Taking refuge in struggle: protests and hunger strikes in four asylum seeker detention centres across the UK
by Caiman del Barrio, Libcom.org, May 9 2014 (source)
A wave of protests and repression has spread across the UK’s expansive asylum seeker detention complex, with four centres reporting unrest thus far. Detainee support groups report hunger strikes, sitdown protests and a flurry of organising in Harmondsworth, Colnbrook, Brook House and Campsfield, against both their lack of legal recourse and the squalid conditions in the detention centres.
The protests started last Friday (2nd May), when anywhere in between 100-200 detainees at Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre in Middlesex declared themselves on hunger strike and occupied the courtyard en masse. Officials from GEO, the company charged with running the centre, quickly ceded their demand to hold a meeting with someone from the Home Office and promised a meeting for the following Tuesday. As a result, the detainees returned to their rooms and taking food by 9pm.
However, the meeting never materialised and instead, on Tuesday, while around 200 had assembled in the IRC courtyard, as many as 20 protesting detainees were issued with either flight tickets (for deportation) or refusal letters (classifying them as ‘failed asylum seekers’), in a process full of irregularities. One removal letter had had the date changed in pen, while another had been delivered before the detainee’s asylum appeal hearing, which is unlawful (since the detainee clearly has an ongoing case).
GEO were keen to present the Harmondsworth protest as merely a complaint about the detainees’ immigration status, and therefore a matter for the Home Office, but the detainees explicitly stated that – as well as their objections to the controversial Detained Fast Track process – they were also upset over conditions in the centre, particularly the lack of healthcare provision.
The Harmondsworth protestors’ stories make for particularly hard listening: one detainee – escaping homophobic persecution in his country of origin – was apprehended after he made the apparent mistake of calling a suicide helpline. Police promptly arrived at his address to check his papers. A second entered a police station as a victim of crime after being attacked in his workplace, only for the police to investigate his status and later arrest him. Despite the insistence of GEO that most detainees are only held for a couple of months, some testified that they had been inside for as much as a year.
Beyond Harmondsworth, unrest has also been reported in neighbouring Colnbook, where a meeting of detainees was apparently broken up by Serco guards, who placed five ‘ringleaders’ in ‘the lock’ (a solitary cell with no access to telephones or other detainees). Here also, around 20 detainees declared themselves on hunger strike, and an unconfirmed number of flight tickets were issued.
In Brook House, near Gatwick Airport, an estimated 20 detainees gathered in the courtyard and refused to return to their wings overnight (Tuesday-Wednesday), with G4S guards responding by placing 16 of them in ‘the lock’.
The latest centre to join the wave was Campsfield in Oxfordshire, where 50 men started a hunger strike on Wednesday, explaining their reasons in aYoutube video. The strikers’ spokesman cited one example of a detention guard threatening a Pashto-speaking detainee with ‘the lock’ unless he signed a voluntary deportation order. Mitie is the company who run Campsfield.
More generally, migrants’ supporters have to think carefully about what can be done to practically help these vulnerable, isolated people. They have repeatedly insisted that hunger striking is a last resort, an act of desperation, since they have nothing else. They have no recourse to legal aid, limited contact with the outside world, and often, as little as nine days to build their case. On top of that, there are numerous accusations of irregularities and ‘errors’ committed by the Home Office: lost appeal files, mislaid passports, circumvention of even the meagre rights afforded to the asylum seekers. A picture starts to emerge of a state that seems to consciously mistreat the refugees in the hope of convincing them that the UK is even crueller than their countries of origin, where many of them face certain death. By detaining (imprisoning) them – despite them having committed no criminal offense, despite there being no evidence of them being any threat to society, and despite many of them seeming unlikely to abscond – in horrifically isolated and disorientating conditions, they are trying to break them.
The other side of the coin is the role of the private prison industry in all of this. Mitie, G4S, Serco and GEO are all billionaire, multinational enterprises, who directly profit from both the herding of refugees into detention and the immiseration of the conditions therein. They should be considered complicit in the anti-PR campaign and psychological manipulations of the British state against those who – after all – have reluctantly left their homes for a strange place.
The struggle continues and we await nervously further updates on the conditions of the hunger strikers and other detainees. Follow the Unity Centre for news.