Socialist Worker

Why detained refugees rioted at Harmondsworth

by Esme Choonara
Issue No. 2030

“Freedom” was one of the messages spelt out with bedsheets by detainees who briefly took control of parts of Harmondsworth immigration detention centre last week.

Home secretary John Reid displayed his usual lack of compassion and comprehension by describing the protests as “sabotage”.

He continued, “The perpetrators have been prepared to destroy property and to endanger their fellow detainees. They have, themselves, harmed their own environment.”

What Reid fails to understand is that the disturbances were a reaction by desperate people whose lives and safety are endangered by his department’s ruthless persecution of asylum seekers and “foreign” criminals.

The riots were sparked by an officer in the centre turning off the TV just at the start of an item about a report that slated the centre’s use of force, intimidation and solitary confinement.

Anne Owers, the Inspector of Prisons, pointed to the high number of detainees who reported victimisation by staff and described the report as “undoubtedly the poorest… we have ever issued on an immigration removal centre”.

Harmondsworth is the biggest detention centre in Britain, holding up to 500 male detainees at any one time. It is one of seven privately-run detention centres. In the wake of last week’s protests, detainees have been split up and transferred to other centres and prisons.

Yarl’s Wood is another private detention centre that was the subject of a recent report into the failures of health provision for detainees.

Malha, a 25 year old Algerian refugee, spoke to Socialist Worker from Yarl’s Wood. She explained why detainees in Harmondsworth rioted. She said, “There is no justice for us in this country. We are treated like animals when we are in detention. We have no human rights.


“Harmondsworth was on the news for a few days but then it is forgotten. The Russian spy who died is still in the news every day, but how many of us have died or killed ourselves and we are still forgotten?

“The detention centres are full of poor people. Who cares about us? They think we are criminals.”

Malha fled persecution in Algeria to come to Britain six years ago. She went to college in Birmingham and qualified as a beauty therapist. She is studying physiotherapy at the University of Central England. She has two children who were both born in Britain. They are also in Yarl’s Wood.

Malha said, “It hurts so much being in here. They came with a van in the morning to get me and my children. There was no warning. My children are only five and one years old. They cry all the time.

“The conditions in the detention centre are appalling – the food and hygiene are crap. My children are ill. Many children have diarrhoea, but the authorities don’t care.”

The despair and miserable conditions in detention centres have provoked suicides and suicide attempts.

Home office statistics released under the Freedom of Information Act show that, in the ten months up to January 2006, some 185 people “attempted self harm, requiring medical treatment” and 1,467 were put on self harm watch. There were riots at Harmondsworth two years ago after a detainee committed suicide.

Malha said, “I have been here for 11 days. When I got here I was so depressed I wanted to kill myself. I have no hope. But what about my children? What will happen to them?

“You run away in fear for your life from your home country and then when you are here you find another monster – the home office. They have made my life more dangerous by telling the Algerian government that I am seeking asylum and then trying to deport me and my children.

“They say that Britain is a democratic country. But there is no justice here, no respect for children or women. They control your life like you are a doll.

“I want to be free. I don’t want to be anyone’s victim. I have never enjoyed my life. If they send me to Algeria I will be killed. I would rather kill myself than be killed in Algeria. How can I find some peace in my life?”

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Article information

Sat 9 Dec 2006, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 2030
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