Home Office prioritises hostility over humanity

The inhumane detention and deportation of people of colour highlights institutional racism in government, writes Green Party Deputy Leader Amelia Womack.


Hands wave out of windows behind a high fence at Yarl's Wood detention centre
Hands wave out of windows behind a high fence at Yarl's Wood detention centre

Flickr / EYE DJ

Detainees wave hands out of windows that barely open, behind the fence at Yarl's Wood detention centre in 2015

Amelia Womack
Amelia Womack
Amelia Womack

Yesterday was one of many days that I have spent addressing the state of the Home Office, speaking out against the hostile environment that this government has imposed on our country. It is an imposition that has come at great personal cost to many individuals seeking refuge here – as well as many seeking simply to stay in the place they call home. But it has also done great damage to our political culture and society. 

Often, we know, the government has acted illegally, as when it deported British citizens from the Windrush Generation. Its policies have contributed to ‘Fortress Europe’, the deadly barriers set up that claim the lives of so many who flee persecution and war. Families have been torn apart, children unable to live with their parents in their own country.

The government’s policies have contributed to a society in which we are seeing hate crime rising, a deeply disturbing turn in our national dialogue. We need humanity to be at the centre of our government and government policy – not just for the people now being victimised by the Home Office, but for all of us.

We practice indefinite detention of people not even accused of any crime, something no other Western European country does

Last weekend saw yet another reminder of what the hostile environment means in reality, when a community of Chagossians living in the UK told us how they have been told to “go back” to the Chagos Islands. They have been routinely pressured by their local council in Crawley, West Sussex, to leave the country.

The Chagos Islands were colonised by the UK in the 1960s, and the Chagossians were deported from their home to make way for a US military base on the largest island, Diego Garcia. Those islanders who came to the UK were abandoned here, torn from their homeland, now a naval base that became a hotspot for extraordinary rendition. 

The formerly pristine environment of the island has been polluted and destroyed by its colonisers; unsurprisingly, however, some want to return, and they should have that right. They also have, and should have, the right to stay in the UK. 

As is the case of so many targeted by the hostile environment, these are British citizens of colour: the hostile environment holds racism at its core. 

It is inhumane, indefensible, and it ignores our obligations under human rights treaties that we signed in some cases many decades ago.

And frequently we have a Home Office that is breaking the law. Just two recent examples: it has failed in its role in protecting refugee children, risking that children seeking asylum could be wrongly treated as adults, and it has apparently lied to EU member states in order to deport victims of slavery. 

Here on our own soil we detain those who have fled to the UK, sometimes from our own bombs and weapons, and those who have experienced rape, torture and violence in immigration detention centres. We practice indefinite detention of people not even accused of any crime, something no other Western European country does.

We need a just, humane system that meets our international treaty obligations

I have been to Yarl’s Wood detention centre to meet a woman detained there named Seema*. As a domestic violence survivor, Seema left her home country to escape her abuser. Finding love here in the UK and a job, she was detained by immigration officials when it was discovered that she had the wrong papers – papers that weren’t wrong because she didn’t have a right to be in the UK, but wrong because the person who she bought her visa from was operating illegally. That person is now in prison for their actions, yet in Yarl’s Wood Seema was essentially paying for the illegal activity of another.

Needing an operation while in Yarl’s Wood she was brought back from the hospital to her room with strict instructions that she needed to have 24-hour surveillance for infection and her bandages changed. Instead she was left in her room without food and water while blood seeped through her bandages for four days. 

This is unacceptable, and far from an isolated case, with report after report finding that care for detainees is inadequate.

Our country has a lack of compassion and care when it comes to migration, something that to me highlights an institutionalised racism that undermines the rights of people of colour.

I have always been proud of the Green Party’s unapologetic message that refugees are welcome, migrants are welcome, that we need a just, humane system that meets our international treaty obligations.

We call for an end all routine immigration detention, for asylum-seekers to be allowed to work and the removal of all income requirements from family reunion visas, so that it isn't wealth that decides whether a child and parent can live together. Those are the policies that you create when your party is built on humanity and not hostility.

This reflects a speech given at the Reclaim the Power: Power Beyond Borders rally yesterday.

*name changed for her protection