- Posted by Maryam Namazie
- On February 18, 2002
- 0 Comments
Published in Hambastegi English
February 18, 2002
One quarter to a half of Yarl’s Wood prison located in Bedfordshire, which was opened 13 weeks ago on the site of a former UK Ministry of Defence base, was burned down by a fire that began on 14 February. With several of the ‘detainees’ unaccounted for, there is serious concern that some may have been wounded or even killed as a result. If so, they will become the latest victims and human tragedies of Fortress UK.
Billed as the largest immigration ‘detention centre’ in Europe, Yarl’s Wood was an important part of the government’s programme to expedite and increase deportations from the UK. Information received on the treatment of the ‘detainees’ reveals the extent of the government’s brutality towards people who have fled persecution and repression. According to the Campaign Against Arbitrary Detention at Yarl’s Wood: ‘Many fire-fighters expressed their shock at the treatment of detainees by Group 4 staff [the private company running the prison for the immigration service] and police. They described people being herded like animals through the locked building. After being left to stand in the cold, detainees were handcuffed to the seat rails on the busses that took them away from the detention centre. Sources reveal that fire-fighters had to bring in special equipment to tear down doors that were otherwise impenetrable. …Fire fighters were prevented by Group 4 and the police from entering the locked, burning buildings to check for trapped detainees…’
Though there has been no definitive statement by the UK Home Office, many groups have commented on the cause of the fire and suggested solutions. The GMB union, which represents 170 staff at Yarl’s Wood, and others blame the fire and ‘riot’ on insufficient training and understaffing. Others highlight poor conditions such as the fact that the Category B prison complex was built too hastily and had no sprinkler system, that Group 4 treated ‘detainees’ unfairly, had an appalling record and failed to deploy staff effectively. They add that Group 4, like all other private companies, ran this centre for profit, which is why they were prepared to leave it under-staffed and sprinkler free.
While some of the issues raised against Yarl’s Wood are justified and some of the recommendations legitimate, they nonetheless fail to address the root reason for the occurrence and give real solutions. Would, for example, sufficient training and staffing really solve the problem? If enough sprinklers were put in place, if detainees were not mistreated and the government ran the prison instead of Group 4, what then? Would everything be okay if detention was no longer arbitrary? What if a full independent public inquiry into the events leading up to the incident took place and an explanation was given as to why Group 4 ignored Fire Authority recommendations to install a sprinkler system and had so few staff on duty? Would the fires and riots and deaths end? Of course they wouldn’t. These suggested measures are like calling for a moratorium on the death penalty in the US until the USA government can ensure that executions are not racially biased, rather than calling for an end to executions, full stop.
Nothing the UK government can do will stop these tragedies short of shutting down Yarl’s Wood and all ‘detention centres’. This is where the real debate and solution lies. No government can imprison people for being homeless – it’s unacceptable in this day and age. Likewise, no government should be allowed to imprison migrants who are homeless and unable and unwilling to return to their ‘homes.’ The people who are imprisoned in Yarl’s Wood and other prisons, are not detainees, they are prisoners of conscience. Yarl’s Wood is not a ‘detention centre’ but a prison and concentration camp. The prisoners are not violent and criminal, but persons who have fled criminal and violent regimes, many of them supported by the UK government. The Islamic regime in Iran is a good case in point. Moreover, it is the UK government’s policy of detention and deportation that is violent and criminal.
Like in Australia, this ‘problem’ won’t be resolved by rebuilding Yarl’s Wood, adding more detention centres and expediting and increasing deportations as Home Secretary Blunkett’s White Paper suggests. Like in Australia, the problem will only escalate until we too witness sewn lips and increased suicides.
A principled approach and solution to Yarl’s Wood and all other so-called centres is to demand an end to them and deportation of migrants, full stop.