A Letter to Harmondsworth

This letter was written by Shariff who was detained in Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre.
Dear Harmondsworth IRC,
I know you are very busy at the moment but I have a few questions about the three months you held me in detention.
Why do the rooms in Harmondsworth feel like you are living in a coffin? Do you do this on purpose?
If Harmondsworth is not a prison, then why does it look like a prison? Why does it smell like a prison? Why do the guards treat you like a prisoner?
Why were people allowed to work in Harmondsworth but outside detention we are not allowed to work?
Why do you have a department called ‘Healthcare’ when it does not offer ‘health-care’?
You lost all my medicine and my individual case-file – where did they go? Did someone steal them? Is there a black hole somewhere in Harmondsworth?
Do you have anything else in healthcare other than paracetemol?
If someone has vomiting, or someone has a broken leg, or someone cannot sleep – do you really think that paracetemol is the answer in every situation?
Are your healthcare staff trained and qualified?
I went to get a Rule 35 from your doctor. He said “ok, what do you want me to put?” I said, “you are the doctor, you need to say what is wrong with me.” He said, “If I do that we’ll be here for three, four hours.” In the end, he wrote something very quickly. In court, the judge didn’t even look at it. Can you tell me – what is the point of Rule 35 if this is the kind of doctor you employ to do it? What is it really worth?
Why do you not bring in doctors from outside? Have you ever been seen by a NHS doctor? Can you tell the difference in the standard of care?
Why did no-one in Harmondsworth try to help me understand the asylum process? Why did no-one even tell me I was on the Detained Fast Track? Do you give your staff orders to confuse us on purpose? Or maybe they just don’t know anything about the immigration system either?
What is the Detained Fast Track for? What is the honest reason for it? Is it just to deport people? Has it got anything to do with a fair trial? What do you think the Detained Fast Track says about the British justice system? If you are going to reject 99% of cases, why even put us through the stress of the system?
I got five minutes with my solicitor before my asylum interview – do you think this is enough time to prepare for the most important interview of your life?
Superman could not prove his innocence on an appeal in just two days, from the inside of a cell – why not blindfold us and give us two hours?
Do you think ‘North Africa’ is one country? Do you think an Algerian interpreter can effectively translate for an Egyptian, like me?
I saw people cut their own necks and swallow razor blades in Harmondsworth – if detention is designed to make us suffer so we agree to go home, do you consider this as a success?
Once in detention, I was feeling bad in my cell and I banged the door to ask for help. Four or five men arrived, acting like they were all Jean Claude van Damme. They shoved me to the floor, handcuffed me and took me to isolation. They kept me there for two days. They said my ‘behavior’ was the problem. Do you train your staff to be violent and aggressive?
Do you think that when I left Harmondsworth, Harmondsworth left me? I think about you guys every day.
I look forward to hearing your answers.
Yours sincerely,

Interrupting the implacable: fighting the Detained Fast Track

This piece by Jerome Phelps first appeared in openDemocracy on 27 October 2014.  Jerome is the Director of Detention Action.
The UK Court of Appeal will hear an appeal this week over the lawfulness of automatically detaining asylum seekers while their appeals are heard. The era of expansion of this practice is already over and further change is likely. 
The Detained Fast Track, the system which incarcerates asylum seekers as a matter of routine as they await the result of their application for protection in the UK, has long been seen as implacable.
Primarily, it is implacable to the person who has just claimed asylum. Asylum seekers who arrive in the UK frequently find themselves locked up without warning, usually in Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre, where most of the wings are equivalent to a high security prison. They are told that they are not being held for removal, but for their asylum claim to be processed to accelerated timescales. As I have written previously on openDemocracy 50.50, everything from their provision to meals and healthcare to access to a lawyer is arranged by those who are directly or indirectly detaining them.
The Detained FastTrack is also implacable in its internal logic: once you are detained on the Detained Fast Track (DFT), there is often no way out. Individuals are refused asylum because they don’t have evidence and they don’t have time to get evidence because the Fast Track requires that applicants make their appeal within two days.
Finally, until recently, the DFT has appeared implacable in its expansion. It was introduced in 2000 to respond to unprecedented numbers of asylum claims. Although asylum claims have fallen dramatically since then, to just23,507 in 2013, the DFT system continues to grow. A higher proportion of asylum seekers are now detained, for longer periods, in worse conditions, with tighter timescales, than was ever initially intended.
Following a major expansion of bed-space, almost one in five asylum seekers are currently put through the DFT, amounting to 4,286 asylum-seekers in 2013.  Sharif, a survivor of torture from a North African country, was one of them.
“The stress was unbelievable,” he told me. “My blood pressure went extremely high. I had to have medicine for anxiety and depression. People told me ‘if you contact the Home Office, they try to send you back to your torturers.’ I wish I had listened to them. They were right.”
This implacability was interrupted on the 9th July 2014.  In a long-awaited rulingon a legal challenge brought by NGO Detention Action and represented by theMigrants’ Law Project, the High Court found that the DFT “as operated carries an unacceptably high risk of unfairness” to vulnerable or potentially vulnerable applicants. In the order of 25 July 2014, the High Court confirmed that the Fast Track “was to that extent being operated unlawfully.” Previous legal challenges to the DFT had failed to demonstrate unlawfulness, leaving the Home Office to believe that it could expand the scale and scope of the DFT as it chose. For now, at least, the development has been put on hold, yet a number of challenges remain.
Suitable for a quick decision?
The DFT is designed for asylum claims that are considered to be suitable for a quick decision.  However, the decision to detain and fast-track an asylum case is based on a screening interview, when very little is known about the person’s situation.  As a result, people with complex cases, including victims of torture, trafficking, gender-based violence and homophobic persecution, are regularly detained on the DFT.
Sharif’s screening interview lasted ten minutes. “The man asking me questions was racing through it. What is your nationality? Have you had your fingerprints taken? Where are your family? Nothing about my torture. Nothing about if I was fit for detention. Nothing about ‘Fast Track’.”
The High Court in Detention Action found “deficiencies” in the screening process and noted that “the process inherently cannot identify all the claims which are in fact unsuitable for detention or a quick decision”. Mr Justice Ouseley expressed “real unease about the cases which go through the DFT system when they should not have done so.”
Wrongly entering the DFT can have devastating effects on a vulnerable person’s chances of asylum. The Home Office refuses 99% of asylum claims which they have placed on the DFT.
If a person is wrongly put on the DFT, there are safeguards that should ensure that they are taken off. For example, Rule 35 of the Detention Centre Rules requires medical staff to report on any person for whom detention is harmful or who may have been a victim of torture. However, the High Court concluded that Rule 35 reports “are not the effective safeguard they are supposed to be” and do not work as intended to remove unsuitable cases from the DFT.
The threshold of unlawfulness
However, in the view of the High Court, it was the delayed and limited access to legal advice that tipped the operation of the DFT into unlawfulness. Asylum seekers were waiting an average of a week in Harmondsworth to be allocated a lawyer by the Home Office. This had the result that they often had only half an hour with their lawyer immediately before their second and substantive asylum interview, allowing very little time to build trust, explain their case and to receive advice.
For Shariff, it was just a matter of minutes. “Five minutes before the interview, they presented me with a solicitor. I sat with him and he asked me some basic questions. But every time we started to go into my case, the immigration officer would come in and say ‘Come on, no more time, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.’ Everybody was in a rush.”
The High Court found that the “seemingly indefensible period of inactivity”, when the person was detained but could do nothing to work on their case, combined with the shortcomings elsewhere in the process, created an “unacceptably high risk of unfairness” in the process as a whole  The system, Mr Justice Ouseley concluded, “does not permit [the Home Office] to run it quickly only when it suits, and slowly when it does not.”
Change in sight?
It remains to be seen how the DFT will ultimately change as a result of this ruling. The Home Office immediately took steps to ensure that lawyers are allocated quickly and have at least four working days before the asylum interview. As a result, lawyers now have a small window to get people taken off the DFT and released. The High Court and the Court of Appeal refused to suspend the operation of the Fast Track to allow a more thorough review and more significant changes.
However, it may be that the DFT is still operating unlawfully, as the High Court was only prepared to say that the Home Office’s changes had the potential to make the process lawful. It is likely that there will be further legal challenges by individuals whose cases have been handled unfairly. The Court of Appeal will hear Detention Action’s appeal on 30 October 2014 over the lawfulness of automatically detaining asylum-seekers while their appeals are heard. Further change is likely – the era of implacable expansion is over.
Sharif was released from detention, and is now living in the community. “At the time, I did not know that the thing ruining my life was called the ‘Fast Track’. I found out what it is the hard way. People go into it balanced and they leave broken. I know now how lucky I am to have survived it.
“Now the judges say the whole operation is wrong, but it continues. What justice is this? I am very pleased about the changes to the time people will have with solicitors. But it is not enough. No changes to the screening process? No changes to Rule 35? No changes to the appeal system? It does not surprise me that the Home Office have got away with it.”

Handfast: a poem for Isa Muazu

For Isa Muazu
by E. E. Jones
Think of his starved hand
Reaching for England
As they stretchered him
Towards the exit: his small wrist
Helpless in the terminal
Darkness, and his thin fingers,
Through which Justice slipped.
If you could stand and listen
To his thin lips whispering freedom
Like a password – his sole prayer
To breathe our English air –
Then would you hold that hand,
I think you would
If it were up to you, though
England’s grim-eyed guards
Say otherwise, and ranks of hobnailed
Headlines stand behind them.
Would you cast off the newsprint’s
Mailed glove, to save a dying man?
If you could choose – I say
You’d take his hand and hold it fast,
Not letting go. Handfast,
An English word.


Brook House week…

Brook House week…  12 to 18 Oct
Unlocking Detention team looks back on the week they visited Brook House detention centre, near Gatwick Airport.
Unlocking Detention visited Brook House Immigration Removal Centre, near Gatwick Airport.  This centre and another one nearby called Tinsley House, are visited and supported by our member, Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group.  They are also a member of our Indefinite Detention Working Group calling for a time limit on detention – well, you can tell that from their tweet, can’t you…
Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group’s report on mental health impact of immigration detention was very useful when navigating this week’s tour.  Thank you!

This was our third week and we were slowly getting used to being a “tour guide”.  The golden rule of the tour = use photos as often as possible.  Many of us are now too used to those imagines of detention centres and forget that that’s not necessarily the case for others.  We do need to take communicating detention more seriously and use more imaginative methods.

Brook House, like Colnbrook detention centre, is built to a Category B prison standard.  One person commented on the above photo that this looks like an IKEA prison.  Our impression is that it was never that bright inside…
We were also getting used to reading both the Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) and the Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons reports to find tweet-worthy material.  They are really a great source of information about the inner workings of the detention centres, and although it takes time (and many sections, after a while, read quite repetitive), we recommend you read one or two reports in full to get a real sense of what these reports convey.  By the way, we are increasingly fascinated by the different approaches and tones employed by IMBs.  At the end of the tour, we can probably write a book about it.

While these monitoring reports are important, it is personal testimonies, people’s accounts of immigration detention that make these numbers, statistics and descriptions come alive.  We were fortunate to be able to ask H, a young man who was detained in Brook House, to write a blog for our collaborative project with openDemocracy.  Each individual expresses their experience of immigration differently and uniquely, and that uniqueness of voice is also evident in H’s piece.  We are extremely grateful to an anonymous member organisation who facilitated this work and ensured that H was able to share his experience of detention in a safe and supported manner.  You can read H’s piece here.

We were moved by the comment under H’s piece, ‘Animals or slaves? Memories of a migrant detention centre’, someone sharing their own experience of losing their foster son to Brook House.  It said:

‘Years ago we visited Brook House to see someone we love. The visits proved traumatic and heart rending , we will never forget these experiences and our shock at finding ourselves and our foster son in such a dire and powerless situation. The sound of the planes flying above us were a constant reminder of the imminent loss and feeling of hopelessness. It is a place untouched by humanity or the need toshow respect to fellow human beings. Human rights do not exist. Many of the young people arrived in this country as children looking for safety, at the age of 18 they are deemed adults , ready to return to their previous broken lives with no support or consideration as to how they will survive. Most are treated as criminals (they become illegal!) and the ‘foster’ families that have nurtured and love them are ridiculed by the immigration service for continuing to care. The system abuses those who have suffered abuse and trauma, these youngsters have experienced war, seen death first hand and have been exposed to horrors we can only imagine. We just want a good life for the boys we have welcomed into our lives, we are proud of them and pray that all will be well and there will be no more visits to Brook House for us.’

Another strength of Unlocking Detention is that we are in touch with people who know things about detention that other people simply don’t know about.  So a blog piece about a visit to the Brook House isolation units provided an interesting alternative piece about the very physical space that has been such a controversial issue in that particular detention centre (Brook House has been repeatedly criticised for its excessive use of isolation).

Now our selfies.  We were never sure our selfie campaign would attract attention.  Unlocking Detention team did have a long debate about this and to be frank, the team was somewhat skeptical.  But it seems to be working and we are getting many selfies now.  Here’s one from our member organisation, Migrants’ Rights Network.

Getting such a lovely selfie from Don at MRN made us happy.  But selfies sent to us by organisations and groups that we do not know very well have been making us EXTREMELY happy.  This one is by DOST (@DostCentre).

These selfies make us realise that the impact of detention if felt outside the gates of the detention centres.  How can we tap into these groups’ willingness to stand up against it into action that does change and eventually end immigration detention?  It is a million dollar question.  In the meantime, we hope that our selfie cards make it easier for many other individuals and organisations to voice their concerns and challenge immigration detention.
We really want you to join in the campaign, so here’s more info on how to send us your selfies.

One of the reasons for doing Unlocking Detention is to ensure that the Detention Inquiry continues to attract interests from others and also that the inquiry panel understands how strongly many of us feel that immigration detention is unacceptable.  We hope to tweet more about the Detention Inquiry during the tour, and thank you to CSEL for sharing their tweet with the hashtag, #unlocked.
We were also able to make friends over Twitter and through our work to help the Detention Inquiry.  One such organisation is Regional Asylum Activism North West, who wrote for us their experience of collecting evidence for the Detention Inquiry in Manchester and Liverpool. You can read their blog here.  We would like to thank them for contributing to our tour but also engaging other local groups to work together on these important topic.

We hope you could see from the above that it was a rather busy week!
By Unlocking Detention team

Campsfield week…

Campsfield week… 5 Oct to 11 Oct
Unlocking Detention team looks back on the week they visited Campsfield, Oxfordshire.
Unlocking Detention visited Campsfield Immigration Removal Centre just as the most controversial development was taking place in the area.  Recently, the Home Office made it clear that it intends to increase the size of  the detention from 276 beds to 560 beds.
Our member, Campaign to Close Campsfield, has been leading the voice of opposition against this plan.  Their public meeting was to take place on 20 Oct and the emotions were running rather high.

Campsfield House is a relatively small and, dare we say, has a more relaxed environment than other detention centres in the UK.  Of course, we say this only relatively, knowing what Category B equivalent centres such as Colnbrook and Brook House are like. It is still detention nevertheless and people inside simply feel imprisoned.  This also does not mean that it should be expanded.

Perhaps because of its proximity to a world-famous university town with (probably) a fair number of politically active residents, Campsfield is unique among all sites of immigration detention in the UK in that it has a long history of local, sustained, opposition to the centre.

We wanted to capture this sense of sustained local opposition, the everyday of their activism.  So we asked some members of Campaign to Close Campsfield to jot down their experience of their monthly (yes, monthly) protests as well as visiting the centre.  Their words were turned into a short blog, ‘What is it like being a local campaign group?‘ At the Detention Forum, the tension between protest and “visiting”, demanding change and potentially sustaining the system, continues to be discussed at regular intervals.
Aside from Campaign to Close Campsfield (whom you can follow on Twitter @CloseCampsfield and shared their comments on Campsfield during the tour), another active member @MBEGriffiths helped us a great deal by sharing her insight into how men held Campsfield experience their detention.  Her tweets about Campsfield are definitely worth reading.

This tour has also given us an opportunity to revisit some of the great material that we know exist, but we don’t always remember to share with others.  There are in fact short films, paintings, pod casts about immigration detention.  What’s unfortunate is that we can’t always remember what’s available out there.

Another organisation Migrants Resource Centre shared with us this beautiful and poignant photo essay about one person’s experience of immigration detention.  We highly recommend this too.

We also asked Melanie to write a piece for our collaborative project with openDemocracy.  Her piece focused on how various incidents are packaged by the media and the general public, while a completely different story actually emerges if we care to listen to those who are inside.

For another piece for this week, we asked one of our members RAMFEL (@RAMFELCharity) to write more broadly about immigration enforcement. Various new initiatives on the back of Hostile Environment campaign are now creeping into our communities.  The piece, Migrant vs non-migrant: two-tier policing describes a murky world where immigration enforcement overlaps with policing, which is hardly ever talked about in the public domain.

Lastly, the reminder that we think we know detention but we don’t…

By Unlocking Detention team

Haslar week…

Haslar week… 28 Sep to 4 Oct 
Unlocking Detention team looks back on the week when the tour visited Haslar Immigration Removal Centre in Portsmouth.
After looking at the Short Term Holding Centres and prisons which are used for immigration detention, Unlocking Detention tour’s very first proper visit was to Haslar Immigration Removal Centre.

While getting ready for the tour, we were very lucky to be able to make contact with Charlie who shared his research with us on our website.

We first got in touch with Charlie over Twitter because he mentioned that he was helping someone in detention to contribute to the ongoing parliamentary inquiry into immigration.  This was Henry, who also contributed a blog in the end, ‘Too many laws, not enough justice’.
Henry, at the time, was going through an extremely stressful and uncertain period, facing deportation to a country that he had not set his foot on for over 30 years.
Lots of emails were exchanged between us, trying to consider all the possible implications of Henry publicly speaking about his experience at such a critical point in time not just on himself but also his family members and helping Henry decide whether to go ahead with publishing his blog.  In the end, Henry was adamant that his story should be told.
So while Charlie wrote about immigration detention from the outside, Henry wrote about it from the inside.

Not only were they complementary, they were also very powerful together, especially when read side-by-side.

We were also pleased to see that it prompted many comments, which you can see below Henry’s blog on this page.  We want to reprint one such comment in full here to share with all of you.

‘This article has touched my heart. I know this having been exactly through the same predicament. I was in Haslar for close to 6 months and my family were over 250 miles away from me. I was also considered a “threat to the society”? After being released on temporary admission I spent a further 11 months on electronic tag. I was eventually granted limited stay after a long and winding legal wrangle. The whole process has scarred me for life. Like Henry said, “I dont even wish that on my enemy”. As I speak now, I’m a Team Leader where I work with elderly people and I’m in my 2nd year studying for a degree in Accounting and Finance. My wife on the other hand is a first year Student Nurse. I cannot comprehend how the Home Office labelled me 6 years ago that my presence is/was not conducive for the public good.’

And Henry’s story was also featured in a local newspaper, which you can read here.
By Unlocking Detention team

Music in Detention: reflections on three visits to IRCs in 2012

This post was written by Zoe Burton, Programme Manager (maternity cover, 2012 and 2014) for Music in Detention (MID).  MID is a member of the Detention Forum. 

I was delighted to be recruited to Music In Detention as Programme Manager (maternity cover) in Jan 2012 to coordinate a number of participatory music making programmes in four Immigration Removal Centres. I had previously worked in a drop- in day centre for refugees and asylum seekers where I had seen first -hand how arts based projects provided an opportunity for people to make friends, escape the relentless worry about their situations and enjoy a release through self -expression. These activities also helped to alleviate the acute boredom people felt, brought on by the day- to -day struggle to survive with no means to do anything or go anywhere.

People experiencing detention talk about the extreme mental anguish they go through due to the uncertainty of their situation. Often separated from loved ones, including partners and children, people are detained with no time limit to their imprisonment and live with the constant threat of deportation, possibly to a country where they have no ties or affinities.

“We’re being tortured… We’re not physically bullied, but we’re mentally beaten.”

Day to day life in detention is routine, in some centres there is limited access to facilities, such as an internet suite, library or gym and little opportunity to mix with other detainees in a social setting. With too much time on their hands it is hard for detainees to escape their worries or to build up the strength to deal with the anxiety of the unknown.

“So at the moment there’s no other music activities going on?

“No, not at the moment. Because nowadays, it’s same old, same old, playing pool or just library, and apparently it’s going to be packed after this, because more people are going to be coming in. So it’s going to be hard, you can only use the computer for one hour. So basically there’s not going to be much activity or much to do.” (Discussion with a detainee at Campsfield House, June 2014)

Unlike prison, where there is often a focus on rehabilitation and acquisition of skills, in detention, it can seem that people are simply ‘warehoused’ prior to removal or release, left to languish in a bureaucratic limbo.

“So does anyone here talk to you about the future, about careers, I know you were saying you want to do community work, does somebody come and talk to you about studying or jobs?

No, they’re all looking to send us home so why would they!?” (Discussion with detainees at Campsfield House, June 2014)

People in detention are currently denied access to social media platforms such as Facebook, which increases their isolation from the outside world and makes it difficult pre- removal or release to enlist the help needed, such as being met at the airport.

Music In Detention was founded in 2006, bringing participatory music making into detention centres to help people cope; as a means of stress relief and self -expression, building self-esteem and connecting with other people, both in detention and with people living in communities near the centres, ‘over the wall’ so to speak.

“So that music workshop was heaven. We’ve got digital TVs here, we’ve got library but it’s not really something to do is it? But when you got the music workshop…”

You mean it occupies you? Because there are things to do right, there’s the gym, there’s the hairdressing and the … “One week with that is enough!  Stay here for one week. Then you’ll have the feeling. Because Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday the head is in a deep depression, but Thursday me know say 2 o clock music class –there’s going to be music…” extract from a discussion with detainees at Yarl’s Wood IRC, March 2012

People who are detained feel a huge sense of powerlessness which is compounded by the rigid routines, a lack of varied activity and timely information about their immigration case.

“The whole thing: eat, sleep and shower everyday – just that. We’re not children, you know… There’s so many things which you could be doing for yourself and then you can’t because there’s no information coming to you”

People are also mistrustful of the Home Office decision making processes, things seem arbitrary, and the system makes people feel dehumanized. … “and they leave you. It’s like you buy a Christmas toy and you leave it on the shelf – you got no connections to that toy – that’s exactly how it feels. It’s like you’re being left on the shelf and you’re waiting for the immigration, which is the little kid, to come and play with you, to come and take you and connect you back to the world and put you in use. And then when they don’t want you again they just put you back on the shelf.”

Within this context of uncertainty detainees suffer a negative impact on their mental and physical health which can worsen in severity over time. A recent study found that 83% of detainees suffered depression and 22% had considered suicide. (Bosworth & Kellezi, Oxford University, 2012)

So in my new role at Music In Detention I was keen to visit some workshops. My first visit was to Campsfield House IRC in Oxfordshire. After the unnerving experience of going through security and being searched I got into the mood for the session.  The workshop was based around celebrating Chinese New Year and that was some party!  About 60 detainees came to the ‘big screen room’ and all participated at some level or other during the four hours of drumming, percussion and Chinese scarf/fan dancing. Lots of detainees recognized the artists from previous visits saying hello and shaking hands as they arrived, looking excited about the workshop ahead. Of course, this was great to see but also unsettling as I realized some people must have been there for quite some time.

At first the MID artist, Paul, distributed his unique junk percussion instruments to as many people as possible and got live Chinese rhythms going. People let off a lot of steam and reveled in the chaotic, raucous atmosphere, joking with each other, egging each other on and crashing symbols as a joke near the Detention Custody Officers who were escorting the workshop. I was delighted to see these jovial challenges to authority. Some of the Afghani guys enjoyed having a laugh putting various random items into the back of the MID artist’s drum and hence changing the sound. The artist did an amazing job getting people to participate while trying to keep some semblance of musicality in the room!

Then a pause, MID artist Yan appeared in a beautiful costume and performed an enchanting series of traditional Chinese dances.  After the crescendo of sound there was a hush in the room as everyone watched, took a breath and a seat.  After this break the participatory element came back and Yan demonstrated some moves with scarves and fans so that everyone could copy. The Kurdish and Afghanis especially loved this, dancing wildly, spinning the scarves and fans, or wearing the scarves on their heads. Then three guys (Chinese, Afghan and Jamaican) took centre stage and enacted a surreal bull fight with a red scarf and a drum, all the detainees were laughing at this impromptu drama! Then the party continued as some danced and others kept the beats going.

By now the atmosphere was electric, cleaning and canteen staff started peering into the room, joining in too, and everyone was smiling. One member of staff came in grinning and said “I’m trying to sleep out there!” and the detainees responded with a rousing drum roll and howls of delight. Another staff member stood on a window ledge shaking his percussion instrument with joy, smiling across the room.

There were many points I forgot I was in a detention centre. Until of course the party was over and I could go home. A film came on which may have helped people calm down a bit but I think a lot of people just went to their beds, with the promise of another MID workshop coming soon. One Indian detainee said to me when it was over “My mind is so clear now”.

I learned from the MID percussion artist, Paul, that it is very rare in Chinese culture for people to participate in traditional dance forms (and music); people are either audience members or performing artists. So in this unusual context of an IRC, where so many cultures come together in such a music workshop, people were learning traditional forms from their home country.

“Two hours will pass and you stop thinking when am I getting deported, when am I getting released, you just focus on the music and there are Jamaicans and Chinese and Indians and everyone, all playing together. And we learn what other cultures do and it makes a unity, we share it together.” (Workshop participant at Campsfield House, 2012)

My next visit to a MID workshop was at Yarl’s Wood IRC, Bedfordshire (Females & families with adult children).  This workshop was a unique combination of Taiko and Tabla drumming, facilitated by Liz Walters and Sanju Sahai from Asian Music Circuit.

We were in the ‘party room’, small and cozy, with turntables, mixing desk and replete with disco lights. At first it seemed a strange anomaly to me considering the context but I was assuming the ‘residents’ wouldn’t feel like dancing and there I was working for a charity which puts on music workshops in detention centres! I could see efforts were made to soften the environment, with lots of colourful drawings and paintings in all the corridors, like a school, but for grown-ups who aren’t allowed to leave. The smell, akin to British school dinners, wafted around and there seemed to be frequent tannoy announcements that were indecipherable. The beauty salon was busy and lively and the library quiet with attentive staff around.

The group was small, partly because the party room is hidden away so not many people could hear the drumming (best advertisement for a MID workshop!). However the ensuing hour of Taiko was uplifting and powerful, considering none of us in the room had ever been near a Taiko drum.

Liz’s sensitive and gentle approach enabled everyone to feel safe in their drumming circle as the beats got louder, the smiles bigger and the movements more precise and all in tune with each other. “This is really good for stress releasing!!” shouted one lady grinning from ear to ear and ready to play again at the next session.

One participant chose to sit out; she had had two wisdom teeth removed that morning and was coping with the pain, having had a couple of Paracetamol earlier. However she said she really wanted to stay in the workshop and enjoyed watching throughout. She added a lovely presence to the room.

Then we moved on to the Tabla. Sanju asked participants to close their eyes and imagine a steam train whilst he played the most incredible rhythms on his Tabla. This completely absorbed everyone as they were already physically relaxed from the Taiko and now mentally and physically relaxed further from the mesmerizing and beautiful sounds of Sanju and his Tabla.

The session finished with Liz speaking to everyone about how they felt after the session, how they were doing generally. After listening to their responses I realized  just how isolated everyone is from each other, subsumed in their problems and separated by language, culture and ethnicity; it isn’t easy for people to even converse in detention, never mind make friends.

As I left I was overcome by the combination of vulnerability and resilience I had seen amongst the group, and of course, again I was going home, leaving the surreal environment of Twinwoods Business Park as the women went for their evening centre roll call.

“Sometimes it’s so good to know that somebody’s feeling the way that you feel because when you read her lyrics …and you say wow that’s what I was thinking about, I didn’t write it but that’s it!” (Workshop participant at Yarl’s Wood talking about a recent MID songwriting project, 2012)

Later in the year I went to visit a workshop at Harmondsworth IRC, London Heathrow (Male) facilitated by H Patten and Alex D Great from Music for Change. After the astonishment of seeing the gigantic gates and enormous clunky keys as I was escorted through the various buildings to get to the music room I was pleasantly surprised to see such a well -equipped music resource with colourful murals on the walls of people playing instruments.

The session started off with H teaching the group some drumming rhythms. H is an expert in enabling people to let off steam with the drums! He knows that for us novices (my first experience) our hands will soon start to smart and you can’t continue at that pace. Soon we were united in rhythm and everyone started to relax by feeling energized as a group. We were joined by two members of staff, great musicians themselves on tenor sax and bass guitar and accompanied by a detainee who was a brilliant drummer. Two other members of staff also participated throughout the sessions. I could see the tensions and normal hierarchies between staff and detainees melt away as we all became human beings simply enjoying a jam.

After the dinner break people from another wing had their session but many came from the earlier one as the staff kindly escorted them to the music room. Following another percussion session it was time for detainees to lead and sing together. Alex was amazing at facilitating people’s choices in music and accompanying people who took to the mic to sing their favourite songs. We had a proper jamming party culminating in a karaoke style sing along with one detainee drenched in sweat as he joyously led the session with many Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff favourites. Spontaneous bouts of dancing broke out too.

As people were enjoying themselves the staff let the session run on a bit later than planned. During this time none of us were worrying about our problems. Getting home around 11pm that night I was full of memories, wondering what was going to happen to all the people I had met, people who missed their loved ones on the outside and felt at the mercy of the UK immigration system while detained indefinitely.

“Intact. Sanity intact. It keeps my sanity intact”. (Workshop participant, Yarl’s Wood IRC, 2012.)

Reporting Morton Hall – the media "myth"

Bridget Walker is an active member of the Detention Forum and works with a number of NGOs. She shares her personal reflection on the way the media keeps the myth of “dangerous foreigners” alive.
‘The death was used as an excuse for unrest’  [1]
In September 2014 a man died in Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre.  His name was Rubel Ahmed, he came from Bangladesh and he was 26 years old.
Death at a young age always comes as a shock.  It is a tragedy for family and friends.  When that death occurs in unexplained circumstances in a state institution it should also be a matter of public interest and concern.
Yet this death seemed almost incidental in the media coverage immediately afterwards. A local paper, the Lincolnshire Echo, ran with the headline ‘Twelve hour riot after detainee dies’.  It said a national tactical response unit had been called, and a team sent in armed with batons and shields and accompanied by police dogs.  Similar stories, focusing on the protest, appeared in many of the national dailies.  The focus was on the unrest, not the death, and the overall impression was that the men held in detention were dangerous criminals who had to be contained at all costs.
This is one of the many damaging myths purveyed about men and women held in the asylum and immigration system.   They are presented as violent people to be feared, foreign bodies who must be removed.  These myths take away both their humanity and ours.
How else to explain the way in which the bereaved family heard about the death.  They say the news came from his solicitor who had been informed by a fellow detainee.  There are wildly contradictory accounts of the cause of Rubel Ahmed’s death and his family are asking for an independent inquiry.
This is not the first time that there has been unrest at Morton Hall.  In January 2013 The Guardian reported ‘Illegal Immigrants riot at removal centre’.  The article listed the facilities available – dental and medical services and a ‘well stocked library,  badminton, soft tennis, basketball and volleyball courts.  There was no attempt, in the article, to look in such detail at the reasons for the protest.  Again there were contradictory accounts of what had happened, with inflammatory media headlines about fighting and injuries,  and a comment from the Independent Monitoring Board that the incident had been exaggerated.
The saying that truth is the first casualty of war has a long history going back to classical Greece.   It is time to debunk the myths and stop this implicit media war against vulnerable strangers.
Men and women held in immigration detention live with stress and uncertainty.  They do not know how long they will be held.  They fear being returned to the conditions from which they have fled.  They have little trust in a system where they are stigmatised and their stories disbelieved.
In his farewell speech as outgoing President of the National Council of Independent Monitoring Boards Peter Selby referred to the current immigration policy which ‘has as its necessary implication the detention of people who have not committed any offence, or who have discharged any penalty set for them’.  He suggested that this is a policy with ‘too many unacceptable consequences to be sustainable’.
[1] (comment attributed to a guard at Morton Hall IRC)

Helping the Other: particular experiences, universal outlooks

This article by Shauna Leven and Sam Grant was published as part of Unlocking Detention series on Open Democracy.  Photo credit – Regional Refugee Forum North East
London’s synagogues have set up drop-in centres for destitute asylum seekers and are campaigning to end immigration detention. Shauna Leven and Sam Grant explore how the British Jewish community uses its particular history to motivate its work with migrants in 2014.
‘You don’t have to delve back more than two generations in the Jewish community to find first-hand experience of seeking asylum due to persecution.’  This was the common answer from volunteers at the New North London Synagogue and West London Synagogue Drop-In-Centres when we asked them about the monthly drop-in centres which they have set up to assist local refugees. The centres provide resources and advice to people from over fifty countries every month.
‘No one should live like this.’  This was the answer given by a man at one such drop-in centre when asked why he was willing to give testimony to a UK parliamentary inquiry about his traumatic experiences in detention. This man, like thousands of others, was locked up in the UK, simply for being a migrant, as part of the UK’s increasingly harsh immigration control system.
The answers to the two questions are innately connected. Personal and particular experiences inform universal outlooks. The individuals willing to give testimony did so because they did not want anybody else to go through what they had. The responses of the volunteers at these two synagogue drop-in centres were also rooted in personal family stories of fleeing countries and arriving in a strange place.
Although the media tends to be dominated by polling about the UK’s increasingly harsh attitudes towards refugees and migrants, an important but overlooked dimension is to examine the motives of those who have a sympathetic response. We need to ask ourselves, how can we encourage others to look to their own experience for motivation to support the rights of others?
Defending the dignity of asylum
The Jewish community uses its particular history to motivate its work on asylum and detention issues. This is why René Cassin, the UK Jewish human rights organisation, is committed to working with the Detention Forum and other NGOs featured in this series to bring an end to indefinite detention.
‘Indefinite detention’ according to the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT), should be used ‘only as a last resort’. Yet, the UK is the only country in Europe where the policy of indefinite detention is common place. As documented by H in an article last week, this means that any individual arriving in the UK can end up staying in prison-like detention facilities with no certainty as to when they might be released even though they have broken no laws. There is an important difference between administrative and immigration detention and criminal detention. Asylum seekers and immigrants are detained under immigration rules, rather than criminal law.
The power of testimony
For the past few months members of the René Cassin team have collected testimonies from people who have been through the UK detention system to be submitted as evidence for the UK’s first parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention. The stories they told were hard to hear and certainly harder to tell. All the testimonies contain unique suffering and harm but the unifying element of the experience was the dehumanising nature of the whole process, or as one man we interviewed described: ‘I was just carried like an object in the back of a van, from one place to another because l am a detainee and have no right or reason to know where l am taken.’
The West London Synagogue Drop-In-Centre and the New North London Synagogue Drop-In-Centre for Destitute Asylum Seekers are tangible illustrations of the British Jewish community’s commitment to turn a particular Jewish experience into a universal outlook of ensuring equal opportunities, freedoms and rights for everyone. Both Drop-In-Centres help support people who have been through the detention system, those living in fear of the detention system and those who are still dealing and being affected by the numerable negative economic and psychological effects – the ‘crisis of harm’as Jerome Phelps has called it – caused by our current detention system.
Every month these venues provide hot meals, vouchers for groceries, clothes, legal signposting, counselling, medical treatment, clothes and, perhaps most importantly, a safe place for people who are often shunned by the wider community. The atmosphere of the centres stand in stark contrast to the previous experiences of those who were in detention where the conditions were so bad one man stated that ‘It is so terrible that I would not wish even my enemy to be detained.’
The Drop-In-Centres are completely manned by volunteers, the majority hailing from the Jewish community. The people who attend these drop-in centres have often fled life-threatening circumstances, experienced rape and/or torture and have chosen destitution over deportation because they fear for their lives if they are returned home.
Our visits to the drop-in centres and the conversations we had with people who made use of them demonstrated the amazing and invaluable work done by both of these institutions. However, despite the incredibly important service that these centres and others just like them provide every month, it is important that we simultaneously attempt to tackle the root causes that create dependency upon them. History teaches us that the end goal is not charity, but common justice.
An unfair and unjust system
In an ideal world these centres wouldn’t need to exist. Many of the people we spoke to, even though no longer physically in detention, were shackled economically by not being legally entitled to work. These economic constraints supplement the psychological damages that were caused or exacerbated by their treatment whilst in detention. As one woman who testified revealed ‘I still have mental health problems and suicidal thoughts and I’m still not free because I still have to report every week and I don’t have the right to work or study here.’ The Drop-In-Centres provide a lifeline for many, but the necessity of this lifeline is created by the restrictive and punitive structures of the immigration detention system in Britain.
These centres provide crucial help to individuals affected by an unfair and unjust system. It is an inefficient system in which the dramatic increase in the numbers of migrants detained has led to no increase in the numbers of removals from the UK. It is a system in which 76 million pounds of UK taxpayers money is spent on detaining people who are ultimately released. It is a system in which children are damaged, women are sexually abused and the mentally ill are disregarded. Ultimately, it is a system in which, as of May 2014, 26 people had lost their lives. What does it say about us if we stand by and watch as others are dehumanised?
The power of empathy
There are alternatives to this system, alternatives that save money and save lives. The UK is the only country in Europe that enforces a policy of indefinite administrative detention. States that have tried working with migrants in the community have found that most comply voluntarily with immigration requirements and one only has to look at the examples of Australia or Sweden to see the benefits of this system over ours. These countries have introduced systems that achieve their desired goals, avoid substantial financial layouts and respect the rights of individuals to a far greater extent than indefinite detention.
It is currently unknown what the parliamentary inquiry will conclude, although any decision that takes into account human rights obligations must call for the end of indefinite detention. We would like to see the introduction in Britain of the best recent practice in Europe, following guidance from the Joint Committee on Human Rights of a limitation to detention of 28 days.
The Jewish community’s response to the effects of detention is laudable, as is the personal reaction of those who having gone through detention are committed to bringing about its end. The end goal is to ensure that no-one should have to go through this particular experience. We all have experiences that we can mobilise to place ourselves in the shoes of others, whether personal or second hand. Empathy may just be a radical tool in the struggle to secure justice for migrants and refugees in Britain.

Voices from Morton Hall

In this blog post, two people currently detained in Morton Hall detention centre tell Leeds No Borders about their experiences.

”From 8pm til 8am we are locked up …

Phone signal is really bad so no one can get in touch. Even outside the signal is poor. If something is wrong in the night, no guards ever answer the bell. You have to apply to contact the Home Office. So even if something is urgent, like a change in your legal case, you don’t get a reply faster than at least a week. If you are facing deportation that slow reply can be a big problem. When the staff try to take me to the airport detention centre, i said ‘whatever you decide, i’m not going away. i am here. i will die here.’ luckily my solicitor put in my legal case fast and i got bail and the flight was cancelled.

Getting your medication is the worst. I have a bad back problem but I had to wait over a week for my medicine. Also Morton Hall is really difficult for people to come and visit as it’s in the middle of no where.

They really use people in detention and pay them just £1 an hour. But you don’t have a choice. You need money for phone credit, cigarettes etc so you need to work but it isn’t right.”

morton hall demo740

“I was assaulted twice by other people detained in Morton Hall. First I tried to break up a fight and was assaulted. I had a nose bleed the next morning but had to wait 2 days before I saw a Doctor. The second time I was assaulted and my jaw was dislocated. I decided to press charges and the manager of Morton Hall said he would contact the Police but he never did.

Phone signal is terrible. Also the fax machines are always broken. We often need to send our legal documents by fax but sometimes all of them are broken! There is one in each wing but all 5 were broken and the only one in the library was only half printing documents.

I have severe depression and need to take regular medication but my medication was taken of me and there was over a 48 hour delay before I was given it. Also the pharmacy is only open for limited times so you can easily miss it or there are queues. The guards ignore you if you request to see a nurse, especially in the night. One night I was in so much pain but no one came. It was only when I was released from detention that I got treatment. Some of the guards are ok but some have lots of prejudice. ”