Female detainees turn their backs to the

Immigration Detention: Building Our Own Guantánamos, by Aisha Maniar


Indefinite detention with charge or trial is a crime - London Guantánamo Campaign protest at US Embassy London, May 2013

Some are more equal than others. According to the mainstream media, the small number of Caucasian males held prisoner by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group are entitled to liken their conditions of detention to being held at Guantánamo Bay, the US military concentration camp notorious for arbitrary detention and human rights violations. The same qualification does not apply to the tens of thousands of men, women and children worldwide held in immigration detention facilities each year on the non-existent offence of being a foreign national or stateless.

Since the 1980s, a number of western states have adopted a policy of detaining asylum seekers and migrants subject to deportation, for illegal entry or visa irregularities, using administrative procedures to work around legal protections and rights. The rationale is to provide a deterrent to and a means of ‘containment and control’ of migrants: the outcome is often brutal.

Bring It on Home[land Security] to Me

Guantánamo Bay is the site of an immigration detention facility for asylum seekers and refugees which opened its doors in 1991 to mainly Haitian refugees fleeing political unrest in the country. Joined by Cubans after 1994, tens of thousands of people seeking protection were housed in a “series of tent cities and shelters guarded by United States troops and surrounded by barbed wire”.

Asylum seekers whose claims are rejected are sent home while refugees are held there until they are resettled in a third country, which can take months or years. Like detainees at the more notorious facility in Guantánamo Bay, they are not allowed to enter the US; they are also denied access to adequate legal and medical assistance. In early 2012, the detention centre held 33 Cubans, 21 of whom were recognised refugees awaiting resettlement.

The fact that the US managed to detain so many without due process rights at the site for over a decade was a factor in its choice of venue to house so-called ‘enemies combatants’ in the war on terror. Some of these tent cities would provide the foundations for the other prison camp opened on 11 January 2002.

In 2003, the US set up ‘Operation Vigilant Sentry’ to deal with a possible mass influx of arrivals from the Caribbean. Following work to build tents for 400 people, in 2007, work commenced on a camp to house at least 10,000, worth over $16 million, complete with barbed wire fencing. The crisis never happened, even after the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010.

The immigration detention facility at Guantánamo Bay is just one of over 400 such facilities in the US, run by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the country’s second largest law enforcement agency. The DHS was created in 2002; in 2001, the US detained around 95,000 people annually. By 2010, this number had risen to 390,000, with over 33,000 men, women and children in immigration detention on any given day.

As well as being a rapidly expanding sector, it is also highly lucrative. A large number of these facilities, as in other countries, are run by private security firms, with a focus on generating profits and a lack of accountability. In order to increase profits, operators cut corners which have a severe impact on the physical and mental well-being of detainees.

The immigration detention centre at Guantánamo is run by the GEO group, one of the largest security firms in the world and the second largest provider of such services in the US, as well as in other countries. In the US alone, it runs 66 such facilities, earning it over one billion dollars in revenue each year. Among other facilities run by GEO worldwide is the Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre in South Lanarkshire, Scotland, currently subject to ongoing hunger strikes by detainees over conditions and indefinite detention.

Advance Australia Fair

The US is not the only state to operate offshore immigration detention centres prior to 11 September 2001 to work around international obligations and legal protections for asylum seekers.

On 10 September 2001, Australia signed an administrative agreement with Nauru for the tiny island nation to accommodate asylum seekers arriving by sea while their claims are processed. Similar agreements were made with Papua New Guinea (where Manus Island is located) as part of measures that made up the ‘Pacific Solution’.

The purported rationale behind this costly but popular policy was to deter asylum seekers. At the height of detention on Nauru at this stage, most of the 1500+ asylum seekers held between 2001 and 2003 were from Afghanistan and Iraq, states in which Australia was engaged in combat as a US ally. In 2007, a new Australian government announced the centre at Nauru would close and the Pacific Solution would end, but plans were already underway to build and operate the Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre, which opened in 2008.

As early as 2007, the Australian Asylum Seeker Resource Centre had already made the link between indefinite detention without charge or trial in inhumane conditions at Guantánamo Bay and at Australia’s offshore processing centres, particularly after officials from the DHS in the US flew in to inspect the Christmas Island centre in November 2007. The facility that was built included “electric fences and microwave probes for detecting movement; there are camera systems posted under eaves, on roofs and in every room; and the whole camp is linked by CCTV to a remote control room in Canberra.”

Conditions at the centre are inadequate, with repeat protests and suicide attempts by detainees. In 2013, two asylum seekers died at the facility. The detention centre is run by Serco, which runs 12 such facilities across Australia. The company was criticised by officials for filthy conditions at this facility and high levels of self-harm across all the centres it runs. Nonetheless, at the end of 2014, it was awarded a new 5-year contract to run the facilities, from which it hopes to make profits of £100-150 million each year.

In 2012, the centres at Nauru and Manus Island reopened amid much criticism. Amnesty International visited the centre in Nauru and found the conditions there “shocking.” In 2013, a riot broke out at Nauru; detainees were prosecuted and convicted for the damage. Riots broke out on Manus Island in 2014 leading to one detainee being beaten to death and 69 others injured. In January 2015, fresh riots broke out between staff and detainees. There are currently around 1000 detainees at each facility.

In 2011-2012 46 recognised refugees held in immigration detention near Sydney, as the Australian authorities claimed they posed a security risk, took their case to the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) in Geneva as they were unable to challenge the basis of their detention, not knowing the basis for it. The HRC found this indefinite detention to amount to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” and ordered Australia to release the detainees, held for at least two and a half years, immediately and “offer them compensation and rehabilitation”.

Although found to be in breach of its international legal obligations, Australia did not release them at the end of a six-month deadline. In the New York Times, Ben Saul, one of the detainees’ lawyers stated, in reference to Guantánamo Bay: “Over a decade after 9/11, the long shadow on human rights cast by America’s “war on terror” has extended to one of the world’s most peaceful corners.”

What about the Children?

Over the past 13 years, dozens of children have been held at Guantánamo Bay; thousands have been held in immigration detention worldwide. Since reopening its offshore facilities in 2012, Australia has come under fire for the large number of children held in immigration detention.

According to an important 2014 report by the Australian Human Rights Commission, last year Australia held over 800 children in “mandatory closed immigration detention for indefinite periods”, sometimes with their families and sometimes alone. This includes 186 children at Nauru and over 167 babies born in detention since 2012.

Children in the precarious and often brutal world of immigration detention suffer all kinds of trauma, often on top of the trauma of having been uprooted and having experienced conflict at such an early age. In addition, such facilities are often ill-equipped to handle their basic needs.

Women and children are also often more susceptible to sexual abuse. In late 2014, an independent review, the ‘Moss Inquiry’, was carried out into allegations of sexual abuse, including rape, of women and children at Nauru and staff at the centre trading cigarettes and marijuana for sex with detainees, among other abuses. The report was inconclusive but a Senate investigation is now underway; one submission to the investigation claims that children as young as two were sexually abused. According to former and current staff at the centre, the government was aware of allegations since 2013.

Indeed, in response to staff, medical professionals and lawyers’ claims of self-harm, inappropriate sexualised behaviour, and suicide attempts by children held at Nauru, rather than investigate, the Australian government and media claimed parents and NGO staff were grooming the children to act in this way as a means of attention-seeking. The Australian Refugee Council has described the situation on the island to being ‘like ‘Lord of the Flies’”. A new Australian law that gags whistleblowers will see any staff speaking out against conditions at detention centres face a two-year prison sentence.

Meanwhile in Europe

Protest outside Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre, June 2014

Such abuse is not uniquely Australian. At Guantánamo Bay, prisoners are frequently subject to intrusive body searches that are tantamount to sexual assault. Complaints of inappropriate sexual behaviour and assault by staff at the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire, UK, have not only been claimed but confirmed; in one case, a detainee became pregnant. In 2014, a whistleblower reported a climate of anti-immigration sentiment at the centre and intimidation of vulnerable women, some of whom are survivors of torture and rape in war. These and other allegations did not prevent Serco from winning a £70 million contract with the UK government in 2014 to run the facility for the next 8 years.

In mainland France, latest NGO statistics, for 2013, show that the number of children held in administrative detention centres fell to 41. On the other hand, those detained at the centre in Pamandzi on the French-administered island of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean, rose from 2575 in 2012 to 3512 in 2013.

Although, as French territory, the centre is subject to European laws on human rights protection, the facility is not subject to French immigration and asylum laws or certain legal instruments that regulate detention in mainland France. Legal and medical assistance is restricted and conditions, which result in many detainees having to sit, eat and sleep on the floor due to a lack of furniture and severe overcrowding, are inhumane and inconsistent with European law. According to the 2013 report, the facility lacks suitable sleep facilities (cots, etc.) for small children, space to change and clean small children or suitable food products for them.

Getting Away with It

Indefinite arbitrary detention and inhumane treatment do not work. Thirteen years of Guantánamo Bay, where 122 men remain in limbo, has not made the world a safer place: more US citizens have been shot dead by their own tax-funded law enforcement officers since 2001 than died on 11 September 2001 or consequent terrorist attacks.

In spite of the growing numbers of conflicts and refugee crises worldwide, asylum applications in most western countries have either fallen or not risen in line with global trends. While in most cases, criminal defendants and convicts would be able to challenge such abuses, detainees at Guantánamo Bay and in immigration detention facilities worldwide, held without charge or trial, have less access to legal remedies, and even less to enforcement of them.

The precarious and arbitrary conditions of detention are cruel unto themselves, as there is no timeframe for when it will end, unlike a fixed prison sentence. Held away from the public eye, whether offshore or in unusual locations such as the industrial estate Yarl’s Wood is set within, with inadequate access to legal and medical assistance, invisibility, coupled with the demonisation of asylum seekers, migrants and terrorism suspects helps to foster a climate of racism, brutality and neglect.

Low wages paid to outsourced staff are not conducive to improving standards of care either. In addition, the very fact that the running of such facilities is largely outsourced to secretive, multinational security firms who are not responsible to the public and are not held to account by politicians provides a cover for the human rights violations of the latter.

Mitie security guards harass members of press at protest outside Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre, UK, February 2015

Detainees are further isolated through media bans. Journalists and other visitors are not allowed to meet Guantánamo prisoners; instead, they are allowed to ‘view’ them from afar, almost like caged animals in a zoo. In 2012, the Australian Immigration Department developed restrictions on media visits to detention centres based on the US policy at Guantánamo Bay. Much about conditions at British immigration detention centres has emerged through undercover reporting. Mass protests and hunger strikes at UK detention centres in March 2015 went almost completely unreported in the mainstream media.

In 2013, three years after Barack Obama’s broken promise to close the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, a mass hunger strike, ongoing but largely broken through brutality and violence, reminded the world of the existence of this group of prisoners. The use of rubber bullets, beatings and protests prior to the hunger strike were only reported months later.

Brutality by guards and neglect has also resulted in deaths. At Guantánamo, there have been 9 deaths in unusual circumstances over the past 13 years. In Britain, there have been 22 deaths in immigration detention. In the US, 83 people have died since 2003. Neglect and inadequate health care can also lead to death shortly after release.

Making a Mint out of Misery

In 2004, images emerged of the physical and sexual torture of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison by US soldiers. A decade on, in September 2014, video footage emerged of asylum seekers being brutalised by security guards at a privately-run shelter in Burbach, Germany. German media described the images as something from Abu Ghraib. Germany receives the largest number of asylum seekers in Europe; shelters for asylum seekers are not surrounded by barbed wire or closed off.

Following investigations, five guards have been charged with causing grievous bodily harm. Untrained guards would penalise residents for complaining about leaking taps or dirt, or for smoking. A former employee later blew the whistle on illegal practices there, including handcuffing, illegal detention and lack of assistance for residents with mental illnesses. While war is used to justify the brutality of soldiers, what justification is there for the violence of a German security guard stamping on the neck of a refugee?

The facility is one of forty run by European Homecare, one of Germany’s largest private providers of such homes. The whistleblower claims the company was aware of the brutality. It is not the first such incident at the company’s facilities either: a resident died following an incident at a facility in Austria and a woman from Cameroon accused a security guard of raping her; the guard was acquitted for a lack of evidence. As elsewhere, European Homecare has been rewarded for its brutality with new and larger contracts.

Private companies and governments are the only winners in this game. Running the Guantánamo Bay prison camp has cost the American taxpayer more than $2 billion since 2002; corporations are picking up the profits from creating human misery. It is a win-win situation for both parties. Governments, enthralled to these private multinational corporations with extensive lobbying power, need vulnerable minorities to make them appear powerful and relevant, as they fail to deal with the real problems their societies face.

Coming Full Circle

The comparisons between Guantánamo Bay and immigration detention centres are not exaggerated or moot. Prior to being taken to Guantánamo Bay, the vast majority of prisoners held there were held at the Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, which served as a processing centre for captives. For many, Bagram was a more brutal experience.

In its efforts to keep asylum seekers and migrants out of Europe, the European Union has been diverting millions of euros to Ukraine since at least 2009 to run immigration ‘processing centres’ tantamount to prisons where inmates receive little or no legal assistance and many have reported being tortured with electric shocks and beatings. The current war in the country, which has produced its own refugee crisis, has not discouraged others from trying to enter Europe this way.

The solutions do not work as they are either disproportionate or have been applied to an engineered problem. In the longer term, it is a slippery slope: making exceptions to who may be held in indefinite detention and without due process rights is not only illegal, it is open to further abuse and expansion.


Prison activist and editor. Currently preparing a book on the introduction of maximum security prisons in Belgium and Europe, including the practice of solitary confinement. In 2008, Luk started the Belgian Prisoners' Family & Friends Association. (http://familiesfriendsassociation.blogspot.be/ In 2009, with Farida Aarrass he launched the Campaign Free Ali Aarrass (www.freeali.eu ). In 2012 he organised the Committee of the Families of European detainees in Morocco (http://prisonnierseuropeensaumaroc.blogspot.be/). Luk Vervaet is the author of « Le making-of d'Anders B. Breivik » (Egalité=Editions, 2012), « Nizar Trabelsi : Guantanamo chez nous ? (Editions Antidote, 2014). He is co-author of « Kim et Ken, mes enfants disparus » (Editions Luc Pire, 2006), « Condamnés à la prison? Ecrits sur un monde caché » (Revue Contradictions, 2008) et « L'affaire Luk Vervaet : écrits sur un interdit professionnel » (Revue Contradictions, 2011). Contributions : « Etats généraux sur les conditions carcérales en Europe : La condition pénitentiaire, regards belges, français et européens"» (2010, éditions MGER) ; « The violence of incarceration: a response from mainland Europe »(2010, Race & Class) ; « Gevangenissen: spiegel van onze samenleving » (2013, MO Mondiaal Nieuws) Publishing house : www.antidote.be

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