What does locking up migrants say about society?

Verne prison

The entrance to Verne Prison in Dorset. Jim Linwood under a Creative Commons Licence

This year will see Britain’s 12th Immigration Return Centre (IRC) open on Portland, Dorset. The expectation may have been that re-opening the Verne (which is currently a prison) as an IRC would pass unnoticed down in the West Country, away from the largest migrant communities with their specialist lawyers, but this has not been the case.

With 580 places, the Verne will be Britain’s second-largest detention centre. According to Detention Action, it will house single males only, mainly transferred from prisons. During 2013 the Home Office increased the number of migrants arbitrarily held in prisons from 400 to about 1,000. It is these detainees who will be transferred to the Verne, which will provide a cheaper way to ‘warehouse’ them.

Community groups, faith networks, health-workers and independent media gathered at a meeting in Weymouth at the end of February to hear how they might help, whether by visiting, connecting detainees with local services or making more people aware of what is happening. We heard how the Verne’s inmates will be among the most complex cases cluttering up the present ‘system’. A large majority (73 per cent) of those detained for more than a year are later released into Britain, their detention having served no purpose whatever. Given that $127 million are wasted every year on holding migrants who are later releasedi, might it not be time to consider a system that works better?

One former detainee who spoke at the meeting had spent a total of four and a half years inside. Unused to addressing a large audience, he was unsure how close to hold the microphone. His voice seemed now very near, now very far. How closely does this concern you? it seemed to say.

‘I don’t think any of us who haven’t been in detention have any idea how isolated people can become,’ said one man, who had been visiting IRCs for years. He told us about some of the people he had met through this often harrowing, but deeply rewarding, work. It was these human stories, Ali McGinley of the Association for the Visitors of Immigration Detainees told me afterwards, to which everyone responds. That response reassured her that Britain’s tolerant traditions are still there, concealed beneath its present public culture.

Around 30,000 migrants are detained each year in Britain, which is alone in Europe in detaining indefinitely. From Belgium to Sweden to Australia, governments have been prepared to risk the ire of the tabloid press in order to install more rational arrangements. It can be done.

Just as the variation is wide between countries, so within them, too, centres differ in the hours of lock-up, freedom of movement, education provision and so on. The bland appearance and anonymous surroundings of these centres are deceptive in more ways than one: each place has different needs and it is these which civil society initiatives are uniquely placed to address.

For all that local variation, this global phenomenon has been studied as a whole, too. Some of what has been suggested may usefully inform the attitudes and actions of those living close to an IRC. A 2007 report detailed shocking levels of violence inflicted on detainees as they are deported. It didn’t prevent Jimmy Mubenga’s murder by G4S guards in 2010. In Italy, to take another example, the equivalent centres are considerably less secure than those in Britain – there the extreme violence takes place mainly during escape attempts.

This variation between countries is there and it matters. But why are we not only locking migrants up, which is bad enough anywhere, but then treating them as non-persons in this way, everywhere? In an eerie turn of phrase, Italians call the boat-people crossing from North Africa uomini tonno (‘human tunafish’).

Ruled ‘unworthy’
Asked where migrants ‘come from’, our mainstream news culture generally responds: they come from there.

The refugee, according to philosopher Giorgio Agamben, has ‘become such a disquieting element in the order of the modern nation-state’ because he or she exposes a ‘rotten ambiguity’ at the heart of who we are, a contradiction in our own sense of identity. He traces this back to the Greeks, who had no single word for ‘life’. The term zoe referred to the vitality of any living thing. Bios, however, was human life as it is shaped by a particular community.

Agamben suggests that this distinction made for a fault line in Western culture, which has now come under enormous pressure. If it gave us habeas corpus and much else that we rightly value, it left us another legacy too. It meant that the sovereign authority could designate, as the Romans did, a certain person as ‘homo sacer’, a man viewed as falling somewhere between zoe and bios. A man without rights. A man whom it is no crime to kill.

He traces this flaw through its medieval, early modern and French revolutionary expressions, but it was in the 20th century that it finally caused the system to collapse. It was then that certain persons could be ruled ‘unworthy’ of citizenship, whether Germans in France or Jews in Germany or Bulgarians in Greece or Greeks and Armenians in Turkey. It became possible to suspend the rights of those deemed not to belong – and suddenly Europe was full of displaced people.

Today’s migrants are, certainly, from ‘there’. But they have emerged, he argues, just as surely from the history and unexamined corners of our own world view.

The government and the news-entertainment industry have between them generated the sense of ‘emergency’ which ‘justifies’ suspending the human rights of people who have committed no crime. Mad-dog journalism about asylum-seekers works just as well as terrorist attacks.

Agamben has his critics. Some wonder about his eurocentrism; others whether his version does not remove agency from those living inside the nightmare, leaving them no scope for resistance. Whereas, precisely through initiatives like AVID, they do.

There have been prisons on Portland since 1848. It isn’t the first time this ‘remote’ corner has been closely connected with larger questions about the way the world is run. After helping to start the Land League, the Fenian Michael Davitt, acknowledged by Gandhi as an inspiration, was imprisoned on the island in 1881, and voted in as MP for County Meath while there.

However embarrassing they may be to present power structures, human beings cannot, in reality, be excluded from history in this way. It doesn’t work. The stones of Portland know it, even if the Home Secretaries and the communications advisers do not.

i Survey by Matrix Evidence