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How do we keep Campsfield closed?

In the first week of Hilary Term, The Student Union became an officially named member of the Keep Campsfield Closed Coalition. The coalition has been organising repeated protests to raise awareness and to express the strong local opposition across Oxfordshire to Campsfield immigration centre’s reopening. But what is Campsfield?

Located in Kidlington just 5 miles north of Oxford, the Campsfield immigration centre was active for over 20 years before being closed in 2018. And yet in June 2022, the current Home Office announced its plans to reopen the centre. The 400 beds of the new facility would once more be occupied by people in exile whose situation the Home Office deems irregular. The people who enter those centres are detained without trial and constrained to a purgatory, waiting for the unforeseeable rulings of the Home Office. The inhabitants are subjected to a hell of administrative threats of expulsions,  even though most of them will eventually be granted asylum.  There are currently seven immigration detention centres currently running across the UK, which according to the government can accommodate up to 3000 people in total. Campsfield’s reopening would therefore largely increase the Home Office’s detention capacities, and cost no less than £227 million. The Home Office intends to justify this cost by ‘going to the market’, which translates to leaving the responsibility of its administration to private companies. According to multiple accounts of past detainees, this model further worsens the conditions of detention as the administration is run in a perspective of making profits. 

The closure of Campsfield in 2018 occurred in a context of repeated protests from local human right activists, as well as numerous hunger strikes and disturbances organised by the detainees themselves.  In 2018, the Immigration Minister, Caroline Nokes, presented Campsfield’s closure as a milestone achievement towards the Home Office’s aim to reduce the immigration detention estate by almost 40% from 2015. In her address during Campsfield’s official closure, Nokes declared: “Now is the right time to modernise and rationalise the detention estate. We are committed to ensuring we have a fair and humane immigration system that provides control, and detention must only be used when we are confident no other approaches will work.” The closures of 2018 followed up on Stephen Shaw’s commissioned reports on detention centres which carried shocking revelations about the failings of this system, the precarious running of the facilities, and its effects on vulnerable people in immigration detention. The Home Office further committed to a collaboration with charities and communities in developing alternatives to detention, protection of the most vulnerable and lastly to increase transparency.

However, there has been a drastic shift in the government’s attitude vis à vis immigrant detention. Despite Nokes’ declaration and the Shaw reports which revealed the archaism of this system behind closed doors, a brand new official discourse has emerged in the last 5 years. This was set out by the current Home Office in 2021: “Those with no right to remain in the UK should be in no doubt of our determination to remove them. Immigration detention plays a vital role in tackling illegal migration and protecting the public from harm.” (Home Office and Tom Pursglove MP, 23 November 2021). The current Home Office’s choice of words is clearly characteristic of the current tendency across Europe to make immigration a matter of security as irregular immigrants are constantly presented as potential threats to the public. 

In February of this year, I interviewed Allan, one of the founding members of  the Keep Campsfield Closed coalition (KCC) which was revived soon after the Home Office’s announcement in 2022. Allan was himself detained in Campsfield in 2013. He arrived in the UK in 2009 after escaping from political persecution in Uganda, working and paying taxes while waiting for his asylum request to be processed. One day he was taken without notice to Campsfield after his residency status was rejected. After being detained for 9 months, a judge ruled the end of his detention, and he was granted asylum status. Allan has experienced the criminalisation of immigrants and asylum seekers firsthand: “(detained) people who went out to access medical attention, to see dentists or to see any other physical pains or whatever, they had to handcuff them, taking them to the dentist. So anybody who gets to see you at the dentist may think you are some very, very big criminal from somewhere”. And yet, only 10% of people detained in detention centres actually are foreign nationals with prison sentences. As for the other 90%, “their cases are just purely ‘immigration’”.

The Home Office presents detention centres as instrumental to deportations within the Rwanda Agreement, which allows people deemed ‘inadmissible’ in the UK to be flown to Rwanda to seek asylum there, and thus: “a fundamental part of our Nationality and Borders Bill and the New Plan for Immigration which will make it easier to remove people who have no right to be in the UK.”

However, unlike the official name ‘Immigration Removal centres’ suggests, a large majority of the people detained are never ‘removed’. According to the KKC: “86% of people leaving detention in 2021 were released on bail, and most made successful claims to asylum or other forms of humanitarian protection, rendering their detention wholly unnecessary”. If by law, these detentions are supposed to be strictly temporary, reality proves  much different. As MP Layla Moran puts forward in a debate at the Parliament on September 23rd 2022, “the average length of detention was 55 days, but some men were held for “excessive periods”. The longest detention in that year (2018) was one year and five months, but we have heard from detainees who were held for more than three years. Many detainees are not held in one centre but are deported, released, or moved around the system.”

The ‘indefinite’ nature of the detention, coupled with the weekly “threatening” notices from the Home Office, are what Allan experienced as being the most scaring to the detained people’s mental health :

 “The issue with being in a detention centre is the uncertainty because a person who’s in jail, real jail, is sentenced; the person knows: you’re spending three months, you’re spending a year, you’re spending whatever time, but in the detention centre, it’s indefinite. That is the hardest part of waking up and not knowing what is happening to you the next day… and you know what the Home Office does? They’ll keep writing you letters almost every week and none of those letters are good. You open up a letter that is threatening you, that is calling you ‘a danger for society’, you’re this and that. That’s something that breaks you down, because you came to a country seeking refugee status, thinking they will give you protection. But the people you run to, they keep the money to keep you in detention. Because it’s like if you have a boyfriend and the boyfriend has been abusing you and beating you up and doing all horrible things to you, then you run to your neighbour thinking your neighbour will keep you out of that danger, close the door. But he just opens the door for your boyfriend to continue beating you there.”

Detention centres traumatise the detainees, denying them access to any mental health support; according to various accounts, this led to self-harm and suicide, as it is thought to have been the case in the Colnbrook immigration removal centre near Heathrow on the 26th of March of this year

Behind closed doors, immigration centres are inherently opaque, allowing for repeated violations of the rights of the people they detain. Although the law forbids the detention of minors, recurring testimonies actually reveal the presence of children in detention centres, one example of which is accounted by MP Layla Moran:

“In 2013, I uncovered that a child was being held at Campsfield. A boy was held there for between two and three months. He would have been the only child in an adult-dominated, guarded facility with barbed wire fences. He would not have been allowed to go to school and he would have been unable to interact with other children or lead any sort of normal childhood. We know very little about him other than that he was between 12 and 16.’”

Furthermore, the flow of information in and out of detention centres is strictly limited to, at times, unlawful extents. Journalists are never allowed to pass the threshold of detention centres, and as detainees do traverse it, their smartphones are confiscated and exchanged for ‘little phones’ to which they can transfer their lines, phones which of course do not allow access to the internet, nor to take pictures, videos or recording of any kind. In my conversation with Allan, I asked him if they had any other means of accessing internet:

 “There is a library where you go, this internet, you can go online, you can go on your emails, but most of the sites were blocked. (…) things like YouTube, things like Facebook,  lots of things, lots of sites were blocked.”

 “Lots of sites” include the charity organisations which provide legal aid and support for asylum seekers. This unlawful restriction of access to information is also part of the history of Oxford University’s involvement with Campsfield, as late Professor Barbara Harrell-Bond (Emerita Professor and founding director of the Refugee Studies Centre from 1982 to 1996) was devoted to providing legal help to Campsfield detainees, and as accounted by Allan, advocated to lift the censorship of information which blocked the access to a variety of internet sites in the centre.

So what explains this shift in policy? And furthermore, how did this shift occur in the context of an appearing continuity of the conservatives’ hold on power? Since 2017, Downing Street has been occupied by all rather anti-immigration conservative politicians and yet, the policies regarding immigration detention have completely changed.  It is first surprising that it was under the government of Theresa May that the Shaw reports were completed, and thoroughly acknowledged as accepted, shown by the large plans to close the detention centre. On the occasion of the organisation of a roundtable headed by MP Layla Moran in February, a Lib-Dem Councillor shared his thoughts with me on this interrogation. According to him, the explanation was twofold: first of all, he characterised Theresa May as having been relatively flexible when facing results from studies as well as public opposition, leading her to respond to the general condemnation of immigration detention centres. This pragmatism was not shared by her successors. He added that the shift occurred during the late days of the Johnson II government. Facing a growing precarity of centrist support, his government held more tightly to its supporters of the hard nationalist right, which explains this frenetic and alarmist attachment to detention centres. More recently, the government has extended the investment in detention centres beyond its borders with the announcement of a £500m package of UK public money meant to fund the construction of detention centres  in France to prevent refugees attempting to cross the Channel.

            This year Oxford University has been awarded with the University of Sanctuary status, an award ‘recognising Oxford’s continued determination and initiatives to aid sanctuary seekers, whether they be students, staff or members of the local community’. The Sanctuary Fair on Thursday 11th marked the first appearance of the newly born Oxford Student Action for Refugees (STAR) group created under the impulse of Law student Juliet Van Gyseghem who declared that ‘the current focus is on the Campsfield campaign, but we will extend from this considerably in MT23’. What a better opportunity for the University to be coherent by acting accordingly with the claims for which it was recompensed? A first step would be signing a pledge to withdraw the University’s  investments in industries profiting from border violence against people in exile, as Divest Borders Oxford has called for. 

In the first week of Hilary Term, The Student Union became an officially named member organisation of the Keep Campsfield Closed Coalition (KCC), with the SU president Anna-Tina Jashapara attending their monthly meeting to push forward the campaign’s agenda within the University.  New resolutions state that the SU will “commit itself to call on local and national government to reverse the decision to reopen Campsfield House detention centre” and support campaigns and protests against the planned reopening. Students are supporting KCC and Divest Borders though passing motions in their Colleges’ JCRs and MCRs.  This includes Christ Church, Keble and Exeter JCR which made a contribution of £150 each to the campaign, as well as Wadham’s MCR. This process within colleges has been enabled by the support of Divest Border Oxford’s who put up a toolkit for anyone wanting to present such a motion. This step may be promising, in developing student mobilisation, and using the University’s reputation and connections as an added pressure on local and national governments. An open letter addressed to the government, is currently circulating through Oxford University networks, and has been signed notably by both heads of Colleges of Sanctuary: Mansfield College principal Helen Mountfield KC, and Jan Royal from Somerville. 

Despite these developments, student awareness of immigration detention remains largely limited. Yet, detention centres crystallise institutional racism and xenophobia. They participate in criminalising asylum seekers, in aggravating the precariousness of their situations and in preventing their social and economic integration. Without trials, they condemn individuals to wait in a limbo of uncertainty for a decision on their fate, preventing them from seeking the legal help and support that they are entitled to. All in all, immigration detention centres are the spear of systemic persecution of asylum seekers, often already scarred by such traumatising experiences.

As students of Oxford, we are also members of the Oxfordshire community; as such, we bear a political responsibility to recognise the persecution reopening Campsfield would entail for asylum seekers. We must take action on a local issue which would have national scale consequences.

For more information about the campaign: https://keepcampsfieldclosed.uk

Email : [email protected] 

Toolkit made by Divest Borders Oxford for JCR/MCR motions to support the KCC Campaign: https://drive.google.com/drive/u/3/folders/1NPZkZyC9Y2f1XgDyQOcX1ateV7dH8Gl8Link

To sign the petition : https://www.change.org/p/keep-campsfield-house-detention-centre-closed

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