Free Movement: A Case Against Immigration Controls

Author(s): Teresa Hayter at Hampshire College, April 8, 1999, excerpted by Charu Bhandari
Date Published: July 22, 2006
Source: Political Environments #7, Winter 1999

For the last five years we have been campaigning against the detention of refugees at Campsfield Immigration Detention Center, about six miles from where I live in Oxford, UK. Five of us were outside Campsfield, to protest against detention, when the first detainees were brought there in November 1993. We set up the Campaign to Close Campsfield, have demonstrated every month since then, and have held many meetings and lobbies, and received quite a lot of publicity- without, however, getting the place closed.

The campaign's goals include the ending of all detention of asylum seekers and the abolition of "racist" immigration controls-which most of us understand to mean all immigration controls. I have for years believed that immigration controls are wrong. Our experience of the injustice to asylum seekers, who are subjected to harsh treatment, has reinforced this belief.

Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed by the United Nations in 1948, states that everyone has the right to freedom of movement within the borders of each state, and that everyone has the right to leave any country, "including his own," and to return to it. The Declaration says nothing about the right to enter any other country. There is one exception: Article 15 says that if people are seeking asylum from persecution, they may not be refused entry to another country and their request for asylum must be considered. The reality is that practically every government tries to control its borders to stop people entering its territory-and it does so apparently without infringing any internationally recognized rights.

Immigration controls are relatively new. The first laws against immigration were enacted in most countries at the end of the last century or the beginning of this one. Since then, these laws have become more and more restrictive and oppressive-and more and more flagrantly abusive of human rights.

The growth in economic and cultural links across boundaries has not led to any greater freedom for people to move around the world and to live where they choose. On the contrary, while the US and the European governments put strong and continuing pressure on the governments of the periphery, and on each other, to open their markets, to abolish import and exchange controls and in general to promote the free movement of goods and capital around the world, at the same time, they are increasing their efforts to restrict the movement of people.

As is widely known, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) does not imply the free movement of labor. The European Union has moved towards freedom of movement for its own citizens within the borders of the EU, under the Schengen Agreement. But at the same time it is erecting more and more barriers against the movement of people into Europe. It is attempting to "harmonize" asylum and immigration procedures to, in effect, the lowest common denominator. Countries on the edge of the European Union, including Italy, Spain, Greece and Ireland, and also potential new members such as Poland, are being forced to adopt the apparatus of immigration controls which until recently they did not have-so that they do not constitute the "soft underbelly" of "Fortress Europe."

Britain's treatment of migrants and refugees is among the worst. Most new waves of immigrants into Britain, from Jewish people to Huguenots and Irish, have at first been treated with hostility and prejudice. Eventually, they become more or less accepted and integrated. Black people, as is well known, are still subjected to a shocking degree of persecution and harassment. Perhaps this is partly because they are distinguishable by their color. But prejudice against them is deeply rooted in the experiences of colonialism, the slave trade, and the myths which the colonialists invented to justify the exploitation and suffering they imposed on black people.

The British used to pride themselves on providing a haven for refugees, and in fact there is no record of refugees being refused entry to Britain in the nineteenth century. The largest migration to Britain, which has been from Ireland, has been subject to no restriction although it has dealt with a great deal of prejudice. Legal restrictions on entry to Britain started after right-wing agitation against Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms in Russia and Romania. An Aliens Act was passed in 1905, which gave the government the right to refuse entry to certain categories of people. An immigration control administration was set up-the precursor of the overblown and repressive bureaucracy that exists today. This was followed by the Aliens Restriction Act 1914, the Aliens Restriction (Amendment) Act 1919, the Aliens Order 1920-a series of increasingly restrictive measures, which had the effect of legitimizing anti-Jewish violence and making open anti-Semitism more respectable in Britain.

After the Second World War, due to labor shortages in industry and public services in Britain, largely spontaneous migration started from the Caribbean in the late 1940s and later from the Asian subcontinent, together with some official recruitment of nurses and transport workers from the Caribbean.

Until 1962, there were no restrictions on the citizens of the British Commonwealth entering Britain. Both Conservative and Labor governments in Britain were anxious not to alienate friendly governments in the Commonwealth whose peoples they wished to continue to exploit. In 1962, a Tory government introduced the Commonwealth Immigrants Act. This made entry for Commonwealth citizens subject to the possession of an employment voucher.

Both Tory and Labor governments' subsequent immigration policies led to the tightening of immigration controls. In 1968, the Labor government introduced another Commonwealth Immigrants Act, which made Commonwealth citizens subject to immigration controls unless they had a British parent or grandparent-in other words unless they were white, or "patrials." The Tories introduced the Immigration Act 1971, replacing employment vouchers with more restrictive work permits, and authorizing the detention of people whose immigration status was in doubt or pending their deportation. The 1981 Nationality Act, yet another Act introduced by the Tories but partly based on proposals earlier made by Labor, divided Commonwealth citizens into two categories: those with and those without the right to reside in Britain, the latter of course being black.

After the 1960s Commonwealth Immigrants Act, it became more or less impossible for Commonwealth and foreign citizens, apart from some wealthy or highly qualified people and (with great difficulty) the immediate families of people already settled in Britain, to come to live and work in Britain. It is even increasingly hard for black people to visit Britain (in 1973 a planeload of Jamaicans who had saved up to visit their families for Christmas were locked up in Campsfield and then deported).

Virtually the only remaining way to get into Britain and settle there is to come as a refugee. When governments committed themselves, under the 1951 Geneva Convention, to give asylum to people fleeing persecution, they mainly had in mind people fleeing from Communist governments; their willingness to accept refugees was partly a result of Cold War ideology. They have been less willing to accept refugees from the Third World governments to which they sell weapons. Many of the new asylum seekers in the 1980s and 1990s were fleeing from such governments. In Western Europe the number of asylum applications increased from 13,000 in 1972 to about 540,000 in 1991 as a result of the worsening situation in sub-Saharan Africa, Sri Lanka, Kurdistan, Sudan, Somalia, Algeria, Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

The government often brands asylum seekers as "bogus" and "economic refugees." Yet virtually no asylum seekers are from the Caribbean, and relatively few are from Pakistan, Bangladesh or India, the main areas from which people had migrated to Britain for work. Of the dozens of asylum seekers I have met at Campsfield and after their release, perhaps one or two have been here to improve their economic situation. Many of the asylum seekers are from relatively privileged backgrounds, and have renounced the possibility of lucrative careers in order to campaign against corruption and poverty, and for democracy, in their countries.

Although governments have not repudiated the Geneva Convention, they are undermining it by explicitly using harsh treatment as a means of deterring asylum applications. The government now locks up approximately 14 percent of the people who claim asylum when they arrive at ports and airports (the rest are given "temporary admission"). The decision to detain is made by immigration officials on their own authority. There is no judicial process. Their decisions are arbitrary, and have much to do with whether spaces are available at detention centers and prisons. They are not obliged to give written reasons. If asked to give reasons, they may say that the asylum seeker had false documents which refugees are more or less forced to have if they are fleeing from repression, and which is specifically excluded as a reason for penalizing asylum seekers in the guidelines of UNHCR the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Most are subsequently released on "temporary admission," and some get refugee status.

In other words, refugees, often traumatized by their experiences in prisons and by torture in their own countries, are locked up not for anything they themselves have done, but to deter potential refugees. Asylum seekers are also sometimes detained later, when they go to sign at police stations, or when they are about to be deported. (Campsfield also contains a few people, mostly Caribbeans and Asians, who have been picked up for "over-staying" as students or visitors, or for working without permission).

About 800-1000 asylum seekers are detained at any one time in the UK. They are detained without time limit, without assured access to lawyers or visitors, and with little information about what is happening to them. The average period of detention is just over two months, but some are locked up for a few days and a few over two years. About half are in ordinary prisons, locked in cells sometimes for prolonged periods with criminals. The others are in so-called detention centers, most of them run by private security firms.

Campsfield has a capacity for 200 people; originally about 50 were women, but they have now been moved elsewhere (they were considered a subversive influence!). The government says Campsfield is "a relaxed hostel," but it is surrounded by 18' fences, topped with razor wire and video cameras. You enter, after being searched, through a series of electronic gates. It is run by Group 4 Securitas Limited. Group 4 staff are paid about $ 6 an hour and work seven consecutive 12 hour shifts. Many are blatantly racist. There is no entertainment or education provided, apart from television, and, unlike in ordinary prisons, people cannot work or earn cash for such things as phone cards.

Group 4's main method of maintaining discipline is to get detainees transferred to other prisons. Like detention itself, these decisions are arbitrary. The most common pattern of these removals is that they follow complaints-and therefore detainees are frightened to complain. Four refugees were transferred to Winson Green, an old Victorian high security prison in Birmingham, accused of starting a fire in a toilet. None of them did it. One of them, an Algerian who now has refugee status and is a devout Muslim, had complained about Group 4 showing a pornographic video next to the room where he was saying his prayers. His lawyer obtained a letter from the Home Office admitting he did not start the fire. But he spent three months in Winson Green, with murderers and drug dealers. Another of the four spent a year in Winson Green.

There have, however, been many protests at Campsfield: a mass hunger strike early in 1994, two mass protests with a lot of physical damage to the premises (in 1994 and 1997), a 36-hour rooftop protest after one Algerian's removal to prison (followed, of course, by the removal of the protesters themselves), several smaller hunger strikes and a number of escapes and attempted escapes (until razor wire was added to the high fences).

After the 1997 mass protest, nine West Africans were charged with riot (which carries a maximum sentence of ten years). The defendants (except for two Nigerians who got refugee status on the basis of their experience of torture in Nigeria) spent ten months on remand in prisons; three of them made suicide attempts and more than half were on anti-depressants. We struggled to get good lawyers for them, who used Group 4's own video tapes to show that Group 4 witnesses had fabricated evidence and told lies; the prosecution was eventually forced to abandon the case. But the Group 4 witnesses are still at work, undisciplined.

The new Labor government, far from closing Campsfield (or even acting on its previous statements that it was immoral for private companies to make money out of locking up innocent people), apparently proposes to increase the number of asylum seekers detained. It has not introduced any judicial element into the decisions to detain. Although it proposes in its new Immigration and Asylum Bill (currently going through Parliament) that detainees should have automatic bail hearings, there is no presumption of liberty, no provision for legal representation and no proposal to reduce the current very high level of sureties required (usually around $6,000).

The process of determining asylum applications is also extraordinarily arbitrary and unjust. Initial interviews are usually conducted at the airport with traumatized and exhausted people, without lawyers, and often with inadequate and inaccurate interpreters. Most are followed by refusals, sometimes after months and years of waiting. Asylum seekers, if they find themselves lawyers, can then appeal to Home Office appointed "adjudicators." These people, who are sometimes retired colonial officials with minimal legal training, make decisions which would often be laughable if they were not tragic. Asylum seekers can then go for "judicial review" on points of law. Sometimes people who have been imprisoned and tortured win appeals on their second attempt, after they have the good fortune, for example, to be visited in detention by somebody who finds them a reputable lawyer. The process drags on for months and sometimes years; there is a backlog of 70,000 people waiting for decisions.

In a further attempt to stop people coming to Britain for refuge, the government plans to make them destitute. The previous Tory government made refugees waiting for appeals ineligible for social security benefits. The High Court decided this made them eligible for support under the National Assistance Act on the grounds of destitution. They now receive minimal food and shelter, but no cash, from local authorities. The Labor Government in its new bill plans to make all refugees ineligible for social security benefits and to set up an entirely new system, run by the Home Office (no doubt with its habitual incompetence). This will provide them with virtually no cash at all-merely vouchers for food and clothes, and one offer of accommodation anywhere in the country. If they refuse this "offer," they will get nothing. If they take it, they may find themselves isolated from friends and lawyers, perhaps in hostels which, as in Germany, may turn out to be targets for racist attacks.