Thousands of people are held in detention and due to be deported through immigration removal centres. Reporter Ben Fishwick speaks to people who have been inside this country’s oldest centre in Gosport
Nearly 200 people are locked up – sitting waiting to find out if they will be deported.
Haslar Immigration Removal Centre in Gosport holds 197 detainees – people who the Home Office wants to deport from Britain.
In an effort to keep up with increased demand, work this summer saw its capacity increase from 160 beds.
The centre holds adult men who can be moved to any number of centres across the country – or deported.
Henry, 53, has been held in detention since February and was moved to the centre in Gosport for several weeks.
From Nigeria, he has lived in England for 31 years and has applied three times without success for leave to remain in Britain.
Three weeks ago he was told he would be deported – something he believes is down to a prison sentence he served for a non-violent crime in 1997.
He spoke to The News on the eve of his threatened but eventually stayed deportation to Nigeria – thousands of miles away from his British wife and children.
Henry said: ‘If I’m deported there’s no chance of seeing my son.
‘I left Nigeria 31 years ago – where on earth I going to stay? I don’t know anybody in Nigeria, my mum died in 2002, my dad died when I was four years old.
‘What happens to my wife and who looks after my son?
‘They call this justice – there is no justice in the Home Office.
‘Detention is inhuman – I don’t know what to do.’
A Home Office spokeswoman said it cannot comment on Henry’s case.
But she said: ‘Those who come to the UK must abide by our laws – and those who do not should be removed at the earliest opportunity.
‘We take all necessary steps to deport foreign criminals and have removed 19,000 since 2010.’
She added last-minute appeals disrupt deportations but the recent Immigration Act has cut appeal rights from 17 to four.
Henry is still in detention and does not know what will happen to him.
Before his threatened deportation last month he spoke about his stay in Haslar, which has medical provision, a library and job placements for detainees.
He says: ‘I would rather sleep in a dungeon with the hope I will be set free to go back to my wife and my kids, than to enjoy some kind of comfort as a slave in detention.
‘I’ve been in detention for eight months and I haven’t set eyes on my family.
‘It’s more than difficult, it’s traumatic.
‘The Home Office policy is not working at all. If you’re under detention they look at you like a criminal.’
Henry is brave in speaking out about how he feels the system has treated him.
Detention, which costs the government £98 per day per person, remains a sensitive subject.
Former detainees who have been released still fear speaking out publicly will affect their chances of staying.
And with heavy cuts to legal aid, detainees struggle to get advice or representation.
Portsmouth-based Haslar Visitors Group – now called Friends Without Borders – this year marked 20 years of visiting detainees.
Co-ordinator Anne Dickinson visits new detainees who arrive in Gosport.
She said: ‘There’s comings and goings – just before Christmas time it gets very full.
‘I was recently told the average length of stay in Haslar was 33 days but when you speak to the guys in there, they’ve been to five different detention centres.
‘There was one guy not that long ago who was in there for three-and-a-half years.
‘You can get people sent down from Scotland – it seems very arbitrary why people are moved to the places they are.’
Haslar, the UK’s oldest immigration removal centre, is run by the Prison Service. A wide variety of people are held there.
‘There are asylum seekers, there are people who have right-to-family-life claims – people who have a wife, husband or kids here,’ explains Anne.
‘There are people who have a deportation order as they have a criminal offence and there are people who are known as lorry-drop cases.
‘They are people who’ve been picked up from the back of a lorry and put in a detention centre.
‘But there are people who have been tortured and with serious medical and mental health problems.’
She added there also students who come to the UK to study but their college ends up losing Home Office approval, leaving them either having to start elsewhere or face removal.
Friends Without Borders, a voluntary organisation, also gives calling credit to detainees and supports them accessing materials online.
Restrictions in the centre mean social networking websites and Skype are blocked. ‘When you’re locked in you can’t just go down to the local library and get what you need,’ Anne says.
‘They operate by prison service rules, which are quite limited in terms of internet access. There was a guy who was a member of the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe and he was trying to get information about the MDC.
‘One of the officers said it was material designed to incite. It was just a report about the MDC.
‘If they won’t let them download there then we download it here.’
The latest inspection report from Her Majesty Inspectorate of Prisons describes Haslar as a ‘respectful institution’ but did find some failings.
Those included sparse legal representation, poor progression of case work and that detainees were not prepared for removal or release.
One man, who spent seven years in custody – some in a prison – was given just three hours before being moved to the other end of the country.
Another man, who asked not to be named, was released from Haslar but says he did not get enough help when he left the centre.
An additional problem is origin countries want proof the person being removed is from there. And war-torn countries and countries the UK has poor relations with can be difficult to work with.
At Haslar, HMIP said detainees who were at risk of committing suicide were held in a special unit – but that it was not staffed adequately.
But the report does highlight improvements in the centre since its last inspection in 2011.
One of those was people could participate in work or education within 24 hours of entering the centre.
A Freedom of Information request put into the Home Office request found that £106,562 was paid to detainees at Haslar between January 1, 2013 to August 31 this year.
The total amount of paid hours at the centre was 106,562 – meaning detainees were paid just £1 an hour.
They are exempt from minimum wage under Section 59 of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006. Paid work includes cleaning, garden maintenance, satellite library orderly, induction orderly and dormitory representatives.
But the HMIP report said the Home Office should not withhold work placements for people who do not co-operate.
In all, the inspectorate made 71 recommendations to the Home Office and centre manager. The Home Office did not respond to a request from The News to interview the governor.
IMMIGRANTS, asylum seekers and illegal migrants.
Everyone has an opinion on these people.
But those opinions can be formed without any direct interaction with people categorised under those labels.
Dr Charles Leddy-Owen, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Portsmouth, visits detainees in Gosport.
He has carried out research speaking to people living near Haslar Immigration Removal Centre.
Throughout the interviews he found people mostly held anti-immigration attitudes but did not know and had not met any immigrants.
But he found these kind of views are less likely to be held if people did know immigrants.
Some people even changed their opinions while being interviewed.
‘There’s a lot of anti-immigration feeling out there,’ he says.
‘A lot is based on perceptions of immigration, rather than actual immigration.
‘People think there’s been a lot more than there actually has been.
‘They don’t think about it in terms of where they live, but what they’ve read in the paper, what certain politicians have said and anecdotal evidence.
‘When I did talk about people in the removal centre they found it difficult to discuss because it made them anxious and guilty.’