Isa Muazu, the hunger striker and us, the monster

A man in detention in Britain is close to death having refused food and drink for over 80 days. The government’s response has been to issue an ‘end of life plan’. His death could be a death sentence for us all.

How do we comprehend the 85 days that we have let Isa Muazu, a refused asylum seeker from Nigeria, get closer and closer to death as he stages a lonely hunger-strike in Harmondsworth detention centre here in Britain? Or the last few decades during which we have incarcerated more and more immigrants in detention? How have we been responding to this as a society?  Who are we now?  Who are we becoming?   

Those who have been interrogating the conundrum of ‘who we are’ generally agree that our identity is not fixed.  Instead of being innately fixed, our identity is constantly made and remade through reiteration – repeated acts that materialise our being.  This alerts us to our small, insignificant, ‘everyday’ incidents and our response to them, as they are framed within a historically specific context – and how enormously important they are in shaping our becoming. 

It is a frightening thought then, to imagine who we are becoming against the background of yesterday’s news.

As I write this, Isa Muazu lies on a mattress in Harmondsworth detention centre near Heathrow Airport in London.  Isa has been refusing food and drink since the end of August. It is reported that an ‘end of life plan’ has been created for Isa: an unfamiliar term, but one that seems stark in its purpose.

'There's nothing we can do for them'

My first encounter with immigration detention, more than a decade ago, was a well-worn whiteboard on the wall of my office which had a list of names scribbled on it on the right hand side.  I was working in a refugee charity, helping asylum seekers who have just arrived to look for a solicitor.  I asked my colleague what the list on the white board was, and was told that these were people in detention centres who called our office.  The closing comment was ‘there is nothing we can do for them’. 

Or is there? 

More than a decade later, we are faced with a situation where one detained man, nearly dying, too weak to be removed to his country of origin, simply cannot secure a release from detention that could save his life.  The size of the detention estate has dramatically increased, with almost 1,000 prison places used surreptitiously for warehousing unwanted migrants. It is not true that ‘there is nothing we can do’: in fact, we have a choice between being a mere bystander or responding with the intention of changing things.  

Hunger strikes

Sadly the ‘hunger strike’ is not a rare occurrence – those who work with people in detention know that too well.  Detention centres are not the holiday camp that some papers are keen to suggest: incarceration has a serious psychological impact. People who get caught up in the system often describe an unbearable sense of anxiety, frustration and despair. Detention that is experienced as abuse and violence is likely to lead a person into a highly vulnerable state, as many testimonies detail.  

In this context, portraying ‘hunger strikers’ in immigration detention as heroic, victorious figures, resisting the state’s control over their bodily integrity might be problematic. It might be more appropriate to consider whether ‘hunger strike’ could be a self-destructive move taken by people who have been dealt hopelessly bad cards, making a choice that is not really a choice.  Or they might have become simply unable to care for themselves any more, having lost their sense of life and living.  Ultimately, long-term food and fluid refusal – whatever the motivation behind it might be – damages your body and leads to death. 

The role of the courts

According to the papers lodged by Isa’s barrister in the High Court, he was assessed by the detention centre’s healthcare staff as unfit for detention on eight occasions over a period of two weeks.  The fact that an ‘end of life plan’ was opened for Isa appears to indicate that death was chosen over life on his behalf.  An independent doctor has said that Isa has a serious mental health problem.  While all this is happening, his condition is continuing to deteriorate rapidly.  The decision of the judge at the latest hearing was announced yesterday, ending our hopes that he would be released to the community to recover from the effects of the hunger strike. 

How on earth have we ended up like this, locking up people who are so close to death for administrative convenience of the state? 

Last week, I was at the Royal Court of Justice attending Isa’s hearing.  The fact that this was the third hearing of the lawfulness of his detention gives a clue to the dogged determination of the Home Office to create a ‘hostile environment’ for unwanted immigrants. 

As Isa’s fate was being decided in a sombre court room, the barrister read out a long list of policies and rules that are supposed to help his case.  It was a long list.  We are clearly supposed to have a sophisticated detention system, with these policies and procedures acting as a safeguards: apart from primary legislation, there are Detention Service Orders, Detention Centre Rules and various Home Office policy documents.  Yet the irony is that we are still unable to afford a minimum level of human decency to Isa that would allow him to live.  The damaging human impact of detention cannot be erased by these rules, however much we might want to trick ourselves into thinking that rules make it all okay.    

So who are we becoming?

This sorry saga of cruelty illustrates how we have been responding to Isa’s plight and foreshadows who we are becoming. We are hell-bent on keeping Isa in the detention centre, as if to make an example of him, for daring to be vulnerable and ‘hunger striking’.  Detention being an administrative measure for the convenience of the state, we are signalling to him and to ourselves that it is more convenient that the man dies in detention than lives outside detention; that some types of people deserve death, rather than life.

On receiving yet another ruling that denies Isa a chance to live, his solicitor, Sue Willman at Deighton Pierce Glynn, said that it was ‘effectively a death sentence’ on him.  It could also be a death sentence for us – our possibility of becoming something positive, inclusive and decent. For we spent the 85 days of Isa’s hunger strike not paying attention to the damage we are causing to him and to ourselves.  Daily, repeatedly we have practiced indifference.  And these daily rituals are turning us into a modern monster.  

This horror story does not end with Isa on his mattress, however.

The Immigration Bill that is currently going through Parliament contains many provisions that will create a new set of bodily practices for all of us.  We will be required to suspect if people have a right to have a roof over their heads, or access to health care to recover from injuries and illnesses.  We will be required to go through the motions of suspicion and exclusion of fellow human beings, based on their immigration status. 

Besides the predictable hardship they will bring to people with irregular immigration status, it is difficult to pretend that these everyday practices will not have an impact on us, as individuals living in everyday Britain.  We will be performing these acts prescribed by the Immigration Bill on a daily basis.  And as we repeat these practices, they will form, shape and consolidate our new identity.   Everyday cruelty and indifference will become our norm.  And we are blindly heading that way.  

This does not mean that our future is pre-determined.  Isa must and can be released from detention, and our government has the power to release him, right at this moment.  We, as a society, have the power to demand it.  By acting differently, we can draw a different course for our future.  For Isa, however, time is running out.     

About the author

Eiri Ohtani is the Co-ordinator of the Detention Forum in the UK and an independent consultant in the voluntary sector. She has worked with migrants and asylum seekers for over a decade. A graduate of London School of Economics, she also holds postgraduate degrees from the School of Oriental and African Studies and Birkbeck, University of London.