Protests including hunger strikes and sit-ins are taking place at several immigration detention centres against the UK’s controversial fast-track asylum system in which detainees say they are being treated as criminals and given little chance of proving that their cases are genuine.
The protests started at Harmondsworth detention centre near Heathrow Airport last Friday when about 150 detainees staged a sit-in in a courtyard and threatened to go on hunger strike. A detainee at Harmondsworth said that about 300 people were involved in protests by Thursday, while other protests have taken place at three other centres in southern England.
The protesters are also complaining about conditions within the centres and have sent a list of grievances to the Home Office.
They say they are not being provided with adequate healthcare or access to legal help. They also say that faxes and documents urgent to their cases are not reaching them, and that some detainees have been held for months without hearing anything about their immigration status.
“We are trapped. People are suffering here,” said one man inside Harmondsworth who did not want to be identified.
“They are not giving people time to get the documents they need to make a case. They are just detaining people and putting them on the fast track. The Home Office says it needs more evidence, but how can a person provide documents when he is in detention?”
Home Office officials had promised to meet detainees on Tuesday but did not show up, according to Jasmine Sallis of the Unity Centre, a Glasgow-based support group for asylum seekers, which has been monitoring the protests.
Some of those who have joined the protests also say that they have been pressured and intimidated for taking part, with some placed in solitary confinement and others issued with removal notices, the man added. He said one person involved had been issued with a ticket aboard a charter flight to Pakistan even though he had a court hearing still pending.
Under the fast-track system, claimants can be placed in a detention centre as soon as they register for asylum, either on arrival in the UK or at a later time.
One Nigerian man in Harmondsworth said his claim had been rejected within a day of his asylum interview, even though he had shown his case worker scars which he said were a result of being tortured. He said he would rather kill himself than be returned to Nigeria.
“I showed them the marks but they didn’t believe me. I’ve got three kids back home but I am a dead man if I go back,” he said. “When they deport me, they will torture me first and then they will kill me and I don’t want to be tortured anymore. I told them I would kill myself, I will poison myself. What can I do? I don’t know what to do anymore.”
Detainees at Colnbrook detention centre, which is adjacent to Harmondsworth, and Brook House, near Gatwick Airport, are also reported to have staged protests.
A spokesman for more than 50 detainees at the Campsfield House centre near Oxford also said they had begun a hunger strike on Thursday. In a statement on YouTube, the spokesman described the situation in the centre as “appalling” and said detainees’ human rights were not being respected.
“It’s the point where we see that we are being pushed against the wall, so we do not have many options now but to go on hunger strike. That’s our last resort,” he said.
“Our demand is quite simple now. We want our freedom. We want our life, with dignity. We do not want to be treated in an inhuman way so that is why we are demanding the closure of all the detention centres in the UK.”
A Home Office spokesperson told the Independent earlier this week: “Detention remains an essential element in protecting the UK’s borders and maintaining an effective immigration control. Detention is only used sparingly and for the shortest period necessary.”
Harmondsworth detention centre, which holds about 600 detainees, was the subject of a critical report released earlier this year by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, described living conditions in the centre as “prison-like… overcrowded… dirty and bleak”.
The report also highlighted the cases of an 84-year-old Canadian detainee suffering from dementia who was kept in handcuffs as he died and another elderly man who died shortly after handcuffs had been removed.
“These are shocking cases where a sense of humanity was lost,” the report said.