Why are we locking up migrants?

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Why are we locking up migrants?

Hazel Healy writes about all the problems caused by putting immigrants in detention centres: a mental-health crisis, self-harm, suicide and people forced to leave their children.

Abobeker (not his real name), from Dafur, has a lot of energy. We walk through Cardiff very quickly, and he says hello to many Eritrean friends. He stops to hug one friend, and says: ‘He was with me on the boat to Lampedusa!’

Migrants make a lot of friends as they move around Europe in different detention centres. Abobeker is an expert. He has lived in more than half of Britain’s 10 detention centres, and two more in Italy, for over three years in total. He remembers all the details: four months, four days in Sicily; four months and 17 days in Oakington; nine months in Campsfield - the first time...

A Somali woman waits at a detention centre in Malta. Here, asylum-seekers can be detained for as much as 12 months when they arrive. (Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

Abobeker escaped from Sudan after a lot of imprisonment and torture. In 2007, he first tried to cross from Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa, 300 kilometres north of Tripoli. He tried three times and he saw many others from Somalia, Nigeria and Ethiopia die. Whole families drowned in the sea and many died of hunger and thirst. He got to Italy in 2008. He was put in a detention centre for four months. Then he reached Britain, via Calais, in 2009. When he arrived, he was put in a detention centre for nearly two years.

While Abobeker was detained in Italy and Britain, he lost his family. His wife was murdered, his four-year-old son died of malaria and his eight-year-old was stolen from a refugee camp. He now only has one daughter - his mother-in-law is looking after her. ‘I lost my family. If [Britain] had accepted me in 2009, my family would be here with me now,’ he says.

Many others - over a million asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants – are kept in detention centres in Europe and the US each year.

There is more detention than ever before. Habeas corpus became law 700 years ago in England, but non-citizens are locked up with no charge. They can be held for days, months or, in the case of Britain, Australia and the US with no time limit.

Detention increased in the 1980s, and more in the 1990s and even more after 9/11. English-speaking countries detain most people. There are four times more immigrants in detention centres in the US since the 1990s. Detention centres in Australia doubled between 2010 and 2011; in Britain detentions were 12 times more in 2013 than in 1993. There was space for 250 people in detention before – now there is space for 4,500.

Campsfield House is very important. It was one of Britain’s first detention centres only for immigrants. It is nowhere near a town. Around it, there are 10-metre fences with wire on top. In 20 years, it has had a lot of problems: breakouts, hunger strikes, riots and two suicides. Last October, a fire destroyed an whole accommodation unit.

Fire damage at Campsfield Immigration Removal Centre in Oxfordshire, October 2013. They say an Afghan detainee started the fire as part of a suicide attempt. (John Harris/reportdigital.co.uk)

The house used to be a borstal (type of prison for problem boys). They spent $31 million to make it a detention centre. It is 11 kilometres north of New Internationalist’s offices, near Kidlington.

The first immigrants were a group of Jamaicans who arrived on a bus at Christmas in 1993. Since then, up to 30,000 people from all over the world have stayed in the 200 beds there. Last year, there were immigrants from 50 different countries, including Sudan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

It is private, like most of Britain’s detention centres, and it is run by MITIE. They are part of a powerful industry that builds and runs detention centres around the world.

MITIE has to provide a secure place, but it must be humane. This is difficult. The guards are called “officers”. You can hear keys, gates and basketball from the visitors’ room, where there is a play area for visiting children. The CCTV in reception shows a Bingo game.

Campsfield looks like an bad type of leisure centre in a 2012 report from the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB). It said it has good activities for the male detainees: music, Diwali celebrations, yoga, IT and badminton. It reported on a demonstration by 60 people in the sports hall. They controlled this quickly and took the leaders away. They did not use handcuffs so much in 2012. A man who jumped off the roof was captured near there.

Activist Bill McKeith is not sure it is humane. ‘In Britain, they get prayer mats and gyms and lock up more and more people,’ he says. He started the “Close Campsfield Campaign”, and he has organized demonstrations every month since it opened.

Aboeker had to stay there for over a year and he says it is terrible that no-one knows how long they will be there. He worked in the kitchen for $1.60-an-hour so he wouldn’t go mad. 'People get stressed because there’s no answer', he says. 'They cannot tell you why you are there. If I knew it would be a day, a week, even a year, it would be better. The problem is that they do not know.’

‘After six months, or a year, people get mental health problems,’ says Hamid. An Iranian man with large, scared eyes, he was in immigration detention for more than three years after six-months in prison. Fifteen months after he was freed, he still has depression.

More and more research shows the negative effect of detention on mental health. About 85 per cent of detainees have clinical depression. This increases the longer they are in detention.

There is a lot of self harm - cutting, asphyxiation, head-banging – which shows the emotional stress. About 1,800 detainees were checked for possible self-harm in Britain in 2012. Over 200 people had medical treatment for injuries. This is a global problem. There was a shocking report in Australia in May 2013: 10% of detainees injured themselves, some of them children.

Migrants say that it is easy to get anti-depressants from staff. ‘They give you a lot of pills,’ says Hamid. ‘It makes you so lazy. You ask for drugs: they feed you to keep you calm.’

Asylum-seekers have a lot of mental distress. They are 50 per cent of all immigration detainees in Britain, and 83 per cent in Australia. There are laws to release the vulnerable - the mentally ill, trafficked, victims of torture – but these are not usually followed. The Gatwick Detainee Support Group reported that a man with the mental age of 11 was held in isolation for six weeks at Brook House in southern England.

‘Detention is like a concrete jungle,’ says Souleyman Sow, a 46-year-old from Guinea Conakry. ‘It is easy to get in and difficult to get out.’ It took him three and a half years to get out, after he was put in prison for having a false passport.

It’s also hard to recover. Three immigrants who were in Australian detention centres have talked about their nightmares (very bad dreams), uncontrollable thoughts, and loneliness.

It is often too much for people who visit detention centres. One woman, who has supported detainees in Campsfield for 20 years, said: ‘I try not to think about them or remember them because I’d get depressed. It’s enough to destroy you.’

In the US, Human Rights Watch has reported on bad medical care that caused great suffering or even death. They put pregnant women mothers in chains and women lose their babies because of bad medical care.

It is very difficult for women. There was a recent abuse scandal at the Yarlswood centre for women detainees in Britain. They sacked the guard and deported (sent back to her country) the victim.

Tilia, who was in Yarlswood for a year, says there was a lot of abuse. Sex with women was part of their jobs, she explains. ‘They took advantage of the vulnerable ladies. They told them they could help with their case.’

Family separation. Migrant children suffer greatly when their parents are in detention centres. (Philippe Leroye)

Detention can have a terrible effect on children. It can damage cognitive and emotional development for life. Captured Childhood, a report from the International Detention Coalition based on interviews with child detainees, is very difficult to read. One story is about a bright 11-year-old Nigerian girl who tried to kill herself when she had post-traumatic stress disorder; another story is about a three-year-old Somali boy who has lived his whole life in detention with his father.

The terrible stories in this report have helped to reduce child detention in a number of countries. There is not so much help for children who lose their parents to detention centres. Another report, Bail for Immigration Detainees, tells of the suffering of 200 children when their mother or father were detained. In 40 per cent of cases, they were taken into care (given to other families).

The children lost weight, had nightmares, suffered insomnia, became very quiet and very unhappy, particularly the very young children. One disabled boy, who was looked after by his seriously ill grandfather, was run over. ‘I never knew people could take your kids out of your life,’ wrote a woman called Kayla, who was in detention for seven months. ‘They don’t know the terrible pain you feel.’

83 per cent of parents detained for an average of nine months were released back to their families. So why were they in the detention centres at all?

‘It is difficult to imagine,’ says the report, ‘any other situation where children in the UK could be separated from their parents with no time lime and little care.’

It is not by chance that the asylum-seekers, women and children suffer the most. ‘Migrants divide up into groups,’ says Don Flynn from the Migrants Rights Network. ‘People who become invisible are much harder - and more expensive - to reach. It is easier to detain the asylum-seekers, women and children.’

It is difficult to understand the reasons for detention. If the reason for detention is so the migrants are in one place if they need to send them back to their countries, why, in Italy, are half of them released? In Britain last year, 40 per cent of people went back to their communities. For children, it was 50 per cent.

Hamid and Souleyman were ex-offenders, so they thought they would be deported (sent back to their country). But no-one got them travel documents or flights during their many years of detention. They refused Hamid’s requests for bail (to go home until the trial in court) 14 times.

Souleyman (left) and Hamid were detained for a total of over 6 years. (Jerome Phelps)

People often say the migrants must be in detention centres or they will run away and disappear. But the Home Office has no evidence that people disappear. Other ways of controlling where people (eg. electronic tagging) have 90-per-cent success.

The NGO and legal community has shown a lot of humane ways that government can use to check on migrants. Some do not restrict freedom and are 90-per-cent successful. This saves 80-per-cent of the cost of detention centres. Also they show that migrants treated with respect, who can get legal advice, are more prepared to agree with the result of an immigration decision.

The rich world is now paying the Global South to control the migrants. Australia has made the Pacific island Nauru and Papua New Guinea look after their 'offshore' detention centres. In the last five years, Australia has sent money to Indonesia to increase the number of people detained in Indonesia. Migrants - including children – are kept in detention centres for a maximum of 10 years.

Mexico in the past did not detain people. But in 2012, they held 90,000, under pressure from the US. The Global Detention Project report that the US has many detention centres in the Caribbean, including one in Guantanamo Bay.

Powerful South Africa has space for 6,500 migrants at the private Lindela detention centre. And they are now supporting detention in Mozambique and Botswana.

The EU gave $41 million to Ukraine to build detention centres in 2011. And they supported detention centres in Libya, where Amnesty said recently there was ill-treatment and torture.

In the West, migrants have a few rights, but they have fewer rights in other areas. 'We spoke to some unaccompanied children from Afghanistan, Iran and Sri Lanka who were in detention recently in Indonesia', said one researcher. 'They were beaten, sexually abused, and then released traumatized to the UNHCR. What they needed was legal support and safety. Detention only damaged them.'

Another reason for detention (technically illegal) is to make people think migration is not a good idea. But there is no evidence that detention has, for example, reduced illegal migration on the Mexican border. There is evidence that it has increased migrant deaths, as people use more dangerous routes. Alice Edwards, from UNHCR, writes that when detention has increased, the number of people trying to enter these countries also increases or remains the same.

Detention is very very expensive. Australia will spend US$1.7 billion over the next four years building and running a detention centre for 750 refugees on Nauru, an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. That is $1,570 per day. If they supported the same number of asylum-seekers to live in the community, it would cost only $6 per day.

And Britain had to pay $19 million in compensation to people who were kept in unlawful detention in 2010-11. Hamid got $28,000 when they decided his detention was unlawful. ‘Your taxpayers have to work hard to keep people like me in detention,’ he says.

UNHCR, Amnesty International and EU parliamentarians have often talked about how this breaks international law and the refugee convention. These say that detention should only be used when they have tried everything else, and for the shortest time possible.

It was not always like this. In the early 20th century, they stopped and questioned foreigners. Detention started during the war. But the US closed Ellis Island (where they detained migrants when they arrived in New York) before 1954. Before the 1980s, migrants usually got a notice of deportation, or they were kept in humanitarian open camps for a while.

Michael Flynn, a researcher, says: ‘It makes no sense. It costs so much money and does not achieve anything.’

Social theorists often write about detention. They say this is part of racial criminalization across Western liberal states, because of uncertainty, risk and fear. Detention centres make people think foreigners are dangerous. Politicians talk about the danger of migrants, so people think they are dangerous to society.

This is one reason why Sarah Teather, Liberal MP for Brent, is going to leave politics. ‘I do not like politics that uses people who are already vulnerable, as outsiders, to show how tough we are,’ she told The Guardian. ‘They are trying to create and define an enemy.’

Migration is changing as the world is changing. Bridget Anderson, researcher, writes in Us and Them, ‘No border controls have ever worked to stop people wanting and needing to move.’ They haven’t stopped Abobeker. He has lost too much now to go back.

I’m still waiting. I’m outside but I’m still waiting,’ he says 10 months after his release. He is a survivor, but he is also illiterate (he cannot read and write). He is now very stressed and he has nightmares. Following the Dublin Agreement, Britain could send him back to the first safe country he came to in Europe - Italy.

British volunteers at the Oasis project in Cardiff are supporting Abobeker and others. Their centre, a small house, is full of people. Two cooks (Sudanese and Eritrean) have made some warm, spicy chicken stew. Men and women sit with volunteers, looking at lots of papers. A five-year-old is watching Pingu on a computer. A baby climbs upstairs, where there are sewing and English classes.

This is what we need to fight against the detention in Britain. We need to change the immigration control we have now to a system of welcome, solidarity and compassion.

Hamid and Souleyman are spokespeople from the Freed Voices project at Detention Action.