In 2017 alone, 27,331 people were sent to detention centres. With no date set for release, and with the uncertainty of being deported without warning, 2,138 remained in detention at the end of last December.
Virginia Moreno Molina
These figures, taken from the pages of government national statistics, also reveal that 2,321 people were forcibly deported, including some who had not been in detention.
Because it doesn’t matter whether the migrant has been living here their whole life, whether they escaped from a country at war and lost everything, whether they are LGBTI, or had suffered murder attempts in their country of origin, or if they have been victims of torture.
At any moment, they can receive a letter notifying them of their immediate detention or deportation.
“The point of detention is to achieve deportations, and that means removing people to countries against their will”, explains Antonia Bright.
She works with the NGO Movement for Justice, which for years has been fighting to close detention centres. They are concerned especially with Yarl’s Wood, one of the nine detention centres in the UK, where women and families are confined while they wait for their cases to be decided. However, the uncertainty and abuse extend to all of them, of which seven are run by multinationals such as Mitie, G4S, Serco and GEO. Private companies with million-pound contracts, that are only concerned with filling beds and getting the profit from them.
In this way, Antonia explains that “this is a system that is actively looking for people who can be qualified for removal”. And this has a clear objective on their part: “simply to reach the statistics they want to achieve”.
In addition, she emphasizes the idea that: the system is weak, it is unsustainable, and unpopular in practice, so it relies on isolation and a lot of secrecy”.
Reasons for detention
There are two versions of each story, and at the point when someone is detained, it is the institutional version which prevails over that of the individual.
Antonia explains that she divides these reasons into two categories: the ones given by the Home Office, and the real ones. “The Home Office reasons would be that immediate removal is ‘imminent’, or because the person is a danger to the public: this is what they repeat over and over”, she states.
Despite this, there are then the individual reasons. Antonia recounts how some people are removed to a detention centre, after they finish a prison sentence. “That means extending their sentence beyond what they were given”, she says. As a consequence, some of these people spend more time in detention than they did in prison.
Others are detained because there is a charter flight ready and they happen to be from the country it is going to. “They would be detained so they can help to fill up the seats, fill up the planes”, says Antonia. And she points out that “Nigerians and Pakistanis” are the most common nationalities in detention centres.
“Sometimes it would just be arbitrary, or they may go to the Immigration Reporting Centre where they are told that a decision has been made to refuse you, and we are now taking you into detention”.
They can pass weeks, months or even years – as in the case of Mabel Gawanas – isolated in these places, many of them suffering traumas from having been tortured, and others with mental health problems due to stress and uncertainty.
Indeed, in the last report by Amnesty International, it is shown that as a consequence of detention, mental problems and physical injuries result, such as suicide attempts.
The question of credibility
“Have you been a victim of torture?”, is the routine Home Office question, turning a positive response into a double stigmatisation when the time comes to defend their case. Because “the default position is to attack any immigrant’s credibility”, explains Antonia, adding that “when you say you have been trafficked, or any of those things, first of all, the burden is on you to say so, and find the right words to explain it to them”.
Even so, many people feel that having survived it, this is not considered torture, or they think that there are others in a worse situation. But when you say that this did indeed happen to you, “the Home Office will say, “well you didn’t say so before”, so they will claim that you are lying”, explains Antonia.
A constant battle
Because of this, the Movement for Justice emphasizes the need to learn to fight because “you are in a fight with a system that is racist”, says Antonia.
On another note, in these centres, she recounts how people relate differently from the way they do on the outside. “We stay in different community groups for survival, but in detention, survival depends to some extent on mixing with people no matter what their language, religion or sexuality”.
It’s a matter of needing to find what they have in common in order to learn how to defend their cases. Because you never know when you may be given the air-ticket that means deportation. To some extent, it is a question of learning how the Home Office works. “When you see a lot of decisions, you can see how they cut and paste from one decision into another, how they mix up the countries: they make a decision where they are going to deport you to a country that is not even where you are from, because they do everything so quickly, it is just bureaucracy”, explains Antonia.
But mobilization and collective action are two of the principal tools of the struggle. “It is the nature of the fight that you are making and the people around you” which leads the way for detainees to defend their cases.
And that has been happening in detention centres in recent years, actions by men and women detainees to make sure they don’t remain invisible. Only two months ago attention was focused on Yarl’s Wood. Over 100 women began a hunger strike in protest against the “inhuman” conditions they were suffering.
Shortly afterwards they received a threatening letter from the Home Office warning that the fact they were not eating “will not lead to the progress of your immigration or asylum case being halted or delayed; it “may in fact lead to your case being accelerated and your removal from the UK taking place sooner”, it stated, and she adds that “and if they hadn’t been resisting they would have been on that plane and they would be gone”.
“Deportation is what happens if you don’t protest, if you go quietly, they don’t reward you because you are polite and you don’t protest, she explains.
And although there is no guarantee that you will win, the chances increase when everyone unites and joins the struggle.
As a result of this movement, the subject of detention centres has come back to be discussed in parliament, and the Home Office has been shown up trying to “deny” what has been happening.
Brexit and Immigration
“All the rubbish behind this was about immigration, it is targeting the people coming across the Mediterranean” comments Antonia.
Thousands of people are risking their lives to reach Europe, and “unless you’re going to open the borders and let people in, then you are going to enter a level of brutality because you will be watching people drown”. It’s because of this that Antonia is not surprised by the rise of the right.
But she also blames the Labour Party for this failure “to demand the defence of these people, and to extend free movement, even as it exists now, which is not even completely free movement”, she affirms, and adds that “they failed to make that demand in their own manifesto, they ditched free movement of people”.
“So, the deal is “Defend Labour, defend Corbyn, and shut up about immigration stuff, so we don’t lose any votes from anti-immigration people, or whatever the logic is”, she explains.
Apart from this, Antonia emphasizes that most organisations believe that change can only come through parliament. But “since parliament fully accepted that they have to be tough on immigration, then the most they have been asked for is a little bit nicer behaviour towards some refugees or some particular groups”, she says. “Any positive change in law that comes through Parliament because of to the struggle and demands outside Parliament”.
Face your fears
Antonia tells the story of one of so many women detainees, who after being freed, used her testimony to encourage her companions to fight, sending the message that “you have to face your fears, that is what I learnt”.
“You can turn the tables on it like she did and, although the detention centres change your life, it doesn’t have to be a totally negative experience”, she points out.
“It isn’t that you pick and choose which immigrants you like”, she says. “Selling the idea to British people that their enemies are immigrants, that is exactly how it is that we are under attack”. And she ends by saying that “We have to break through that, and say that we are on the side of immigrants’ rights, open the borders, shut down detention centres, reverse the anti-immigrant laws, give people the right to work and study”.
(Translated by Graham Douglas – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)