Harmondsworth Saturday


Many asylum seekers come to the UK from countries where being gay can be life-threatening

Harmondsworth isn’t far from where I live, but it isn’t a place I visit often, but in April I found myself there two days running.

I don’t avoid it because of the place itself, but the journey there is off-putting. As a kid I used to cycle there along back lanes in the Middlesex countryside, from Cranford, a short distance from where I lived. But sixty years later things have changed rather, mainly because of the impact of Heathrow and the tremendous amount of road traffic that this generates, which new roads like the M25 and M4 have also added to.

Now I live a little to the south and the route between reservoirs and around the side of the airport is along unpleasantly busy roads and dangerous junctions, large roundabouts with with lorries revved up from or anticipating the motorway. I don’t often cycle that way. Fortunately there is a bus which, having made an extensive tour of the suburb to the south of Heathrow makes its way from Terminal 5 to Heathrow Central and will drop me off just a few yards from the immigration detention centre, where protesters were arriving to call for an end to immigration detention.

Most of those coming to protest there have a longer journey, from central London to the end of the Piccadilly line for another bus, or by coach from Birmingham, Sunderland or even Scotland. For many it is still a short and easy journey compared to coming to this country, for many of those taking part in the protest are asylum seekers or those who have been granted asylum here. Many have suffered being held in detention centres like Harmondsworth (now renamed Heathrow Immigration Removal Centre) or Yarl’s Wood, imprisoned with no fixed length of sentence and facing the treat of deportation at any time to the countries where they left to escape persecution.


Support for the protest from Shoreditch Sisters WI who call for an end to immigration detention

The name is significant. This is an ‘immigration removal centre’. It isn’t concerned with investigating the truth of their claims for asylum, but intent on removing these people from the country. Our immigration system starts from the assumption that they have no right to asylum, and locking them up makes it harder for them to prove their case, while the fast-track system recently found to be illegal by our courts ensures they don’t have time to do so. The whole thing is a travesty of justice, a turning upside down of the rights we see as the cornerstone of our legal system.


The protesters aim to make a loud noise so the prisoners inside can hear that people care about them

The fight for an end to detention and fast track and for a proper and just system for migrants to this country has been led by the Movement for Justice, a group which grew in the 1990s after racist attacks in London, organising protests against fascist groups, deaths in custody and racism. This protest was one in a long series against our racist asylum and immigration system, now going back twenty years. The event in April was the seventh in a series of protests there (some months their have been protests at Yarl’s Wood instead) since the Movement For Justice began a new campaign around a year ago in solidarity with a mass hunger strike in the prison.

The two immigration prisons at Harmondsworth (Harmondsworth and Colnbrook, now both run by Mitie as Heathrow) stand on either side of a short private road leading from the main A4 which runs along the northern edge of Heathrow. The whole site is government property, having been long ago the site of the Road Research Laboratory. Except for a range of tall buildings along the front of the site, the prisons are enclosed by a very tall fence and at some earlier protests, the protesters were allowed to walk along the track around this. Since Mitie took over running the prison at the start of the year, organised protests have been confined to a pen at the front of the site, with police and security present to ensure they stay there.


Shouting “Detention Centres, Close them Down” in front of the Harmondsworth Administration block

Photographically the event and its problems were similar to those I wrote about at the end of my post Surround Harmondsworth 6, and I’m afraid the pictures are perhaps rather similar too. It’s difficult to think of an entirely different way to approach the event, though the liveliness of the protesters makes them a delight to photograph.

Although the protesters still had plenty of energy after a couple of hours of shouting and dancing in the warm April sun, I got tired and decided to leave, keen to get on with processing and then uploading the story, and I crossed the main road to catch a bus. As I climbed to the top deck ten minutes later, I looked out of the window and saw the protesters emerging on to the main road, and marching along.


Protesters march along the Bath Road in front of Harmondsworth (left) and Colnbrook immigration prisons

(It isn’t a good picture, and the bus windows were none too clean and with a slight tint and as well as the normal reflections there was also some odd colouration like ‘Newtons Rings’, all of which I’ve worked to reduce.) It was too late to jump off the bus and join the marchers¬†(the next stop is a mile or so away in Terminal 5 and the service infrequent) but had I known this would happen I would have sat down to rest and waited. They were on their way to protest at the back of the Colnbrook prison where a public footpath runs to a park and then on to Harmondsworth village, and I was sorry to have missed it. I should have checked with the organisers before leaving and had failed to do so.

More on the protest and more pictures at End Immigration Detention.


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My London Diary : Buildings of London : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

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