31 July 2013

The #RacistVan Is New, the Hostile Environment Isn't

So we've all seen the Racist Van doing the rounds, and possibly also the thing that was almost called the "Hostile Environment Working Group". The slightly cynical among us might see the fact that the van threatens people with "arrest", rather than "prosecution" as a bit odd. The cynical and also casually racist among us might only care about it stealing rightful votes from the true racist party UKIP. And the extremely cynical might see the threat of arrest without specifying what charges they hope to make stick as an excuse for casual harrassment. The thing is, as well as the openly racist harrassment and arrest of non-whites having been around for at least three years, this type of strategy, which is definitely NOT self-deportation, has been going on for a while and, sadly, it fucking works.

There's an Immigration Removal Centre near where I live, and since I moved here I've been on-and-off involved in demonstrations outside. In the past year, I've got involved in visiting the prisoners inmates detainees. Of the four men I visited there (only men are detained at this centre), the first, now bailed, was basically having a midlife crisis in there, and the second vanished. I mean it, vanished. When we tried phoning him to arrange another visit the calls went straight to voicemail, so after a while I rang the front desk to see if everything was ok. They had no record at all of him ever being there. This apparently happens a lot. Systematic cover-up or systematic cock-up, it could go either way and neither would especially surprise me.

The two most recent are the best examples of what's going on. They were friends and had met inside, and a group of about three of us used to visit them together. They had a good dynamic between them - one was extremely chatty, friendly and ranty (for some strange reason the place made him quite angry at times), while the other one was very quiet. It became pretty obvious from the start that the quiet one had some very serious depression and social anxiety which were obviously not getting treated. But you could tell from both of them that they were getting worn down by it all. The chatty one always had new complaints - about not having seen his son, about racism from the staff (these happened a lot), and you could tell that the quiet one's depression was worsening, and turning up to the visits was becoming a struggle that he wasn't always up to.

Then one day, when we were going through the ludicrous security checks on the way in, we saw a neatly laid-out table covered with multilingual posters and leaflets for "assisted voluntary returns", where practically every other word was either 'voluntary' or 'choices', which in my experience means they've made up their minds in advance what they want you to decide. We asked the two detainees' opinions on this, and both were seriously considering it. The chatty one's position was that he'd do it just to get out of there, if it wasn't for the fact that he had a son and it might then be ten years before he could come back to the country. The quiet one, who didn't have family here, was also seriously considering it, even though he'd literally fled his home country with a price on his head.

The two of them both had bail hearings coming up at the time (these hearings are notoriously arbitrary, mostly by video-link, not usually recorded and activists who sit in to observe them are usually treated with suspicion and hostility), but neither of them were let out. A couple of weeks later, the chatty one was bailed, unannounced, basically out of the blue from what I've been told, and the quiet one agreed to self-deport do the right thing and return to his own country.

Bear in mind this centre claims to be the most pleasant in the country (one of the following photos is taken from its own website, can you guess which one, and which photo is part of the visitor area?)

Clue: It's the nice one
Yet the nicest forrunprison in the country still had detainees' very serious mental health conditions left untreated, constant casual racism from the staff, dismal (if habitable) living quarters (compared to the pretty willow trees and rather pleasant visiting area with a tuck shop, TV, kids' toys and detainees' clay sculptures). It's also actually lost detainees. The people I visited also complained about the constant, crushing boredom there, especially the ones who weren't willing to take the £1-an-hour jobs on offer for them.

Most of all (and this seems to be the major cause of detainees' mental health issues, which almost all of them end up with) they are not there with a clear sentence. They don't even need a trial to be there so how could they be? This is a system of indefinite detention which for some reason David Davies has never seen fit to resign over. And this is what the "arrest" you face if you don't text HOME to 78070 may well entail. Who even needs to prosecute if you can lock them up anyway?

The "hostile environment" is nothing new. This place is coming up to its 20th anniversary. The very kind, lovely, marvellous, charitable stolen from the BNP attempts to help these poor, unfortunate souls fuck off back where they came from are a new addition, but the strategy of making conditions for unwanted migrants as unbearable as is legally possible is old. The only new addition is the relish and pride with which the government does it and how keen it is to be seen making life as hard and as spiteful as possible for, at the end of the day, entirely innocent people.

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