Oxford is a city where it is normal to spot 10-year-old boys dressed in graduation gowns, Hogwart style, walking through town on a Wednesday afternoon. Its quaint street lamps wouldn’t look out of place in Narnia and the university and its buildings are famous world-wide. Whether it is the allure of a cycling city, the punting river or meadows and parks, the Oxford pages of many a tourist’s Lonely Planet Guide to England are probably pretty crumpled.
It is doubtful tourists ever make it to Campsfield House. Many Oxford residents don’t even know of its existence. Campsfield House is an Immigration Removal Centre that lies just five miles north of Oxford city centre, and up to 216 men are detained there at any one time.
Last weekend, Close Campsfield Campaign marked 20 years since the first detainees were transferred from Harmondsworth Detention Centre near Heathrow airport to Campsfield on 29 November 1993. Over the past two decades, 25-30,000 migrants have been imprisoned behind the imposing six-metre-high razor-wire topped fence. If the fence isn’t enough to scupper the illusion of a grand Oxfordshire country mansion, perhaps the way guests are welcomed will:
‘Visitors attending the centre will need to book 24 hours in advance and provide photographic ID (such as a passport or driving licence) and a utility bill on arrival. Visitors will be subject to search procedures and fingerprinting. They will also have their photograph taken,’ says the UK Border Agency (UKBA) website.
Migration is not a crime
Campsfield detainees are imprisoned for days, months, even years. They include refugees fleeing war or persecution, economic immigrants, people who have overstayed their visa, and foreign national offenders. Instead of due legal process, 30,000 men have been charged by successive British governments and tried by rightwing media outlets for seeking sanctuary.
Administrative detention is a direct violation of individual civil liberties.
Each of the 30,000 is an individual: one of them, Michael used performance poetry to speak about his experiences after he had been in Campsfield for three weeks in January 2013. ‘Campsfield is not the best place, obviously. But you have to make the most of it. It’s a place of hiding, it’s a place of solace, but it’s not the best place for solace… people coming, people going, people going.’
Mashal Jabari, a 14-year-old boy from Afghanistan, entered Cardiff’s UKBA office on 1 March 2010 with a child advocacy officer to lodge a new claim for asylum. Without warning, he was taken to Cardiff Bay police station and then on to Campsfield early the next day, while plans were made to deport him back to Afghanistan a week later – despite an ongoing dispute over his age. After two days in Campsfield, Mashal’s distress in a conversation with the child advocacy officer was evident: ‘Please help me, I’m scared, this place is no good, no sleep, no eat, I want my brother.’ After a campaign to release him from detention ended his ordeal, a judge considered him to be 14-years-old and he was placed with a foster family in South Wales.
Detaining children didn’t end in April 2011, despite the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition pledge. An Afghan boy was held at Campsfield earlier this year for two months and was finally released on 20 February.
Human rights violations committed at Campsfield during the last two decades have resulted in recommendations by a UN working group on arbitrary detention and reports published by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Amnesty International and Medical Justice, besides others.
In June 2005, 18-year-old Ramazan Kamluca from Kurdistan was the youngest asylum seeker to commit suicide while in detention in Britain. Ianos Dragutan from Modova also took his own life, in August 2011.
There are statistics on self-harm in Campsfield but they do not differentiate between self-harm and attempted suicide. The psychological trauma that is caused by imprisoning already-vulnerable asylum-seekers and undocumented migrants is indisputable.
Hunger strikers have often protested with their bodies at inhumane treatment. 1994 and 2010 saw two of the largest mass hunger strikes in Campsfield. The first involved 175 out of 216 detainees, sparking off hunger strikes in other detention centres around the country, in the second, 147 detainees went on hunger strike to protest long-term detention and alleged abuse by prison guards.
Campsfield has a history that should embarrass even the most hardened Conservative politicians into shutting it down. It has a purpose that is almost as disgraceful: an apparent political nod to the concerns of the electorate masks the business of detention, which is growing year on year.
The detention centre was the first in Britain to be run by a private company. The contract is currently with MITIE – the security firm with ‘care and custody’ as its slogan that professes to offer ‘a safe, decent, dignified and secure immigration detention environment, which promotes respect and understanding for cultural differences’.
It costs the government $74,000 each year to keep just one person in detention, so it seems fair to surmise that MITIE isn’t simply concerned with promoting cultural awareness.
Demonstrations to close Campsfield have been held every month since the beginning of 1994. Around 150 people gathered to mark the 20th anniversary on Saturday 30 November, including former detainees, students, activists from places such as Birmingham and Warwick, and a 25-piece samba band hailing from London. It was part of a weekend festival entitled ‘20 years too long’ looking at how to move the campaign forward and reflecting on efforts past.
The January-February edition of New Internationalist magazine investigates detention around the world. Subscribe now to get your hands on a copy before it reaches the newsstands.
Photos by Lydia James, published under a creative commons licence.