#Unlocked17 Parliamentary Meeting on Immigration Detention

On the morning of Thursday 16th November, MPs and peers, experts-by-experience and others campaigning for detention reform gathered in parliament for a meeting on immigration detention. The meeting comes after several months in which immigration detention has been regularly in the media spotlight, for tragic and disturbing reasons.

The purpose of the meeting was to provide space for MPs and peers to discuss what further steps could be taken to make progress towards fundamental detention reform. Speakers included Women for Refugee Women, Freed Voices, Detention Action and Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group.

Despite a very short notice, it was a full house, with some people standing at the back. Parliamentarians attending included Paul Blomfield, MP for Sheffield Central (who also chaired the meeting), Stuart McDonald, MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, Kate Green, MP for Stretford & Urmston, Thangam Debbonaire, MP for Bristol West, Afzal Khan, MP for Manchester Gorton and Shadow Immigration Minister, and Mohammad Yasin, MP for Bedford and Kempston, as well as a number of peers. If your MP was there, you could write or tweet them to say thanks (if they weren’t there, you could still get in touch)!

Paul Blomfield MP opened the meeting:

The first speaker was Gemma from Women for Refugee Women, one of the authors of their new report, We are Still Here: The continued detention of women seeking asylum in Yarl’s Wood“. 

We then heard from Vivian, who was detained for six months. She told us that the Home Office’s Adults at Risk policy was not working; that, in detention, “Everything I had suffered back home was opened”. She also reflected on those she was detained with, telling the room: “It is not only about me – my roommates at the time, were suffering those problems with me.”

Gemma then explained that, “there are immediate changes that the Home Office needs to make to the adults at risk policy and its implementation. But for reform we really need a different type of system altogether. We need a system that recognises that people’s cases can be solved in the community“.

Next, Susannah Wilcox discussed new research by Detention Action, examining how and why the Government’s system for protecting victims of trafficking fails people in detention. She argued both that “Detention reform is still urgently needed across the board, and more needs to be done to identify and protect victims of trafficking in detention”. 

Dan Godshaw then highlighted findings from a new report produced by Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group: Don’t dump me in a foreign land:  Immigration detention and young arrivers“. 

The final speaker was the brilliant Kasonga, of Freed Voices. Kasonga was detained for two years (and Freed Voices, collectively, have lost 20 years of their lives to detention). He told the room that “Detention reform cannot wait. It has become an emergency situation.”

As he finished his speech, Kasonga asked three questions of the assembled parliamentarians:

  1. “There is a clear need for MPs across parties to come together on this issue. How can we do this?
  2. Besides MPs and peers, is there anyone missing? Is there anyone else we need on board?
  3. What is our long term plan behind the release of the second Shaw report? And what commitment can we do here and now?”

Comments from the audience

The meeting was then opened up to the room, with lots of hands raised and more people wanting to comment than there was time available.

First, we heard from a woman in the audience: she was a victim of trafficking, and had been detained for five weeks in 2015. She said she had read Women for Refugee Women’s new report (“We are Still Here”) back to back: “It is shocking to find out that two years later, reading this, it has got worse”. 

She asked MPs, “How would you react if you were on the other side, like someone like me?” 

Veronica, another member of Women for Refugee Women, said “A detention centre is like a filing cabinet for human beings … they don’t care what happens, these are people, their lives are at risk …”.

Thangam Debbonaire, MP for Bristol West told us she had spoken to Brandon Lewis, the Minister for Immigration. She thinks we should push to get amendments into the upcoming Immigration Bill. She also said, “on behalf of parliament and parliamentarians, I feel the need to apologise that this is still not changing.”

Next, another powerful testimony from a woman in the audience, who was detained for eight months. She said, “When you are in detention for very, very long, you become sick, they still keep you there. I was in detention for 8 months. And when they release you they just throw you out without any care, no-one cares, they just release you.”

Kate Green MP said that we have legislation already that is not being followed, and that for MPs to take this up repeatedly in parliament, reports such as the one by Women for Refugee Women are extremely helpful.

Baroness Sally Hamwee, from the House of Lords, said they would keep asking questions, because it does “at least force ministers who are responding to have some sort of look at what we are asking about.” She said, “Amongst ministers – there has to be some sort of sense of denial because I don’t know how they could cope with their jobs.”

Mohammed Yasin MP said, to applause: “We are not in a position to change things because the Government is not listening. I think it is criminal. … We need amendments to the Immigration Bill… We need to get rid of detention centres because these people deserve to be in society, not locked up.”

Afzal Khan MP then said the Labour Party was committed to detention reform, and that, “Detention doesn’t add up, whichever way you want to look at it… Everything points to this idea that it actually doesn’t work, it is just not right. We need to keep piling the pressure on the Tory government.”

Stuart McDonald MP left us with a positive message, arguing that there was potential for change: “We are essentially talking about large scale privatised prisons, out of sight, out of mind. If it wasn’t for you guys and what you do – without things like this, like BBC Panorama, a lot of us politicians wouldn’t even have a clue what is going on. I do think there is chance we can see change.”

Baroness Barbara Janke, who is new to the APPG on refugees, said “We’ve all been very moved by the experiences we’ve heard”, and that they are “very motivated to do what we can do to get this changed.” 

Paul Blomfield MP wrapped up the meeting. Thanking all those who spoke, he said that Veronica’s statement, that “the way the Home Office treats immigration detention as a filing cabinet – sums up experience many of us as parliamentarians have had in taking up cases.” 

What next?

A huge thanks to everyone who wrote to their MPs, or attended the meeting. As MPs highlighted, there are potential openings coming up to push for detention reform, including the forthcoming Immigration Bill and the second Shaw Review. In the meantime:

  • Keep following, sharing and engaging with #Unlocked17
  • Write to your MP – to thank them for attending, or to tell them about the need for detention reform. There’s more info about why you should contact your MP, and what to say, here.

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