In Detention

At the core of the aims of The Campaign (see above) is the belief that it is an abuse of human rights to deprive people who have committed no crime of their liberty. There are three key issues concerned with detention, which are covered in more detail below. These are:

The government systematically imprisons asylum-seekers for unspecified and unlimited amounts of time. Asylum-seekers constitute 89% of those held at Campsfield House (HM Inspectorate of Prisons, 1995). For someone who has escaped from torture and imprisonment in their own country the effects of detention in the UK are devastating. In the first part of this section we identify how asylum-seekers and support groups view these effects.

Detention reflects the government's utter lack of respect and an absence of humanitarian concern for asylum-seekers, and other immigrants. In the second part of this section we explain how this is reflected in the way detention is `organised'.

Finally we will consider some alternatives to detention. The government claims that detention is used only as a last resort. We explain why this is a bogus argument.

Rooftop Protest
A rooftop protest by detainees

The effects of detention

`As soon as I saw it was a prison, I was very, very sad and depressed. I couldn't believe that they put me there. You don't know what will happen to you next. You just live like an animal. You just wait. You don't know about tomorrow, or after tomorrow.' (Radio 4, 20/10/94)

These are the reflections of an ex-detainee held at Campsfield House, who was eventually granted asylum. He makes several interesting points. Firstly it is clear that he did not know what to expect before he arrived. This is unfortunately typical. Despite the fact that the European Convention on Human Rights Article 5, and the UN Body of Principles (Principle 11) make clear that a detainee and his/her legal representative `shall receive prompt and full communication of any order of detention together with the reasons therefore', none of the detainees in the Amnesty International study (Prisoners without a voice, 1994) received any written statement of reasons. The government claim that detainees are given an oral explanation by the immigration officer, but it is clear from this example, and the testimony of many detainees, that this form of explanation is wholly unsatisfactory. It is unsatisfactory for several reasons. Firstly the explanation given is often vague. Secondly the detainee may not remember it particularly as he/she is under stress. And thirdly, the detainee and his/her lawyer may need written evidence to make a case for bail or temporary admission.

The second point he made was that the effect of imprisonment was extremely depressing, and that he could not understand why it was happening to him. Regular visitors to Campsfield House detail the way in which over a period of weeks, extending to months, many detainees become withdrawn, distracted or develop psychological problems related to a fear of persecution. HM Inspectorate of Prisons' report into Campsfield House found that between December 1993 and September 1994 fourteen incidents were recorded by Group 4 Staff concerning detainees who had either attempted suicide, or had inflicted self-injury. The Medical Foundation's 1994 report A Betrayal of Hope and Trust found that they had often been called in to provide evidence where `the detainee's legal representative is so concerned about the mental or physical condition of a detainee that a visit and examination by one of our doctors is requested in order to assess the health of the detainee.' The report notes that `In all cases, the examining doctors found varying degrees of high stress, despair and anxiety amongst the detainees', and later concludes: ` Detention of asylum-seekers, particularly those who have been tortured, is harsh and unnecessary.'

Asylum-seekers find the experience of detention very traumatic. This means it becomes hard to distinguish between the trauma suffered in the country of origin from the anxiety caused by being imprisoned (again).

To go back to the original quote; `You live like an animal…You don't know about tomorrow.' This is a disturbing reflection on the experience of detention. As well as coping with living among two hundred other people who share high levels of anxiety and stress, detainees are also subjected to the prison regime of Campsfield House.

How detention is `organised'

The Home Office has contracted the day-to-day management of Campsfield House to the private security firm Group 4. Immigration officers are on-site to monitor Group 4's management of the centre. However, at the time of HM Inspectorate of Prisons' inspection of Campsfield House, in September 1994, none of the immigration officers on-site had seen the Home Office management contract and the report commented on the resulting confusion of roles.

The Group 4 Administrator is the line manager of the `wardens' (i.e. security guards). Over a third of these `wardens' are ex- armed services, and at the time of the report, they were paid £4 an hour to work 12-hour shifts as guards. The Administrator is also responsible for monitoring the work of the catering and medical departments (which are sub-contracted out by Group 4).

The security guards wield enormous powers over the detainees, while at the same time there are no established grievance procedures for detainees to make complaints (unlike prisons, where grievance procedures are an important safeguard against the abuse of power). This means that when detainees protest against the system in some way, there are effectively no mediators and detainees can suddenly find themselves arbitrarily transferred to a prison or another detention centre without any form of appeal. This general lack of procedures, information, and responsibility also explains why some visitors find themselves banned from visiting, and why some telephone callers have been required to state their names before the switchboard operators will put them through (reported in the Campsfield Monitor, Issue 2).

Specific complaints about the regime at Campsfield House

HM Inspectorate of Prisons' (1995) reported on the `settled misery' of life at Campsfield. The report details the detainees' main grievances. These were:

The official Visitor's Committee, itself hand-picked and approved by the Home Office, were `disturbed' that detainees who asked questions such as `Why am I here? How long will I be here? [and] How do I complain?' were `frustrated by bureaucratic delay at each level, and the absence of personal files where they were needed.'

We believe that HM Inspectorate of Prisons' report only scratched the surface of the problems at Campsfield. Despite the fact that the Home Office's official response was that `most of the recommendations have been or will be implemented'; to date, none of the detainees' concerns have been properly addressed:

Lack of information: The main response was to stick an `i' (information symbol) on the same desk where surveillance cameras are monitored. Visitors pass this desk on the way in before arriving at the visitors' lounge. Detainees do not have access to the desk, and the desk does not have information or files about individual's cases. There is still no information about what legal assistance is available, although Refugee Legal Centre staff do now make fortnightly visits to Campsfield. Detainees can use the payphones to contact their lawyers, but most detainees have no money to pay for the phonecards so they are still dependent on a few visitors from outside to provide them with cards. This is what the Home Office claim is free access to legal services.

Poor food: Detainees still complain that the diet is poor and consists of `chicken and rice'. Cherwell District Council have carried out environmental health inspections of the kitchen (so presumably rubbish is no longer kept in the food storage area) but their remit does not extend beyond food safety.

Poor medical facilities: Detainees continue to voice complaints about Dr Lloyd (noted during a question and answer session with ex-detainees during a training day organised by Asylum Welcome And Detainee Support at the offices of Asylum Welcome, Oxford, 29th June 1996). Dr Lloyd's wife, herself a doctor, is apparently now available for female detainees. Since publication of HM Inspectorate of Prisons' report, the Campsfield Monitor (Issue 7) noted that `AS who had been on hunger strike for 32 days was removed in a wheelchair from Campsfield on Wednesday 17th May… Immigration claimed that she had been examined by a doctor at Campsfield House who had certified her fit to travel.' In the same issue, a woman whose husband was detained with her was told she would be released, but did not wish to leave without her husband. Six weeks later she was still in detention `with no appropriate medical care'. In April 1996 a woman was released shortly after having suffered a miscarriage. She later complained that the doctor's view had been that her pregnancy had been used as a device to gain entry, and that therefore she had received very poor care. She was given £5 and abandoned at Heathrow. She was later taken to a hostel for the destitute in East London by a passer-by who saw her in tears.

There is still no initial medical examination of detainees upon arrival. There is still no provision of on-site psychological services. We consider this to be a case of wilful neglect.

Inadequate recreation: Since publication of HM Inspectorate of Prisons' report, Dr Saunders, then the librarian at Campsfield, drew up a scheme for structured activities involving local volunteer groups. Her plan was rejected on the grounds that `it encourages detainees to feel they will be staying in the UK'. (Quoted from a Visitor's Group Training Day presentation.) Dr Saunders felt obliged to resign. There has been an extension in the number of English language classes from two to five a week. However, there are no books for the teacher to use. There are still no structured activities in the gym. The so-called `drainage' problems, that prevented detainees from using the field for recreation, are still not resolved, and in July 1996 the field was fenced off. The part-time Chaplain, who had no private office or chapel, was sacked following an incident involving Group 4, and no new appointment was made for over a year.

Poor shop and unpleasant recreation rooms: This has not changed.

Provision of clothes: Churches and other local charities continue to donate clothes to a small store of jumble managed by Group 4.

Alternatives to detention.

Members of The Campaign to Close Campsfield are frequently asked what alternative provision should be made instead of detaining people. Sometimes these questions come from those who dislike the policy but can think of no alternative.

Firstly, we believe that the government, with the tacit or tactical support of the Labour Party has been successful in promoting the view that there is no alternative to detention. Ministers have encouraged newspaper headlines that have used pejorative terms such as `flood', `wave', `problem', and `scrounger'. These have helped reinforce, and even to create, a public view that asylum-seeking is a major policy problem. This in turn has enabled Ministers to impose draconian measures such as detention, and the more draconian the measure, the more the notion of asylum as a problem is reinforced.

We'd like to respond to this issue in several ways. Firstly, we dispute the underlying principle that claiming asylum is a `problem'. The `problem' is rather the lack of freedom in the world, and the UK's role in supporting regimes with a history of human rights abuse. A good example of this was the way that early in 1996 the government attempted to manipulate public opinion when Dr Al Mass'ari, a leading Saudi dissident, had his application for asylum turned down. Instead of examining the relationship between the UK and the Saudi Arabian regime, and how that was affecting the application, the government attempted to divert public attention towards the issue of Dr Al Mass'ari's good character.

We believe that the cost of depriving innocent people of their liberty is too great. Far from the detention of asylum-seekers being a `necessary evil', we believe that their imprisonment sends a message to the wider public that people coming to this country are untrustworthy, problematic and even possibly criminal. Instead, we seek to produce a climate of opinion that demands that the government faces up to its existing obligations towards asylum-seekers, and works actively to combat racism and xenophobia.

Most asylum-seekers do not require special provision. The Amnesty International study of asylum-seekers (Prisoners without a voice, 1994) found that of their sample of 50 people in detention, 45 had been offered accommodation elsewhere, either with friends, with family, or through local organisations.

There are a range of accommodation schemes for refugees and asylum-seekers. Some are run wholly by the voluntary sector, including refugee organisations and religious charities. Others are run with local authority support. The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture have suggested that asylum-seekers are best housed in small-scale supportive communities. For those who do not have offers of accommodation through family or friends, we believe such small-scale schemes have a number of advantages. Firstly, they enable asylum-seekers to live within a supportive and stable community. Secondly, such schemes enable asylum-seekers and refugees to live within the wider community. This is important as a means of accessing social services, making use of educational opportunities, libraries and job centres, and as a way of coming to terms with life in a new country. By housing people in small groups, such schemes allow more people in Britain to offer support, and provide a point of contact which enables asylum-seekers to explain about what is happening in their countries. These schemes are run at a fraction of the £800 it costs to detain each person for each week (From a study by Richard Dunstan from Amnesty International, cited in The Oxford Times , 1995)


Last updated 16-APR-2001 by Sarah James
s.f.james@rl.ac.uk