Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Becket House - an immigration prison in SE1

At present there are major building works going on next to London Bridge station in St Thomas Street with the construction of a 27 storey 'EDGE London Bridge' office block well underway.  Whatever you think of it, nobody is going to much miss the Home Office building it replaced, known as Becket House. Before the latter vanishes from historical memory it's important to record what happened there as possibly the last designated prison in a part of London that has seen many prisons over the centuries.

Protest at Becket House in 2010

Becket House's purpose was probably unclear to those fortunate enough not to have to use it, including the many commuters passing by as they exited the south entrance of London Bridge station. The only clue was the daily queue of people from all corners of the world stretching around the building each morning.

Becket House was an an Immigration Reporting Centre where asylum seekers were required to attend regularly.  In most cases this would involve a long queue and a short signing on but the terror underlying this was never really knowing when you left home that morning whether you would be coming back again. Asylum seekers could be detained when they turned up and for this purpose Becket House had what was called a 'short term holding centre' where people could be locked up until they were moved to a longer term detention centre and then potentially deported.  This was officially designated as a prison and subject to HM Prisons Inspectorate (see for instance this critical report of a 2009 inspection). It consisted of two adjoining secure 'holding rooms', one for single adults and one for families. As well as being used for people detained when signing it was used to lock up people arrested in immigration raids in the community organised from Becket House.  People were usually moved to a removal centre on the same day, though sometimes they were moved overnight to local police station cells. The centre was run for  some of its time for the then UK Borders Agency by Group 4 Securicor (G4S).

At one time Becket House was processing 15,000 appointments a year. How many people were detained in total is unknown but one report shows that between August and October 2009 alone 255 people had been detained, including 39 children (15%) and 59 women (23%). Among those who were  locked up there was Amir Siman-Tov from Morocco. Detained when he reported to Becket House in January 2016 he was transferred to Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre where he died the following month (see Inquest report). 

As part of the Government's Hostile Environment, Becket House was designed to intimidate - in 2018 the Guardian reported that an official there had been filmed saying 'We are not here to make life easy for you. It’s a challenging environment we have got to make for people. It’s working because it’s pissing you off'.

Becket House was the focus for a number of protests from migrant solidarity groups. The building closed in 2022 and was demolished soon afterwards.

Several hundred people paused at Becket House during the March for Migrant Rights in October 2006
 which went from Imperial War Museum to Tanner Street park

No Borders protest in 2009

SOAS Detainee Support, Migrants Organise and These Walls Must Fall at Becket House in 2021

The only Immigration Reporting Centre for South London is now at Lunar House in Croydon. 

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