Campsfield House: Another Prison for the Innocent

As a student, I volunteered at Campsfield House Detention Center with lawyers from Bail for Immigration Detainees. I wrote this for the student newspaper, and later made a documentary about it which you can see here.

Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre is an imposing concrete building. Situated in Kidlington, just outside Oxford City, it is surrounded by electrified gates and rabbit-proof, 20-foot-high fences surmounted by barbed wire. The 216 men inside are victims of relentless UK legislation that is systematically stripping them of human rights, while hiding behind the facade of immigration control.

Campsfield House opened in 1993 and serves as a waiting room for persons who have been refused asylum in this country.  UK Border Control alleges that detention provides care for people while they wait to be deported or removed. Since its creation, however, the treatment of those inside Campsfield has led to numerous hunger strikes and suicide attempts – some successful.

Within 15 minutes of being inside Campsfield, after being photographed, fingerprinted and searched I am approached by an African man who lifts his shirt and takes off his shoes to show me a body which has been punctured many times. It is men like this who bear the scars and sometimes even the documents to prove that they are not safe in their homeland, and are still being dismissed as liars and criminals that pose a danger to British society. The Government plays a very manipulative game with these men; imprisoning them not only physically, but with inflammatory jargon which states that because a person made the mistake of coming to this country without the correct documents, or worked once they got here, they do not have the right to be listened to, or to be treated as human beings. I intend to explain what I have discovered since speaking to these men and those who have dedicated their lives to helping them.

The majority of the men in Campsfield and other detention centres have fled from persecution. Many are forced to travel to England without a passport, and come by the belief that the UK is a safe place for those in desperate need. The standard sentence for someone arriving in England without a passport or someone who is found to be working despite not being granted asylum or refugee status is 15 months. This is often not the case, however, and many men who have acknowledged their "crimes" and served their sentences find themselves incarcerated indefinitely.

‘Stateless’ is a term used to describe a person who has not been granted status in the UK and is also not recognised as a citizen of the country they have left, either through lack of documentation or for political reasons. Statelessness is a major reason for detention lasting increasingly long and it has devastating effects on the physical and mental well being of the afflicted. Essentially it means that people are subjected to a never-ending limbo, not knowing when they will be able to leave, where they will go, when they will see their families again or even if their families are managing to survive.

It costs the taxpayer on average, £1000 per person per week to detain these ‘foreign criminals’. Detention is a waste of money as well as being a waste of innocent life. Considering that the ‘crime’ most of these men have committed is that they have worked illegally, there is surely a cheaper more effective and less dehumanising way to deal with the problem at hand. Some detainees are allowed to work inside Campsfield. They are paid £5 for a 6 hour shift and the waiting list is huge, giving you an insight into how mind-numbing life at Campsfield is. Money which should be being spent on the men’s physical and mental needs isn’t, with it being commonplace for psychiatric reviews to be postponed countless times, until the detainee is moved to a different detention centre in a new city, where they must start from scratch again, building trust and relationships with people on the outside who are willing to help. This sets their chances back for weeks, sometimes months and hardly helps with the depression. This detention centre ethos of ‘if they get too needy, move them on’ demonstrates clearly the disregard for these peoples’ quality of life. Sickeningly it seems they have adopted the NHS scheme of shuffling equipment in order to combat the superbug so bacteria does not have the time to settle and flourish. Except these people are not bacteria and they are not hurting anybody.

Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) provides a light at the end of the tunnel for thousands of detainees. BID is an independent charity that exists to challenge immigration detention in the UK. They work with asylum seekers and migrants, in removal centers and prisons to secure their release from detention. This happens in the form of ‘bail applications’. If bail is granted to an individual, they are allowed to live outside of detention, having to report back to the Home Office and have their bail renewed regularly. However, they are not granted the right to work and live on food vouchers.  BID aids people in detention through the bail application process, helping them to understand the legal system and find legal representatives, though most represent themselves. They provide detainees with a life-line via their help in filling out bail related forms such as ‘Reasons for Leaving’, a paragraph sized box allocated to detainees as their only opportunity to appeal directly to the judge at the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal. Where most will feel inclined to appeal on a humanitarian level in this space, it is BID’s job to help detainees recognise where their rights have been abused and use the space to clarify where the law finds itself in contravention of its own rules.

It is not uncommon for detainees to be refused bail 10 times in a row despite fresh evidence from charities such as Medical Justice who work to expose and challenge medical abuse in immigration detention and will support immigrant claims of torture in their homeland. I spoke with Gill Baden, who has worked for BID since the opening of the Oxford office in 2001. She is 73 and has dedicated much of her retirement to helping immigrants abused by our system. It quickly became clear to me that not only does she provide information and advice for detainees, she provides them with support, care and hope that they will find nowhere else. When I ask her how much longer she will work for BID she says, “I don’t know how much longer I can do it. It’s difficult seeing things being made so much harder for these people. It’s getting worse.” To see a woman with Gill’s strength and determination to make life better for others still disappointed after so much work was overwhelming and terrifying. Who will carry on fighting for these forgotten people? And where will they find such strength to do so?

Student Action for Refugees (STAR) have geared their campaign towards raising awareness about Campsfield and visit, regularly conducting drama and poetry workshops. Eleanor Mortimer, president of STAR said, “the idea of detention without a trial is a threat to our human rights, too. It’s too close to home. That’s why I’m so passionate about star, we need to fight for these people who are from our generation, clever people who understand politics, who understand justice and have fought for those things. That’s why they’re going mad. They’re so far from being allowed to reach their potential.” STAR is planning poster and street-theatre campaigns as well as a rally planned outside the Sheldonian on 26th February to raise awareness about Campsfield among students and the local community. Unfortunately, raising awareness about Campsfield is not the only objective as they are also campaigning against the proposed building of a new detention centre in Bicester which will be the largest one in Europe.

The Campaign to Close Campsfield holds a protest outside Campsfield on the last Saturday of every month. The mood at the last one was focused towards targeting the Government and reversing the proposed building of Oxford’s second Immigration Removal Centre. Bill MacKeith, a loyal supporter of Close Campsfield said, “you never win a battle unless you fight it – and this one can be won. We are fighting against the barbaric anti-asylum policies manifested by the UK Government”.  The protesters sang ‘If I had a Hammer’ with faith and passion as they have done for many months. They peered through the fences surrounding the imprisoned immigrants, shouting ‘freedom’ and ‘migration is not a crime, close Campsfield’. A call of ‘SOS’ echoed across the tarmac in reply.

As a privileged person, I feel a duty to be aware of those who haven’t had my luck. I have spent so many hours trying to understand and empathise with the lonely desperation felt by those who aren’t allowed the most basic human rights. Still, during my visit to Campsfield I was unprepared when sitting opposite someone who had endured so much and was displaying all of the symptoms of being abused at the hands of the UK Government. “No talking can cure my problem” he said with depressed agitation, “my problem is freedom. What have I done that’s so wrong? These people are wasting my life. I’d rather take it myself then let it be wasted any more”. All this, and only a 30 minute bus ride away from my room.

I wish Campsfield was as bad as it gets but it’s just the tip of the only ice-berg that doesn’t seem to be melting. In other places, children are detained under exactly the same conditions, causing unimaginable trauma. But Guantanamo is closing and there we have hope. There is no time to breathe a sigh of relief for we have our own dirty secrets lurking literally in our back garden. It is only our continued pressure and refusal to forget these people that will instigate change. It’s nothing radical, just the prospect of treating all humans with dignity regardless of where they were born. As one detainee puts it “we are not asking you to love us like your children but we are simply asking you to give us at least half the care you give your dogs.”

A little documentary I made with the BBC, inspired by my time at Campsfield