Detained at the UK border: mould, cat calls and barbed wire

Ali McGinley of AVID – a member of the Detention Forum – writes for the #Unlocked series in Open Democracy on detention in short-term holding facilities.


Key statutory instruments governing the use of detention do not apply to holding rooms at ports or short term holding facilities. Some 7,000 vulnerable individuals are held each year for up to 7 days in appalling conditions without proper regulation.

‘The customs officers left and I was then padded down and searched by the guard, and then escorted into what appeared to be a converted conference room in a deplorable state of decay. Inmates were milling around, occasionally yelling out at the guard who was positioned in the room, who was himself intently watching the tennis match on television, cheering appropriately when points were made. I was not permitted anything but the clothes on my back, no phone or camera, so no way to document the state of this unsanitary environment.’

Very few people are aware of the experiences of detainees held in what are known as ‘short term holding facilities’ (STHFs) in the UK. In discussion of detention issues, these shorter stay centres are often ignored, in more ways than one. After all, they are short stay centres in which detainees are held for a maximum of seven days.

In the context of the extreme lengths of detention we see in the bigger centres, it is perhaps no surprise that the experiences of those in STHFs are often subsumed by the tidal wave of injustices faced by those detained. Yet STHFs are amongst the worst accommodation in which migrants can be detained in the UK. They are cramped, stuffy, institutional spaces surrounded by barbed wire. Migrants are held there against their will as a result of their immigration status. They tell us they feel confused, angry and frightened.

As the Unlocking Detention series has documented, all of this could equally apply to any of the longer stay detention centres; the one key difference is that there exists a glaring protection gap between STHFs and say, Yarl’s Wood or Morton Hall. Because the STHFs are also ignored by the provisions of the 2001 Detention Centre Rules, the key statutory instrument governing the use of detention. These rules only apply to detention centres and not to holding rooms at ports or airports or to residential STHFs across the UK.

A separate set of Rules governing STHFs has been ‘in development’, according to the Home Office, since 2005. This leaves many very vulnerable individuals at risk in appalling conditions that fall short of those in other detention centres and even mainstream prisons.

Detention at the border

Most of the UK’s STHFs are holding rooms at ports or airports, where detainees are held for up to 24 hours. There are also five ‘residential’ STHFs where migrants can be held for up to seven days. This includes Cedars ‘pre-departure accommodation’ which holds families. The others are Pennine House, a facility in the back of Manchester Airport which holds up to 32 men and women; Larne House which is within a working police station in Northern Ireland and holds 19 men and women; an STHF within Colnbrook and a facility within Yarl’s Wood that detains men who are known as ‘lorry drop’ cases.

For many of the 7,000 people who pass through these residential STHFs every year it will be their first experience of detention. Others will have been refused entry or permission to stay in the UK and be in the last few days or hours before they board a flight. Either of these times – on your way in or out of the country – are extreme stress triggers, and the risk of anxiety, mental distress and self-harm is high.

People held in these places tell us they are often unsure of why they are being held. This isn’t helped by the paucity of information available or the conditions in which they are detained; something highlighted time and again in the reports of statutory monitoring bodies like Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP), Independent Monitoring Boards and NGOs.

For example Pennine House, in Manchester Airport, has no ventilation or natural light. It is a bleak facility within the complex of the airport, holding 32 detainees in 8 rooms, all along one long corridor. The ‘socialisation room’ at the end of this corridor consists of rows of plastic chairs, nailed to the floor and facing the TV screen. In order to chat, detainees must therefore stand if they want to face one another. There are two computers with internet access, but no exercise equipment or prayer room. Prayer mats are available and an airport chaplain visits; detainees can also request to use the prayer room in the airport.

There is a dining room of sorts, containing the large fridges which hold the many varieties of frozen ready meals that are served. Most of those held at Pennine House stand around in the corridor, waiting. They can request fresh air or a cigarette break, during which time they are escorted by a Tascor guard to a small ‘pen’ boxed off with steel caging, through which you can only see the sky. It is unsuitable for any form of exercise other than pacing. The facility was described by HMIP as ‘austere’ and unsuitable for stays of longer than a day, although many are held for up to a week.

Larne is similar to Pennine House, although its location inside a working police station makes visiting more difficult. Neither offer access to anything similar to the ‘Detention Duty Advice scheme’, the (albeit minimal) provision of legal aid funded advice which is available in the detention centres.

Those held in Colnbrook STHF fare slightly better. As a result of its location within a larger detention centre detainees do have, in theory, access to legal aid advice, a library, and a gym. That said, Colnbrook STHF was recently described by HMIP as ‘cramped, ventilation was poor, the environment dirty and the regime poor. Detainees were inappropriately locked in their rooms for most of their vulnerable first days in detention and prior to removal’. As a consequence of being held in their rooms for up to 20 hours a day, this access can be described as somewhat limited.

Protecting migrant women

Perhaps most concerning about STHF detention is that unlike most detention centres, unrelated men and women can be held together, which means that if you are a woman unlucky enough to be detained at Larne or Pennine House, or in a holding room, you will very likely be a minority of one or two women along with the majority of men. This is a traumatic experience for any woman, but particularly inappropriate given that a high number of migrant women arriving in the UK have suffered rape, attempted rape or other sexual violence either in their country of origin or during transit.

A woman held in an STHF told us ‘It was a horrible situation to live in a men’s detention centre for a week…there is no separate room for ladies to have their food…there were men everywhere if you stepped out from the ladies bedrooms’. Similarly, a man held in Heathrow holding room described to us his shock that women were also held in such an environment: ‘The whole experience felt like prison. I was a detained inmate with no rights. Some of the other inmates in the room (both men and women) were visibly distressed. One man was sexually harassing a woman, cat calling, grabbing and being generally unruly, and the guards did nothing to stop it. She went to another side of the room to avoid him’.

This absence of protection has been criticised by statutory monitoring bodies time and again who say that ‘little is done to meet the needs of women’. The organisation I work for, AVID, has lobbied on the position of women in STHFs for some years.  In 2010 we asked for Equality Impact assessments to be carried out on all residential STHFs that hold men and women. Despite a commitment by the Home Office to produce these, and a reiteration of that commitment in parliament in 2012 they remain unpublished and very little has changed. Women continue to say they feel vulnerable because they cannot lock their doors at night in STHF detention. How long is it going to take for their safety to be taken seriously?

24 hour holding rooms

In conditions described by the Independent Monitoring Board as ‘degrading’, the holding rooms at Heathrow are not residential. Holding rooms do not have sleeping accommodation; many have only wash basins rather than showers,  and while they can legally only hold someone there for a 24 hour period, the HMIP recently found someone in Stansted airport who had been held for 40 hours. Those detained in holding rooms will rarely make contact with visitors groups or external support organisations. However we know from statutory reports and some testimony that they are unpleasant places.  One man described to us his experience at the Heathrow holding rooms: ‘The ceilings were covered in mould, the walls torn up and covered in graffiti and random posters, and the floor was disgustingly dirty…The whole facility smelt like human waste. I was in a bit of disbelief at the state of this so-called detention facility as it resembled something out of a movie’.

Most concerning is the recent finding by the IMB at Heathrow that children ‘of all ages’ were being held in these facilities, sometimes over night with unrelated adults. This is despite the Government’s claim to have ended the detention of children in the UK. Other concerns raised include detainees being escorted through the airport in handcuffs in full view of the public, an absence of any IMB at some facilities, and detainees not being given the reasons for their detention in writing.

So where is the statutory guidance?

Despite ample evidence testifying to these deplorable conditions, the repeated calls from NGOs to publish statutory guidance applicable to these facilities remain unanswered. Short Term Holding Facility Rules were drafted and consulted upon in 2005 and 2009, yet never finalised. Most recently their absence was raised in Parliament by Lord Avebury during a debate on the Immigration Rules. A commitment was given by the Home Office that they would be published by this year’s parliamentary recess, but it is now September, and they remain elusive. The reluctance to publish the rules can no longer be excused as bureaucratic inertia: some nine years have passed.

The protections afforded detainees by the Detention Centre Rules may seem basic to those of us who work on detention on a daily basis, but they are vital, not least in setting the parameters within which detention can take place, but also in implementing certain human rights obligations. In refusing to publish the same standards for detainees subjected to shorter stays, the Home Office is putting detainees at risk.

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