This month will see the twelfth IRC (Immigration Return Centre) in Britain open on Portland, Dorset. The two most recent additions to this flourishing archipelago have both been converted prisons in relatively remote areas, well away from the largest migrant communities with their specialist lawyers. The expectation may have been that re-opening the Verne as an IRC would pass unnoticed down there in the West Country but that is not what has happened. About 150 filled St John’s Weymouth to hear about AVID (Association for the Visitors of Immigration Detainees), which organises volunteers who undertake to visit.
The refugee, according to Agamben, has ‘become such a disquieting element in the order of the modern nation-state’ because he or she exposes a ‘rotten ambiguity’ at the heart of who we are, a contradiction in our own sense of identity.
With 580 places, the Verne will be the UK’s second largest detention centre after the one outside Heathrow. According to Detention Action, it will house single males only, mainly transferred from prisons. During 2013 the Home Office increased the number of migrants arbitrarily held in prisons from 400 to about 1000. It is these detainees who will be transferred to the Verne, which will provide a cheaper way to ‘warehouse’ them.
Community groups, faith networks, health workers of all kinds and independent media were all out in force to hear how they might help, whether by visiting, connecting detainees with local services or simply making more people aware of what is happening. From the area myself, it was good to see so many faces from my home town.
We heard how the Verne’s inmates will be among the most complex cases cluttering up the present ‘system’. A large majority (73%) of those detained for more than a year are later released into the UK, their detention having served no purpose whatever. Given that £76 million are wasted every year on holding migrants who are later released1, might it not be time to consider a system which works better?
Such a question might seem beyond the scope of this preliminary meeting in Weymouth. But was it? What informs our attitude to a question like this? The former detainee who also spoke had spent a total of four and a half years inside. Less used to addressing a large audience than the others, he was unsure how close to hold the microphone as he spoke. His voice seemed now very near, now very far. How closely does this concern you? it asked. It told us of the ‘red file’ in which suicide attempts are noted down as so many marks against you. It set before us the riddle, in ‘our’ place, of a no-place, or of people, rather, trying to communicate what it is like to be brutally cut off from any place.
‘I don’t think any of us who haven’t been in detention have any idea how isolated people can become,’ said the man who had been visiting IRCs for years. He told us about some of the people he had met through this often harrowing but deeply rewarding work. It was these human stories, Ali McGinley of AVID told me afterwards, to which everyone responds. That response reassured her that Britain’s tolerant traditions are still there, concealed beneath its present public culture.
Around 30,000 migrants are detained each year in the UK but the mind soon blanks at such figures – it’s the microphone, the unfamiliar accent and that red file which you remember. As TMO readers may be aware, more humane, cheaper, more efficient methods of administering this problem are in place elsewhere. Britain is alone in Europe in detaining indefinitely. From Belgium to Sweden to Australia, governments have been prepared to risk the ire of the tabloid press in order to install more rational arrangements. It can be done.
Just as the variation is wide between countries, so within them, too, centres differ in the hours of lock-up, freedom of movement, education provision etc. etc. The Verne will in fact be run by the Prison Service, not a private company, but the variations between centres do not generally correlate with a private / public divide. The bland appearance and anonymous surroundings of these centres are deceptive in more ways than one: each place has different needs and it is these which civil society initiatives are uniquely placed to address.
In an eerie turn of phrase, Italians call the boat-people crossing from North Africa ‘uomini tonno’ (‘human tuna fish’). In one of the centres where these ‘fish’ are later ‘stored’, no books are allowed.
For all that local variation, this global phenomenon has been studied as a whole, too. Some of what has been suggested about it may usefully inform the attitudes and actions of those living close to an IRC. A 2007 report4, for example, detailed shocking levels of violence inflicted on detainees as they are deported from the UK. It didn’t prevent Jimmy Mubenga’s murder by G4S guards in 2010. In Italy, to take another example, the equivalent centres (CIE: Centri di Identificazione ed Espulsione) are considerably less secure than those in the UK – there the extreme violence takes place mainly during escape attempts.
This variation between countries is there and it matters. But why are we not only locking migrants up, which is bad enough, but then treating them as non-persons in this way, everywhere? How to make any underlying sense of it? In an eerie turn of phrase, Italians call the boat-people crossing from North Africa ‘uomini tonno’ (‘human tuna fish’). In one of the centres where these ‘fish’ are later ‘stored’, no books are allowed. Looking into a particular case, I went to see tireless campaigner and lawyer of asylum studies at the University of Palermo, Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo. After we’d talked in a café he left me at the library of the law faculty with a recent number of the International Journal of Human Rights.3
Asked where migrants ‘come from’, our mainstream news culture generally responds, not without some reason, that they come from there. It then sets about approving or disapproving, according to taste. The article before me had a different approach. It attributed our treatment of migrants to a flaw running deep down inside western political traditions. The article was a response to a controversial work, Homo Sacer4, by the philosopher Giorgio Agamben.
The refugee, according to Agamben, has ‘become such a disquieting element in the order of the modern nation-state’ because he or she exposes a ‘rotten ambiguity’ at the heart of who we are, a contradiction in our own sense of identity. He traces this back to the Greeks, who had no single word for ‘life’. The term zoe referred to the vitality of any living thing. Bios, however, was human life as it is shaped by a particular community, for them the polis.
Agamben suggests that this distinction made for a fault line in western culture which has now come under enormous pressure. If it gave us habeas corpus and much else that we rightly value, it left us another legacy too. It meant that the sovereign authority could designate, as the Romans did, a certain person as ‘homo sacer’, a man viewed as falling somewhere between zoe and bios. A man without rights. A man whom it is no crime to kill.
He traces this flaw through its medieval, early modern and French revolutionary expressions, but it was with the twentieth century that it finally caused the system to collapse. It was then that certain persons could be ruled ‘unworthy’ of citizenship, whether Germans in France or Jews in Germany or Bulgarians in Greece or Greeks and Armenians in Turkey. It became possible to suspend the rights of those deemed not to belong and suddenly Europe was full of displaced people.
Today’s migrants are, certainly, from ‘there’. But they have emerged, he argues, just as surely from the history and unexamined corners of our own world view.
This case for a continuity between detention centres, Guantanamo among them, and Nazi death camps, naturally upset a lot of people, but the claim was not made for sensational effect. And it is only part of a careful larger argument, in which we are all implicated, about how the West, setting out from Aristotle, arrived at Abu Ghraib. States of emergency, such as that declared in France in 1915, in Germany in 1933 or the US in 2001, are, for Agamben, the occasions on which societies single out some class of individual for whom the law no longer applies.
What, you might ask, has this to do with migrants now? Actually quite a lot. It’s true there is no official state of emergency to justify this indefinite detention of people who have committed no crime. Our new ‘emergency’ is continually normalised, rather, through the relationship between government and the media.
The UK Prime Minister, for example, has a background in television. As Berlusconi with Mediaset, Putin with RT or Bush with Fox News, so, in the British version of this, Cameron instinctively turned, for his communications adviser, to the experienced tabloid editor who was formally charged with perjury last year. His replacement was somebody from the BBC.
It is government and the news-entertainment industry which between them now generate the sense of ‘emergency’. This it is that ‘justifies’ suspending the human rights of people who have committed no crime. Mad-dog journalism about asylum-seekers works just as well as terrorist attacks.
Agamben has his critics. That article I read about him in Palermo wondered about the eurocentrism. Others have asked whether his version does not remove agency from those living inside the nightmare, leaving them no scope for resistance. Whereas, precisely through initiatives like AVID, they do have agency.
In the Verne, at least, they will have a place, too. There have been prisons on Portland since 1848. It isn’t the first time this ‘remote’ corner has been closely connected with larger questions about the way the world is run. After helping to start the Land League, the Fenian Michael Davitt, acknowledged by Gandhi as an inspiration, was imprisoned on the island in 1881, and voted in as MP for County Meath whilst there. He kept a pet blackbird in his cell, which he released at the end of his sentence, to which he dedicated the book he later wrote about his experiences as a convict5.
The book ends with a description of the view east from Portland which hasn’t changed much: ‘Away beyond the coastline appeared harvest-fields and homesteads, melting into the distance, so sadly suggestive of what imprisonment was not – liberty, home and friends…’ Davitt went on to take an active role in Irish politics and also supported the foundation of the British Labour Party.
However embarrassing they may be to present power structures, human beings cannot, in reality, be excluded from history in this way. It doesn’t work. The stones of Portland know it, even if the Home Secretaries and the communications advisers do not.