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Official reports highlight ongoing problems with the detention of minors and deportation charter flights

Hot on the heels of the annual report on detention in England and Wales, [1] Her Majestys Chief Inspector of Prisons recently published two reports: one on the recently-opened Cedars pre-departure accommodation centre, [2] and one on the removal by charter flight of 40 immigration detainees to Afghanistan. [3] Despite some progress, the Chief Inspector identified serious shortcomings in the detention of families and the management of forced removals.

Better standards: the acceptability of detention and forced removal

Both reports place emphasis on the positive developments made in the practices and procedures.

The visit to Cedars, referred to officially as "family-friendly" "pre-departure accommodation", took place in May and was the first since the establishment of the new facility in August 2011. Located in Pease Pottage, West Sussex, Cedars was opened as part of a government scheme to end child detention, [4] a promise critics say they have failed to keep. 

The report details the nature of the services accessible to families, which includes a library, a few Kindles, small apartments equipped with a bathroom and a small kitchen, and access to legal support, resulting in a generally positive evaluation: there is an "attractive environment and caring ethos" at Cedars:

"This inspection found conditions and treatment that exceed by some distance what families have previously experienced before removal. For that reason, staff at Cedars deserves great credit for what has been achieved in circumstances that are never less than sad."

Families with no legal right to remain in the UK and who have failed to comply with orders to leave are sent to Cedars for a maximum period of one week pending removal, a situation that the Chief Inspector noted was of a stressful nature. The centre is jointly run by the private security company G4S and the charity Bernardos and claims to offer the best reception standards to families during the few days they spend at the centre.

The Chief Inspectors second report examines a forced return charter flight to Afghanistan, during which monitors accompanied detainees and observed the removal process until Kabul, as well as reviewing documentation from three previous charter flights removals to Afghanistan. 

Charter flights to Afghanistan can be as frequent as twice a month, with their management subcontracted by the UKBA to the private security company Reliance since 2010, when the UKBA decided not to renew G4Ss contract in the aftermath of the arrest of three G4S employees after the death of Jimmy Mubenga during his forced deportation.

According to the Chief Inspector, detainees were given appropriate support and their rights such as the possibility of phoning a legal representative - were respected. This was the third overseas escort inspection carried out by the Chief Inspector, and the report notes that the behaviour of staff members, all of whom were trained custody officers, appears to have notably improved:

"Importantly, we heard none of the inappropriate and abusive language that was previously evident& Escort staff& were friendly and made an effort to put detainees at ease."

The Inspector's concerns

Serious problems noted in the report cast a shadow on this positive feedback, with some escort staff reportedly using disproportionate force "whenever possible" and displaying no consistent approach when dealing with detainees opposing their deportation. Some escort staff members even told the Chief Inspectors team they "were not wholly confident in the professionalism of a few colleagues."

No information was given to detainees on how to file a complaint about the way they were treated, a situation aggravated by the fact that the Chief Inspectors team were the only monitors on board. UKBA monitors sometimes accompany flights, but not systematically.

The preparation of detainees for arrival in their country of destination was deemed "generally weak with information" with "no particular focus on help that might be available for detainees on arrival". Some returnees were unaware of the possibility to call their legal representatives or family, while others were given information on the assistance provided by the International Organisation for Migration to voluntary returnees even though they were not part of a voluntary return programme.

Several problems were identified at Cedars including procedural issues, such as the failure to follow the family removal plan approved by the Independent Family Returns Panel [5] and a lack of access to mental health services for both adults and children. Moreover, in spite of the child-centred approach prevailing at Cedars and the presence of social workers fully trained in child care, the report found that "none of the healthcare staff had children-specific qualifications".

Strong language and excessive use of force by staff members were also reported: four complaints have been lodged by detainees, and force was used against six of the 39 families who came to Cedars, including against one pregnant woman. This was strongly condemned by the Chief Inspector who stated that violence against pregnant women is "simply not acceptable".

Cedars is not considered as an immigration detention centre and therefore does not fall under the Detention Centre Rules 2001. [6] It was built as an ad hoc pre-departure centre and has run under interim operating standards since its creation. Some practices in the centre lack an appropriate legal framework, like the use of the cool-down room (an isolation room), and the Chief Inspector recommended that "the legal basis of the operation of Cedars should be clear", echoing the recommendations already made by the Bedfordshire Safeguarding Children Board on the detention of children in a 2010 report. [7]

Unaddressed issues

The reports come at the same time as mounting criticism of detention and forced removals, and some elements in the Chief Inspectors report seem to substantiate the concerns raised by organisations about the UKBAs long, punitive campaign against children [8] and the use of deportation charter flights in breach of the principle of non-refoulement. [9]

The absence of systematic monitoring of charter flights has been denounced by human rights organisations, [10] and the report notes the lack of systematic monitoring of these flights whether by the UKBA or by the subcontracted company Reliance. 

The Chief Inspector of Prisons has not recommended systematic monitoring, despite numerous allegations of disproportionate use of force against deportees [11] and despite the recommendation of the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee in January this year that members of independent monitoring boards (IMB) should be given access to charter flights. [12]

Detainees removed to Afghanistan during the Chief Inspectors visit were collected from four immigration detention centres - Brook House, Harmondsworth, Colnbrook and Tinsley House - but only two charter flights that took place last year carrying detainees from these centres were accompanied by an IMB member. [13]

No reference was made in the report of the use of "reserves", although the Chief Inspector has previously described the practice of bringing extra detainees to airports during deportations in case extra room becomes available as "objectionable". The most recent report mentions that 18 of the 58 detainees "originally identified for the removal & stayed in the UK&as a result of legal injunctions", without further clarification.

The Chief Inspectors report suggest that despite the apparently child-friendly conditions at Cedars, the whole experience  - described by Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, as a "necessary part of a civilised but effective immigration system" [14] - remained very distressing for the children, "despite anticipation of their needs and active management of the children by Barnados staff."

In 2006, an expert report emphasised that:

"Detention, including detention of families with children, is becoming increasingly common in the UK. This is occurring in spite of evidence that detention is both harmful and unnecessary, and that families with children are even less likely to abscond than single adult asylum seekers."

The same report urged "the Home Office to consider granting ILR [indefinite leave to remain] to families on compassionate grounds, in line with the best interests and welfare of the children".

Nine of the 39 families transferred to Cedars were released, which suggests their deportation was cancelled, at least temporarily, and that the appeal processes were not exhausted at the time of detention, as with the recent case of the Saleh family who were evicted  and brought to Cedars, and whose deportation was eventually suspended pending a final appeal. [15]

The Chief Inspector does not address whether the situation at Cedars is at odds with the governments claims that it has ended child detention. Cedars is part of the Home Offices statistics on immigration detention [16] and the Home Office claims that of the children "who entered immigration detention.. the majority & entered the new pre-departure accommodation, which are specifically designed for children and their families". 

Based on the Home Offices statistics, there were more children in detention in the first semester of 2012 (113) than in the first semester of 2011 (29), statistics which "extremely concerned" the Coram Childrens Legal Centre, which "reiterates its call for an end to the immigration detention of children". [17] 144 children were detained in Cedars between August 2011 and May 2012.


[1] HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales, Annual Report 2011-12
[2] HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Report on an announced inspection of Cedars Pre-Departure Accommodation 30 April 25 May 2012
[3] HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Detainees under escort: Inspection of escort and removals to Afghanistan, 25 26 June 2012    
[4] Statewatch News, Ending the detention of children for immigration purposes? New "pre-departure accommodation centre" for families almost ready to open, 31 August 2011
[6] Detention Centre Rules 2001
[7] Bedforshire Local Safeguarding Children Board, Executive Summary: Independent review, Child A and Child B placed with family at immigration removal centre, June 2010 
[8] The UK Border Agency's long, punitive campaign against children (helped by G4S and Serco), Clare Sambrook, The Guardian, 16 July 2012
[9] Tamil asylum seekers try for 11th hour block on deportation, The Guardian, 23 October 2012
[10] Stop Deportations! Growing the Resistance against Mass Deportation Charter Flights
[11] Institute of Race Relations, Racism and the use of force during deportations, 16 February 2012
[12] House of Commons- Home Affairs Committee, Rules governing enforced removals from the UK, Eighteenth Report of Session 201012
[13] Tinsley House Immigration Removal Centre, Independent Monitoring Board, 2011 Annual Report
Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre, Independent Monitoring Board, Annual Report 2011
[14] We are proud of having ended child detention - Thousands of children are no longer locked up as they were under Labour, thanks to our family immigration reforms, Nick Clegg and Barbara Nalumu, The Guardian, 29 October 2012
[15] Instead of being protected, the Saleh familys ordeal continued in the UK, NCADC blog, October 2012
[16] Home Office, Migration Statistics 
[17] Coram Childrens Legal Centre, Response to HM Inspectorate of Prisons report on announced inspection of Cedars Pre-Departure Accommodation, 23 October 2012

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