End asylum system

The week after the publication of the government's white paper on asylum and immigration, events at the Yarls Wood detention centre were a timely reminder of the brutality of existing government policy and the whole asylum system (see Weekly Worker February 14). Yarls Wood, near Bedford, is the largest 'immigration removal centre' in Europe. It was the flagship of a fleet built by the government to expedite the deportation of unsuccessful applicants for asylum. It is the 'last stop' before deportation and is one of several such centres around the country - others exist at Dungavel, South Lanarks and Harmondsworth. All are needed to meet the deportation targets set by the government of 2,500 every month, starting in March, and 37,000 a year by 2004. However, a revolt by the detainees from February 14 through the weekend reduced the Group 4-run, £100 million facility to little more than a pile of ashes. What exactly led to the uprising by the Yarls Wood detainees is unclear. Campaigners argue that it began following the handcuffing of a 55-year-old woman who had been denied adequate medical treatment. This version of events has subsequently been lent some credibility by the letter to The Guardian from an anonymous visitor to Yarls Wood who highlighted "poor or absent medical treatment" (February 18). Unsurprisingly the official story is somewhat different. Both Group 4 and the GMB, the union that represents staff at Yarls Wood, insist that no handcuffs were involved. Purportedly the disturbance began when staff intervened in a row between three women and restrained one, without handcuffs, who was "agitated". Whatever the truth of the particular case, the Group 4 guards are notoriously profit-driven and unsympathetic in almost equal measure - adding to an already inhuman system where being in the wrong country is regarded as a crime. After clashes between the 'inmates' on the one side and riot police drafted in from as far afield as London alongside the Group 4 guards on the other, several fires were lit. Some detainees seized the opportunity to escape from their incarceration, using keys taken from staff. Some may well have not been so lucky. At least 25 'residents' are missing: either they escaped or died in the fire that gutted three-quarters of the complex. No socialist will shed any tears over the destruction of the centre. Given the circumstances of the refugee's detention and mistreatment, the hand-wringing liberal attitude of some, like the Refugee Council is simply revolting. Piously they intoned: "We don't condone any criminal act" and proceeded to call for any allegations to be "investigated and dealt with by the police and the courts" (statement, February 15). Needless to say, the most serious crime committed is the detention of the refugees themselves, who in making a legitimate bid for freedom have committed no 'crime' whatsoever. Unsurprisingly Beds police see things rather differently. As well as arresting 13 would-be escapees, they were quick to announce a criminal investigation, claiming the whole thing was part of a premeditated plot. To this effect a Group 4 employee was wheeled out to relate to the local press how there was an "odd atmosphere in the place all week". Speaking to Bedfordshire on Sunday, a local newspaper, he told of "people getting together and there were a lot of secret discussions going on - at the end of which the word went round that they were 'going to burn this place down'" (February 19). Not only that. The guards then proceeded to do their best to portray themselves as victims: "Every day staff are spat at, sworn at and abused both verbally and physically" (ibid). However, Group 4 itself was quick to dismiss any notion of a premeditated attempt at a breakout: "There did not appear to be anything building up" (The Observer February 17). It simply would not do to officially admit that warning signs had been ignored. Former inmates present a rather different image, Codson Chaphiki, a 29-year-old teacher from Zimbabwe who was recently released from Yarls Wood, revealed that, "Detainees are treated like convicted criminals and the officers make you feel as if you are not wanted here" (The Guardian February 16). An understatement. Much has been made of the supposedly opulent facilities at Yarls Wood. Tales of the "10 well-equipped classrooms", " six-choices for breakfast, lunch and dinner" and twin rooms with "en suite facilities" (The Daily Telegraph February 16) are meant to create the image of Yarls Wood as a rather benign holiday camp. The 'guests' are made to look like ungrateful and rather impertinent malcontents. Which all conceals the fact that the inmates are kept under lock and key: a well-equipped prison remains a prison. In many respects, however, Yarls Wood was not well equipped at all. The lack of any sort of sprinkler system made the fire all the more damaging. None of the recently built facilities has such a system. Even the immigration minister, Lord Rooker, was forced to concede that this situation was "extraordinary" - we can be sure that his own offices are not so deficient when it comes to safety equipment. Our arguments around asylum must be part of a general fight for consistent democracy. At a recent press conference, held after a demonstration against the events at Yarls Wood, Weyman Bennett, speaking on behalf of the Socialist Alliance, provided us with a perfect example of how not to approach this question - if the short extract contained in the subsequent press release is anything to go by: "The fire at Yarls Wood is an indictment of New Labour's privatisation policies." This statement - presumably referring to the fact that safety had been bypassed in the interests of profit - carries with it the implication that government-run detention centres would somehow be acceptable. They would not. Detention centres are a product of the fundamentally anti-democratic asylum and immigration system. From our standpoint as communists and revolutionary socialists it is not just detention centres that are a monstrosity: so are forced dispersal, deportation and the whole asylum system. Freedom of movement should be considered a basic human right - and not only for those claiming persecution. Every worker, every human being, must have the right to travel, settle and work anywhere in the world. If capital is free to move across borders, so too must workers be. Our critique begins from this revolutionary-democratic perspective. In other words, abolition of the system of detention centres must be set within the context of a broader programme for change. People before profit, our general election manifesto, outlines our approach succinctly: "The Socialist Alliance fights for freedom of movement, open borders and an end to immigration laws" (p14). In making itself the hegemon of the democratic struggle within society the working class transforms itself into the tribune of the struggles of all the oppressed. It bridges the gap between staff and 'inmates' at such centres. Thus, while detention centres should undoubtedly be closed, we are not indifferent to the concerns of the staff. We demand, along with the closure of the centres, that the centre workers be found suitable alternative employment without loss of pay in an altogether more useful social role. James Mallory Call for action The rebellion by the Yarls Wood detention centre highlights in the most graphic way the inhumanity of the government's policy of Secure borders, safe haven. Tighter controls on the most vulnerable in a country which has had the worst record for detaining asylum-seekers across Europe. Labour's schemes for asylum-seekers now make past Tory policy appear like the epitome of enlightened and liberal thinking. The Labour government is leading a crusade against immigration and Yarls Wood is the result. Where socialists and immigration campaigners failed - allowing it to be built and occupied in what Paul Foot describes as "leafy Bedfordshire" - the detainees appear to have partially succeeded. Half the centre has been razed to the ground. The question is, what will socialists and campaigners do now? There have been press releases, leaflets and discussions, along with some activity, including public stalls and demonstrations - all a good start. But what next? Bedfordshire Socialist Alliance has been taking an active part in the demonstrations, continuing its opposition to all racist immigration controls and opposition to Yarls Wood. This message seems to be covered by press statements that have been issued by the Campaign to Stop Arbitrary Detention at Yarls Wood, the Committee to Defend Asylum-Seekers and Barbed Wire Britain. The most up to date petition for the three groups calls for: * an independent public enquiry into the events at Yarls Wood * the immediate resignation of David Blunkett and Lord Rooker * an end to the detention of asylum-seekers. However, an earlier activist fax storm called on February 18 makes no mention of an end of detention, restricting itself to calling for a public enquiry. This appears to assume the continuation of the detention system, subject to "safeguards" - a sprinkler system and some training for Group 4 guards perhaps. Any public enquiry, even if it takes place, will be a long drawn out affair. Meanwhile detention continues and Yarls Wood is rebuilt? It is world capitalism that creates the system where billions of people suffer poverty and oppression - even in "leafy Bedfordshire". The reason for migration is itself rooted in the barbarism and bankruptcy of world capitalism. The detention system and Yarls Wood are manifestations of the callous and cynical treatment of the most desperate people in the world and reveals why the working class has to create a socialist alternative to the existing world order - not tie itself into it. This means a world without frontiers. Eryk Karas Bedfordshire SA