Around 10:30pm on Saturday, July 4th, a riot broke out in Campsfield House, Oxfordshire, leading to 26 migrants escaping the immigration prison. 15 have since been recaptured, while the rest are still on the run. It followed a yard protest on Tuesday night against the appalling conditions inside the detention centre, which is run by American company GEO, and the discriminatory decisions of Newport immigration court, which is used for bail hearings and appeals involving Campsfield detainees. A hunger strike was started on Wednesday but was put on hold pending a meeting with Home Office representatives on Friday. A further yard protest on Friday night was held as the meeting failed to meet the prisoners' demands. Three solidarity demos were held on Tuesday midday at Campsfield House, Lindholme (Doncaster) and the Communication House (London) [reports: 1 | 2 | 3 ].
Last week, a revolt in a detention centre in Bari, Italy, led to at least 35 migrants escaping. Three weeks ago, 69 Tamil detainees in 5 detention centres, including Campsfield, went on hunger strike against a Home Office decision to deport them back to Sri Lanka [appeal]. Many are still on hunger strike while two Sri Lankan detainees in Harmondswoth, near Heathrow, have been on hunger strike for almost a month (see also Immigration detention: Unworkable).
According to the Campaign to Close Campsfield, detainees were evacuated into the yard at around 10:30pm on Saturday after a fire in the centre's makeshift kitchen (a Portakabin where the centre's detested diet of chips is prepared). There was allegedly a risk that the large gas bottles stacked outside would explode. Then, at about 10:45, reports came in that a group of detainees were smashing through the back gate. At about 11:30, detainees were being marshalled back into their cells and locked in, while a police helicopter was circling around. No fewer than eight fire appliances were seen. Hoses were being paid out although the kitchen fire had reportedly been extinguished.
A while later a new fire broke out in one of the accommodation blocks and detainees were evacuated into the yard again. Meanwhile, another group were trying to break out but these did not succeed. About 6 police vehicles were already at the side gate, with dogs and some officers donning riot gear. There was a moment of drama when the "spacemen" approached the penned-in detainees and were pelted with mud, small stones and insults.
Around 6:30 on Sunday morning, detainees were taken back inside and were "locked down" with police lining the corridors of the centre.
A statement by detainees at Campsfield House on Tuesday read:
“Newport immigration court, which is used for bail hearings and appeals involving Campsfield detainees, is very discriminatory compared to other courts in the UK: the bail application and appeal success rate there is less than 5%. Living conditions for detainees are appalling. Campsfield is a health hazard with 70% infection with flu. Paracetomol is the only medicine made available; two weeks ago even this ran out. Campsfield was rife with scabies, but only staff were issued with gloves. Although detainees are held civil detainees, not convicted prisoners or prisoners on remand, food, toilets and showers are a lot worse than in prisons. Some detainees are being held even though they have won an appeal against deportation. Others have clearly stated that they want to go back to their country of origin but have still been waiting in Campsfield for months.”
A statement by No Borders UK noted that police have portrayed the escapees as criminals, urging members of the public to "contact us immediately should they see anyone they believe could be one of those involved." Seeking asylum, the statement added, "is not a crime and these people should not have been imprisoned. We call upon members of the public to assist these vulnerable people." The BBC had proudly reported that a local resident in Kiddlington tackled and detained one of the escapee asylum seekers who had asked him for help, while some so-called refugee support organisations urged the escapees to turn themselves over to the police. The former chairman of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants Imam Sajid, for example, was quoted saying "It is hard to be sympathetic towards anyone who breaks the law, but these men must be desperate."
Campsfield immigration prison
Campsfield House was converted into an immigration detention centre in 1993, amid a storm of protest from local residents [history]. The so-called Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) is run by GEO, the private US prison company previously known as Wackenhut, which took over from Group 4 in May 2006. The centre, surrounded by 20ft fences with razor wire on top, holds up to 200 male asylum seekers at any time. Within 6 months of its opening, six asylum seekers escaped following a rooftop protest. Regular demonstrations and pickets outside Campsfield, mainly organised by the Campaign to Close Campsfield, have since become a common occurrence.
In March this year, Campsfield witnessed another riot when detainees tried to intervene and stop a forceful 'removal' of a fellow Algerian detainee. Following the 'disturbance', Robert Whalley CB was asked by the Home Office to extend his investigation into the Harmondsworth 'disturbance' on 28-29 November, 2006, to that establishment as well. Among other things, Mr Whalley said:
“The Harmondsworth and Campsfield House disturbances were very different, both in causation and in how they unfolded. Both occurred at a time when recent population pressures, falling heavily on vulnerable fabric in a hard-pressed detention estate, were accompanied by dislocation in casework handling, especially in the case of Foreign National Prisoners, which caused a build up of latent tensions.”
“It did not take much to trigger these events. When they started, they soon escalated, despite best efforts to prevent this happening. The underlying causes are still there and, without any changes, the same thing could happen again at either establishment.”
UK Indymedia - 26 migrants escape immigration prison in Oxford
Report of antiracist support:
Liam Byrne captured at Campsfield
MINISTER FOR LOCKING UP FOREIGNERS ARRESTED AT CAMPSFIELD
Yesterday (7/8/2007) members of the Campaign to Close Campsfield held a very successful demonstration outside the immigrant prison, in an effort to redress the balance of reportage on the escapes that took place on Saturday night, and to show the detainees inside that not everyone goes along with the mood of hysteria. There were loud shouts of "freedom" and "thank you very much!" from the main accommodation block, which we addressed by megaphone across the prison's unused, weed-grown football pitch.
Quite a few members of the local media turned up. The event was featured on regional BBC and ITV, and on local radio stations.
One journalist told us that she had done extensive interviews in the immediate locality and "a good half" of the people she'd spoken to were sympathetic towards the escapees, and even wished them luck. This included people living in the houses adjoining the prison, where the media have generally focused on residents who play along with the "escaped criminals" story (extra locks etc).
Less attention is paid to the nature of the crimes the escapees are said to have committed. All that the police will say (and perhaps are able to say because of poor communication with the Borders and Immigration Agency) is that none of them had done anything very bad.
Were it to be revealed that most of the escapees had done little more than failing to return their library books, the official reaction might be seen as a very expensive pantomime, played out for no honorable purpose, at public expense.
THE REAL STORY IS CRIMINALISATION
Since New Labour came to power it has created over 1,000 new crimes. These in particular criminalise the weakest members of society, especially migrants.
"A very high proportion" (say Asylum Welcome and Bail for Immigration Detainees) of the so-called criminals held in Campsfield have been jailed for the new "crime" of using false documents to enter the country. Making this a crime has brought fear back into the lives of thousands of legitimate, established Oxfordshire residents who are now terrified of falling the wrong side of the law in some way. And it blatantly violates Article 31 of the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees, which says governments must not penalise refugees who arrive on false papers.
It was for this infringement of international law that we arrested Liam Byrne during the demonstration. It turned out that we had, in fact, only arrested a cardboard cutout, but those who know the Minister say it is an easy mistake to make and, at a mere 2 mm thick, our cutout is certainly not as thick as the original. And a few more people now know what the ex-Anderson consultant, Reid protegée and parliamentary neophyte looks like.
Bob Hughes (Campaign to Close Campsfield)
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