Calais crisis – dehumanisation, detention centres and abuse

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Written by Jade Jackman

David Cameron, our charming Prime Minister, sees a swarm on the British horizon. In a publicly broadcasted statement, he described migrants in Calais in such a casually dehumanising tone that even Nigel Farage felt comfortable to feign shock.

However, this new public outcry is not necessarily helpful and is, at best, wilfully naive. Calais has become a spectacle. Online news sources keep pumping images of ‘extraordinary scenes’ of the ‘migrant madness’. For the main part, the photographs are nothing new and the captions, especially from the Telegraph, are more stock than the images themselves. For example, they remind the viewer that the police ‘were forced’ to intervene and focus on the violence of the migrants towards each-other. Not only does this feed into the trope of feral other, it reinforces the notion that black bodies must be controlled by white order.

Another photo shows a group helping one another into a van, they are smiling and quite evidently joking with each-other. Rather than recognising this display of camaraderie in the face of adversity, the Telegraph writes ‘migrants attempt to force their way into lorry’. Again, the focus is on excessive strength and pressure in a subconscious attempt to justify the aggressive way in which we control our borders. Presented against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that Cameron felt secure in sharing his vision of the dark haze that threatened to engulf border control. In fact, the only thing that is novel about Calais is the publicity. Whether it is because we are still scarred by Victorian sensibilities, the British are notorious for their polite silence and ability to keep secrets. Whilst this stereotype is generally used to describe personal relationships, it extends to foreign and state policy. Indeed, the apparent shock at Cameron’s depiction of migrants as a ‘swarm’ demonstrates exactly how successful the British government is at hiding their secrets. We systematically allow the abuse and dehumanisation of hopeful migrants and asylum seekers through our use of detention centres. Yet, public disgust is minimal.

The detention centres, such as Yarlswood, are hidden inside invisible pockets of state power. Their locations are secluded and access is strictly prohibited. Journalists, friends and inmates are stripped, searched and kept under close control of guards. Their crime? Simply dreaming of a better life. Of late, Yarlswood has been under increased public scrutiny. In a Channel 4 expose, one guard was recorded saying “I allegedly walked into somebody’s room without knocking. I just like tits. I’m addicted to the viewing of tits.” Most people would argue that this gross behaviour goes beyond the language used by Cameron. Whilst it is more extreme, the two actions are related.

To put it simply, the way in which Britain uses detention centres is inhumane. Not only are there problems in accessing healthcare, but many victims of torture find their way into the system even though they are not supposed to be there. Women who have been sexually assaulted, many of whom still feel traumatised by their experiences, are locked up to be abused again at the hands of people who are meant to protect them. There is no way that the British politicians, or the majority of the general public, can see these migrants as anymore than statistics – let alone people – otherwise there would be a stronger movement for change.

However, part of the power of these places are their seclusion. Activists, such as Sisters Uncut, have been making an effort to draw attention to the abuses that go in detention centres, such as Yarlswood, through protest. Their presence outside the railings and walls highlights the cruelty that we believe we can inflict on the stateless. Through direct action, activists have slowly been removing the cloak of invisibility that serves to shroud the government’s treatment of asylum seekers and forcing them to be directly accountable for their policies. Cameron’s attitude was a damaging slip but it was no accident; it is an attitude he needs to have in order to preserve himself and the government otherwise they’d find their own behaviour inexcusable.

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Jade Jackman is a young film maker and writer based in London

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