Harmondsworth: story of those detained within the walls

This article was initially written for the ‘Unlocking Detention’ digital tour by our Advocacy Co-ordinator, Dr. Susannah Wilcox.

HarmondsworthThis 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 Trackasylum 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.

dftBut 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.