Close all immigration prisons!

Britain’s immigration prisons have once again been in turmoil as desperate detainees attempt to bring their plight to public attention, staging hunger strikes, sit-outs and other protests against their detention and treatment under Britain’s barbaric racist immigration laws. This wave of protests erupted after Channel 4 News aired a series of shocking reports on immigration prisons, coinciding with the publication of a damning parliamentary report on the use of immigration detention in Britain. Nicki Jameson reports.

Undercover filming reveals abuse

The Channel 4 News programmes featured undercover footage shot inside Yarl’s Wood and Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs). Minutes into the first programme a manager for Serco, the private company which runs Yarl’s Wood for the Home Office, is shown describing female detainees as ‘animals’ and ‘beasties’ and saying they should be beaten with a stick. This is rapidly followed by further film of other staff members spewing out a torrent of racist and sexist abuse, incitement to violence, disregard for physical and mental health problems, abuse of pregnant women and the elderly, and an attitude to suicide attempts and self-harm ranging from indifference to outright disparagement.

Two days later Channel 4 aired further secretly filmed material, this time taken by a detainee in Harmondsworth and passed to the organisation Corporate Watch. This episode includes footage of male detainees living in unhygienic conditions with pigeons flying around inside, overflowing drains, rotting food in the kitchen and bed bugs in their cells, as well as showing a detainee suffering injuries from what appeared to be epileptic fits and guards employed by Mitie, the contractor running Harmondsworth, selling clothes to detainees. Home Office staff members are shown admitting that conditions in Harmondsworth are ‘shit’ and saying that the reason detainees are not allowed camera-phones is because the government doesn’t want ‘the bad publicity’ that would be created by film – such as the one they were unwittingly contributing to – getting out.

Parliamentary groups slam indefinite detention

On 3 March the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on Refugees and Migration published the report of their joint inquiry into the use of immigration detention.* The report is full of useful material and thoroughly condemns the current system, in which immigration detainees live in a constant state of fear and uncertainty, never knowing how long they will be detained or whether they will suddenly be taken to a plane and deported. As one witness told the inquiry: ‘the lack of time limit is the worst part of it as you don’t know when or if you will get out. You can’t say to yourself tomorrow I’ll be OK. Tomorrow you will be locked in, or flown back to the country where you are afraid for your life.’

The report strongly concludes that open-ended detention must end and there should be a time limit of 28 days, that those who are in detention should have automatic bail hearings, that pregnant women should never be detained and people who have mental health problems or have been tortured or trafficked only under exceptional circumstances. Britain is one of very few countries not to have an upper limit on detention and has even refused to sign up to the EU Returns Directive which includes a time limit of six months, extendable by a year under certain circumstances. And British courts have rubberstamped lengthy detention; with judges ruling that immigration imprisonment for up to 45 months was ‘reasonable’ under the circumstances.

The report also exposes the huge difficulties which immigration detainees face in obtaining legal representation for their cases, and the lack of decent health care in the IRCs, as well as describing in detail the chronic failings of the Detained Fast Track system, which imprisons asylum seekers on the – usually erroneous – basis that their cases can be resolved quickly.

As with all such inquiries, there are political limitations: while the report thoroughly exposes the arbitrary and punitive use of detention, its remit does not extend to questioning the actual immigration legislation which viciously attacks and criminalises asylum seekers, economic migrants, students and people coming here to marry, in addition to meting out a second punishment to non-British citizens convicted of a crime. Consequently it can never address the real root of the problem.

Despite this, the proposals and recommendations would be a good start to addressing the horrors of Britain’s obsessive imprisonment of migrants; however unfortunately, as ‘all party parliamentary groups’ have no official standing, there is no onus on Home Secretary Theresa May or the rest of the government to act on its recommendations.

Britain’s expanding immigration prison system

There are currently 11 IRCs in operation in England and Scotland, with an additional two short-term holding facilities and the Cedars ‘pre-departure accommodation’ near Gatwick airport, which holds families with children. Three of the IRCs are state-run by the Prison Service, with the remainder contracted to private companies. Since 1993 when Campsfield House became Britain’s first privately-run IRC, there have been repeated changes of management, as companies fall in and out of favour with the government, undercut or swallow up one another, rebrand or move into ‘custodial services’ from other areas of the ‘service industry’. Currently Mitie and G4S each run three IRCs, Serco and GEO one each, while the two short-term facilities are operated by Capita and an unholy combination of G4S and children’s charity Barnados manages Cedars.

Over the last two decades the capacity of the detention estate has expanded rapidly. In 1993 there were 250 places available, rising to 2,665 by the end of 2009 and 3,915 at the start of 2015. This does not include the 425 people currently held under immigration law in criminal prisons.

The cost of running all this was £164.4m in 2013/14. The average cost of detaining one person for one year was £36,026. At the end of the third quarter of 2014, 50 people had been detained in IRCs for 12-18 months, 22 for 18-24 months, 16 for between two and four years, and two people had been detained for more than four years.

In 2013, 30,418 people entered immigration detention in Britain. In comparison Germany detained 4,309 people, Belgium 6,285, Sweden 2,893 and Hungary 6,496. Germany detained three people for every 20 in Britain, despite receiving over four times as many asylum applications.

Labour’s legacy

Although this massive immigration detention apparatus has continued to expand under the current government, it is overwhelmingly the legacy of the 1997-2010 Labour government, a point which Channel 4 News presenters put both to ‘left’ Labour MP Yasmin Qureshi and to Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper. Qureshi twisted and turned in an attempt to put forward her ‘personal view’ opposing the privatisation of detention while not criticising her own party. Cooper then hid behind vacuous calls for ‘an independent inquiry’ into the abuse, while refusing to accept past Labour responsibility for the burgeoning use of immigration detention or confirm that a future Labour government would either close Yarl’s Wood or even terminate the contract with Serco.

On 26 March, however, speaking at the National Sanctuary Assembly organised by Citizens UK, Cooper pledged that, if elected, Labour would put an end to indefinite detention. This promise included no time scale for implementation nor any reference to 28 days or any other detention time limit, and it was accompanied by a further promise – to recruit 1,000 additional border and immigration enforcement staff, presumably so the solution to lengthy detention can become swifter deportation.

Solidarity with the protesters!

On 4 March, following the Channel 4 exposé, women at Yarl’s Wood, who have a long history of standing up for their rights, staged a protest. Then, on 8 March, over 200 prisoners at Harmondsworth IRC began a mass action, demanding an end to indefinite detention and the Detained Fast Track system and against the stressful and degrading conditions, which they described as ‘mental torture’ and which lead many detainees to self-harm and some to suicide. By 15 March there were protests at Harmondsworth, Colnbrook, Yarl’s Wood, Dungavel, Tinsley House, Dover, The Verne and Brook House.

Hand-in-glove with the British state, which contracts them to run the IRCs, the staff of Mitie, Serco etc responded by beating detainees, turning off water, blocking access to social media and banning journalists from entering the prisons to report further on the situation. Most of the press collaborated with silence – other than Channel 4, which continued to report as the protests unfolded, and Russia Today, there was almost no coverage. The detainees were therefore reliant on themselves and on small groups of supporters who demonstrated noisily outside the centres so that those within could hear their expression of support and solidarity.

Protest in immigration detention in Britain is far from new. Since the 1997 Campsfield House revolt, following which nine detainees were tried for and acquitted of riot, there has been continual protest on both a small and large scale: from individuals physically resisting deportation to full-scale uprisings. Yarl’s Wood was burned down during a protest in 2004, not long after it opened, and has been the scene of repeated hunger strikes, while Harmondsworth has seen recurrent mass protests.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! opposes all immigration detention and all Britain’s racist immigration laws and apparatus. Britain is an imperialist country, which has colonised and plundered half the world and continues to foment war and carry out invasions around the globe, causing asylum seekers to flee and seek sanctuary. It is a capitalist country, which uses immigration powers in an attempt to regulate the flow of labour according to the dictates of the market. The British government has no right, therefore, to criminalise asylum seekers, people who come here seeking work or any other category of migrant, and anyone opposing British capitalism and imperialism must stand in solidarity with the struggles of migrants.

Solidarity with immigration detainees! Close Britain’s immigration prisons!

Fight racism! Fight imperialism!

* The inquiry report can be downloaded here

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 244 April/May 2015


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