Some reflections on the closure of Haslar Immigration Removal Centre

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.

Haslar week…

Haslar week… 28 Sep to 4 Oct 
Unlocking Detention team looks back on the week when the tour visited Haslar Immigration Removal Centre in Portsmouth.
After looking at the Short Term Holding Centres and prisons which are used for immigration detention, Unlocking Detention tour’s very first proper visit was to Haslar Immigration Removal Centre.

While getting ready for the tour, we were very lucky to be able to make contact with Charlie who shared his research with us on our website.

We first got in touch with Charlie over Twitter because he mentioned that he was helping someone in detention to contribute to the ongoing parliamentary inquiry into immigration.  This was Henry, who also contributed a blog in the end, ‘Too many laws, not enough justice’.
Henry, at the time, was going through an extremely stressful and uncertain period, facing deportation to a country that he had not set his foot on for over 30 years.
Lots of emails were exchanged between us, trying to consider all the possible implications of Henry publicly speaking about his experience at such a critical point in time not just on himself but also his family members and helping Henry decide whether to go ahead with publishing his blog.  In the end, Henry was adamant that his story should be told.
So while Charlie wrote about immigration detention from the outside, Henry wrote about it from the inside.

Not only were they complementary, they were also very powerful together, especially when read side-by-side.

We were also pleased to see that it prompted many comments, which you can see below Henry’s blog on this page.  We want to reprint one such comment in full here to share with all of you.

‘This article has touched my heart. I know this having been exactly through the same predicament. I was in Haslar for close to 6 months and my family were over 250 miles away from me. I was also considered a “threat to the society”? After being released on temporary admission I spent a further 11 months on electronic tag. I was eventually granted limited stay after a long and winding legal wrangle. The whole process has scarred me for life. Like Henry said, “I dont even wish that on my enemy”. As I speak now, I’m a Team Leader where I work with elderly people and I’m in my 2nd year studying for a degree in Accounting and Finance. My wife on the other hand is a first year Student Nurse. I cannot comprehend how the Home Office labelled me 6 years ago that my presence is/was not conducive for the public good.’

And Henry’s story was also featured in a local newspaper, which you can read here.
By Unlocking Detention team

‘Under detention they think you’re criminal’ – Henry speaks out from Haslar

Henry, currently detained in Haslar detention centre and facing deportation to Nigeria, has been previously featured on this blog writing powerfully about “Too many laws, not enough justice”.  You can read Henry’s blog post here

Henry has now been interviewed by Ben Fishwick of Portsmouth News:

Henry, 53, has been held in detention since February and was moved to the centre in Gosport for several weeks.  From Nigeria, he has lived in England for 31 years and has applied three times without success for leave to remain in Britain.

Three weeks ago he was told he would be deported – something he believes is down to a prison sentence he served for a non-violent crime in 1997.

He spoke to The News on the eve of his threatened but eventually stayed deportation to Nigeria – thousands of miles away from his British wife and children.

Henry said:

If I’m deported there’s no chance of seeing my son.  I left Nigeria 31 years ago – where on earth I going to stay? I don’t know anybody in Nigeria, my mum died in 2002, my dad died when I was four years old.

What happens to my wife and who looks after my son

‘They call this justice – there is no justice in the Home Office.

‘Detention is inhuman – I don’t know what to do.

A Home Office spokeswoman said it cannot comment on Henry’s case.

But she said: ‘Those who come to the UK must abide by our laws – and those who do not should be removed at the earliest opportunity.  We take all necessary steps to deport foreign criminals and have removed 19,000 since 2010.’

She added last-minute appeals disrupt deportations but the recent Immigration Act has cut appeal rights from 17 to four.

Henry is still in detention and does not know what will happen to him.  Before his threatened deportation last month he spoke about his stay in Haslar, which has medical provision, a library and job placements for detainees.

He says:

I would rather sleep in a dungeon with the hope I will be set free to go back to my wife and my kids, than to enjoy some kind of comfort as a slave in detention.

I’ve been in detention for eight months and I haven’t set eyes on my family.

It’s more than difficult, it’s traumatic.

The Home Office policy is not working at all. If you’re under detention they look at you like a criminal.

Henry is brave in speaking out about how he feels the system has treated him.

Detention, which costs the government £98 per day per person, remains a sensitive subject.  Former detainees who have been released still fear speaking out publicly will affect their chances of staying.  And with heavy cuts to legal aid, detainees struggle to get advice or representation.

Portsmouth-based Haslar Visitors Group – now called Friends Without Borders – this year marked 20 years of visiting detainees.

Co-ordinator Anne Dickinson visits new detainees who arrive in Gosport.

She said: ‘There’s comings and goings – just before Christmas time it gets very full.  I was recently told the average length of stay in Haslar was 33 days but when you speak to the guys in there, they’ve been to five different detention centres.  There was one guy not that long ago who was in there for three-and-a-half years.  You can get people sent down from Scotland – it seems very arbitrary why people are moved to the places they are.

Haslar, the UK’s oldest immigration removal centre, is run by the Prison Service. A wide variety of people are held there.

‘There are asylum seekers, there are people who have right-to-family-life claims – people who have a wife, husband or kids here,’ explains Anne.

‘There are people who have a deportation order as they have a criminal offence and there are people who are known as lorry-drop cases.  They are people who’ve been picked up from the back of a lorry and put in a detention centre.  But there are people who have been tortured and with serious medical and mental health problems.’

She added there also students who come to the UK to study but their college ends up losing Home Office approval, leaving them either having to start elsewhere or face removal.

Friends Without Borders, a voluntary organisation, also gives calling credit to detainees and supports them accessing materials online.

Restrictions in the centre mean social networking websites and Skype are blocked. ‘When you’re locked in you can’t just go down to the local library and get what you need,’ Anne says.

‘They operate by prison service rules, which are quite limited in terms of internet access. There was a guy who was a member of the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe and he was trying to get information about the MDC.

‘One of the officers said it was material designed to incite. It was just a report about the MDC.

‘If they won’t let them download there then we download it here.’

The latest inspection report from Her Majesty Inspectorate of Prisons describes Haslar as a ‘respectful institution’ but did find some failings.

Those included sparse legal representation, poor progression of case work and that detainees were not prepared for removal or release.

One man, who spent seven years in custody – some in a prison – was given just three hours before being moved to the other end of the country.

Another man, who asked not to be named, was released from Haslar but says he did not get enough help when he left the centre.

An additional problem is origin countries want proof the person being removed is from there. And war-torn countries and countries the UK has poor relations with can be difficult to work with.

At Haslar, HMIP said detainees who were at risk of committing suicide were held in a special unit – but that it was not staffed adequately.

But the report does highlight improvements in the centre since its last inspection in 2011.

One of those was people could participate in work or education within 24 hours of entering the centre.

A Freedom of Information request put into the Home Office request found that £106,562 was paid to detainees at Haslar between January 1, 2013 to August 31 this year.

The total amount of paid hours at the centre was 106,562 – meaning detainees were paid just £1 an hour.

They are exempt from minimum wage under Section 59 of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006. Paid work includes cleaning, garden maintenance, satellite library orderly, induction orderly and dormitory representatives.

But the HMIP report said the Home Office should not withhold work placements for people who do not co-operate.

In all, the inspectorate made 71 recommendations to the Home Office and centre manager. The Home Office did not respond to a request from The News to interview the governor.

Living Outside the Fence – story of Haslar

By Charlie Leddy-Owen, University of Portsmouth
When visiting Haslar Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) for the first time I was struck by the pleasantness of the local area. Haslar’s western boundary adjoins a residential neighbourhood of detached and semi-detached housing, whilst immediately over the southernmost fence you’ll find a golf course and shingle beach. The IRC’s eastern fences border a sea wall from which walkers and anglers can admire a panoramic view across the English Channel towards the Isle of Wight, and its immediate neighbour to the north is the impressive though derelict Haslar Hospital, which treated sailors injured at the Battle of Trafalgar, a prominent example of a local landscape layered with British military history.
Walking below the high, razor-wire capped fences of Haslar IRC, providing the weather is in your favour, you are therefore likely to encounter golfers, dog-walkers, anglers, ramblers and cyclists, happy to exchange a nod and a smile, all the time observed by the centre’s many CCTV cameras. Unless very attentive, you are unlikely to notice the irregular but steady stream of Tascor vans bringing individuals to and from the removal centre.
As a sociologist, the stark contrasts between the lives and places either side of Haslar’s fences suggested an interesting and potentially revealing research project. I decided to try to speak to those who live on the free side of the fence in the vicinity of Haslar about what they think about their local area, about the IRC, about those detained within Haslar, and about immigration generally. In January and February of this year I conducted in depth interviews with 25 people, all of whom live within half a mile of Haslar. The remainder of this piece will sketch out some the key findings emerging from the research before specifically linking them to the Unlocking Detention project.
It is first important to note that nearly all participants demonstrated a considerable amount of sympathy for and empathy with those detained inside Haslar as well as with irregular migrants generally. At the same time, however, when discussing how Haslar fits into their views of the local area in which they live, participants generally suggested that the IRC is ‘invisible’ or ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Some participants did discuss Haslar in somewhat negative terms due to the parking issues caused by centre employees and visitors, but most considered the presence of an IRC with indifference. A few portrayed Haslar in a positive light, discussing how they enjoy the opportunities for walking along the sea wall by the centre, with one suggesting that an IRC is a preferable use of space than would be a housing estate because detainees make predictably ‘quiet neighbours’. For nearly all participants the function and population of Haslar ultimately seemed to disappear from view within a local area they primarily associate with secure, comfortable and homely, leisured lifestyles.
This pattern is of course somewhat understandable due to the inevitable, habitual backgrounding of physical surroundings in our daily lives. How often do any of us notice, let alone really reflect upon, the places and buildings we travel past or through during our everyday lives? Furthermore, those within Haslar are physically veiled behind high fences and walls, and regardless of how close you live to the centre, unless you make a serious effort to peer over these walls or fences on an afternoon in which detainees are outside playing football, you simply cannot see anyone.
However, my research also suggests that the barriers for thinking about Haslar and detainees are not merely physical – they are also ideological and emotional. When asked whether they would be interested in ‘hearing the stories of those detained within Haslar’, a question specifically aimed at provoking discussions about detainees as individuals, many participants reacted defensively. Some mistakenly thought that I might be trying to recruit them to actually hear the stories of detainees in person, a prospect that made them uncomfortable and led to expressions of guilt or anxiety. For example, one participant revealingly suggested that a ‘problem’ that might arise from meeting detainees is that he would ‘become too emotional’ and potentially ‘a soft touch’. Participants’ responses also implied that hearing about the lives of those within Haslar could lead to the sense of security and homeliness they associate with their local area being unsettled by the discomforting effects of talking and thinking about detainees and irregular migration.
Many participants therefore positioned themselves and the local area in which they live as vulnerable in relation to detainees and irregular migrants – a perspective that seems paradoxical given the vastly more privileged and powerful position of those on the free side of the fence. An explanation for this pattern may be that many of us in Britain (and ‘the West’ generally) are emotionally invested in discussing what we feel comfortable with, and we thus often react defensively if feelings of guilt and anxiety are provoked. We work hard – consciously or otherwise – to try and avoid or ignore these feelings and therefore restrict our emotional connections with stigmatised individuals, such as irregular migrants or asylum seekers, even when feelings of sympathy and empathy seem, almost instinctively, to be what we think we should feel. Participants in my research, rather than trust their initial emotional connections with detainees, seemed to defensively reject these connections, distorting their feelings in relation to nationalist ways of thinking.
This was not true of all of those interviewed however. A smaller number of participants did reflect upon the function of Haslar, the lives of detainees, and the implications of exclusion and deportation for individuals and families. Furthermore, some did so in relation to the starkly contrasting context of the local area and their own comfortable and leisured lifestyles enacted just metres away from those often undergoing tremendous trauma. This was evident with participants who had personally known refugees and asylum seekers, though empathy was also found among participants who had never met irregular migrants but who reflected in a more abstract way about the migrant experience, about detention, and about the possible motivations for irregular migration. As one participant put it, by simply opening a space for reflecting on these issues in more detail then detainees can ‘become somebody, not just a fence’.
The research therefore suggests that, in order to break down the ideological and emotional barriers legitimising detention, the individuality, the personhood of detainees needs to be communicated. The virtual tour provided by the Unlocking Detention campaign, in opening up highly secure institutions that are rarely reflected upon, even by those who pass them every day, is an excellent way of portraying detention as being about somebody and not just about the fences and boundaries we may otherwise routinely deem normal to the places we live and to our sense of who we are. Here, as with the Detention Inquiry, activists and detainees alike need to try and ensure that the voices of those detained within places like Haslar, as well as the voices of those friends and family from whom detainees are forcibly separated, are heard and heard louder. Exposure to these hugely disrupted, often highly traumatised lives makes it clearer to all but the most prejudiced that far more commonalities than differences are shared by us all, regardless of our immigration status. Once this realisation is made, the violence of the detention and removal system becomes harder to evade emotionally, and impossible to justify ethically and politically in any consistent way.