Too many laws, not enough justice – voice from Haslar

(We received this blog entry from Henry who is in Haslar Immigration Removal Centre.)
My name is Henry, aged 53, and though of Nigerian and Sierra Leonean mixed parentage, I have spent the last 31 years of my life in the United Kingdom. I have a British wife, and two sons who were born here. I was arrested and detained since the beginning of Feb 2014 despite not having defaulted on anything for four years. I am considered a ‘risk to society’ by the Home Office because of a non-violent crime I committed, and served prison time for, 17 years ago. I have been detained in Haslar Immigration Removal Centre since March and on Wednesday I am due to be deported to a country I have not visited for 31 years and in which I have no family or friends. The following blog is part of my submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry into the use of Immigration Detention in the UK.
I feel we shouldn’t kid ourselves with fancy words. Immigration Removal / Detention Centres are prisons to all intent and purpose. The regime is prison affiliated and trained. Due to my experience, IRC is something I wouldn’t wish even on my worst enemy. I submit that we shut these centres down with immediate effect. No amount of revamp, restructure, amendment or similar, could change the principle behind it. However, if the final decision is to keep them then I suggest that the Home Office must be in a position to act within a maximum TWO weeks from the detention of a detainee; either deport or release the illegal immigrant from detention.
You may not believe it but it is actually more preferable serving a custodial sentence in a maximum prison than to be detained in an IRC. In a prison environment, one is focused on the fact that he or she has been found guilty of a criminal act and given a determinate sentence. This is not so with a so-called IRC. A person is locked up in a prison environment for not committing a CRIMINAL offence; this individual, who has never been in prison all his life and has never committed a criminal act, is committed to prison. To make it worse, the period of committal is indeterminate; it could be just six months or as much as and in excess of three years as has been in some cases!
The most painful thing about my incarceration which will live in my memory forever is that I am detained at a centre which is NINE hours away from my wife and six year old son. I did try on numerous occasions to apply to be moved to a centre closer to my family (my wife cannot sit still for medical reasons on a moving transport for more than two hours). All my requests were declined by the local immigration office. The reason given was that they had a blanket ban on transfers. Yet, I have known of cases where they transferred individuals they felt were risk cases from Haslar to either Brook House or far Dover.
Though I speak to my wife and son more than TWENTY times a day (and I do get frequent free calling credit from Friends Without Borders charity) it is never the same as seeing them, hugging them, crying with them, make jokes with them and sharing simple basic bonding; therefore each night I cry myself to sleep and pray to a God who seem to have deserted me at the age of 53 and hope for a better tomorrow. My sad conclusion is that detention in itself is very damaging to families and families left behind are more victims than the detainee.
At Haslar IRC, medical welfare is rated very high and the medical staff and healthcare officials appear to be doing their utmost best, under stressful conditions, clearly hampered by the limit they are allowed to go. The nurses, healthcare manager and attending doctors strive to do their best to support detainees. However, medical care is seriously lacking in all aspects of health caring of mentally challenged detainees. There are absolutely NO facilities for vulnerable detainees who have physical and emotional problems apart from the various NGOs and Charities like Friends Without Borders and IMB who, from all feedback appear to be doing a tremendous job within their physical capabilities. This is a serious failing that could spell major disasters.
Dolphin Way College, based within Haslar is the best thing that has and could happen to any detainee. They are a far cry from what I witnessed from four other detention centres where I was sadly detained (Harmondsworth, Colnbrooke, Brook House and Morton Hall). The teachers are absolutely fantastic and the few courses they offer are unequalled. I know of various individuals from non-English speaking EU nations, Africa and Asia who, after a few weeks became proficient in spoken and written English, IT, Arts, Music, Drama and a few other courses.
In-house legal assistance for immigration matters is non-existent and should be addressed in the spirit of British fairness. There is a sizeable proportion of detainees who are considered to be ineligible for legal aid, usually because they had used up their given eligibility prior to being detained and though their circumstances have changed, they are still regarded are non-eligible. There is a third significant proportion of the IRC population who cannot speak English and from my personal experience, they are completely ignored and suffer in silence. As a dormitory representative, they tend to approach me all the time seeking assistance with basic matters like how to fill in a legal form, how to explain the often inaccurate immigration monthly report given to them every month by the Home Office local representatives (good practise in Haslar IRC) and a few other simple minor legal issues associated with their immigration matter. At Haslar IRC, during some of our weekly meetings with the management, Home Office representative and others, I tabled this matter many times. The feedback from the Home Office staff was clearly impenitent, unrepentant, somewhat disheartening and perhaps truthfully harsh. They made it clear that their duty was to ensure we were all deported; as simple as that.
I then discussed this issue with the management staff and Education Department, though it was clear that neither could assist. According to their employment and contract agreement (which I sourced and read) they were not allowed to assist “us” with immigration or legal issues neither could the Education Department assist as they do not have the prerequisite Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC) regulation. It was then suggested we approach the local CAB (Citizens Advisory Bureau) who clearly were neither trained on immigration advice nor are they specifically licensed or regulated to offer immigration advice by the OISC or the SRA (solicitors)! Moreover, one would have thought that the CAB was set up for the benefit of “citizens” as the name suggests and not for illegal aliens who may not have the same rights as the citizens. Catch 22, really! This is another aspect of IRCs I passionately consider to be unacceptable and heartless.
Again I submit that we shut these centres down with immediate effect. Although issues such as mental health care, legal representation and education are important and often problematic, nothing can truly improve the uncertainty and damage of detention for detainees and their families. However, if they are to kept then I suggest that the Home Office must limit detention to two weeks; then either deport or release the immigrant from detention. This is definitely better than locking up an innocent man or woman in a prison disguised with fancy words when he or she is not a criminal. This is better than denying someone his simple dignity and basic human rights of being with his family, all in the name of some biased, wicked, arrogant and uselessly faulty immigration rules and powers. This is what I call being British, being humane and being a leader in the fight against immigration offence. At the moment there are too many laws and not enough justice.

"As the weeks pass their demeanour changes…"

Refugee Action are members of the Detention Forum and used to provide advice about assisted return to people in detention, before the Home Office withdrew the contract.  These are some of the experiences of one of their caseworkers:

[At Dover IRC], we run an advice surgery at the removal centre. Today it’s grey, windy and drizzly, but on a clear day we can see France. At the centre, detainees of all nationalities approach us cautiously; some about returning, others just desperate to talk to someone new. Depression is common; I’ll sometimes meet someone perky, but as the weeks pass their demeanour changes. It’s sad. I try to build a good rapport with my clients; they tend to be lovely people considering all they’ve experienced.

[At Harmondsworth IRC] I complete AVR [assisted voluntary return] applications for asylum seekers and irregular migrants. I’m also approached by an Israeli conscientious objector, an extremely frustrated Nigerian client, and a client who believes he’s been unlawfully detained. I refer him to Bail for Immigration Detainees and plan to follow up the other cases later.

Detained at the UK border: mould, cat calls and barbed wire

Ali McGinley of AVID – a member of the Detention Forum – writes for the #Unlocked series in Open Democracy on detention in short-term holding facilities.

Key statutory instruments governing the use of detention do not apply to holding rooms at ports or short term holding facilities. Some 7,000 vulnerable individuals are held each year for up to 7 days in appalling conditions without proper regulation.

‘The customs officers left and I was then padded down and searched by the guard, and then escorted into what appeared to be a converted conference room in a deplorable state of decay. Inmates were milling around, occasionally yelling out at the guard who was positioned in the room, who was himself intently watching the tennis match on television, cheering appropriately when points were made. I was not permitted anything but the clothes on my back, no phone or camera, so no way to document the state of this unsanitary environment.’

Very few people are aware of the experiences of detainees held in what are known as ‘short term holding facilities’ (STHFs) in the UK. In discussion of detention issues, these shorter stay centres are often ignored, in more ways than one. After all, they are short stay centres in which detainees are held for a maximum of seven days.

In the context of the extreme lengths of detention we see in the bigger centres, it is perhaps no surprise that the experiences of those in STHFs are often subsumed by the tidal wave of injustices faced by those detained. Yet STHFs are amongst the worst accommodation in which migrants can be detained in the UK. They are cramped, stuffy, institutional spaces surrounded by barbed wire. Migrants are held there against their will as a result of their immigration status. They tell us they feel confused, angry and frightened.

As the Unlocking Detention series has documented, all of this could equally apply to any of the longer stay detention centres; the one key difference is that there exists a glaring protection gap between STHFs and say, Yarl’s Wood or Morton Hall. Because the STHFs are also ignored by the provisions of the 2001 Detention Centre Rules, the key statutory instrument governing the use of detention. These rules only apply to detention centres and not to holding rooms at ports or airports or to residential STHFs across the UK.

A separate set of Rules governing STHFs has been ‘in development’, according to the Home Office, since 2005. This leaves many very vulnerable individuals at risk in appalling conditions that fall short of those in other detention centres and even mainstream prisons.

Detention at the border

Most of the UK’s STHFs are holding rooms at ports or airports, where detainees are held for up to 24 hours. There are also five ‘residential’ STHFs where migrants can be held for up to seven days. This includes Cedars ‘pre-departure accommodation’ which holds families. The others are Pennine House, a facility in the back of Manchester Airport which holds up to 32 men and women; Larne House which is within a working police station in Northern Ireland and holds 19 men and women; an STHF within Colnbrook and a facility within Yarl’s Wood that detains men who are known as ‘lorry drop’ cases.

For many of the 7,000 people who pass through these residential STHFs every year it will be their first experience of detention. Others will have been refused entry or permission to stay in the UK and be in the last few days or hours before they board a flight. Either of these times – on your way in or out of the country – are extreme stress triggers, and the risk of anxiety, mental distress and self-harm is high.

People held in these places tell us they are often unsure of why they are being held. This isn’t helped by the paucity of information available or the conditions in which they are detained; something highlighted time and again in the reports of statutory monitoring bodies like Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP), Independent Monitoring Boards and NGOs.

For example Pennine House, in Manchester Airport, has no ventilation or natural light. It is a bleak facility within the complex of the airport, holding 32 detainees in 8 rooms, all along one long corridor. The ‘socialisation room’ at the end of this corridor consists of rows of plastic chairs, nailed to the floor and facing the TV screen. In order to chat, detainees must therefore stand if they want to face one another. There are two computers with internet access, but no exercise equipment or prayer room. Prayer mats are available and an airport chaplain visits; detainees can also request to use the prayer room in the airport.

There is a dining room of sorts, containing the large fridges which hold the many varieties of frozen ready meals that are served. Most of those held at Pennine House stand around in the corridor, waiting. They can request fresh air or a cigarette break, during which time they are escorted by a Tascor guard to a small ‘pen’ boxed off with steel caging, through which you can only see the sky. It is unsuitable for any form of exercise other than pacing. The facility was described by HMIP as ‘austere’ and unsuitable for stays of longer than a day, although many are held for up to a week.

Larne is similar to Pennine House, although its location inside a working police station makes visiting more difficult. Neither offer access to anything similar to the ‘Detention Duty Advice scheme’, the (albeit minimal) provision of legal aid funded advice which is available in the detention centres.

Those held in Colnbrook STHF fare slightly better. As a result of its location within a larger detention centre detainees do have, in theory, access to legal aid advice, a library, and a gym. That said, Colnbrook STHF was recently described by HMIP as ‘cramped, ventilation was poor, the environment dirty and the regime poor. Detainees were inappropriately locked in their rooms for most of their vulnerable first days in detention and prior to removal’. As a consequence of being held in their rooms for up to 20 hours a day, this access can be described as somewhat limited.

Protecting migrant women

Perhaps most concerning about STHF detention is that unlike most detention centres, unrelated men and women can be held together, which means that if you are a woman unlucky enough to be detained at Larne or Pennine House, or in a holding room, you will very likely be a minority of one or two women along with the majority of men. This is a traumatic experience for any woman, but particularly inappropriate given that a high number of migrant women arriving in the UK have suffered rape, attempted rape or other sexual violence either in their country of origin or during transit.

A woman held in an STHF told us ‘It was a horrible situation to live in a men’s detention centre for a week…there is no separate room for ladies to have their food…there were men everywhere if you stepped out from the ladies bedrooms’. Similarly, a man held in Heathrow holding room described to us his shock that women were also held in such an environment: ‘The whole experience felt like prison. I was a detained inmate with no rights. Some of the other inmates in the room (both men and women) were visibly distressed. One man was sexually harassing a woman, cat calling, grabbing and being generally unruly, and the guards did nothing to stop it. She went to another side of the room to avoid him’.

This absence of protection has been criticised by statutory monitoring bodies time and again who say that ‘little is done to meet the needs of women’. The organisation I work for, AVID, has lobbied on the position of women in STHFs for some years.  In 2010 we asked for Equality Impact assessments to be carried out on all residential STHFs that hold men and women. Despite a commitment by the Home Office to produce these, and a reiteration of that commitment in parliament in 2012 they remain unpublished and very little has changed. Women continue to say they feel vulnerable because they cannot lock their doors at night in STHF detention. How long is it going to take for their safety to be taken seriously?

24 hour holding rooms

In conditions described by the Independent Monitoring Board as ‘degrading’, the holding rooms at Heathrow are not residential. Holding rooms do not have sleeping accommodation; many have only wash basins rather than showers,  and while they can legally only hold someone there for a 24 hour period, the HMIP recently found someone in Stansted airport who had been held for 40 hours. Those detained in holding rooms will rarely make contact with visitors groups or external support organisations. However we know from statutory reports and some testimony that they are unpleasant places.  One man described to us his experience at the Heathrow holding rooms: ‘The ceilings were covered in mould, the walls torn up and covered in graffiti and random posters, and the floor was disgustingly dirty…The whole facility smelt like human waste. I was in a bit of disbelief at the state of this so-called detention facility as it resembled something out of a movie’.

Most concerning is the recent finding by the IMB at Heathrow that children ‘of all ages’ were being held in these facilities, sometimes over night with unrelated adults. This is despite the Government’s claim to have ended the detention of children in the UK. Other concerns raised include detainees being escorted through the airport in handcuffs in full view of the public, an absence of any IMB at some facilities, and detainees not being given the reasons for their detention in writing.

So where is the statutory guidance?

Despite ample evidence testifying to these deplorable conditions, the repeated calls from NGOs to publish statutory guidance applicable to these facilities remain unanswered. Short Term Holding Facility Rules were drafted and consulted upon in 2005 and 2009, yet never finalised. Most recently their absence was raised in Parliament by Lord Avebury during a debate on the Immigration Rules. A commitment was given by the Home Office that they would be published by this year’s parliamentary recess, but it is now September, and they remain elusive. The reluctance to publish the rules can no longer be excused as bureaucratic inertia: some nine years have passed.

The protections afforded detainees by the Detention Centre Rules may seem basic to those of us who work on detention on a daily basis, but they are vital, not least in setting the parameters within which detention can take place, but also in implementing certain human rights obligations. In refusing to publish the same standards for detainees subjected to shorter stays, the Home Office is putting detainees at risk.

Kuka on the Parliamentary Inquiry

This post was written by Ivo Kuka, who has experienced immigration detention.  His testimony was provided for Detention Action‘s forthcoming annual report.

In 2008, the Independent Asylum Commission did an assessment of the UK’s asylum system. They decided it was time for a ‘root and branch review’.

I arrived in the UK in 2012 and I was put on the Detained Fast Track after I claimed asylum. My time in at Harmondsworth detention centre was hell. It was mental torture. I suffered greatly. If the conditions I experienced were after four years of progress, then the situation back in 2008 must have been unimaginably bad. It is clear the ‘root and branch review’ stayed on paper. Its recommendations were ignored. And the people who would have been affected by those recommendations – people like me – were forgotten.

And that is why I have mixed feelings about the ongoing Parliamentary Inquiry on Detention.

In many ways, the Inquiry is a great step forward. It is different to other investigations because it looks at detention as a whole – not just children in detention, or the Detained Fast Track, or legal access. This is important because detention in the UK is an industry. Everything is connected. From bad decision making to poorly trained staff. From safeguards that don’t work to rubbish healthcare. From violent removals to greedy private investors. It is a spider-web. I hope this Inquiry can show how these are all linked together.

This Inquiry has also put people like me, with experiences of detention, at the centre. It is easy to make decisions that impact people you never have to see. Or whose stories you don’t have to hear. But it is much more difficult when you must look those people in the eye and listen to the way that detention ruined their lives. I was there at the first evidence session in Parliament in July. I could see how shaken the cross-party panel of Parliamentarians were listening to people tell their stories.

It was important for the MPs to listen but it was also important for us to speak out and not be silenced by the Home Office. For this Inquiry to be a success, it needs to involve the detainee and ex-detainee’s voice at every stage. We are experts-by-experience. They need to take on our testimonies but they also need to take on our recommendations.

What scares me is the thought that this will just be another report. Like the one in 2008. And all the Independent Monitoring Board reports. And all the reports from the Independent Chief Inspectors. And all the reports from charities and NGOs. I am worried it will also just stay on paper. I am worried there will be no action. Because the truth is that we already have lots of evidence to make an informed decision.

How many more deaths in detention before we realise we need a change? How many more mental breakdowns? How many more people on hunger-strike? How many more self-harmers? How many more cases of sexual harassment? How many families broken? How many more lives ruined?

I have a friend who gave evidence in the first oral session. He is a survivor of torture and was trafficked as a child. He has been diagnosed with PTSD and doctors have told the Home Office many times he should not be in detention. He has been locked away for over three years. On no charge.

I hope that for him, and others like him still in detention, this Inquiry will end up being more than just a nice read. I hope it will bring real change.

The art of listening?

By Eiri from the Detention Forum

Yesterday morning, I joined colleagues from Right to Remain, Detention Action and JRS UK who nervously gathered at the JRS UK’s headquarter in east London.  We had a reason to be nervous.

Last month, the Co-ordination Group of the Detention Forum produced guides for individuals and groups to encourage others to take part in the parliamentary detention inquiry.  Because the inquiry panel is keen to hear directly from people with experience of detention and because we knew how rare it is for these people to be given an opportunity to speak up for themselves, we hastily put together these guides on how to collect evidence from individuals.  Having suggested others what to do without trying it ourselves first felt rather irresponsible.  So we were going to figure out whether our guides actually work in practice.  We have already heard from groups who have used the guides and said they were helpful.  Now, were they just being polite or do they really work?

We were also joined by The Forum based in west London, some of whose users have experienced detention.  They are not a member of the Detention Forum, and this was particularly welcomed.  We don’t “own” detention issues – no one does.  So, from our point of view, the more groups and individuals raise their voice against detention, the better.

A total of six people with experience of detention attended the session.  We divided ourselves into two small groups, each supported by a facilitator and a scribe.  I was tasked to take photos and compose live tweets.

Before the session started, I got talking to A over coffee, who was in detention for years.  The first thing he asked me was if I knew what actually happened at Morton Hall over the weekend.  After hearing my summary of several media articles I read, he shook his head saying ‘Nothing changes.  Nothing changes.’  He then explained to me how he was in detention when someone sadly passed away.  I asked him how he found that out. ‘Everyone started banging the door like this.’  He gestured the banging motion with his fist.  ‘We knew straight away something terrible happened. It was crazy.’  He then told me about how the police in riot gear came and the frightening atmosphere that ensured.

B, at this point, joined in the conversation.  I know he has been slightly sceptical about the inquiry, and probably for a good reason.  Catching the end of A’s sentence, he said ‘We tell them what’s wrong and they do nothing.’  We discussed how so much evidence that shows harm of detention is already out there.  We talked about the need to make recommendations and be clear about what we want to see changed.

As the session started, the facilitator asked everyone to introduce themselves.  A was the first to go.  ‘My name is A.  I am an ex-detainee’.  This was already painful to hear, that A decided to define himself by his experience of detention.  Whenever possible, I personally refuse to use the words ‘detainees’ and ‘ex-detainees’ to describe people with experience of detention.  Why should they be defined by the forms and practices of domination meted out by the state?

But before I had time to regain composure, the next person, very hesitantly said in a small voice, ‘My name is C.  I am … also an ex-detainee’.  Asking people to share their personal experiences often raises ethical and moral issues.  I felt complicit in making C identify with something that she might not rather not think about if she had a choice.  I also wished that the parliamentary panel could hear that gap in C’s sentence and the way her voice diminished as she finished her sentence.

In the following two hours or so, I was busy tweeting in between fetching water for the participants and looking out for later comers.   I wished I was able to convey not just the words people used, but how they were said – 140 character-limit of tweets made it impossible to do other than just picking some phrases.  These words were not always angry.  They were more often than not dignified, even when people were sharing their inner most pains, stigma and shame.  It was clear that these people all in their own way resisted and ‘fought’ detention, the system which constantly tried to dehumanise them.  They refused to be degraded.  They did not make themselves into ‘heroes’ and ‘heroines’ when sharing these details: they plainly explained that it was just how they survived.

I was also struck by how respectful they were of each other, giving each other space to talk.  Unlike many meetings that I have attended in my life, no one talked over the others.  No one dominated the conversation.  There was no ‘competition’ to see who had the loudest voice.  They actually listened to each other.

After saying goodbyes, I sat down with my colleagues.  We were all completely drained after such intense hours.  It made me reflect on the constant demand we make on people with experience of detention to talk, in a bid to change people’s minds about immigration detention.  We were now in possession of their words.  And the responsibility to relay them to the outside world felt heavy.  I hope people actually listen to their words – because if you really listened to what they said, you would never be able to believe that status quo is an option.

New BID report on the hidden use of prisons for immigration detention

This week, Bail Immigration for Detainees (BID) published a new report ‘Denial of Justice: the hidden use of UK prisons for immigration detention‘.

As of the 31 December 2013, 2,796 people were held in immigration detention in immigration removal centres, in short-term holding facilities, and in pre-departure accommodation, but a further 1214 people were being held as immigration detainees in the prison estate.

Being detained and losing one’s liberty is bad enough when a person is held in an immigration removal centre, but immigration detention in a prison is unfair and unjust from the start.  Detainees held in the prison estate suffer from multiple, systemic, and compounding barriers to accessing justice, with an often devastating effect on their ability to progress their immigration case, seek independent scrutiny of their ongoing detention from the courts and tribunals, and seek release from detention, as well as on their physical and mental wellbeing.

This report lays out evidence for these practical barriers, which include but are not limited to:

  • no automatic access to on-site immigration legal advice like that provided for detainees in IRCs;
  • the existence of financial disincentives to legal aid providers who wish to work with detainees in prisons under current Legal Aid Agency contracts; immigration detainees routinely held under serving prisoner regimes;
  • prison regimes and restrictions that preclude the holding of mobile phones,
  • inadequate access to wing telephones during working hours, and a slow internal postal system in prisons, which delay and frustrate timely communication with legal advisers, the courts, and the Home Office;
  • lack of internet access in prisons which hinders legal research for unrepresented detainees, and makes cooperation with the Home Office redocumentation process very difficult;
  • Home Office escorting failures resulting in failure to produce detainees at bail hearings;
  • time limited videolink connections to prisons for bail hearings; delays in receipt of Home Office bail summaries as a result of slow internal mail in prisons;
  • loss of grants of Home Office Section 4 (1)(c ) bail accommodation as a result of production failures and listing delays, sometimes after several months waiting for a grant of a bail address;
  • Home Office failure to provide travel warrants enabling detainees held in prisons and produced in person at hearing centres to reach their Home Office Section 4(1)(c) bail address if granted bail;
  • failure to fit electronic tags within the prescribed two working days resulting in extended detention in prison.

"This is not what I was expecting. This prison is scary": HMP The Verne

By Ben from Detention Action, with testimony from Jamal who was detained in HMP The Verne.  Detention Action is a member of the Detention Forum.

On 24th March 2014, vans carrying migrants began arriving at HM Prison the Verne. Jamal was one of the first 30. He says he will never, ever, forget looking through the van windows up at the looming Napolenoic fortifications which dominate the hill atop of the Isle of Portland.

“It was a four hour drive from London. I didn’t know where we were going. No-one told us. I felt like we were driving to the end of the world. And then we reached the sea. And the van drove up the hill. And then we saw those big gates…’wow’, I said to myself. ‘This is not what I was expecting. This prison is scary.’”

Jamal, and those others with him, had been expecting a detention centre. That is what they had been told: “After being stuck in prison under immigration powers with no rights, I was excited about moving. I know its crazy to say, but I was actually looking forward to a detention centre.” What he got was an enormous fortress of a prison, which had been re-designated as a detention centre (with 580 bed spaces, set to be the third largest detention centre in Europe), only for it to be re-re-designated as a prison for migrants at the last moment. The reason given? To provide flexibility within an overcrowded prison estate. Instead of just feeling as though they are in prison, those held in the Verne actually are in a prison, run to the Prison Rules, without the additional (though limited) rights normally granted to detained migrants.

This means no mobile phones, no incoming telephone calls and no internet. Positioned out in the geographical extremities of the country, this basically assures almost zero contact with the outside world. As Jamal notes; “I was isolated from everyone and everything I knew. With no way of speaking to anyone outside, I really felt forgotten.” That also meant feeling forgotten by the justice system. 59% of the migrants Detention Action have met in our workshops in the Verne have been unrepresented, although the Legal Aid Agency has now belatedly agreed to fund on-site legal advice. Many do not even know what an immigration solicitor is.

Those in prison under immigration powers also miss out on key safeguards which should prevent the detention of people who are psychologically vulnerable. In detention centres, there is an (inadequately implemented) procedure for centre doctors to inform the Home Office about migrants whose health will be damaged by detention. In prisons, there is no such system: vulnerable people may fall apart without any report to the Home Office on their suitability for detention.

This forms part of a wider cloak of statistical invisibility, whereby those detained in prisons like the Verne are excluded from Home Office records. For many migrants in detention, the worst part of being locked up is the open-endedness: immigration detention in the UK is without time limit and where return is impossible, migrants may find themselves locked up for years. Last year, Home Office publications showed that at the end of 2013 seventy-five people had been detained for over a year. But these did not include those detained in prisons, despite those individuals frequently being held for the longest periods. Jamal, for example, had been held in prison under immigration powers for eighteen months following completion of half of a twenty-week sentence. According to ministerial statements, almost a thousand migrants were being held in prisons even before the Verne opened.

Today, the future status of the Verne remains uncertain. The Home Office plans to convert it to a detention centre in September 2014 but given their flip-flop earlier this year, everyone involved is holding their breath. Some things, however, are certain: hundreds of migrants continue to languish in prisons around the country, in a black hole ignored by official detention statistics, often out of the reach of lawyers. Equally indisputable is that these individuals are not prisoners, they are not serving criminal sentences at the order of a court and they have no ‘debt’ to society to pay. The truth is they are there for the administrative convenience of the Home Office.

But of all these truths, perhaps most harrowing of all is the fact that the routine imprisonment of migrants shows no signs of ending.

Foreign national prisoners: the fear of being forgotten

By Francisca Stewart, 12 September 2014.  Francisca works for Article 1, a member organisation of the Detention Forum.

Published at OpenDemocracy, as part of a series of articles on unlocking detention


Too often for foreign national prisoners in Britain, the completion of a prison sentence is followed by a period of limbo behind a new set of bars while the state works out what to do next. Labelled ‘undeserving’, they are largely invisible.

Many people agree that those who commit serious crimes should be imprisoned. But what if you committed a crime and served your sentence, yet instead of being released you were held indefinitely without any idea when you would be freed? On top of this, imagine you were held in a foreign country, discriminated against because of your ethnicity, and treated like a criminal even after you had completed your prison term? It seems appropriate to ask why this nightmare continues to be a reality for many foreign nationals in the UK.

Mr Mohammed, a young torture survivor who has spent extended periods of time in both Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) and UK prisons, knows such treatment all too well. Although he has finally been released, winning a court case regarding his unlawful detention, the effects of discrimination and isolation from the outside world linger. He speaks candidly of his time behind bars, saying, ‘You feel forgotten and this is scarring for life.’ When interviewed about his experience, he spoke about the violence in prison and how he got used to dealing with bullying on a daily basis, from both other inmates and prison guards: ‘In prison, if you’re a foreigner, you’re automatically subjected to discrimination.’

Limited access to legal aid for the ‘undeserving’

It is especially hard for foreign nationals in UK prisons to access justice. A 2013 survey by BiD (Bail for Immigration Detainees) and ICAR (Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees) across the UK immigration detention system found that just 26% of foreign detainees who had been in prison were provided with any form of independent immigration advice during their time there, including guidance on their possible deportation. BiD also found through its legal casework that foreign prisoners face greater disadvantages than the average prisoner because they are considered of lower priority by the prison authorities. Quite simply, the penal system was not created with them in mind. Article 1, (named after Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights), is a charity working with Sudanese asylum seekers in the UK. It their experience lawyers can be reluctant to take on difficult cases in which defendants do not ‘evoke sympathy’ or are labelled ‘undeserving’.

Yet we know that every individual has the right to have rights.

Legal counsel is especially essential where an individual’s freedom has been deprived due to bureaucratic process. Too often for foreign national prisoners, the completion of their prison sentence is followed by a period of limbo behind a new set of bars while the state works out what to do next. Efficient and active legal representation can save the state money by handling cases more quickly and reducing the amount of time in detention. The end result costs the tax-payers dearly, resulting as it does in lengthy appeals to higher authorities.

Invisible behind bars

The population of foreign nationals incarcerated in the UK is largely invisible. According to the Ministry of Justice, in 2012 there were 10,861 foreign nationals in UK prisons: 13% of the total prison population. The number of foreign nationals held in prison under immigration powers following the end of their prison sentence is not made public by the Home Office. However, in answer to a freedom of information request, the UK Border Agency confirmed that the number of detainees housed in prisons under Immigration Act powers was between 450 and 600 during 2011 and the first month of 2012. This makes up between 15 and 20% of the total prison population of foreign nationals.

Access to justice for these forgotten individuals remains serendipitous. It was only through the efforts of Article 1 that Mr Mohammed obtained legal representation. This followed two years without legal representation, for which he was in legal limbo. He was allowed out of his cell for an hour a day, and in that time he had to complete everything from showering to waiting in long queues to make phone calls (with little or no money). Consequently getting the legal aid to which he was entitled was a challenge. With Article 1’s help, he subsequently won his case for unlawful detention. Isobel Crowther, Head of Asylum and Research at Article 1, says ‘too many foreign nationals find themselves in this vulnerable position and we worry we are not able to reach all that we need to. It shouldn’t be by chance that they are able to access legal services, but a guaranteed part of the prison system.’

Lack of understanding

The penal system has little understanding of immigration detainees because they are organised to handle citizen criminal offenders. Mr Ibrahim, a young man who fled the genocide in Darfur, Sudan, spent two and a half years in prison after his sentence had finished, before being moved to an immigration detention centre. Before Article 1 saw him he had not had a visitor for four years. During his time in prison he claimed he was constantly subjected to racism and bullying by inmates and officers. He saved his cell mate from hanging himself three times. He had no legal representation for nearly three years. Now, although he has been transferred to an IRC, the pain in his voice is unmistakable. He explains that although he is happy to be out of prison, ‘I came to the United Kingdom only to feel like a slave.’

Immigration is a controversial topic in the United Kingdom, especially in the run up to the general election, and because of this it is often under scrutiny. In such an atmosphere, public sympathy for foreign national prisoners is scarce. In a climate in which hostility is frequently expressed towards law-abiding refugees and asylum seekers – those who are trying to escape from the forms of persecution one might expect to be deplored by traditional British values – foreign national offenders have little chance of securing popular support for their rights.

Yet many of the foreign nationals Article 1 works with are in the UK because of their dissident activity as democracy activists, challenging their own governments to abide by the rights most British people take for granted and of which they are proud. There are many, complex reasons for which they may fall foul of the law, including the challenges posed by the asylum system itself, in while they may find themselves trapped for years on end with no right to work and limited access to state support. These individuals have faced fear and abuse at home, and yet, ironically the very system they admired from afar, the British system, is now marginalising them in their hour of greatest need. Their shabby treatment reveals the ugly side of politics in the UK, where those hungry for votes distort the truth to manipulate an ignorant public.

It is thought the Prime Minister, David Cameron, will use his annual Conservative Party conference speech later this month to distance his government even further from the European institutions (the Bill of Rights and the European Court of Human Rights) that are the last resort for foreign national prisoners.

Making change: ‘You can never, ever forget’

Where there are organisations fighting to make change it is not happening fast enough, especially for those incarcerated beyond their lawful sentences, or for their spouses, children, parents, and friends, waiting on the outside. The Detention Forum and its members have done good work around ending indefinite detention, but there is little activity on the protection of foreign nationals in prisons.

So what conclusion from Mr Mohammed? ‘Detention, perhaps, is mentally harder than the physical torture. Maybe people will disagree with me, but I suffered both and I prefer physical torture than mental torture. With the detention, you don’t know when you’re going to get out, you don’t know anything, and you only receive every now again a paper from the Home Office just telling you that you will be continued to be detained. I think this itself is like torture. I think it’s worse than physical torture because it will mentally scar you for life. You can never, ever forget it.’


Unlocking Detention, Unlocking Change

By Eiri from the Detention Forum

Immigration detention is often hidden.  It is hidden behind the gates and barbed wires.  It is hidden at the back of people’s consciousness.  It is also hidden because many of us feel powerless in front of it and prefer not to talk about it.

We cannot, however, afford to remain silent about immigration detention.  And that’s why the Detention Forum, together with our members, is running Unlocking Detention.

We will be ‘touring’ sites of immigration detention over the next few months, using social media.  Most importantly, we would like as many people as possible to join our tour by sharing their stories, following us on Twitter, retweeting our messages and taking action together. The timing is particularly crucial – it overlaps with the first ever parliamentary detention inquiry into detention and the next general election is in May 2015.

There are ten detention centres in the UK, many short-term holding facilities and one centre for detaining families with children.  In addition, many migrants are held under immigration powers in prisons across the UK.  On any given day nowadays, several thousand people are detained.  In fact a record 4,009 migrants were detained at the end of 2013.

But, not so long ago, it was not like this.  In the early 1990s, only up to 200 – 300 people were detained at any time.

How did we let this happen?

cameraThese detention centres are geographically and physically hard to access. They are usually a long way out of the town or city nearest to them, and, unless you have a reason to go to, you probably would not want to go there.  For nearly 30,000 people who enter detention every year, it’s a nightmare.  For nearly 10,000 people who return back to their communities, their nightmares often only continue.  These people are also hidden, by the catch-all labels of “immigration detainees” and “ex-detainees”.  They become numbers and statistics devoid of unique individual humanity.

For the other people, the general public, parliamentarians and policy makers, immigration detention is an abstract concept.  The sheer pain, trauma and distress of incarceration means little, if not nothing, to them, including many who are well-meaning.

So, in the middle of an awareness raising session we were delivering in a community hall, a woman stood up angrily and shouted at us ‘Well, I just want to know if people can access ESOL (English as a Second Language) classes.’.  At a roundtable discussion for people concerned about human rights a suited man said to us ‘But they get bed and food, don’t they?’.  A parliamentary researcher said to us in the corridor of Westminster ‘Children are no longer in detention. So there is nothing we need to do about detention now, is there?’.

Immigration detention is more than just a matter of not having access to ESOL classes, more than a matter of whether you have bed and food and more than a matter of a specific group of vulnerable individuals who get caught up in the system.  There is clearly absence of understanding, empathy and imagination.  Immigration detention is the biggest human rights and civil liberty scandal in the UK – and it is time that it is recognised as such.

Unless people know somebody, personally, who is detained, they are very unlikely to ever visit a detention centre, know where they are, or be able to begin to imagine what it is like live your life in trapped in detention.  By giving a sense of the reality of detention, the ‘tour’ aims to help people and groups to question why migrants are being treated this way, and to challenge immigration detention by seeking accountability from the politicians.  We want to unlock people’s mind so that they really understand that immigration detention is not ok.  We also want to unlock potential for change by speaking up together and challenging the status quo.

Join the ‘tour’ now because we cannot do this alone.

What you can do to join the ‘tour’

Follow us at @DetentionForum, retweet, reply and spread the message

Love taking photos?  Why not do a selfie and tweet at us?

Have something to say?  Interested in blogging for us? Contact

Want to go straight to your MP to tell him/her what you think?  Here’s a template letter.

Shining a light on the inhumanity of the current system

By Ben from Detention Action

Last Saturday I attended Right to Remain‘s annual conference in Bethnal Green, London. Bringing together local advocacy groups, grassroots activists and self-advocates from across the UK it was a wonderful opportunity to hear about different positive, working, successful campaigns fighting against the abuses and injustices of the asylum and immigration system.

It was a raucously, refreshingly upbeat affair. Participants reflected on trials of courage, the new horrors of the Immigration Act and the vitality of emotional support when standing up against the Home Office but the focus was on ideas, solutions, networks and triumphs. Detention as a subject came up, of course, but it did not dominate. Instead, it loitered in the background whilst the room swelled with a gritted-optimism. The mood was buoyant but determined. People laughed and sang but they also spoke with a steely will.

Then, just as the day drew to an end, there was an announcement. A twenty-six year old man had died at Morton Hall immigration removal centre. The room baulked, then hushed, then very naturally slipped into a minute’s silence: in remembrance of this young man – Rubel Ahmed – but also of all those others, lost to the system.

Stunned, in this silence I thought about Rubel, even though at that point I did not know it was his him.

Rubel Ahmed

Rubel AhmedHe was twenty-six. Those with him in detention say he had been suffering from severe chest-pains and had been banging his door for help for more than an hour before he died. The Home Office say he committed suicide. Rubel’s family only heard about his death after they were contacted by a friend of Rubel’s, also in detention. When the Home Office had been rung, the family were told to call the Home Office press office but the line was busy, then closed.

In the silence, I thought about Rubel and detention. I thought about Christine Chase, who died in Yarl’s Wood in March. And Tahir Mehmood and Khalid Shahzad, and the 84-year old Alois Dvorzav, who all died in detention in 2013. I thought of Brian Dalrymple, who died in 2011 and how the inquest report earlier this year had concluded that it was the ‘lamentable failure‘ of healthcare at Colnbrook IRC which had led to his death. I thought of the scores of others who had also died unnecessarily, off-stage, locked away, out-of-sight, in the morally-dank corners of the UK’s detention estate.

I thought about those who had managed to leave detention, full in the knowledge that detention and its scars, will never leave them, or their families, or their communities, or this society as a whole. I thought of those individuals still in detention – many of whom I work with here, at Detention Action – imprisoned, but innocent.

I thought about their restricted access to legal aid, of the terror one man I spoke to last week must have felt when he, a soft-spoken Sri Lankan survivor of torture, was forced to represent himself, in a foreign language, in front of a row of white middle-aged men. I thought of the mental torture of waiting indefinitely and not knowing. I thought about those people I’ve spoken to who have seen others or have themselves attempted suicide for want of a way out of detention. I thought about the six cases where the Home Office has been found to have caused inhuman or degrading treatment to mentally ill migrants in its care. I thought of individuals I know with severe mental and physical health problems, exacerbated by detention, crying out for aid and receiving paracetemol on repeat.

I thought of the families seared apart by immigration detention and how the UK is haplessly alone in Europe in routinely detaining migrants in prisons, a practice that is unlawful in the rest of the EU. I thought about the Immigration Act, and the proposed expansion of Campsfield and the state of detention to come.


unlockingfeaturedimageThen I looked around me at the 100-strong room and I thought about change. I thought about Detention Action’s ongoing litigation against the Detained Fast Track. I thought about the potential impact of the Parliamentary Inquiry on Detention.

I thought about the growing civil society alliance against indefinite detention and the renewed cross-party interest and gathering political momentum around the issue. I thought about the Liberal Democrats decision to include a proposition to end indefinite detention in their party’s immigration policy and how Citizens UK had swiftly followed suit. I thought about the alternative models being developed and researched and financially-supported.

I thought about this #Unlocked twitter tour and the scores of inspirational people around me who are standing up, speaking out and shining a light on the inhumanity of the current system. I thought to myself, ‘this is a question of will’.

And then, lulling me out of my own head, a quiet chant went round the room. It started at a whisper and it grew louder with each exaltation until it was a unified roar. It was just one word: