On Friday, there was a mass hunger strike at Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre near Heathrow airport. Detainees – mostly asylum seekers whose claims are judged to have failed – downed forks in protest at their living conditions, as well as the obvious annoyance of being held somewhere indefinitely before being returned to a country you want to escape from. If you ask GEO Group, who run the centre, as few as 30 people protested. However, asylum seekers claimed it was about ten times that number.
We talked to Jasmine Sallis from Glasgow's Unity Centre, an organisation that provides support to asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. Sallis tracked down the mobile numbers of some of the hunger strikers – who were now eating again, after Harmondsworth managers agreed to organise a meeting with Home Office officials for Tuesday. We called some of them up so that they could tell us what’s been going on in their own words. They painted a picture of horrible food, constant coldness and a lack of access to facilities and the outside world.
“We all feel we are going crazy,” one man told us. “We feel alone and isolated like we have been left in the middle of the bush. The food is disgusting and our freedom has been taken away. We are all suffering.”
It's believed that a broken fax machine was the final straw that led to Friday’s protest. That may sound weirdly banal but many detainees rely on faxes to build their asylum appeals – yet, they say, access to it is constantly restricted. “They will tell you there is no paper and we should go and look for paper,” one guy said. “How can a detainee look for paper?”
Others complained about the lack of healthcare. The strongest medication you can get in Harmondsworth is paracetomol, the detainees told us. “You know within yourself you are sick but they tell you to go and drink water."
We were also told that scheduled hospital appointments are routinely ignored. One detainee claims to have missed an operation on a gunshot wound in his stomach as a result of his detention. A second told us he “had to scream” at guards to persuade them to take him to his appointment in handcuffs. Not that the detainees who make it to hospital always fare particularly well. “I know someone who went to hospital and they chained him to the bed,” we heard. “When he wanted to use the toilet he was on a chain like a dog. We are all desperate and nothing is being done about our treatment.”
Harmondsworth IRC is among the largest immigration removal centres in Europe – a 620-capacity facility with conditions equivalent to a Category B prison. It holds male asylum seekers – most of whom have had their claims rejected – in some cases indefinitely. GEO’s website makes it look more like a rehab centre for celebs who’d like to kick their habits somewhere convenient for the Tie Rack at Heathrow than a badly run prison. It boasts of, “Accredited education courses, Library, Cinema, Garden, ICT Suite, Indoor Sports Hall, Fitness Suite, Five aside Football Pitch, Chapel, Mosque, and Multi-Faith Facilities, Shop, Healthcare”.
It’s hard to know who to believe. GEO Group runs part of Guantanamo Bay and in America it has been subject to allegations of human rights abuses, assault and negligence. It also lost a contract to run immigration centres in Australia after scandals involving riots, racism and assault. Harmondsworth has a fairly shitty reputation for detainee care, with at least seven deaths in the centre since 2001. In a report issued last year, the chief inspector of prisons described "shocking cases" where "a sense of humanity was lost”. One of these was the case of Alios Dvorzac, an 84-year-old Canadian man with Alzheimer’s, who died last year while handcuffed to a wheelchair.
GEO Group is worth $2.45 billion (£1.45 billion). Its UK division turned over £20 million in 2012. Recently, they lost the contract to run Harmondsworth and it will be taken over by another multinational called Mitie in September. Mitie are set to cash in, making a cool £180 million over the next five years for locking up people who are fleeing war and persecution.
The detainees insisted that some guards were “nice”, but others less so. “They don't care if you have been through torture or not, they don't even respect you have been through stress,” said one. Another told us: “One night I was feeling so desperate. I was making noise in my room and seven guards came in with a camera and forced me onto the bed with my face down. I thought I was going to die, there are scratches on my body and healthcare gave me cream for that but it does nothing. Then they left me in a room all alone for two days. On the third day, they opened the room.”
As well as the conditions, detainees pointed to the fast-track system – through which 99 per cent of claims are refused – as one of their reasons for Friday’s protest. It all happens way too quickly and is full of clerical errors, we were told. “I appealed on time and then they lost the appeal,” said a detainee. “If I hadn't had help checking this I would have been sent back as they said I didn't put the appeal in on time even though I did. There are so many mistakes they make that affect people’s lives but they don't care.”
We had a chat with a spokesperson from GEO UK who denied that access to the fax machine is restricted and insisted that its staff replenish its paper. There was no fault with the machine logged on Friday, it said. As for the standard of healthcare, GEO said, "Harmondsworth has a very well equipped healthcare centre staffed by appropriately qualified healthcare professionals. It provides high quality healthcare which is to NHS and Care Quality Commission standards and it is audited independently," adding, "patients are prescribed appropriate medication by the doctors in accordance with the medical diagnosis."
As for the protest, the spokesperson was keen to downplay it, saying, “A short and entirely passive protest took place at Harmondsworth IRC, involving between 30 and 40 detainees, over their concerns relating to their immigration status. They missed one meal.”
So, perhaps some of the hunger strike was symbolic – a warning shot acoss GEO’s bow. That said, detainees told us that one man has been on continuous hunger strike for 70 days as of Sunday. He was arrested while transiting through a UK airport en route to Canada and was sentenced to six months for having “not genuine papers”. Then, the Home Office “lost” his passport, and he has had to wait, racking up over two years in detention. Recently, he was found unfit for detention and unfit to fly, but despite that, was issued a flight ticket last week.
And yesterday, activists claimed that unrest had spread to other detention centres.
From talking to the detainees, it seemed like their main demand wasn’t even to stay in the UK, but just to have a fair trial: proper legal representation, time to properly build their case and an end to the irregularities and admin errors that mean it’s almost impossible for them to successfully gain asylum.
As the world continues to be a mess of conflicts, prejudice and inequality, more asylum seekers are likely to come to this country. And as Theresa May continues to be bent on making Britain a “hostile environment”, it seems likely that Friday won’t be the last time migrants take action to get a fair hearing and improve their shitty situation.
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