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Priest gives evidence to Brook House inquiry into abuse of detainees

17 December 2021


D Wing of Brook House Immigration Removal Centre, next to Gatwick Airport in West Sussex, pictured at its official opening, in 2009

D Wing of Brook House Immigration Removal Centre, next to Gatwick Airport in West Sussex, pictured at its official opening, in 2009

AN INQUIRY into the abuse of detainees at a detention centre formerly run by G4S has heard details of the abuse from whistleblowers, including a priest.

The abuse was uncovered after a whistleblower, a former officer, Callum Tulley, approached the BBC, which filmed undercover footage of alleged assaults, humiliation, and verbal abuse of detainees at the site. The footage was shown on a Panorama programme in 2017 (News, 8 September 2017). After the broadcast, ten members of staff were dismissed or resigned, and G4S has since stopped running Brook House and Tinsley House at Gatwick Airport.

The Revd Nathan Ward was a manager at Brook House Immigration Removal Centre, before leaving to train for ordination in 2014. He now serves as Vicar of St Margaret’s, Rainham, in Kent.

He told the first part of the Brook House inquiry — which was set up to investigate the mistreatment shown in the documentary — that the detention system was a “system without hope”.

He said this week: “I think it’s demoralising when any human being is in a position where their liberty, to all intents and purposes, has been taken from them, where they have no concept or idea of when they will be released. We would refer to it as indefinite detention, or some might like to call it indeterminate detention. That is most demoralising . . . It is a system without hope.”

He described the effects of detention on vulnerable detainees. “I’ve witnessed people who have sewed their lips together. I’ve witnessed people who have been on what’s called dirty protest. Now, that isn’t something someone with good, sound mental health does. I’ve witnessed people on food and fluid refusals. I’ve witnessed people seriously self-harm. I’ve witnessed people attempting suicide.

“I’ve witnessed people crying, showing me the scars of torture whilst holding letters from the Home Office denying their claims of torture. I’ve commanded incidents where people have stood on the wrong side of the railings with a ligature around their neck on the phone to their nine-year-old son saying goodbye. Those are just a snapshot of the things that I have personally witnessed.”

He said that the welfare of detainees “was not on the agenda. When you have the Home Office just interested in deportations, and when you have G4S, by definition, interested in profit, welfare isn’t really on the agenda. It’s more around ensuring there’s no embarrassments. So we don’t want people to die, for example. We don’t want people to die following food and fluid refusals, and that’s why we see a pattern of people suddenly being released from detention if it goes too far.”

He said that the abuse of detainees had its roots in the Government’s “hostile-environment” policy towards migrants; the solution was not to train staff better, but to overhaul the whole system, he said.

“I think the mistreatment has come about through a collection of issues. The first one is fundamentally that the Government have announced that they wanted a system which was a hostile environment, and, therefore, what we see in Brook House is that hostile environment played out in real life.

“What we see, in practice, is a system where the policy has systemically failed, and vulnerable people, with significant and profound mental-health issues, are found within Brook House. We find ourselves in a system where staff are having to deal with that trauma, and simply do not have the skills or ability to manage that; and, therefore, the only way they can manage is by dehumanising the people in front of them, and, at the point of dehumanisation, you’re on the slippery slope to despair which we see at Panorama.

“But what should be noted is that this isn’t, and cannot, simply be cured by training staff. That is the biggest mistake that this inquiry could ever make. We need to overhaul policy, procedure, and the system.”

The second phase of the inquiry’s hearings will begin in February, and will take further evidence from former detainees.

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