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 are you planning to use that hope in 2017?
And today we’ve got three more…
Eleanor Penny – Editor at Novara Media – @eleanorkpenny
Our voices were already hoarse from whooping, screaming – our legs already sore from kicking at the high metal gates that surround Yarl’s Wood detention centre. But for a while, we had no need of them. The drumming and the whooping fell silent as the PA system carried the voices of incarcerated women out beyond the walls. From the higher ground, you could see over the gates to where the women were waving pieces of clothing – pink, white – at the assembled crowd. They told their stories: Mabel – a key organiser inside – had been there for two years, isolated from her seven-year-old child. They talked about the conditions; that they were paid £1/hour to clean their own cells, that they are not allowed even the small amount of freedom that regular prisoners get; that tuberculosis is spreading through the centre; that the guards had tried to prevent women reaching the third-floor windows from where they could hear the demonstrators. The scratchy sound system, trundled across four muddy fields, struggled to catch all of their words. But many were shouting so loudly, and the gathered crowd had fallen so silent, that we could hear them anyway.
This was the tenth ‘Shut Down Yarl’s Wood’ demonstration, organised by activist organisation ‘Movement for Justice By Any Means Necessary’. It started a year ago with thirty people; a motley crew of London-based activists piled onto a bus. On this cold snap Saturday, around two thousand people turned up – from as far afield as Sheffield and Liverpool. That fact alone is a tonic to pretty painful year. When the right wing is in the ascendancy, it’s truly heartening to see first hand that thousands of people will – literally – start prying open the security gates and kicking down the doors of racist border policing. But the most powerful moment was not when we were exorcising our rage at a year that left us all a little poorer and more terrified. It was when we stood silent, and heard the women themselves testify to their experiences. Not when we were charging around the grounds chanting – but when we shared the chant with the inmates; we shouted ‘Yarl’s Wood’, and they responded with ‘shut it down, shut it down!’. These women are so easily and so frequently talked about; the fodder of tragedy, something to shake your head at sadly as you go about your life of relative liberty. But when allowed to speak, when listened to – these voices defy a bien-pedant liberal impulse to categorise them as charity cases. They display all the fury, determination and careful organising it will take to bring down Yarl’s Wood. They know better than anyone what it might take to dismantle a violent, racist system of incarceration. And we would be beyond foolish not to listen. People in the media – myself included – have the unique opportunity to make that happen. To raise up those voices. Not to talk so much – but to witness. To know when to be silent. To find higher ground.
Daniel Trilling – Writer on migration and Editor of the The New Humanist – @trillingual
I’ve spent much of the last few years reporting on conditions for asylum seekers in different parts of Europe. And while there isn’t much cause for optimism at the moment – the EU seems determined to restore the restrictive and violent border policies that broke down during the refugee crisis of 2015 – one thing it’s taught me is how much of a difference alternatives to detention can make. For example compare Greece and Italy, two countries that have been at the forefront of the recent crisis. In the former, mass immigration detention has been used for a number of years: the current governing party, Syriza, had pledged to abolish it, but has ended up running closed camps that are detention in all but name. I know from my own visits to detention facilities and interviews with people who’ve been through them that migrants are not only prone to mistreatment and abuse of process, but that they feel they’ve been made invisible. That’s the way detention is supposed to work: hiding migrants, and their treatment, from public view.
In Italy, although detention facilities and closed camps exist, the norm is to accommodate new arrivals and asylum seekers in open centres. Most of these are far from ideal: they’re often far from city centres, which is another form of segregation, many are poorly maintained and do not offer full access to basic needs like healthcare or legal advice; but they at least allow people some freedom to move about – and, if they want to risk it, to leave and travel elsewhere in Europe.
When a centre is run well, such as one I’ve visited in Scicli, a town in south-western Sicily, the hosts provide rehabilitation for people who’ve suffered trauma on their journeys to Europe and run programmes that encourage migrants and locals to socialise together. It’s very much a hopeful example of what can be achieved, rather than a description of the situation as it currently exists, but the more that detention is pushed back, the more it becomes possible. Greater autonomy gives migrants more opportunity to organise politically and assert their rights, which I think is the best hope of changing the system – and exactly why states are often keen to avoid it.
Pat Pinkowska – Volunteer at the Verne Visitors Group – @PEPinkowska
2016 was a difficult year for migrants and for all of us who care about people on the move. Watching tragedies on the Mediterranean Sea and the moments of happiness of those who made it to the safety of European shores, I couldn’t stop thinking about the lives of many migrants who, after similarly onerous journeys, finally made it to the UK only to end up locked up for weeks, months or years in the immigration detention.
Safety, respect and justice are what people traveling to the UK are hoping to find, yet are often denied upon arrival, simply because they are seen as the Other. What is striking when visiting and listening to people in detention is how far and wide this Othering is being actively pushed. People who live among us, study with us, work with us, our friends and neighbors, people who have raised their families here – all can suddenly be reduced to the category of ‘detainee’, affixed a number, and locked up indefinitely.
The feeling of despair comes with the fear that the majority of population just accepts the status quo and the rhetoric that relentlessly tries to persuade that being tough on migration is a solution to Britain social problems and that detention is a necessary part of this.
We know this to be untrue and yet, conversely, what gives me hope is that many people still don’t know what detention really is. Undoubtedly, information is available for those who are willing to look for it, and projects like Unlocking Detention have gone a long way to educate people about the detention estate. But not everyone is looking and sometimes a particular story needs to find its way to a particular person in order to make a difference, to spur action. At the Verne Visitors Group, it has been notable how this story by Giles Fraser affected so many local residents. People contacted the group to get involved, to help, but also to understand. Many, upon realizing that the practice of detaining migrants is widespread if hidden and is happening on their doorsteps, are not only outraged but are willing to put their energy into talking about it to their friends and families, community or church groups, to their MPs. They continue to be my source of hope.
It is those who don’t see the Other but another human being in need of support and companionship, that break the neatly formed dividing categories across which we are being told no solidarities should form. And yet they continuously do.
Detaining people without judicial oversight and without time limit is a practice that goes against all that we value and cherish and it should stop. Going into 2017, we need to continue conversations with friends, neighbors and strangers as individuals and as part of a wider movement. We need to share stories that may provide this necessary spark for someone else to get involved, who then will be willing to pass it on, to act, to vote…to bring about change.