A visitor’s view of Campsfield

Campsfield House is widely considered one of the ‘better-run’ IRCs and the last report by HMIP, the official inspection body, vouched for this. Most people detained there, who have experienced other IRCs, like Harmondsworth or Brook House, agree in my experience. But for all that, the effect of detention on people in Campsfield is still profoundly toxic. The fact that Campsfield House is branded “well-run” arguably deflects criticism from the inherent ill-effects of detention and lends specious support to the argument that our current system of immigration detention is acceptable.

Originally a young offender institution, the Campsfield House site became an IRC in 1993. At one time it held both men and women – but since 1997 only men have been held there. The contract for running the Centre was awarded to Mitie in May 2011. The Centre Manager is the impressive Neil Aubeelack whose background is in the military and HM Prison Service, a background shared in common with a number of Campsfield House staff.

It may not be the official company line but, ‘four star holiday camp’, is a phrase that crops up with some regularity talking with Campsfield House staff. Reading the more critical findings of the most recent report from the independent inspectorate of detention centres, HMIP,  one gets a different take.  The report found that there is a high level of surveillance – so staff know a great deal about your life and daily activities – there is very little privacy.  Rooms are searched once a month and further searched with drug dogs once every three months. Handcuffs were used in a little under a third of cases for external appointments. Sanctions can be used for non-cooperation with powers to place people in cells in an austere separation unit, without mobile phones. There were 74 job roles, mainly mundane, such as cleaning, kitchen and laundry work paid at a token rate. There had been a self-inflicted death, children wrongly detained and there was no awareness of people who were disabled. Poor Home Office casework led to unnecessarily long periods of detention and there was a lack of interpreters for important and sensitive meetings. In addition there was a lack of defibrillators and staff trained in their use along with inadequate healthcare staff available at night.

Your first impression as a visitor to Campsfield House is the sheer volume of razor wire – its prominence means it’s difficult to make out the buildings inside the secure perimeter. The last Inspection Report commented on it “creating an oppressive atmosphere in some areas”.

Getting inside

After getting through the double security gates to reception, inside feels less intimidating to me. People being detained may feel differently as they arrive, perhaps following a heavy handed immigration raid at their home in front of family and children. As HMIP noted, people being detained at Campsfield House often arrive at night to a cramped reception area, where reception processes can take hours and risk assessments for new arrivals frequently are not held in private. As a visitor, who’s free to leave, after being fingerprinted and photographed and having your ID documents checked, you’re led out of the reception hut across a tarmac compound to another security fence and gate, then across an attractive garden tended by people in detention though not available for their use.

A further set of security gates leads you through to the Visitors Centre. At the front-desk in the Visitors Centre your security pass is checked and your details confirmed again on the computer system. You’re then allocated a table number where you must sit, while you wait for the ‘detainee’ to arrive – no-one is allowed to accompany them, even when an interpreter is needed, because in the words of an incantation one hears frequently, “those are the rules”.

Campsfield House staff

On a tour of the Centre a visitor sees plenty of activities going on, although the maze of similar seeming corridors can feel daunting and disorienting. Staff are mainly friendly and polite and do remarkably well given the 12 hour shifts they have to work.  You get the impression, though, that visitors from NGOs are seen as strange animals by staff – maybe uncertain of the role NGOs play, perhaps seeing their own role as taking care of all the welfare needs of people entrusted to their care.

Some staff have explained that at least the most vulnerable are looked after well in the Centre. Certainly HMIP praises staff relations with people detained at Campsfield. It may sound strange but I find all the staff likeable, concerned and thoughtful – admirable in many ways, people for whom I have a lot of respect. However, in the many conversations with staff, the very fact of being deprived of one’s liberty never seems to register as a big thing, even though it is recognised as one of the most fundamental rights the world-over. Even in the much harsher times of Magna Carta ‘liberty’ was a big deal. You realise why very quickly as a visitor – incarceration very rapidly drives people ‘crazy’.

Perhaps to work in any role you have to believe in what you’re doing – mentally minimising harmful effects and focusing on what you believe you are doing for the good. Almost to a person, the staff at Campsfield seem to believe in what they are doing. This is what is so worrying to my mind, because it shows how institutions condition our thinking and actions, and the effects on the people detained are truly disturbing. In some cases the effects are stark.


I recently visited a man, Mahmoud, who had been tortured on a number of separate occasions by Government forces in his home country, known to fiercely oppress, torture and kill the minority ethnic group he belongs to. He told me he had tried to take his own life in Campsfield House by swallowing a cocktail of tablets. When discovered, he told me, he had not been sent to hospital by medical staff at the Centre. Eventually released on bail with help from the charity Medical Justice, he had already been in detention for a month when visiting started. At the beginning of the visits he was palpably terrified and told of hearing voices. Every time a door banged his distress was visibly acute – and he was under regular observation in a unit where the doors, I’m told, clang shut with a lot of noise. Staff who were concerned about his welfare, took on a different symbolic value, dressed in uniform, with jangling keys, acting as his jailers. At night lying in his cell in Campsfield House, he felt he was suffocating, hands round his throat trying to choke him.

Of course, torture survivors should not be detained because they are retraumatised as the detention centre brings back overwhelming memories of imprisonment at the hands of their tormentors. Indeed, torture survivors are among the groups of people the Home Office’s own rules exclude from detention, but in practice this doesn’t always work.  As HMIP noted in their last inspection report, although Campsfield House is a ‘well-run’ Centre, the Rule 35 reports written by doctors are of limited value as they don’t express a clinical opinion.  For instance, an opinion on whether the symptoms and scars a person has are consistent with, or highly consistent with, or definitively diagnostic of, the torture they describe. As a result, Home Office responses are frequently dismissive, and the Rule 35 reports meant to protect victims of torture and other vulnerable people and secure their release, are ineffective in Campsfield House.

In this context the following observations by HMIP about bail rights and legal access at Campsfield House become all the more worrying: “Only about a third said they had received a visit from [a lawyer]….Waiting times for the [legal] surgeries were too long, sometimes over two weeks… All detainees should have received ongoing representation during bail proceedings but we were not assured this was happening….Only 40% of detainees said it was easy to obtain bail information… Not enough was being done to advise detainees of their bail rights”.

Cases of highly vulnerable people, like Mahmoud, who shouldn’t be detained in Campsfield House are by no means uncommon in my experience. Even where people have no pre-existing vulnerability the effects of detention over any length of time are distressing to see.


Another gentleman I visited, Adam, was from a country with notorious human rights abuses and genocide.  On finishing University in the capital he was conscripted into the army. After the initial training he was expected to serve on duty – which meant complicity in the persecution of any number of declared ‘enemies’ of the regime. Rather than participate he fled the army and the country and made his way to Europe, thinking Britain had a strong record on championing human rights and asylum claims.

When we first met, Adam, a highly articulate intelligent man who spoke very good English, was humorous, friendly, chatty and participating in many of the activities at the Centre as well as patiently explaining basic Arabic to me. He was also generously providing me with an education in diaspora authors from his own country who had settled in exile whose work frequently dealt with this most difficult of experiences. Over the few months Adam was detained the deterioration in his mental state was alarming but sadly not untypical. When he first came to Campsfield House he would wake at 7.30am, get up for breakfast, then take English and computing classes in the morning and early afternoon, and participate in football games in the later afternoon. He was praying, as was his custom, 5 times a day.

After 3 months in Campsfield House his condition was very different. He woke up at around the same time but didn’t get out of bed until nearly noon. He would then sit outside thinking for an hour or so until lunch for which he had little appetite. He then spent many hours after lunch sitting outside, watching football if people were playing, but not playing himself. He would often sit like this until dinner. After dinner he might watch football on television. He would go to his room when Campsfield shut down for the night at 11pm – but didn’t get to sleep until 3 or 4 am. He frequently had bad dreams which disturbed the little sleep he did get. Much of the time he spent thinking about his situation in Campsfield House and also thinking about his home country. He thought a lot about his family, all of whom (mother, father, sisters, brothers) were in a refugee camp. While in detention, he heard that his mother was seriously ill following a stroke. He said he often felt hopeless and prayed much less frequently – some days not praying at all. Although prohibited by his religion he sometimes wished he wasn’t alive and thought of taking his life. He also started experiencing pains around his sternum and rib cage and thought maybe it was God’s will he should die.

Even with a well-run IRC one wonders how anyone would cope if placed in Campsfield House for months with no definite date for release. Only in a truly dystopian world should one view these places with alacrity.

An ever-expanding detention estate: Make your voice heard

Image courtesy of Campaign to Close Campsfield

By Melanie Griffiths, academic and campaigner.

The government has recently submitted plans to the Cherwell District Council for the major expansion of Campsfield House, an Immigration Removal Centre situated just outside Oxford. This is just the latest phase of a wider move towards the expansion of the UK’s immigration detention estate. Much of the recent increases in detention bedspace have occurred quietly, without much room for objection. However, the Campsfield plans present an opportunity for the public to make known their views on immigration detention and the growth of the detention estate. Now is truly the time to voice concerns.

Immigration detention in the UK

In many ways Immigration Removal Centres resemble prisons. They are closed centres, where people are held against their will, surrounded by patrolling guard dogs, surveillance cameras, locked gates and high fences topped with razor wire. However, although immigration detention feels like prison by those held there, it is an administrative rather than judicial power. The decisions are made by civil servants not judges. Immigration detainees are not held as the result of a conviction, but for the purpose of an immigration goal, such as deportation. Indeed, unless a detainee challenges their detention or applies for bail, they may never go before a court.

The Home Office argues that people are detained for minimal periods of time, usually just before they are removed. However, for a variety of reasons detainees often are not at the end of their immigration case. Many have asylum claims or immigration appeals pending. Others cannot be removed, often through no fault of their own, for example if conditions in their country are too unsafe or if the Home Office is unable to obtain travel documents for them.

Indeed, my PhD focused on people with disputed identity, many of whom became stuck in detention as embassies and the Home Office fought over their identity. Such people can be detained for months or even years. Because the UK opted out of the EU Removals Directive that restricts immigration detention to 18 months, there is no maximum period for detention in the UK. People can literally be detained indefinitely, with no idea when change in their situation might occur, nor what that outcome might be.

We have one of the largest – and expanding – detention estates in Europe, are unique in the continent for detaining people without time limit, and have been repeatedly criticised domestically and internationally for inappropriately detaining vulnerable people (see here). For more information on immigration detention in the UK, see the Detention Forum briefing paper.

A growing phenomenon

We now have well over 4,000 immigration detention bed spaces in the UK, double the number just six years ago. The number is closer to 5,000 if you include the number of people that can be held under Immigration Act powers in prisons.

An extra 800 detention spaces were created in 2014 alone. Just a few weeks ago, Her Majesty’s Prison the Verne was redesignated as an Immigration Removal Centre, adding 580 spaces to the detention system. Extra beds have also been quietly added to existing detention centres, by squeezing more beds into – increasingly overcrowded – rooms. This includes 60 beds at Campsfield House alone. On top of this, the government is now seeking to add another 290 beds through creating a whole new, large building at Campsfield.

Campsfield House

Campsfield opened as an Immigration Removal Centre just seven miles outside Oxford in 1993. It has been beset with problems since it opened, with over half the detainees on hunger-strike just four months after the centre opened and the first ‘riot’ occurring three months later. Since then there have been hungerstrikes, escapes, disturbances and suicides. Just last year a major fire destroyed much of the largest residential unit. The fact that sprinklers had not been fitted greatly increased the damage and danger of the fire.

Until recently, up to 216 adult men could be detained at Campsfield at any time. The figure is now 276 and will increase to 566 if plans to build a new section of the centre go ahead. This would make it one of the largest detention centres, not only of the UK, but of the whole of Europe.

The land for the proposed new three storey building at Campsfield is Green Belt land, meaning that ‘very special circumstances’ must apply before planning permission is granted. The Home Office is arguing that this requirement is met by the UK’s need for more immigration detention, in order to increase removals from the UK.

However, as groups that visit immigration detainees can testify, people are routinely detained even when they are not at the end of the legal process and/or when they cannot be removed, resulting in their either being ‘warehoused’ in detention for long periods, or being detained only to be released back into British society, meaning that they needlessly endure this torturous process. Although we detain more migrants than ever before, we actually remove fewer people from our shores. So, in addition to damaging individuals and their families, immigration detention fails to achieve the government’s own objectives.

Making your voice heard

A large number of political, religious and charitable organisations in Oxford and beyond are coming together to fight the proposed expansion, on the basis that indefinitely detaining people for immigration purposes is inhumane, does not meet the government’s own immigration objectives and is prohibitively expensive. An open letter to this effect was recently sent to the Prime Minister and Home Secretary, signed by 21 concerned local organisations (see media coverage).

Individuals can also feed into the decision-making process by writing to their MPs and submitting objections to the planning application, going through the Cherwell District Council website. The Planning Committee is likely to decide the application on 22nd January, and submissions should be made well before this date. For more information about how to make a submission, the Campaign to Close Campsfield are running a workshop on the process at 7pm on 3rd December in Kidlington, just outside Oxford. They are also organising a march and demonstration to mark the 21st anniversary of Campsfield on 29th November. Further details about these events and support for getting your voice heard, including template letters for MPs, are available on both the Campaign to Close Campsfield and Detention Forum websites.

There are many problems with immigration detention, as is being made clear in the current evidence gathering stage of the first ever Parliamentary Detention Inquiry, chaired by Sarah Teather MP. It seems especially important that any expansion is halted until the Inquiry has concluded its task and produced its recommendations. Please add your voice to those telling the government that we are ashamed of our immigration detention system and that extending it further is not the answer to responding to public concerns around immigration.

Campsfield week…

5 Oct to 11 Oct – the Unlocking Detention team looks back on the week they visited Campsfield, Oxfordshire.

Unlocking Detention visited Campsfield Immigration Removal Centre just as the most controversial development was taking place in the area.

Recently, the Home Office made it clear that it intends to increase the size of  the detention from 276 beds to 560 beds.

Our member, Campaign to Close Campsfield, has been leading the voice of opposition against this plan.  Their public meeting was to take place on 20 Oct and the emotions were running rather high.

Campsfield House is a relatively small and, dare we say, has a more relaxed environment than other detention centres in the UK.  Of course, we say this only relatively, knowing what Category B equivalent centres such as Colnbrook and Brook House are like. It is still detention nevertheless and people inside simply feel imprisoned.  This also does not mean that it should be expanded.

Perhaps because of its proximity to a world-famous university town with (probably) a fair number of politically active residents, Campsfield is unique among all sites of immigration detention in the UK in that it has a long history of local, sustained, opposition to the centre.

We wanted to capture this sense of sustained local opposition, the everyday of their activism.  So we asked some members of Campaign to Close Campsfield to jot down their experience of their monthly (yes, monthly) protests as well as visiting the centre.  Their words were turned into a short blog, ‘What is it like being a local campaign group?‘ At the Detention Forum, the tension between protest and “visiting”, demanding change and potentially sustaining the system, continues to be discussed at regular intervals.

Aside from Campaign to Close Campsfield (whom you can follow on Twitter @CloseCampsfield and shared their comments on Campsfield during the tour), another active member @MBEGriffiths helped us a great deal by sharing her insight into how men held Campsfield experience their detention.  Her tweets about Campsfield are definitely worth reading.

This tour has also given us an opportunity to revisit some of the great material that we know exist, but we don’t always remember to share with others.  There are in fact short films, paintings, pod casts about immigration detention.  What’s unfortunate is that we can’t always remember what’s available out there.

Another organisation Migrants Resource Centre shared with us this beautiful and poignant photo essay about one person’s experience of immigration detention.  We highly recommend this too.

We also asked Melanie to write a piece for our collaborative project with openDemocracy.  Her piece focused on how various incidents are packaged by the media and the general public, while a completely different story actually emerges if we care to listen to those who are inside.

For another piece for this week, we asked one of our members RAMFEL (@RAMFELCharity) to write more broadly about immigration enforcement. Various new initiatives on the back of Hostile Environment campaign are now creeping into our communities.  The piece, Migrant vs non-migrant: two-tier policing describes a murky world where immigration enforcement overlaps with policing, which is hardly ever talked about in the public domain.

Lastly, the reminder that we think we know detention but we don’t…

By Unlocking Detention team


Music in Detention: Reflections on three visits to IRCs in 2012

This post was written by Zoe Burton, Programme Manager (maternity cover, 2012 and 2014) for Music in Detention (MID).  MID is a member of the Detention Forum. 

I was delighted to be recruited to Music In Detention as Programme Manager (maternity cover) in Jan 2012 to coordinate a number of participatory music making programmes in four Immigration Removal Centres. I had previously worked in a drop- in day centre for refugees and asylum seekers where I had seen first -hand how arts based projects provided an opportunity for people to make friends, escape the relentless worry about their situations and enjoy a release through self -expression. These activities also helped to alleviate the acute boredom people felt, brought on by the day- to -day struggle to survive with no means to do anything or go anywhere.

People experiencing detention talk about the extreme mental anguish they go through due to the uncertainty of their situation. Often separated from loved ones, including partners and children, people are detained with no time limit to their imprisonment and live with the constant threat of deportation, possibly to a country where they have no ties or affinities.

“We’re being tortured… We’re not physically bullied, but we’re mentally beaten.”

Day to day life in detention is routine, in some centres there is limited access to facilities, such as an internet suite, library or gym and little opportunity to mix with other detainees in a social setting. With too much time on their hands it is hard for detainees to escape their worries or to build up the strength to deal with the anxiety of the unknown.

“So at the moment there’s no other music activities going on?

“No, not at the moment. Because nowadays, it’s same old, same old, playing pool or just library, and apparently it’s going to be packed after this, because more people are going to be coming in. So it’s going to be hard, you can only use the computer for one hour. So basically there’s not going to be much activity or much to do.” (Discussion with a detainee at Campsfield House, June 2014)

Unlike prison, where there is often a focus on rehabilitation and acquisition of skills, in detention, it can seem that people are simply ‘warehoused’ prior to removal or release, left to languish in a bureaucratic limbo.

“So does anyone here talk to you about the future, about careers, I know you were saying you want to do community work, does somebody come and talk to you about studying or jobs?

No, they’re all looking to send us home so why would they!?” (Discussion with detainees at Campsfield House, June 2014)

People in detention are currently denied access to social media platforms such as Facebook, which increases their isolation from the outside world and makes it difficult pre- removal or release to enlist the help needed, such as being met at the airport.

Music In Detention was founded in 2006, bringing participatory music making into detention centres to help people cope; as a means of stress relief and self -expression, building self-esteem and connecting with other people, both in detention and with people living in communities near the centres, ‘over the wall’ so to speak.

“So that music workshop was heaven. We’ve got digital TVs here, we’ve got library but it’s not really something to do is it? But when you got the music workshop…”

You mean it occupies you? Because there are things to do right, there’s the gym, there’s the hairdressing and the … “One week with that is enough!  Stay here for one week. Then you’ll have the feeling. Because Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday the head is in a deep depression, but Thursday me know say 2 o clock music class –there’s going to be music…” extract from a discussion with detainees at Yarl’s Wood IRC, March 2012

People who are detained feel a huge sense of powerlessness which is compounded by the rigid routines, a lack of varied activity and timely information about their immigration case.

“The whole thing: eat, sleep and shower everyday – just that. We’re not children, you know… There’s so many things which you could be doing for yourself and then you can’t because there’s no information coming to you”

People are also mistrustful of the Home Office decision making processes, things seem arbitrary, and the system makes people feel dehumanized. … “and they leave you. It’s like you buy a Christmas toy and you leave it on the shelf – you got no connections to that toy – that’s exactly how it feels. It’s like you’re being left on the shelf and you’re waiting for the immigration, which is the little kid, to come and play with you, to come and take you and connect you back to the world and put you in use. And then when they don’t want you again they just put you back on the shelf.”

Within this context of uncertainty detainees suffer a negative impact on their mental and physical health which can worsen in severity over time. A recent study found that 83% of detainees suffered depression and 22% had considered suicide. (Bosworth & Kellezi, Oxford University, 2012)

So in my new role at Music In Detention I was keen to visit some workshops. My first visit was to Campsfield House IRC in Oxfordshire. After the unnerving experience of going through security and being searched I got into the mood for the session.  The workshop was based around celebrating Chinese New Year and that was some party!  About 60 detainees came to the ‘big screen room’ and all participated at some level or other during the four hours of drumming, percussion and Chinese scarf/fan dancing. Lots of detainees recognized the artists from previous visits saying hello and shaking hands as they arrived, looking excited about the workshop ahead. Of course, this was great to see but also unsettling as I realized some people must have been there for quite some time.

At first the MID artist, Paul, distributed his unique junk percussion instruments to as many people as possible and got live Chinese rhythms going. People let off a lot of steam and reveled in the chaotic, raucous atmosphere, joking with each other, egging each other on and crashing symbols as a joke near the Detention Custody Officers who were escorting the workshop. I was delighted to see these jovial challenges to authority. Some of the Afghani guys enjoyed having a laugh putting various random items into the back of the MID artist’s drum and hence changing the sound. The artist did an amazing job getting people to participate while trying to keep some semblance of musicality in the room!

Then a pause, MID artist Yan appeared in a beautiful costume and performed an enchanting series of traditional Chinese dances.  After the crescendo of sound there was a hush in the room as everyone watched, took a breath and a seat.  After this break the participatory element came back and Yan demonstrated some moves with scarves and fans so that everyone could copy. The Kurdish and Afghanis especially loved this, dancing wildly, spinning the scarves and fans, or wearing the scarves on their heads. Then three guys (Chinese, Afghan and Jamaican) took centre stage and enacted a surreal bull fight with a red scarf and a drum, all the detainees were laughing at this impromptu drama! Then the party continued as some danced and others kept the beats going.

By now the atmosphere was electric, cleaning and canteen staff started peering into the room, joining in too, and everyone was smiling. One member of staff came in grinning and said “I’m trying to sleep out there!” and the detainees responded with a rousing drum roll and howls of delight. Another staff member stood on a window ledge shaking his percussion instrument with joy, smiling across the room.

There were many points I forgot I was in a detention centre. Until of course the party was over and I could go home. A film came on which may have helped people calm down a bit but I think a lot of people just went to their beds, with the promise of another MID workshop coming soon. One Indian detainee said to me when it was over “My mind is so clear now”.

I learned from the MID percussion artist, Paul, that it is very rare in Chinese culture for people to participate in traditional dance forms (and music); people are either audience members or performing artists. So in this unusual context of an IRC, where so many cultures come together in such a music workshop, people were learning traditional forms from their home country.

“Two hours will pass and you stop thinking when am I getting deported, when am I getting released, you just focus on the music and there are Jamaicans and Chinese and Indians and everyone, all playing together. And we learn what other cultures do and it makes a unity, we share it together.” (Workshop participant at Campsfield House, 2012)

My next visit to a MID workshop was at Yarl’s Wood IRC, Bedfordshire (Females & families with adult children).  This workshop was a unique combination of Taiko and Tabla drumming, facilitated by Liz Walters and Sanju Sahai from Asian Music Circuit.

We were in the ‘party room’, small and cozy, with turntables, mixing desk and replete with disco lights. At first it seemed a strange anomaly to me considering the context but I was assuming the ‘residents’ wouldn’t feel like dancing and there I was working for a charity which puts on music workshops in detention centres! I could see efforts were made to soften the environment, with lots of colourful drawings and paintings in all the corridors, like a school, but for grown-ups who aren’t allowed to leave. The smell, akin to British school dinners, wafted around and there seemed to be frequent tannoy announcements that were indecipherable. The beauty salon was busy and lively and the library quiet with attentive staff around.

The group was small, partly because the party room is hidden away so not many people could hear the drumming (best advertisement for a MID workshop!). However the ensuing hour of Taiko was uplifting and powerful, considering none of us in the room had ever been near a Taiko drum.

Liz’s sensitive and gentle approach enabled everyone to feel safe in their drumming circle as the beats got louder, the smiles bigger and the movements more precise and all in tune with each other. “This is really good for stress releasing!!” shouted one lady grinning from ear to ear and ready to play again at the next session.

One participant chose to sit out; she had had two wisdom teeth removed that morning and was coping with the pain, having had a couple of Paracetamol earlier. However she said she really wanted to stay in the workshop and enjoyed watching throughout. She added a lovely presence to the room.

Then we moved on to the Tabla. Sanju asked participants to close their eyes and imagine a steam train whilst he played the most incredible rhythms on his Tabla. This completely absorbed everyone as they were already physically relaxed from the Taiko and now mentally and physically relaxed further from the mesmerizing and beautiful sounds of Sanju and his Tabla.

The session finished with Liz speaking to everyone about how they felt after the session, how they were doing generally. After listening to their responses I realized  just how isolated everyone is from each other, subsumed in their problems and separated by language, culture and ethnicity; it isn’t easy for people to even converse in detention, never mind make friends.

As I left I was overcome by the combination of vulnerability and resilience I had seen amongst the group, and of course, again I was going home, leaving the surreal environment of Twinwoods Business Park as the women went for their evening centre roll call.

“Sometimes it’s so good to know that somebody’s feeling the way that you feel because when you read her lyrics …and you say wow that’s what I was thinking about, I didn’t write it but that’s it!” (Workshop participant at Yarl’s Wood talking about a recent MID songwriting project, 2012)

Later in the year I went to visit a workshop at Harmondsworth IRC, London Heathrow (Male) facilitated by H Patten and Alex D Great from Music for Change. After the astonishment of seeing the gigantic gates and enormous clunky keys as I was escorted through the various buildings to get to the music room I was pleasantly surprised to see such a well -equipped music resource with colourful murals on the walls of people playing instruments.

The session started off with H teaching the group some drumming rhythms. H is an expert in enabling people to let off steam with the drums! He knows that for us novices (my first experience) our hands will soon start to smart and you can’t continue at that pace. Soon we were united in rhythm and everyone started to relax by feeling energized as a group. We were joined by two members of staff, great musicians themselves on tenor sax and bass guitar and accompanied by a detainee who was a brilliant drummer. Two other members of staff also participated throughout the sessions. I could see the tensions and normal hierarchies between staff and detainees melt away as we all became human beings simply enjoying a jam.

After the dinner break people from another wing had their session but many came from the earlier one as the staff kindly escorted them to the music room. Following another percussion session it was time for detainees to lead and sing together. Alex was amazing at facilitating people’s choices in music and accompanying people who took to the mic to sing their favourite songs. We had a proper jamming party culminating in a karaoke style sing along with one detainee drenched in sweat as he joyously led the session with many Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff favourites. Spontaneous bouts of dancing broke out too.

As people were enjoying themselves the staff let the session run on a bit later than planned. During this time none of us were worrying about our problems. Getting home around 11pm that night I was full of memories, wondering what was going to happen to all the people I had met, people who missed their loved ones on the outside and felt at the mercy of the UK immigration system while detained indefinitely.

“Intact. Sanity intact. It keeps my sanity intact”. (Workshop participant, Yarl’s Wood IRC, 2012.)

What is it like being a local campaign group?

Campsfield | Unlocked19

Image courtesy of Campaign to Close Campsfield

Campaign to Close Campsfield is a campaign group based in Oxford which has been calling for a closure of Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre for many years.  They are one of the members of the Detention Forum.  We asked them to tell us a little about their daily activities.   

Monthly protest

“Going out last weekend for our monthly protest. There were around 15 people gathered just outside the high barbed wire fence topped IRC (Immigration Removal Centre) that is Campsfield House.

Trades unionists; an Anglican minister; post graduate students; a journalist; a couple of writers; the usual broad group of concerned citizens, young and old.

Facing the prison and the rooms where detainees sleep we made some contact by waving and shouting.  One voice said ‘get us out of here!’.

One of the guards complained that someone should get off his car. (The Anglican minister was resting on his bonnet).

We walked around the perimeter fences past the signs of earlier peace camps (freedom on the wall of an outbuilding). It was a perfect autumn day; crab apples in the stubble field. We made more contact around the back; a sheet waved from one window.

Across a long field, behind two high fences topped with rolls of barbed wire, some men had gathered in the yard. We explained as usual who we were, and why we were there; and that we would continue until IRCs were a thing forgotten in the past.”

Visiting people detained in Campsfield

“You must, of course, leave mobile phone etc in a locker.  Your prints and picture are taken – I was interested to see that my details were still on file when I visited in June, although it must be well over a year since I was last in. It was pretty much like visiting a prison – I have been to Holloway and Whitemoor in the past.   I have also visited Yarl’s Wood – a more difficult and daunting experience.

We saw the room where detainees go for video link hearings.  It is small and claustrophobic and one can imagine how stressful it is to be in there on your own trying to apply for bail, and perhaps relying on a lawyer and interpreter who are present in the court in Newport, not at your side.

We also saw the faith corridor where there is provision for Hindu, Christian and Muslim worship.  There is an ablution area in the last, and when we joined the barbecue there was vegetarian food.

So efforts are made to accommodate some of the detainees’ needs.  But of course their greatest need and desire is to be released.  Nothing can make up for the deprivation of liberty.

A former detainee said to me once ‘I suppose you can say they give you food and you have a roof over your head, but it is horrible, horrible’.”

Immigration detention in the media: Anarchy and ambivalence

This article by Melanie Griffiths originally appeared in Open Democracy’s #unlocked series.

Alongside calls for the reduction or ending of immigration detention, we must demand more balanced coverage from our media. Melanie Griffiths reports on two decades of ‘riots’ and fires inside Campsfield which is on track to become one of the biggest detention centres in Europe.

My introduction to Campsfield was in early 2008 as a new PhD student and volunteer with the visitor group Asylum Welcome. I remember my trepidation the first time I approached its 20 foot high razor wire topped fence. It was many visits before the surveillance cameras, fingerprint checks, pat-down searches and multiple sets of locked doors became normalised. It took much longer for the meetings with the incredibly varied people being held there to feel anything other than exceptional.

Campsfield House opened as an Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) a few miles outside of Oxford in 1993. Previously a youth detention facility, it became the UK’s first immigration detention centre, originally holding up to 200 men and women. It was quickly transformed into a male-only centre and for most of its existence detained a maximum of 216 adults. Like many IRCs, however, the site is being expanded, with an extra 60 beds recently added and proposals to more than double the centre, which would make it one of the biggest in Europe at 610 beds.

IRCs look like prisons and they utilise criminal justice techniques and language. Detention is experienced by those inside as punishment and tends to be indistinguishable from prisons to those outside. Those detained are associated with danger in the public imagination simply as a result of being held there.

The general public seems not to know – or care – that people do not need to have broken any rules to be detained. The majority of those at Campsfield do not have criminal records, and those who have broken laws have already served their time. Many of the offences are immigration-related, rather than the type that excites the tabloids.

Yet media portrays of immigration detainees remain unambiguous in their demonization of detained migrants, with the political action and desperation of detainees frequently written off as ‘incidents’.

If we are to fully understand the logic of expanding immigration detention and as well as the broader criminalisation of migrants we have to look at the media and the role they play in legitimating these developments in the public eye.


For those who end up in an IRC, the experience is not only one of punishment and incarceration, but also often of multiple levels of uncertainty, stress and insecurity. Although Campsfield is often described by people held there as one of the least bad IRCs (not least because of its small size, which is now under threat), it has suffered controversy from its beginning.

Over half of people detained at Campsfield were on hunger-strike just four months after the centre opened, and the first ‘riot’ occurred three months later. During my research there were several hunger-strikes, fights and allegations of abuse by the authorities.

2007 was a particularly bad year. It began with a ‘riot’ and fires in March, there were over 150 men on hunger-strike by the summer, and in August, there were several separate major incidents, including fires, ‘riots’ and the escape of 26 people. Most recently, in 2013 the centre was seriously damaged by a large fire, which was started by a man with mental health problems.

Such ‘incidents’ tend to be portrayed in the media as violent events, in which the pent up frustration of angry men boils over, putting staff and the wider public in danger. For example, and not unusually, the recent tragic death of Rubel Ahmed at Morton Hall IRC was sidelined in media coverage by greater focus on the related disturbance. Such representations risk contributing to public contempt and fear of those detained, and bear little relation to the accounts given by those directly affected. This was vividly impressed upon me just a few months after I started visiting Campsfield.

The importance of perspective

On 15th of June 2008, Campsfield was the site of a fire and what were described as ‘riots’ in the local press, followed four days later by the escape of seven men. Three were not found, one – who I had known quite well – was injured in the escape and immediately recaptured and imprisoned, two were found less than a mile away and another in Oxford the next day. Over the next few weeks I spoke several times to a number of men who had been caught up in the incidents.

The first accounts of the ‘riot’ that I obtained, however, were from the local press. These described ‘detainees’ setting fires during outbreaks of violence, through which the Education Block was destroyed, the on-site shop looted, rooms damaged and windows smashed. Dramatic scenes of anarchy were presented, with 15 fire-engines, a police helicopter, 50 specialist ‘Tornado Team’ officers and 50 police officers with riot gear and dogs bravely attempting to regain control.

In sharp contrast to this image, however, was the description given to me by a man detained at Campsfield at the time. This man, who I will call Arnold, described being in the canteen when the fire alarms first sounded and his fear when he realised that they were all being locked into the room. He told me of the panic as he and others begged for the officers to let them out but were refused, meaning that they were trapped inside what they assumed was a burning building. Arnold recounted how when the doors were eventually opened, they all ran outside into the yard to escape, only to see a portacabin also on fire. As explosions sounded from it, as though from gas canisters igniting, Arnold and others climbed up onto a roof in desperation to try and flee the danger all around them. Once up there, he was shocked to see other sections of the centre alight and the flames spreading. He was trapped on a roof, surrounded by fires, in a prison-like centre that he could not escape from

After considerable confusion and fear, eventually Arnold and the others were ushered onto an outside grass area, away from the buildings and flames. Although now safe, they were kept there, with little information or refreshment, for over four hours before being allowed back in to the centre.

When Arnold recounted these events to me a couple of days afterwards, he was no longer at Campsfield House, but Colnbrook, an IRC near Heathrow airport. As he explained, because the instigator of the event was Jamaican, all Caribbean men at Campsfield, including Arnold, were immediately transferred to other IRCs.

The contrast between representation and lived experience was further illustrated by an NGO employee’s memory of the aftermath: ‘I was being interviewed by Five Live and suddenly I heard a [Independent Monitoring Board spokesman’s] voice going on before me. And he sat there saying… “yes there has been this bit with the fire but it’s a lovely day in Oxford and all the detainees are outside in the sun enjoying themselves”! What do you do with that? There’s not a lot you can say about pure madness.’

At one remove from public empathy

The media tends to contribute to a sense in which IRCs are de facto prisons, with dangerous and barely controlled inmates. The few times that detention centres make the papers, there are images of heavily armed riot police tackling chaotic situations. Alongside this, others downplay events and the deleterious effects of detention, focusing on the fact that the men spent several hours outside in the summer sunshine. Although rather different from the media images of anarchy, this surreal image of men enjoying the fresh air also serves to Other the men, undermining the seriousness and danger of the situation that might otherwise elicit public empathy.

In contrast, Arnold’s own account focused on his fear and restricted control over the situation, and of the insult of being treated not as a victim of a traumatic event, but punished as a potential instigator, on the basis of nothing other than his nationality. Acting almost as a metaphor for the whole of the detention system, this event, along with many others, illustrated the contrast between outside representation and first-hand experience.

Those in detention tend to be portrayed as criminal, responsible for their own situation and as a threat to the public interest. Speaking to those affected, however, instead highlights people’s fear, uncertainty and powerlessness to alter their circumstance, often stuck in detention even if they actively wish to leave the UK.

Alongside political calls for the reduction or ending of immigration detention, we must demand more accurate and balanced reporting by our media. There are some signs of progress, as is seen in the debates around use of the word ‘illegal’. However, there will be little real change unless those with first-hand experience of detention can actively participate. Although rarely mainstream, examples where such voices are given prominence are extremely powerful, as evidenced by a Standoff documentary about Campsfield and Unlocking Detention articles and blog posts. Without hearing from people in this way, there is little chance that the public will think beyond a dehumanised ‘detainee’ when they think of immigration detention, and therefore little hope for political appetite to alter the status quo.