On Saturday 8 April, over 250 people converged on Harmondsworth and Colnbrook immigration removal centres to voice their concerns about the detention and deportation of asylum seekers and undocumented migrants in the UK. Following this, a hunger strike by detainees began – and continues – inside Colnbrook.
The demonstrators gathered at the two centres, which are next door to each other, near Heathrow Airport in west London. After arriving by train and coach from towns and cities across the UK, they were met by dozens of police officers who contained the rally in a small area of the car park at the entrance to the centres. Attempts to get closer to the centres to wave to and communicate with detainees at their windows were thwarted as a large number of officers surrounded demonstrators to restrict their movement.
The demonstration, called by London No Borders, London Against Detention: Campaign to Close Harmondsworth and Colnbrook, and The Square Occupied Social Centre, involved Samba drums and music, chanting and speeches by refugees, asylum seekers and activists from across the world. Children were out in their numbers to sing and bang pots and pans to make as much noise as possible.
Saturday’s events were part of worldwide actions during April for immigrant rights and against detention and deportation. Other demonstrations have already taken place or are due to take place in Australia, the USA and mainland Europe. Britain also saw a demonstration in Glasgow and a demonstration is planned in Manchester on 15 April. And on Monday 10 April, groups demonstrated outside Communications House, Old Street, London, which is where many asylum seekers have to report while their cases are pending.
Months, years in detention
The most poignant moment in the day at Harmondsworth and Colnbrook came when those outside the centres made phone calls to detainees inside, which were, in turn, relayed over a PA system to the crowd. Some detainees spoke of months and years in detention, which has had disastrous effects on their physical and mental health. One detainee said: ‘We are not criminals, we are just people seeking a better life and protection. How can people seeking protection be incarcerated?’ Another said that detainees ‘were living in fear in Colnbrook, which is mental torture’. During another phone call, detainees could be heard singing ‘We shall not, we shall not be removed’.
Because of the way in which the authorities clamped down on detainees as the demonstration went on outside, a hunger strike was organised inside the walls of Colnbrook. Initial reports suggested that over 120 detainees were refusing to eat, with many also refusing to drink water. Reports on the morning of 13 April suggested that most of the 260 detainees were involved. On 11 April, a Home Office spokesperson told IRR News that there were only two detainees then refusing food at Colnbrook and that ‘due care and attention is always given to the health and welfare of all detainees held in detention’. Colnbrook detainees have now created a petition and efforts are being made to contact MPs to highlight their plight.
Prayers were not enough
With very little in the way of hope, many detainees rely on prayers to get them through. But prayers were not enough for one detainee at Colnbrook: other detainees say he was allegedly taken from his room by fifteen guards, who were then said to have placed him in the centre’s secure unit before moving him to another removal centre. When the detainee, who was one of Colnbrook’s pastors, did not show up at the centre’s church on Sunday morning, other detainees refused to leave the church for several hours and demanded that he be allowed to return. The pastor had played a hugely important role at the centre, offering help and advice to others in times of despair. He was apparently moved next door to Harmondsworth removal centre after accusations that he was a disruptive influence – which his fellow detainees deny. Another detainee was allegedly moved to the secure unit on Wednesday while on hunger strike.
London No Borders has increased its emphasis on arranging visits for hunger strikers and other detainees, and has gained a large amount of support from people who have offered their time to visit detainees in the weeks following the demonstration.