Thu, Jul 22, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Unrest hits UK detention center

ASYLUM SEEKERS The possible suicide of a detainee resulted in a standoff between center inmates and staff, with 100 detainees surrendering and 16 facing charges


The death of a detainee at a detention center for asylum seekers and illegal immigrants sparked a "serious disturbance" overnight, the Home Office said on Tuesday.

Several staff members at the Harmondsworth center, near London's Heathrow Airport, were forced to leave at the height of the trouble.

The Home Office did not specify the nature of the trouble, but the BBC reported that detainees lit fires and smashed windows at the center, which houses up to 500 detainees.

Authorities regained full control Tuesday afternoon, when up to 100 asylum seekers holding out in an exercise yard surrendered.

Sixteen men were arrested and were being questioned by police about the disturbance.

The government said inmates would be moved to "other secure locations." It said the center would be closed for several weeks for repairs.

There were no serious injuries reported among staff or detainees.

TV stations showed pictures of dozens of police vans and a fire engine outside the center as riot police and dog handlers entered the building early Tuesday. A police helicopter hovered overhead.

The incident flared after the body of an asylum seeker was found hanging at about 8pm on Monday. Police investigating the death did not believe it was suspicious, a term used for suicide.

"We can confirm there was a serious disturbance at Harmondsworth in the late evening," the Home Office said in a statement.

"This resulted in staff from residential units withdrawing for their own safety," the statement said.

Home Office Minister Paul Goggins told the BBC that there would be an investigation into the disturbance.

The Harmondsworth center holds people detained by the Immigration Service as overstaying their visas, illegal entrants or failed asylum seekers prior to their removal from the country.

It also holds a smaller proportion of detainees whose cases have not yet been decided, but who are considered to be at risk of absconding, or whose identities are being established.

Last September, a report by chief prison inspector Anne Owers found that the center failed to provide a "safe and stable environment" for detainees and staff because of the constant flux of the population and low staffing levels.

"This was reflected in increasing levels of disorder, damage and escape attempts," Owers' report said.

The center is equipped with healthcare units, multi-faith prayer rooms, a chapel, mosque, library, shop and classrooms.

Britain's largest asylum seekers' detention center at Yarl's Wood, north of London, was partially destroyed in February 2002 when detainees attempting to break out set fire to it.

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