Ten years on: reflections on a decade working on the injustice of detention

Immigration detention and the detention estate sometimes appear permanent and unchanging. However, underneath the surface, things are changing. Tamsin Alger, Casework and Policy Manager at Detention Action, looks back at a catalogue of actions people in detention, she and her organisation have taken to challenge immigration detention over the last 10 years.  

Ten years ago this month, I started working at Detention Action (London Detainee Support Group at the time). One of the first things I did was to attend our newly established information and advice workshops in Colnbrook. For the first time, I experienced the sterile, claustrophobic atmosphere that grew with each door that was unlocked and locked again behind us as we moved further and further into the centre, further and further away from the barbed wire fences and massive metal doors to the outside world. Last month, I was at Harmondsworth for another workshop. In that time, Detention Action has supported over 8,000 people in Colnbrook, Harmondsworth, the Verne and HMP Pentonville. Over that time, what’s changed in immigration detention, and how has Detention Action adapted to respond?

I remember that first workshop very clearly. The atmosphere felt tense, it was very noisy. Some people spoke to us urgently; others were angry, their frustration and desperation spilling out. One man was softly spoken, eyes not quite in focus, dosed up on medication, as he showed us his arms criss-crossed with self-inflicted scars, some old and faded, many new and raw-edged.

Most people I met that day had been detained for more than a year with no end date in sight. Two years, three years, in detention didn’t feel uncommon in Colnbrook at that time. They were mainly from countries that were considered too dangerous to return people to, like Somalia, or where there were problems getting travel documents, like Iran. Most were detained following a conviction, often spending far longer in detention under immigration powers than their original sentence.

Our focus was a new area of work, unlawful detention. We worked with a leading solicitor firm to identify and refer such cases for legal challenges in the High Court, building up a body of case law. From those early workshops in Colnbrook, our first campaign against indefinite detention was born. For the first time, following the publication of our research, Detained Lives, it felt like the issue of detention was on the map, the voices of those inside finally being heard beyond the borders of detention.

Next door was Harmondsworth. Another high security detention centre, Harmondsworth was dominated by the Detained Fast Track (DFT), a process where asylum seekers were held in detention for their cases to be heard on very tight timescales. The refusal rate was 99%.

One particular workshop sticks in my mind. This workshop was held in the wing set aside for people arriving or about to leave the centre. Over 50 people came to see us that day. There was a charter flight to Afghanistan two days later, and the wing was full of desperate people, spat out at the end of an unfair process that they hadn’t understood. They crowded round us, waving letters from the Home Office with the date, time and flight number of the plane that would return them to the country they had fled. There was so little that we could do. Most had solicitors who’d stopped representing them early in the process, saying they wouldn’t be able to get legal aid to carry on because of the way in which the DFT was stacked against them. As we sat down one by one, we picked out the most extremely vulnerable people where we might be able to persuade a keen solicitor to look into their case again in the very short time frame. For the rest, we listened to their fears, we heard their despair at the injustice they’d experienced in a country they’d always thought was a standard for human rights. And we decided that this had to stop.

Our second campaign, to end the Detained Fast Track, began with our report Fast Track to Despair.  I remember the launch event – a packed room, a sense of possibility despite some dissenting voices, and the spark of a movement that brought NGOs and lawyers together to support our legal challenge to the DFT. I’ve lost count of the number of times we were in court over the two years of litigation, as we kept winning each stage of the case, but had to keep fighting on and on for any meaningful change for the people we spoke to every day in Harmondsworth. Eventually, in July 2015, the DFT was suspended and in the December the Supreme Court ruled finally in our favour.

Last month, I was in Harmondsworth again with a group of staff and volunteers for another workshop. Most of our work is over the phone through our free helpline, in part due to the inaccessible nature of detention centres. Our volunteer visitors provide regular, one to one support to the most vulnerable or isolated people we are in touch with. So our workshops are a vital opportunity to meet new clients who drop in to see who we are and what we can do, as well as a means of renewing relationships face to face with people we’ve been supporting for weeks or months from the office.

Over the years my role has changed. As a manager, I am no longer as directly involved in casework as I used to be, although I make sure I go into the detention centres whenever I can. I have seen a shift away from the two large scale injustices at opposite ends of the spectrum (although it still happens): extreme long-term detention and the unseemly haste of the DFT. The ongoing injustice of detention remains, and yet that injustice now feels splintered into a myriad disparate experiences and often increasingly complicated cases. At the most recent workshop, we met 25 people in very different situations.

Our work, as ever, has changed accordingly. We reach out proactively to the most hard to reach people in detention, often with the most complex cases, and we have developed our expertise to understand their situation and to support their release. On that day, for example, I sat down with a Vietnamese man who had been trafficked to work in a cannabis farm. We’d met him before, when he’d shown us the injuries inflicted by his traffickers, not understanding why he was in detention despite the Home Office recognising he was a torture survivor. Communicating with him through our new volunteer interpreting project, we had referred him to a solicitor to challenge his conviction for cannabis cultivation and to enable him to be identified and protected as a victim of trafficking in line with government policy. He was recently released after several months in detention.

So much has changed in the last ten years. The one constant is the devastating human impact that immigration detention has on people who are held indefinitely. And throughout those ten years, with the changing issues and new challenges and opportunities, it is the human contact between our staff and volunteers and the people we are supporting that remains at the heart of what we do. And, fundamentally, it is people, those in detention and those who’ve been released, and all of us who know and care about this everyday atrocity in the UK who can and will make it change.

 

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