00054“Migrants are not Criminals – Close Campsfield Down!”

These were the words of order at the protest outside Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) on Saturday 29th November, the 15th anniversary of its inauguration. Activists from No Borders South Wales joined with over 100 people from London, Birmingham, Coventry, different towns in Oxfordshire, mainland Europe, Turkey, Congo and elsewhere, to stand their ground in solidarity with the detainees held beyond the endless fences, bare empty ground, barbed wire, bars and walls.

We were at Campsfield to shout words of solidarity through the bitter cold air and fences. The speakers included Bill MacKeith from the Campaign to Close Campsfield, Romain Ngouabeu from National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC), local MP Evan Harris as well as former detainees and partners of detainees. The atmosphere was one of enthusiasm, warmed by steaming soup, and energized by lots of music and bright eyed children running around with ‘Stop Detention’ signs.

Particularly heart-breaking was turning our backs and leaving, to the sound of the detainees inside, asking us not to go, asking when we would be back, why we wouldn’t just take the fence down. Why won’t we?

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After the protest a meeting was held by Barbwire Britian (network to end migrant detention), in a nearby hall, where Steve Symonds, Legal Officer of the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association (ILPA), gave a special briefing on the Borders, Immigration and Citizenship Bill.

A Legacy of Tragedy

Over the past 15 years, Campsfield has been the topic and stage of much criticism, from activists as well as ‘authority’ figures, various violent incidents (aka ‘disturbances’), hunger strikes and a suicide. It opened as an immigration detention centre in 1993; having been originally built as a military barrack and subsequently serving as a hospital and a detention centre for young people it now holds 216 male inmates indefinitely without trial or charge, simply for exercise their right under the Geneva Convention to claim asylum in Britain – daring to live in a different place to where they were born.

000681On June 27 2005, an 18 year old Turkish Kurd hung himself after being detained at Campsfield for 4 months, 9 days and a few hours – nonetheless, the report after his death stated that the average length of stay in detention at Campsfield was of 14 to 15 days. The same report stated that

“detention reviews were not sufficiently rigorous … a decision whether or not to continue to detain [cannot] properly be made on the basis of papers alone”

and that the chair of the IMB admitted Campsfield’s

“staff could sometimes be a bit ‘sharp’ with detainees”

using what they referred to as a “muscular approach”. Among various other recommendations, the Ombudsman made a case against prolonged detention, saying that

“there is much circumstantial evidence that indefinite detention can lead to a deterioration in either mental or physical health or both ” .

Regardless, in the report from the unannounced inspection of Campsfield House this year, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Anne Owers said that the average length of detention periods had

“increased significantly since [their] last visit, from 14 to 46 days”

00056In August this year, 13 Iraqi detainees went on a hunger strike, later to be joined by 50 others of various different nationalities. Earlier, in June, fires were started in protest inside the centre and a team of 50 prison officers, a fire engine, a helicopter and dog handlers called on to ‘restore order and ensure no one escaped’. Let us recall that seeking asylum is a human right and that none of these incarcerated people are criminals.

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