Will Badger on the campaign against Campsfield House Detention centre, Kidlington

It is the stroke of noon on the last Saturday of the month and protestors gather at Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre as they have gathered on the last Saturday of every month for the past 22 years.

There are 16 who have come to Kidlington by bus, taxi, private car, bicycle, and motorbike, to protest the detention in prison-like conditions of immigrants to the UK.

While many European nations are dealing with the social and infrastructural challenges of immigration from war-torn parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, the UK stand apart by not having upper time limits on the detention of asylum seekers.

Under the current system, Britain can indefinitely detain migrants innocent of any crime.

Some Saturdays there are more protestors, but although the sun glimmers today in the gunmetal sky, the wind brings a sharpness with it.

Perhaps the cold has kept numbers down, or perhaps a simultaneous Safe Haven demonstration in Oxford has sapped student attendance.

Still there is a mixture of backgrounds on hand: young people, trade unionists, pensioners.

Two students unfurl a massive banner – a bed sheet with a mobile number painted on it in giant blue letters.

“This is so that the detainees inside can call us to set up visits,” explains Alex Marshall, 32, who has just completed a DPhil and remains a member of Oxford Migrant Solidarity, a student group that works with the Close Campsfield Campaign to support the protests.

Meanwhile, Dave Anderson, a retired trade unionist from Coventry dressed in motorcycle leathers, leads a ‘shout’: a call and response with almost ritual significance for the protestors.

“Migrants are not criminals!” Anderson yells through the iron lattice of the barrier fence.

“Close Campsfield down!” other volunteers yell in answer, some holding homemade End Detention sign.

“Asylum is a human right!” Anderson yells.

“Close Campsfield down!”

“Freedom now!”

“Freedom!” we yell in response, for I have joined the shout.

It would be difficult not to participate, for now we can see the first sign of a human presence within Campsfield: the outline of a man at a second-floor window waving back to us with wild abandon.

Marshall fields calls from detainees, who are allowed simple mobile phones. He and other Oxford Migrant Solidarity volunteers will enter Campsfield during visiting hours to help detainees in any way they can: listening to their stories; offering a connection to the outside world; in rare cases facilitating contact with lawyers or medical professionals.

Campsfield is situated down a lonely lane in fields opposite the Kidlington Airport, hidden from the A44 by a stunted barrier of alder and beech trees, a scrub forest seemingly planted among fields once belonging to the Duke of Marlborough to obscure the sight of this prison-like facility.

The detention facility is hidden from view, as if the Government and the private contractors have agreed that it is better to keep such things out of sight and out of mind.

Given that Campsfield has been operating for 22 years, I wonder what keeps the protestors coming back month after month when it seems little has changed.

Liz Peretz, 67, who is active in Close Campsfield and has been attending the protests for nearly two decades with her partner Bill MacKeith, 70, offers multiple reasons for their commitment.

The most important is “that we’re making connection with the people inside” she says.

Another “is to continue with the process of being able to do the demonstrations” .

This is a concern shared by Marshall: the idea that the protests are a beacon of sorts. Both Peretz and Marshall believe that if the protestors’ presence were to falter, private prison contractors Mitie, who run Campsfield, would find a way to shut them out in future.

That is not going to happen if the volunteers gathered here have anything to say about it.

At one point, as they circle through the fields round the back of Campsfield to speak to any detainees in the yard, they are approached by a young man who looks as though he has stepped out of the pages of Country Life magazine, all khaki and woollens with shining white teeth.

He is doing some shooting and he has stopped by to question the protestors’ right to be on the land.

MacKeith steps forward. His voice is kind but firm: “We have been here for 22 years, and we are certainly not going to stop now.”

The shooter pauses, nods to himself, then turns away.

* See closecampsfield.wordpress.com and asylum-welcome.org.

Inside Campsfield

Campsfield House is a privately run immigration removal centre which has been open since November 1993.

It was previously a youth detention centre and originally had 200 places for both male and female detainees, however in 1997, capacity was reduced to 184 and the centre became male only. Capacity has now risen to around 215 bed spaces. Many of those held there are former HMP prisoners.