A bigger fight is taking place below the radar: the movement to end detention

This article is reposted from the Right to Remain blog. On Saturday 8th November at 1pm Movement for Justice has called the fifth demonstration at Harmondsworth and Colnbrook immigration detention centres. Details here.

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When we write about immigration detention, we tend to comment on the inhumanity and the injustice. We write that detention needs a time limit, about how alternative systems could provide similar levels of control, and that certain groups such as women asylum-seekers and children should never be detained. We expose the deaths, the inhuman and degrading treatment, the sex abuse and private companies’ failure in their duty of care. We point to deficits in the healthcare system, breaches of policy and the broken complaints system. We bemoan the calculated barriers to justice (such as cuts to legal aid) that enable the Home Office and its corporate profiteers to act with impunity.

But while lawyers, websites and annual reports advocate for rights and reforms, a bigger fight is taking place below the radar. It’s a fight mobilised by the people who are essential to detention’s existence, hence also to its fall. Their struggle goes almost entirely unreported outside niche circuits, though glimpses linger between the lines of national news stories about individual tragedies. These are the people detained, who increasingly are rising up and refusing to comply.

In numbers ranging from a few to several hundred, immigration prisoners have staged yard ‘sit-ins’, collective hunger-strikes and written demands to the Home Office, chanted, resisted removal, rioted, and secretly filmed pest infestations (cameras and camera-phones are forbidden), leaking the footage to supporters outside. Their protests have at times been met with release (sometimes no doubt it’s easier to remove troublemakers than let their influence spread), but also with threats, intimidation, Alsatian dogs, racism, segregation, phone confiscation, violent arrests and dispersals to (other) prisons.

This is the brave new world of the prison industrial complex. For the Home Office and private security companies, detainees are essential assets. Herding them into prisons conveniently isolates, dehumanises and criminalises them in the public mind, making it easier to scapegoat them for crises in which they played no part. Once inside, their cheap labour (£1 to £1.50 an hour) as cleaners and cooks translates into a significant proportion of the annual profits of the companies running the centres. So it’s no surprise to learn that resistance is met with brutal response.

And yet the resistance shows no signs of waning. People who were violently arrested and dispersed after a recent protest inside Harmondsworth have told solidarity activists that they are determined to continue fighting. The stakes are high, and the choice to rise up in detention cannot be easy to make. But imagine, for a moment, if everyone in detention were to mobilise in a united uprising. I say imagine, because without targeted support from enough people outside, they lack the resources to organise across prison units. But imagine, too, if every organisation in the field were to offer its lawyers, caseworkers and communications staff. Abuses of power by security officers would be unsustainable. Some organisations might lose their funding, but funding would become irrelevant if one essential segment of the detention estate – those who are detained – were empowered not to cooperate.

This is, needless to say, unlikely to happen. There is surprisingly little talk among major organisations supporting detainees in England about the need to end detention. This may be because so many organisations rely indirectly or directly on good working relations with government, and know that government will only permit a narrow range of activity within the contemporary political and policy climate. Their strategists, therefore, are ‘realists’, where ‘real’ refers primarily to the reality for their workers rather than for people detained. They adopt a strategic compromise – more truthfully a contradiction – between an ideal many share (no detention) and institutions’ vested interest in their own role (to work with rather than against detention). This begs the question of whether these organisations exist for their own sake, rather than for the sake of the victims – not all of whom are survivors – of detention.

Moving from argument to action is more realistic than it might seem. There are small, practical steps, not too threatening to be conceivable, that we can all take. And we need to, because as long as we continue to ignore the political struggles of those on the inside, we ensure the continued use of detention.

Here are five:

  • Journalists can cover stories of resistance (follow Corporate Watch, Unity, Movement for Justice or Standoff Films for updates).
  • Supporters can participate in public demonstrations at detention centres to let people inside know their struggles are not unheard.
  • Those connected to people in detention can plan creative ways to support them to keep in contact with each other and continue to mobilise after being dispersed.
  • Lawyers can contact detaineesriseup@riseup.net to suggest routes to legal support for people in detention who are segregated or moved to other prisons for having protested.
  • Anyone with a few pounds to spare can donate to the Unity strike fund to enable those who cook and clean for £1 to £1.50 an hour to refuse to work, without losing the ability to buy mobile phone credit and speak to their lawyers.

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