Notes from the Margins | ‘No one is listening to us’: Britain’s Migrant Rebellion
New in Ceasefire, Notes from the Margins - Posted on Tuesday, May 20, 2014 13:42 - 6 Comments
By Matt Carr
On Friday May 2, 150 detainees at Harmondsworth Removal Centre went on hunger strike. The GEO private security firm that runs Harmondsworth quickly responded with repression, breaking up meetings and placing ringleaders in solitary confinement, in an attempt to snuff them out quickly.
By the following week the strike had spread to four wings – more than half the centre, as the detainees presented the authorities with an 8-point list of issues which they wanted resolved. These included an end to the ‘Fast Track’ asylum processing system which keeps migrants in detention while their cases are being heard; the lack of legal assistance in preparing their cases; an improvement in health conditions and the quality of food.
The protest also spread to other detention and removal centres at Colnbrook, Brook House and Campsfield, where 50 people went on hunger strike until the strike was called off on Friday 16. The causes of these protests are not difficult to understand. Last year a report by H.M. Inspectorate of Prisons on Yarl’s Wood Removal Centre found:
“The circumstances of those held at Yarl’s Wood make it a sad place. At best it represents the failure of hopes and ambitions, at worst it is a place where some detainees look to the future with real fear and concern. None of those held at Yarl’s Wood were there because they had been charged with an offence or had been detained through normal judicial circumstances. Many may have experienced victimisation before they were detained, for example by traffickers or in abusive relationships.”
Similar observations can be made about much of Britain’s immigrant detention facilities. According to the Home Office, ‘Detention is used as a last resort. Detainees’ welfare is extremely important and we are committed to treating all those in our care with dignity and respect.’ Virtually every report and every firsthand testimony of what goes on in Britain’s detention centres gives the lie to these claims. What they describe is a pattern of institutionalised cruelty and indifference, of the intense psychological and sometimes physical damage inflicted on men, women – and children – who the state has decreed to be ‘illegal’ or lacking the right to remain in the UK.
Rather than a last resort, detention has become the cornerstone of the British state’s response to ‘illegal immigration’, as it has throughout the Western world. At present an average of 3,000 migrants are likely to be detained in the UK on any given day. Last year, 30,000 people passed through Britain’s immigrant removal centres – a ten-fold increase compared with the early 1990s, according to the Global Detention Project. Presented by the Home Office as a measure to prevent migrants and asylum seekers from ‘absconding’ and/or facilitate their removal, immigration detention has become another component in an unacknowledged principle of ‘deterrence’, which aims at making conditions for migrants in the UK as harsh as possible in order to deter others from coming.
Successive governments have observed this policy in practice, without recognising it explicitly, and presented detention as another indication of their determination to ‘protect our borders’, while simultaneously turning it into a source of profit for the private security firms that manage the UK’s detention facilities – a development which has also made it easier to ignore and conceal what takes place inside them.
Last week Labour’s Yvette Cooper condemned a leaked report suggesting that the private security firm Serco failed to investigate what she called ‘shocking allegations of a despicable nature’ into the sexual abuse by a guard of a female detainee at Yarl’s Wood. But it was a Labour government that created Yarl’s Wood in 2001, and a Labour government that outsourced it first to G4S and then to Serco in 2007, despite continued allegations of poor health conditions, sexual abuse of detainees, and physical brutality even towards children.
That Labour should now seek the moral high ground is not acceptable. And regardless of the specific conditions in individual centres, it is a moral abomination in itself to detain men, women and children for months and in some cases for years, because of their immigration status or because they are ‘failed’ asylum seekers. In February 2010, Home Office figures revealed that 225 asylum seekers had spent more than one year in detention and another 45 had been detained for more than two years.
It is worth reminding ourselves that the essential ‘crime’ committed by these detainees was simply to come here ‘without permission’ – and also that British penal law has strict sentencing parameters and time limits for imprisonment that are commensurate with particular crimes. Yet the UK has no fixed time limit on immigration detention, which means that migrant detainees can be held at the discretion of the state for as long as the state sees fit, without any need for further justification.
Such procedures, historically, are the stuff of tyranny. But these are the depths to which the UK – and much of the Western world – has now sunk in its ruthless ‘war’ against ‘illegal immigrants’. Even on its own terms detention has been a disaster. There is no evidence that it stops people coming – or absconding. Detention is expensive, especially compared with allowing migrants whose immigration status or asylum claims are under scrutiny to remain in the community. In 2006, a UNHCR study of detention in various countries found that 90 percent of migrants released on bail had observed the terms of their release and did not abscond, and concluded that detention was ‘an extremely blunt instrument to counter irregular migration.’
The reliance on this ‘blunt instrument’ by successive UK governments is one more consequence of the climate of hatred, fear, racism and official victimisation of ‘illegal immigrants’ which has become so deeply embedded in Britain’s squalid ‘debate’ about immigration. Nor are Britain’s politicians uniquely responsible for it. Too many people are either indifferent to detention or take some kind of vicarious satisfaction from the thought that the unwanted violators of ‘our’ borders have been suitably punished – regardless of whether these intruders have often come here precisely because of the UK’s reputation as a defender of human rights and individual freedom.
In effect, politicians, the media and the public have all been complicit in the rank politics that has created Harmondsworth, Yarl’s Wood and Campsfield, and which have allowed the likes of Serco, Geo and G4S to fill their coffers at the expense of the UK’s ‘disposable’ and deportable people. This month hundreds of men and women resisted their invisibility and their dehumanisation, to the general indifference of the British media. And their struggle should galvanise us not only to support them, but to close those evil places once and for all, and puncture the poisonous politics that have made detention possible.
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