[ 22. Mar 2007 ]

UK: Unrest in Immigration Detention Centres

There is a history of resistance against detention which goes back to the day detention centres first opened. Uprisings and hunger strikes have always happened inside these monstruos institutions, but they seem to be on the increase, especially in the last five years. This is more than likely a result of incarcerating larger masses of increasingly desperate people.


Another serious disturbance occurred at Campsfileld immigration removal centre early in the morning :: on the 14th of March 2007. The detainees intervened in solidarity when they saw an Algerian man being assaulted while being removed from the centre. Recently an Ugandan man was beaten unconscious in similar circumstances. Because of the damage caused, 60 detainees were later transferred to other centres.

It would be impossible to enumerate all similar incidents wich occurred, unless writing a very thick dossier. The most frighteneing was certainly the :: fire of Yarl's Wood (:: de) near Bedford. In February 2002 Yarl'Wood detention centre went on fire, during a disturbance sparked by the ill-treatment of a sick and elderly woman. The centre was half destroyed by the fire, with great danger to the detainees, left locked inside the burning building all night long. The centre had only recently opened and was the largest in Europe, with a capacity of 900. They had not fit it with water sprinklers, possibly to save money. The centre has now half capacity (450) and accommodates women and children.

Harmondsworth, a large detention centre near Heathrow airport, had to close down a first time in July 2004 following another major disturbance. It re-opened to hold single men. Previously it was holding also families and children. In the meantime Colnbrook was built, a new detention centre next to Harmondsworth, also holding single men. Together the two centres can hold more than 900 men, if operating to full capacity.

In November 2006, :: another major disturbance caused Harmondsworth to close again. The riots were triggered by guards preventing the detainees from watching TV: there were news of a new report from Anne Owers, HM Prison Inspector, in which Harmondsworth was very strongly criticised. Because of the damage caused most detainees were moved to other detention centres or ordinary prisons, but 60 to 70 detainees were left in the damaged centre.

About the same number are there today, crammed in what used to be the health-care centre, up to 13 to a room. The food is so badly cooked that many detainees have to take tablets for the stomach – without tablets they cannot digest the food. There is a makeshift library that in the evening becomes a church, after the newspapers and books are taken away. The lack space and lack of facilities adds to the despair. Many detainees sleep all day because there is nothing else to do.

Hunger strikes (and :: self-harm) have always been a part of life in detention, as detainees have very few ways to make their voices heard. However, in the past two years there has been a wave of organised mass hunger strikes. Over 100 Zimbabwean detainees, men and women, went on hunger strike in 2005, in protest against their planned deportations – to face torture and possible death at the hands of Mugabe's security forces. Later the High Court ruled against deportations to Zimbabwe because it is too dangerous. However people are still being deported to equally dangerous countries, such as DR Congo and Uganda. A group of 30 Ugandan women went on :: hunger strike in Yarl's Wood shortly after the Zimbabweans' hunger strike ended. Most of these women were later released, as the hunger strike had the effect of attracting support and proper legal representation. Who knows how many others in similar situations get deported and no one hears about.

No Borders London together with other groups periodically organize :: demonstrations outside Harmondsworth and Colnbrook, attracting 250 to 300 people at one time. One one occasion, the 2nd April 2006, the detainees were prevented to go to the windows and see the demo; they all refused lunch in protest and that was the :: beginning of another mass hunger strike, involving over 100 men of all nationalities. They produced a letter in which they complained about arbitrary and prolonged detention.

A week later, :: 100 detainees at Haslar started refusing food in solidarity with Colnbrook, but the Haslar protest was violently repressed when the prison police broke a peaceful occupation of the courtyard. A month later, :: 100 detainees in Campsfield near Oxford went on hunger strike.

Over 28.000 people pass every year through the detention estate, and their number is on the increase. Despite the explosive situations created by keeping thousands of innocent people locked up, the Home Office are planning to build more detention centres and are detaining and deporting more men, women and children than ever before.

This article was published first @ :: on 20. Mar 2007, links added by