Today, the Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell is set to visit Brook House detention centre near Gatwick Airport. This is notable for two reasons. Firstly, because only very few MPs take the time to visit people in detention. I was detained in Harmondsworth IRC for five months, and I never saw any elected official or a member of Parliament. We were calling out for someone from outside to come and see how we were being treated, locked up in cages. But no-one came and the message we got from that was that we were ‘out of sight, out of mind’, nobody cared. We were made to feel helpless and isolated, just the way the Home Office likes it.
Secondly, it is notable that Mr. Mitchell is a Conservative MP. The present government have pushed the idea of detention as a deterrent with great enthusiasm for many years. Just in the same way the ‘Windrush scandal’ has revealed their willingness to put votes over basic humanity, so has indefinite detention become a central part of their commitment to make life a living nightmare for all migrants, whoever they are, whatever their right to remain in the UK.
To Mr. Mitchell’s credit, he has publicly criticised detention as a ‘dystopian stain on our democracy’ and has pushed the Government to disclose the enormous financial cost of this broken system to the taxpayer. It is refreshing to see this when so many of his other party colleagues - not least the ex-Immigration Minister, Brandon Lewis - continue to openly lie to the public, and themselves, about detention in the UK and its impacts. Whilst I have no interest in endorsing one political party over another when it comes to detention reform, it can sometimes feel like the Conservative party are the only ones left in the whole country with their heads still in the sand about the horrors of indefinite detention – everyone from the Bar Council to the UN agrees there should be a 28-day time limit as an urgent first step in addressing the government’s addiction to detention. Perhaps, staying away from the physical sites of this inhumane policy is a necessary part of denying that indefinite detention actually exists (which they do repeatedly, despite the evidence).
Of course, going to visit a detention centre does not mean you will necessarily get an accurate picture of what detention is like, or how that centre normally runs. G4S and Home Office staff will likely be the ones showing Mr. Mitchell around. They will no doubt present a fairy-tale picture of good immigration control in practice: he will be introduced to the ‘right’ people and he will be taken down the ‘right’ corridors. It is very unlikely he will see evidence of the culture of abuse captured by the BBC Panorama documentary last year. As was the case when the Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, and member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Stuart McDonald, visited Yarl’s Wood last month, the truth can only come via those who had or are experiencing detention themselves. Without their consultation, any such visit will be ineffective.
If Mr. Mitchell does speak to those people inside Brook House, he will also be indirectly hearing from those inside Dungavel, or Campsfield, or Colnbrook, from people locked up indefinitely all over the country. This is because the experience of detention is not defined by the conditions of each centre but by the cruelty of the adverse policies that dictate them.
The current Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into detention seem to have recognised this. The inquiry was first launched in response to the undercover footage of physical and mental abuse in Brook House, and was supposed to only focus on this detention centre alone. Then we saw the fourth death in the space of a year at Morton Hall and a month-long hunger strike in Yarl’s Wood, and the inquiry was forced to broaden their scope to include these detention centres as well. Representatives from Serco (Yarl’s Wood) and HMIP (Morton Hall) were brought in to give testimony before the Select Committee, and they said there is not much they can do given the Home Office’s policy to detain (at all costs). I believe private contractors are also complicit in this human rights and civil liberties disaster, but there is some truth in their statements. Even if they were to provide the best care in the world, it would be still be indefinite detention.
The Select Committee has now decided to extend it to the detention estate as a whole. If it is carried out correctly, it will be a big surprise if it does not reach the same conclusion as the cross-party Parliamentary Inquiry on Detention report in 2015: that we need urgent and radical reform of the whole detention system. But any wider inquiry would also reveal that indefinite detention is not an aberration. It fits perfectly into a whole network of policies that make up Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’, which looks to target all migrants, however long they’ve been in this country. Immigration detention is directly linked to the restrictions on the right to rent, Go Home vans, reporting centres, the financial cost of making immigration appeals, access to healthcare, and many other restrictions designed to make life untenable for migrants in the UK.
These policies not only destroy individuals’ lives with direct attacks on their dignity and welfare, they also damage the collective ideal of what it means to live in a shared society. That is why Mr. Mitchell’s visit to Brook House is an important symbolic step, and it is an especially welcome one for a Conservative MP. But it is also clearly not enough. Just like the ‘Windrush scandal’, if it is seen and framed in isolation, then nothing will really change.
*Not the author’s real name