Why are journalists denied access to immigration detention centres?

campsfield pic contrast

Campsfield immigration removal centre, Kidlington, near Oxford

The Oxford and District NUJ Branch is taking up the issue of access for journalists to immigration detention centres. Branch member Bill MacKeith explains why this is important.

There has been an extremely unhealthy expansion in the ‘business’ of locking up innocent people without time limit under administrative powers granted the government by the 1971 Immigration Act, growing from a ‘detention estate’ of around 150 bed places in the early 1990s to over 3,000 today.

It is literally a business: seven of the UK’s nine main detention centres are run for the benefit of private shareholders by Mite, G4S, Serco and GEO.

This arrangement is to the mutual benefit of private companies and government; each hides behind the other when it things go wrong, and in general ‘commercial confidentially’ is allowed to conceal vital information such as the penalty payable by a private company if it is deemed responsible when a person dies in detention, or incentives to keep all bed places filled.

State institutions and institutions run by private companies under contract to the state, must be held to account by the public, journalists and elected representatives.  Yet immigration detention centres are closed to journalists as such. A journalist has to enter in another guise, often as a visitor to a person detained (or, in the case of one Independent reporter, entering as a roadie for a band playing to entertain detainees).

The people detained there are not a threat to security or anyone’s safety. So why are such places not open to public scrutiny?

The issue is pertinent locally as on our doorstep is Campsfield Immigration Removal Centre, next to Oxford airport near Kidlington. This opened in 1993, holds up to 280 people and is run by Mitie.

Over the years, protests and demonstrations by people detained at Campsfield and their supporters outside, along with fires, arson, and suicides, have drawn the attention of public and politicians. The centre has a low reputation (the Oxford Mail has dubbed it ‘Oxford’s shame’) and local authorities have called for its closure.

Such institutions must be open to scrutiny, and that means that journalists (and elected representatives) must have physical access to detention centres, with the right to talk unhindered to detainees without being overheard by those in authority.

The right of journalists in France to have access to immigration detention centres (when accompanying members of parliament or the European parliament) was recently recognised by the French government.

There are no overriding reasons of security or safety that justify the prevention of such access in the UK.

The January meeting of our branch decided to take up the issue of access for journalists, and resolved to:

  1. work with others towards legislation and or changes in non-statutory regulations to secure such access for journalists,
  2. call on the NUJ’s national executive to take part in such efforts,
  3. call on elected representatives to support the right of journalists for access, and
  4. ask Oxford and District Trades Union Council to give its support to this initiative.

As a first step, the branch is writing to the NUJ’s national Policy Committee asking for its support in getting the union to take up issue, and is also asking Oxford Trades Council for its support and involvement.

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