It’s the beginning of March and 100 people have gathered in Cambridge’s central marketplace to oppose the opening of Britain’s latest detention centre at a former military barracks in Oakington, north-west of Cambridge.
On 20 March, activists from Cambridgeshire Against Refugee Detention gather again, this time outside the detention centre itself as the first disoriented internees, including women and children, arrive from UK ports and airports. As demonstrators attempting to block the gates tussle with police, seven activists are arrested.
Welcome to Oakington – welcome to Europe’s latest anti-detention campaign.
A secret system
Many European countries already have a fully-blown detention system for asylum-seekers. And each national system contributes to a Euro-wide system of control, an asylum-prison complex which has various constituent parts. The first stop is often the application centres which fast-track new arrivals, then come the special holding centres to intern ‘problem applicants’ and finally there are the discrete prisons close to airports, where rejected asylum-seekers are held pending deportation. From the Granja Agricola and Calamoccaro camps in the North African Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta, to the Steenokkerzeel detention centre 127 bis (Brussels), Glasmoor (Hamburg), Opbouw (Holland), Via Corelli (Italy) to Campsfield and Harmondsworth, the names of such detention centres are synonymous with repression and human rights abuse.
In countries like Germany, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, where the imprisonment of asylum-seekers at different stages of the asylum process seems to be most systematised, there is a nucleus of grassroots monitoring groups – some large, some small – committed to exposing the secrecy and lack of accountability that lie at the heart of the asylum prison system. Groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are being drawn in to addressing Europe’s democratic deficit. For instance, AI has pointed out that Belgium may be violating standards set by the UN for the scrutiny of all persons under any form of detention, in appointing at least one director of an aliens’ detention centre onto a Monitoring Committee.
The democratic deficit
While grassroots campaigns are clear that the goal is no less than the closure of all asylum and immigrant detention centres, it is worth pausing to consider how a situation came about whereby asylum prisons mushroomed while protection of even basic human rights and civil liberties declined. Unbelievably, there seems to be no forum or committee within the European parliament engaged in democratic scrutiny. Close Down Campsfield’s Bill MacKeith, who is organising a pan-European conference in September to bring together European detention monitoring groups, has been trying to tease out information from European parliamentarians, but so far with scant success. Tony Bunyan, editor of Statewatch, told CARF that the issue of detention comes under the jurisdiction of the Committee of Citizens’ Freedoms and Rights (Justice and Home Affairs) which is presently locked in battle with the European Council over the secrecy of its decision-making on asylum issues. This committee has recommended to the Council the creation of an Immigration Monitoring Centre to oversee asylum and immigration policy – although no specific mention is made of detention centres.
The UK agenda
Certainly, Oakington is a prelude to the development of a more systematised asylum detention system within the UK. The government instructed the immigration and prison services to carry out a major review of existing facilities in 1999 in the light of international condemnation of the UK practice of placing asylum-seekers within mainstream prisons, in violation of international standards. Oakington is a result of the review, as is the transformation of Aldington prison, near Ashford, into a special detention centre (to take immigration detainees from HMP Rochester) and the commandeering of one wing of South Yorkshire’s Lindholme prison for use as an immigration detention centre, providing 112 places. Victoria Tennant of the Law Centre Northern Ireland does not anticipate the government opening a special detention centre for asylum-seekers in Northern Ireland as immigration minister Barbara Roche has already indicated that the numbers do not warrant a purpose built centre. So they will, presumably, remain detained in Magilligan and Maghaberry prisons.
More countries follow
Other countries are following suit. Norwegian asylum groups are fighting a proposal to build a special detention centre close to Oslo airport to hold asylum-seekers whose claims have been rejected as well as those who arrive without identity papers. And on 20 March – the UN International Day of Action Against Racism – the Irish Anti-Racist Campaign demonstrated in Dublin against Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern’s proposal to intern new arrivals in line with the so-called ‘Australian model’ of interning all ‘illegal entrants’ (condemned by UNHCR as a violation of international law). In Australia, detainees, mostly Iraqis and Afghanis, are held in guarded compounds.
Italy fights back
Across Europe, the internment of asylum-seekers is being opposed. The year 2000 started with a new militancy in Italy. Some 20,000 people demonstrated in Milan and there were extraordinary scenes in Sicily when 3,000 people stormed the Serraino Vulpitta centre, leading to 27 arrests. Detention is relatively new in Italy. Under the Turco-Napolitano immigration law of 1998, eleven detention centres were established, many administered by the Red Cross. Intolerable living conditions were at their worst in the North where containers, stifling hot in summer and freezing in winter, were used to intern non-EU ‘illegals’, supposedly for no more than 30 days while their asylum claims were processed. At the Ponte Galeria camp in Rome, there were flea and scabies infestations and outbreaks of food poisoning. A parliamentarian found ‘signs that inmates had been beaten and walls were spattered with dry blood’. After one detainee died at Ponte Galeria after being denied medical treatment, and a further four perished in a fire during a riot at Serraino Vulpitta (and two more died later as a result of their injuries), the scene was set for a major confrontation with the Italian state. Following the dramatic protests, Milan’s Via Corelli and Brindisi’s Francavilla Fontana have been closed down as the government announced a charter of living conditions to ‘guarantee safety and human dignity’. In a sharp rebuke to the Red Cross, other charities have refused to be drawn into the administration of such centres, saying that they will play no part in repression.
Italian campaigners provide inspiration not just by their actions but by their ability to inject much-needed political arguments into the asylum debate. For example, they clearly link the fight for asylum rights to the struggle against neo-liberal political and economic policies globally – policies that are displacing millions of people and creating refugees. The noborder network, which strengthened its links at the alternative meeting to the EU summit at Tampere, also believes that protests against detention centres provide the chance to voice a new politics. Noborder’s Florian Schneider, who was asked by the Dutch organisation v2 to prepare a photographic exhibition for the Rotterdam Foto Biennale, launched a website on 1 April where campaigners can download pictures and text on Europe’s detention centres. He told CARF that the new developments are heartening. ‘Wherever there is a new prison under construction, immediately groups campaign. While the tradition of monitoring is a brand new thing, the internet now provides us with the tools we need to link up the grassroots campaigns into a pan-European network.’
Scrutiny not secrecy
What is at issue is not detention but internment. And internment, normally associated with states of emergency (most recently used in Europe during the 1991 Gulf War) is being brought in surreptitiously. From Italy to Germany and the UK, politicians are constructing a whole discourse of humbug and lies to mask their prison programme, describing detention centres not so much as prisons as hotels (yes, the Home Office says Oakington is a hotel!) and depicting inmates not as prisoners but guests. But it is a strange hotel that denies its guests the right to leave the premises or even move around buildings without an escort of private security guards. In some of these so-called ‘hotels’, children – denied an education – are locked up for 24 hours a day, leading Belgian doctors to warn that children at Brussels’ Steenokerzeel have been psychologically damaged. In which hotels do inmates regularly attempt suicide or ‘riot’ because they lack fresh water (Serraino Vulpitta), or because they are dosed with drugs to stop them making trouble (Ponte Galeria), or because they are regularly beaten and brutalised by guards (Ceuta and Melilla) or because they are denied the right to communicate with the outside world (almost everywhere)?
Internment = xenophobia
As our Italian colleagues point out, it is not emotive to describe detention centres as ‘laagers’ or ‘concentration camps’ because once you imprison, not individuals who have committed a specific crime, but a whole social group who have committed no offence at all – save the crime of being a foreigner, one of the global millions displaced by military might or neo-liberal economic policy – you follow the logic of fascism. The Italian Association of Democratic Magistrates calls the formation of a ‘special law regime for foreigners’ a threat to the democratic process. By interning asylum-seekers, governments around Europe legitimise the growing xenophobic reaction against them. Internment and xenophobia go hand in hand.