situation

A new review of detention center conditions by Stephen Shaw, the former prisons and probation ombudsman, was critical. It identified “unacceptable” conditions caused by the Home Office’s new strategy of “expanding capacity by adding extra beds into existing rooms (which) has exacerbated overcrowding.”

The report did, however, cite generally improved conditions and a reduction in the number of those detained since Shaw first started evaluating immigration centers in 2015.

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“We have heard that [detention centers] are taking immediate steps to remove the third bed in rooms which should only contain two,” said Marygold Lewis.

“So, if people are hot, at least there are less bodies to contend with in the confined space of their rooms.”

Following the report, Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced planned reforms. He said he was committed to working with charities to improve detention and planned to reduce the number of beds in rooms.

The UN’s refugee agency is also supporting the British government with a pilot scheme to manage vulnerable women in the community who would otherwise be detained at Yarl’s Wood, a detention center for women in Bedfordshire.

A WikiTribune report published in March 2018 investigated the facility at a time when protests were drawing attention to women who were on hunger strike there.

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