This blog post was written for Unlocking Detention by Charles Leddy-Owen. Charles is a Trustee of Friends Without Borders and Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Portsmouth.
Haslar Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) held between 150 and 190 male detainees at any one time from 1989 until the spring of 2015. The centre was situated in the town of Gosport, a short ferry ride across the Solent from Portsmouth. From early 2014 up until its closure I visited detainees of Haslar on behalf of Portsmouth based organisation Friends Without Borders. Through these visits I encountered an extraordinary range of individuals and stories – though it would equally be true to describe these encounters as simply ordinary given the basic everyday commonalities that we shared regardless of the detainee’s background or how they might be labelled and categorised by the media or law. It came as a significant and welcome surprise to everyone involved in visits to Haslar when the centre’s closure was announced and swiftly carried out earlier this year. The immediate reaction from campaigners and volunteers, locally and nationally, was one of elation, with a general feeling of ‘one down, thirteen (IRCs) to go!’ Any celebration was of course tempered by the knowledge that the coalition government was committed to reducing net migration, sabotaging legal aid and the appeals process, streamlining removals, and so on. One fear discussed around the time Haslar closed surrounded whether the closure of IRCs like Haslar, and more recently Dover, might merely be heralding the greater use of removal centres nearer airports to facilitate speedier deportations.
As visitors we all abhorred the role of Haslar in wrecking so many people’s lives. However, I think it’s also fair to say that many of us who regularly visited felt a surprising sense of loss when these visits came to an end. I suspect this is largely because of the stories shared and friendships forged. One detainee’s recounting of what happened during a chilli-eating competition they had held in the centre made for a particularly enjoyable visit, and I’ll never forget the gallows humour of another detainee whilst we reflected on whether it would make more sense time-wise to fight or expedite his deportation given the impending start of the 2014 World Cup Finals which he was determined not to watch in detention. These amusing moments were of course always underlined by feelings and expressions of sadness and anxiety. Anyone who visited Haslar, particularly long-term detainees, would often leave feeling angry and/or distressed about the terrible pain that this institution was helping to inflict upon men who had done little if any actual harm to society. Most conversations during visits revolved around absent families and immensely frustrating legal cases. Sometimes visitors were able to help out in some small way – whether in terms of contacting a solicitor, bringing some reading material or topping up their phone credit – though we most commonly helped simply by providing company and a change of routine for detainees. What we as visitors perhaps also missed about our visits to Haslar was the feeling of being able to ‘do something’ tangible and meaningful on a regular basis for individuals caught up in Britain’s unjust and punishing border controls.
There were some questions asked when Haslar closed about whether Friends Without Borders could continue as an organisation. It was soon decided that the answer must be a resounding yes, because exactly the same issues faced by those we visited in Haslar remain hugely salient for residents of Portsmouth who are free but still affected by border controls. The organisation delivers, along with the Red Cross, a twice-weekly drop-in where service users can obtain advice or support at a place where they and their children can relax and socialise; and through its Access to Justice scheme Friends Without Borders provides the only free immigration legal advice in the city and surrounding area. Although, since Haslar closed, detention is happening slightly further away from Portsmouth, it very much remains on the horizon as a concern for a great many of Friends Without Borders’ service users who may be, or may have loved ones, facing the threat of detention and removal. The threat in itself is horrifying for many of those it affects – the term Kafkaesque is regularly misused today, but the anthropologist Melanie Griffiths is absolutely correct to use it when describing the seemingly endlessly delaying, routinely nonsensical and sometimes downright surreal character of the Home Office’s border control practices. Today Portsmouth might be more physically distanced from the institution of detention, but sadly it remains no less relevant to many living in the city and to the work of Friends Without Borders.
In her book Inside Immigration Detention Mary Bosworth describes IRCs as institutions that serve to estrange detainees from wider society. Our experiences of visiting detainees in Haslar suggested that IRCs can also become sites of contact and resistance to this estrangement (a pattern Bosworth finds examples of in relation to IRC staff-detainee relationships). If the present government succeeds in streamlining removal processes, and more generally if it succeeds in its goal to prevent or severely limit the numbers of asylum seekers and refugees arriving in the UK in the first place, there is perhaps a danger that the British population’s sense of contemporary connection to certain parts of the world, particularly the Global South, may be further attenuated. Although some sympathetic feeling towards refugees has been evident in recent months it has been coupled with considerable suspicion and hostility. The cynicism and opportunism threatening to emerge in relation to certain interpretations of ‘the refugee crisis’ was clearly demonstrated recently in Portsmouth where Friends Without Borders campaigned unsuccessfully against the city council’s extraordinarily cruel and mean-spirited motion to send a letter to the Home Office requesting that the city be removed as an asylum cluster area (i.e. an area to which asylum seekers are dispersed and housed). If this kind of isolationist thinking gains further traction then it may lead to reduced social contact between British citizens and those such as asylum seekers, disproportionately from the Global South, who are amongst the most negatively affected by geopolitical conflicts and inequalities. The challenge is to try to develop and politically act upon feelings and realities of connection with the people who many politicians and much of the media routinely portray as separate from ‘us’ and ‘our’ society, and to do so even when border control practices seek to deny or obscure these connections.