Harmondsworth: story of those detained within the walls

This blog post was written by Susannah Wilcox, who is an Advocacy Co-ordinator at Detention Action.  Working in this capacity, she regularly visits and runs workshops in Harmondsworth detention centre.


This story of Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) is not mine to tell.  It is the story of those detained within its walls.

Some of them were moved there on the day of their ‘release’ from prison. Some of them were detained there while reporting to the Home Office each week. And, up until the suspension of the Detained Fast Track asylum processing system earlier this year, many more of them were detained there after claiming asylum on their arrival in the UK or during an appointment with Visas and Immigration department of the Home Office.

Harmondsworth, Europe’s largest detention centre, was the primary home of the government’s delinquent child – the Fast Track, whose potential as a swift, dispassionate asylum processing mechanism was loudly proclaimed by ministers and government officials until its spectacular fall from grace earlier this year.


But this story focuses on those detained in Harmondsworth who are perhaps less visible than those who were detained on the Fast Track. During my time as a volunteer with Detention Action, I visited several people who were detained in Harmondsworth after serving time in prison. They first heard of immigration detention on the day they were due to be released from prison. Instead of being released, they were issued with a Deportation Order and transferred to Harmondsworth, where their incarceration continued, in some cases for a year or more.

Travelling to Harmondsworth each week to visit these men was always a disheartening experience. Walking along the less-than-picturesque Colnbrook Bypass in the biting wind, being fingerprinted and given a table number, then sitting for up to hour in the visits reception waiting for the detainee to be brought out, often watching small children play in the corner while their parents snatched what little privacy they could – none of this was designed to inspire hope or joy. Spending time with the men themselves, however, was in turns heartbreaking, surprising, educational, challenging, hilarious and eye-opening. That their curiosity, sense of humour and capacity for empathy – their humanity – persisted despite the conditions in which they were detained indefinitely constantly amazed me.

Two of the men I visited stood out in particular. Both came from difficult backgrounds and ended up involved in gang violence, leading to criminal convictions. Both struggled with mental health problems prior to being detained in Harmondsworth. During their time in Harmondsworth, their mental health endured unimaginable strain.

The uncertainty, isolation, loneliness and lack of escape from their inner mental world weighed heavily on them. This impact manifested itself in different ways. P became angrier with each visit, railing against the system that kept him locked up without time limit. He found it increasingly difficult to find any sense of hope or normality, or any outlet for the rage and frustration he felt.

L, on the other hand, would repeatedly ask himself how he had come to this place and why he was being held there indefinitely, at a distance from his family and from any hope for the future. Was it God, luck, karma or something more terrifyingly banal? Although initially lucid, L gradually withdrew into a world of mysticism and mythology, in which he went on great adventures through time and space. The pyramids of Egypt, the rebirth of Christ, the death of President Kennedy – all of these have more meaning for L now than his own battle for recognition in the UK.

Witnessing the deterioration of someone you care about is a painful process. We can never know the extent to which the conditions inside immigration removal centres like Harmondsworth contribute to the emotional and psychological distress of those detained indefinitely, but there is no doubt that they have considerable influence – and not for the better.

A Letter to Harmondsworth

This letter was written by Shariff who was detained in Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre.
Dear Harmondsworth IRC,
I know you are very busy at the moment but I have a few questions about the three months you held me in detention.
Why do the rooms in Harmondsworth feel like you are living in a coffin? Do you do this on purpose?
If Harmondsworth is not a prison, then why does it look like a prison? Why does it smell like a prison? Why do the guards treat you like a prisoner?
Why were people allowed to work in Harmondsworth but outside detention we are not allowed to work?
Why do you have a department called ‘Healthcare’ when it does not offer ‘health-care’?
You lost all my medicine and my individual case-file – where did they go? Did someone steal them? Is there a black hole somewhere in Harmondsworth?
Do you have anything else in healthcare other than paracetemol?
If someone has vomiting, or someone has a broken leg, or someone cannot sleep – do you really think that paracetemol is the answer in every situation?
Are your healthcare staff trained and qualified?
I went to get a Rule 35 from your doctor. He said “ok, what do you want me to put?” I said, “you are the doctor, you need to say what is wrong with me.” He said, “If I do that we’ll be here for three, four hours.” In the end, he wrote something very quickly. In court, the judge didn’t even look at it. Can you tell me – what is the point of Rule 35 if this is the kind of doctor you employ to do it? What is it really worth?
Why do you not bring in doctors from outside? Have you ever been seen by a NHS doctor? Can you tell the difference in the standard of care?
Why did no-one in Harmondsworth try to help me understand the asylum process? Why did no-one even tell me I was on the Detained Fast Track? Do you give your staff orders to confuse us on purpose? Or maybe they just don’t know anything about the immigration system either?
What is the Detained Fast Track for? What is the honest reason for it? Is it just to deport people? Has it got anything to do with a fair trial? What do you think the Detained Fast Track says about the British justice system? If you are going to reject 99% of cases, why even put us through the stress of the system?
I got five minutes with my solicitor before my asylum interview – do you think this is enough time to prepare for the most important interview of your life?
Superman could not prove his innocence on an appeal in just two days, from the inside of a cell – why not blindfold us and give us two hours?
Do you think ‘North Africa’ is one country? Do you think an Algerian interpreter can effectively translate for an Egyptian, like me?
I saw people cut their own necks and swallow razor blades in Harmondsworth – if detention is designed to make us suffer so we agree to go home, do you consider this as a success?
Once in detention, I was feeling bad in my cell and I banged the door to ask for help. Four or five men arrived, acting like they were all Jean Claude van Damme. They shoved me to the floor, handcuffed me and took me to isolation. They kept me there for two days. They said my ‘behavior’ was the problem. Do you train your staff to be violent and aggressive?
Do you think that when I left Harmondsworth, Harmondsworth left me? I think about you guys every day.
I look forward to hearing your answers.
Yours sincerely,