“Our demand is quite simple. We want our freedom.” Protests in UK migration prisons spread

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A wave of protests in migration prisons across the UK began on Friday 2nd May when over 150 detainees began a hunger strike and occupied the main yard in Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre near Heathrow. Protests spread to Colnbrook and Brook House on Tuesday 6th May. On Wednesday 7th May over 50 detainees at Campsfield, near Oxford, began a hunger strike. Nick Evans reports. Video and photos: George Evans @geargeevansdoc

Harmondsworth is one Europe’s largest migration prisons. It is run by private corporation GEO group. Detainees began a hunger strike on Friday 2nd May. They signed a statement which they handed to the authorities.

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They are demanding an end to the so-called “fast track” system under which refugees are held in migration prisons while they are waiting for their asylum cases to be processed. Despite its name it can lead to lengthy periods in detention, and yet, because of strict time limits and difficulties in obtaining representation, it has the appearance of summary justice without proper and fair consideration of a claim.

They are also demanding an improvement in their healthcare. A report from an inspection of Harmondsworth last August expressed serious concern at the “inadequate focus on the needs of the most vulnerable detainees, including elderly and sick men, those at risk of self-harm through food refusal, and other people whose physical or mental health conditions made them potentially unfit for detention.”

They suspended their hunger strike on the understanding the Home Office would reply to their demands on Tuesday 6th May. As of this morning (Friday 10th May) they have received no reply.

On Tuesday 6th May, guards broke up an organising meeting of 40 inside Colnbrook migration prison, next door to Harmondsworth, and put five ‘ringleaders’ in isolation cells. Then at 10pm that night 20 men at Brook House near Gatwick occupied the courtyard.

Then on the morning of Wednesday 7th May, over 50 detainees at Campsfield began a hunger strike, demanding the closure of all immigration detention centres in the UK.

There was a solidarity demo outside Campsfield House at 6pm on Thursday 8th May. The detainees called out “Freedom!” over the walls. Protestors outside called back.

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Bill MacKeith of the Campaign to Close Campsfield spoke to the detainees through a megaphone, telling them of the calls to close the centre from local trade unions, parish councils and even the county council. But the Home Office has ignored these calls and has now kept the centre open for 20 years.

Immigration lawyer Mikhil Karnik points out that UK detention centres have been condemned even from within the establishment. In the words of a recent report on an unannounced inspection of Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons:

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.

The same report expressed “concern” that “two staff had engaged in sexual activity with a female detainee, something that can never be less than abusive given the vulnerability of the detained population”.

Mikhil argues that the suffering of the detainees is exacerbated by three factors. Firstly, the current “political climate that demonises migrants”, especially those without documentation. Secondly, “austerity, which means that those responsible for detention have to make cuts, which inevitably leads to a deterioration in conditions”. For example, the private corporation Mitie won the £27m contract to run Campsfield migration prison in 2011 on the strength of its promise to offer “value for money”. And thirdly, an apparent callous indifference on the part of many officials responsible for making decisions on whether or not to detain or release a person.

“Detention strips away many freedoms leaving a person powerless in different ways. I represented a hunger striker who went on to refuse liquids. The UKBA appeared uninterested. His demand was a simple one: send me back or release me. For many – probably most – in detention, and certainly long-term detainees, there are substantial barriers to return to their country of nationality, often because that country simply will not accept them, either because they don’t want them or because they are unwilling or unable to recognise that the detainee is in fact a person of that nationality.”

The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration observed in a recent report:

“On any given day during the first quarter of 2012, around 3,500 people were detained under immigration powers, either in immigration removal centres or prisons. More than 40 people held in immigration centres had been held for over two years. … A consistent finding of previous HMIP inspection reports and research is that detainees experience heightened levels of anxiety and distress as a result of their uncertain futures. Each individual detained costs nearly £40,000 a year…..The most prominent themes to emerge from the interviews with detainees were physical and mental health problems, lack of contact with families, and the stress of long-term detention in the context of difficulties faced in accessing good quality legal services”

Since then it appears that conditions have deteriorated yet further.

One of the detainees at Campsfield explained their reason for going on hunger strike: “Our demand is quite simple. We want our freedom. We want our life with dignity. We do not want to be treated in an inhumane way. So that’s why we’re demanding for the closure of all detention centres for immigrants in the UK.”

For updates, see:

Anti-Raids Network: network23.org/antiraids/
This site also has a feature on the history of resistance within UK detention centres.
Close Campsfield: closecampsfield.wordpress.com/
UNITY Centre Glasgow: http://unitycentreglasgow.org

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