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Sunak and Braverman have learnt nothing from asylum seekers’ deaths

OPINION: Britain and Australia have legacies of colonial violence. Of course those seeking their asylum are dying

Nadine El-Enany
21 November 2022, 5.54pm

Guards remove a migrant who was attempting to speak to journalists at Manston detention centre, Kent

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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

I woke up on Sunday to a headline I’d been dreading for months: “Man being processed at Manston detention centre in Kent dies.”

Detainees, activists, NGOs and some in Parliament have been raising the alarm about the dangerous conditions at the camp for weeks. Newspapers repeated warnings about overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and outbreaks of highly contagious diseases including diphtheria, scabies and MRSA – as well as inadequate healthcare and no beds, means of communication, fresh air, exercise or privacy.

There was warning after warning after warning. But what are warnings for if not to prevent the worst from happening? What are alarm bells for? What would it take for a warning to be heeded?

Britain is one of the richest countries in the world. It can afford to care for those arriving at its borders in need. No one has to live in dangerously overcrowded conditions, least of all those fleeing persecution and violence.

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Australia’s detention centres: ‘torture’

We know that it’s not possible to detain vulnerable people in unsafe conditions and expect them to survive. There are countless examples from across the world that attest to this point.

One in particular is held close to the heart of home secretary Suella Braverman: the Australian government’s offshore asylum processing system and its notorious island prisons in the Pacific Ocean: Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. She has spoken passionately of her “dream” and “obsession” to see those crossing the Channel deported to Rwanda.

Australia’s detention centres saw riots, hunger strikes and self-immolations, with detainees forced to live under conditions the UN found amounted to torture. In 2016, more than 2,000 incident reports were leaked from Nauru that documented the abuse, self-harm, humiliation and squalor that was the daily life of detainees.

Thirteen people detained in Australia’s offshore processing centres died, including Hamid Kehazaei, who died of sepsis after being transferred to a hospital in Brisbane too late for medical treatment.

It was not long ago that prominent figures campaigning for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union lauded Australia’s immigration system, despite its notorious island prisons, as the gold standard in border enforcement and an aspiration for a post-Brexit Britain. In 2019, Braverman solicited email feedback about “the Australian-style skills-based immigration system” via a Facebook post.

Since taking the reins at the Home Office, Braverman has been so intent on keeping people in inhumane conditions at the Manston detention centre, despite some in her government calling it an “unauthorised prison”, that she is reported to have prevented alternative accommodation being found for detainees and rejected legal counsel she received about the situation at the centre and sought further advice. (She has denied both.)

The Home Office’s rhetoric is that it is at war with people seeking safety in Britain. Braverman chose her words carefully, reading from her notes when she said: “The British people deserve to know which party is serious about stopping the invasion on our southern coast.” It ought to seem a preposterous assertion to suggest that the British people are somehow under attack from people who need our help. Yet this language is dangerous and alters reality.

It creates the conditions that legitimise terrorist attacks like that carried out by far-right extremist Andrew Leak – who on 30 October 2022 threw firebombs at an immigration detention centre in Dover before killing himself. Two members of staff were injured in the attack and 700 detainees were transferred from the Dover centre to Manston, which was already severely overcrowded at the time.

Imprisoning people who cross borders has long been made to serve a policy of deterrence. It is a policy that will always fail. People are fleeing persecution, war and poverty so extreme that escape is worth attempting, even if it means risking life.

Home secretary after home secretary has sought to make Britain a hostile place for migrants in an attempt to deter others. Such policies, as we saw with the Windrush scandal, and now in Manston, have horrific, fatal consequences.

Britain’s torture of refugees at Manston detention centre is on a continuum of British colonial violence

Australia’s camps should have served as a warning rather than an aspiration. But nations with deep-rooted colonial legacies are difficult to convince of the need to address and disrupt their long histories of racial violence.

What we learned about Australia as we watched the horrifying consequences of its “Pacific Solution” unfold is that imprisonment and the destruction of racialised life has always been part of the settler colonial state’s history. The detention and torture of people seeking refuge in Australia was in line with its long history of colonial violence against Aboriginal people, its genocidal assertions of territorial and maritime sovereignty.

Just like Australia’s imprisonment and torture of brown, predominantly Muslim refugees whose existence is seen as a threat to its sovereignty, Britain’s torture of refugees at Manston is on a continuum of British colonial violence.

The British public has been indoctrinated by successive governments into believing that immigration controls are a fair system for determining who has a right to be in Britain. But Britain’s violent border regime and immigration laws are designed to ensure that the wealth Britain plundered in the course of colonial conquest stays out of the hands of those from whom it was stolen.

The violence that those at Manston are subjected to is consistent with the extreme violence enacted by British authorities in imperial colonies and, since its defeat, against racialised people living in Britain.

Sunak: ‘illegal immigration’ is top priority

I wish it felt possible to say that the death of a person at Manston is likely to change something. That the government will act to ensure that no one else dies at Manston. That no one seeking safety in Britain is allowed to come to harm.

But the morning after the news of the death of the detainee (as yet unnamed), Rishi Sunak told the CBI annual conference in Birmingham that his “number one” immigration policy priority was to tackle “illegal immigration”. He talked of the importance of ending Channel crossings – without once mentioning asylum or refuge.

There used to be lip service, a nod from politicians decrying “illegal immigration” to the need to sort the “genuine refugees” from the “illegal immigrants”; a cursory statement about “Britain’s proud history of protecting refugees”.

Problematic, wrong, divisive and empty as this rhetoric was, the fact it has been dropped altogether is alarming. There’s a sense that for a politician to utter a word that gestures even weakly towards humanitarianism would be to risk accusations of being soft on immigration, or rather, not being cruel and racist enough for the political ambience of Brexit Britain.

For a warning to be heeded, someone somewhere with power has to care to heed that warning. There must be a desire for an alternative outcome. There must be consequences for ignoring warnings. People in power must feel that they will be called to account for what has happened. Yet we are living under a government that prides itself on its cruelty, and whose ambition it is to drive inequality deeper into society and to make a spectacle of its torture of the most vulnerable.

When warnings relate to the protection of human life, for them to register as warnings, there must be some agreement on who counts as human. People are made vulnerable by the very fact of detention. People who are treated as less than human become that other thing. A thing that can be caged, deprived of the basic means of life, killed or left to die.

The man who died at Manston had been there for just a week. His life, his death, has become another warning. We have to listen. We have to heed the warning because those in power won’t.

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