Analysis | ‘Twenty years too long’: Campsfield and the migrant activism discourse

Describing his experience of a recent 'Close Campsfield' protest, Luke de Noronha asks whether we should move beyond a communitarian redefinition of belonging and instead adopt a discourse that radically challenges the notion that people can be assigned a place in the world by the states that try to order it.

New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, December 12, 2013 16:16 - 2 Comments

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Credit: http://closecampsfield.wordpress.com

Around 200 people congregated at the gates of Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre in Oxfordshire on Saturday 30th November, expressing solidarity with those held inside under immigration powers.

The gates represent the border, the barbed wire citizenship, dividing those subject to policies of indefinite detention and forced expulsion from those not. Campsfield was made visible with protest, friendship and music. The wonderful ‘rhythms of resistance’ helped the crowd make the noise they came to make – as people shouted, sang and waved under a forgiving November sky. It was great to see so many at Campsfield – a strange place hidden away near a moribund airport – remembering the near 30,000 noncitizens to have gone through its gates since 1993.

Campsfield holds noncitizens under administrative powers, yet is furnished with the paraphernalia of prison. It is hard not to feel uneasy about its raison d’être: the facilitation of ‘administrative removals’ through the incarceration of non-citizens in prison-like conditions – without time limit. Immigration detention is justified by its supporters in terms of its supposed usefulness in ‘facilitating the removal’ of ‘those with no right to be here’. But it is important not to lose sight of how uncomfortable these places look and feel, and to note how unnerving the word administrative sounds in this context. You don’t have to be a migrant rights activist to experience such uneasiness.

Offering some distraction from the barbed wire and high fences, the samba provided carnival – easing the cold and augmenting the chants. The border was transformed into a space of colour, sound and congregation, reminding those inside that their supporters outnumber their guards. Speakers, both activists and ex-detainees, aired their anger at twenty long years since Campsfield was opened, and expressed insights into the history of resistance and hope for a future of change.

The twenty-one noncitizens who have lost their lives in UK detention centres were remembered with a minute’s silence, affording the crowd a moment’s reflection under clear skies. The sound of a nearby plane took on new meaning, its engine booming oppressively with the reminder of all those forced deportees we never knew.

One central theme in the day’s events was that of asylum. Asylum seekers are often detained at some stage in their claim and this served as an important rallying point for those in attendance. Seeking asylum comes at a risk and should you be refused, as more often than not you will be, all sorts of treatment await: enforced destitution, detention without time limit, and ultimately expulsion (or in Home Office doublespeak, ‘administrative removal’). I was aware at times of a slippage between ‘the asylum seeker’ and ‘the detainee’. But not all detainees are asylum seekers. In fact, in 2010 it was estimated that only around half of those in detention had claimed asylum.

So what about the other half? How might we tell their stories and give them voice?

In focusing on asylum and refugee issues we emphasise the dangers in returning migrants to the persecution from which they fled. The word refugee evokes images of vulnerability, suffering and torture. Refugees are deserving of protection and our inhumane asylum system punishes those it should be protecting. These things are true and for many detainees they reflect the realities of their migration stories. But they are not true for all, and the narratives we choose have consequences.

People move for all sorts of reasons with varying capabilities and aspirations, navigating confusing legal systems and moving in and out of illegality. It is the state that tries to organise, order and classify so as to control migration and migrants. Activists need to be wary of implicitly legitimating this system of classification by invoking the ‘genuine refugee’. As the academic Bridget Anderson notes, shifting migrants from the villain to the victim category does little to alter the debate, the terms of which continue to be set by the state.

These slippages might have some unintended consequences: if the detainee is the asylum seeker, and the asylum seeker is the victim of torture, we have implicitly excluded, or at the very least muted, the voices of many detainees, and conceded the language we might use in the broader fight against immigration controls.

In saying migrants are not criminals, what do we do for the ones who are? What does that say about our view of criminals? Are we reifying ‘the criminal’ by setting it in opposition to ‘the migrant’?

How do we defend ex-Foreign National Prisoners, if you believe, as I do, that we should? Of course, all politics involves making good arguments, and victims of persecution make legible the intense injustice of immigration detention. But perhaps we should remain just a little wary of telling certain stories and consider the possible effects of not telling others.

I want to make clear that this is a more general point about migrant activism, one with no easy solutions. The protest at Campsfield and later in the centre of Oxford was incredibly powerful; the chorus of demands to end to all immigration detention reverberated around Oxfordshire. This was not a politics for ‘deserving’ migrants. It was more radical than that.

But how might we develop a radical politics that transcends the categories defined by the state? How can we move beyond narratives of trauma and suffering to challenge the state’s power to classify? Perhaps a trip across the Atlantic might be instructive:

¡Aquí Estamos, y No Nos Vamos! [Here we are, and we’re not leaving!]

Not one more deportation!

These migrant mobilisation slogans refuse to portray migrants as victims. There is power in their simplicity. ‘People move around, get used to it’. Our point of departure should be that people deserve the right to move around the earth, and, in an era of mass dispossession, to stay put. Framing the issue of migration in this way demands that human movement be seen as normal rather than as an aberration; it calls attention to the violence that inheres in world of borders.

In the courtroom we may have to operate strategically, playing the state’s game by redefining individual migrants as deserving and ‘of good character’. But this is not the courtroom and thus we should move beyond a mere communitarian redefinition of belonging. We should challenge the idea that people can be assigned a place in the world by the states that try to order it.

Ultimately we need to recognise our audience and acknowledge the limitations in narratives of suffering and vulnerability. Not all migrants are ‘cuddly’, not all migrants behave themselves, and not all migrants have narratives of trauma with which to challenge their deportation orders. But every one of the estimated 100,000 people detained around the world on immigration powers suffers an injustice. And every enforced removal, every chartered flight full of deportees, and every non-citizen severed from the place in which they choose to live, is a stain on humankind.

Travelling back through North Oxford, past the grand facades of proud houses, it was hard not to reflect on the invisibility and suffocating greyness of Campsfield. I was left wondering how many people knew about the detention centre on their doorsteps, and how many people cared?

Fortunately for me, this sombre mood was not to last me long. Upon return to the city we were joined again by the amazing ‘rhythms of resistance’ for more samba and protest. Standing across Broad Street, the music drew crowds, some dancing, most smiling, and all reading the various banners placed around. It was time to drum the message home: Close Campsfield Now! Handing out flyers and dancing, I felt a million miles away from the barbed wire.

I hope that we can keep finding ways to talk about immigration detention and perhaps samba is the best way to start the conversation. I just want to note that when the samba ends and we think about ways forward, we should consider which stories we tell, why and with what effect. Our politics demands it of us.

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Luke de Noronha

Luke de Noronha is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology at the University of Oxford (COMPAS). His research explores the deportation of ex-offenders from the UK to Jamaica. He is on Twitter @LukeEdeNoronha.

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Sue Lukes
Dec 18, 2013 0:55

Hi
How do we tell their stories and give them a voice? like this http://www.musicindetention.org.uk
please listen to and share the music: lots of voices, lots of stories, shared with all sorts of people near detention centres. Top of my list for busting stereotypes is the project where we shared making the songs with an older people’s rural day centre (the sort of people UKIP target!) and together they wrote songs like Freedom where the older people wrote about what it might feel like being detained in YarlsWood and the detainees add thier own lyrics and music. http://www.musicindetention.org.uk/music/?location=bedford-yarls-wood-irc . they can maybe tell their own stories?

Luke de Noronha
Dec 23, 2013 21:06

Thanks for this. I’d heard of music in detention and think it’s an amazing idea. Great work. People can and should tell their own stories. Part of the power in the slogan ‘here we are and we’re not leaving’ is in the WE. The ownership. Still there is a difference between having voice and being heard. This article is about how advocates listen, which stories grab us, and the partiality of the voices we help relay. Detainees should tell their own stories and we should remain critical of how we listen. Music is a wonderful way to tell a story, so thanks for this!

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