Bill MacKeith reports
Immigration detention centres erupt
In the second week of March people fought the biggest-ever protest in UK immigration detention centres. Hunger strikes and other mass protests took place in eight of the 11 immigration detention centres, in Dover, Morton Hall (Lincolnshire), The Verne (Dorset), Harmondsworth and Colnbrook near Heathrow, Dungavel in Scotland, Yarl’s Wood near Bedford and Tinsley at Gatwick.
Credit: Campaign against Campsfield
You probably don’t know about it, because there was a total news blackout on BBC and ITV. Yet this was a big challenge to a key repressive measure.
News of the protests came via the Detained Voices blog and the film outlet Standoff films. Russia Today TV gave substantial coverage. A significant feature of the protests was the prominence of the voices of the detainees themselves, through mobile phones.
Space opens up to challenge detention
On March 12, during the strikes, the government withdrew its planning application to double the size of Campsfield detention centre near Oxford. This was the first ever such victory in stopping the relentless expansion of detention centres. It resulted from a sustained effort led by the Campaign to Close Campsfield that included a letters to the prime minister from 21 local organisations and another from 79 senior Oxford university academics half of them heads of colleges and professors, over 70 local and national objections to Cherwell Council, lobbies and meetings supported by Movement For Justice, trade unions, the local (Tory) MP and others. Social media helped: #StopCampsfieldExpansion
These developments followed publication on March 3 of the report from the first ever parliamentary Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention in the UK. The all-party panel’s report included recommendations for: a 28 day time limit to detention (the UK is unusual in having no limit), full judicial oversight of detention decisions (there is no automatic judicial oversight), reduction of detention and introduction of non punitive community alternatives.
So a small unprecedented space has opened up to challenge one of the most punitive aspects of immigration policy and to argue for the end of the barbaric imprisonment every year of 30,000 innocent people locked up indefinitely without judicial oversight under 1981 immigration Act powers.
The dangerous hypocrisy of the main parties
Most of this has passed the main parties by. On 20 March, the UK-based daily Guardian’s front page lead was: ‘298,000: This is the number now fuelling UK growth. But you won’t hear the word from politicians. That’s because it is the M word. Migrants.’
298,000 is the Office of Budget Responsibility’s estimate of net immigration into the UK in the past year, revised upward from 210,000. The OBR forecasts a similar net increase in each of the next five years. It is these figures, says the OBR, that underlie the increase in projected Gross National Product in the coming years, more than falling oil prices or other factors.
In 2010, at the start of the coalition government, the Conservatives set a target of limiting net immigration to a 100,000 a year. Following its agenda of ‘responding to ‘concerns about immigration among ordinary people’, the Labour leadership immediately attacked the government for failing to reach its target.
The rise of the UK Independence Party is precisely a result of the failure of the main political parties
- to represent the interests of the working class by repealing anti-union laws, reversing privatisations, expanding state expenditure, building homes, etc.
- to admit that the economy increasingly depends on the labour of newly arrived workers, and that to reduce immigration would lead to a declining economy, including critical labour shortages in health and care services, catering and other sectors. This failure gives purchase to the mythology of benefits tourism, council house queue-jumping, swamping and the like assiduously promoted by the media; to scapegoating and the sowing of division among the oppressed.
Conversely, this failure is one of the attractions of political organisations such as the Green parties and Left Unity who offer a more coherent narrative on migration.
Some opinion polls indicate that immigration is high among the list of ‘concerns of ordinary people’. Such results may result largely from the context of the relevant question in the list of poll questions, and the way in which it the question is phrased. But ‘concern about immigration’ is often a displacement activity for more concrete worries about low pay, lack of access to housing, the depredations of private companies, intrusions and abuses by the state, matters that are not (certainly not primarily, in the case of low pay) caused by immigration.
Party policies in the election run-up
What is on offer from the political parties? Most party manifestos are not yet published (why not?), but the following is from their websites.
The Conservatives promise ‘more of the same’. In relation to higher than expected immigration, they bluster that it is all the fault of the European Union, a claim less credible in light of the fact that in the 12 months to September 2014, non-EU migration added 190,000 new residents to the country’s population. From April, as a result of the Con-Dem 2014 Immigration Act, an ‘immigrant health surcharge’ of £200 per year for temporary immigration categories and £150 for overseas students will be introduced, payable on application for a visa. It is payable by non-European Economic Area (EEA) nationals who apply to come for a time-limited period of more than 6 months, and by non-EEA nationals already in the UK and apply to extend their stay. So the surcharge for a three-year student stay will be £450.
Tories dog-whistle policies include ‘clamping down on benefits tourism and health tourism’ (there is barely if any), ‘making it much tougher for illegal immigrants to remain in the UK by restricting access to work, housing, benefits, healthcare, bank accounts and driving licenses’ (Home Secretary Theresa May’s desired ‘hostile environment’), and ‘introducing a new citizen test with British values at its heart’ (e.g. who was the first archbishop of Canterbury; name two forts on Hadrian’s Wall).
For Labour, fourth out of five items on its election ‘pledge card’ is control on immigration: People who come here will not be able to claim benefits for at least two years’ (Ed Miliband: ‘You should contribute before you claim’). Migrants are unlikely to be deterred from coming by such restrictions and the number of people likely to be hit by the restriction is so small as to be irrelevant as an immigration control. Those affected are likely to be in super-exploited sectors such as care homes and catering. Labour also offers ‘strengthening our borders [‘an extra 1,000 border staff, making it easier to deport all foreign criminals and stop illegal immigration’], with proper entry and exit checks’, and ‘fair rules when people get here: ‘people integrating into communities and learning English’.
Labour says it would increase fines for firms that avoid the National Minimum Wage, stop agency contracts being used to undercut permanent staff, ban recruitment agencies from hiring only from abroad, and make it a criminal offence to undercut pay or conditions by exploiting migrant workers. But Labour’s manifesto will certainly fail to promise a Minimum Wage at a reasonable £10 or repeal anti-union laws. Last year Labour voted against Shirley Williams’ bill for a 60 day limit on immigration detention.
The Liberal Democrats pre-manifesto promised ‘full border checks’ on entry and exit, to ‘double enforcement of minimum wage laws to tackle illegal working and human trafficking’, and to ‘reduce and ultimately abolish payment of child benefit for children not resident in the UK’. They say ‘We are rebuilding trust in the system. We have helped cut immigration by a third’ (the link to that on their website no longer works!). They claim to have ‘ended child detention’ which, while reduced, continues at Tinsley and Cedars detention centres. Their spring conference last year voted for a time limit to detention, and the right of asylum seekers to work.
The Scottish Nationalist Party favours increased immigration for demographic reasons, and a ‘controlled points-based system to support the migration of skilled workers’. The Scottish government’s referendum platform document Scotland’s Future, said independent Scotland would close Dungavel detention centre and end dawn raids, but not all ‘forcible removals’.
The Green Party of England and Wales’s policy is interesting and quite closely argued: ‘We will work to achieve greater equity between the UK and non-Western countries. In step with this, we will progressively reduce UK immigration controls.’ ‘The Green Party would end the detention of asylum seekers, which is costly, traumatic, inhumane and totally unnecessary.’ Elsewhere, however: ‘There will be an upper time limit of 28 days on all immigration detention’; ‘No prospective immigrant will be held in detention for migration-related reasons, other than in the most exceptional circumstances, e.g. a prospective migrant who poses a serious danger to public safety.’ There should be an amnesty for undocumented migrants in the UK for five years and asylum seekers should have equal benefits and the right to work.
The Trade Union and Socialist Coalition’s policies include: ‘Welcome diversity and oppose racism, fascism and discrimination. Defend the right to asylum, repeal the 2014 Immigration Act and all racist immigration controls.’
Left Unity – which has published its manifesto – is opposed to immigration controls, as they solve none of the problems facing the working class, and they divide it. It argues explicitly against the idea of their being non-racist immigration controls. It wants to be a strong migrant voice and supports the closure of all immigration detention centres.
Scope for change
Labour’s promise on 26 March to end indefinite immigration detention (but not for foreign nationals who have served a prison sentence and await the double punishment of deportation), the government’s decision to close Haslar in Portsmouth (197 places) and its statement that ‘we do not … want to see growth in the numbers of people in immigration detention centres’, together with the Campsfield climb-down are big developments.
If Labour fails to secure a majority, they will have to enter into more or less formal arrangements with the SNP. And that means keeping the pressure up by any possible means on both Labour and the SNP to give these issues priority.
It is necessary to build alliances locally, nationally and internationally, with migrants in the leadership, to defend the right for freedom of movement and the right to remain. The Stand Up To Racism and Fascism demonstration in London on the 21 March and the Don’t Let Them Drown demonstration in Sheffield on March 17 show willingness to recognise that the UK’s deadly immigration policies impact not just within the UK, but in Calais, the Mediterranean and through UK consulates worldwide.
Bill MacKeith is a founder member (1994) of the Campaign to Close Campsfield and an elected officer of Oxford & District Trades Union Council for the past 30 years.
 Miliband speech in Yarmouth, 14 December 2104.