[This is a guest post from Walton. Trigger warnings: violence, sexual abuse, child abuse and neglect, hyperskepticism, racism.]
In January 2013, Jackie Nanyonjo was forcibly returned to Uganda on a charter flight, escorted by guards from the private security contractor Reliance. Jackie was a lesbian woman from Uganda who had come to the UK to claim asylum, fleeing the wave of horrifying anti-gay violence in her home country. In common with many other LGBT asylum-seekers, her claim was rejected, authorities refusing to believe that she was “really” a lesbian. She was detained, and eventually put on a plane back to Uganda. With no options left to her, she resisted – and was beaten so badly by her security escort that she later died of her injuries.
Jackie’s story illustrates the full horror and cruelty of the British immigration enforcement system. Like many other women asylum-seekers, Jackie was detained at the infamous Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, a privately-run detention camp surrounded by barbed wire and notorious for its hellish conditions. Hundreds of people are held at Yarl’s Wood, most of them women of colour. In August 2013, a Roma detainee, Tanja, came forward to describe the sexual assaults she suffered at the hands of detention centre guards. Tanja’s description of her experiences, which may be triggering for many readers, is a chilling insight into a deeply sick and abusive institution. According to the campaign group Movement for Justice, five other women who had experienced or witnessed sexual assault at Yarl’s Wood were deported to Pakistan on a charter flight at the beginning of October.
Nor were these the first cases of abuse reported at Yarl’s Wood. In 2010, fifty detainees, many of them rape survivors, went on hunger strike to protest the conditions of their detention. The guards responded by locking them in corridors without access to water, medical care or toilets. This came on the heels of a 2009 report by the Children’s Commissioner for England which condemned the abuse and neglect of child detainees at Yarl’s Wood. Children were arrested in dawn raids along with their families, and forced to watch their parents handcuffed and humiliated by immigration officers. They were caged in prison vans stained with urine and vomit, denied water and toilet breaks, and taken to Yarl’s Wood, where they endured a living hell. Children with critical illnesses were given paracetamol instead of being taken to hospital. Conditions were so bad that in 2011, two families with children who had been detained at Yarl’s Wood sued the Home Office, and won. Yet Yarl’s Wood has not changed for the better. Samantha, who was detained at Yarl’s Wood with her fourteen-month-old daughter while pregnant with a second child, has spoken out about the degrading conditions she experienced.
Many of the women held at Yarl’s Wood are asylum-seekers who have come to this country fleeing horrifying persecution – including rape, torture, forced marriage, female genital cutting, and anti-gay violence. Many have been forced to flee their countries through dangerous means, hiding in the back of lorries, as visa requirements make it impossible for them to enter legally. And when they arrive here, the British government puts them through a second traumatic ordeal. Some are held in detention on the “Detained Fast Track” while their claims are processed, and are given very little time to gather evidence and prepare their cases. Frances Webber’s excellent book “Borderline Justice: The Fight for Refugee and Migrant Rights” describes how Home Office caseworkers and immigration judges frequently accuse asylum-seekers of lying about their experiences, sometimes ignoring clear evidence of torture and post-traumatic stress. A whistleblower who formerly worked for the UK Border Agency revealed shocking levels of racism and anti-migrant prejudice among asylum caseworkers. LGBT asylum-seekers get a particularly raw deal, being subjected to unreasonable demands to “prove” that they are telling the truth about their sexuality. As Clare Bennett’s research has shown, some immigration judges displayed worrying ignorance and relied on homophobic stereotypes in hearing the cases of lesbian asylum-seekers. The end result is that many genuine refugees are refused asylum, and face forced return to countries where they are in danger of violence. And those who can’t be returned, for example because they have no travel documents, are deliberately forced into destitution on the streets, barred from working or claiming benefits.
And what of the people who are not entitled to asylum, the “economic migrants” and “bogus asylum-seekers” of the public imagination? Many of those people, too, migrate because they have no other choice. As Frances Webber puts it, “among the undocumented, the ‘irregulars’, are also those who have migrated here over the past 30 years because increasingly there is no land, no work, no possibility of feeding, clothing and educating a family, no future at home and no legal routes to earning a livelihood anywhere else… One way or another most of those who come to these shores without official permission are refugees from globalisation, from a poor world getting poorer as it is shaped to serve the interests, appetites and whims of the rich world.” In this way immigration controls compound the injustice of a profoundly unjust world, a world shaped by capitalism and the legacy of colonial oppression.
Unfortunately, there seems little prospect of things getting better. Our Conservative government is deeply hostile to immigrants, even boasting “IMMIGRATION DOWN” on posters at their most recent party conference. The Home Office has adopted increasingly harsh anti-immigrant policies in an attempt to force undocumented migrants to leave the country. In August, the Home Office deployed vans in some of London’s most racially diverse areas carrying billboards which exhorted undocumented people to “GO HOME OR FACE ARREST”, a slogan disturbingly redolent of the racist chants of past decades’ National Front marches. The government has also turned to more violent means, with immigration officers outside railway stations conducting “spot checks” to identify alleged “immigration offenders” – racially profiling people of colour , and intimidating and verbally abusing people who tried to stand up for their rights. And legal aid for immigrants has come under attack, with help no longer being available for most non-asylum immigration cases, and further cuts planned.
It gets worse. The government wants to limit migrants’ access to NHS health care – a policy already adopted in Spain, where a Senegalese man died of tuberculosis after being refused treatment. And the new Immigration Bill is designed to crack down even further on undocumented people – among other harsh provisions, the Bill will make it illegal for landlords to rent housing to undocumented people, and for banks to allow them to open accounts. The government is well aware that this will force undocumented people deeper into destitution. Many are already living precariously and struggling to feed their children: a new blog, Life Without Papers, tells the human stories of undocumented families living in Britain, including one man living on just £12 a week. Meanwhile, the conservative press cheerleads for these oppressive policies, and demonizes asylum-seekers and undocumented people. Emma Briant has written about how the media’s common practice of referring to refugees as “illegal immigrants” contributes to the stigma and marginalization which refugees face. As Elie Wiesel famously asked, how can a human being be illegal?
I have thus far concentrated on Britain because it is where I live and work, but these horrors are not unique to Britain. Flavia Dzodan has written powerfully about the horrifying state violence experienced by refugees across the European Union. At a time when desperate people are crossing the Mediterranean on dangerously overcrowded boats, Italy has even criminalized undocumented migrants, punishing them with a fine or prison sentence and deportation. In Greece, the situation for refugees and migrants is more terrible still, with migrants held in inhuman conditions in overcrowded and filthy detention camps. In Canada, the Harper government’s Refugee Exclusion Act has cracked down harshly on asylum-seekers. In the United States, the number of deportations has soared in recent years, tearing families apart, and continuing despite the current government shutdown. And the Australian government detains refugees in hellish conditions on the Pacific island of Nauru.
We need an international movement seeking justice for refugees and migrants. No one should be condemned to the living hell of detention and deportation simply for crossing a border to seek a better life.
Walton is a law graduate who will soon be starting pupillage at a set of barristers’ chambers in London, and plans to specialize in immigration and asylum law. He blogs under his real name at The Feminist Hivemind and Shining Artifact of the Past, and parts of this post are adapted from his writings there. He is writing in a personal capacity and his posts represent his personal views and opinions, not those of his current or past employers or of any other person.