Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre (that’s ‘detention centre’ to the rest of us), is largest of its kind in Europe, holding up to 660 men at any one time. Built close to Heathrow airport, the constant roar of planes taking off serving as a reminder to those detained that they could be deported tomorrow. The place feels hidden, cut off and oppressive. The buildings of nondescript brick work punctuated with white barred windows, several meters behind tall, barbed wire topped fences have the same security level as a Category B (high security) prison.But the people inside aren’t detained because of what any court says they’ve done. They’re in there because they were in the wrong place without the right rubber stamp or piece of paper, or because they came to a country they thought would offer them asylum and protection, but which chose to treat them like a prisoner instead.
The detention and deportation regime is the shameful, unspoken side of border policing. People detained in places like Harmondsworth or Yarls Wood hardly ever get a mention in the media, unless they’re part of some fear-driven statistic about ‘illegal immigrants’ out to ruin Britain. Their names, cases and suffering go unknown to most and their contact with the outside world is restricted to visiting hours only. Over 1400 attempted suicides and 20 deaths have been reported in UK detention centres since the regime began, but not a lot has changed – the detention centres stay open and the deportations continue.
But there are people fighting hard to change things. Women in Yarls Wood have been determined and fearless in their efforts to make the sexual abuse faced by detainees public knowledge, and with sit ins and hunger strikes breaking the media silence back in May, pressure is building up for serious change both inside the detention centres and outside.
Movement for Justice have spent the last 2 years campaigning to expose the inhumanity at the core of immigration and detention in this society, and trying to do something about it. Their aim is to build a movement led by immigrants and asylum seekers, spark resistance both in and outside detention centres and to force an end to the racist system of deportation – by any means necessary. On Saturday July 5th, they took another step on that road with their second demonstration at Harmondsworth.
Braving the unpredictable drizzly weather, a crowd of former detainees, MFJ members and other campaigners (many from the ever hard working SOAS Detainee Support) gathered on the day to show solidarity with those detained inside. Setting off from the grim roadside entrance to the IRC (incidentally only a short distance from the luxury Sheraton Hotel), the demonstrators’ loud chants demanding the closure of all detention centres and defending the rights of migrant workers and asylum seekers broke the sterile and repressive atmosphere. Coming to a stop outside the first block of windows, the crowd loudly declared their solidarity with those ‘without papers’. Many detainees waved excitedly to the demonstration, others simply placed their hands to the window where the security bars were too thick for their faces to be seen. Speeches were given by former detainees, including MFJ organiser Frederick Kkonde, who told of his experience inside Harmondsworth and of how he wanted “to let our brothers know we are together with them and we shall fight”. In a moment driving home the hidden reality of detention, a man could be heard calling out over the barbed wire fence “they are killing us slowly here”.
The march continued around the perimeter of the centre, stopping at each block to allow detainees to see and to hear that they were not forgotten. Speaking via mobile phone relayed via mega phone, some of those on the inside were able to address the crowd – they spoke of the horrible uncertainty of not knowing when they might be put on a flight, of the prison like conditions in the IRC but mostly of their determination that people keep fighting to end detention. One man thanked the demonstrators for coming and told them “Inside, we are fighting – one day we’ll break these chains”
For the entire length of the demo, demonstrators were shadowed by a mob of very bored looking cops. Every now and then, security guards from GEO, the private security company that runs the centre, made an appearance to scowl from a distance. The presence of these ‘authorities’ seemed totally unnecessary – the aim of the demo was to voice anger at the racist deportation system and to show support and solidarity for those in detention, not to try to scale the fence or bust the doors down. Given it’s aims, the demo at Harmondsworth could only be called a success. Detainees saw and heard that they do have support on the outside (several have even been put in contact with individuals and organisations able to provide visitation and legal support after they held their mobile numbers up to windows) and two days later the government announce a full inquiry into immigration detention – move which MFJ are hailing as a significant change in the discourse and step towards victory. The notorious ‘fast track’ process, which allowed the Home Office and UKBA to kick people out of the country faster than they could get legal advice has also just been declared unlawful. Clearly the tide is beginning to turn in migrant rights, which goes to show that the success of a movement doesn’t lie in moving thousands of people for an abstract goal or in grabbing media attention, but in displaying genuine and practical solidarity. As MFJ organiser Antonia Bright reminded the crowd before they dispersed, demonstrations are not just an end it themselves – “We are building a movement, this is one step in it”.
Movement for Justice are planning to return to Harmondsworth IRC on August 9. Help to cover travel costs by donating here. They are also building towards a national demonstration against detention and deportation in Autumn.