Asylum seekers in Britain are increasingly facing a system of imprisonment, detention and slave labour.
Despite the government’s softer language on asylum at the Labour Party conference in September, when it feared a fight with the grassroots membership, more asylum seekers are being imprisoned. Then David Blunkett conceded that the practice of putting asylum seekers in prisons was ‘a scandal that shouldn’t have happened’. He promised to have the practice, which earlier this year affected up to 800 asylum seekers, ended within four months. However, although the Home Office may now not wish to imprison asylum seekers alongside convicted criminals, its appetite for expanding detention centres – prisons in all but name – continues unabated. The current target is to have 4000 asylum seekers held in detention centres.
“According to the government, this prison is not a prison.”
The latest detention centre – set to be Europe’s largest – is being built at Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire. 900 asylum seekers will be incarcerated there behind three lines of secure walls more than five metres high, in buildings constructed on Ministry of Defence land – closed to the public and subject to the vagaries of the Official Secrets Act. The security devices being installed at Yarl’s Wood include microwave detection units and pan-and-tilt dome cameras, of the kind normally found only in highest-security prisons. The centre will be ringed by chain-link fence two and a half metres high topped by three lines of barbed wire. According to the government, this prison is not a prison.
Perhaps most worryingly of all, the government intends to hold entire families, including small children, behind the barbed wire of Yarl’s Wood. The 1998 White Paper on asylum allowed for families to be detained for a few days prior to a deportation, once all legal challenges had failed. But now the government has indicated that families may be held simply because ‘claims need to be clarified’. That means that children as young as three months old or women up to seven months pregnant may be held at Yarl’s Wood, even while they are still pursuing their asylum claim.
A captive labour force
Plans to build the Yarl’s Wood detention centre with a budget of £8 million and open it in October have now been eclipsed as the costs have spiralled to £80 million and builders working on the site expect to be there till past Christmas. In the meantime nine asylum seekers have been held since 19 November. When the centre is fully operational, Group 4, which will run the place as a profit-making business, hopes to employ detainees for £15 a week doing cleaning and cooking. Although such employment would normally violate minimum wage legislation, similar plans at the newly rebuilt Harmondsworth detention centre, near Heathrow Airport, have already been given the green light by the Home Office. UK Detention Services (UKDS), the private company which will operate Harmondsworth, has already won a concession to pay detainees working there just 34p an hour, £3.76 below the current minimum wage. UKDS is a subsidiary of Sodexho, the multinational corporation which has already been paid £2.6 million to operate the government’s asylum voucher scheme, at an almost 50% profit margin.