Originally published in the Spring Issue of the SCCD (Standing Conference for Community Development) Journal - reproduced here with permission.
A young black man from the Congo sits huddled at the bus stop outside Campsfield House Detention Centre, 7 miles outside Oxford. It is 9 o'clock on a Saturday evening. Until two hours ago, he was resigned to entering his seventh month in detention. It's November - he wears only a thin track suit and trainers. He arrived in this country in August after several months of being in hiding, at home. The immigration officers had told him they needed to check his account of his life. They didn't believe him. He was taken immediately to Campsfield House Detention Centre from the airport. He'd been made to feel like a criminal despite having spent years fighting for justice at home. Now, suddenly, he has been granted 'exceptional leave to remain'. The only address he has is his lawyer's, in London. He has £5 in his pocket.
The whole experience has been arbitrary. Another immigration officer at the airport would have let him go to be dispersed; another twist of international diplomacy and he would have been kept in detention for several extra months and been deported back to the Congo.
What happened in this fictional example is a common occurrence. And yet, from this beginning, we expect such socially excluded young men to settle, positively, into Britain.
It has been one of the better sides of the current government that it has acknowledged the existence of inequality, and has given central support & direction to addressing the divide. Yet, as a recent Joseph Rowntree report shows, there is evidence that this divide is increasing "Poverty & Social Exclusion in Britain" (September 2000)
Nowhere is there more stark division than in the case of people coming to settle here from other countries. We need these people badly, to fill growing gaps in our workforce. We call these people asylum seekers, or refugees, or economic refugees. Many of them before the 1980s would have been called citizens of our Commonwealth and would then have been free to work in Great Britain, the mother country they were taught to admire at school.
Despite the Home Office's strategy published in November to Integrate Refugee Communities "Full & Equal Citizens" (November 2000), the government's actions have tended to exclude, deride, starve and even criminalise immigrants.
When people arrive here from abroad without visas or UK passports, or are found to be living in Britain without papers (often 'overstayers') they are treated in one of two ways.
Seven out of every eight arrivals in this country who claim asylum are 'dispersed'. They receive food vouchers, £10 and a roof to sleep under, while their 'case' is decided in a quasi legal system that is (like the police) run by the Home Office, with adjudicators who call case hearings in special centres. The support they get is 70% of the support given to UK citizens with papers. To spell this out, it is 30% less than is considered enough to keep someone on the 'bread line'. There is no extra money for visiting lawyers, contacting families, trying to build an existence in a foreign land.
This dispersal scheme, which is less than a year old, is fulfilling the fears of its opponents - fanning race hatred and terrorist acts against people who had come here to escape fear in their own countries, seeking refuge.
The one in eight who are not 'dispersed' face the even worse ordeal of immigration detention - or 'reception' as it is called in Cambridgeshire. There are some 1200 people detained - without trial, without benefit of the legal system, with no time limit, in prisons & detention centres throughout Britain. The majority of them are black, or Asian. The government has announced that detention places are to be increased by a factor of four this year. The number is set to increase to over 4,000. If there isn't a centre near you yet there soon will be. The detention centres are run under contract to the Home Office by Group 4, Burns International or Wakenhut, for private profit. The centres are in Sussex, (Tinsley House near Gatwick -150 persons), Hounslow (Harmondsworth, new centre under construction soon to be 400 persons), Oxfordshire (Campsfield House 200 men) Hampshire (Haslar - a prison in Portsmouth- 200 persons) Kent (two wings of Rochester prison 200 persons - currently the only place with a hospital unless people are taken to mainstream prison, and Aldington, near Folkestone), Yorkshire (Lindholme 100 persons), the 'reception centre' at Oakington near Cambridge for 400 people, and a huge new centre - for 800 - at Thurleigh near Peterborough. Ten prisons have been told they must take up to 50 asylum seekers each- Hampshire (Winchester) Liverpool (HMP Liverpool) Oxfordshire (Bullingdon HMP,Bicester), Belmarsh SE London, Wandsworth, South London, Stockton-on-tees, Guildford and Lincoln, Birmingham and Manchester.
From the moment you arrive in any one of these places, you do not know when you will be let out. There are cases of people waiting for two years in this state - every day might lead to a release. When the releases come they are often unplanned and as a response to some international diplomatic move - the Foreign office rules a country is no longer 'safe' for deportation, so detainees are given, suddenly, leave to remain here. This is the case of our fictional young man from the Congo.
The effect on people detained, and on friends & family visiting, is devastating. It undoes any possibility of easy integration. It is at best a depressing experience and at worst a deeply traumatising, even criminalising, experience from which it is very hard to recover. All this is compounded by translation problems. Who can they trust? How can a 'democratic' country bound by the United Nations Convention of Human Rights allow detention, dispersal, and vouchers happen? Why does the judiciary not intervene?
Why indeed. And if a government that pays lip service at least to social inclusion can exclude one set of communities - why not another? People whose behaviour is seen as 'anti social'; homeless people; people who refuse to take offered jobs?
It's time we woke up to the need to change this worsening situation. One way is simply to challenge the statements around asylum seekers when they come up. Asylum seekers are not taking our jobs. Payment for them is not taken from local authority budgets, it comes from the Home Office as a special grant, so it is not a direct challenge to local council services. If people were allowed to work, and were not locked up, the government would see jobs filled that are currently vacant, and would save the Home Office a huge amount of money. It costs over £700 a week to keep someone in detention. The voucher system actually costs more -though those on it get less - than paying full benefit would. Most people who come have qualifications and determination - they wouldn't be here without them. The discomfort which drove them from home was almost certainly brought about through actions from our part of the world - the sale of arms to their governments, the support of undemocratic regimes.
The other way is to work to change the attitudes of people who make the policies on detention - and show them that ordinary people (voters) see such policies as an affront to their democratic values. This means working to make ordinary people understand whats going on. It means encouraging anti deportation campaigns in local communities - schools who won't let their pupils go, workplaces that don't want to lose their employees. It means challenging MPs, Councillors, would - be MPs. There are several bodies campaigning on this front - two of the key ones are: The National Coalition of Anti- Deportation Campaigns and the Anti Detention Network (current contact through the Campaign to Close Campsfield) Details of these campaigns can be found at www.ncadc.demon.co.uk and at www.closecampsfield.org.uk.