Bridget Walker is an active member of the Detention Forum and works with a number of NGOs. She shares her personal reflection on the way the media keeps the myth of “dangerous foreigners” alive.

‘The death was used as an excuse for unrest’  [1]

In September 2014 a man died in Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre.  His name was Rubel Ahmed, he came from Bangladesh and he was 26 years old.

Death at a young age always comes as a shock.  It is a tragedy for family and friends.  When that death occurs in unexplained circumstances in a state institution it should also be a matter of public interest and concern.

Yet this death seemed almost incidental in the media coverage immediately afterwards. A local paper, the Lincolnshire Echo, ran with the headline ‘Twelve hour riot after detainee dies’.  It said a national tactical response unit had been called, and a team sent in armed with batons and shields and accompanied by police dogs.  Similar stories, focusing on the protest, appeared in many of the national dailies.  The focus was on the unrest, not the death, and the overall impression was that the men held in detention were dangerous criminals who had to be contained at all costs.

This is one of the many damaging myths purveyed about men and women held in the asylum and immigration system.   They are presented as violent people to be feared, foreign bodies who must be removed.  These myths take away both their humanity and ours.

How else to explain the way in which the bereaved family heard about the death.  They say the news came from his solicitor who had been informed by a fellow detainee.  There are wildly contradictory accounts of the cause of Rubel Ahmed’s death and his family are asking for an independent inquiry.

This is not the first time that there has been unrest at Morton Hall.  In January 2013 The Guardian reported ‘Illegal Immigrants riot at removal centre’.  The article listed the facilities available – dental and medical services and a ‘well stocked library,  badminton, soft tennis, basketball and volleyball courts.  There was no attempt, in the article, to look in such detail at the reasons for the protest.  Again there were contradictory accounts of what had happened, with inflammatory media headlines about fighting and injuries,  and a comment from the Independent Monitoring Board that the incident had been exaggerated.

The saying that truth is the first casualty of war has a long history going back to classical Greece.   It is time to debunk the myths and stop this implicit media war against vulnerable strangers.

Men and women held in immigration detention live with stress and uncertainty.  They do not know how long they will be held.  They fear being returned to the conditions from which they have fled.  They have little trust in a system where they are stigmatised and their stories disbelieved.

In his farewell speech as outgoing President of the National Council of Independent Monitoring Boards Peter Selby referred to the current immigration policy which ‘has as its necessary implication the detention of people who have not committed any offence, or who have discharged any penalty set for them’.  He suggested that this is a policy with ‘too many unacceptable consequences to be sustainable’.

[1] (comment attributed to a guard at Morton Hall IRC)