Special Report | From Women Refugees to International Students: The State’s War on Migrants

In the general context of structural racism facing Black, Muslim, and other oppressed communities, the UK state’s war on migrants is playing an increasingly central role. But in the face of these attacks, argues Malia Bouatia, we are also witnessing a growing amount of resistance.

New in Ceasefire, Special Reports - Posted on Tuesday, March 29, 2016 15:30 - 1 Comment

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Protest in Westminster on 15 Jun 2015 against treatment of migrants at Yarl's Wood detention centre (Credit Image: © Velar Grant/ZUMA Press/Corbis)

Protest in Westminster on 15 Jun 2015 against treatment of migrants at Yarl’s Wood detention centre (Credit Image: © Velar Grant/ZUMA Press/Corbis)

Not a week goes by without more news about the UK’s attacks on Migrants. From the government’s refusal to take in significant amounts of Syrian refugees and its participation in anti-migration efforts in the Mediterranean, to the growing number of immigration raids at home and its increasingly draconian visa regulations, Migrants in this country are vilified, criminalised, and ill-treated by the state.

In the general context of structural racism facing Black, Muslim, and other oppressed communities, the state’s war on Migrants is playing an increasingly central role. But in the face of these attacks, we are also witnessing a growing level of resistance, often led by Migrants themselves. Wile such efforts are still often concentrated around specific cases and issues, they nevertheless offer a model on which to develop stronger national movements that can challenge the government’s repressive measures.

Last week, for example, women at the privately run Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, in Bedford, refused to be forcibly taken away and deported. When the guards came to take them out of their cells, they found the women had grouped together across a number of rooms and were refusing to move. This is not the first time that the women held at Yarl’s Wood have refused to accept their fate. A few months ago, women refused to be taken away to the airport. Their resistance delayed the planes, and, in the end, seven out of the 40 women scheduled to be deported were taken away.

The detainees of Yarl’s Wood have by now become famous for their resilience, courage and preparedness to fight back against the outrageous treatment they are subjected to. They have organised demonstrations and petitions against their treatment, and launched a campaign with supporters on the outside wearing T-shirts that read: “We Are Not Animals”, after footage was released by an undercover Channel 4 report showing guards calling some of the detainees ‘animals’, among other horrific treatments.

And yet, visitors to the Yarl’s Wood website are greeted with pictures of smiling women in apparently pleasant, everyday situations. The logo of the company in charge of the facility, SERCO, promises to bring ‘service to life’, above a banner that reads: ‘Respect, Support, Commitment. That is our promise’ – a presentation that couldn’t be further from the reality experienced by the detainees.

The Channel 4 report shows the centre’s staff threatening physical violence against the women detainees, including ‘beating’ them ‘with sticks’. A guard can be seen threatening to ‘head-butt the bitch’ –in reference to to one of the migrant women – while another states coldly: ‘Let them slash their wrists’. These examples of casual verbal violence towards the centre’s detainees, and the blatant disregard for their well-being, are part of a daily reality of systematic ill-treatment.

In the spring of 2015, Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, conducted a three-week-long unannounced inspection of Yarl’s Wood, and his report left little room for doubt as to the realities inside. Among its many horrific revelations, the report found that:

  • ‘Forty-five per cent [of women held at Yarl’s Wood] said they felt unsafe at the centre’ and 20% of women in the centre felt unsafe in their bedrooms.
  • ‘more than double the number of women who were removed (443) were released back into the community (894), which raises questions about the validity of their detention in the first place’.
  • ‘Levels of self-harm were high’
  • ‘A disturbing 54% of the women held told [the inspectors] they felt depressed or suicidal when they first arrived’.

The healthcare situation at the centre, sub-contracted to the now infamous private provider G4S, was a particular area of concern. The report found that:

“There were severe staff shortages and women were overwhelmingly negative about access, quality of care and delayed medication. Local governance was poor. Care planning for women with complex needs was so poor it put them at risk. The available mental health care did not meet women’s needs and this made it particularly unacceptable that a number of women with enduring mental health needs had been detained. The small enhanced care unit was located in health care and was used to isolate women.”

The report further points out that ‘Many women told us harrowing stories about their histories of abuse, rape, trafficking and other victimisation. At best, they were distressed and anxious about their detention and the uncertainty surrounding their possible deportation’. Finally, Hardwick concluded that:

“Yarl’s Wood has deteriorated since our last inspection and the needs of the women held have grown. In my view, decisive action is needed to ensure women are only detained as a last resort. Procedures to ensure the most vulnerable women are never detained should be strengthened and managers held accountable for ensuring they are applied consistently. Depriving anyone of their liberty should be an exceptional and serious step.”

It is worth reminding ourselves that the women detained at Yarl’s Wood have committed no crime other than demanding refugee status in the UK, a fact which too often remains unsaid. They are migrant women, trying to build a life in the UK, often fleeing poverty, persecution, and war. The situations they face in their home countries are often directly linked to the role of the UK and other Western states in pillaging their resources, destabilising their states, or waging wars in their home regions, leaving destruction and death in their wake.

In this context of institutionalised violence and dehumanisation, the ability of the women at the Centre to fight back and organise is even more inspiring. An important aspect of the picture, which has facilitated the development of internal resistance and confidence, is the growing solidarity movement outside the centre. This development, organised by the Movement for Justice, has built a growing alliance of activists, ex-detainees, trade unionists and students who are calling for the shutting down of Yarl’s Wood and all other detention centres. This campaign provides both practical and political support for the women detainees in Yarl’s Wood and other centres.

The group has organised a series of demonstrations outside of the center to remind the women that they do not stand alone and the authorities that there is a growing movement in society, which watches their actions and judges them unacceptable. The last mobilization, on the 12th March, brought 2000 people to rural Bedfordshire who surrounded the center and called for it to be dismantled. These regular demonstrations, which have been growing over the last few years, are led by – mostly Black – women who have themselves spent time inside Yarl’s Wood and who believe it is crucial for them to continue the fight. They often repeat that the worst one can do is to remain silent and hope that by keeping your head down the state will therefore not target you. What they argue is that actually the state is looking for ‘easy pickings’. Therefore the louder and better organised migrants are, the harder it becomes for the state to get way with victimizing, ill treating, and deporting them.

The movement against Yarl’s Wood is particularly important and impressive given the current political realities in the UK. We are faced with ever increasing government–driven xenophobic campaigns against migrants, which are being ramped-up every day. The Tories’ arbitrary target of 100,000 net migration a year is leading them to wage an all-out war against Black communities in general, and migrant communities in particular. Early morning raids, stringent regulations, and forced deportations have become the norm across the country.

The current state of affairs is also increasingly affecting International students up and down the UK. Not a week goes by without another student facing deportation, fighting for their right to stay and study in this country, struggling to remain alongside their friends, families, or loved ones. On the same day as the news came in that the women at Yarl’s Wood were resisting deportation, students who had been campaigning against the sudden expulsion of Lord Apetsi – a student at Strathclyde University, father of two, and newly elected officer of the National Union of Students (NUS) Scotland –  received the news that Lord had avoided deportation for now and would ‘enjoy’ two extra weeks of reprieve.

Lord’s story is unfortunately an increasingly familiar one. He was picked up by the UKVI without any notice after spending 9 years in the country. He was immediately taken away from his two small children, his colleagues and friends, and driven from one detention centre to another. He was given no opportunity to dispute or appeal the decision made against him, and was simply told he would be deported within 72 hours. Case closed and a life destroyed.

Luckily in this case, Lord’s local Students’ Union, the NUS Scotland, as well as the International and Black Students’ campaigns threw themselves behind a campaign to stop his deportation, organising demonstrations, getting MPs on board and facilitating legal representation.

Furthermore, what about all the other cases? What about all the countless students that we continue to campaign for?

A court found last week that the Home Office had stripped sixty universities of their licenses – which allow them to enrol international students – based on flimsy and incomplete information. This decision led to the deportation of thousands of students in similar raids to that Lord was subjected to last week. These are thousand of lives of students and their families, suddenly disrupted; thousands of people suddenly uprooted, separated from their loved ones, and sent packing, just so Mrs. May can fulfil her monthly deportation quota.

The ongoing assault on International Students, on Migrants, and on Black lives across society is a problem too big and too serious to be fought solely on a case-by-case basis. While individual solidarity is, and will remain, crucial in our campaigns to support migrants and their ability to remain in the UK, we need a wider and broader campaign that fights against the state’s vilification and criminalisation of migrants. We need an alliance of Migrant groups, Trade Unions, Students’ Unions, and civil society groups that changes the narrative on Migrant rights, offers practical support and clear resources, and organises a principled opposition to deportations, detention centres, and oppressive immigration laws. The fantastic achievements of the Movement for Justice around Yarl’s Wood should serve as an example for our movement as a whole in how to develop effective national responses to the very personal horrors that migrants face at the hands of the state.

In the Brook House detention centre where Lord is detained, run by G4S, visitors are met with a huge sign that reads: ‘We are all one family here, whoever we are’. Reading those words in the context of the violence and humiliation that is being meted out against the people held in that centre and others is revolting. It is infuriating. It is unacceptable.

Reading those words, in that context, is enough to make anybody want to tear it down. And that is exactly what such centres, and the surrounding infrastructure developed to control and expel Migrants, precisely need: tearing down.

Malia Bouattia

Malia Bouattia is the Black Students' officer at the National Union of Students, representing students of African, Asian, Arab, Caribbean, and South American descent from across the UK in further and higher education; the largest constituency of Black students in Europe. Malia also sat on the national executive council of the NUS for two years prior to this role. She is the co-founder of the Black Women's Forum UK, which has hosted three national conferences for women of colour. She is also one of the co-founders of Muslimah Pride - a group of Muslim women who initiated international action against Islamophobic and Orientalist depictions of Muslim women.

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Kevin Aylward
Jul 7, 2016 22:20

Malia: You lost it, and any respect when you equated Muslim with racism. This is clearly disingenuous. It is written this way to gain unwarranted protection for an idea not otherwise due such immunity. A Muslim is someone that has a political ideology with a touch of god thrown in to appease the masses. Period. A race is associated with someone’s skin colour and national origin. Period. One is physical, one is mental. Protection against genuine racism, is justified. Protection of someone’s political belief system is not. It this were were not so, you should also be protesting in support of Hitler’s political ideology. Its that simple.

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