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27 November 1998

At the threshold of fortress Britain

Campsfield, in the heart of Oxfordshire, is a detention centre where 200 asylum-seekers wait in limb

By Jennifer Monahan

One Friday evening, an asylum detainee in Campsfield House Detention Centre, Oxfordshire, is called on the tannoy: “K . . . to immigration. K . . . to immigration.” The summons is to the office maintained inside the centre by the Immigration Service, which is responsible for decisions on detention, transfer and deportation. Every detainee dreads it.

K . . . is called at 5.30. Immigration tells him to provide a photo: they are preparing travel documents for his removal. He objects because his case has won leave for judicial review. Though his history of arrest and torture is backed with medical evidence, his asylum claim has been turned down. The review is due the following week. He knows that immigration knows that his legal representative will not now be available till Monday.

At 7.15 the same evening, the tannoy goes again: “K . . . to immigration. K . . . to immigration.” He returns, convinced that he is about to be put on a plane back to the country where he was held for three months in a police cell. Immigration tells him: “You’ve got TA” (temporary admission). He is not being deported, he is being released.

This incident is real. It happened last month.

Britain’s habit of using indeterminate administrative detention without judicial controls to test its legitimacy recently prompted a secret visit by the UN Working Party on Arbitrary Detention. The only other country in Europe to have attracted such a visit is Romania. And the British government’s plan is to extend administrative detention by some 400 places, which opens the possibility of more Campsfields.

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Every single refugee organisation, including the UN High Commission for Refugees, has condemned the government’s detention proposals. These proposals, virtually unaltered, are part of the new Immigration and Asylum Bill, included in the Queen’s Speech.

The arbitrariness of life-and-death decisions for the 800 asylum-seekers detained in the UK at any one time is, in the words of one, “a second torture”. But visitors to Campsfield (which holds 200), far from perceiving the mental torture it inflicts, are often favourably impressed. Outside, its purpose is all too visible, with high fences topped with razor-wire. But inside its physical facilities are impressive: gym, library, football pitch, telephones, TV, visiting room with children’s play-corner.

All is not quite what meets the eye, however. Regular visitors from Oxford report that the football pitch is only made accessible for detainees on the days when an official visit from London is scheduled. Normally, they say, it is used by the staff of Group Four, the private security firm that mans Campsfield.

I first saw the inside of Campsfield shortly after protests in 1995. The impression that sticks is of the utterly aimless atmosphere. You see men and women hanging about in limbo – or you did; the women are detained elsewhere now. Campsfield brings to mind some airport lounge where everyone waits, but no one knows where they’re going, or when.

The noise lingers in the mind, too. A fire-alarm interrupts conversation interminably. Group Four officers say detainees set it off; detainees say Group Four set it off. Each claims the other does it deliberately. And the ubiquitous tannoy, piped throughout the building, normally a summons to the phone, sometimes to immigration. Everyone hears every message throughout the day, day after day. Over a period of months, this alone would drive you mad.

Above all, it is the pleas of the detainees that are most haunting: pleas to know why they are being held, how long it will go on. Will our group contact the authority who is meant to keep them informed of their case? Will we contact the Prime Minister, the Queen? Will we phone their legal representative? – they’ve heard nothing for weeks. Will we please do something to get them out? All this conveyed in anxiety and haste, with an equally troubled detainee acting as interpreter.

Small wonder that Dr Christina Pourgourides, an independent research psychiatrist, concluded that detainees found the “information vacuum” the most stressful aspect of detention. Typically, her research showed that detainees coped with the first two months, but broke down in the third or fourth. New arrivals continue to be locked up, often for months, while their asylum claim is undecided. And some remain in detention for a year or more.

At Campsfield, the bulge of detainees today is ethnic Albanians, mostly from Kosovo (who are judged eligible for consideration as refugees), some from Albania (who are automatically judged bogus). The Home Office says it can’t find accredited Albanian linguists to distinguish the dialects. So it locks them up.

The first-hand accounts of individual detainees raise urgent questions about several of the Group Four officers who guard Campsfield: their selection, training, supervision and management. Racism is an overt and regular feature of these accounts. Crass insensitivity is manifest: in one account, officers continued playing pornographic videos at a high volume, while a detainee, a Muslim, was trying to pray. Another account indicates straight cruelty: a detainee, whose right arm had been badly wounded in a bomb blast, was being transported to a dental appointment outside. He begged his escorts not to handcuff his right wrist to a metal bar in the van used for the purpose and offered his left arm instead. They handcuffed his right arm.

Such accounts are regrettably one-sided. Group Four staff can’t answer back. But on the other hand, nor could the nine West Africans who appeared in Oxford Crown Court in July on charges of riot, which carries a ten-year maximum penalty. The eagerness of Group Four officers to pin the blame on young men whom, it turned out, they could not even individually identify, inspires neither confidence nor sympathy.

The trial collapsed. Its main revelation was not the guilt of the accused, but that their accusers had no experience of being made answerable. The Group Four witnesses still have not been called to account: this reticence contrasts with the evident enthusiasm last year for the charges brought against the detainees.

The same unwillingness to rectify wrongdoing is illustrated by the case of an Algerian, who late in 1996 was packed off from Campsfield to Birmingham – considered the worst punishment-prison – accused of setting fire to a lavatory seat. The real culprit was discovered, but the Algerian, a mild-mannered man who nevertheless refuses to tolerate abuse of power, remained in Winson Green. He was finally granted refugee status, and released after a total of 18 months in detention. Two years later, he has received no satisfactory explanation from the Immigration Service.

This former detainee’s diagnosis of the problem at Campsfield is that, “immigration and Group Four are too close”. He comments: “If Jack Straw has to give the running [of Campsfield] to a private company, he has to watch what they do.”

There have, however, been some changes since the events that sparked the mass rioting on 20 August 1997. Though its terms remain secret, the new Group Four contract is more tightly drawn, according to the prison inspectorate. A monitor to oversee compliance has recently been put in place, as requested last April by the chief inspector, Sir David Ramsbotham, in his report on Campsfield. The officers who showed up in the worst light during the trial have been moved away from direct custodial duties. A new manager is in post.

But key systemic failings have yet to be addressed. Medical screening is patchy and cursory, putting staff as well as detainees at risk. Medical care in the centre remains inadequate and inaccessible, judging by accounts of visitors as well as detainees. More than one detainee reports being asked for a guarantee of payment before the (part-time) GP would agree to make a specialist referral. Late referrals to hospital have caused needless suffering and, in one case, necessitated emergency surgery.

The Group Four staff, meantime, have continued to work excessively long shifts, though Ramsbotham made it clear he considered this a contributory factor in the disturbances. Combined with low hourly rates, it is hard to imagine how such work can attract suitable recruits. As one detainee was told by a Group Four officer, “this is shitty work”.

Nor do other lessons seem to have been learnt from the disturbances. The lack of any effective grievance procedure was, and remains, a key detonator. The practice of using transfer to an ordinary prison as punishment for disruption seems to have resisted all criticism, including the chief inspector’s comment that removal to prison “is a grossly inappropriate and unsatisfactory sanction”. Bona fide complaints have continued to be construed as “disruptive” and “a threat to security”, and their authors spirited to prison (normally Rochester), where telephone contact with the outside world is severely restricted.

A Nigerian who became the recognised spokesman for asylum-seekers on hunger strike in Campsfield in July was transferred to Rochester without warning or notice “because of disruptive behaviour”. A month later, he won his appeal against the refusal of his asylum claim, and was released. He assesses some of the Group Four officers as “the most dangerous people that you ever came across. They have one picture in their minds, as if we’re criminals, and another, that we come here to get things free.”

The Home Office has made it clear that automatic bail hearings – still with financial conditions and still without a presumption of liberty – are its only concession to the requirements of international human rights law. If the government has its way, asylum-seekers held under immigration law in Britain will continue to have fewer legal means of challenging their deprivation of liberty than criminal defendants – including General Pinochet. If the government has its way, we can confidently expect more mass protests.