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Week 5: #Unlocked16 visits Harmondsworth

There’s been lots of engagement with #Unlocked16 this week, as we visited the UK’s largest detention centre.  Harmondsworth can hold up to 676 people, all men.  Opened as a purpose-built detention centre in 2000, Harmondsworth is situated right by Heathrow airport.

One of the most popular aspects of Unlocking Detention, and one of the most illuminating, is the live Q and As we do each week with a person in detention.  These wouldn’t be possible without the help of visitor groups, everyone who sends in questions to be asked, the incredible strength and courage of the person who agrees to be interviewed each week … and the unflagging brilliance of Ben from Detention Action who conducts the interviews and makes what is actually a fraught, complex and emotional process seem very simple.

This week, Ben was hoping to speak Mark, who is currently detained in Harmondsworth.  At the last minute, this wasn’t possible but amazingly, Justice who is also detained in Harmondsworth, stepped in.

Read the full Q and A with Justice here


Maybe it’s because we’re now halfway through (!!) Unlocking Detention, but we’re feeling in reflective mode and grateful for the stream (torrent?) of amazing blog posts and articles we’ve had every single week. Thank you so much to the contributors, and to everyone who has read them and shared them far and wide. Through this reading and sharing, we’re making human connections between the public, those detained, those who are still living with the psychological scars of detention, and all those individuals and groups who are standing together to end the outrage of immigration detention.

Our first piece this week was “A Footnote on Harmondsworth” by K, who is on his second spell in Harmondsworth:

“Before I was detained I was living in Liverpool. I lived there for 7 years. I feel like I grew up there, you know, my family’s there. I been to other cities like Birmingham, London and Manchester but Liverpool feels like home. The best things about Liverpool are its history and football. In Liverpool the only racism I seen was about which team you support – Liverpool or Everton. When I first came I wasn’t understanding football at all– cricket was my sport. Those days I was working in a take-away and when the supporters came in they explained it to me. Then I started watching highlights and now I’m a full Liverpool supporter. Even though my Mrs supports Everton!

These days my wife is my only visitor. It’s a long old journey from Liverpool but she comes down every week.”

Next up was Silvia, advocacy coordinator at Detention Action, who painted a vivid portrait of four of the individuals she’d met last time she visited Harmondsworth:

A young man shows us his birth certificate from a London hospital. He tells us of his shock when, at the completion of his criminal sentence, he first learnt that his case would be dealt with by the foreign-national ex-offenders team. He had never left the country in his entire life, how could he possibly be a foreigner? The Home Office is trying to deport him to Nigeria, where his mother is from. Since his mother didn’t have status when he was born he is not eligible for British citizenship, despite having been raised in this country. Astonishment made way for anger and despair when he realised that, however incredible this might seem, he is trapped in what appears to be an irreversible bureaucratic nightmare.

The next person who sits with us has only one request – he asks us to call and reassure his pregnant wife. Since he has been detained she had a nerve problem which is affecting her pregnancy. Years together in a partnership, followed by a religious marriage, and now a child on the way, and their family life has been deemed a sham by the Home Office. He might be issued removal directions at any moment. He shows us pictures of his wife, emails, private texts, intimate details of their love story that they have been urged to collect to document even their most private memories.

Another young father approaches us, he is livid and visibly impatient, he doesn’t want to sit down. His first baby was born a few days ago back home in Albania and he can’t wait to see him, but he is stuck in detention. His wife has bought him not one, but three tickets to come back but because of bureaucratic delays he has been unable to leave. Although most of the people we meet would never voluntarily leave the country he is not the only one who is paradoxically refrained from leaving by the same bureaucratic machinery which is supposed to facilitate his removal. A young man in his early twenties explains that he urgently needs to go back to his home town as his brother has just been killed by the Taliban. He knows it will be dangerous for him to return but needs to be there for the funeral and to support what’s left of his family. He would like to expedite the documentation process and withdraw his asylum claim, but communicating with his Home Office case-owner, the person responsible for his immigration case, has proved impossible so far.

The last person we meet in Harmondsworth is quietly sitting on a couch. He smiles politely at us. He has only a few teeth in his mouth and shows signs of mental health issues. He doesn’t speak a word of English but another individual we support offers his help to translate. The little information I manage to gather is shocking. After being trafficked into the UK this man has been detained for almost one year. After a few months in Harmondsworth, he was offered accommodation for his temporary release but he refused to leave the centre. I don’t understand – I ask why didn’t he leave detention when he was given the option? Because he was scared, my improvised interpreter explains. Because nobody told him why he was detained in the first place and what would happen next. Because after 5 months in detention without any form of psychological support and guidance facing the world out there seemed just too much. The man’s gaze is still lost in space as we are called to leave the room.

This week also saw the publication of the European Network on Statelessness’ report on the detention of stateless people in the UK. Jan Brulc, head of Communications for ENS wrote as part of Unlocking Detention for the Justice Gap online magazine, whose support of Unlocking Detention is invaluable.


As people recovered from the news of the election of Donald Trump as the next president of the USA, migrants, campaigners and allies rallied themselves for the tough fights ahead.  Connections and conversations are going to be needed more than ever, and this makes us even more proud of being part of Unlocking Detention.

It’s been great to hear so much positive feedback about the project this week, as there is a behind-the-scenes team of volunteers working so hard on this, a few frazzled staff, and the irreplaceable experts-by-experience who give their time, stories and bravery to make this project such a success.

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