The opening of the first purpose-built immigration detention centre in Northern Ireland this month, is a sad day as it will expand the detention estate once again. But we can resist the simultaneous expansion of our own mental barriers against human equality and freedom, by denying the necessity and normality of yet another detention facility.
The Home Office announced the opening of the short-term holding facility at the beginning of July. Larne House will apparently house twenty-one men and women for up to seven days. The centre was due to take in its first detainees on 11 July 2011: ill-timed, given this is the eve of 'the Twelfth' in Northern Ireland: Protestants celebrate, sectarian trouble often flares and many residents choose to leave for a while. This is one week in the year when most of the legal offices and support agencies, who could have given urgent help to detainees, shut down over the Bank Holiday and beyond.
Advertisements for staff, in this case detention centre nurses, in the local press; statements by local leaders about the creation of local jobs in the construction and operation of the site: these mundane processes and announcements lend an air of normality to the project.
But Larne House is 'the UK Border Agency's first ever residential detention facility' in Northern Ireland. As such, it will inevitably transform the political landscape as administrative detention of immigrants on this soil becomes more visible, routine and systematic. Once opened and operational, Larne House may no longer be seen as a shocking place to exist here, but as a familiar and accepted feature of the landscape in the north.
This stealthy normalisation of a project dedicated to take away human freedom can still be noted and resisted even as the centre becomes operational.
Local debate prior to the opening of the Larne centre was beset by myths and confusion. In October 2010, there was a BNP campaign with local members of the far-right group reportedly distributing leaflets spreading fear about Larne becoming 'a dumping ground for illegal immigrants and bogus asylum seekers'. This campaign had the bizarre consequence of making local politicians from different parties supporting the centre appear liberal in their stance, simply because it was in opposition to the BNP's position. Several local politicians professed not to know much about what the facility would be for, with some early guesses being a sort of protective custody for victims of trafficking and child immigrants which is likely very far from the reality. Amidst the muddled rhetoric, there was no reasonable and full discussion about whether it was politically right for the centre to be established at all.
Previously in Northern Ireland, immigration detainees were held in the prisons, HMP Magilligan and HMP Maghaberry, a practise that attracted criticism for the holding of asylum-seekers and other immigrants with no convictions alongside offenders. Since that practise ended a few years ago, immigrants have been held temporarily in police custody in Northern Ireland and then moved to the UK removal centres. Again, this approach has faced criticism: for the length and distress of journeys faced by detainees transferred from Northern Ireland, who are often taken by ferry to Dungavel and then by road to Yarl's Wood, there to face indefinite detention; their difficulty in maintaining contact with legal advisers, family and friends as they are shifted about the detention estate; the inappropriateness of the initial detention, often for more than one night, in unsuitable police custody suites.
The holding of immigrants in a purpose-built centre in Northern Ireland could seem to provide the solution to some of the concerns raised about former practises and to be the least-worst option. However, it can only be viewed in such a positive way by ignoring the essential question as to whether or not immigrants should be detained at all.
Campaigns around immigration detention often focus pragmatically on the potential for, and the reality of, ill-treatment in detention and target inhumane practises that fall short of legal norms. Such valid humanitarian concerns have already been raised about the Larne centre: Amnesty International has already highlighted the risks of inadequate training and control-and-restraint measures being used in the process of enforced removals by the private firm contracted to run the centre.
At the root of these concerns, though, is a question that often isn't explicitly answered: should immigrants be detained in the first place? It is not really possible to answer this question without being sure of your position on border controls per se, because the ultimate argument for immigration detention, even by liberals, is that it is a last resort on a case-by-case basis when somebody has no right to remain and will not go willingly. Enforced removal is the raison d'etre of the detention estate. Administrative immigration detention, with its multitude of indignities and inhumanities, can only be wholeheartedly rejected if you believe in freedom of movement as a right for all people, in opposition to border controls which will always create individuals who want to stay but do not have the right citizenship or the right visa.
Even if it's too late now to reject the building of this detention centre on the Antrim coast, we can continue to reject the imposed barriers between humanity that Larne House symbolises. Refusing to accept either its normality or its necessity, there is still scope for the development of discussions with local people and others who will have their own reasons for rejecting the detention of immigrants. Instrumental to expulsion and exclusion in its very existence, Larne House is a further cog in the wheels of the ever-expanding machinery of UK and European border controls; as such it can only perpetuate the continued inequality of native and foreigner in terms of freedom of movement and the right to liberty.
This article is cross-posted with thanks from the Institute of Race Relations.