20 years of arbitrary detention in Britain

This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of Campsfield, the immigration removal centre which heralded a mass expansion of detention and opened the door for profit in immigration control in Britain. Yet outside the prison and within, there are voices of dissent, says Bill MacKeith.

Bill MacKeith
27 November 2013

The first detainees were brought over to Campsfield from Harmondsworth detention centre near Heathrow airport in two white minibuses on 25 November 2003. Campsfield is an ‘immigration removal centre’ situated in Kidlington, 6 miles from the historic city of Oxford.  Many did not notice the emergence of Campsfield on the Oxfordshire landscape. Few still do. Yet some of us, local residents and students alike, know by heart the short cycle ride which takes you there up the canal, or the short bus route from the town centre. This coming weekend, Friday 29 November to Sunday 1 December, we will mark the 20th anniversary of the opening of Campsfield with a weekend of events with one message: ‘20 Years Too Long!’

The human costs of detention

A month after Campsfield detained its first individuals over 100 passengers were taken on Christmas Eve from a flight arriving in Heathrow from Jamaica to Campsfield, where they were held over Christmas. Nearly all, including a Jamaican immigration officer, were released shortly after. Since 1993, we estimate that some 25,000-30,000 asylum seekers and undocumented migrants have been imprisoned in Campsfield. For some detention has lasted a day or two; for others it has lasted months, even years, without charge, without judicial oversight or proper reason given. Under powers in the 1971 Immigration Act, the UK specifies no time limit for such detention. Many international human rights organisations regard this lack of time limit or proper judicial oversight as arbitrary.

For those of us who have been involved with the campaign to close Campsfield, there seems little arbitrary about the extent of the suffering that we have witnessed on our doorstep. The mental damage caused to detainees is evident from the figures on self-harm published by the government and evidence of the damage to detainees’ mental health is in the medical literature. It is all the more evident if you visit an immigration detainee through one of a network of local visitors groups.

As we mark Campsfield’s 20th anniversary, we lament the fact that earlier this year a child was held at Campsfield for 2 months. We remember the two people who have committed suicide at Campsfield, Ramazan Kamluca on 27 June 2005 and Ianos Dragutan on 2 August 2011.

We also think of Farid Pardiaz, a 24-year-old Afghan who is due to appear for the third time at Oxford Crown Court on 4 January 2014 to face a charge of arson. His charge follows a fire at Campsfield on 24 October of this year where he attempted suicide or self-harm. At a hearing this month, Judge Mowat, referring to documents saying Mr Pardiaz was depressed, asked if he was on medication. Mr Pardiaz said he was not: he had asked to see a doctor in Campsfield but this had not been allowed. We lament this too.

After the 18 October 2013 fire at Campsfield

After the 18 October 2013 fire at Campsfield

Expansion of the ‘detention estate’

The opening of Campsfield was significant because of the toll it has taken on thousands of individual lives.  Yet it is also important for a much wider reason. Campsfield heralded a massive expansion of immigration detention and it opened the door for the profit motive in immigration control. During this rapid expansion, government terminology such as ‘houses’, the ‘detention estate’, the ‘Cedars’ ‘pre-departure accommodation’ (for children) were used as calculated euphemisms to mislead the public.

Campsfield ‘House’ (180 places, now 216) was the first mainly purpose-built immigration detention accommodation in the UK. The other centres were smaller: Haslar (180 places) was a former naval prison and Harmondsworth (around 100 places) not much more than some huts. The Conservatives increased the ‘detention estate’ from around 280 in early 1993 to 830 odd in 1997, with Tinsley ‘House’ by Gatwick (1993, 157 places including children) and Dungavel in Ayrshire (2001, 217 places).  After 1997, Labour topped that easily: some 1,550 more places by 2003.

There were new mega centres (Europe's largest) at Yarl’s Wood, Bedford (2001, 900 places including children, now 405 following fire in 2002) and Harmondsworth (2001, 615 places).  Then followed Colnbrook (2004, 308 places), Brook ‘House’ (2009, 426 places), Dover (2002, 314 places), ‘Cedars’ (2011, 44 places including children), Morton ‘Hall’ (2011, 392 places), Verne, Portland (2014, 600 places). According to the In Touch bulletin of the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees’ (AVID), ‘as at February 2013 there are 3,408 places in detention (excluding prisons)’. Verne will raise that total to over 4,000.

Other people, held under immigration law, but in prisons, number 500-1,000 at any one time. In answer to a parliamentary question tabled at the House of Commons on 31 October 2013, on 9 September 2013 the figure was 979. So the number of immigration detainees exceeds 4,000 most of the time. A Labour plan to open an 800-place detention centre at Bicester near Oxford was, according to then Home Office Minister Damian Green, dropped by the new Con Dem coalition as ‘unaffordable’.

Detainees protest

The establishment of Campsfield, and the expansion of the immigration detention estate more broadly in Britain, has elicited a strong opposition from detainees and local people. The first two minibuses to Campsfield were greeted by protesters at the gates calling for the release of those inside and the closure of Campsfield. Almost at once there were protests by those held inside Campsfield, and for 20 years there have been collective protests by detainees including signed statements to the authorities, and mass hunger strikes.

In March 1994 there were rooftop protests and in June that year a mass revolt precipitated by the removal at night of a detainee in breach of an agreement that no removals would happen without giving the detainee concerned the chance to contact a lawyer. A mass revolt in August 1997 was triggered by the removal of an elderly Algerian man by riot guards in the middle of the night. At their trial in 1998, nine young black Africans were acquitted of riot charges after Group 4 guards were shown to have lied when giving evidence. In 2012, a hunger strike by Darfuris which began at Campsfield spread to Colnbrook and Harmondsworth detention centres near Heathrow.

 A ‘House’ indeed

Campsfield: A ‘House’ indeed

Opposition outside the centres

Since 1993, the locally based Campaign to Close Campsfield has helped magnify those protests. From its monthly demonstrations at the main gates of the centre and monthly public meetings in Oxford Town Hall, its members have supported the setting up of campaigns against other detention centres, won five national trade unions to oppose all immigration detention and established the Barbed Wire Britain anti-detention network. Moreover, we have worked in the Detention Forum, organised an international conference on detention on Europe, helped call, through the European Social Forums, for three days of Europe-wide action for migrant rights, lobbied at the UK parliament and given evidence to national and international governmental and human rights organisations. The campaign’s Bail Observation Project scrutinises bail hearings and has produced two highly critical reports showing that the bail system is also a travesty of justice.

Outside the prison and within, there are voices of dissent.

Locking up innocent people for profit

Campsfield was the first immigration detention centre to be run by private contractors – Group 4/GS, then GEO, then from 2011 Mitie. Since 1993, Dungavel, Tinsley, Yarl’s Wood, Oakington (now closed), a new Harmondsworth, Colnbrook, Brook and ‘Cedars’ have all been run by private companies including, in addition to the above, Sodexho and Serco. The two latest centres to open, Morton ‘Hall’ (2011) and Verne, Portland (2014), are converted prisons run by the prison service, like Dover and Haslar. Academics are among those who have afforded attention to the role of private companies in promoting immigration detention in the UK, as  has Corporate Watch, which specializes in migration issues. Available research simply does not seem to provide the evidence base for current policies on detention.

A such, an inhumane policy, run beyond judicial control, which does not deter people from coming to the country, and which cannot possibly remove all of the hundreds of thousands of ‘undocumented migrants’ in the UK, serves only to enrich shareholders, widen inequalities in the country and stir up racial hatred.  As we lament 20 years of Campsfield, and 20 years of campaigning, let us confront all the main political parties and call for an end to this state of affairs and the reversal of a bankrupt policy. Let’s give freedom back to the 30,000 people who are held as immigration detainees each year.

For as Allan, a living witness who spent 9 months in Campsfield has said: ‘…let’s remember our politicians do paint a dark picture towards immigrants, just a vote seeking tool, and that’s the news they sell to voters, but you guys know the other side of the coin, that we are human, family people and entirely individuals running away from our home governments who want us dead, we are law abiding people who come here to seek protection and try and live amongst as citizens, I’m lucky I have friends like you guys, you make my life worth living, but many more of our brothers and sisters still go through the brutal UKBA numbers system. Please keep the struggle going, our arms are still tied but we watch from the back ground, and feel free to ask me as many questions, for I was there in hell, I know.’

Find out more about events for ’20 Years too Long!’ including theatre, workshops and a demonstration at Campsfield at noon on Saturday 29th December.


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