The death of a Pakistani man in Pennine House detention centre (Manchester airport) last month is the latest in a series of tragic deaths in detention in the UK. Mr Mehmood, 43, who is said to have been returning home voluntarily, died at the centre following a ‘medical episode’, the circumstances of which have been described by the Home Office as not suspicious. This is the first such death in one of the UK’s ‘short term holding facilities’. For years, many of us have been asking questions about the availability of rules to govern these shorter-stay detention centres. And after this most recent tragedy, it is time for those questions to be answered.
While most of the 28,000 people detained for
immigration purposes each year in the UK will be held in one of the ten ‘immigration removal
centres’ such as Harmondsworth near Heathrow or
Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire, some will also spend time in detention facilities
designed for short stays. Some are holding rooms at ports or airports, for
stays of up to 24 hours. But there are four facilities which can hold people
for up to seven days. These include Pennine House; a facility in the back of a police station in Northern Ireland;
and Cedars — the facility for families
due to be removed — in Crawley.
These shorter stay facilities hold 7,000 people every year, and for many, this will be their first experience of detention. Others may have been refused entry or permission to stay and are in the last few days or hours before they board a flight. Either of those scenarios – on your way in or out of the country – are stressful, and the risk of anxiety, mental distress and even self-harm is heightened. People held there tell us they are worried, fearful and anxious. And yet provision in these facilities falls far short of the standards seen in the longer term detention centres. For example, in Pennine House there is no natural light or ventilation. Women and men are held together in the same facility. Legal aid, provided in the longer stay centres, is not provided in these facilities. And most worryingly, the Detention Centre Rules (2001) – the key statutory instrument governing the use of detention in the UK – don’t cover the shorter stay centres.
The Rules are guidance documents which outline how the detention centres should be run and therefore are critical in ensuring the ‘secure but humane’ treatment of detainees. They provide for the regulation and management of these facilities, and for the welfare of detainees. Rules 33 and 34, for example, stipulate what medical provision should be provided in each centre, stating that healthcare should be equivalent to that available in the community, and that female detainees have the right to be examined by a female doctor. These don’t cover shorter stay detention facilities like Pennine House. There are also rules governing the use of segregation, temporary confinement and use of force. Rule 35 is the provision through which victims of torture or those whose health would be affected by their continued detention can be released. This is an important protection mechanism for the most vulnerable. Its effectiveness is questionable – it has come under intense scrutiny and criticism from NGOs and the Joint Committee on Human Rights – but nonetheless it exists. Other rules cover, for example, retention of detainees’ property, access to communication with the outside world, facilities for religious worship or the provision of food that meets all religious, dietary, cultural and medical needs. As such, the Detention Centre Rules are wide reaching and, for those detained, absolutely critical.
These Rules are binding, and also form the basis of the Operating Standards: guidance given to the contractors who run detention centres. But they are much more than that. For those of us who work with, and for, immigration detainees, the Rules are one of the few publicly available documents that allow us to see what standards can be expected and as such provide a degree of accountability. NGOs and legal practitioners have repeatedly called for equivalent published Rules for the short stay detention centres. We are told they are ‘in development’ – but it seems they have been ‘in development’ since 2006. This is not good enough. While they remain unpublished, there are very real protection gaps for the men, women and children held there.
The circumstances surrounding the sudden death of Mr Mehmood will be examined in the weeks to come. But in the meantime this gap in statutory guidance must be addressed as a matter of urgency. We call on the Home Office to publish the Rules for the short term holding facilities.