To mark the end of this year’s Unlocking Detention tour, we asked a selection of activists, legal commentators, politicians, journalists and experts-by-experience – all engaged in the fight against detention in the UK and across Europe – their answers to the following question:
What gave you hope in the fight against detention in 2016, and how will you use that hope in 2017?
We’ll be publishing a few of these answers each of the next four days of the final week of #Unlocked16. In case you missed them, these were Monday’s offerings, courtesy of Caroline Lucas of the Green Party, Luke de Noronha, Alessandra Capodanno of Migreurop, and Faith of WAST and #TheseWallsMustFall.
Today, we’ve got four more…
Colin Yeo – Editor of Free Movement immigration and asylum law blog
It has been a very mixed year for those interested in immigration detention. On the one hand we have seen closures announced for two detention centres and a cancelled expansion for another. The Shaw Review into the welfare of those subjected to immigration detention was very positive and Government at least made noises about detaining less people and treating those detained better. New, largely improved policies have been introduced and the bare statistics on those subjected to immigration detention have also gone down by 9%, to 29,762 in the year ended June 2016.
There was also some very positive news from the courts. The Detained Fast Track which has caused so much injustice has not been replaced and the unlawful imposition of curfews by the Home Office was exposed. It felt as if the “detention first” instincts of Home Office bureaucrats were perhaps being tempered by considerations of humanity and sheer cost.
On the other hand, there were 96 children detained over the same period, those who are subjected to immigration detention seem to be detained for ever longer periods (with 240 detained for over 12 months), a huge 46% of those detained were released into the community (suggesting the wrong people are being detained, given that immigration detention is supposed to be for the purpose of removal) and we saw the passage of the Immigration Act 2016. This legislation includes powers which dramatically increase the potential for immigration detention, although the powers have not yet been brought into full effect.
There remains a huge amount of work to be done but 2016 has been encouraging; victories have been won, there has been little in the way of backsliding and we can and will do more.
Gemma Lousley – Policy & Research Co-ordinator at Women for Refugee Women
Earlier this year, during the late stages of the Immigration Bill, the House of Lords voted resoundingly in favour of a ban on the detention of pregnant women. Women for Refugee Woman had been pressing for this reform since the start of our campaign against the detention of women who seek asylum in January 2014. The detention of pregnant women is a particularly egregious abuse of women’s rights; most pregnant women who are detained are not removed from the UK, and the stress of detention and poor healthcare pose real threats to their health and wellbeing.
Although later overturned in the Commons, the vote forced the government to propose stronger safeguards in this area, and in early July a 72-hour time limit on the detention of pregnant women was introduced.
This new policy is a good step forward. But it also flags up how much still needs to be done. When the government announced their intention to ‘end the routine detention of pregnant women’, we and others pressed them to implement something similar to the Family Returns Process (FRP), which has dramatically reduced the number of children detained every year. The government, however, refused to introduce key elements of the FRP – engagement in the community to resolve the case, and the oversight of an independent panel – alongside the time limit.
It has also been difficult to find out how the new policy is operating in practice. The Home Office has refused to publish statistics on the detention of pregnant women, even though it is collecting them. It has also made accessing these figures through Freedom of Information requests far from straightforward, to say the least. In response to our latest request, for instance, the Home Office has said it needs more time, because releasing the information we have asked for may be counter to the ‘maintenance of security and good order in prisons and other detention facilities’.
But the time limit should still give us hope. It means that it is no longer possible to lock up women who are pregnant for weeks or months at a time, as was happening previously. And, while it affects a small proportion of those detained every year, it points to something bigger, too: it shows that – even given the growing hostility to migration in the UK – change is possible.
The introduction of the time limit also demonstrates the power of working collectively. Women for Refugee Women, Medical Justice, the Royal College of Midwives, Bhatt Murphy solicitors, ILPA and others all worked on this issue, building momentum in different ways and eventually forcing change.
Most importantly, it shows that those who have been detained must be at the forefront of the movement for reform. During a parliamentary meeting just before the House of Lords vote, three women who had been held in Yarl’s Wood while pregnant spoke to a packed room, including many MPs and peers, about their experiences. Their stories dismantled the government’s justifications for their detention, and exposed instead the harm and futility of locking them up. By speaking out they got people to think differently, and effected change.
In 2017, we will be pushing the government to build on reforms such as the time limit and the Family Returns Process and work towards a bigger, more ambitious vision. It is time to move away from the use of detention altogether, and towards a system in which people are supported to resolve their cases while living in the community.
Yiannis Baboulias – Journalist, based in Athens.
My reporting has taken me to many of the camps around Greece these past couple of years. It has not been a pleasant experience. While there have been piecemeal efforts to improve the lives of migrants detained in the country, overall the image is bleak. Threats against them are multiplying, with even vulnerable groups like unaccompanied minors under threat of deportation. But what I have found to be bright spots in the darkness are the number of self-organised initiatives across the country, like the City Plaza Hotel in Athens, that give power back to those who have lost it. It’s through such self-organised structures that we can perhaps help rebuild these peoples lives.
They don’t always work, they are often far from perfect, but from what I’ve seen, in comparison to the official sector just implementing, if we don’t seek to empower migrants and work alongside them, we are just providing temporary relief at best. Frustration grows daily, and conditions are getting worse in many cases. If anger spills over, it’s very easy for detention to become the de facto way of ‘containing’ the migrant crisis. We must stop that, especially since the alternatives are there, and because they can be beautiful.
Anna Pichi – Movement for Justice By Any Means Necessary
We were 2000 people on the 3rd of December shaking the walls of Yarl’s Wood detention centre and shouting “Detention centres, Shut them down”. The demonstration was a huge success that saw women detained inside joining with former detainees, asylum seekers, immigrants and students outside in a joint cry for freedom. The Surround Yarl’s Wood demonstrations make it clear that our communities are prepared to take a side against the racist scapegoating of immigrants, reject the divisions and the hostile environment created by government policies, and join the movement to shut down the detention system once and for all.
For us, this has been a tremendous year in terms of what we have achieved through relentless organising in communities nationwide, at reporting centres, outside embassies, on campuses, on marches, as well as intervening in debates. We are energised by the prospect of how much more we can win. Most of the victories have already been noted elsewhere in Unlocked16; the closing of Haslar, Dover and Dungavel, the ending of Fast Track, numbers in detention falling, expansion of Campsfield stopped, the findings of the Parliamentary Inquiry and Shaw Report. For MFJ, we know the victories will keep coming as long as we continue with the most important task of all; building a mass, integrated, militant, anti racist and immigrant rights movement, unafraid to speak the plain truth about racism and led by migrants and all those who live under the shadow of the racist immigration system.
Our movement has exposed the racist system of immigration and the way it is used by the rich and powerful to divide us so they can still push through austerity measures that hit the majority of us. We have brought the successes of collective organising inside detention centre, the fight to stop deportations, to stand up to guards against racist and sexist abuses, and the victory of many being released and cases won.
Going into 2017, MFJ has succeeded in one of our key goals this year – expanding our movement into the colleges and universities, mobilising younger activists ready for the fight ahead of us. With Brexit, Trump’s election and the growing fascist and far-right movement in Europe we are at a historic turning point and we must respond accordingly. It is our responsibility to build an independent, integrated mass movement of and led by black, Asian, Latin American, immigrant and anti-racist white youth who understand that the fight against racism is central to our future, and who will fight by any means necessary to win. In a time when anti immigrant sentiment and racism is on the rise we cannot have business as usual, our movement must be bolder and more ambitious for what we want our society to be.
Our challenge for the New Year is to shut down the racist and fascist Brexit movement and reverse the tide of anti immigrant attacks. We began that process by picketing the Supreme Court for 4 days, standing up for immigrant rights and against the racism of Brexit. In January, we will be doing two weeks of action against the mass deportation charter flights that see so many in our communities kidnapped and brutally deported like cattle. MFJ is growing, our movement is growing and we will continue to fight to win!