Notes on the history of a detention centre
Published in The White Review (2017)
Looking back at Harmondsworth as he left, after 52 days inside, Amir was struck by how isolated the detention centre seemed. Set back from the A4, it runs along the northern boundary wall of Heathrow, separated from the road by a car park and shielded from view by a line of houses and trees. ‘The location is such that nobody can see you,’ he told me, a year after his release. ‘This is how they make you feel cut off.’
A year and a half ago I was scrolling aimlessly on the internet when I came across a simple website called ‘Detained Voices’, consisting of a series of short quotations from people who were being detained in ‘immigration removal centres’ in the U.K. Reading these disturbing fragments of testimony started me on a path that eventually put me opposite Amir in a Costa coffee shop in Stratford, as he told me about life in Harmondsworth.
As I’ve learnt more about immigration detention I have become increasingly mystified by the place it occupies in our national discourse. A set of nine prison-like buildings dotted around the country, these immigration removal centres are a recent phenomenon, yet already feel like part of the national furniture. Harmondsworth, the first purpose-built immigration detention centre in the U.K., was constructed in 1970 on the fringes of Heathrow, the country’s largest airport. It had a capacity of 44. Over the eighties and nineties more and more facilities popped up around the country, until a burst of building under New Labour after the millennium brought the total number of places in these centres to just over 4,000 today.
I became obsessed with the history of detention and with the building of Harmondsworth itself. Rebuilt and expanded in 2001, it is now the largest detention centre in Europe. I know which architectural practice designed the building (HLM Architects), who manufactured the heavy iron security doors (Lloyd Worrel Ironmongery), how much the retrofitted sprinkler system cost (£17 million) and who provided the toilets lacking in ligature points (The Plumb Centre). I learnt what ligature points are. I learnt about the seven people who have died in Harmondsworth, and the three more who died shortly after being released. I also learnt how detention, since its very inception, has been roundly condemned in areas that are meant to represent public life in Britain: in the Commons, in the Lords, in the papers (from The Telegraph, to The Sunday Times, to the Guardian); in massive official reviews and regular reports; by filmmakers, charities, activists and campaigners; by Conservatives and Ed Miliband’s Labour party, whose manifesto pledged to put an end to it if they were elected in 2015.
Yet despite all this the practice of detaining immigrants remains curiously under-examined, on the edge of the country’s political consciousness, an unpleasant yet apparently unavoidable phenomenon. This is not just a matter of a lack of education, a lack of knowledge about the reality of detention centres. Thanks to work by and with people who have experienced detention, details are now accessible enough for anyone who wants to type a phrase into Google. Regular protests inside and outside detention centres, the constant stream of abuse allegations that flow out of the women’s facility Yarl’s Wood, and suicides and deaths are reported on. But the reports always fail to gain traction in wider society and wider media, and detention continues apace. As a result I’ve come to think that this lacuna – where there should be moral outrage, the continuation of detention despite its great expense, inefficiency and cruelty – is a political phenomenon that goes to the heart of how the U.K. sees itself and its history, and, worryingly, where it might be going.
Accordingly this essay is largely not about life in detention, but rather about how detention happened and what it might mean. I’ll never know what it is like to be taken from my home one morning by the U.K. Border Agency and imprisoned without trial, but I do know what it is like to be part of a society that deems this violence both acceptable and normal. Speaking to Amir, who now campaigns with the group Freed Voices, made up of people who have been through detention, was a necessary step towards understanding this violence, and the effects it has on those it targets.
A week before he spoke to me, Amir had passed the house in which he had been living when the immigration officials came for him a year ago. He shook with fear as they battered on the door at six in the morning, so hard that he thought they were going to break it. This was the beginning of his journey out of the society in which he had spent the last eight and a half years.
Amir described to me with forensic detail the small indignities that announced his new situation. After the raid he was taken to a tiny windowless police cell, the officer saying ‘this is your castle.’ When his possessions were being logged, an officer laughed at the fact he had a Waitrose card, as though someone like him couldn’t, and later, buying food, a member of staff at the detention centre shop threw him his chocolate bar ‘like you’d throw a bone to a dog’. But he also remembered the policewoman who gave him books to read and a pen so he could write down his thoughts, and the man who sat with him for almost an hour in the first detention centre he was sent to, near Gatwick, when he had retreated into silence and started refusing his meals. This officer talked him into fighting his case. He remembers and repeats the names of these two people: Margaret and Octavian.
The hostile attitude of staff seemed so systematic that, despite generous allowances for the conditions under which they were working, Amir came to believe that it was instilled by their training. The Home Office, he suggested, ‘train staff not to show any kind of courtesy, any kind of empathy, sympathy or emotion.’ He thought their abiding attitude was that ‘these people who are inside [Harmondsworth], are less human than you. That’s why you are in those white uniforms and they are at your disposal.’
This all tied into what Amir saw as the purpose of detention: to break you, to separate you from British society and force you to give up your claim to a share in it. In Harmondsworth they supplied a games console, but Amir never played it. They also supplied table tennis, a pool table, movies, a gym, but Amir regarded all these things as dangerous temptations, as part of the ‘trap’ of detention. He watched other people fall into that trap, ‘living there like it’s their home, accepting that reality.’ He told me that he wasn’t there to watch movies, to play table tennis or video games, to read books – for him these things were ‘false entertainments’, designed to sap your energy in a hostile environment. If you become absorbed in these distractions then ‘slowly,’ he told me, ‘you lose your interest in your real case, in your real objective, and you start accepting those false things, and you start accepting whatever the Home Office thinks is true.’ That moment of defeat is when they serve you with your documents, and put you on a plane.
For Amir detention was nothing to do with settling the truth of his claim to asylum – that could have been done without imprisoning him. Instead it felt like a more fundamental fight about what constituted reality, with the Home Office not only imposing their version of it upon him but also more insidiously using the fraught environment of Harmondsworth to break his resistance. There is more than one suicide attempt each day across the immigration estate, and Harmondsworth, regarded by many as the last stop before deportation, has seen the most suicide attempts of any detention centre.
The year that Amir was detained was the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, celebrated in the unthreatening bracket of British ‘Heritage and Culture’ by a Conservative government unwilling to look at the small print. One of King John’s gifts to his subjects was the agreement, in article 29, that ‘No free man may be arrest- ed, imprisoned, dispossessed of his goods, or placed outside the law or molested in any way; we will not place our hands on him nor will have others place their hands on him, except after a legal judgement by his peers according to the law of the realm.’ The idea came to be known as Habeas Corpus, later restated by parliament in 1679 as the notion that a person (their physical body) had to be present at a trial to justify detention. Yet in 2015, 30,000 people in the United Kingdom were deprived of their liberty without trial and without a time limit.
The clue to how this happened might lie in the formulation ‘free man’ and how, over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries certain non-residents were gradually removed from that category as the British Empire was dismantled and fear of postcolonial migration grew. In 1890 W.F. Craies could confidently write that ‘the Crown has no prerogative to interfere with the free ingress or exit of any alien friend ... any attempt at such interference can be stopped by Habeas Corpus or action of false imprisonment.’ Yet these ideas gradually fell out of favour. ‘Aliens came to be seen as set apart,’ writes the academic Daniel Wilsher, ‘a group to be politically and administratively managed, not judicially protected.’
By 1968 the Commonwealth Immigrants Act had wiped away the traditional legal notion that all citizens of the British Empire were equal subjects who there- fore had the right to settle in Britain, to work and to vote. It was a landmark in anti-immigration legislation, removing the right of free entry for British citizens from the Commonwealth and imposing long queues and restrictions upon entry. Harmondsworth was built in 1970, to house the growing number of people who ran afoul of these new laws while they tried to appeal their status.
‘It is of the essence of the Immigration Act that people will be discriminated against on the grounds of race and nationality and it is the function of certain officials to ensure that the discrimination is effective,’ a bluntly honest Home Office lawyer told the Guardian in 1980, after another act was passed, finally eliminating what remained of the rights of Commonwealth citizens to settle in the U.K., giving police the power to stop and search and ask for immigration documents. The border began to turn inwards. This run of anti-immigration legislation eventually reached its peak in the Nationality Act of 1981, which defined British citizenship in opposition to all who didn’t have a family link to someone born in the United Kingdom. Many saw this as a pointedly racial manoeuvre, aimed at finally excluding all former subjects of the Empire from settling in Britain, people who had previously held British passports but were now considered undesirable aliens. On hearing of the new Act, Enoch Powell triumphantly announced that ‘from the humiliation of having no nation to which we distinctively belong, the people of the United Kingdom are now setting themselves free.’ A legal scholar, David Dixon, described it at the time as ‘constitutionalising racism’.
The climate was so ugly that it prompted Salman Rushdie to write an extraordinary essay entitled ‘The New Empire within Britain’, published in 1982, in which he directly addressed white readers, telling them that the country was ‘undergoing a critical phase of its post-colonial period, and this crisis is not simply economic or political. It’s a crisis of the whole culture, of society’s entire sense of itself.’ Rushdie contended that the racist judgements underpinning the empire had been turned inwards and imposed on the non-white people of Britain. ‘British thought, British society, has never been cleansed of the filth of imperialism,’ he wrote. ‘It’s still there, breeding lice and vermin, waiting for unscrupulous people to exploit it for their own ends.’
In 1970 a young Italian living in Rome, Giorgio Agamben, wrote a letter to Hannah Arendt. Agamben was 28 years old, and had recently discovered Arendt’s writings, which had given him what he called a ‘decisive experience.’ He enclosed with the letter an essay for Arendt to read, called ‘On the Limits of Violence’, with the misspelled post-script that ‘I should have been unable to wright [it] without the guide of your books.’
The essay begins by outlining the Ancient Greek conception of the polis, ‘a way of life founded on the word, and not on violence.’ Agamben argues that the Greeks believed language to be non-violent, citing that in the ancient world there were no penalties for lying, and that the essential characteristic of political life was ‘peitharkhia, the power of persuasion’ – a belief that truth, in and of itself, could exert persuasive power in the human mind. If something was truthful, Agamben argued, the Greeks thought it would naturally have the power to persuade – and vice versa. He contrasts this trust in language and politics with ‘the modern age,’ which he accuses of ‘enact- ing a calculated plot to introduce violence into language itself.’ This he identifies as ‘the only widespread form of violence that our society can claim to have invented: propaganda’.
Agamben’s writings have underpinned a surge of academic writing on detention centres in recent years. He put forward a number of concepts that built on Arendt’s work, and has sought to explain how democratic governments create ‘states of exception’, areas which are paradoxically legislated to be outside the law. He chooses the figure of ‘the camp’, rooted in a study of Auschwitz, to elaborate on how such spaces develop and how ‘anything is possible’ within them. Agamben’s theories are both generalising and seductive, not least because he is prone to dizzyingly provocative notions. These include that we are faced by a ‘camp virtually every time that such a structure is created, regardless of the nature of the crimes committed in it and regard- less of the denomination and specific topography it might have’. He implicitly asks us to look at Harmondsworth and trace a connection between it and the worst crimes of the twentieth century, because both are ‘space[s] in which, for all intents and purposes, the normal rule of law is suspended and in which the fact that atrocities may or may not be committed does not depend on the law but rather on the civility and ethical sense of the police that act temporarily as sovereign.’
There are now nine large detention centres and a handful of smaller facilities around ports and airports, referred to as ‘short term holding facilities’. Most of this growth came under New Labour, who opened seven new centres between 2000 and 2009, alongside expanding and renovating Harmondsworth. The U.K. detains foreign nationals who have served their prison sentences and await deportation, people who have gone against the terms of their visa or lack one altogether, and people whose asylum claims have been rejected. This country has one of the largest detention populations in Europe, and Harmondsworth is the largest detention centre in Europe, with a capacity of 615.
The building is four stories high and occupies a space of about 20,000 square metres. It is large and bland and imposing. A government report a decade ago de- scribed it as ‘impressive and powerful.’ If British national identity has a concrete, architectural form, this might be it. Like the Nationality Act of 1981, it is built on the power to exclude.
Its surroundings speak of the changes that British society has undergone in recent decades. To the northeast are the gleaming white Ballardian headquarters of British Airways, surrounded by rolling landscaped forms that look computer rendered. The headquarters are shielded from the detention centre by a small waterway and a thick line of trees. Directly to the north is a BT warehouse – the vans need to drive down a road lined with razor wire between Harmondsworth and Colnbrook, its sister facility, in order to get there. BA was privatised in 1987, while BT was privatised in 1984. Even the Road Research Laboratory, the government transport organisation on whose land Harmondsworth was built, was privatised in 1996.
Harmondsworth detention centre has always been private. In the 1960s, it was the responsibility of airlines to detain passengers who were refused entry to the U.K. At Heathrow, Securicor were already employed to do this, so their services were ex- tended to the new centre outside the walls of the airport. The Home Office justified the decision by saying that ‘the use of police to control people who were not criminals would be too oppressive and because it was felt that immigration officers, who are civil servants, could not be asked to perform such tasks.’ The Home Office seem un- sure of, or unwilling to think about, the violence of such detention.
Those in detention experience it as punitive – in testimonies it is regularly compared to prison – but the Home Office wanted to define the buildings as mere warehouses, like the industrial units that often surround them, holding centres for stuff that is on its way out. To this end they changed the name from detention centre to ‘Immigration Removal Centre’, nominally yoking it to the deportation process of which it was supposed to be a part, though in fact roughly half the people put into detention are eventually released back into the U.K. (Capturing, imprisoning and then releasing these innocent people, as happened to Amir, costs an estimated £76 million a year.) Initially framed as an administrative measure to ensure deportation, rather than a punishment, the violence of detention was overlooked and obscured, going right down to the design of the buildings, which, though imposing on the outside, it was hoped would have interiors that reflected a ‘relaxed, non-institutional aesthetic’, according to the architectural firm who constructed Harmondsworth.
Over time, a number of riots in the new detention centres have exposed this as a mismatch between design and purpose. In moments of high tension, and amid com- plaints of mistreatment, detainees in Harmondsworth and Yarl’s Wood have been able to break their way out of their cells, smashing straight through the cheap plaster- board the walls were made of. Three months after opening, half of Yarl’s Wood burnt down, while Harmondsworth has been rebuilt three times in the past 15 years as a re- sult of what the government calls, with the British institutional talent for euphemism, ‘disturbances’. Later centres, like Colnbrook, which lies next to Harmondsworth, have learnt from these ‘disturbances’ and built their cells out of concrete, adapting the buildings more closely towards the harsh reality of their function.
In recent years there’s been a pushback against Agamben’s ideas, led by academics like Mary Bosworth and Alison Mountz, who have performed lengthy and in-depth ethnographic research in detention centres. They find his theories too general, unable to capture the intimate textures of exclusion that are produced in detention centres, too quick to obscure the agency of those who are presented as helpless victims of sov- ereign power. They can’t, for example, take account of Amir’s feeling that he engaged in battle with the Home Office, and won. Of the Home Office official who visited him on his first night and told him he should not claim asylum because he would be rejected, he says, ‘I wanted to prove that idiot wrong. And I proved him wrong.’ Harmondsworth isn’t the unassailable fortress of sovereign power that it projects itself to be – it can be (and has been) damaged, even destroyed by the people it was built to control.
What I instead find myself most drawn to in the constellation of Agamben’s work that surrounds detention centres is that early letter to Arendt, and its attempts to under- stand exactly how language, violence and politics are intertwined. For those involved in the rapid expansion of the detention system under the New Labour government, the imprisonment of thousands of people without trial and without a time limit was not a legal or a moral question but one of communication. We know this because of letters published in a 2004 report about the Yarl’s Wood fire. On 10 March, 2000, one senior civil servant, Sir David Omand, wrote to another, Sir Richard Wilson:
You will see in particular that we are looking urgently at the Home Secretary’s requirement at expansion of the detention estate to 4,000 places. We believe that this would, if feasible, have a significant deterrent effect. [...] Detention is a key element in effective enforcement and it contributes to the impression potential asylum seekers have of the U.K. ... We also believe that up to a further 1,500 places would significantly enhance the deterrent effect for new asylum seekers.
A month later the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, wrote to the Chief Secretary of the Treasury, justifying any expenditure on the detention estate’s expansion on the grounds that it would ‘send a strong message’. It was as though detention had be- come divorced from moral reality and had become simply a signal – the more people detained, the more powerful the signal. This is not just introducing violence into language, as the young Agamben warned, this is using violence as a language.
It’s worth thinking about who those civil servants and politicians thought they were speaking to with that violence, beyond the apparent global audience of potential asylum seekers. At the time these decisions were being made the department in question was in the media almost daily. ‘The coverage was very critical,’ according to the report. Our capacity to imprison without trial was enlarged because it would send a message, a threatening one to those abroad seeking sanctuary and an emboldening one to those at home seeking enemies. Time and time again this same deterrent argument is used to prevent more humane treatment of refugees and migrants, whether it is then-Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond arguing against stopping people drowning in the Mediterranean or Home Secretary Amber Rudd recently suspending the Dubs amendment, which gave 350 unaccompanied children refuge in the United Kingdom before it was deemed to have run its course (there are currently an estimated 13 million children displaced by conflict around the world).
Using inhumanity as a deterrent is clearly a short-sighted way to deal with a vast movement of people. These arguments are made by politicians because there is assumed to be a receptive audience for them, not because they are sensible or right. This is the standard of political discourse at the moment, and it is the barren ground into which campaigners and journalists try to plant a seed of resistance towards immigration detention and the constellation of racist policies of which it forms a substantial part. Like Agamben’s Ancient Greeks, we still cling to the idea in politics that if something is true it will be inherently persuasive – if something bad is exposed to society, it will be fixed. But this also, obviously, depends in the first place on the values of the society in question.
The government seems confident of the anti-immigrant fervour in this country, and, according to the lawyer Frances Webber, has moved further than any other European country in requiring average citizens to enforce the ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants – ‘staff in hospitals, local authorities, universities and colleges, prospective employers, bank staff and landlords, as well as road haulage contractors, train, airline and shipping operators,’ have all now become responsible for checking and reporting the immigration status of those they encounter.
As long ago as 1987 the Conservative MP Jeremy Hanley complained that prison-like detention centres were unsuitable for people who, ‘after all, have not been convicted of any crime’. Yet years of concerted effort to forge a link between crime and immigration during the early 2000s – a phenomenon that academics have even formulated an ugly word for, ‘crimmigration’ – have allowed comments like this, by the Conservative minister Mims Davies in 2015, to become commonplace in defence of immigration detention – ‘A state cannot allow those who break the law to continue to live as though they have not done so. The rule of law depends on us upholding it appropriately.’ The sledgehammer irony was utterly lost on Davies, who presents detention as some kind of essential arm of the moral authority of the state and its laws, rather than an illegal innovation that threatens to fatally undermine them.
As January slipped into February this year, like many other listlessly outraged people I compulsively read the endless news reports about the executive order that President Donald Trump signed, banning entry to the U.S. from certain countries. What struck me in reading many of these reports were the accounts people gave to journalists as they, stranded in different parts of the world or at home in the U.S., searched for themselves in the language of the executive order, trying to work out if it applied to them, trying to work out if an aspect of their identity had taken on a sudden, dangerous legal dimension, on the heels of a dangerous political dimension which had been taking shape for quite some time. The scenes made me recall, involuntarily, a similar one of a young Austrian look- ing over recently published laws in a coffee house in Vienna in 1935. ‘I needed only to skim them and already I could perceive that they applied to me,’ wrote Jean Amery, decades later. ‘After I had read the Nuremberg Laws I was no more Jewish than a half hour before. My features had not become more Mediterranean Semitic, my frame of reference had not suddenly been filled by magic power with Hebrew allusions, the Christmas tree had not wondrously transformed itself in to the seven-armed candelabra.’ And yet ‘society ... had just made me formally and beyond any question a Jew, or rather it had given a new dimension to what I had already known earlier, but which at the time was of no great consequence to me, namely, that I was a Jew.’
Immediately after the U.S. election there was a largely white, male line of commentary arguing that something called ‘identity politics’ was to blame, that Hillary Clinton had spent too much time and energy specifically appealing to non-white, non-male people. In this mindset ‘identity politics’ is, bizarrely, the cause of racism rather than a reaction to it. Of course the politics of identity has been practiced consistently and relentlessly by Western states for a long time – indeed different European and American political cultures, from the rise of nationalism and colonialism in the eighteenth century, have always taken the political potential of identity very seriously, as Amery experienced.
Immigration detention is part of this lineage of state identity politics, states attempting to define themselves against others based on a narrow, racialised under- standing of identity. It arose in Britain during a time of great post-colonial anxiety, and it’s no coincidence that it has expanded during the years after 9/11, a political period that has seen a worryingly casual attitude towards Islamophobia – culminating in the specific tone of the Brexit debate, and Trump. To detain people in this way, in a manner that would usually be expected to attract great scandal, you need to create a category of detainable person. As evidenced from the detention population, this category is overwhelmingly non-white, and from countries tied to Britain’s colonial past. There’s no reason why that category could not also generously expand, as it has done before.
For now the outlook isn’t good. Theresa May has a poor record on detention, both in the Home Office and as prime minister. In March, in a half empty side room at the Houses of Parliament, a handful of cross party MPs attempted to hold Minister for Immigration Robert Goodwill to account. The most vocal anti-detention MPs, across all parties, tend to be those with detention centres in their constituencies – due to their regular contact with people in detention, and knowledge of their stories, they can’t ignore the reality of it. Those in the room heard many of these stories, along with news that the average time of detention was actually lengthening, that progress on abolishing the detention of pregnant women and children was still stalling, and that vulnerable people and those with mental health conditions continued to suffer in the system.
As for Amir, the happy ending is also yet to come. He speaks excellent English, but still he worries that it won’t be enough to get him the kind of job he deserves, that he’s studying for, in an office rather than going door to door with surveys. He’s always on temporary contracts that only last a month or two, always looking for more work. On top of that the political climate worries him – he won’t feel safe in his status until he’s granted permanent residency in a few years. Until then, even though he’s been confirmed as a refugee, he lives in fear that the decision might somehow be reversed and he could end up in detention again or, worse, deported.
Still, despite his present worries he continues to remember that day, when he looked back at Harmondsworth, from the outside, as one of the happiest in his life. The way he describes it to me he was almost delirious. He had only ever seen the surrounding area briefly through the windows of a transport van, at night, and had no idea how to get home. He got on the wrong bus, which took him up a side road, where the detention centre suddenly and unexpectedly becomes visible in full profile across an expansive green field.
It was a light summer evening, and getting out and looking at the buildings, waiting for a bus to take him back the other way, he imagined all the people he knew still in there, still stuck in their rooms, still under the threat of deportation, and he told me over his coffee that he feels guilty now because in that moment he didn’t even feel sad for them, he just felt happy he wasn’t in there any more. ‘I never thought I would enjoy waiting for the bus,’ he told me, smiling. When he got back home to Walthamstow, his friends were there waiting for him.