By Eiri Ohtani 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?
These 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
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Have something to say? Interested in blogging for us? Contact email@example.com
Want to go straight to your MP to tell him/her what you think? Here’s a template letter.