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A public inquiry into conditions at a UK immigration removal centre has called for a 28-day time limit for detention, after finding that a “toxic culture” led numerous detainees to be subjected to cruel and dehumanising abuse.

Over the five months under review, April to August 2017, the inquiry into Brook House in Sussex identified 19 examples of behaviour by the centre’s staff that contravened the European Convention on Human Rights regarding the use of inhuman or degrading treatment.

Inquiry chair Kate Eves said that while the scope of the investigation was limited to a chapter at one detention centre in 2017, there were lessons to be learned today as the government pushes ahead with plans to criminalise undocumented migrants and detain them indefinitely prior to their removal from the UK.  

“The government has made clear its intention to expand the use of immigration detention. Any expansion or other change should be considered in the context of learning lessons from past failures,” said Eves.

There is no maximum period for which people can be detained in the UK for immigration removal, but Eves on Tuesday urged the government to “introduce a time limit . . . of 28 days”.

Brook House removal centre
Brook House removal centre © Gareth Fuller/PA

The Brook House inquiry was triggered by a BBC Panorama documentary in 2017, which broadcast evidence of racist abuse, violent and threatening behaviour against detainees by staff at the centre near Gatwick airport. The film was made possible thanks to secret recordings carried out by a young whistleblower on the centre’s payroll.

Some of the worst instances of mistreatment uncovered by the inquiry included the application of pressure to a man’s neck while he was in extreme distress, men being forcibly moved while naked and the use of dangerous restraint techniques that could lead to death.

Force was used inappropriately, in addition to threatening and derogatory language, on people who were harming themselves.

Brook House, which was run by the security group G4S at the time, was “not sufficiently decent, secure or caring for detained people and its staff”, Eves said. She added that she had reached the same conclusion as witnesses in describing the culture of G4S staff as “toxic”.  

The report also found that the centre’s prison-like environment was “entirely unsuitable” for detaining people for anything other than a short period. Some people were detained over a year. The indefinite nature of immigration detention had caused additional uncertainty and anxiety for people suffering from poor mental health, the inquiry said.

Responding to the report, the Home Office said significant improvements had been made to “uphold the welfare and dignity” of detainees including strengthening safeguards.

“We remain committed to ensuring safety and security in all immigration removal centres and to learn lessons from Brook House to ensure these events never happen again,” it added.

G4S said it had ceased operating Brook House in 2020 and was no longer involved at immigration removal centres. It said a number of its employees had behaved in 2017 in a manner that was at odds with the group’s values.

“The vast majority of employees at Brook House Immigration Removal Centre were focused on the wellbeing of the detained people . . . often in exceptionally challenging circumstances,” it said.

Eves explicitly rejected the idea that responsibility for events in 2017 fell to a small number of staff and urged the Home Office to exercise much greater oversight of contractors in order to guarantee safeguarding.

Sonya Sceats, chief executive of Freedom from Torture, a charity that contributed evidence to the inquiry, urged the government to implement its recommendations “immediately”.

“The Brook House scandal was not an isolated incident, but a symptom of escalating institutionalised cruelty towards asylum seekers and other marginalised migrants,” she said.

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