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Unlocking Detention: a week at Harmondsworth

This week, Unlocking Detention visited Harmondsworth detention centre near Heathrow airport.  Harmondsworth is not only the biggest detention centre (immigration removal centre) in the UK, but also in Europe.  Catch with all our tweets – including our twice daily ‘tours’ – on Twitter with the hashtag #Unlocked15.  You can also scroll through the tweets from the Detention Forum, and our retweets, on this blog (see right-hand side!).

We heard from a Music in Detention volunteer, about her experience of making music with men detained in Harmondsworth.  We were also reminded about this ‘letter to Harmondsworth‘, written for last year’s tour.

The detained-fast track system for processing asylum applications was suspended in July.  Read about Detention Action’s amazing legal battle here.    Detention Action made this audio piece back in July about the changes they started to see at Harmondsworth as a result of the suspension of the fast-track.   When Yaw, who is currently detained in Harmondsworth, was asked about the suspension in our live Q and A with him today, he said:

It was really inspiring to hear from Yaw, who is in detention right now.  We really appreciate him taking part in the Q and A, and providing such powerful responses to the questions.  Thanks to Detention Action for doing such a brilliant job on the interview!

When Yaw was asked if people in detention are aware of political developments going on outside, such as the Immigration Bill, he said:

You can see all the questions Yaw was asked, and his responses, here.

Visiting a detention centre – even virtually – always involves visiting or revisiting misery.  This week, as Unlocking Detention ‘visited’ Harmondsworth, an inquest heard how 84-year-old Alois Dvorzac who suffered from heart disease and dementia, was detained in Harmondsworth for two weeks prior to his death.  A report by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman into the incident stated:

“It is a tragic indictment of the system that such a frail and vulnerable man should have spent his final days in prison-like conditions of an immigration removal centre”

This week we also published a piece featuring the voices of visitors to the Verne detention centre, who explained why they started visited, what they had learned, what they found most difficult, and talked about their experiences.  It’s a really absorbing read, and we highly recommend it.  Read it on our blog here.

This week’s article hosted by Justice Gap was by Maddy Crowther of Waging Peace, an active member of the Detention Forum.  Maddy’s article clearly showed how detention affects communities at large, in this case, the Sudanese community.

Each time someone is detained or re-detained, those with a similar legal status also lose trust in the system. Panic sets in and false and unhelpful rumours, for instance about the ‘correct’ arguments to use to secure the right to remain, or about lawyers who can get you released for an upfront cost, spread quickly. The arbitrariness of decisions to detain can even force people to give up on the process entirely: they may fail to report the next time they’re asked to, or even live off the grid entirely. In true Kafkaesque style, the Home Office then uses this as proof of their non-compliance and lack of credibility and so as reasons to refuse grants of asylum or humanitarian protection.

Detention also affects wider communities, even those persons with right to remain in the UK. For instance, in the immediate aftermath a good friend might be entrusted to go gather the person’s belongings from his or her home. Family will rally around and protest the detention to the detainee’s lawyer if they have one, or try to find representation if they don’t. Organisations like our own are contacted to try and see what can be done, and to find out whether a visit can be arranged.

Once someone is released, it requires a massive collective effort to rehabilitate them; from organisations that provide mental health support and mentoring schemes, therapeutic programmes that use tools such as gardening and arts, down to individuals like you and me who can offer compassion and understanding.

Not all ex-detainees react in the same way: some retreat inwards and cut off contact with the outside world, whereas others are furious at the system which locked them up, and may even end up externalising this onto the organisations like our own, that have worked hard to get them released.

In every case though, the person who emerges from detention is not quite the same as the person who went in. It takes a lot of work to bring someone back to themselves.

At the close of the week, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published its report ‘Is Britain Fairer?’, the most comprehensive review ever carried out on progress towards greater equality and human rights protection in Britain.  Read what Detention Forum members Rene Cassin made of it here.

The report stated that ‘the lack of an immigration detention time limit in the UK, in contrast to other European Union countries’ is amongst a number of ‘serious challenges’ to the UK’s human rights record.

Another weighty voice saying, it’s #Time4aTimeLimit

 

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