Shut it Down #YarlsWood

The migrant detention centre through new formations of resistance and solidarity
Yarl’s Wood 7 November 2015
First published at Critical Legal Thinking

On a wet windy November day in Bedfordshire, outside the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre, Judith an ex-detainee is on the mobile sound system.

My sisters on the inside
On the 8th August I was on the inside and you were on the outside.
If you can see the third window at the bottom, that was my room — Jud98
I wrote SOS, red lipstick on blue pillow case.


Handcuffed and shackled in-between internment centres, tossed from vehicle to vehicle like a “sack of potatoes” Judith had resisted her deportation to the very end with support from Movement for Justice activists. Now free, she is back, this time on the outside, in a gathering of over a thousand people with a simple collective message: Yarl’s Wood needs to shut down.


Between outside and inside there are two rows of steel fencing topped by barbed wire but the activist strategy is to open up channels of communication across the barriers. Thus a collective kicking of the steel fence with legs, boots, anything to make noise. The noise is to announce presence, to signal solidarity to the four hundred female detainees on the inside, many separated from their families within the UK.
In unison, arms begin to stretch out of the windows inside, waving, at times holding placards made of cardboard, towels, handkerchiefs bearing messages scrawled with eye-liners and lipstick. The messages are echoed back over the fence through megaphones.

No Human is illegal
Give us freedom.

It’s a give and take between inside and outside but they are not easy gestures, they involve risks for the confined. Voices from the inside using smuggled in Sim cards are played out on the loud speakers outside. There is a live bond across the fence, of resistance driven by both sides, activism of not only fighting for but fighting with.

Sisters on the inside
We can’t do it without you,
You can’t do it without us
But together we will shut it down


The subject of this theatre of resistance and solidarity convened on an open muddy field in Bedfordshire lies in the borders of the networked global age and the place in it of the migrant detention centre. If Guantanamo gave us the paradigm of military internment through an off-shore legal blackhole, the migrant detention centre is its civil counterpart: both are part of a global economy of violence (to borrow the term from Étienne Balibar’s Politics and the Other Scene). The global economy of violence is integrated in the sense that there is a convergence of means in its economy whether in interning suspected bearers of violence, the alleged ‘worst of the worst‘, or those who are fleeing violence, seeking refuge and asylum.


Whether it’s Australia’s Christmas Island, Israel’s Holot, Karnes and Dilley in the United States or the UK’s Yarl’s Wood, what’s common to all migrant detention centres is how their management involves ambiguous ‘out of reach’ spaces through a mix of legislative manoeuvring and private sector outsourcing. This has borne a crop of new multi-tasking corporations like G4S, Serco, Mitie, the Geo Group, Capita all rooted in finance capital. These civil entrepreneurs of internment have paralleled the rise of private contractors in the military sector – Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR) at Guantanamo, Blackwater, Armour Group, Dyncorp and so forth. A macabre parity in which the contractor as ‘neutral’ middleman allows the State a way out of scrutiny from outside agencies by selectively appealing to non interference in private matters. In the civil sector as in the military this removes the need for external accountability. Thus Yarl’s Wood detention centre was able to deny access to Rashida Manjoo the UN rapporteur on violence against women whilst in the UK. The same reasoning applied to the MP Catherine West unable to visit Yarl’s Wood in order to prepare for a parliamentary debate on immigration detention.


The making of these detention institutions involves a carefully calculated no-man’s land in which the privatisation has a double signification. It applies not just to the economic dimension of contractual arrangements but also to the framework of understanding the role of conflict and violence in the process of law making. Walter Benjamin in his Critique of Violence defined this as such:
All violence as a means is either lawmaking or law-preserving. If it lays claim to neither of these predicates, it forfeits all validity.
To enable the formulation of law, violence in effect has to be taken from the private into the public realm in its passage to law. This process of ‘converting violence into law’, from Hobbes’ violence as a state of nature, to Hegel’s dialectic of violence as a product of history led to the modern State and onto the international laws of the twentieth century — the Geneva Convention 1949, the Refugee Convention 1951, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 and so on.


But with the global economy of violence Balibar suggests that we are at a form of “anti-Hobbesian” turning point in that violence is not something that precedes institutions (violence that institutions suppress through counter-violence in order to protect) but violence that arises out of institutions. In practice this leads to an economy of a violence of pure means that seeks to outwit the law through institutions that politics can no longer manage in any normative sense. As part of the raison d’être of this economy is a regime of global migration control in which the detention centre plays a vital role.


Thus our contemporary paradox of a border-less economy of violence to reinforce borders with all available means of violence — objective, subjective, systemic, symbolic, mythic, structural — that different commentators interpret in different ways. As a paradigm institution in this economy, the migrant detention facility serves as a symbolic convergence point for an array of violence.


Consider Yarl’s Wood managed by its contractor Serco. As a contracted party, Serco are not responsible for and can not say how long a detainee would stay. That would be a matter for the Home Office and Britain is the only country in Europe not to have time limits for the use of immigration detention. For the detainee, arrival at Yarl’s Wood marks a sort of threshold — firstly she is stripped of every bit of ‘non-essential’ material possession and provided another set by Serco – clothes, toiletries and so forth and above all a cellphone with a Sim card courtesy of a partnership between Serco and the mobile network O2 (an arrangement described by a Corporate Watch study). The phone enables the detainee to communicate basic needs with the centre’s administration and (as detention separates many detainees from immediate family members) her children, husband, partner etc to maintain a restricted level of contact. After all this is a prison and yet not a prison for no crime has been committed.


The official Yarl’s Wood website plies us with images of normality, the gymnasium, the library, the healthcare centre and so forth. The dutiful management of care and custody.
Detainees’ welfare is extremely important and we are committed to treating all those in our care with dignity and respect.


But then consider the human invariables that such an institution depends on, of largely white Serco staff and female detainees almost wholly from the former colonies. And then listen to the undercover recordings at Yarl’s Wood as broadcast by Channel 4 in March 2015:
headbutt the bitch;
they are all caged animals;
take a stick and beat them up


The detention centre is meant to be a sedated private space. What comes out is controlled. When the private spills out as at Yarl’s Wood, it’s considered as the inevitable collateral. The collateral of degradation, abuse, self-harm; the private violence of desperation that objectively is a part of it’s calculation, its undertaking. So much so that after the Channel 4 broadcast Serco’s contract at Yarl’s Wood was renewed for a further 8 years.


To understand how legal processes intersect with such means of violence can be gleaned from a phrase that asylum lawyers use in an adversarial way: “the culture of disbelief”. The culture of disbelief has become a subject of analysis in its own right (as with papers from the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford) but in effect it’s a way of de-legitimising the use of personal testimony.


Once inside Yarl’s Wood, the detainee is placed in a circuit in which unless she can prove otherwise all communication — complaints, cries for help, ill health, self-inflicted harm — become forms of ‘purposive’ lying: “lying to find a reason to release you”. The culture of disbelief determines who ends up in detention and also where they go. For instance, the Congolese woman who failed to answer how many times she had been raped in the civil war (when the first rape involved 3 men). The Somali woman who was asked why she claimed to be from Mogadishu whilst speaking another dialect – the Home Office advisor on this had last visited Mogadishu over 15 years ago. And in one extreme case, the Sudanese woman at Yarl’s Wood with a “body map” detailing 17 injuries including a gunshot wound, scars caused by knife wounds, and beatings with sticks and metal rods.


Not all migrants and asylum seekers would be bearers of such experience but these cases refer us to the use-value of violence as information in a legal theatre in which the burden of proof rests entirely with the defenceless trapped in limbo. Once we reach this stage perhaps there is no other way, but Slavoj Zizek’s Violence: Six Sideways Reflections sheds an useful angle:


What renders a report of a raped woman (or any other narrative of a trauma) truthful is its very factual unreliability, its confusion, its inconsistency. If the victim were able to report on her painful and humiliating experience in a clear manner, with all the data arranged in a consistent order, this very quality would make us suspicious of its truth.


The space between the factual (truth) and truthfulness is a fertile harvesting ground without which the detention process can not fulfil its objective in delivering deportation quotas; it’s a generative space where the culture of disbelief stretches into the culture of denial and becomes procedural to the detention process.


According to government stats 30,418 migrants were held in the UK the past year (of which 13,636 had applied for asylum) in some 13 detention centres. A significant number of these will have spent most of their lives in the UK. Many will have family members here. Such is the reality of our society today. The cost to the tax payer for each day of detention is just over £150 per detainee. Over 50% of detainees are returned to the community by the courts.
At the same time the net migration into the UK in 2014 was 313,000, three times the electoral target of 100,000 per annum set by the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne.
Whatever the political rhetoric, the gaps between all these numbers tell their own tale of the futile use of politics within the realities of human movement in the global age and the hapless place of the State in it.


This understanding that takes us back to a wet and windy November day, skirting round the borders of the government-owned former Royal Air Force land to the muddy fields outside Yarl’s Wood. Back to the field of resistance choreographed by arms and legs. We can recognise the arms that stretch out as relics from the old colonies, now relocated deep in the Bedfordshire countryside and cast into changed narratives. They may belong to the powerless who fled oppression or war. And they may belong to those without capital who have no choice but to serve the global labour market as and where they can. Whatever the nature of the violence that brought them here, it is compounded at Yarl’s Wood with another cycle of violence.


From the testimonies we hear we do not underestimate the resilience of the hands we see, their capacity to resist the violence. But we are not there to witness how the resistance becomes performative through acts of desperation; jumping off stairways, slashing wrists, fighting loneliness, hanging on to sanity. The resistance of the confined remain as private acts for most part. At Yarl’s Wood and at detention centres around the world.
Thus the need to turn the violence and its economy out into the open through the collective performance of solidarity. To repeat over the loudspeakers, Stay sane, stay on your feet, do not give up and to reaffirm that, Our Freedom depends on Your freedom.
Whether inside or outside, the detention centre contains us all in the exploitative relations of the past through an economy of violence produced through legal subterfuge. We need to wrest this violence out of its hands and return it to the realm of lawmaking and law preserving. Only then can we have a politics of addressing the challenges of global movement in the 21st century.


Cited works
— Étienne Balibar, Politics and the Other Scene, Verso 2002
— Étienne Balibar, Violence and Civility, On the Limits of Political Philosophy, Columbia University Press 2015
— Walter Benjamin, Critique of Violence from Reflections, Essays, Aphorisms and Autobiographical writings, Schocken edition 1995
— Slavoj Zizek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, Big Ideas Small Books 2008