Soon after allegations of the centres guards beating a detainee were made, it because almost impossible to talk to migrants living there.
Last Wednesday, campaigners from Oxford Migrant Solidarity gathered in a cold and muddy field outside Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) for an emergency protest-come-reconnaissance mission. From behind the barbed wire and fence guarding the centre 20 metres beyond, they hoisted up a makeshift banner emblazoned with a phone number in big blue digits and suspended it by rope and bungees between two lampposts. Brandishing a loud speaker, a man began to shout out the number over and over again into the silence.
The reason this weird form of activism took place is because of an incident that happened last Saturday. According to the centre's detainees and migrant advocacy groups, staff at the Mitie run Campsfield IRC beat a man with mental health problems. The centre holds up to 216 men for indeterminate periods of time while the Home Office weighs up the validity of their asylum claims against the government's desire to pander to an increasingly anti-immigrant body politic.
Over one hundred detainees inside the centre protested in response to the alleged assault, occupying the courtyard and calling for England to "Hear our voice". But then, before anybody could really grasp what was going on, the most vocal detainees started becoming impossible to contact, one by one.
A video was made immediately after the incident (by Standoff Films, who have documented incidents at Campsfield and Harmondsworth IRC before), collating the testimony of several eyewitnesses. "Five or six of them [guards] came, they put him down on the floor, they kicked him in the legs," says a detainee identified as only "EO" in the video for his safety, speaking on the phone to people outside. "This is the second time the same guy has been beaten up," he adds, "the first time he was beaten up he had mental issues, he got mentally disturbed."
Within 24 hours the film-makers had lost contact with everybody who spoke to them.
Of course, taking place behind locked doors, it's difficult to know for sure what exactly happened. Kate Smart, the director of Asylum Welcome, an Oxford based organisation, which works with people in Campsfield, says she believes the video to be genuine. "We speak to detainees a lot on the telephone and we have no reason to doubt this is the voice of detainees," she told me. "But no one from Asylum Welcome was there so nobody knows what really happened."
Unfortunately, before anybody could find the man who was allegedly beaten, or anything else that might prove what happened, the lines all rang dead. Vera Wriedt, a visitor from Oxford Migrant Solidarity (OMS), tried to go inside to visit one of the men the filmmakers had spoken to – as she had done without any hassle plenty of times before – but Mitie staff denied her access, and threatened to call the police.
By Wednesday, the rumour was that most people who were in contact with OMS and had their phone number were in solitary confinement and had had their phones confiscated. And that's why the activists ended up standing outside the camp, shouting a phone number in the hope that someone inside would hear it, call them and let them know what the hell was going on in there.
For a while, nobody got in touch. The activists walked around the centre to gaps in the bushes where people have been able to speak to detainees through the fence in the past. Still no luck.
Eventually they received a single, solitary text from inside. One of the detainees informed the activists that they just happened to all have had to attend a compulsory sporting event that day, and so nobody was allowed to come outside at that particular time. Which seemed like quite a coincidence.
Before long, Mitie staff asked the police, who had been hanging around, to remove protesters from the land around the centre, too. Luckily, the police refused, pointing out that protesters were doing no harm, and although they continued to follow the protesters, they pretty much let them get on with it.
Finally, just when everyone was about to give up, one person did call up. An activist held the phone to a microphone attached to a loud speaker to try and help everyone hear. However, Mitie had so successfully locked down the centre that the guy hadn't really got anything new to report, except that it was really, really horrible in there, and it had got worse since the weekend. "We're being treated like animals," he said.
Detainees say they called 999 following the assault on the 29th November, but Mitie have even been keeping the police out, suggesting their presence would further aggravate the situation. "The police were advised by Mitie that if they came in it would make more problems in itself," said Bill MacKeith, of Close Campsfield, "but they were trying to make the police think about riot police whereas what the detainees wanted was an investigation by a small number of cops into an assault."
Kate of Asylum welcome was extremely concerned about this. "I did speak to the police and they do have in their log that they have had calls from detainees, yet the film says that the police did not attend the incident. I think there are questions for someone else to follow up on, as to the way these authorities interact with each other."
A whole week after the alleged assault, I was finally able to speak to the man who first reported the incident, who I'll call Khaled. He had been taken to Colnbrook, a completely different detention centre about 60 miles away in Slough. Colnbrook is built to class B prison standards, making it the highest security detention centre in the UK. Khaled told me that before being taken there he was in solitary confinement for four days and he wasn't even allowed to speak to his wife.
I finally got to ask him what had happened the week before in Campsfield. He told me it was already tense in Campsfield on Saturday 29th November, following a protest outside which called for the closure of the centre after 21 years, and an end to immigration detention in general. Things got worse when a detainee who suffers from epilepsy collapsed.
"He fell down," Khaled, who has been in detention since November, told me. "When he gets this disease he hits his head, he falls down very fast and it's very dangerous. I said to them please stop this, take him to hospital." Khaled said that the guards didn't listen and told him and other detainees to go away. "Everybody became angry," he said. Staff then tried to forcefully clear the area.
One man, who Khaled believes has mental health issues and has been beaten in detention before, asked angrily why a guard had pushed him. As ZW claims in the video, rather than answering, "the manager said to the other four guys, the other officers here, to beat him up. Five of them put him on the floor and they beat him up really badly".
"He was shouting, he was crying, we tried to go outside, but they locked us in the library," said Khaled.
Kate confirmed that, "Several people have told us that what they saw was the second detainee being pinned to the ground by several guards," but she added that, "it is simply a question of whether he was being restrained or physically abused by the guards and we're not in a position to verify either way."
When I spoke to Mitie, they didn't say anything and referred me to the Home Office. The Home Office told me, "We are aware of an incident at Campsfield Immigration Removal Centre on Saturday 29th of November which resulted in an officer sustaining minor injuries. No detainees were injured and nobody required hospital treatment."
Unsurprisingly, they didn't want to tell me any more than that. In the video made shortly after the incident, the detainee identified as EO says, "All they are trying to do right now is not let the news go out of this centre. That's all they are trying to do right now because they have assaulted the same person for a second time and they don't want the outside world to know about it."
Whether there really is an active cover up, or something else beyond those walls that's obscured to those of us on the outside, it's hard to say for sure. It's certainly incredibly difficult to get any information out of the centre. That's the nature of an incident where the only witnesses are locked up, vulnerable and trapped in a system that – according to detainees – is inherently racist. Aren't detention centres, after all, places where the Home Office put people they want to go away, out of sight and, they hope, out of mind?