Liberty

Olivia Laing

I've been trying to write this piece for weeks now, and I can't. The subject - liberty - defeats me. It's too enormous, too abstract. I read about a woman enslaved and raped, her passport confiscated. I read a long, detailed blogpost by James Bridle about the failed extradition of Isa Muaza. I read about forcible restraint and the death of Jimmy Mubenga. I read the words tortured, shackled, sodomised repeatedly. After a while, I go outside and dig my garden, pulling out roots of white deadnettle, Lamium album. I sweep up yellow cherry leaves, refill my pond. I've been away a long time. The garden is neglected. Back inside, I hang out washing, speak to my mother, eat beans on toast, Google at least a hundred different things. Let no one be humiliated. It's not hard, is it?

Let no one be afraid, let no one be sent where they'll be hurt. Let people who need shelter come here, to the United Kingdom. I've never read the Human Rights Act before. I read it now. You have the right to protest, to freedom of thought, to marriage, to education, to a fair trial. You have the right to a private life. I sit in bed, eating beans, free to dream in whichever direction I choose. Where is Muaza now? Back in the medical unit at the carefully named Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre, which has a capacity of 661 single men and is the largest of its kind in Europe. I look at a photograph of it online. The buildings are in the background. The photographer's attention has apparently been caught by the car park, and particularly by a deep border of perennials. I zoom in. It's planted with Rosmarinus officinalis. Rosemary for remembrance, to repel witches. There's a green security fence in the distance. The sky is blue, small cumuli like cotton wool balls, like sheep. I don't want my country to put people in search of asylum in places like this. I don't want my government to authorise vans to travel around London emblazoned with the words GO HOME. I want everyone to be safe wherever they go, however many borders they've journeyed through.

I suppose Isa Muaza, who the newspapers are also calling Ifa Muaza, is dying somewhere behind those cream and russet bricks. The Immigration Removal Centre is run by the GEO Group, which manages 96 correctional facilities around the world, with a total capacity of approximately 73,000 people. The Harmondsworth website lists its facilities, which include a library, a cinema, a five-a-side football pitch and an indoor sports hall. "We operate", the website states, "on behalf of the UK's Home Office, holding people being detained under immigration powers pending their departure from the country". People, that is, who would rather starve themselves to death than be sent back to their home country.

Outside, the sky is a very pale, powdery grey. My back aches. I need to get up and go to the Co-op, buy cheese, grapes, bread. Tomorrow a friend is coming for lunch. I have things to write, money in the bank. Everyone I love is safe right now. "The general build up", the UK Borders Authority website says of Harmondsworth, "consists of cases currently fitting the current detention criteria. For example, fast track cases and special operations cases." It elaborates on the facilities, describing observation rooms and isolation rooms, adding in quick brackets that these are "for any case which may need isolation due to mental health disorders". The language has the same manicured blankness as the buildings, the same bland imperviousness. It blocks off argument, conceals misery and injustice, terror and physical distress.

Seven people have died at Harmondsworth since it was reopened in 2001, though it isn't always easy to discover the circumstance or cause. Two hung themselves, somewhere between the library and the cinema, the five-a-side football pitch. Their names were Bereket Yohannes and Sergey Barnuyck. Bereket was a 26-year-old Eritrean, Sergey a 31-year-old Ukrainian. Both their deaths were followed by riots, and these riots were followed in turn by the transfer of detainees to other detention centres. A few days later, one of these transferred prisoners, a Vietnamese asylum seeker called Tung Wang, also hung himself. I think again of the photograph of rosemary, growing in profusion outside the security fence. Rosemary for remembrance, the quote goes. Pray, love, remember. Or rather: pray, love, remember, fight.

 

Olivia Laing is the author of To the River and The Trip to Echo Spring, and is currently working on a cultural history of urban loneliness.

 

While government watches you, who watches the government?