Neither criminals, nor animals!’ Britain’s immigration detainees speak out

Words of a detainee at Campsfield IRC (screenshot @GeorgeEvansDoc)

An activist in contact with people locked up in migrant jails reports on a week of unrest.

The UK immigration authorities and their commercial partners are trying to suppress a wave of protests sweeping British detention centres. In the past week hundreds of asylum-seekers detained at four high-security facilities have started hunger-strikes against draconian Home Office policies.

Last Friday (2 May) about 150 detainees at Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre, near Heathrow Airport, occupied the main courtyard in a sit-down protest against the so-called fast-track asylum system, in which individuals claiming asylum are placed immediately in detention and held whilst their asylum cases are processed.

Harmondsworth hit headlines around the world earlier this year after prisons inspectors discovered that guards had handcuffed a frail and demented 84 year old Canadian for 5 hours until he died. The centre, run for the government by the Geo Group, American’s second biggest contractor and an offshoot of the sinister old Wackenhut Corporation, holds about 660 men.

On Friday the protesting detainees demanded to be taken off the fast-track system, they demanded access to adequate legal representation, and respect for their communication with their lawyers.

“There is no time to prepare a case and we have to find all our own evidence,” one man told me by phone. “80 per cent of people in here have no solicitor. . . They consider everyone the same, there is no proper time to make a claim, if someone needs evidence from their country it is not possible in one or two days to get this.”

Another said:  “We are expecting letters from lawyers but don’t receive letters. We send letters and they don’t go out.”

In a hand-written petition given to GEO guards, the men said: “We are respectful and peaceful people, we are not criminals and we do not want to be treated like criminals, nor animals.”

Home Office representatives apparently met with selected detainees last Friday and agreed to take their concerns back to the department and meet again after the Bank Holiday weekend. By Wednesday (7 May) that hadn’t happened, according to detainees who spoke to me. Instead, dozens of the detainees who had protested were issued with deportation orders.

The unrest spread to neighbouring Colnbrook detention centre where guards broke up a meeting of 40 detainees on Wednesday before sending five individuals identified as leaders into isolation. Most of these men have been removed to other detention facilities and supporters have been unable to contact them.

Fifty migrants detained at Campsfield in Oxfordshire joined the wave of protest on Wednesday morning, declaring a hunger-strike.

In a recording posted on YouTube (with a video by @GeorgeEvansDoc) a spokesman for the Campsfield detainees said they were “being pushed against a wall”, and that their hunger-strike was a “last resort”.

He said the detainees were not criminals and had not come to the UK for benefits.

The spokesman said detainees at Campsfield were unable to see doctors, and blamed “security industry giants” for these types of detention centres. (Camspfield is run for the government by a company called Mitie whose chief executive is paid £1.4 million a year).

Words of a detainee at Campsfield IRC (screenshot @GeorgeEvansDoc)

He claimed that on Bank Holiday Monday an immigration officer had threatened a detainee with solitary confinement unless he signed a voluntary departure disclaimer: “He doesn’t read or write English, that form wasn’t being explained to him in his own language.”

Most of the detainees had fled killings in their own countries and had come to Britain to save their lives or be with close relatives, he said.

“Our demand is quite simple. We want our freedom. We want our life with dignity. We do not want to be treated in an inhumane way. So that’s why we’re demanding for the closure of all detention centres for immigrants in the UK.”

On Tuesday, 20 men detained at Brook House near Gatwick Airport staged an all-night protest in the centre’s exercise yard. The detainees refused to return to their cells and slept outside.

At 11am on Wednesday, the guards placed 16 of the men in solitary confinement. They remain in isolation and out of contact, fellow detainees told me.

John McDonnell, the Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington, has posted an Early Day Motion expressing “concern at the reports of a major demonstration undertaken by detainees at Harmondsworth detention centre to highlight their plight on the Government’s fast track procedure for asylum seekers and the lack of facilities to assist in pursuing their appeals, including access to legal advice and means of communication with their legal representatives; and urges the Home Secretary to commission an independent review of the grievances raised by the detainees with the aim of resolving this dispute.”

Last Friday, just ahead of the Bank Holiday weekend, at the Unity Centre in Glasgow, where I work as a volunteer, we took phone calls from distressed detainees at Harmondsworth, asking us to publicise their protest. Working alongside the Anti-Raids Network we started organising.

On Bank Holiday Monday we held simultaneous demonstrations outside the barbed wire fences of Harmondsworth and at Dungavel immigration removal centre, a former hunting lodge an hour outside Glasgow among Scotland’s green farmlands and surrounded by forest.

We travelled by train from London to Harmondsworth, and by cars and the Unity van from Glasgow to Dungavel. We wanted to assure detainees that their calls were being heard, that awareness surrounding serious issues relating to justice and dignity in detention was spreading and, most importantly, that they were not along in their fight.

We took pots and pans, guitars, maracas, whistles, baking trays. We made a lot of noise.

Protestors at Harmondsworth IRC May Day 2014 (screenshot @GeorgeEvansDoc)

Contact was maintained during the protests. We learned that inside Dungavel, visiting was suspended throughout the day and detainees were locked in their rooms. Harmondsworth detainees said that their identity cards were being checked more than usual and long phone conversations were being treated with suspicion.

On two wings at Harmondsworth, men were able to look out and see the protestors. (You can see George Evans’s video here). Detainees cheered and clapped and waved at the group of 25 protestors. One detainee called one of the supporters and saw him pick up his phone. “I just don’t have the words, I don’t know what to say,” said the detainee. This connection, putting a face to a name and voice, made the day.