As the Brexit debate waffles on and European governments show increasing panic and confusion over how to react to the sheer scale of human movement towards the continent, it’s worth asking what a ‘border’ actually is. What is their physical presence, since there are no red lines in the dirt or floating out at sea? What does ‘strengthening’ one actually involve, given they aren’t some impenetrable force field? Borders are political entities, and one of places this is most apparent is at Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre in Kidlington; a place where various types of migrant are detained pending deportation or decisions on their case, often indefinitely.
On and off for the past few years I have visited people inside. Here is a collection of some of my experiences.
Campsfield House is a long way out of town. Unlike the prison in my hometown, a big castle-like building ten minutes’ walk from the station, detention centres tend to be tucked away, easy to overlook or forget. Immigrants are essentially stored away from the public eye, hidden along with the practices the state uses to protect our borders from people who have already crossed them. On the last Saturday of every month since it opened in 1993, the Campaign to Close Campsfield has held a demonstration outside the centre. A group of us have got a dedicated phone, and painted the number on a bedsheet. We stretch this out between a lamppost and a chain-link fence using washing line and bungee cords, so it is visible from the front windows, and shout the number through a megaphone, asking people to call and offering visits.
Firstly, the ways these men (it’s an all-male centre) arrived in Britain, and then the detention system, does not always neatly fit the conventional categories within which many place migrants. I have met international students who took the opportunity to study abroad to escape trouble in their home country. One attended a ‘scam’ college, one of the ‘visa factories’ the government occasionally cracks down on, which threatened to cancel his visa if he didn’t pay £ 200 for a textbook. I have met a man whose spousal visa expired when his marriage to a British woman fell apart. Another man’s immigration status (“I’m not going to lie, I got here illegally”) came to the attention of the authorities when a business rival reported him for a fictitious terror plot. One detainee, with a distinctive Brummie accent, didn’t even know he wasn’t a British citizen until he started to get in trouble. Another, who I talked to on the bus back after he’d just been released, felt a weird nostalgia driving through north Oxford, as he’d been here for his Master’s. I have met a man who made enemies back home by working as an interpreter for British and American forces, and one who fled smugglers after reporting them for supplying a group widely recognised as a terrorist organisation. Another promptly and correctly filled in all his visa renewal forms, but only found out his solicitor had forgotten to post a letter when men arrived at his door to arrest him.
Secondly, life in detention takes a toll. Of a pair of friends I visited, one chattered anxiously all through the visits, while the other, who had spent his first few days just lying on the floor, became increasingly silent, at one point too anxious to attend the visit at all. He eventually took advantage of the ‘voluntary return’ programme, hoping the danger to his life back home had blown over. Another spoke in dull monotone, having been prescribed a higher dose of antidepressants than anyone I’ve ever met. One was essentially having a midlife crisis in there. A large proportion of detainees, almost all, suffer from mental health issues. Sometimes this originates before they reached the UK (‘Rule 35’, prohibiting detention of victims of torture, is routinely ignored or sidestepped); sometimes it is brought on or compounded by the indefinite nature of detention.
A detainee’s stay in Campsfield is often short, disrupting relationships. Since it’s one of the UK’s nicest detention centres, relatively speaking, and detention centres essentially function as an archipelago, people are moved there for good behaviour, often shortly before being bailed. Others will be transferred again to another centre or ‘removed’ (distinct from deportation) within a few weeks of arrival. Detainees may spend many months (two-and-a-half years for one man I met) moving between centres, but only spend a fraction of that time in Campsfield.
A former detainee who had been in a Category D (open) prison before was shocked by the level of security (you have to go through six locked doors or gates to reach the visiting area). Campsfield is run for profit by a PFI company, Mitie, which runs other centres, as well as outsourced cleaning services. Detainees can work in the centre, contributing to its upkeep, running the library, computer room, kitchen, and so on. This gives them something to do and earns them the princely sum of £1 an hour, which can be used along with any savings they might have to buy phone credit or other luxuries.
Meals are close together, and one detainee explained that after one you are usually still full by the next, and so end up eating less. One detainee carefully explained to me the differences between what you were actually given and the menus Mitie show the Home Office in official budgets and reports. Between dinner and breakfast, however, there are over thirteen hours, and detainees cannot take food, even a yoghurt, back to their rooms for later. The (detainee-run) tuck shop charges full retail price.
What do detainees want? All of them want out, obviously. Some want little else, and one of the most dispiriting parts of what we do is telling them we’re just students, not lawyers, and can’t really help their case, but thank you for calling us anyway. A lot, however, are startlingly grateful for visits, for the demo, for the solidarity, for the fact anyone even knows and cares that they exist. One started the phone call, joining in on our chant, by just shouting “freedom!” A couple suggest telling the papers about this place, and explaining the general sense of routineness and indifference around immigration detention is hard. This, after all, is hardly the first article in Cherwell about the place.
Yelling “freedom now!” back and forth across the fence is a simple, effective and honest demand, but it is not the only one. As well as unlocked doors and legal rights, detainees want recognition of their moral right to justice. The fight against immigration detention – and we unequivocally oppose all immigration detention – is not just about freedom, but also dignity and recognition of mutual humanity.