At Harmondsworth

Den Staf

When you go to see someone at Harmondsworth Detention Centre near Heathrow, you sit in a waiting room until your ticket is called and you are led into the large visiting room. After a while, the person you are there to visit enters through a door on the other side. The waiting room and visiting room are decorated with photographs printed onto canvas. The photos are the stock kind you might get on the desktop of a Windows PC: deserts, beaches, lush forests, drops of water, lands of mineral richness. They appeared after Mitie took over running the centre from GEO (both are private companies). Artwork by detainees used to decorate the walls, but now those pictures are stacked up in the corner.

I don’t know which policy I find more disturbing. I suppose it’s nice that GEO allowed the detainees to decorate the walls, but they shouldn’t be here in the first place. Harmondsworth is the largest immigration detention centre in Europe, and Britain is the only country in Europe that has no time limit on the detention of asylum seekers. In June the High Court ruled that the Fast Track system was ‘structurally unfair’. Under this regime, detainees, many with poor English, were given only a few days to navigate a system of deadlines and applications before being bundled onto a plane, or being left to languish in detention. But even without Fast Track, detention is a confusing, complicated experience.

There’s something sinister about detainees decorating the site of their detention, but then the visiting room isn’t really the detention centre anyway, only the public part of it, and pot plants and pictures serve an important PR purpose. The person you’re visiting may be detained indefinitely but the surroundings say: ‘it can’t be that bad.’ Perhaps the stock photos are better than the artwork. They convey no sense of the photographers who took them; they seem to have sprung out of nowhere. They can install themselves uncontroversially anywhere, even the walls of a detention centre, though the places they depict, which are meant to look decorative or exotic, may be the places from which many of the detainees have fled.

You can take pictures off the wall, but murals are more difficult to get rid of. One behind the entrance desk is an underwater scene packed full of colourful fish and coral. The guard, watching out for anyone passing things to detainees, sits below the gaping mouth of a shark – dark, circular and ringed by sharp little teeth. Next to the shark is a clock, hung in the centre of the mural and threatening in its own way. Some people have been in detention for years.

The person I’m here to see arrives. He keeps coming back to the idea that the experience of being detained is impossible for people outside, people like me, to understand. ‘I know it seems nice from out here, with all this stuff they put around,’ he says, gesturing to the pot plants and the murals and the pictures. ‘But it’s not like that inside.’


  • 25 November 2015 at 9:10pm
    Simon Wood says:
    I urgently recommend the 2015 Koestler Awards exhibition of art from the prisons and asylums of Britain. Some of the pieces are the best things on show in London at the moment, in my view, because of their special context plus the insight into inside they provide.

    It's in the basement of the Royal Festival Hall and closes this Sunday 29 November.

    Whenever we head west on the M4 to my daughters' and their mother's native Cornwall, I always point out important sites on the way, like Heston Services (where the aerodrome was - "I have a piece of paper in my hand..."); the tube line over the road on its way to Heathrow, that marks the real boundary of London; the Honda roundabout (now moved); Windsor Castle that seems to move on wheels across the windscreen as the motorway curves; the reservoir banks near Heathrow where a Welsh shepherdess came to tend a flock; and Harmondsworth church tower, a humble stump but ancient nevertheless and in danger of being moved on by the expansion of the airport.

    This church, I intone in newsreel fashion, features in Pevsner's "Buildings of England" Volume No.1, an austerity-brown-covered paperback I still have from my time in my first job in the Reprints and Revisions Department of Penguin Books on the airport perimeter, whose official address was always humbly but famously "Harmondsworth, Middlesex".

    Now, since the girls are older, I will draw attention to the Detention Centre not far behind the church, following Den Staf's haunting piece.