Around 10pm on 28 November, 2006, a group of detainees started a riot in Wing B after a guard switched off the TV preventing them from watching a report about Harmondsworth, and it soon spread to all 4 wings. Some detainees have reportedly been beaten up, while others were kept locked in, with fires and smoke all over the place [reports and updates]. 'Specialist officers' from prisons across the south of England were brought in to help the prison and immigration services 'contain the situation'. Everything is 'under control' now, according to the Home Office. [John Reid Invokes Riechstag Fire Tactics For Detention Centre Fire]
Several calls have been made for the next few days to show solidarity with those struggling inside the detention centres. No Borders is calling for a solidarity protest outside the headquarters of Kalyx on London's Edgware Road this Friday, 1st December from 3.30pm to 5.30pm. Barbed Wire Britain is also calling for a demonstration at Harmondsworth and Colnbrook detention centres near Heathrow airport for this Sunday 3rd December from 12:00 noon. Another protest has also been called by London FRFI for Tuesday 5th December from 1pm outside London's Communications House immigration reporting centre.
Late on Tuesday night, detainees in Wing B of Harmondsworth were watching the 10.00pm news, where an ex-detainee was being interviewed about Anne Ower's report criticising the centre's management and poor conditions. Detainees say a guard switched off the TV, incensing the detainees and sparking major disruption throughout the centre, with doors being broken and fires lit, causing the sprinkler system to go off. Early reports said that many detainees were beaten up, others were locked up in their rooms in parts of the centre, while others were still rioting. It was very difficult to get correct information as detainees were prevented from reaching the phones. When No Borders activists managed to speak to some detainees, the latter were soon told by the security guards to “get off the phone”.
At around 2:30am, the situation was escalating, with a lot shouting and smashing going on. A detainee said wings B and C were the worst, with water everywhere in wing B after they smashed the plumbing system, while the alarm in wing C was no longer working. Detainees could not go out and the guards were nowhere to be seen, supposedly because they feared for their own safety. Police had been called but they hadn't gone in yet. the caller also said some detainees were injured.
At around 3am, many detainees were outside in the exercise yard, while those on the 3rd floor were locked in and could not get out. Smoke could be smelled and it was getting hot inside as they had no ventilation. The police and the fire brigade arrived just before 4am and said everything was “under control”. A Home Office spokesperson said a number of “specialist officers from prisons across the South of England” were deployed to “assist the Prison and Immigration Services by securing the perimeter” and that there was “absolutely no risk to the public.”
Around mid-day, communication with detainees was partly restored; the lines seemed to have being re-opened but most detainees were still not answering. A detainee in wing D said nobody was hurt in his wing but riot police were still there. Together with others, he was taken to the courtyard around midnight and spent the night there, in the cold and without any food or medication. They could not go back inside until 7 am. In wing A, a detainee said they were still all locked up in their rooms and the police were beating up people in the corridor. They had no water, no food and spent the night locked inside despite the fire and smoke. Just before noon, about 50 detainees were seen in the courtyard spelling out the words “HELP”, “SOS” and “FREEDOM” using their bed sheets.
Strangely enough, the riots this time received some attention from the mainstream media (although, of course, their reports were mostly watered downed). The BBC had a reporter on the ground and a helicopter hovering overhear, which was ordered away from the scene by the police at about 14.10 for “security reasons”. The police had their own helicopter in its place now. Later in the day, the events were the leading story on Sky News. Both channels had interviewed George Mwangi, who blamed fellow detainees for the 'disturbances'.
Harmondsworth Previous Protests and Background Info
The riots come a day after the chief inspector of prisons strongly criticised the centre's (mis)management, in what was described as the "poorest report ever" on any UK immigration removal centre. Earlier this year, many detainees in Harmondsworth and other detention centres, mainly in adjacent Colnbrook, went on hunger strike in protest at their inhumane treatment by security guards during the No Borders demonstration on 8 April, 2006. A few months before that, in January 2006, there was a big, organised protest by detainees following the death of Bereket Yohannes, a 26-year-old Eritrean who was found hanged in the showers of Harmondsworth. Those deemed by the management to have been the organisers of the peaceful protest were punished by being locked up in 'secure cells' and later transferred to other detention centres. In 2004, there were similar riots sparked by the death of an inmate, causing a temporary closure of the detention centre and the 'transfer' of detainees to other immigration prisons.
Run by Kaylix (former UK Detention Services owned by Sodexho), Harmondsworth is the UK's biggest detention centre. Situated near Heathrow airport in London (to make deportations easier), it opened in September 2001. The centre can hold up to 550 men, women and children. According to the latest Home Office figures, there were 470 detainees in Harmondsworth as of 30 September, 2006, 345 of whom were asylum seekers.
The total number of detainees incarcerated in all 10 detention centres was 2,010, of whom 1,455 were asylum seekers, i.e. detained solely under the Immigration Act powers (note the Home Office no longer include persons detained in prison in the statistics). A total of 7,390 people left detention in Q2 2006, a fall of 1% from Q1 2006 (7,490). Of the 4,360 (59% of the total) asylum detainees leaving detention, 2,610 (60%) were 'removed' from the UK, 1,465 (34%) were granted temporary admission/release and 280 (6%) were bailed.
Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre 'Not fit for Purpose' | Noborders Demo at Harmondsworth Detention Centre | Harmondsworth Detainees Protest after Death in Detention | Severe riot at Harmondsworth refugee removal centre (2004) | Hunger Strike in Colnbrook Detention Centre | Voices From Detention | Asylum Statistics: Q3 2006 | Continuing conflicts that create refugees | Why campaign against deportation
detention centres: barbed-wire prisons