Following on from a week of news whipping up a fresh wave of hatred towards migrants to the UK, rs21 members highlight the work of campaigns against immigration detention across Britain, and how you can get involved.
Protesters gather outside Yarl’s Wood detention centre in the successful campaign to shut down Yarl’s Wood. Photo credit: Eye DJ, Flickr, 8 August 2015.
Last week, rs21 published an eyewitness report from the Manston ‘processing centre’ in Kent. Despite the petrol bombing attack in Dover last Sunday, racist discourse around the alleged threat that migrants pose has been ramped up during the week, with Suella Braverman LARPing her authoritarian fantasies by turning up to Dover in a military helicopter. We are in a war, but not the one the politicians claim. It’s not an ‘invasion’, as Braverman has declared; it’s a culture war to enable the government to mobilise and placate their far-right base, blaming migrants and refugees for problems governments have created, and diverting attention from the continuation of vicious public cuts and the failing welfare state. This war’s targets are the migrants who are imprisoned, sometimes for years, without sentence or charge. This is despite the fact many of them have travelled to Britain to escape persecution, violence, poverty and climate devastation – crises generated by a history of capitalism and imperialism in which Britain has been a key player.
Usually located in areas with less urban access and near airports, immigration detention centres hold migrants for increasing periods of time, often without access to legal advice or support that might help them to get out of the centres. Many await deportation, giving the units their official, insidious name – ‘Immigration Removal Centres’. Though the use of these centres to detain migrants decreased temporarily during the Covid pandemic, around 24,500 people were taken into immigration detention in the UK in 2021 – a return to pre-pandemic levels. Many of these centres are run by private companies like Serco and Mitie for profit, making obscene amounts of money from government contracts by forcing people to live in inhuman conditions.
Below, we highlight the work of campaigning groups across the UK to change the narrative on migration, amplify detainees’ voices, support migrants in detention with legal and practical support, and oppose the dehumanising immigration detention system.
We encourage readers to get involved in any groups and protests they can. We have included locations and ordered them from north to south to help you find a campaign near you. Click on the in-text links to find out more. This list is not exhaustive: you can use this government site to find a detention centre near you, and then search for campaigns against it, or set one up.
Dungavel House, South Lanarkshire
Situated in South Lanarkshire 30 miles south of Glasgow, Dungavel House immigration detention centre was opened in 2001. The Home Office announced plans to shut it in 2016, but the centre remains open. Recently, the HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) said some people were being held for unreasonably long periods at the unit, including one person who had been in the facility for two and a half years and 10 who had been there for 10 months or longer. Protests and campaigning against Dungavel have been ongoing for years, led by groups including Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees, Scottish Detainee Visitors and the Scottish Trades Union Congress. You can donate to Scottish Detainee Visitors as part of their Christmas appeal here.
Derwentside, County Durham
Opened in 2021, Derwentside is a new detention centre to hold women, run by Mitie, the same company that runs the infamous Brook House detention centre (see below). Derwentside is situated between Durham and Consett, outside the remote village of Medomsley – a name still notorious locally as the site of the former Medomsley Detention Centre, where large-scale abuse of young men in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s was uncovered in Operation Seabrook, begun in 2013.
The site was originally named Hassockfield. It is opposed by the campaign group No to Hassockfield, whose past and upcoming actions you can find on their website here. A protest in Durham city centre against the new centre was held in May 2022, attended by groups from across the north, including the Manchester-based Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST).
Yarl’s Wood, Bedfordshire
Yarl’s Wood, managed by Serco, opened in 2001 and until recently held around 400 women, before being closed and reopened to house and ‘process’ migrants who have crossed the Channel. The centre has been the subject of documentaries covering poor conditions and abuses of power in detention centres, and it was criticised heavily for refusing entry to a UN Rapporteur in 2014. Protests against Yarl’s Wood have been frequent for many years, including those led by Women for Refugee Women (WfRW) and the Shut Down Yarl’s Wood campaign.
Agnes Tanoh, who was detained in the centre, has become a spokesperson for WfRW, and said: ‘Being locked up in detention when you need protection destroys a woman. I know this because I was locked up at Yarl’s Wood for more than 3 months by the Home Office, before they recognised that I am a refugee. Immigration detention is a deliberate tactic they use for the only purposes of harming vulnerable women and to allow private companies to make money from the pain of women. I don’t want any more of my sisters to be locked up or for their families to be ripped apart.’ You can find ways to get involved with WfRW here.
Campsfield House, Oxfordshire
In December 2018, an immigration detention centre near Oxford was finally closed after 25 years of campaigning. The Close Campsfield Campaign spent decades spreading awareness, protesting and lobbying for Campsfield House’s closure. It used its website to share stories and news from protesting detainees and to publicise its own demonstrations and meetings. Once the centre was closed, Oxford Against Immigration Detention (OAID) was formed to focus on wider campaigning against immigration detention. In June 2022, the government announced it would reopen a new detention centre on the site where Campsfield used to be, to the anger of local activists who worked so hard to get it closed. The BBC reports that Campsfield House could reopen in late 2023 to house up to 400 male detainees. A new coalition to Keep Campsfield Closed has been brought together to fight this reopening. You can contact them and keep up with news on their website.
Harmondsworth (Colnbrook), Middlesex
In 2018, Harmondsworth held up to 676 people, making it the largest detention centre in Europe. It is located just north of Heathrow Airport. According to Detention Action, it holds only men, and the security in several of the wings is comparable to a Category B (high security) prison. Harmondsworth is run by private security company Mitie. The Justice Inspectorate visited in 2021 and found living conditions in the unit were below an acceptable standard. They wrote: ‘Persistent problems with pests, filthy cell toilets and broken and dilapidated communal showers were particularly problematic.’ Harmondsworth has also seen the largest number of deaths in immigration detention, with high-profile cases such as that of Prince Fosu making the news.
In November 2022, protests broke out inside the centre after a power cut. One detainee speaking to the Guardian said: ‘We couldn’t use the toilets because there was no running water so a lot of us decided not to eat or drink so we wouldn’t need to go to the toilet. The conditions the Home Office put us in are not what we would expect in a first world country.’ The ‘disturbance’ has led to the centre being cleared this week and detainees moved to new locations.
Detained Voices continues to share stories from detainees inside Harmondsworth and other detention centres, and over the years protests have been led by groups including Movement for Justice by Any Means Necessary.
Brook House, West Sussex
Brook House near Gatwick Airport opened in March 2009 as a newly built facility with a capacity of 448 detainees, which increased to 508 in 2017. It is known for its abuse of detainees and the staggering profits made by G4S over the last decade.
In March 2022, a detainee reported on the lack of Covid safety leading to uncontrolled outbreaks inside the unit. ‘People are testing positive every day. There are no masks, no sanitisers, no nothing. The sanitisers have been empty for months. There’s no PPE, no nothing. We feel vulnerable, especially those who are older and have other health issues. But they don’t care. I was watching BBC Parliament and there was a debate about detention centres. The lady said, ‘Oh we have weekly meetings with the detainees about outbreaks.’ This is a lie. No meetings have been happening.’ A public inquiry looking into the mistreatment of detainees at Brook House in 2017 is still ongoing.
Protests from June 2022 were covered in the Independent, with crowds outside chanting with detainees through the fences. Demonstrations and solidarity have been organised by groups including SOAS Detainee Support (follow them and get involved here) and Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants (here).
Even if there is no campaign against an immigration detention centre near you, there are many other groups you could look into not mentioned above. Here’s just a few:
South Yorkshire Migrant and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG)
No Borders Manchester
These Walls Must Fall (Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield)
Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI)
Right to Remain
Unis Resist Border Controls