More than 32 years ago in a United Kingdom detention facility, a prisoner died after 66 days on hunger strike. Bobby Sands’ demand along with that of his fellow hunger strikers was to be recognised as political prisoners and to be allowed to wear their own clothes, to freely associate within jail, and not to be forced to do prison work.
The then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher was unbending in her refusal to make any concessions to the hunger strikers. Despite appeals from John Hume, the SDLP leader who was later jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Prime Minister would not allow Bobby Sands (who had been elected a Westminster MP) to use the ‘choice’ of suicide to force political concessions. Nine more Provisional IRA prisoners were to follow Bobby Sands to their graves.
As the mother of Joe McDonnell, one of the hunger strikers, told the Boston Globe’s Kevin Cullen several years later, “Criminals don’t starve themselves to death to make a point.”
But despite her 'Iron Lady' public image, privately it appears Mrs Thatcher had a certain admiration for Bobby Sands and his fellow hunger strikers. According to personal papers that feature in Charles Moore’s biography of the late Lady Thatcher, she at least saw the hunger strikers as victims of a system over which they had little or no control—“You have to hand it to some of these IRA boys," Thatcher observed, describing them as “poor devils” because “if they didn’t go on strike they’d be shot [by their own side]…What a waste! What a terrible waste of human life!”
Home Secretary Theresa May told the Daily Telegraph earlier this year that she intended “to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration”. After four near-death hunger strikers had been released from Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre in June, that hostility has certainly arrived, and there has been a noticeable hardening of Home Office policy towards those who continue to refuse food in detention.
Isa Muazu, a Nigerian national, entered the UK on a valid visa in 2007, but decided to remain in the UK fearing an attack by the Islamist armed group Boko Haram, whom Muazu claimed had killed several of his relatives. After seeking asylum he was put in fast track detention, and like 99 per cent of other fast track detainees Muazu’s claim was immediately rejected.
Soon after arriving at Harmondsworth, (run by the private outsourcer GEO), near Heathrow, Muazu complained that the highly processed food served to detainees was worsening his pre-existing medical conditions—including hepatitis B, kidney problems and stomach ulcers —and that he could not eat it. He was told by detention staff to stop acting like a child.
As Muazu’s physical and mental health deteriorated doctors declared him medically unfit for detention, but the Home Office refused to release him. Following legal challenges, the High Court and the Court of Appeal declared Muazu’s detention lawful and that the Home Office had the right to remove a man who its own staff accepted was close to death and for whom an ‘end of life plan’ had been drawn up.
Suicide by self-starvation has not occurred in a Home Office detention facility since the Maze hunger strike deaths of 1981. Bobby Sands and his fellow hunger strikers were members of a paramilitary organisation that considered itself at war with an occupying colonialist state.
Whatever the merits of Muazu’s asylum case it is clear that he is not and has never been a threat to the British government. Indeed Muazu has not been convicted of any crime. After nearly 100 days without food, he has great difficulty walking or seeing and he cannot take food or water normally. During a recent visit he told Vice Magazine’s Simon Childs and Lord Roberts of Llandudno who has started an e-petition for Isa’s release:
"I feel devastated. I’d rather die than go back. If they can take my body and bury it, that would be the only thing. I’m not going back, I’m telling you. There’s nothing there for me."
The Home Office ‘end of life plan’ consists in allowing Isa to die, alone, in pain and discomfort on a mattress on the floor of his single room.
So why is Theresa May intent on taking an even harder line on hunger striking refused asylum seekers than Thatcher’s Cabinet took against convicted members of the Provisional IRA?
May’s promise to create a really hostile environment for irregular (‘illegal’) migrants can be seen as the coalition government’s response to what the ultra-conservative American military strategist William Lind refers to as “Fourth Generation war” (4GW), where “invasion by immigration can be at least as dangerous as invasion by a state army.” The mass incarceration of captured enemy combatants is a necessary feature of conventional war. In Europe’s largest detention estate it has rapidly become a feature of British 4GW, where only an executive order from a minister of the crown can secure the release of a hunger striker. Along with destitution, homelessness, and the denial of medical treatment—punitive, exemplary detention, even unto death, is regarded as a precious weapon in the United Kingdom’s anti-immigration armoury.
Like Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay a significant number of UK immigration detainees are being held indefinitely since there is no prospect of returning them to their countries of origin. Over a hundred of GITMO’s inmates including the Saudi born British national Shaker Aamer have also used hunger strikes to protest against their indefinite imprisonment and the humiliating conditions they are kept under. The response of the American military has been to use force-feeding to prevent the jihadist propaganda value of any would be Guantanamo martyrs. The response of the British Home Secretary, by contrast, has been to seek Muazu’s rapid expulsion while failing to do anything to prevent him from dying in detention.
Despite the strongly critical coroner’s report in the case of the unlawfully killed Angolan asylum seeker, Jimmy Mubenga, returnees continue to complain of mistreatment, the inappropriate use of force and misogynist and racist verbal abuse by escorts [PDF]. In other words the criminalization of those in immigration detention or facing removal is approaching and in some cases exceeding the abjection and stigmatization to which prisoners convicted of terrorist offences were subject in the 1980s.
Over a hundred NGOs, actors and lawyers have written to The Guardian to demand Isa Muazu’s release. In the letter, the signatories (including this author on behalf of End Child Detention Now) wrote:
"We are extremely concerned that Isa may die as a result of a hardened stance being taken towards migrants in the UK. We urgently call for clemency in this case. We ask that the Home Secretary reconsider Isa's case and act quickly to release him in the UK, so that another death in immigration detention can be avoided."
However, in contrast to the H-Block Hunger strikes, where the world’s broadcasters were camped outside the Maze prison for several weeks, the media coverage of Isa Muazu’s case has been barely visible.
As I write, Isa Muazu is due to be removed at 08.00 tomorrow (Friday 29 November) on a private charter flight to Abuja operated by Air Charter Scotland Ltd, flight number EDC684. Details of how to send a no fly request to the airline and how to contact the Home Office and your MP can be found here courtesy of Glasgow Unity Centre. A well-attended candle lit vigil took place this evening outside the Home Office in London. One banner reads: ‘Theresa May: Blood on Your Hands’.
 Gordon Rayner, ‘Margaret Thatcher's secret admiration for IRA hunger strikers’, Daily Telegraph, 23 April 2013. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/margaret-thatcher/10010531/Margaret-Thatchers-secret-admiration-for-IRA-hunger-strikers.html
 Steve Graham, ‘When Life Itself is War: On the Urbanization of Military and Security Doctrine’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Volume 36, Issue 1, pages 136–155, January 2012.