Frustration and despair has tipped over into protests inside detention centres across Britain over the past
week, with migrants going on hunger strike and
staging sit-down protests.
Four of Britain’s 10 detention centres – Harmondsworth, Colnbrook, Brook House and Campsfield House – have seen peaceful rebellions against poor conditions and imprisonment without charge since Friday 2 May.
At the time of going to press, migrants were still refusing food in both Harmondsworth in Middlesex, Britain’s largest migrant prison, and Campsfield House in Oxfordshire.
‘We’re up against the wall,’ said Musawar Khan, a Pakistani
man speaking from Campsfield House, where 50 detainees went on
hunger strike on 7 May. Married to a British woman, the 27-year-old
has spent nearly six months locked up behind 10-foot razor wire.
‘We want to close all detention centres – they go against
human rights. We want our freedom’, he said in summary of the group’s demands. Khan says detainees were riled by the abusive treatment of
an Afghan man who Home Office staff were bullying into signing a
voluntary return form, with the collusion of MITIE staff,
a private company subcontracted to run the centre.
But it was the news of the protest at Harmondsworth, which tipped them into action. Over 150 detainees in Britain’s largest detention centre kicked off the wave of protest on Friday 2 May. Migrants here focused on Britain’s asylum ‘Fast Track’, which imprisons people seeking asylum on arrival while their claims are heard and refuses 99 per cent of applicants.
Demonstrators lifted an initial hunger strike on Tuesday 6 May after a meeting was promised with the Home Office but 200 people renewed the fast on 9 May when this did not materialize.
‘Instead, everyone who signed the letter [of demands] was
called in by officials to be given refusals for their asylum
applications, issued with flights home or intimidated,’ said
Jasmine Sallis from the Glasgow Unity Centre, who is in touch with
She relates how organizers are doing their best to communicate across many different language groups. They are also in contact with detainees at neighbouring Colnbook centre. Here SERCO guards broke up a meeting and put five ‘ringleaders’ into solitary confinement. Strikers were dispersed to other detention centres.
Elsewhere in Britain, in Brook House, near Gatwick Airport, it is reported that an
estimated 20 detainees gathered in the courtyard and refused to
return to their wings overnight. Guards responding by placing 16
people in solitary. The Unity Centre reports that detainees here were in fact
demanding to be sent home – driven to despair by Britain’s policy of indefinite detention.
Hunger strike is one of the few means to protest available to detainees, around 85 per cent of whom are suffering from clinical depression. Self harm is often a grim barometer of emotional stress brought on by imprisonment – over 300 people required treatment for self-harm in Britain in 2013.
Supporters have held demonstrations outside detention centres in solidarity with the protesters.
‘The way people are being treated at the moment is not sustainable,’ said Kathryn Hayward from Oxford Migrant Solidarity, who visited Campsfield on Thursday 8 May. ‘This is not an isolated thing. We are likely to see more protests like these with legal aid cuts coming into force and new detention centres opening. You can’t keep treating people like this.’
Detention of migrants has reached epidemic proportions in the West over the past decade. Britain saw a 12-fold increase in the last 10 years, with capacity climbing from 250 to 4,500. Nearly 30,000 migrants were imprisoned 2012-13.
A direct message from Campsfield detainees’ on YouTube
Forum for detainee protest on Facebook, requested by hunger strikers.