Staff at an immigration removal centre near Heathrow Airport feared for their lives and locked themselves inside panic rooms as more than 100 armed detainees rioted with makeshift weapons and set fire to common areas, it was claimed last night.
Rita Biddulph, who works with the Home Office’s independent monitoring board, alleged there are seven units within the Harmondsworth Immigration Detention Centre in West Drayton, Middlesex, each housing 28 detainees and assigned just two staff members.
In the early hours of Saturday, a power outage led to a blackout and automatically opened electronically locked doors to migrants’ cells. Violence erupted shortly thereafter and peaked at about 2am. None of the staff, nor detainees, were injured.
As the detainees found makeshift weapons – including smashed up tables and chairs and the metal slats from under their beds – terrified staff retreated into manually lockable safe rooms and called riot police for backup.
Ms Biddulph told The Sun: ‘Inside each unit there is a safe room, which is manually lockable. Because there were more detainees than staff, they had to lock themselves in panic rooms for their safety.’
It comes as Minister of State for Immigration Robert Jenrick vowed to ‘swiftly’ deport any detainees who took part in the riots. He promised that the ‘perpetrators of this disturbance will be held to account’.
The National Tactical Response Group attended the immigration hotel as tensions escalated
The Metropolitan Police were called to the scene at 7.45pm on Friday night and sent along Territorial Support officers, along with riot police
Images from the scene show multiple police officers outside the centre along with police vans.
The centre is known as Europe’s largest detention facility and can house up to 670 men. The Home Office could not confirm exactly how many detainees are currently in the centre, nor provide exact figures on how many were involved in the riots.
A source at Harmondsworth told the publication ‘it was chaos’ when the power went out, cutting off lighting and heating for hours.
‘The migrants got angry,’ the source said. ‘The decision for them to gather in there could have saved lives, It certainly prevented injuries.
‘Tensions boiled over because migrants did not know what was going on and it was pitch-black… All the staff were panicking. The situation only started to come under control when riot police went in.’
Images from the scene show multiple police officers with riot gear outside the centre along with police vans
Home Secretary Suella Braverman (right) is coming under increasing pressure to fix horrific conditions at migrant centres around the UK
Mr Jenrick said in a statement: ‘There was disruption overnight at Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre after a loss of power. Thankfully no staff working or individuals detained there were hurt, despite clear evidence of unacceptable levels of violence and disorder.
‘The priority now is to move people to other centres while engineers fix the power fault and repair any damage.
‘The public should be reassured that offenders and others waiting removal from the UK are being held securely. The perpetrators of this disturbance will be held to account and, where appropriate, removed from the country as swiftly as is practicable.
‘The Home Secretary and I have been kept abreast of events throughout the night and today by our hard-working teams. I have also visited the site today and I expect the centre to be empty by the end of the day.
‘I am grateful to Home Office staff, contractors and officers from HMPPS and the Metropolitan police for their professionalism and practical support.’
The detainees are said to have broken into Harmondsworth’s courtyard (pictured) during the power outage (stock image)
Met Police were initially called to the scene at 7.45pm on Friday. Officers from the National Tactical Response Group (NTRG) and Met’s Territorial Support Police, as well as fire and rescue workers were also called to the site.
A Home Office spokesperson said: ‘The welfare and safety of staff and individuals detained at Harmondsworth is our key priority.’
Among those at the site are thought to be vulnerable men seeking asylum, foreign convicts awaiting deportation and others who have been ruled to be in the UK illegally.
In March, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons said of Harmondsworth that many detainees had ‘complex needs’ and that the ‘lengthy detention of people with substantial vulnerabilities who had, in some cases, been declared unfit for detention, was also a serious concern’.
It added that detainees had been held for very lengthy periods due to ‘systemic problems with the provision of suitable release accommodation’.
The report found: ‘Eight people had been in detention for over a year and 26 for more than six months. Yet the majority (58 percent) were simply released after a potentially damaging period of detention.’
Harmondsworth is operated by the private firm Mitie Care and Custody on behalf of the Home Office.
Some of those who arrive in the UK in Dover are later transported to other centres around the country such as Harmondsworth
Minister for Immigration Robert Jenrick (pictured) promised that the ‘perpetrators of this disturbance will be held to account’
Kent MP: Conditions at Manston are a ‘breach of humane conditions’
The situation at a migrant facility in Kent is a ‘breach of humane conditions’, according to an MP for the area.
Sir Roger Gale, Conservative MP for North Thanet, told Sky News on Monday there are now more than 4,000 people at the facility in Manston.
He said: ‘Up until about five weeks ago the system was working as it was intended to, very well indeed.
‘It’s now broken and it’s got to be mended fast.’
Asked whether Suella Braverman is the right person to handle this situation, Sir Roger said: ‘I’m not seeking to point fingers at the moment but I do believe whoever is responsible, and that is either the previous home secretary or this one, has to be held to account, because a bad decision was taken and it’s led to what I would regard as a breach of humane conditions.’
Sir Roger said he was told that the Home Office was finding it very difficult to secure hotel accommodation, adding that he now understands that this was a policy issue and a decision was taken not to book additional hotel space.
‘That’s like driving a car down a motorway, seeing the motorway clear ahead, then there’s a car crash, and then suddenly there’s a five mile tailback.
‘The car crash was the decision not to book more hotel space,’ he said.
He said he believes it was a decision taken by the Home Secretary, but is not sure whether it was Priti Patel or Suella Braverman.
Sir Roger said he has put forward an urgent question.
Mitie said in a statement: ‘The Harmondsworth site of Heathrow immigration removal centre lost electrical power because of an outage in the local area.
‘We are working closely with the Home Office to ensure the safety of those in our care while work is carried out on site to resolve the issue.’
It comes amid growing scrutiny over conditions at British immigration centres after it was reported the Manston site in Dover was massively overcrowded and people were being forced to sleep on the floor.
The number of people coming to the UK on small boats has spiked this year, with 40,000 having made the life-threatening journey so far.
Agency staff at Manston were also subjected to attacks this week, suffering minor injuries as tensions boil over allegations of overcrowding and lack of care. Three male asylum seekers were arrested in relation to the assaults but later released without charge.
Earlier this week a child ran to the fence at the edge at Manston and handed a note in a bottle to a photographer.
The note described harrowing conditions with dozens kept at the centre for at least a month – instead of the 24 hours it was designed for.
It claimed there were pregnant women and sick detainees inside, and that a disabled child was not being cared for.
The letter, written in broken English, said: ‘We are in a difficult life now… we fill like we’re in prison (sic).’
Witnesses said they saw security guards at the site ushering detainees back inside when members of the press were walking by the fence.
The young girl was among a group of children who broke past security guards and ran over to the fence to throw the bottle to the photographer.
It said: ‘Some of us very sick… there’s some women’s that are pregnant they don’t do anything for them (sic)… We really need your help. Please help us.
‘It’s not easy for someone who has children… There’s a lot of children they shouldn’t be here. They should be in a school not prison.’
The letter added: ‘We wanna talk to you but they don’t even let us go outside.’
More than 1,200 people had left the centre by Friday morning as Home Office staff scrambled to frantically book hotels for those detained at the centre in a bid to shift attention away from the poor conditions.
No10 said the number of people at Manston in Kent had fallen to 2,600, with 1,200 people taken off site in the last four days.
Its capacity should be 1,600 who stay for around 24 hours before being found further accommodation. But as many as 4,000 have been kept there in recent weeks.
Police and specialist officers were seen outside the detention centre preparing to enter with riot gear including shields
Highly trained specialist officers arrived at the scene on Saturday morning as the incident remains ongoing