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Resistance to detention and quasi-detention: No To Hassockfield!

By Bill MacKeith

The government’s further onslaught on refugees and other migrants, outlined in the Queen’s Speech on 11 May 2021 followed a farcical and insulting ‘consultation’ on a ‘New Plan for Immigration’ which closed only days earlier.

The consultation provoked unprecedented rejection by migrant organisations, campaigns, NGOs and human rights bodies. There is a huge movement needed in coming months to stop the government’s proposals.

Over the past six months, offensive action by the Johnson government has been fiercely resisted.

Since last autumn Home Secretary Priti Patel has put asylum seekers in former army barracks. Asylum seekers protested at their accommodation in old army barracks at Penally in Pembrokeshire, and Napier at Folkestone in Kent, as Covid-19 ripped through accommodation that the government’s own Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration said was unacceptable. Now Penally has closed, and a similar experiment at RAF Coltishall, Norfolk was abruptly dropped. But Patel insists the cruelty must continue at Napier.

Yarl’s Wood Befrienders and Women For Refugee Women won an important victory when they stopped a government plan to open a new asylum seeker camp alongside YW detention centre near Bedford. Lawyers Duncan Lewis were involved.

A plan for a 500-place asylum seeker accommodation centre on Ministry of Defence land at Barton Stacey in Hampshire was dropped after opposition including the local council leader and the MP Caroline Noakes, former Immigration Minister.

As for off-shore asylum seeker camps, the authorities of both Gibraltar and the Isle of Man have declined to play ball. We do not know the reaction of the governor of the combined British Overseas Territory of St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, or of the five-member Island Council (which has advisory powers) of Ascension Island, another proposed site.

 Because of Covid-19 (restrictions mean the government cannot argue that a detained individual’s deportation is ‘imminent’), the UK’s seven main detention centres are only 10-20 per cent occupied. So the government plan, which came to light in January,  to open an 80-place women’s immigration detention centre at Hassockfield near Consett in County Durham is bizarre.  The site housed the notorious Medomsley youth detention centre where, during the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of young men were physically and sexually abused. This scheme, on land earmarked for housing by the local authority, is lauded by new Conservative MP Richard Holden as ‘bringing jobs to the area’.

No To Hassockfield is a powerful coalition determined to stop the planned opening later this year:

Organisations we are linked with include Oxford Against Detention (formerly the Close Campsfield campaign), Detention Forum, Yarl’s Wood Campaigners, Duncan Lewis Solicitors, Women for Refugee Women [special campaign on Hassockfield], AVID, Women’s Aid, Migrant & Justice Forum, North East Against Racism, West End Refugee Service (WERS), Mental Health North East (MHNE), End Deportations Belfast, Abolish Detention among others [People’s Assembly is one].

You can sign refugee Agnes Tanoh’s petition against the centre here.

There is all to fight for as the government continues its attacks on refugees and other migrants to cover up its own failures over Covid-19 and inequalities.


Campaigners deplore government announcement to reopen Campsfield

Oxford anti-detention campaigners have denounced the government announcement yesterday that it intends to redevelop and reopen Campsfield immigration detention centre in Kidlington north of Oxford.

They argue that:

  • It’s cruel – more detention means more years of uncertainty for detainees, misery, mental ill health, hunger strikes, self-harm and possible suicides.
  • It’s a reversal of the Conservative policy, announced in 2017 by the then Home Secretary Sajid Javid, to detain fewer for shorter periods and develop community-based alternatives to detention.
  • It’s hypocritical: ‘The welfare of all those in immigration detention is of the upmost importance. We will therefore take into account Stephen Shaw’s reviews on welfare in detention as Campsfield is redeveloped’ (govt. statement) – The government’s own Shaw Review labelled conditions in detention centres unsafe, with thousands of vulnerable people detained for prolonged periods.
  • The policy behind the announcement is ineffective: it won’t stop migrants including asylum seekers coming to the UK. Government figures show that a great majority of people detained eventually win the right to stay: so there was no point in their detention.
  • Will it happen? It is early days yet. The government has to make a new-build planning application to Cherwell District Council, which turned down an application to expand Campsfield in 2016.

OAID organiser Bill MacKeith said:

25 years of protests by detainees and others campaigning led to the closure of Campsfield in 2018 and Oxfordshire people are not going to accept it reopening.

Shut Them Down! Resisting immigration detention in 2022

Join us on Tuesday 21st June at 7:30 pm for an interactive webinar with speakers including:

Agnes Tanoh (Women for Refugee Women)
Rosie Newbigging (Shut Down Yarl’s Wood)
Jonathan Ellis (The Detention Forum)

Free and open to all.

Register here:

Part of Oxford Refugee Week.

A response to the curent situation

The Ukrainian refugee situation, and its coverage in the media, has opened a window on our government’s hostile, negligent, and appalling treatment of people seeking sanctuary.

We demand a change in our laws, and an end to our practice of punishing the displaced rather than welcoming them.

Millions of people across Ukraine have been displaced from their homes by the Russian invasion, and their desperate situation has led to an outpouring of sympathy, practical support and generous offers of accommodation, from people across the world – including here in the UK.

This compassionate reaction from so many ordinary people is very moving and an encouraging sign of the depth of feeling behind the slogan “refugees welcome”; that such kindness is being frustrated by the Home Office’s visa bureaucracy is outrageous and a cause for collective shame.

While official rhetoric remains fairly warm (at least for the moment), the reality on the ground is often very cold. We have been deeply disturbed by recent reports of Ukrainian refugee families being split, and others made homeless within days of arriving, due to problems with the sponsorship programme, while Ukrainians who arrive without visas are being thrown into our cruel and unfit asylum system and subject to quasi-detention in so-called “asylum hotels”.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian seasonal workers (not included in any scheme) have been left at risk of destitution and exploitation, with no recourse to public funds and no right to bring their children and other family members to safety, even as the government pays lip service to ‘homes for Ukrainians’. That the Home Office should wave their country’s flag, while treating them in this manner, is an utter scandal.

At this point, it should be morally obvious that war refugees are entitled to our protection regardless of how they came to be here and whether or not they know anyone willing or able to sponsor them. All those who cannot go home have a right to be safe: whether they arrived seeking sanctuary or as visitors, workers or students.

As visa delays cause mounting outrage, the very least the government can do is to follow the lead of other European countries and waive visa requirements immediately. It should grant permanent Refugee Status to all Ukrainian nationals who are in the UK, create safe pathways for undocumented Ukrainians to obtain refugee status, and facilitate family reunions including from third countries. This much, we hope, is now clear.

But we think our government can – and should – do more.

On the eve of Priti Patel’s Nationality and Borders Bill becoming law, we call on the government, and more importantly, the UK public who have opened their hearts to Ukraine – to consider the families and single people (often unaccompanied children) who have been forced to leave their homes in Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Yemen and many other places to look for temporary or more permanent homes elsewhere – and open their hearts to them too.

Some of the reporting of this war, as well as the appalling and distressing scenes of Black people mistreated at the Ukrainian border, has illustrated how ethnicity and nationality remain a barrier to welcome. At the Polish-Belarusian border, refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere were left for months in harsh winter weather without protection or basic necessities. Away from the cameras, tragically, many perished. Even now in Ukraine itself, after five weeks of war, migrants and refugees remain trapped in EU-funded detention centres. With no air raid shelters and no way of escaping the bombs, their terror can only be imagined.

Closer to home, in Calais, non-European refugees are still living in tents, hounded by police, and denied even the rudimentary and inadequate support provided to their Ukrainian counterparts. These include many young people yearning to reunite with family in Britain. With no hope of obtaining a visa, and no way of claiming asylum until they arrive, many more will be forced to resort to terrifying channel crossings in unseaworthy vessels. Who are we, as a country, that we let this happen on our doorstep?

We are calling on the government to reverse its draconian and unworkable laws which, far from welcoming the displaced, lock them into years of torturous waiting. This traumatic uncertainty is the reality for so many refugees and asylum seekers even inside the UK: denied the opportunity to work, unable to settle, forced to live well below the poverty line, threatened with indefinite detention and the ever-present fear of deportation.

This inhumanity is being exercised in our name by our government on tens of thousands of people from across the world who came here for the same reason that Ukrainians are forced to come. These people want no more than to rebuild their lives in peace and security. Their stories of suffering are too often ignored. And when they do appear in the headlines, they are scapegoated and demonised.

At OAID we want to live in a compassionate country, not a Hostile Environment.

We welcomed the closure of Campsfield, after 25 years too long – but last year we marked the opening of a new all-women detention centre near Durham with heavy hearts. OAID exists to expose and resist the imprisonment of refugees and migrants (and the attitudes behind it), here in Britain and across the world.

We will not rest until all the detention centres are closed, our racist immigration laws are repealed, and the moral stain of detention without trial or time limit is removed from our lawbook.

We believe that people can be (and frequently are) much better than their governments, and we will work collectively to change the attitude and policy of this and subsequent governments to one of true humanity and social justice, through opening people’s eyes to the reality of our heartless border regime.

Please share this statement. Thank you.

Liz Peretz and Emma Jones (Co-Chairs)

Monthly actions


Things we can do to help:

📋 Sign the petition by Freedom from Torture. And if you’ve already signed, please share it (again). 📣

📋Sign this petition on the Parliament website.

✍️ Use Amnesty’s tool to contact the Prime Minister.

📢 A special website has been set up for those fleeing Ukraine and their families, offering free immigration advice. Please spread the word!

🧤🧦 Support humanitarian efforts via the Oxford Polish Association which is assisting relief efforts on the Polish border: donate here.

📖 🏠 The government’s ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme opened for applications on 18th March. Asylum Welcome has a very useful guide for those thinking of taking part. NGOs continue to highlight shameful gaps in government support: leading to differential treatment for those without visas, some new arrivals becoming homeless as placements fall through, and seasonal workers being excluded altogether.

Meanwhile, local charity Sanctuary Hosting is continuing to host asylum seekers and refugees fleeing from conflicts throughout the world as well as providing temporary accommodation for those suffering from homelessness and destitution as a result of their immigration status. They welcome applications from anyone in the Thames Valley with a spare room to offer (support is provided) and from those who would like to volunteer to support a hosting placement.


As you will know, the Nationality and Borders Bill returned to the House of Commons on Tuesday 22nd March, where MPs voted on the House of Lords’ amendments to the Bill.

It’s not over yet. The Bill will go back to the House of Lords to be considered again, then returned again to the Commons, in a process known as ‘ping pong’.

Things will can still do:

📢 Watch and share the Refugee Council’s powerful video (via twitter).

📨 Use the Refugee Council’s email tool to contact your MP (particularly important if you have a Conservative MP).

📧 The amendment to remove Clause 11 from the Bill was rejected by MPs by 318 votes to 220. Clause 11 creates a two tier asylum system, so that arriving without permission to seek asylum becomes a criminal offence. See how your MP voted on this crucial clause here and let them know how you feel (useful advice on City of Sanctuary’s website here).

📱If you have emailed your MP already, try a follow up phone call.

🧡 📝 Check out Asylum Welcome’s ‘One Last Push’ campaign. Sign their petition to Oxfordshire MPs against Clause 11.

🪧 Order free campaign materials from JCWI. Show your support with their posters and stickers.


The South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) is hosting a free hybrid event on Tuesday 12th April at 6:30pm exploring how border policing and changing border policy has impacted those on the move in Europe.

🎫 For those interested in attending via Zoom, there are more details available through Eventbrite and you can register for your tickets here.


Since the Taliban took over in Afghanistan last summer, at least eight civil society activists and human rights defenders have been assassinated, with many more forced into hiding, or fleeing the country. 

📖 Read more about the threat to Afghan climate campaigners here.

There is currently no safe route for these activists to seek protection in the UK.

✍️ Add your name to JCWI’s open letter, asking the Minister responsible for the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme to expand the criteria.


Our friends at Migrants Organise are raising awareness and support for Mariam Ibrahim Yusuf, a celebrated campaigner who has been trapped in the immigration system for over a decade.

Over the last 14 years, Mariam has faced appalling hardships including homelessness and separation from her children.

💷 Please support the crowdfunder if you can.


The charity Women for Refugee Women is mounting an unprecedented legal challenge against the government. This challenge relates to Derwentside (formerly Hassockfield) detention centre, where women are locked up without provision for in-person legal advice.

Read more about the legal challenge here.

💷 If you can, please support the crowdfunder. So far, an impressive £14,172 has been raised from 633 pledges with a stretch target of £20,000.

📋 Continue to share Agnes Tanoh’s petition. 📣

OAID at the Festival of Social Justice

In May 2021, OAID contributed to the Amnesty International UK Festival of Social Justice.

(See here for the Festival programme.)

Our contribution included:

  • Readings of migrants’ testimonies by ice&fire (14 minutes): watch here.
  • The work of OAID and the current situation with regard to immigration detention in the UK (7 minutes):
  • “Home-less”, by ice&fire (11 minutes): watch here.

Challenging border landscapes: the human realities for women and families

With: Dr Melanie Griffiths,
Joan Martin (mother of Osime Brown),
Bell Riberio-Addy MP,
Natalie Sedacca,
Daniel Sohege
and Maria Thomas (Duncan Lewis Public Law).

Join us online from 7:30pm on Tuesday 2nd March.

Click here to register.

What does it mean to lose one’s status or have a family member threatened with deportation? The parallel world of the Hostile Environment exists in plain sight but our society rarely wants to look beyond the headlines.

What are the consequences for the people targeted, their families, and for social cohesion more broadly? Often it is women and children who bear the brunt of these cruel policies – and who are fighting back.

This online webinar invites people with lived experience of the system, support workers, lawyers, and academics to share their insights.

Remember Jimmy Mubenga, 1964-2010

Tenth anniversary vigil

5pm, Monday 12 October 2020

Bonn Square, Oxford

In a message read out at the vigil, Oxford City Council’s Migrant Champion, Cllr Hosnieh Djafari-Marbini said:

“There has been no justice for Jimmy Mubenga, killed by G4S guards whilst being forcibly deported. He uttered those words “I can’t breathe” repeatedly. The inquest found a verdict of unlawful killing and despite this no justice has been forthcoming. Our immigration policies are based in an inhumane corporate world where brutality is inherent and justice and dignity are denied to countless others on a daily basis.

“The pandemic has made it very clear to us that we are only as safe as our most vulnerable neighbour. The inhumane and unjust hostile environment shames and affects us all. It’s time that we demanded an end to this and stood loud and proud with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. We are them and they are us.”

On 12 October 2010, Jimmy Mubenga was a healthy 46-year-old Angolan man married to Adrienne Makenda Kambana and with five children aged from one to 17 years old. He had been in the UK from 1994. In 2006, he was convicted of actual bodily harm. Although he had served his time, on that day he was being deported as part of the government’s unjust ‘double punishment’ policy to deport time-served prisoners without a British passport.

Jimmy Mubenga was killed by three G4S guards on a British Airways aircraft flight number 777 at Heathrow airport as it prepared to fly to Angola. He resisted the unjust separation from his family. As the guards responded by forcing his head down, in a technique they called ’carpet karaoke’, Jimmy called out “I can’t breathe”, “They’re going to kill me”, “Help me!”. Not one passenger or BA staff member came to his aid. The multinational company G4S and the G4S guards on zero-hours contracts stood to lose money if the deportation was not completed.

In April 2011 G4S lost the deportation ’escort’ contract to Tascor (Reliance).

In July 2012, the Crown Prosecution Service said it had decided not to charge anyone in connection with the death.

At the inquest at Isleworth Crown Court in west London, three eminent medical specialists said the cause of death was cardio-respiratory failure caused by restraint. On 9 July 2013, the inquest jury found that Jimmy had been ‘unlawfully killed’.

After the inquest, Deborah Coles, co-director of the monitoring group Inquest, said: ‘The enormous sadness of this death was that it was the inevitable consequence of a privatised removals service that was out of control and where the duty of care and the wellbeing of deportees were undermined in the pursuit of profit.’ 

On 20 March 2014, the CPS announced its decision to prosecute the three G4S guards for manslaughter, but not G4S for corporate manslaughter.

At the Old Bailey trial, the judge imposed reporting restrictions which prevented any media reporting of the inquest jury’s ‘unlawful killing’ verdict, or the virulently racist phone texts and other evidence of racism on the part of the G4S guards. The jury reached its verdict in ignorance of both of these aspects. On 16 December 2016, the jury found G4S guards Stuart Tribelnig, Colin Kaler and Terrence Hughes not guilty.

As of 2013, there had been 12 ‘unlawful killing’ verdicts at inquests involving the deaths in state custody since 1990 – of Jimmy Mubenga, Ian Tomlinson, Mikey Powell, Robin Goodenough, Harry Stanley, Roger Sylvester, Christopher Alder, James Ashley, Alton Manning, Ibrahima Sey, David Ewin, Shiji Lapite, Richard O’Brien, Joy Gardner, Leon Patterson, and Omasase Lumumba – but no convictions of any of their killers. By 2012, the monitoring group Inquest had documented 950 deaths in custody in the previous 22 years, without a single manslaughter conviction.

Oxford Against Immigration Detention

A Short History of Resistance to Immigration Detention and Deportations in the United Kingdom


May 2020

Published by Oxford Against Immigration Detention

In 2019, ‘enforced returns’ from the UK fell to 7,361, 22% lower than the previous year and the lowest number since records began in 2004. Over the same period, there were 11,421 ‘voluntary’ departures. 

On 31 December 2019, there were 1,637 people in immigration detention, 8% fewer than on 31 December 2018, and fewer than half the number on 30 September 2017. The number of people entering detention in 2019 was similar to the previous year at 24,443. Prior to this, there has been a downward trend since 2015. (Immigration Statistics, Year Ending December 2019)

In July 2016, the Conservative government had announced a new policy: to detain fewer people for shorter periods and to investigate alternatives to detention. Between 2015 and 2018, the number of principal detention centre places[i] in the UK fell from around 3,700 to around 2,700. Four of the 11 main detention centres closed. There is a small number of pilot ‘alternatives to detention’ schemes. A July 2019 government statement summarised the changes. They surprised many people, not least because other government policies, including those dealing with migrants, have not become more benign in the same period. 

What preceded and may have helped bring about this improvement? I would argue that it has been opposition, led by people in detention and people faced with deportation, and spreading further and further into society as the ill effects of detention and deportation have affected more and more people. This opposition has become increasingly coherent, from grass roots to parliamentary levels, and exercised considerable pressure on government.

Detention and deportation, two sides of one weapon

The legislative background to the United Kingdom governments’ powers to detain and deport go back to the Aliens Act of 1905, which targeted Jewish migrants. Subsequent key laws were Commonwealth Citizens Acts in the 1960s and the 1971 Immigration Act. Previously, British Commonwealth citizens from the West Indies, Africa, and South Asia could, in theory at least, come to the UK. The new restrictive legislation introduced a UK ancestry visa with a ‘patrial’ clause: to be eligible an applicant had to have one grandparent born in the UK. Other visas were much more difficult to obtain. The 1971 Act strengthened powers to detain and deport migrants. Today every government has its ever more restrictive new Immigration Act.  

The Conservatives (2011- ) proudly ramped up the ‘hostile environment’ for undocumented migrants: ‘Go Home’ vans touring the cities, raids on communities, deportation of many of the Windrush Generation[ii] to the West Indies, and an attempt to turn landlords, doctors and nurses, teachers and landlords into immigration agents charged with reporting undocumented migrants.    

Resistance to deportation from the 1970s to early 2000s 

In the 1970s and 1980s, struggles against the new restrictions focused on the fight to remain in Britain. This altered somewhat in the 1990s with the growth of detention, which was massively increased under New Labour (in power 1997-2011). Recent years have seen direct actions against deportation charter flights.

In response to government and right-wing street attacks on migrant rights, in 1967 the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants was established at a meeting at the Dominion Cinema in Southall, west London. The venue reflected the fact that Southall was a centre of resistance to the violent racism of the far right and police, with many south Asians. Groups such as the Southall Black Sisters and Southall (Police) Monitoring Group were active from the late 1970s. Similar groups grew in many other towns. All these, together with local solidarity groups, fed naturally into support for individual campaigns against deportation in the local community. 

There were many such individual anti deportation campaigns. By their nature affecting individuals or single families, they were initially fragmented. The Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit (GMIAU) reported that between 1978 and 1986, 36 anti deportation campaigns in the area had been successful. Such campaigns would include both legal support for the case being put to government, but also public-facing work including approaching local faith groups, trade unions, councillors and members of parliament, perhaps with leaflets and a petition.

During the 1990s, there were increased moves to link up individual anti deportation campaigns. The West Midlands Anti Deportation Campaign, centred in Birmingham, led on to the establishment of the National Coalition of Anti Deportation Campaigns, which played a major role from 1993. The NCADC evolved into the present-day organisation Right To Remain, which has a Toolkit to help those facing deportation which you can find on its website.

In the 1980s and 1990s there were many campaigns in which trade unions gave strong support to members threatened with deportation. Well-known ones include Mohammed Idrish of the local government union Nalgo, Abdul Onibiyo of public sector Unison and Ragbir Singh of the journalists’ NUJ. Organisations such as the Indian Workers Association were also involved. The International Federation of Iraqi Refugees demonstrated against deportation flights from RAF Brize Norton.  And former detainees continue to speak out fearlessly.

In the 1990s the human rights groups Liberty and Amnesty International UK published highly critical reports on deportation and detention. Fewer were published as the detention estate expanded under New Labour. However, both organisations picked up the issue with vigour from around the mid-2010s. 

Resistance to immigration detention

Some of the focus of resistance shifted to detention. Until 1993, there were fewer than 200 immigration detention places, mostly in huts at Harmondsworth by Heathrow airport. However, under Conservative and particularly New Labour governments the ‘detention estate’, was expanded over the next 20 years to some 3700 places.

First up was Campsfield, a ‘state of the art facility’ that opened near Oxford in November 1993.  Campsfield was run by the private company Group Four, setting a pattern for most of the big centres that were to open. This account dwells on Campsfield because the author was involved in the campaign there and because Campsfield rapidly became a principal centre of struggle against detention.

In the spring of 1994 occurred the first of many mass hunger strikes, together with a roof-top protest. Ten hunger strikers were released. Hunger strikes were often accompanied by statements or manifestos which greatly increased knowledge of what was going on. Protesters also telephoned radio stations and their letters and manifestos addressed government ministers direct. Some hunger strikes were led by people from particular countries, Ivory Coast in the early 1990s for example or, in the mid 2010s, South Sudanese. This resistance, and the solidarity among detainees that powered it, gained publicity and inspired resistance outside the detention centre.

A ‘Campsfield Forum’ operated for a year before Campsfield opened, and developed into two groups, Asylum Welcome and Detainee Support, and the Campaign to Close Campsfield. The campaign demonstrated monthly 300 times before Campsfield closed in November 2018. A key aspect of these demos was that they provided  a regular meeting of activists from different parts of Britain, indeed of the world, and contact was made, via display of banners, shouts and music (best, drums!) with those detained inside, who were heartened by the support. The campaign published two editions of Voices from Detention (the current online equivalent is Detained Voices). Supported by Oxford Trades Union Council, of which the author was president at the time, the campaign secured the backing of five national trade unions for an end to detention. Hundreds of Oxford academics signed public letters, and elected local councils called for an end to detention. The campaign worked with FASTI in France, and in 2000 organised a Barbed Wire Europe conference against immigration detention attended by over 120 people from 46 organisations and nine countries. It later joined the anti-detention network Migreurop.

The campaign developed an automatic response to news of a hunger strike or other protest inside: a candle-lit vigil at 6pm at the centre, visible to detainees, and sometimes another vigil in Oxford, accompanied by a press release. 

On several occasions mass hunger strikes spread from one centre to others. On a number of occasions people freed themselves by scaling the razor wire fences or breaking down gates. There were major protests, sometimes involving fire, at Campsfield, Yarl’s Wood, Harmondsworth and Haslar. In 2002, half of Yarl’s Wood, Europe’s largest detention centre at the time, was burned down. (Unconcerned for the safety of detainees, the government and Group 4 had ignored Fire Service advice and failed to fit sprinklers.)

The state responded with show trials: the Campsfield Nine in 1998 at Oxford Crown Court, the Yarl’s Wood 13 in 2003 at Harrow Crown Court, and the Harmondsworth Three in 2005 at Southwark Crown Court. The campaigns in support of the defendants – charged variously with riot and arson – and the subsequent failure of these prosecutions were major victories. 

At Campsfield, on a number of occasions there were ‘human rights camps’ in front of the detention centre, for periods from days to weeks; one camp had a newsletter called the Campsfield Kettle. There were other unusual actions. A woman invited the press to observe her digging an escape tunnel into Campsfield. In March 1994, during a hunger strike, several demonstrators climbed into Campsfield and one woman spent the night on the roof of the main block. She later spent a week in Holloway Prison for scratching ‘Close Campsfield’ onto the main gates (the inscription can still be read). As well as street stalls, and speaking to school children, campaigners including Kurdish musicians and dancers have done street theatre. One Christmas, campaigners erected a ‘detention centre fence’ complete with razor wire and cameras outside the country cottage home of the then Labour Home Secretary, Jack Straw.

There is a Visitors Group at each detention centre, and a national Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees. The most prominent of these, covering the Heathrow detention centres, developed into Detention Action, which supports Freed Voices, a group of ‘experts by experience’. There are efforts at joint and cultural, artistic and religious/spiritual activity. Music In Detention links up local school children and youth groups with people in detention centres to make music together online. Journalists are excluded from detention centres (the National Union of Journalists campaigns for access). An early inside report from Campsfield came from an Independent reporter who managed to get in as the roadie for the local band the Zimmermen, who did a gig for the detainees.

In the mid 1990s, together with the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism based at the Institute of Race Relations in London, the Close Campsfield campaign set an Anti Detention Network. In 2001, the campaign initiated the Barbed Wire Britain Network to End Refugee and Migrant Detention, active for some 15 years from 2002. BWB helped to organise campaigns and demos at detention centres, called the only UK demonstration against the European Union’s Returns Directive of 2008 (which ‘allowed’ detention up to 18 months), organised meetings in Parliament with MPs, and jointly organised a national demo in in London with the NCADC and the Campaign to Defend Asylum Seekers which had several years of activity in the early 2000s. From the late 1990s, when others lobbied New Labour behind closed doors, the National Assembly Against Racism led vociferous public campaigns for migrant rights. 

A very much larger demonstration was organised by Citizens UK in support of a ‘Strangers Into Citizens’ campaign for an amnesty. In May 2009 some 15,000 people demonstrated in London, including many undocumented migrants. Estimates at the time suggested that the proposed scheme would regularise 450,000 of the UK’s 750,000 undocumented migrants. The scheme was endorsed by the then mayor of London, the Conservative Boris Johnson, but pooh-poohed by the Labour government.

Appalled by what it observed in bail hearings at the Immigration and Asylum Tribunal, the Close Campsfield campaign created the Bail Observation Project, which published two devastating reports on this the travesty of justice, based on observations of 330 hearings. BOP currently trains law students to continue this work.

Similar concerns led to the creation of the organisation Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) which continues to secure the release of people detained and to lobby the authorities. The Immigration Law Practitioners Association is a major critic. 

Government plans to open a massive new detention centre at Bicester in Oxfordshire, and to double the size of Campsfield were defeated by building broad-based campaigns including some local councillors, pro bono legal support, and local members of parliament, negotiating the local authority planning process and involving one lengthy Public Inquiry.  

In the 1990s and early 2000s there were local closure campaigns at the Harmondsworth (Heathrow), Haslar (Portsmouth) and Dover detention centres. In the early 2000s there was a powerful campaign Stop Arbitrary Detention at Yarl’s Wood (SADY) in Bedfordshire. Then from the 2010s, Movement For Justice organised demonstrations of unprecedented size, up to 1000 people, at Harmondsworth/Colnbrook and particularly at Yarl’s Wood. These featured coach transport from other parts of the UK organised online and live amplified phone conversations between people detained inside the centre and demonstrators outside the fence. South Yorkshire Migrant and Asylum Action Group initiated the current series of demonstrations at Morton Hall detention centre (Lincolnshire). 

Yarl’s Wood is the main place of detention of women. It sees cooperation between women fighting to remain and organisations including the All Africa Women’s GroupSchool of Oriental and African Studies Detainee SupportWomen for Refugee Women (all London) and Women Asylum Seekers Together (Manchester). 

There has long been campaigning in Scotland for the closure of Dungavel centre in Ayrshire. In its policy document for the 2014 independence referendum, the governing Scottish National Party called for the closure of Dungavel (detention policy is not devolved to the nations). 

One organisation spins out of another. Thus, the co-founder in 2005 of Medical Justice, which provides medical reports for people in detention with a view to securing their release, was also the founder of SADY and had worked for NCADC.

No One Is Illegal UK was established in 2003 to campaign for an end to all immigration controls and freedom of movement as a human right. It published a manifesto and pamphlets. In 2011, all 95 of Lush Cosmetics’ shops promoted No One Is Illegal UK and distributed its Humanitarian Passport recognising no borders. 

No Borders UK, established in 2005, in the next few years set up over 10 groups round the country, organised demonstrations, solidarity and anti-raid and other solidarity actions. London No Borders campaigned against the Gatwick detention centres.

Several Migrant Rights Caravans campaigning against detention and deportation toured the UK in the early 2000s.

A significant development from 2011 was the Detention Forum, a coalition of over 40 groups that pressed for reforms including a 28-day time limit, an end to detention of ‘vulnerable’ people, proper judicial oversight of detention and, later, community-based alternatives to detention. The Forum lobbied politicians, and in 2015 the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on Refugees and Migration produced a report which proposed the same reforms. This was a very great change, which was accompanied by the first proper parliamentary debates on detention. 

Another important development has been These Walls Must Fall, a campaign led by Right To Remain taking the issue into the big cities – ‘where people are taken from (the community), rather than where people are taken to (detention centres)’ – mainly in the north of England, building community-based campaigns that result in the local city and town councils adopting policy for an end to detention.

An under-cover BBC TV programme in September 2017 about gross abuse of detainees at Brook detention centre near Gatwick airport run by G4S (Gatwick) was a key moment in exposing the detention regime.   

New forms of resistance to deportations

Many deportations take place on regular airline flights. Public attention was focused on this when Jimmy Mubenga was killed by Group 4 guards on a British Airways flight to Angola in October 2010. After trial in 2014, in a shocking jury verdict, three G4S guards were found not guilty of his manslaughter. 

Apart from the vital last-minute legal moves and interventions by MPs, last-minute on-site interventions had been tried for some years to stop individual deportations. Supporters would go to the airport and try to catch crew members and particularly passengers as they registered for the flight. A leaflet would be used to inform people that a fellow passenger was being deported against their will and might face danger. On a very few occasions a supporter bought a ticket for the flight and once on board stood up and insisted that the person being deported should be taken off the aircraft. Success was rare. But the publicity was adverse, and there have been campaigns to get airlines to stop taking deportees on regular flights. Following one such campaign, Virgin has said it will not take deportees.

Charter deportation flights started in 2001. They offered government an alternative away from the public gaze, and an ability to deport numbers of people on one flight. But direct action campaigners from groups including No Borders and Stop Deportations targeted these. Alerted by detainees that they were being moved out by coach to a deportation flight, on a number of occasions in the 2010s, campaigners arrived in front of the detention centre, laid down at the exit and locked-on arm-to-arm one to another through metal pipes. 

For the coaches to leave, the police had to cut through the pipes, which took some time. I am not aware of charter flights being stopped, rather than delayed, in this way, but the deportation machine was disrupted, and the publicity generated strengthened the movement of opposition to deportations. Some such actions happened during ‘rolling week of protests’ organised by various groups to build momentum: these enabled multiple groups of people to take part in ‘low-risk’ non-arrestable to ‘high-risk’ arrestable direct action. 

The secretive and brutal deportation regime was dealt a body blow in the night of 28 March 2017 at Stansted airport in Essex. It was delivered by 15 supporters of three groups: End DeportationsGays and Lesbians Support the Migrants, and climate campaigners in Plane Stupid. In a well-rehearsed operation, they cut through the perimeter fence and locked on round the undercarriage of a Titan Airways aircraft and a scaffold pole tripod they erected behind the wing, thus immobilising the aircraft. The plane  was being prepared on the tarmac apron some distance from the runway for a deportation flight to Nigeria and Ghana. The demonstrators remained in position for 10 hours in the rain, chanting, shouting slogans, and displaying a banner.

Those taking the action knew the stories of some of the people due to be deported on the flight, including a woman whose estranged husband promised to kill her when she returned to Nigeria, a man who lived in the UK for 18 years and was raising his family here, and people who had been trafficked. 

Although coaches with the 70 deportees set out, they turned away from the airport. All flights were halted for 80 minutes. The charter flight was stopped. Months later, 11 of the 70 deportees were still in the country fighting their cases. 

The 15 were arrested and charged with aggravated trespass. This carries a penalty of fine or up to three months prison. The government obviously decided to set an example and added charges under the anti-terrorism Aviation and Maritime Security Act passed following the Lockerbie bombing in 1988; it provides for penalties including imprisonment for life. 

The serious charges reflected the effectiveness of the challenge to the whole anti migrant hostile environment policy. The 15 defendants received unprecedented support for their direct action that had brought practical solidarity to individuals and illuminated a brutal regime once and for all.

There were many delays and false starts to the trial at Chelmsford Crown Court.  On 10 December 2018 the 15 were found guilty by the jury. The following day over 1,000 people demonstrated in their support outside the Home Office in London. The threat of prison hung over them for two months, until they all received non-custodial community service sentences(three of these were suspended nine-month prison sentences). 

Given that the judge instructed the jury to ignore the motives of the accused, a guilty verdict was not a surprise. But, in sentencing, he took their motives into account, or ran scared of public reaction to prison sentences. Grounds for appeal against the guilty verdict were lodged on 11 January 2019. No hearing date has been set.

Other actions have targeted coach firms that transport deportees from detention centre to airport. Climate activists Reclaim The Power are doing this; RtP devoted their 2019 summer camp to the theme of migrants’ rights.

Community-based actions against deportations continue. Famous are the Glasgow Girls, seven school students who hit the headlines in 2005 when they confronted politicians about their ill-treatment of refugees. Based on the events, the 2014 film Glasgow Girls tells how with their teacher they stopped the deportation of a fellow student, a 15-year-old Kosovan Roma refugee, and her mother.

There has been some resistance to UK Border Force raids on housing estates, shops, restaurants, Underground, rail and coach stations. The Anti Raids Network seeks to spread information about ways to oppose immigration raids, including migrants’ rights not to be bullied by Border Force guards. 

Press coverage, notably in the Guardian, from early 2018 exposed the ‘Windrush scandal’: thousands of people of West Caribbean-origin people legally resident in the country had been criminalised by the Home Office. Many lost their jobs, were deported and had their lives destroyed. The Home Secretary resigned. Apologies and compensation were offered (but little was delivered). But the political landscape was transformed and the ‘hostile environment’ challenged.

There appears to have been some reduction in deportations by charter flight. 1,536 people were deported on charter flights in 2016. Government figures for the final quarter of 2019 show 35 men and 2 women were deported on three flights to four countries (France, Germany, Switzerland and Kosovo) with 172 guards at a cost £443,000. In the second half of the year 83 people were deported on seven flights to six countries with 375 guards at a cost of close on £1 million. See Corporate Watch for more information.

Several successful legal challenges in the past year or so bear on deportations. It is no longer legal for police to pick up destitute migrants in the streets in order for them to be deported. And deporting people while they have an appeal outstanding is no longer legal either.

A topic for which there is not space here is the degree to which workers in the welfare state, health services, schools and universities, and landlords have refused to carry out legally required checks on the immigration status of individuals. See the Docs Not Cops website.


New forms of resistance are devised, new campaigns are set up, there is a new All-Party Parliamentary Group on Immigration Detention. For the past four years the Labour Party had been lucky enough to have a leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who has always campaigned for all detention to end. Last October’s Labour Party Conference carried a motion calling for the closure of all detention centres. Some powerful recent actions have brought together Anti- deportation/detention, climate activists and gay and lesbian rights groups: the way to go.[iii]

It remains to be if the hardline Home Secretary Priti Patel in Boris Johnson’s newly re-elected government will try to reverse the reduction in the ‘detention estate’. At the time of writing, following releases during the Covid-19 pandemic, only some 700 immigration detainees remain in detention centres and prisons, some 350 in each. Detainees and others are demanding the closure of all centres. An amendment to the current Immigration Bill requires a 28 day time limit but also that persons detained must be brought before a judge every 3 days.

Author: Bill MacKeith, May 2020 

This account was commissioned by Gisti (Groupe d’information et de soutien des immigrés) in Paris, in whose magazine Plein droit it was to be published in June 2020

[i] The figures for numbers detained include 300-400 people held under immigration law in ordinary prisons. In addition to the main detention centres there are about 80 places in short-term holding facilities, mainly at airports.

[ii] Wikipedia: ‘Those arriving in the UK between 1948 and 1971 from Caribbean countries.  The ship Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks, Essex, on 22 June 1948, bringing workers from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and other islands, as a response to post-war labour shortages in the UK.’ The Guardian’s campaigning reporting, focused on the impact of the ’hostile environment’ on people who many years earlier came from the West Indies, really put the Windrush scandal on the map. 

[iii]  When climate activists joined End Heathrow Immigration Detention in 2019, the group adopted opposition to the expansion of Heathrow airport as a major part of its platform.