By James Wilson, director of Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group.
Imagine being in prison but not held for a crime, counting up the days since you were detained but never able to count down to release, probably entitled only to 30 minutes of free legal advice which will conclude with the solicitor telling you that there is nothing they can do. In the UK. In 2016.
I started work at Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG) four months ago and in some ways it felt like coming home. I’d worked in London for the past ten years – and still live there – but I grew up in a village in the lush Mid Sussex countryside about eight miles from Gatwick. Many of my and my wife’s families live across Sussex. I’ve worked with refugees and asylum seekers throughout my career, but working in Crawley has opened up conversations about my work with extended family and friends locally. They may not have been necessarily greatly sympathetic to detainees, but more commonly still haven’t known the detention centres at Gatwick were even there – why would you? My dad retired after 40 years running his own freight business at Gatwick at the same time I was starting work across town; he knows the airport like the back of his hand but didn’t know about the centres.
There’s nothing I’d rather be doing than this, but I’d much prefer that we didn’t have to do it at all.
Incongruously, a few days before I was interviewed by GDWG, I went on an escape-from-a-locked-room experience organised for my brother’s birthday. For those who have not heard of these yet, stay tuned…I believe they are proliferating around the UK at a rate of knots; any premises not already a branch of a coffee chain will be considered for a locked room experience. The basic idea is straightforward: you and your group are trapped in a room and have to work together to escape from it. Each room comes with its own scenario (a scientist has been kidnapped, a treasure map has been hidden) and a series of clues leads round the room until you eventually uncover some keys or another means of escape. Reassuringly there is always access to escape if you wish and a clock counting down until the time of eventual release if your ingenuity and team work has failed you.
Not all locked rooms have these soothing features.
A hidden reality
The UK is the only country in Europe that detains people indefinitely for immigration purposes. The detention centres are called ‘immigration removal centres (IRCs)’ but only 50% of those detained leave the UK on eventual ‘release’; the other half are released back to the UK, surely raising questions about the purpose of the IRCs regardless of one’s politics. While the average stay in IRCs may be relatively short, detainees being held for months is common, and being held for years not rare enough. I have met someone held for over five years; the team at GDWG once met a detainee who had been held for nine years.
It seems unlikely that we as a country would tolerate the indefinite detention of any other group of people. Yet the human reality of indefinite detention seems to be hidden. As it isn’t a new development it doesn’t automatically announce itself as newsworthy. Detention is little-known about and even less understood amongst the public, and anyone trying to publicise the issue faces well-known challenges in terms of perceived public views of asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants.
On the doorstep of the airport
Two of the UK’s current nine IRCs are at Gatwick Airport, and Brook House and Tinsley House are ‘at the airport’ in a very literal way. I had visited other detention centres before, but the first thing that struck me about Brook and Tinsley was their sheer proximity to the runway. Detainees calling our office for assistance sometimes can’t hear us because of the noise of a plane taking off.
At a deeper level the near-constant sound of aircraft must be a reminder of the looming threat of removal to a country where the detainee may face torture, persecution, poverty, and/or alienation. From another perspective, Gatwick handled over 40 million passengers in 2015, which means an average of over 100,000 people sweep a few hundred yards past the centres every day, the vast majority unaware of the IRCs’ existence.
Tinsley House opened in 1996 as the first purpose-built IRC; Brook House, built to category B prison specifications, opened in 2009. 100 additional beds are currently being added to Tinsley and Brook, meaning the detainee population across the two centres will likely be approaching 700 by the start of 2017. With the imminent closure of the Cedars pre-departure removal centre, Tinsley House will soon also see families sometimes detained there in the days before their removal from the UK.
Indefinite detention challenges us to decide what actions to take.
At GDWG we respond in several main ways. Firstly – the starting point and the heart of our work – we visit individual detainees. We aim to be able to offer a volunteer visitor to every Gatwick detainee who asks for one. The volunteer will visit the detainee once a week, offering a connection with the outside world, a listening ear, some practical support, and emotional support.
Secondly, we provide practical support – phone cards, second-hand clothing – and some casework, referring detainees on to solicitors and other agencies for specialist help where this is possible.
Thirdly, we stand (and walk) with detainees and try to make their voices heard. For the past two years, our Refugee Tales project has walked across Kent, Sussex and London for a week during the summer, inviting ex-detainees to join us and pairing people with first-hand experience of the asylum and detention systems with established writers so that untold stories can be told. Fourthly, we work through Detention Forum and with other organisations to campaign for a 28-day limit to immigration detention and for fewer people to be detained in the first place. This work includes recognising the need to make practical suggestions to the government on alternatives to detention, hence supporting Detention Action’s work around this. We also work to raise awareness of and challenge myths around detainees, refugees and asylum seekers, including running sessions in schools.
Cutting across all work on indefinite detention and the conditions within IRCs, I think, is the urgent need to re-humanize individuals who’ve had their individuality taken away, feeling lost and forgotten within our detention system. Detainees are not just numbers, or ‘migrants’, or ‘refugees and asylum seekers’.
The detainee about to be removed to the country he left as a child and that he cannot remember; the detainee who would die rather than return to the horrors of their country of origin; the detainee who can’t afford to call their family or is (as with somebody I spoke to the other day) too ashamed of their current situation to have UK-based family visit them in detention.
It can be too easy to be divided by politics and labels, but by befriending our detainees and telling their stories we can recognise, and hope to help others to recognise, our common humanity.