By Dominic Parikh and Jonathan Tomlin
Detainees at an Oxfordshire immigration centre are on hunger strike to protest against what they say is “inhumane treatment” by British authorities.
Several students and locals have spoken out in support of the strikers, and condemned the practice of “indefinite” detention of immigrants and asylum seekers by the UK Border Agency.
Thirteen men at Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre, located five miles north of Oxford, have been refusing meals and other food for around six days.
Speaking to The Oxford Student on the phone, one of the detainees on hunger strike, Mohammed Altahir, said that they had all come to the UK from the Darfur region of Sudan to seek asylum.
The area was the centre of major ethnic conflict between 2005 and 2009 in which some non-governmental organisations claim that up to 400,000 people died.
The detainee said: “We have been in [Camspfi eld House] for six months or more, running from a war. It is like a prison and we are treated like prisoners.
“I would rather be free in a place where there is war than in a prison like this.”
A spokesman for the UK Border Agency (UKBA), which is responsible for immigration removal centres, said: “A small number of detainees at Campsfi eld House have recently refused prepared meals. However they have access to food at the centre’s shop, and healthcare teams have no concerns over their wellbeing.
“Staff at Campsfield continue to monitor the situation, work with detainees and listen to their concerns.”
But the detainee claimed that nobody had asked them why they were not eating, or to check on their health since they started the protest.
Second year Wadham student Rebecca Sparrow helped organise a demonstration of around ten people on Tuesday evening at the site to show solidarity with the hunger strikers.
She said: “It cannot be right that people do not even know they will be kept here for.”
Rachel Rowan-Olive, a second year at Brasenose, commented: “Campsfield is part of a labyrinthine and bureaucratic immigration system which puts the rights and wellbeing of often vulnerable people way down the list of priorities.”
She added that the “indefinite” nature of the detention was particularly harmful for detainees, saying: “The effects of being detained and in limbo for weeks
court decision or flight details, without an end in sight, are terrible – it saps people’s energy and their will to stand up for themselves.”
The campaigners claimed that a recent report into medical conditions at Campsfield House had found widespread mental health issues among detainees caused by not knowing when they would be released.
The removal centre was criticised last October for its health care and education facilities following a surprise inspection.
Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons, said at the time: “Little progress had been made in remedying areas we identified as requiring improvement.”
The report stated: “Education provision had not increased and was particularly unsuitable for those spending lengthy periods in the centre.”
It added that health care also had “significant weaknesses”.
Labour City Councillor Mike Rowley, who has been a supporter of the ‘Close Campsfield’ campaign for a number of years, attended the protest on Tuesday.
He said: “We have people in administrative detention and they have not committed any crime. This is the kind of thing you associate with the countries they are fleeing from, not with the United Kingdom. I am ashamed we have this near the city of Oxford.”
Asked whether detention was necessary to prevent failed asylum seekers absconding, Rowley responded: “If people are so terrified of returning to their country that they are prepared to go on the run with no documents, and be effectively destitute with no home, they probably have a good reason.”
He added: “Generally speaking, these people have not committed any crime. It is not a crime to seek asylum. It is not a crime to move from one country to another.”
Current immigration rules set out to safeguard the rights of asylum seekers who have experienced or face torture in their home country.
Medical practitioners in immigration removal centres are required to report any individuals they believe may have been victims of torture, who should then have their case reviewed by UKBA officials to consider whether detention is appropriate.
Medical Justice, a pressure group arguing for the rights of detainees, released a report last week in which they claimed that the rules about detaining torture victims are being misapplied.
The report stated: “Rule 35 [of immigration detention policy], which should prevent torture victims being locked up in all but very exceptional cases, is routinely flouted.”
The UKBA has said while torture victims should be detained online in exceptional circumstances, there is no blanket exemption of such individuals from detention.
Tim Flatman, a former Oxford student and chair of Oxford University Labour Club, who is now an expert on Sudan and works with migrants from the country to the UK, said it was “incredibly dangerous” for people deported to the country by the UKBA.
He said: “Darfur is a region that has been in the news for a while. Bombs are still dropped weekly or more, and rape is still used as a weapon.”
This is not the first time inmates at Campsfield House have protested against detention. In 2010, over 100 detainees took part in a large-scale hunger strike, saying that some of them had been kept for over three years with no prospect of release.
At the time, the strikers also reported that nobody from the UKBA had been in touch to discuss why they were taking action.