openDemocracyUK: Feature

Islands of deterrence: Britain’s long history of banishing ‘undesirables’

The UK Home Office's proposals for an overseas immigration processing centre are nothing new

Elise Klein
Elise Klein China Mills
1 April 2021, 1.16pm
Home secretary Priti Patel vowed to 'toughen our stance to deter illegal entry' into the UK
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PjrNews / Alamy Stock Photo

The UK home secretary, Priti Patel, last week promised “the biggest overhaul of the UK’s asylum system in decades”, boasting of a “step change in our approach as we toughen our stance to deter illegal entry”.

The proposals include a consultation on changing the law to “keep the option open, if required in the future, to develop the capacity for offshore asylum processing”. Gibraltar and the Isle of Man have been suggested as suitable island locations, following controversy last year when it emerged that the Home Office were considering processing asylum seekers on Ascension Island and St Helena – some of the most remote islands in the world.

The idea was dismissed at the time by the shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, as “inhumane, completely impractical and wildly expensive”.

An idea with a long history and a plot twist

Yet the idea of a deterrent island to which ‘undesirable’ people can be sent recurs throughout Britain’s history. Far from originating with current Tory policy, it is a consistent part of Britain’s colonial history and its continued colonial attitudes and practice.

In 2003, Labour prime minister Tony Blair and his home secretary David Blunkett proposed using overseas immigration processing centres close to conflict zones.

In the same year, the then shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin went a step further, setting out plans at the Conservative Party conference to immediately deport asylum seekers to a “far offshore processing” island, based on the Australian practice, saying these would create a “big disincentive effect”.

And the idea of a deterrent island goes back much further. The Transportation Act of 1717 was created to “deter prospective vagrants” and “prevent professional vagabonds from exploiting public assistance to the ‘deserving’”. It transported paupers and criminals to the British penal colonies including those in the now-named Australia.

Now, in a perfect plot twist, it is this same ex-penal colony of Australia, with its vast off-shore detention estate, that the UK sees as a model for its own approach to immigration.

In 2012, an archaeological excavation found the bodies of an estimated 5,000 slaves who had died in the custody of the British Navy

There are other echoes, too, other ways the past wraps itself around and shapes the present.

St Helena, one of the islands considered by the Home Office as a potential option for current policy proposals, played a grim role in the slave trade in the Caribbean. In 2012, an archaeological excavation on the island found the bodies of an estimated 5,000 slaves who had died in the custody of the British Navy after being liberated from slavers ships, interred in mass graves.

Australia, too, has a long history of using islands for those it deems ‘undesirable’ – from the creation of ‘leper colonies’ in the late 1800s, to the use of Flinders Island, Palm Island and Rottnest Island – all used to detain Indigenous peoples in the way of settlers' colonial expansion.

Australia currently uses off-shore detention in its neighbouring islands of Manus, Nauru and Christmas Island as part of the country’s ongoing immigration deterrence strategy, Operation Sovereign Borders. The practice is “an affront to the protection of human rights”, in the words of the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights.

Behrouz Boochani spent six years in the Australian offshore detention regime. He has powerfully described how the supposed deterrence amounts to “a system of torture and banishment”, which destroys mental health with the despair of indefinite waiting, disgust at living conditions, and shame of incarceration. Elahe Zivardar, another former detainee in the system, makes similar points in this openDemocracy article, setting out how "every single element in the centre was designed to torture the inmates" and describes its buildings as "the architecture of evil".

Deterrence is profitable

Boochani also shows how the Australian government attempts to evade responsibility for inhumane treatment of asylum seekers by contracting out the exiling of undesirable people, using “a system by which the Australian government could control our bodies through contractors and guards but not be held responsible for the horrors that were visited upon us”.

The UK has a long history of ensuring someone makes profits from immigration control. The 1905 Aliens Act allowed the Home Office to charge shipping companies for the cost of removal of migrants. And current day charging regimes (including charges for healthcare and confiscation of wages of “illegal” workers) are at the centre of immigration policy and practice.

It was suggested that a former detention centre criticised for its inhumane conditions could be used to house those arriving from across the channel

There are other forms of deterrence in the mix, and the intensification of what former British prime minister Theresa May described as a “hostile environment”. Patel’s latest proposals include the “expansion of the asylum estate” and the building of more “reception centres”. Last year it was suggested that a former detention centre criticised for its inhumane conditions could be used to house those arriving from across the channel, despite widespread reports of self-harm and suicide attempts in such conditions.

And these other forms of deterrence are profitable, too. In the UK, private companies such as Mitie and G4S hold contracts to run immigration detention centres and reception centres.

In both the UK and Australia, the policy to limit social security for migrants, long described by researchers as “enforced destitution”, is delivered through a range of contracts. The initial UK voucher system for asylum seekers was contracted to French multinational, Sodexo, who then converted the system into payment cards which are also used to track asylum seekers’ whereabouts.

These hostile systems are expensive, yet public consent is maintained through the systematic vilification and stigmatisation of so-called ‘bogus’ asylum seekers said to be abusing liberal asylum and welfare laws.

While deterrence as asylum policy by Home Office has been written off as ‘ludicrous’ and ‘bizarre’ by some, the idea of a ‘deterrent island’ recurs throughout Britain’s and Australia’s recent and distant histories – where human beings are transformed into ‘cases’ to be ‘processed’ faraway.

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