Notes From the Margins…

Britain’s detention gulag: the ‘animals’ rebel

  • March 20, 2015
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Three weeks ago Channel 4 News produced a shocking undercover report on Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre, using a hidden camera.     The report was painful, infuriating and utterly shameful viewing.     Yarl’s Wood was outsourced to Serco in 2007, and its guards can be seen using viciously sexist and racist language towards the female detainees, who they refer to as ‘bitches’, ‘caged animals’ and ‘beasties.’ .

This was followed by an equally grim report on Harmondsworth immigration removal centre,   where the independent research group Corporate Watch secretly filmed for three months.   Harmondsworth is also privately managed by the Mitie group, and Corporate Watch’s footage depicted a harsh and inhuman pressure cooker environment that has reduced detainees to despair after months in detention, where new ‘efficiency measures’ introduced by Mitie now oblige them to remain locked up in their cells for 10 to 12 hours a day, and where even the guards believed that conditions in the centre had reached breaking point.

These reports should have caused an outcry.   They ought at the very least to have generated an urgent debate about the morality of migrant incarceration and the way the UK treats vulnerable people whose single crime has been to seek asylum; about the brutal inhumanity of indefinite detention; about the conditions in Britain’s ‘detention estate’ and the policy of outsourcing which has so often made these conditions worse.

It would be wonderful to report that a shamed government – prompted by an outraged and galvanized opposition,   pledged to close the detention centres that have so often been associated with the kind of institutional cruelty and inhumanity that the Channel 4 reports so glaringly revealed,   or rescind the policy of outsourcing to companies like Serco, that have demonstrated time and time again that their single overriding interest in immigration detention is how to make a profit out of it.

Perhaps British society might have begun to ask itself searching questions about all this was allowed to happen, and why it has chosen to regard asylum seekers in much the same way as the Yarl’s Wood guards see them – as the lowest of the low and something less than human.     The British media might have facilitated this debate by following up Channel 4’s important contribution.       It might have harried the government, and Serco, and Mitie, and all the other corporate profiteers who have been deliberately allowed to get away with so much.

But all this belongs to an alternate universe.   Because none of the above happened.   True, the Home Office ordered a ‘thorough and immediate investigations into all matters raised by this programme’ and told Channel 4 News that they ‘will not hesitate to take whatever action we think appropriate in response.’

And Serco have also promised to carry out ‘ an independent review into our work at Yarl’s Wood in response to the investigation, . and insists that it prioritises ‘decency and respect’ for the detainees under its management.

None of this can be taken seriously for a millisecond.   Allegations of rape and sexual abuse by Serco guards at Yarl’s Wood have been rife for years, yet the Home Office refused to allow the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights to visit the centre last year.   Eight people died at Harmondsworth before it was taken for Mitie last year.       In total there were 21 deaths in UK immigration detention centres in 2014.

Given this record there is no reason to believe that the government or Serco or any of the other corporations that manage the UK’s detention centres will take any serious action – not without major political and public pressure.     But such pressure has been conspicuously absent from a society that always seems to have more important things to think about, such as how to get Jeremy Clarkson back on Top Gear.

And now, once again, faced with the passivity of the British government and society, the ‘animals’ have taken matters into their own hands.     Two weeks ago, on 8 March, detainees at Harmondsworth announced a hunger strike in protest against the ‘indefinite deprivation of liberty and human rights.’   On Tuesday the Morning Star reported that as many as 240 detainees were involved in the strike, in a centre with a 600 capacity.       The protests have spread to other detention centres at nearby Colnbrook, at Morton Hall in Leicestershire, at Dover, at Gatwick airport’s Brook House, at Penine House near Manchester, at Campsfield House in Oxfordshire,   and Dungavel in Scotland.

All this amounts to the most serious unrest in Britain’s ‘detention estate’ since the protests at Harmondsworth and other centres last May.     But the British media has once again been been largely indifferent to these developments.     The only major media outlet that has taken any interest in the protests is Russia Today, which as we all know is nothing but a propaganda outlet for the new Hitler and is just aiming to make us look bad.

Nevertheless the Home Office has now banned RT journalists from visiting Harmondsworth for two months.   In Scotland, the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the Church of Scotland have written to Theresa May and the manager of Dungavel to ask that a delegation be allowed to visit the centre, where up to 70 people are believed to have gone on hunger strike.

South of the border the silence remains deafening.   But these protests suggest, once again,   that a detention system created largely to reassure public ‘concerns’ about immigration has become a human rights disaster that shames the nation.   And anyone concerned with the elementary principles of solidarity, humanity and compassion that British society has effectively abandoned, should acknowledge and support the desperate resistance of the men and women that the Home Office would like to ensure remains invisible.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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