Hostile, not hospitable

The crisis of forced displacement caused by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has again compelled people in the UK to reflect on how, as a state, we treat those seeking refuge. Much has been said, rightly, about the way the program of policies we know as the hostile environment has produced an apparatus of refusal through which a person fleeing the present conflict will find it extremely difficult to pass. Much has also been said about the profound hypocrisy of a government that continually reannounces its historic support (rarely documented by evidence) for refugees while forcing through a bill that, by every measure other than the government’s own, reneges on the UK’s commitment to the UN’s Refugee Convention of 1951. These contradictions cut deep. We should remember them for future reference. As timing would have it, however, there is currently another mirror we might look into or through, another way of glimpsing the processes of hostility that, as a state, the UK has come to perfect. That mirror is the inquiry, now concluding its second phase, into abuses at the Brook House Immigration Removal Centre, a series of hearings that, as eloquently as any testimony might, tell us where we have come to.

The hearings, which started in November and resumed in February, are available on YouTube. Anybody with an interest in these questions – which is, perhaps, anybody – might want to take a look. The proceedings are slow and the exchanges deliberate, but periodically what they refer to is unbroadcast footage from the television programme Panorama‘s undercover investigation into the treatment of detained people in Brook House. The footage comes with a warning. The inquiry is presented with images of harm: the suicidal self-harm of people detained arbitrarily and indefinitely, and the harm inflicted by detention center staff. As the harm is inflicted, the detained people are taunted, verbally abused in grotesque terms. The abuse is explicit and racist, and as people speak in languages ​​other than English, those languages ​​are openly and brutally mocked. The inquiry lingers over a moment when a member of staff delays removing the ligature from a person whose suicide attempt has been prevented, but for whom the ligature is still causing visible pain. It is extremely difficult to watch; and, if and when one does watch, it is hard not to think that one is looking into the dark heart of the UK state.

The inquiry has a specific remit. It is to “investigate the decisions, actions and surrounding circumstances the mistreatment of individuals who were detained at Brook House Immigration Removal Center” between April 1 and August 31, 2017. The time frame is determined by the Panorama investigation, the period when Callum Tulley, an undercover reporter, bravely wore a hidden camera while working as a member of the detention center staff. The inquiry appears to be probing, and the culture of abuse disclosed by the footage is clearly well established, so one can hope that in its findings the inquiry will go beyond its prescribed scope. It is possible that it will make far-reaching recommendations, and, who knows, perhaps we live in a political universe in which such recommendations might be taken up; Though the government’s continued commitment to offshore detention, with all the horrors (as documented by the Australian example) that this would bring, makes any positive political action highly unlikely.

Whatever the findings, and whatever the recommendations, and whatever the political outcomes of the process, we have to understand what the Brook House inquiry tells us. In legal and political terms, yes, but much more importantly in cultural and in human terms. We have to come to an understanding of what the evidence playing out on YouTube tells us about the practices of the UK state.

What we have to understand, first, is that detention – and the culture that produces and is generated by detention – is in no sense incidental to our political culture as a whole. At some level, no doubt, it is a desire to bracket the process, to annexe it, that is driving the government’s fantasy of an offshore space. In fact, detention – which in the UK (as opposed to anywhere else in western Europe) is indefinite – is integral and fundamental to the hostile environment for which, as a state, the UK has sought to be known. Thus, a person whose asylum claim is unresolved is vulnerable to detention or re-detention at any moment. It is the brutal institutional fact that shapes their experience on a daily basis, and which underpins and reinforces every other form of abuse and abuse to which they are subject. They can be detained without warning and without process; and, when detained, they do not know when they will be released. Detention is not incidental or extraneous: it is hard-wired into the political culture that, for more than a decade now, the UK has projected to people who might seek refuge.

But step back again. Take a look at the footage and step back. What we see in those recordings of harm and violence and racist abuse, of sustained hostility towards human beings, is the institutional space the UK has created at the heart of its asylum process for geopolitically vulnerable persons. It is shocking to watch, even if you thought you had some sense of what goes on, even if you have read accounts of the way people who are detained are treated. What the footage confirms, which is surely no surprise, is that the spaces of detention and the practices they give rise to are one and the same: that when the state decides that it can detain arbitrarily and indefinitely, it has already decided that those whom it detains can be harmed.

If you watch the footage embedded in the Brook House investigation, you could be forgiven for reaching the bleak conclusion that the UK state has rendered itself constitutionally incapable of welcome; that its practices are such, its way of treating people is such, that it has lost the capacity, institutionally, to welcome people in. But that is not a conclusion it can be tolerable to draw. What the inquiry footage tells us, what we must allow it to tell us, is that the UK’s practices have to change. It must become a moment when the state begins to learn the language of the politics of welcome. And it can start by recognizing that detention must end.

David Herd is Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Kent and co-organizer of the project Refugee Tales. His book Writing Against Expulsion in the Postwar World will be published by Oxford University Press

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