Earlier this month, hundreds of people detained in Britain's immigrant detention centers went on hunger strike, the largest protest migration activists have seen in several years. In at least eight facilities across the UK, migrants and asylum seekers refused food and demanded change to a system that they see as abusive and inhumane.
The events in the UK roughly coincided with the one-year anniversary of a hunger strike at Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, providing Americans with a reminder of the immense risks taken by hunger strikers—and the culture of criminalization that shapes migrant life on both sides of the Atlantic.
The hunger strikes began after British news station Channel 4 posted footage secretly recorded in two detention centers. One Home Office employee at Harmondsworth, near Heathrow, was caught on tape suggesting that cameras were prohibited on the inside in order to prevent the poor conditions from becoming public knowledge. Another video captured a detainee speaking to his case worker. "I'm tired, I don't want to die here," he pleads on the phone. "I want freedom, I got detained, three years now I've spent my life behind doors. Why?" A website called " Detained Voices" has since been set up to publish the stories and experiences of people held in detention.
Over the first few days of the hunger strikes, demands emerged, including access to justice/legal representation, proper healthcare and adequate food, and an end to indefinite detention and unlawful or expedited removals.
Immigrants in the US have reported experiencing similarly appalling conditions while detained—they have been held for months or even years, endured alleged physical and sexual abuse at the hands of guards, and received extremely low wages for their labor.
In both the UK and US, corporations play a large role in running immigration detention centers. The same company that operates the Northwest Detention Center, the GEO Group, also operates Dungavel, one of the facilities where detainees went on hunger strike in the UK.
Dr. Daniel Wilsher, Professor of Law at City University London, told VICE that the US and Britain utilize similar legal and and policy frameworks when it comes to immigration detention. Each year, about 30,000 people are held in detention facilities in the UK, compared to about 450,000 people in the US. Neither country has implemented strict limits on the amount of time people can be imprisoned.
According to leaders from last year's action at Northwest Detention Center, hunger strikes enable migrants to assert a sense of power and agency even in the most desperate of circumstances. "Civil disobedience is necessary to stand on your own and refuse to be humiliated to conform," a group of activists calling themselves the Northwest Detention Center Resistance told VICE via email. "They want to make us believe we are imprisoned even mentally, these actions prove that we won't continue allowing for oppression to take over us, even if we are detained."
At least 750 migrants participated in last year's action.
Hunger strikes have become a common enough tactic in the United States that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has developed a protocol to rely on when they pop up. Britain's Home Office has also issued specific guidelines for how to manage "food and fluid refusal" on the part of detainees.
Along with establishing official polices for hunger strikes, British and American immigration authorities have gone to great lengths to undermine resistance actions on the inside. Last week, the British Home Office issued removal orders to several people participating in the hunger strike there, and moved strike leaders to different detention centers.
Both in the Northwest Detention Center and its British counterparts, hunger strikers have been thrown in solitary confinement when they refused to eat. During last year's actions in Tacoma, participating detainees were even threatened with force-feeding.
In the context of such repression, according to advocates and migrants, measuring the "success" of a hunger strike is not always easy. The latest action in the UK did receive prominent news coverage, which activists hope will translate into increased public awareness about the problems inside detention centers.
But none of the specific demands outlined by the migrants were met, and some detainees have expressed doubt they'll benefit from the actions. Although the British hunger strike at Harmondsworth officially ended on March 18, Mohammad Waqas, 25, has continued to refuse food on his own. In a series of phone interviews from the detention center, he told VICE that the British government "doesn't care if we're on the hunger strike or not." At the time of his last interview, had had not eaten for 15 days.
When asked, the Northwest Detention Center Resistance activists were more confident that their actions that had resulted in real change. They said that the hunger strikes brought increased access to bond hearings, lower bonds, more humane treatment on the inside, and sustained outside support and media interest.
Meanwhile, like much of Europe, the United Kingdom has been embroiled in an increasingly vitriolic national debate about immigration policy. "What's new in the last year is that hostility towards migrants has explicitly become government policy," said London-based activist Rose Stark, who asked to use pseudonym since she feared losing visitation rights. According to Home Secretary Theresa May, the stated aim of the Immigration Act of 2014, which was passed last year, was to turn "create a really hostile environment for illegal migrants."
"I think in some ways Britain is following in the footsteps of the US, actually," said Stark. "There's been an increasing conflation between the idea of foreignness and the idea of criminality, and you see that in the bogeyman of the so-called foreign national prisoner."
In a 2012 election debate, President Barack Obama called for American immigration control officials to aggressively deport "criminals, gang bangers, people who are hurting the community, not after students, not after folks who are here just because they're trying to figure out how to feed their families."
But even if the president has vocalized sympathy for undocumented people without criminal records, his actual record on deportations suggests that no category of migrant is safe.
"President Obama deserves credit for adopting immigration detention conditions reforms early in his presidency and for his recent executive action on immigration," said Carl Takei, Staff Attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, in an email to VICE. "However, he has also presided over the biggest immigration detention system in US history—and deported more people than any of his predecessors."
According to some experts, these trends can be linked to changing ideas about fear and threats in post-9/11 America.
"The new danger is masculine, one personified by terrorist men and 'criminal aliens,'" Tanya Golash-Boza, an Associate Professor at University of California Merced, said via email. "Mass deportation and mass detention have emerged as a primary strategy for protecting the nation from the gendered and racial threats of criminal and fugitive aliens and terrorists."
As detainees in the UK wound down their hunger strike, the Northwest Detention Center Resistance activists reflected on the events of last year and urged those held in immigration detention to continue fighting for their rights and building power.
"If you are not being treated as a human being, what else is left to do?"
Aviva Stahl is a Brooklyn-based journalist who writes about prisons, particularly the use of solitary confinement and the experiences of terrorism suspects and LGBTQ people behind bars. Follow her on Twitter.