By Melanie Griffiths, academic and campaigner.

The government has recently submitted plans to the Cherwell District Council for the major expansion of Campsfield House, an Immigration Removal Centre situated just outside Oxford. This is just the latest phase of a wider move towards the expansion of the UK’s immigration detention estate. Much of the recent increases in detention bedspace have occurred quietly, without much room for objection. However, the Campsfield plans present an opportunity for the public to make known their views on immigration detention and the growth of the detention estate. Now is truly the time to voice concerns.

Immigration detention in the UK

In many ways Immigration Removal Centres resemble prisons. They are closed centres, where people are held against their will, surrounded by patrolling guard dogs, surveillance cameras, locked gates and high fences topped with razor wire. However, although immigration detention feels like prison by those held there, it is an administrative rather than judicial power. The decisions are made by civil servants not judges. Immigration detainees are not held as the result of a conviction, but for the purpose of an immigration goal, such as deportation. Indeed, unless a detainee challenges their detention or applies for bail, they may never go before a court.

The Home Office argues that people are detained for minimal periods of time, usually just before they are removed. However, for a variety of reasons detainees often are not at the end of their immigration case. Many have asylum claims or immigration appeals pending. Others cannot be removed, often through no fault of their own, for example if conditions in their country are too unsafe or if the Home Office is unable to obtain travel documents for them.

Indeed, my PhD focused on people with disputed identity, many of whom became stuck in detention as embassies and the Home Office fought over their identity. Such people can be detained for months or even years. Because the UK opted out of the EU Removals Directive that restricts immigration detention to 18 months, there is no maximum period for detention in the UK. People can literally be detained indefinitely, with no idea when change in their situation might occur, nor what that outcome might be.

We have one of the largest – and expanding – detention estates in Europe, are unique in the continent for detaining people without time limit, and have been repeatedly criticised domestically and internationally for inappropriately detaining vulnerable people (see here). For more information on immigration detention in the UK, see the Detention Forum briefing paper.

A growing phenomenon

We now have well over 4,000 immigration detention bed spaces in the UK, double the number just six years ago. The number is closer to 5,000 if you include the number of people that can be held under Immigration Act powers in prisons.

An extra 800 detention spaces were created in 2014 alone. Just a few weeks ago, Her Majesty’s Prison the Verne was redesignated as an Immigration Removal Centre, adding 580 spaces to the detention system. Extra beds have also been quietly added to existing detention centres, by squeezing more beds into – increasingly overcrowded – rooms. This includes 60 beds at Campsfield House alone. On top of this, the government is now seeking to add another 290 beds through creating a whole new, large building at Campsfield.

Campsfield House

Campsfield opened as an Immigration Removal Centre just seven miles outside Oxford in 1993. It has been beset with problems since it opened, with over half the detainees on hunger-strike just four months after the centre opened and the first ‘riot’ occurring three months later. Since then there have been hungerstrikes, escapes, disturbances and suicides. Just last year a major fire destroyed much of the largest residential unit. The fact that sprinklers had not been fitted greatly increased the damage and danger of the fire.

Until recently, up to 216 adult men could be detained at Campsfield at any time. The figure is now 276 and will increase to 566 if plans to build a new section of the centre go ahead. This would make it one of the largest detention centres, not only of the UK, but of the whole of Europe.

The land for the proposed new three storey building at Campsfield is Green Belt land, meaning that ‘very special circumstances’ must apply before planning permission is granted. The Home Office is arguing that this requirement is met by the UK’s need for more immigration detention, in order to increase removals from the UK.

However, as groups that visit immigration detainees can testify, people are routinely detained even when they are not at the end of the legal process and/or when they cannot be removed, resulting in their either being ‘warehoused’ in detention for long periods, or being detained only to be released back into British society, meaning that they needlessly endure this torturous process. Although we detain more migrants than ever before, we actually remove fewer people from our shores. So, in addition to damaging individuals and their families, immigration detention fails to achieve the government’s own objectives.

Making your voice heard

A large number of political, religious and charitable organisations in Oxford and beyond are coming together to fight the proposed expansion, on the basis that indefinitely detaining people for immigration purposes is inhumane, does not meet the government’s own immigration objectives and is prohibitively expensive. An open letter to this effect was recently sent to the Prime Minister and Home Secretary, signed by 21 concerned local organisations (see media coverage).

Individuals can also feed into the decision-making process by writing to their MPs and submitting objections to the planning application, going through the Cherwell District Council website. The Planning Committee is likely to decide the application on 22nd January, and submissions should be made well before this date. For more information about how to make a submission, the Campaign to Close Campsfield are running a workshop on the process at 7pm on 3rd December in Kidlington, just outside Oxford. They are also organising a march and demonstration to mark the 21st anniversary of Campsfield on 29th November. Further details about these events and support for getting your voice heard, including template letters for MPs, are available on both the Campaign to Close Campsfield and Detention Forum websites.

There are many problems with immigration detention, as is being made clear in the current evidence gathering stage of the first ever Parliamentary Detention Inquiry, chaired by Sarah Teather MP. It seems especially important that any expansion is halted until the Inquiry has concluded its task and produced its recommendations. Please add your voice to those telling the government that we are ashamed of our immigration detention system and that extending it further is not the answer to responding to public concerns around immigration.