Barbed Wire Britain has produced a second volume of testimonies from immigration detainees, an important tool in the struggle for rights and justice.
Amidst the political and media clamour about how many asylum seekers have been or need be deported, the voices of the system’s victims are necessarily stifled. Would-be refugees are mere statistics, objects in a disgusting Dutch auction as to which political brand can wash whitest. What an antidote to read Voices from Detention II produced by Barbed Wire Britain – the network to end refugee and migrant detention.
It is a collection of accounts by detainees in UK and Australian migration detention centres. The two countries both practise indefinite detention and depend on private contractors (often from the same multinational company) and those seeking asylum in both hemispheres hail from the same regions. Today, there are ten detention (or, as now termed, removal) centres in the UK for ‘failed’ asylum seekers awaiting deportation with the capacity to house up to 2,545 men, women and children at any one time. Conditions can best be described by the detainees themselves.
‘The sound of doors slamming and the constant keys echoing around the wing; footsteps up and down the corridor keep you awake thinking they are coming for you … Being kept without charge, not knowing how long the sentence is … Every day you live in fear, not knowing how long you can survive… The stress of being locked up, having cameras everywhere and not being able to make and receive calls will show you that there is no difference to the Mugabe regime.’ Patricia
‘I was beaten up by two men and a woman in an attempt to remove me to Zimbabwe where I fled persecution. They were forcing me to get in the plane and I was telling them that I was afraid to die … they had to push, punch and put my head between my knees … I suffered some cuts from the handcuffs and pains in my back and neck which I still feel … But because I am an asylum seeker no one cared’ Mafungasei
And there is always the casual racism of the officers, the punishments for complaints about treatment. Patricia compares her existence unfavourably with that of convicted criminals, Mafungasei comments wryly that comparing their health care with that of animals is to overstate the matter since animals ‘are treated better in this country’ than human detainees.
But what comes through very forcefully in Voices from Detention II, despite its bleakness, is the value of solidarity. It is through other detainees’ support and strength that individuals regain or retain their humanity in a system which strips them bare literally and metaphorically. Simple, human integrity is being preserved against all the odds. Mass protests or hunger strikes are mounted against ill-treatment and beatings or the action of a suicide victim ‘pitched past pitch of grief’. That resilient human cord is also there in the activities of Barbed Wire Britain supporters who visit and work for individual detainees and campaign outside against man’s inhumanity to man. Theirs may be a consciously political fight. But the same human thread can be seen in the actions of an ordinary Norwegian man – the captain of the merchant vessel Tampa – who, standing up to the racist Australian government, saved 438 people from the sea.