Socialist Worker

Detention centres breed despair behind the bars

As Yarl’s Wood is mired in an abuse scandal, Ken Olende looks at the scale of detention centres in Britain and what life is like for people locked inside them

Issue No. 2379

Britain has one of the largest networks of immigration detention facilities in Europe. 

The Migration Observatory at Oxford University said, “Over the past three years there have been between 2,000 and 3,000 migrants detained at any given time”.

Nearly 30,000 migrants are held at some point each year. But purpose built centres have only existed since Tinsley House was built in 1996.

A government inspection of Brook House, near Gatwick airport, earlier this year claimed that conditions were generally positive.

But the report makes frightening reading. “There was considerable frustration and despair in the centre, and this was reflected in the high number of self-harm incidents,” it said.

It casually comments, “Some detainees were unable to seek legal advice before they were removed.”

This may seem unimportant to the government as it implies that all legal avenues have been exhausted. 

But that is not the reality for people in detention.

An inspection report on Yarl’s Wood in Buckinghamshire this year stated, “In the six months before the inspection 867 detainees had been removed, 1,188 released and 198 transferred to other detention establishments.” 

So it is not a simple matter of arrival and removal. 

Why are detainees treated as an administrative problem? An Algerian detainee spoke to Socialist Worker after a riot at Harmondsworth detention centre in 2006.

“The detention centres are full of poor people,” she said. “Who cares about us? They think we are criminals.”

A recent inspection report into Yarl’s Wood exposes why detainees shouldn’t be there. 

It states, “None of those held at Yarl’s Wood were there because they had been charged with an offence or had been detained through normal judicial circumstances. 

“Many may have experienced victimisation before they were detained, for example by traffickers or in abusive relationships.”

It seems that even on the UK Borders Agency’s own terms the level of detention is excessive.

The report raised another concern. “Several mentally ill women had recently been detained before being sectioned and released,” it said. 

“The exceptional circumstances justifying detention of pregnant women were also unclear.”

It also refers to the recent scandal of sexual abuse. 

“We were concerned to find that two staff had engaged in sexual activity with a female detainee,” it said.

The report said this is “something that can never be less than abusive given the vulnerability of the detained population, and these staff had rightly been dismissed”.

After the report was published, the authorities tried to deport the main witness to the abuse.

 Persecuted by politicians

The panic over asylum seekers and illegal immigration is relatively recent. 

The first purpose-built detention centre, Tinsley House near Gatwick airport, opened in 1996.

An increasingly harsh series of immigration acts brought in by the Tories in the 1980s and 1990s halted almost all immigration. 

Then John Major’s Tory government targeted refugees. 

The term “refugee” is a dangerous reminder that these people are fleeing terrible situations, so they substituted it with “asylum seeker”, which highlights that they want something here that can be refused. 

The persecution continued through the years of Tony Blair’s Labour government. 

Labour and the Tories competed to see who could be toughest on “failed” asylum seekers. 

Media reports in the early years of the “war on terror” associated asylum seekers with terrorists.

Labour increasingly turned the running of the centres over to private security firms.

This process has accelerated under the current government.

Guards can’t stop resistance

As long as the detention centres have existed they have faced resistance. 

Yarl’s Wood faced a hunger strike by 25 Roma detainees as soon as it opened in 2001.

The following year the building burned down as detainees protested against excessive use of restraint. 

Siphthisiwe Bhebehe told Socialist Worker in 2005, “I have been treated very bad.

“The guards came for me when I had just come back from a shower. 

“I had just a towel and my bra on. A manager said ‘grab her’ and nine men were on me.”

In 2006 detainees rioted at Harmondsworth. They took control of the centre and spelled out “SOS” and “Freedom” in sheets outside.

In February 2010 detainees at Yarl’s Wood went on hunger strike. 

Doris from Nigeria said, “I’ve been kept here for two and a half months, even though I won my appeal against deportation.

“They treat us so badly in here, everyone is separated from people they love.”

In August the same year more than 100 detainees at Campsfield joined a hunger strike.

And this year hunger strikes have recurred at Yarl’s Wood in protest at revelations of sexual abuse.

Refugees have legal rights too

 Anyone has the legal right to enter Britain and apply for asylum. They have the right to stay until a final decision has been made.

The government is not supposed to penalise people for having false papers. 

The 1951 Convention to which Britain is a signatory recognises the difficulty of gathering papers when fleeing war or persecution.

Centres hide death details

At least 20 people are known to have died in immigration centres due to suicide, murder or “undetermined” causes.

Where causes are undetermined it is generally because the centres refuse to release details. 

The figures don’t include cases like that of Jimmy Mubenga. 

He had been held at Brook House but died during an attempt by G4S guards to forcibly deport him. 

Britain is part of the Fortress

Britain’s detention policy echoes other repressive policies in the European Union that define “Fortress Europe”.

Italy has a network of detention centres for “irregular” immigrants. 

And detainees at a detention centre in Greece rioted in August this year over conditions.

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