Revealed: ‘Mass suicide attempt’ at immigration centre after detainee death

Image: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images / Instagram

Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre in Middlesex UK
The full horrors of what security officers termed an "attempted mass suicide" are laid bare in internal documents

Reports Aaron Walawalkar for Liberty Investigates and Open Democracy. Edited by Harriet Clugston.


An “attempted mass suicide” took place at the UK’s largest immigration removal centre (IRC) during a protest days after a detainee died, according to internal documents that charities say expose “extreme levels of distress” in detention.

The full horrors of the major incident at Harmondsworth IRC near Heathrow airport on 28 March are laid bare in papers released by the Home Office to Liberty Investigates and openDemocracy under Freedom of Information laws.

It comes as the UK’s first public inquiry into alleged violent abuses in immigration detention prepares to publish its report, and the revelations will add to mounting pressure on the Home Office to halt plans to expand the detention estate.

The documents also appear to provide the first official reference to Colombian detainee Frank Ospina’s death two days earlier in adjoining IRC Colnbrook having been self-inflicted. The Home Office has so far not commented on Ospina’s cause of death and a coroner has not yet made a ruling on how he died.

“[Redacted] self-harmed in two different locations… and committed suicide in the care suite,” a report by Mitie, the private firm contracted to run both Heathrow centres, stated.

A slide from the April 2023 safer community meeting appears to provide the first official confirmation Frank Ospina's death was self-inflicted. Credit: FOI

Between four and six detainees tried to kill themselves during the protest, according to a written account from one officer. A spokesperson for Mitie said custody officers managed to stop them all.

Another officer wrote of intervening to restrain a detainee from self-harming.

The disclosures include redacted meeting documents on self-harm incidents presented at the two centres’ ‘safer community monthly meeting’ on 27 April 2023, the first such meeting held following both 39-year-old Ospina’s death on 26 March and the 28 March protest, and contain an apparent admission of failings by a manager.

Minutes from that meeting recorded a safer community manager’s concerns that “staff are failing to identify residents that are vulnerable, which in turn means that the resident is not provided with the correct care while in detention”.

A slide from the April 2023 safer community meeting. Credit: FOI

There were a total of 24 self-harm incidents in March 2023, more than the previous three months combined (21).

Yet official figures show not a single medical report flagging detainees at risk of suicide, which could lead to their release by the Home Office under a legal mechanism called Rule 35, was issued at Colnbrook or Harmondsworth between January and March 2023.

Emma Ginn, director of Medical Justice, a non-profit that sends doctors into detention centres, said: “It is clear that lessons are not being learnt and vulnerable people in detention continue to be failed by the system that should identify and protect them.”

She added: “We are not confident that the Home Office considers the value of the lives of those in its care in detention as fully human.”

A slide from the April 2023 safer community meeting. Credit: FOI

The protest on 28 March appears to have started soon after 9.50am, during a meeting in Harmondsworth’s events room between Home Office officials and about 15 “frustrated” detainees, most of whom were Indian, according to staff accounts.

Charity Jesuit Refugee Service, which has been supporting some of the men, said while many details remain unclear it believes the group had asylum claims refused after being detained immediately upon arrival in the UK. Their applications were processed wholly within detention and many had struggled to access legal advice, a spokesperson added.

The meeting on the morning of 28 March was held after the asylum seekers submitted a formal complaint, which they later emailed to charities. They alleged their detention by the Home Office for roughly two months was “not fair” as others who had arrived on the same boat had been released immediately.

“They pick and choose people [based] on favouritism or some uncertain grounds which we really can’t understand… [The] Home Office need to give us some sort of explanation over it,” read the letter of complaint submitted around the time of Ospina’s death and the protest.

The Home Office said decisions to detain are taken on a case-by-case basis.

The detainees also claimed to have struggled to access medication and were facing rude and abusive treatment from staff.

“We are so depressed that we are happy to kill ourself [sic] rather than staying here,” the letter continued.

Our reporter spoke to a fellow former detainee who was held in Harmondsworth at the time of the protest, and who had contact with members of the group – although he did not witness the events directly.

The sense of despair inside the centre had worsened following news of Ospina’s death, he recalled. “People became scared and started thinking: ‘Oh, they are keeping us here that long’,” he said. “What if our mental condition becomes unstable and we also try to [end our lives]?”

Frank Ospina

By about 10.50am on the morning of 28 March, as tensions continued to mount, a message was put out over the radio calling on “all available officers” to head to Harmondsworth, the internal documents show.  A Mitie spokesperson said this was routine practice.

One officer who arrived at the scene described seeing around 30 to 40 detainees chanting: “Fuck immigration” and “Why am I still here?”

“The noise was intimidating,” they wrote.

One guard described a conversation with a detainee involved.

The officer wrote: “[Redacted] was saying he is tired of how he is treated by immigration. He spoke about how he went to see someone from immigration today but she told him to get out and leave […] she told him to leave when he spoke about the people dying/killing themselves in detention and how people are treated badly by them.”

A security officer's account of the protest on 28 March describes multiple attempted hangings. Credit: FOI / Home Office

A supervisor’s report described the disturbance as “very stressful and intense”, adding: “Staff pulled together massively to preserve the potential of a number of serious injuries to residents.”

A senior Mitie manager was asked by a commander to take control of the response to the “ongoing concerted indiscipline” at 12.30pm, writing in their account: “I felt that we were going to lose control of the centre.”

The employee “managed to [re]gain control of the centre promptly”, they wrote, but were then called to a “code red” incident at 2pm in which a detainee held in isolation had flooded his cell and was threatening to harm himself.

The manager was called to another “code red” at 15.30pm in which two detainees had damaged the observation panel of their cell and were also threatening self-harm, according to their account.

The manager was called to another “code red” at 15.30pm in which two detainees had damaged the observation panel of their cell and were also threatening self-harm, according to their account.

A use of force form completed by a supervisor describes the disturbance on 28 March as an "attempted mass suicide". Credit: FOI / Home Office

Guards were still being called on to restrain self-harming detainees in the centre at around 6pm, when one described being asked to get “kitted up” to support officers dealing with the disturbance. A Mitie spokesperson said staff routinely wear personal protective equipment when dealing with self-harm incidents.

These disturbing accounts come as the Home Office plans a major expansion of the detention estate. Two centres – Campsfield House in Oxfordshire and Haslar in Hampshire – are set to reopen to hold a further 1,000 male asylum seekers.

Eileen Cole, communications manager at Jesuit Refugee Service, called on the government to its end the use of immigration detention, rather than expand the estate and broaden their powers to “arbitrarily detain people, as they are doing under the new ‘Illegal Migration Act’.”

She said: “This report lays bare the extreme levels of distress and frustration that are the every-day reality within immigration detention centres across the UK.”

She added: “Detention routinely obstructs access to justice, and the picture that is emerging here looks troublingly like an example of that, and of the human impact it can have.”

The Home Office said it would not comment on the details of Ospina’s death while investigations take place.

A spokesperson added: “Our thoughts and condolences are with the family and friends of Mr Ospina. The welfare of all those in our care is of the utmost importance. Any death in immigration detention is a tragic event, and will be subject to investigation by the police, the coroner and the independent Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.

“All incidents of self-harm are treated very seriously, and every step is taken to try and prevent incidents of this nature. Our staff are rigorously trained to ensure the safety of residents, including on the appropriate use of force.”

  • In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, or email or In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at

This story was also published by openDemocracy and internal documents shared with the BBC