We’ve gathered outside the Cherwell District Council offices in Bodicote, just south of Banbury. Local councillors are about to decide on whether a proposal to more than double the capacity of Campsfield House Immigration Removal centre will go ahead.
Although the rain has been coming down all day, and the small parish takes over an hour to reach by bus from Oxford, the turnout is impressive: campaigners from across the country have gathered to express their animosity towards plans to expand a centre frequently accused of human rights violations by organisations such as Amnesty International.
Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre, or ‘Campsfield House’, as it is innocuously signposted on the Woodstock Road, has a maximum detention capacity of 216. Converted from a youth detention centre in 1993, the private outsourcing company Mitie won a £27m contract to run the centre through its ‘Care and Custody’ subsidiary in 2011.
Since then, the Campsfield centre has incurred a fire, a suicide, and at least three major hunger strikes. A recent Corporate Watch feature reports, “There were no sprinklers installed, despite repeated advice from the fire brigade, and despite the fact that Mitie claims to specialise in fire safety.”
Under the current proposal, the centre would have its maximum capacity increased to 560, a plan which has received widespread condemnation from, amongst others, the Deputy Prime Minister.
But opposition to the expansion of Campsfield, and detention centres more generally, goes further than merely disdain for the mistreatment of immigrants within them.
There is also a problem with numbers. Of those detained in the UK, an increasing proportion are being granted leave to remain here. The exact figure is 45 per cent of those detained in the year 2014, compared to 35 per cent in 2010.
This is in spite of a trend of increased hostility towards immigrants by the coalition government within the same period. Given the fact that these centres exist for the express purpose of immigrant removal, this should mean a reduced demand on them – yet, incongrously, they are being expanded.
Moreover, this is costing the taxpayer £37,000 per detainee per year.
The story of detention within the UK is rife with such inconsistencies. For instance, the Home Office claims to follow what it calls the ‘Hardial Singh’ principles. These principles state that detention can only be used when the Secretary of State “intends to deport the person”. The length of the period of detention must be “reasonable in all the circumstances”, and “if it becomes apparent that the Secretary of State will not be able to effect deportation within a reasonable period, they should not seek to exercise the power of detention.”
However, on 30th June 2012, the United Kingdom Border Agency reported at least 174 cases where migrants were kept at immigration removal centres for over a year. There are even reports of detainees being kept for up to six or seven years. Clearly, there is a discrepancy between policy and practice.
There are further discrepancies regarding the Home Office’s policy on the detention of vulnerable people. Rule 35 of the ‘Detention Centre Rules 2001’ was designed to prevent torture victims being locked up in all but exceptional circumstances, but the general consensus among campaigners and detainees is that it doesn’t work.
An audit of its effectiveness by the Home Office found that only 9 per cent of Rule 35 reports led to release. More damning evidence against the efficacy of Rule 35 is revealed in a report by Medical Justice, who assessed the cases of 50 torture victims (verified as such by independent doctors). Of the 50 victims, only one person was released through the Rule 35 process.
Furthermore, six people within the sample were hospitalised from going on hunger strike, and eight attempted suicide; the report concludes, “Whilst Rule 35 is presented as a safeguard, its successful implementation is trumped by wider political and economic goals, thus making it little more than a fig leaf.”
We spoke to Ameena, who was detained in Yarl’s Wood IRC for five months. She told us how, on arriving in the UK, she immediately sought asylum in London, and after giving her story to immigration officers, was detained the very same day.
“I was without a lawyer or interpreter, and my English at the time was poor,” she explained. “I had to do the whole thing alone. My case involved FGM, which I had to discuss with a man. I had never discussed it with a man before, and for me it was terrifying.”
Although the UN recognises FGM as torture (meaning that by the Home Office’s very own guidelines, Ameena should not have been detained), the process went ahead anyway. She told us, “My five months in the detention centre was the worst experience of my life. I was treated like a criminal – even though cutting girls is illegal here, and I was a victim.”
Talking about the psychological damage her detention incurred, Ameena explained how “every day I thought about the sick people, the mentally ill, the people who had been there for years, and I thought to myself: is this going to happen to me?”
One day, Ameena was told she was allowed to remain in the country. “Since I left I’ve been receiving counselling and taking medication. I think about that place every single day.”
Ameena’s case isn’t rare. Research by Women for Refugee Women has investigated the impact detention has on women in particular. Their report found that 85 per cent of detained women they spoke to had previously been raped or tortured.
Shockingly, there is evidence that such abuse extends into the detention centres themselves. In 2013, a detainee from Yarl’s Wood called Tanja came forward with claims that she had been sexually abused at the detention centre. In one case, she was made to perform sex acts on guards who were “well aware that I did not want to”.
Shortly after these allegations were made, three more women came forward with cases corroborating Tanja’s. Serco, the private-sector company that runs Yarl’s Wood, denies the allegations. However, they did admit to dismissing a male member of staff for “inappropriate behaviour with a resident”, after an incident was captured on CCTV.
Interested in finding out more about life inside Campsfield, we visited a detainee at the centre to get a first-hand account from this near-mythologised institution. Upon entering, we were thoroughly searched, and after passing through six metre high gates, had our fingerprints and photos taken. Usman, who was nearing the end of his third month at Campsfield, had agreed to talk to us.
Describing life inside, he tells us, “I’m lucky in that I’m not sharing a room with anyone. Earlier, I was sharing with several others. A lot of the rooms contain three or four people, all crammed inside a tiny living space. Some rooms squeeze in as many as six people.”
Usman earns £1 an hour working in the centre’s shop for visitors, and is allowed to earn a maximum of £21 a week. The money is needed to pay for extra food throughout the day, as the meals provided “are not enough for one person”.
Describing a typical day of food, he lists, “bread and milk in the morning, chips or white rice with soup, or a chicken burger for lunch. Dinner is often curry; I’d like some more fruit or vegetables.”
Usman is critical of the medical help available to him and his fellow detainees. “The other day I was feeling run down and the only help I got was the nurse telling me to wear a jumper and a hat. There seem to be huge limits to what help they can and can’t give us.”
Usman describes the mental state of detainment as “constant torture”. “I feel my mental health deteriorating; I’m already losing my memory. Someone I know who was in here for 16 months now has lasting mental problems from his detainment. Another guy who was only 19 years old finally got out, then passed out at Oxford Station. The idea of freedom made him feel dizzy.”
Some detainees are led to self-harm, Usman tells us. “A lot of people put in confinement as a result of ‘bad behaviour’ hit themselves to get out of it. One guy’s in hospital at the moment after swallowing a razor blade.”
Usman’s friend explains to us how his nephew was detained several years ago. “Back then, though, there were much better detention conditions, and he wasn’t detained long. There was a gym he could use, the rooms were all singles, he was even allowed to learn IT skills while he was there! I was very shocked when I first came to visit Usman.”
“It’s worse than prison here,” Usman interrupts. “At least in there you know how long you have left in your sentence. I’m not a criminal, we are not criminals, and yet we’ve been put through this process where we don’t know whether we’ll be forced to leave tomorrow.
“They told me I was being deported three times without it actually happening. The last time, I said goodbye to my friends and family. My wife was crying, I was extremely depressed, and then I get a call saying they’ve messed up the travel documents. I have no idea what’s going on until the last minute.”
Usman believes he will finally be deported next week. “I’ll be back to square one, as though the past ten years never happened,” he says.
While the Home Office looks to ignore the pleas of detainees like Usman, members of the Campaign to Close Campsfield have been protesting the centre since before it was built.
When we visited two members of the Campaign, Liz Peretz and Bill McKeith, it was clear that we’d come during a particularly busy period. Bill was on the phone to a lawyer in London, penning a letter to Cherwell District Council to attempt to get them to reconsider the proposed expansion of Campsfield.
According to Liz, the “official” reason behind the proposal is that the government has recently employed a great deal more immigration officers who will be carrying out increased checks on more families, and need somewhere to warehouse the anticipated influx of people on the way to being deported.
“However, we think it is a very muddled picture,” she added. “It’s quite likely to be the private firms, like Mitie, that have encouraged the Home Office to ‘modernize their stock’ of Detention Centres. This bears absolutely no relation to the other set of arguments that are going on in Parliament as we speak, that there should be a time limit on detention.
“If you could get a time limit on how long someone could be detained for, you wouldn’t be looking at how you can expand the stock – you’d be looking at contracting it.”
Second to Greece, the UK has the largest number of detained people in Europe, and Liz believes that there is a psychological component to the Home Office’s detention policy.
However, detention as an act of “muscle-flexing” by the government, she explained, “just doesn’t work. The Home Office’s own statistics show that more people are coming over than ever before: war and conflict and poverty all over the world won’t just disappear!”
However, a former detention custody officer at Campsfield firmly believes that the centre’s existence is justified by it being a successful deterrent for prospective immigrants.
Asked to elaborate on his former role, he tells us, “I did security: I prevented people getting out, as well as getting in.” Although he considers that he did the most he could to help detainees when he worked there, he believes there is only so much one can do. “If you helped them too much you became targeted,” he explains. “You become known for being sympathetic, and you get more and more people coming to you for help.”
His story corroborates an anecdote shared to us by Liz from another detention centre within the UK. The immigration officers who deported the smallest percentage of their cases, she told us, had a white monkey put on their desk.
Such attitudes show a callous disregard for the realities which asylum seekers face with deportation, which in many cases entails death. This prospect made a significant im- pression on us when we spoke to a campaigner called Ade, whose boyfriend is seeking asylum within the UK, and has been in detention for 11 months since his appeal. His boyfriend is from Nigeria, where homosexuality is illegal, and, in some areas, punishable by death.
“If they send him back to Nigeria, they will kill him,” Ade tells us with the sombreness of a person faced with the prospect of losing a loved one.
With so much at stake in Ade’s boyfriend’s appeal, the policy of “guilty until proven innocent” – the asylum application process as Liz describes it – is in an even more obvious and urgent need of reform.
After 20 minutes outside the Council’s offices, we were told that we could observe the meeting from the public gallery. We filed in, only to leave ten minutes later, the councillors having voted to defer their decision to the next meeting after receiving the letter from Bill.
Reaction to the decision was mixed: on the one hand, Campsfield would not be expanded today, but on the other, the campaign would have to maintain its momentum if it hoped for a better outcome next time.
While it is heartening to see so many people mobilised, these protests can only hint at the severity of the UK’s detention situation, which is putting thousands of people every year through “the very worst kind of mental torture”.
Some of the names in this piece have been changed to preserve anonymity.
Information and Links:
- UK Immigration Statistics
- Campaign to Close Campsfield
- Detention Action
- Information on Mitie and Detention Centres in the UK
- Standoff Films’s 2014 documentary, “Campsfield House: An Immigration Removal Centre”
We are grateful to Oxford Migrant Solidarity for putting us in touch with those inside Campsfield, enabling us to visit the centre.