The Weymouth seafront, soon to host IRC Verne.
‘The thing that I don’t get is why they’re bringing them here; it’s miles away from the airport. Isn’t the point to get them on a plane home as soon as possible? Of course, if they start recruiting us to drive them, then that could be ok...’
I’m talking to a local taxi driver about the new immigration detention centre in Weymouth, Dorset: IRC Verne. The centre, which will open at the end of March, will be the 11th centre in Britain’s growing detention state. Around 30,000 migrants are held in immigration detention in the UK annually, with space for 4,000 detainees at any one time. Verne will be Britain’s second largest detention centre after Harmondsworth, which houses 661 migrants.
Migrants in British detention centres can be held indefinitely: some for days, some for weeks and some for months or even years. They are held under the powers of the Immigration Act; in other words, locked up without committing a crime. The largest group of immigration detainees are people who have claimed asylum. Some are detained as a matter of routine as part of the asylum system. Others are undocumented, may have breached conditions of their visa or are foreign nationals who have committed a crime, served the sentence and come to the end of their sentence’. ‘Categories are fluid’, says Ali McGinley from the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (AVID): ‘some are newly arrived, some are in UK for very long timed, some are born here, but being detained is traumatic for anyone’.
IRC Verne will open on the site of an on old prison, located on a piece of land off the coast of the tourist seaside town. One cafe owner tells me ‘it’s practically an island’. It is one of several immigration detention centres to be converted from a prison and run by Her Majesty’s Prison’s Service.
The taxi driver is the first person with whom I speak about Verne, and he raises an important point that will come to define discussions during my visit to Portland: the opening of the centre has primarily been framed locally as an employment issue. Two prisons have closed in the region in quick succession in recent times, in Dorchester and Weymouth, and at a time of austerity, hundreds of prison staff have been left in the lurch with families to feed and bills to pay. Some of the staff have moved to Winchester prison, he tells me. Others have been made redundant or been promised jobs at the new detention centre.
Many local people are clearly relieved at the prospect of new job openings for prison staff, and this seems to have allayed frustrations about the waste of resources that has been reported in the past management of local prisons. A local Green party activist tells me angrily about the £12 million wasted on ‘doing up’ the Dorchester prison before it closed. ‘The Dorset Echo exposed the dumping of a load of new computers. People were helping themselves to this state of the art equipment. It was ridiculous. They could have been used to help people find jobs’.
The region has a population of 60,000 and regional economy is far from booming. There is a significant far-right political presence. Both local MPs are Conservatives, and, as one elderly lady informs me, ‘that’s with a capital C...most people are not positively predisposed to immigrants here’.
I attend a community meeting later that evening, co-organised by the London-based Detention Action and AVID. I speak to a community ambulance driver who recognises the positive effect of job creation, but expresses concern about the sudden staff transition: ‘Of course it’s good for continuity, but you worry about what training the staff will have. I mean they’re going from a punitive environment to a what? I suppose you could call it a “neutral” one. You wonder what that’s going to be like for them, and for the migrants of course. The staff will be faced with a very different type of person in there and they’ll hardly have time to change uniforms’.
‘Many people would argue that at least, unlike Dorchester prison [which is currently empty], Verne is being put to use’, someone else comments in a heated breakout group discussion.
Wasting money is an issue that resonates on both sides of the debate over the opening of the new detention centre. There’s a gasp from the audience when Jerome Phelps, Director of Detention Action announces the £76 million wasted on detaining immigrants who are later released each year. ‘£76 million!’ says the lady next to me. She looks to be around 80 years of age and is scribbling away furiously in a small notebook. After the meeting the paramedic adds: ‘I think it’s ridiculous that our taxes are going on this. How is this a priority?’
While the evening features much discussion of the economic impact of detention, many of those at the meeting are primarily concerned by the human cost. Tim Nicholes, convenor of the Dorset Socialists laments that ‘the only thing that’s come up in the local press is the job adverts. There’s been no real discussion of the human costs; of the basic illegality of immigration detention.’
Community meeting about IRC Verne, February 2014.
Andrew Colson, of Morton Hall Visitors’ Group, made these ‘human costs’ apparent when he addressed the 100 residents present at the meeting about his experience visiting detainees at Morton Hall detention centre. Morton Hall is another ex-prison which opened to house migrants in Lincolnshire in 2011. The worst part is the isolation experienced by those detained, he tells us; it’s so important for local people to reach in.
Crossing the fence can be devastating and frustrating. He tells the story of one man who was deported to Nigeria with a testicular tumour so large he couldn’t close his legs for the pain: it’s hard to not know what has become of him.
He paints a picture of a door in Morton Hall where detainees tape their mobile phones to the door: ‘it’s the only place you can get signal. It’s crazy to see this wall of phones’. It’s a poignant image of reaching out in isolation.
The cruel reality is bought home further by Souleymane, an ex-detainee who was detained for administrative reasons, without charge, for 3 and a half years: ‘I’ve seen people hanging themselves, face to face. You try to hang yourself your name goes in a red book. Everything you do does...detention is a concrete jungle.’
As he speaks, a series of slides decorate the wall. Some feature quotes: ‘detention is worse than prison because in prison there is an end in sight’ (ex-detainee); ‘the hardest thing is the shame I feel for my county’ (volunteer visitor).
Many residents from local and neighbouring areas are keen to reach in, and there’s a scramble to sign up for visiting at the end of the meeting. A show of hands reveals that only around 25 of the 100 attendees had previously known that immigrants to the UK could be detained indefinitely without charge. One woman from the nearby town of Dorchester explains her will to volunteer: ‘many of these people will have suffered torture’. Another: ‘but, how do you deal with the desire to get involved with that person’s situation?’ There’s a long period of silence before anyone responds.
Beyond the visitors’ group, it is unclear how the presence of the centre will inform local politics. Detention is ultimately a national issue, and locally, Verne, with its job creation prospects and established institutional place in the community, is tricky political territory. It is revealing that two interventions from the floor are greeted with rounds of applause over the course of the meeting. One is a man calling on the crowd to do their bit to challenge the political legitimacy of the Verne. The other is a Minister who reminds us to be wary of in any way demonising those who work in the centre. I soon release that everyone ‘knows someone who knows someone’ who will work at the Verne.
In this context, Tim argues forcefully that the debate must not be a question of pitting local jobs against human rights: ‘Everyone thinks these people are unjustly here and should be deported. They don’t think it’s ordinary people escaping torture or famine... But it’s the small towns, the places these places are put that allow the abuses to go unchecked on the margins, under the cloak of secrecy... everyone here should talk to everyone outside, out there, and blow it open...the crucial thing is the campaign to end detention without trial’.
Jerome seemed to echo this sentiment from the perspective of policy, concluding: ‘we need local support for a national political change’.
As it stands, detention policies are becoming increasingly subject to political scrutiny, as seen with the 2011/2012 restrictions on the detention of migrant children. This path seems be continuing, with the Liberal Democrats boldly proposing to end indefinite detention in a migration policy paper released last week. Meanwhile, a national demonstration to oppose the Verne has been scheduled for March 22nd. As was repeated time and time again throughout the meeting: ‘the key is make the issue visible’.
There’s something jarring as I walk down the seafront after the meeting, lined with dozens of empty guest houses with manicured hanging baskets, faded balconies and ‘Welcome’ and ‘Vacancies’ signs. But there’s a buzz in the air. A discussion is beginning in Weymouth to make sense of the imminent presence of 100s of foreigners, locked up off the coast of this small and friendly town.
One of many guest houses lining the Weymouth coastline.