Just 500 metres outside the existing northern boundary of Heathrow airport, around 1000 people at any one time are imprisoned indefinitely and without charge, because of their immigration status and supposedly (although often not in practice) because they are soon to be deported.
Harmondsworth detention centre opened in 1970, the UK’s first facility for long-term detention for immigration control in peacetime. It was rebuilt and expanded in 2000 and has been expanded several times since then. Colnbrook detention centre opened in 2004. Since 2014 the two sites have been run by Mitie Care and Custody as a single centre sometimes called the Heathrow Immigration Removal Centre at a cost to the public of £181 million over eight years up to 2022.
Together the two centres can hold up to 1015 people: 676 at Harmondsworth and 339 at Colnbrook. Both centres primarily detain men, but up to 27 women can be detained in the self-contained Sahara unit at Colnbrook. Harmondsworth alone is the largest immigration detention facility currently operating in western Europe; the two centres combined (or their replacement centre) are far larger than any other detention centre listed by the Global Detention Project in the region.
Like many large prisons and detention centres the Heathrow detention centres have a history of failings endangering the people held there. A damning report on Harmondsworth from HM Inspectorate of Prisons, following the most recent inspection in 2017, found ‘considerable failings in the areas of safety and respect’ for the third consecutive inspection, highlighting inadequate safeguarding and mental health treatment for vulnerable detainees, unacceptably long periods of detention, disproportionate security restrictions and poor living conditions. The last inspection of Colnbrook in 2018 found failings in the identification of detained people at particular risk, linked to a three-fold rise since 2016 in the number of self-harm incidents despite a fall in the number of people detained. The report also highlighted deteriorating accommodation conditions and excessive security measures including unjustified restraint and people locked in cells for long periods.
The danger of detaining vulnerable people and the failure of the Heathrow detention centres to look after vulnerable people in their care are reflected in statistics. In 2018 there were 233 incidents of self-harm leading to a detainee at Harmondsworth or Colnbrook requiring medical treatment. Fourteen people died while detained at Harmondsworth or Colnbrook between 1989 and 2017, out of 34 deaths in UK detention centres documented by the Institute of Race Relations. Many deaths in detention are confirmed or suspected suicides. In 2018 Home Office figures revealed an average of almost two suicide attempts per day in UK detention centres, more than half of them at Harmondsworth or Colnbrook. More than half of detainees surveyed by The Guardian in 2018 were either suicidal, seriously ill or survivors of torture: people who according to Home Office guidelines should only be detained in extreme cases.
- A history of immigration detention in the UK (1914–2018). University of East Anglia Refugee History and Right to Remain, 2018.
- Contract for the operation, management and maintenance of Colnbrook and Harmondsworth Removal Centres. Gov.uk Contracts Finder. Contract awarded 31 January 2014, notice published 7 May 2015.
- Deaths in immigration detention: 1989–2017. Harmit Athwal, Institute of Race Relations, 8 May 2014 (updated 30 November 2017).
- Global Detention Project database of immigration detention centres. Global Detention Project.
- Report on an unannounced inspection of Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre (19 November – 7 December 2018). HM Inspectorate of Prisons, 16 April 2019. See also HMIP press release: Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre – calm, with caring staff, but too prison-like.
- Report on an unannounced inspection of Heathrow Immigration Removal Centre Harmondsworth site (2–20 October 2017). HM Inspectorate of Prisons, 13 March 2018. See also HMIP press release: Harmondsworth immigration removal centre – persistent failings in safety and respect.
- Response to a request (52357) by EHID under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Home Office – Detention and Escorting Services, 19th March 2019.
- Revealed: sick, tortured immigrants locked up for months in Britain. Diane Taylor and Niamh McIntyre, The Guardian, 10 October 2018.
- Revealed: two suicide attempts every day in UK deportation centres. Diane Taylor, Peter Walker and Jamie Grierson, The Guardian, 11 October 2018.