Yesterday, Diane Abbott addressed the Medical Justice Annual General Meeting. Introducing a discussion on ‘How to end immigration detention?’, the Shadow Home Secretary outlined Labour’s commitment to close Yarl’s Wood and Brook House, to conduct a review of Immigration Detention estate and to push for an end to the involvement of private contractors in the deprivation of liberty. It was a speech intended to manage our expectations: Abbott committed to ‘end detention, as we know it’ and pointed towards electronic tagging as a possible alternative form of control. Cornered by a member of Women for Refugee Women, as Diane tried to leave, she refused to confirm that her commitment to close Yarl’s Wood extended to a commitment to end the detention of women entirely.
It was disappointing that Abbott left immediately after her speech. First and foremost, many in that anti-detention movement wanted to recognise how important Diane Abbott has been in drawing attention to Immigration Detention and the harmful impact of immigration controls more generally. It does not go unnoticed that, particularly when she speaks on these issues, she is subject to awful racist and misogynistic threats and abuse.
But it also missed an opportunity for her to learn from and be held to account by an audience of lawyers, doctors, caseworkers and activists with a vast and varied set of concerns about detention.
Abbott advised the movement to use human stories in detention and emphasise the difference between immigration detention and criminal imprisonment. Immigration detainees are not criminals, they are vulnerable and desperate is the message. This, of course, fails to acknowledge the way migration has been criminalised and that many people in detention have indeed committed crimes that are unrelated to their migration. While she said that politicians needed to show more leadership in the political discourse they use to address migration, she did not acknowledge the term ‘illegal migrant’ – one that she herself has used –immediately locates immigration wrongs on the level of criminality. In short, the human stories she wants to hear enter a public sphere in which they are already delegitimised by language that Labour including the current leadership have been participants in promulgating.
There is also a great irony for someone who is against the involvement of private companies in deprivations of liberty to also be considering electronic tagging as a potential alternative. Electronic tagging is synonymous with the increased involvement by private contractors such as G4S, Serco and Capita (sound familiar?!) in the criminal justice system. Not only this, our experience of Electronic Tagging in the criminal justice system has shown that they are tools that expand the state’s ability to control and maintain surveillance without necessarily resulting in reductions in imprisonment. I hope anti-detention activists are preemptively setting themselves up to oppose these movements.
Finally, there was a missed opportunity for her to hear from the perspective of someone who had been in detention and was critical in giving Diane the experiences she drew on to support her speech. Diane made a point of crediting activist-detainees that blocked a corridor to ensure that her visit to Yarl’s Wood did not pass without her meeting women in detention. But she did not realise that one of those women was sitting next to her on the stage ready to speak after her.
Labour are perhaps making steps towards a policy platform that can carry the weighty and unlikely description ‘progressive immigration policy’ and no one is expecting her to use meetings like this to announce new policy. But without meaningful engagement with the movements that specialise in anti-racist, anti-detention activism there is a risk that they will replicate the mistakes of New Labour and build the systems of violence that future movements will have to work so hard to dismantle.