Revealed: Guards used force on suicidal asylum seekers after training had expired

Brook House
The papers reveal the desperation of those detained at Brook House last year amid an intensive programme of charter flights

Reports Aaron Walawalkar and Jessica Purkiss, Liberty Investigates journalists; Eleanor Rose, Liberty Investigates editor; and Mark Townsend, Home Affairs editor of the Observer


Suicidal asylum seekers were subject to force by guards who the Home Office allowed to remain on duty despite being “effectively uncertified” in the safe use of restraint techniques, according to internal documents charting conditions inside one of the UK’s most controversial immigration centres.

Experts say the department endangered lives last year by deploying custody staff whose training in the safe use of force had expired as it detained hundreds of people who crossed the Channel in a fast-track scheme to remove them.

The cache of 180 documents, obtained through freedom of information laws by the Observer and Liberty Investigates, reveal the desperation of those held at Brook House as the Home Office mounted an intensive programme of flights, removing small boat arrivals to mainland Europe.

They show that the proportion of detainees subjected to force inside the removal centre near Gatwick airport more than doubled last year.

The documents – which include officers’ written accounts, minutes taken during oversight meetings, and complaints filed by detainees and staff – also offer a rare insight into allegations of excessive force by staff.


the number of documents obtained by Liberty Investigates and the Observer under information laws

Contractor Serco , which took over Brook House in May 2020, said it “completely refutes” the allegations.

In addition, the disclosures reveals that after the first lockdown in March 2020, custody officers, who Home Office guidance states should take at least eight hours of training in the safe use of control and restraint techniques every year, were given a “dispensation” allowing them to keep working.

“The dangers created by staff being overdue for refreshers is the increased risk of death in custody due to staff loss of knowledge and skill,” said Joanne Caffrey, former police officer of 24 years and expert witness in the use of force. In normal circumstances – more than one person out of date would represent a “significant institutional failure”, she added.

The news comes ahead of the second phase of public hearings into the 2017 abuse scandal at Brook House, then controlled by private firm G4S.

Between July and December last year, Brook House was the government’s base for Operation Esparto – a schedule of 22 removal flights under a deportation option that allowed the UK to send people back to EU states they had passed through. The process finished on 31 December with the end of the Brexit transition period.

Many detainees are believed to have been survivors of torture and trafficking.


Officers used force, including techniques that deliberately cause suffering to gain compliance, – called pain-inducing restraint – to prevent self-harm on 62 occasions from July to December, (including 20 in August alone). The population of Brook House was around 100 people at any one time.

Self-harm attempts clustered around the flights themselves. The day before a charter to France and Germany on 25 August, officers intervened four times, including one in which a man was rushed to hospital after being found in a pool of blood with slash wounds to his arms, head and chest.

“I thought at least if I kill myself, they’ll be able to learn a lesson”

A claimed torture survivor and former detainee

Between August and December, there were 14 attempts by detainees to end their lives using improvised ligatures. Two tried to suffocate themselves using plastic bags. On 21 September, the day before a flight, a man jumped from an upper floor but was caught in safety netting before trying “to push himself through the edge of the netting so he could fall head first to the ground,” officers wrote.

One claimed torture survivor who attempted suicide in detention, described Brook House as his “worst nightmare”. He said: “I thought at least if I kill myself, they’ll be able to learn a lesson – they’ll listen, and they wouldn’t treat other people the way they treated us.”

Alison Thewliss MP said: “That custody officers are allegedly using force to prevent detainees from self-harming is disgusting, and speaks to a shocking lack of compassion.

“I’ve been assured by ministers on countless occasions, in writing, that the Home Office is committed to improving standards with respect to accommodating asylum seekers and other vulnerable people. It’s clear that their promises are empty,” added Thewliss.

Credit: Serco / Home Office, obtained by FOI request

Serco warned the Home Office during monthly updates that incidents of self-harm linked to the Esparto programme were driving up rates of force.

In fact the proportion of detainees subjected to force by officers rose from between seven and eight percent in 2018 and 2019 to 17 percent in 2020, according to monitors.

Yet the Home Office didn’t release any detainees through the legal mechanism to identify those at risk of suicide – a separate request by solicitor Lewis Kett of Duncan Lewis shows – despite guidance permitting this.

Instead, when training shortages emerged because of Covid-19, it relied on a loophole quietly introduced to keep officers on duty in the immigration estate after their safe use of force training had expired.

Excerpts from meeting minutes (top), and two use of force forms (centre, bottom) reveal four instances of force used by out of ticket officers. Credit: Home Office / Serco, obtained by FOI.

Excerpts from use of force forms reveal two further cases of force used by “out of ticket” officers. Credit: Home Office / Serco, obtained by FOI.

Home Office guidance usually requires custody officers to take at least eight hours’ refresher training every year in the safe use of control and restraint techniques – some of which can kill if performed incorrectly.

Expired staff “must not work as a [custody officer]” and their certificate is marked “invalid” on a central database, guidance states.

In March 2020 the Home Office created a “dispensation,” allowing out-of-date officers to remain operational until the end of September, taking part in any use of force incident unless it was “planned”.

Documents reveal that officers used force on detainees at Brook House during Operation Esparto while “out of ticket” on at least six occasions.

On three of these, the officers were on constant watch duties – a shift during which they monitor a detainee at risk of self-harm or suicide.

“Deploying effectively uncertified officers to use force against detainees just to meet Home Office deportation targets is completely unacceptable”

Alistair Carmichael MP

For example, just after 9pm on August 3rd, 2020, an asylum seeker – on constant watch after saying he’d rather die than return to France – began head butting a cell window. The officer monitoring him – who ticked a box in his form stating he had not received refresher training – stepped in to pull the man back.

The detainee then picked up a kettle and hit himself on the head with it “multiple times”, internal reports state. The kettle was taken from the man’s grip but he wrapped the power cable around his neck to strangle himself.

A second officer grabbed the man’s hand. She then used a technique known as the back hammer which risks dislocation if used incorrectly. She also ticked a box on her use of force report stating she had not received refresher training.

Subjecting survivors of torture and trafficking to force risks retraumatising them, said Emma Ginn, director of Medical Justice, which sends volunteer doctors into detention centres. “The use of force and pain-inducing techniques on vulnerable, suicidal asylum seekers is extremely disturbing as it can increase stress and fear, heightening the risk of self-harm and suicide,” she said.

The Home Office did not answer whether it carried out a risk assessment of the move, nor how many staff went on duty while expired.

“Deploying effectively uncertified officers to use force against detainees just to meet Home Office deportation targets is completely unacceptable,” said Alistair Carmichael, Lib Dem spokesman for Home Affairs. “Ministers should come before Parliament to address these serious allegations”.

Minutes and a presentation slide from monthly use of force governance meetings at Gatwick IRCs. (Credit: Home Office/Serco, obtained by Freedom of Information request)

Disclosures included in the documents revealed other concerning allegations.

Documents show how a staff member complained that pain-inducing restraint was used on a detainee to force him to accept an ad-hoc medical assessment after a planned use of force. Serco said that this was done in the detainee’s best interests.

The investigation also spoke to a former detainee who complained after officers placed a shield on top of him while he lay, not moving, in bed. Reviewing reports of the incident, Caffrey said force appeared “excessive,” which Serco denies.

The Home Office said it reviews reports filled in by officers justifying the techniques they have used. But minutes taken during an oversight meeting in November 2020 warned the paperwork was being filled out incorrectly, while in December officials said “accuracy” should be addressed.

Officers were also found to be writing that they reserved the right to later change their reports, raising fears they could attempt to dodge accountability. Serco said the issue occurred in the aftermath of their takeover of Brook House and has since been corrected.

A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “We have a range of safeguards in place to protect the vulnerable, including round the clock access to healthcare professionals and contractors are also duty bound to maintain our safety standards.”

But in internal email exchanges obtained by FOI, officials appeared to acknowledge that some of the material was controversial. A reporter’s request to see officers’ use of force accounts was sent for ministerial clearance, during which one official wrote to another: “I don’t need to see all the forms but pls do send me any that are likely to be contentious.” The reply came: “There are a lot of them that are.”

Sarah Burnett, Serco operations director, immigration, said: “We have provided comprehensive evidence to demonstrate the accusations are untrue and there is no evidence to support them, only supposition and incorrect third-party commentary.”

Burnett said that since taking over Brook House it had recruited 170 extra staff and established an “open, inclusive culture” where “officers behave professionally and are properly trained and certified notwithstanding the challenges faced during the Covid pandemic.”

She added: “Our officers have a duty of care to the people in the Centre and only use appropriate and proportionate force as a last resort, which in many cases prevents self-harm by detainees and on some occasions has saved lives.”

  • If you are in the UK or Ireland and are having suicidal thoughts, suffering from anxiety or depression, or just want to talk, you can call the Samaritans helpline on 116 123 116 123 or email or

This story was published in partnership with the Observer.