The real cost of detaining migrants

This piece by Nic Eadie was first published by openDemocracy on 24 November 2014.  Nic is Director of Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group.
Several years after being rushed out of Tinsley House immigration removal centre near London Gatwick airport, one man still lies hospitalised, unable to move, reliant on the staff to keep him alive. 
A few years ago I visited an extremely vulnerable man in Tinsley House. Weeks later I received a phone call saying that he had thrown himself against a wall and broken his own neck. When I read that sentence back again it still shocks me and brings back memories that I wish I did not have. The next time I saw this man, who I will call John, it was in East Surrey Hospital, a few miles from Gatwick Airport, where I found him lying paralysed in a hospital bed. Today he still lies paralysed, requiring 24 hour care, and he will of course never recover. While this is an extreme example of what can happen to people when they are locked up indefinitely, it shows what is possible in these circumstances, and shines a light on how the system of immigration detention in the UK is failing those who are most vulnerable to its effects.
Tinsley House is often considered to be one of the better immigration removal centres in the UK. Successive reports by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons are largely positive, there have been no deaths at the centre, unlike at many others, nor have there been any major disturbances. Many of those we work with who have experienced life in more than one centre tell us Tinsley is better than most, and certainly far better than its bigger sister at Gatwick,Brook House. My experience of visiting there on many occasions over the last seven years is that many of the staff who work there are caring and compassionate, and see their job very much as making the stays of those held there are bearable as possible. And yet incidents like the one that happened with John still occur. The underlying problem, therefore, lies not in the conditions, nor the quality of the staff, nor the regime, though all of these are important and affect how many people deal with their detention. The problem is with a system which says it is OK to lock people up for the convenience of the state, while they make what is often very slow progress in resolving each person’s case, often with seemingly scant regard for the risks that this may pose to each individual, nor any effective way of ensuring that each person is not damaged to the extent that suicide seems like the only way out.
John was quite clearly struggling in detention when I saw him, and I was very concerned that he was seriously mentally unwell. He had been in Tinsley House for a few weeks, and in another immigration removal centre before that. I remember him telling me how desperate he was to return back to his home country where his wife and children had returned a few months earlier. He told me all he wanted was to go back home, but that there was a conspiracy by the Home Office to keep him locked up forever. He was paranoid, angry and desperate. I found out later that John had suffered from mental health problems since childhood. I had never seen anyone in such a condition before, and was so worried about his mental state that I informed the centre’s medical staff about my concerns, which is something I have only done on a handful of occasions before or since. While some action was taken by the staff at the centre, unfortunately they were unable to prevent the tragedy that unfolded a few days later. At a hearing many years later, the Judge found that negligence on behalf of both individuals at the centre and by the security firm who ran the centre were contributing factors; but he also found that John was so highly disturbed by that stage that nothing they could have done within the centre could have stopped him from doing what he did.
What does this say about our system of detention? Does it say that it is OK to lock up a man who did not even want to stay in the UK for months on end, simply for bureaucratic convenience, and even while his mental health deteriorated so severely and so clearly that when I got the call to say that he had broken his own neck it did not come as a great surprise to me?
My own experience of visiting and supporting hundreds of people in immigration detention over the years is that many, particularly the most vulnerable, of which John was undoubtedly one, are kept locked up for reasons that are very hard to fathom. The usual arguments of risk of absconding and risk of reoffending frequently make little sense when put under the spotlight; people who have committed documents offences or who have been caught working illegally being regarded as a potential risk to the public, men who have never failed to miss a ‘reporting date’ being considered a high risk of absconding. The people who make these decisions have often never met those whose immediate fate they hold in their hands, have little information to go on when making decisions about whether to detain or release, and when it comes to vulnerabilities and the ongoing harm being caused by detention there is often no information at all. The futility of detaining people for no discernible reason, for periods of time that often stretch into months and sometimes into years and on the basis of information that is incomplete at best, is clear to anyone who works with detainees. But not, it seems, to the Home Office, who continue to detain more and more people each year, and this year for the first time broke the 5,000 bed spaces mark, across IRCs, short-term holding facilities and prisons.
There has to be a better way. To treat vulnerable people with seemingly little regard for the damage that is being inflicted upon them is at best immoral, at worst inhuman. I have witnessed torture survivors being seriously re-traumatised by their detention, people so mentally ill that they had little idea of where they were and no idea of what was happening to them, and I have lost count of the number of people who tell me they could see no way out other than suicide.
While of course this is not the fate of the vast majority, that does not mean that we can just assume that they will probably be OK in the end. Assessing someone’s mental health is extremely difficult, and I am by no means a clinician, but you do not have to be a psychiatrist to know if a person sitting opposite you in the visits room is suffering beyond what is reasonable. Our immigration control system cannot be based on compassion alone, but it can be more understanding of those who are most vulnerable, and it can be much better at identifying those who are being unreasonably harmed by being locked up. Better decisions are possible.
The Vulnerable People Working Group of the Detention Forum, a network of 30 NGOs seeking to reform immigration detention in the UK, are calling for the development of a vulnerability assessment tool. This is based on other systems that are currently in use by the Scottish Refugee Council among others, albeit in a non-detention setting. This not only gives a much more rounded approach to vulnerability, bringing in a range of factors not currently considered, but is also able to track how this changes over time. We are calling on the government to investigate this as a matter of urgency. The right tool will benefit everyone. The Home Office will waste far less money detaining those who are most vulnerable, who often end up being released, and who often end up successfully taking them to court for unlawful detention. The benefits for those whose lives risk being shattered by detention need no explanation. Ample evidence is given on the pages of this Unlocking Detention series on openDemocracy.
Today John once again lies in a bed in a care home. Another day passes him by, unable to move, reliant on the staff to keep him alive. This is the real cost of detention.

“Am I a HUMAN BEING? I ran from my country to save my life"

By Lisa of Right to Remain.  Right to Remain is a member organisation of the Detention Forum.

Marie Therese, a survivor of ritualised torture in Cameroon, campaigned for justice in her asylum case with the help of Right to Remain’s supporters.  Marie Therese wrote, movingly and powerfully, about the shocking things she experienced in Cameroon, and the continued abuse she faced in Yarl’s Wood detention centre.  She described her experience in Yarl’s Wood as being “humiliated, assaulted, abused, tortured mentally, physically and emotionally”.

No safe haven

Marie Therese was tortured and beaten by her family in a tribal ritual for converting religion, targeted by the church for refusing to marry an elder, and verbally abused by her new husband’s family.  She fled to the UK and sought asylum.

After such a terrible ordeal, Marie Therese had hoped she would find understanding and sanctuary in the UK. Unforgivably, she experienced quite the opposite.

For nine month they have robbing me everything : my personality, my health, my dignity and freedom even my sleep.

After claiming asylum, Marie Therese Nana was detained in Yarl’s Wood detention centre. Traumatised by her experiences in Cameroon, and having to flee her country, she was feeling very unwell. She was not prepared for what followed:

I was in my room so poorly and I punched the emergency button because I needed help and I wasn’t well, to my surprise the Officers came and shouted at me and I tried to apologize but he was so aggressive against me until his colleague began to try to calm him down.

Both went out and later on, the man came again and started shouting at me, telling me that we will get it tomorrow on your removal, I apologized and he went out, after both came again in my room and compelled me to follow them and I managed to walk and it took me times to follow them to the healthcare due to my poorly condition.

This was not the end of Marie Therese’s ordeal. In August 2012, she was issued with removal directions.

I was called in the manager office who says you have a removal direction for tomorrow, we will move you to another unit, but I wanted to remain in my unit. Then He call four officers who came and grasped me, and one of them twisted my neck, I can’t forget this horrible moment, what to me is a torture, they twisted my hand back and handcuff me backward, they carried me like a luggage and I screamed because they were hurting me.

Marie Therese was subjected to yet further abuse in October 2012, during another removal attempt, when she was manhandled and taken ‘like luggage to prison’ while wearing only a night dress. She was locked up for several days, still only wearing a nightdress.

About 4 am, four other officers came carrying me out of the prison, dumped me on the floor in another room and put me handcuffed frontward, one of the officer squeezed my mouth trying to open it, I dont no what she wanted to do but I felt myself treated unhuman and I was so humiliated, they carried me in the van and drove to the airport, in the van, I was so poorly and was very cold because I was only in a night dress, when we arrive on the checking point, they carry me like a luggage and put me on the floor, I was so shocked because I was in night dress and they were laughing and mocking at me, they didn’t even give me the opportunity to go to the toilet, after checking they carry me back to the van and drove to the plane, when we arrive, few minute later they said my flight has been cancelled and we came back to Yarl’s Wood. I felt unhuman because I can believe this attitude coming from human being like me, taking me with night dress and barefooted. When I came to Yarl’s Wood, officers at the reception refused to let me go back to my room with my night dress and compelled me to change before going to my room, I felt deeply so bad because they took me to the airport night dress and now they are refusing me to go back in my room in night dress. When I came back in my unit, officer were gathered in their office and laughed and mocked after me.

They started monitoring me day and night. I could not sleep because of the light on during the night and the door widely open. Having shower was the worst because under shower the officer open the door of the bathroom and watched me naked. Even others detained could watch out of the corridor, because all the door was opened, I asked the female officer to get in the bathroom so that I can shut the door, because I felt humiliated, I was being looked at by officers both males and females and other detainees passing along the corridor. She refused and continued to watch me naked drying myself. This happened for two days until I stopped taking showers. I cannot drink freely because I fear to go toilet because a man officer is there just to observe me. During this oppression UKBA sent me removal directions for 11th February knowing that I have a judicial review hearing on the 21st of February.

I have thrown myself into the den of a lion.  Am I a HUMAN BEING? I ran from my country to save my life and I just want to seek asylum.   After destroying me mentally now they plot to send me back to my killers.

Justice, at last

Many supporters wrote messages of support to Marie Therese, while she was experiencing this horror in detention.  Emails and letters came from far and wide, and Right to Remain (then known as NCADC) passed these on to Marie Therese.  They meant a great deal to her, and kept her spirits up.

After the degradation of detention and the violent attempt to remove her, Marie Therese then had a long, agonising wait while the Home Office reconsidered her case after judicial review proceedings were initiated.

In June 2014, Marie Therese got in contact to give us the great news that she had finally been granted refugee status.  She said:

please pass on my gratitude to all those who have been encouraging me and supporting me through their mails and prayers.

Extraordinary things: visiting the women at Yarl’s Wood detention centre

This piece was first published by openDemocracy on 18 November 2014.  Heather Jones is the Co-ordinator of Yarls Wood Befriends.  Eiri Ohtani is the Co-ordinator of the Detention Forum.
Next door to a Formula 1 car testing zone, hundreds of migrant women are kept behind bars. Heather Jones is a long-term visitor. 
Heather Jones is a co-ordinator of Yarl’s Wood Befrienders, a small charity that supports women held in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire, England. The charity’s work is supported by a group of local ‘befrienders’ who offer detained women practical and emotional help.
Each detention centre in the UK has a visitors’ groups, although their scale and type of work they carry out vary enormously. Often these visitors groups are the only link to the local area where the detention centre is located. The quality of life in detention – and often their access to vital advice and services that might be life-saving – depends heavily on these volunteer visitors’ groups.  As part of the Unlocking Detention series, I asked Heather to share her experience of standing side by side with women who find themselves locked up in the middle of the industrial estate.
Eiri Ohtani: You have been doing this work for a number of years. Looking back over the years, what changes do you think life at Yarl’s Wood has gone through, both good and bad? 
Heather Jones: There have been many changes during the time I have been visiting Yarl’s Wood, and since it opened in 2001, when it was the largest migrant detention centre in Europe. Some of these changes have been positive. The best, by far, was the ending of the detention of children at Yarl’s Wood in the wake of public outrage in 2010.  Visiting a family with children was always extremely distressing.  The physical environment and the regime have been softened and there is now more freedom of movement within the centre.
Despite the well-publicised and wholly unacceptable treatment of some women in the centre, many women tell us that many staff are kind and supportive and some frequently go out of their way to be as helpful as possible. Sadly sometimes followed by another remark, that some of them are rude. Complaints about healthcare and food remain common. There have been noticeable efforts to provide more occupation for women during their detention and there do appear to be more female officers.  Some women do manage to keep themselves busy but many women are too distressed, or afraid, to leave their room and spend many hours in their room where time really drags.
The increase in the detained fast track places is not a positive change.  As already explored by Jerome Phelps in this series, women seeking asylum are rushed through a judicial process without sufficient time to prepare or obtain supportive evidence.  There is no opportunity to choose a solicitor they feel confident with and many women find themselves without representation at all at their appeal.  Defending yourself alone in a court is a truly frightening and intimidating experience.
The number of legal surgeries has increased but the number of solicitors who are now able to take legal aid cases at Yarl’s Wood has decreased.  I can no longer refer anyone directly to a solicitor. For example, a victim of trafficking needs a solicitor with experience of trafficking cases.  Legal aid is no longer available for human rights cases so a woman who is facing removal from the country and separation from her children, can no longer have a solicitor unless she can pay. Many cannot.
We have been visiting a greater number of elderly or disabled women and the detention of pregnant women is very disturbing.
What has not changed is the distress women feel at finding themselves locked up. Indefinite detention for administrative reasons remains extremely difficult to deal with, there are always high numbers of women with mental health problems and many who self-harm, or are at risk of doing so, because of their distress.  For some of those their mental health condition is because of their previous experiences and deteriorates whilst in detention, but for some their mental health problems are caused by detention. The evidence is there. A good percentage of women are released back into their communities rather than being removed, which raises questions about why they have been put through this damaging experience, at enormous cost, in the first place.
Eiri Ohtani: I remember during our drive to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, we drove through a pretty village before entering the industrial estate. In your view, how do the local people view Yarl’s Wood IRC, which keeps on hitting the national headlines, and always for the wrong reasons, as with the recent sexual abuse claims?  I always remember you saying that when you started, you were surprised to find human rights abuses right at your doorstep.
Heather Jones: Yarl’s Wood is in such an extraordinary position. Next door there’s a wind tunnel used by the Red Bull Formula 1 team to test their cars, a pet cremation service, a roofing contractor, Bodyflight indoor skydiving and other businesses close-by. Tucked away where it can easily be overlooked, local people do often overlook it.  Many people do not know, or want to know, why women are being detained.
When I first started visiting my expectations were that the system that put them there would be fair.  I no longer feel that.
I have seen and heard some extraordinary things during my work. I sometimes read statements by the Home Office that are clearly untrue and yet they are relied on by a court to uphold a decision to remove someone from the country. Many are decisions that I would describe as simply cruel. It is no surprise to me that many women who have been in the country for some time have told me that their communities have advised them not to go to the Home Office because they’ll be removed.  Until the Home Office decision making is improved and they earn a reputation for being fair, that is likely to continue.
Eiri Ohtani: You must have supported a large number of women and families in detention over the years.  Do you remember them and how have they influenced your life?
Heather Jones: I am still in touch with a good number of women whom I met during their detention in Yarl’s Wood.  Some now have permission to stay in this country, some I see and hear from, regularly.  A few have stayed in contact despite being removed, often managing extremely difficult and sometimes dangerous circumstances.
I have become much more aware of the difficulties many women around the world face, issues of which, from the standpoint of my comfortable life, I previously had little awareness. There’s a side to our work which has its roots in global solidarity. Many women flee problems that are just because they are women: forced marriage, FGM, horrific domestic violence, in communities that do not value women and where there is little or no protection.
Our Government has spoken out strongly against Violence Against Women and yet women who flee those problems often do not get the protection they need. Returning them may place them in a worse situation than when they left.  Destitution kills, slowly but surely. It is frightening to think of the risks women face on return. Many are extremely vulnerable to physical and sexual violence because there is no system to support them or no family they can turn to. Often the risks are because of their family.
Eiri Ohtani: What will you do tomorrow? What does your work involve in a typical day?
Heather Jones: Mornings are usually spent in the office, trying to keep up to date with our database, making – or following up – referrals to specialist organisations, or liaising with solicitors or family members. I often visit Yarl’s Wood up to five afternoons a week.  My visits may be an initial visit to meet and find out about the circumstances a woman is facing, or she could be to someone I have met before, who has not yet been allocated a regular visitor, or because I am particularly concerned about them.
Sometimes during initial visits I find that women are not aware of basic information that we know they should have been given on arrival, information such as the provision of the legal surgery or of Bail workshops. The shock of arriving in detention often means this information is not taken in.  Many of these visits can be tearful when women are giving an account of what they have experienced, sometime the tears are mine. Very often those experiences include rape. It often seems that I may be one of very few people who have actually listened to what they’ve had to say.

The woman called 258

Abri wrote this blog, the third of a series of three, for Detention Forum member Women for Refugee Women from inside Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre in July 2014.

I didn’t know how much of a crier I was until my time in Yarl’s wood; I have formed friendships with some extraordinary women, who have been through a lot in their lives; I have listened to a woman detail her story of how she has been travelling for the past 14 years of her life and how she was smuggled into the country in a fridge. But the one that really touched my heart, mainly because of what she suffered in this country after all she had been through; locked up in Yarl’s wood for the past two years, is a woman I’m going to call 258, after her room no avocet 258.To me this woman is brave, strong and courageous, she is a friend and her strength has brought me hope.
258 was detained in March 2011 and released in May 2014, after she had suffered a lot in many ways: her health had deteriorated, she had injured her back and she is now confined in a wheel chair. Throughout her time in detention she has been in and out of health care and solitary confinement and sometimes she was on suicide watch for many days. How she survived two years in Yarl’s wood I really don’t know, I won’t be able to make two years, I can’t do it.
I know from my 5 months experience how it feels, how much you miss even the small little things; just the other day my friend and I jumped at what sounded like a barking dog and we convinced ourselves it was a dog, even though in reality it couldn’t have been, because of where we are in the middle of a Business Park. I know how long a day seems and some days you just can’t take it, You want to scream from the top of your lungs, let me out, I want to go out! But the fear of solitary confinement always stops me.
This doesn’t even begin to explain what 258 went through, two years of her life confide in Yarl’s wood, the cost on her health, the pains of her heart, the awful memories of her past and the fears of being forgotten and the careless regard for her life., It sure seemed like human rights didn’t apply to her. What makes me angry about 258’s story is the fact that after two years of detention, the case continues unresolved, For me this is a miscarriage of justice. 258 deservesher freedom and accountability for the loss of two years of her life.

Our pain is Serco's profit

Abri’s second blog, written for Women for Refugee Women in July 2014, from inside Yarl’s Wood detention centre. Women for Refugee Women is a member of the Detention Forum.

Today I would like to share some personal experiences and those of fellow detainees, with the hope that we can get people to stand in solidarity with us while we wait for justice.

Our daily experiences in Yarl’s Wood detention centre are far from the description on the Serco’s website which says that they ‘focus on decency and respect in all aspects of care for our residents and use continuous innovation to further improve and develop our service.’ For us Yarl’s Wood is a prison and we are treated like criminals and sometimes even worse.

Recently I had an unpleasant experience that left me embarrassed and humiliated. It was on a Sunday morning around 9 o’clock in the morning. I was in bed suffering from a bad toothache, when officers (three male and one female) opened the door and let themselves in my room. I was ordered to get up and get dressed as they were doing room search. I asked if they could do it at some other time in the day, as I was too tired and in pain. They showed no compassion, called the managers and said I was being difficult. Two male managers came to talk to me, and concluded I was faking the toothache and went ahead with the room search. I was in bed in pain, half naked, with five male officers and one female in my room. They went through my all my clothes with male officers touching my underwear and talking about me as though I wasn’t in the room. They also mucked around and made fun of me. At the end of the room search they found nothing. What makes me angry about the whole thing is the fact that everything in my room was provided by Serco including the clothes as all my personal belongings were confiscated the day I arrived. What they were looking for I don’t know. That day I did not leave the room, and didn’t even go for meals, I just stayed in bed crying and feeling violated.

Really things are not as they seem, to Serco we have a price tag, we are part of million pound business deals, and our pain is Serco’s profit, And while we are in these premises they have the power to do as they will with us, because after all we are just parcels that need to be sent to a different address by all means necessary. And they call this justice?

My soul cries for justice, my heart is searching for hope and my body simply wants a walk in the park

In July 2014, Women for Refugee Women shared the experiences of ‘Abri’ who was detained in Yarl’s Wood detention centre.  You can see Abri’s testimony on the Women for Refugee Women website here.  Women for Refugee Women is a member of the Detention Forum.

1 July 2014

wfrwI carry scars deep down within me where no one can touch or see. I was forced to run and flee for my life. The fact that I am a woman made me a victim of sexual assault in my home country. Now I’m locked up 24/7 indefinitely in Yarl’s Wood, the future is uncertain and deep inside me the voice of hope is daily fading away. I’m separated from family and everything that is normal. I can’t plan for tomorrow because I don’t know where my tomorrow is. My soul cries for justice, my heart is searching for hope and my body simply wants a walk in the park. It’s been more than four months confined in this building and I could really do with some fresh air.

I’m one of the women detained in Yarl’s Wood detention centre and these are not just my feelings, I’m voicing the feelings of many women like me who have been detained indefinitely for months or years. It is hard to put in words what it feels like. Every day something very valuable is taken from us- our freedom. You eat for comfort and sleep to escape, but struggle with both. Thoughts of failure, shame, guilt and defeat fill your mind. You have become so helpless you can’t even choose your dinner as decisions are made for you daily. You lose touch with humanity and start to feel that human rights don’t apply to you. I mean, all you ever wanted was to be a part of a community where you can feel safe and be free to be yourself. Is that a crime?

While our cases are pending, the government has confined us in this building with our scars and all. We all have a chance of winning our cases, and I have seen many do that. And that for me this makes detention meaningless, because most of the women detained here are not going to be removed and that’s a fact. Then that leads me to ask the question – is locking people up for months and even years for administrative convenience even lawful?


Dover week…

2 Nov to 8 Nov – Unlocking Detention team looks back on the week they visited Dover detention centre in Kent.
The Dover week was a busy week like other weeks, but this time with the Detention Inquiry’s second evidence session taking place on Thursday (and we also had our Quarterly Meeting, which always needs a lot of preparation…)

Many blog pieces came out this week, and we would like to thank all the contributors.
We had a permission to republish this powerful piece by Abdelhay Tali, who was detained in Dover in the past.

If you go to his blogpage here, you can also see the map of the detention centre he drew.  You can also read other pieces he wrote about his experience of detention here, highly recommended.
One of our members, Samphire, which visits people held in Dover detention centre contributed this piece.  Immigration detention is a national policy but how the local residents who live side by side the detention centres see it must be unique to each area.

The photo they supplied was one of our all-time favorites…  You will see why.

There was this video…

and the photo.

It feels odd to see this detention centre, a modern evil created by modern states, located on this rather historic site.

Many of the criticisms made by the HMIP cluster around this fundamental ambiguity about the place – that it is a prison which is not supposed to be a prison.  It looks like a prison, it feels like a prison, those who work there treat it like a prison, but it is not a prison.  The outcome of this ambiguity is that migrants who are held there experience it as a prison, though the key aspect of prison sentences, as the knowledge of how long you have to stay imprisoned and counting down your days before release, is nowhere to be found.
For those of us who are not physically there in the detention centers, its sheer cruelty makes this feel unreal.  Why keep people in a place like that for administrative convenience of the state?  A tweet like this reminds us that, as we  dissect and pontificate ever more about immigration detention, many people are actually there, right at this moment.

In our work over the last few months – particularly our work encouraging more organisations to be involved in the detention inquiry – we have come to know many great organisations who are not specialising in detention as such but who knew so painfully what the long-term impact of immigration detention is on people.  Room to Heal was one of them, and we got talking about the ethics and difficulties of asking people to share their experience of detention.  We ourselves touched upon this issue here.  We were delighted to receive this contribution to Unlocking Detention from Room to Heal.

The fact that not everyone can speak out on detention should make those who make a living out of talking about detention, set policies and procedures about detention and carry out daily practices detention sit up. Most of them/us are very likely to be operating in the darkness, with a hazy idea of what detention really is.  There are many thousands and thousands of voices which will not be heard, even when a question, ‘What does detention do to you?’  is posed.
We ourselves heard from individuals who told us that their friends and peers were simply too afraid to talk about detention because they have been completely traumatized by their experiences.  One person told us how her friend who, having secured refugee status, is still unable to open the front door of her flat because she was worried that someone might come again to ‘get her’ to detain her.  The person said ‘My friend was detained for many years.  I think her mental health is getting worse and worse.  We keep on telling her ‘You’ve got your status, you don’t have to worry about detention.’, but it doesn’t make any difference to her’.  Another person said that he encouraged his friend to come and share his experience of detention so that the inquiry panel can learn from it.  He said ‘On hearing the word detention, my friend just froze.  He just couldn’t come.  He was just too scared to even think about it again.’.
We think these voices, whether audible or not, are so important to the parliamentary inquiry panel.  That’s why we have insisted from the very beginning that people’s experiences must take the centre stage of the inquiry.  After all, organisations working on detention issues have always been vocal, have published many reports, briefing papers, consultation responses.  There is so much “official” evidence about detention already available.  We wanted to make sure during the inquiry that people who are detained or have direct experience of detention are not treated as dreaded “case studies” but real people whose lives experiences are valuable and who have something to say to the government.

We were pleased to be able to help our member, Waging Peace, bring one of their clients to Parliament on the day of the detention inquiry evidence session.  Mortada gave evidence to the panel, alongside with two people from the Migrant Refugees Communities Forum.

We were also assisting one more person to give evidence on the day, but he was not able to make it.  He was scheduled to give evidence from detention during the first oral evidence session in July, but unfortunately the phone connection didn’t work out and he missed his chance to speak to the panel.  Luckily he has now been released from detention and living in the community – which, of course, raises the question of, why was he detained in the first place?
Our phone is not very ‘smart’, so we were not able to do live-tweeting from the evidence session.  But our members Rene Cassin and Detention Action did a superb job of capturing the key moments of the session.  You can read the recap of the session by clicking the link in the tweet below.

One of the recommendations made by a panel of former ‘detainees’ was this.

And will the panel listen?
The most memorable of the tweet of the week was the one by Abdelhay whose work was featured during the week.

From Unlocking Detention team

Women in detention – a troubling reality

This blog post was written by Rosa Heimer, an intern at René Cassin – a charity working to promote and protect universal human rights, drawing on Jewish experience and values, and a member of the Detention Forum.

A considerably high number of women seek asylum in the UK on the grounds of gender-based persecution. Among those cases, the specific reason to claim asylum often relates to their past experiences of rape, torture and/or other forms of sexual abuses. The physical and psychological trauma arising from such experiences often leaves them in an extremely vulnerable position, which only deteriorates further when put through the detention system.

Although the detention of women who have suffered severe gender-based harm is unacceptable, it remains a common practice in the UK. A recent study by the organisation Women for Refugee Women (WRW) with 46 women who experienced detention while seeking asylum in the UK has found that 52% of those women felt that they were persecuted because they were women, while 18% felt they were persecuted because they were lesbians. An even more disturbing figure is that 33 of those women (72%) had been detained despite having been victims of rape.

‘Worse than prison’

The experience of being locked up in a detention centre has often been compared to being worse than being in prison, largely due to the uncertainty of not knowing how long they will be in detention or when they might suddenly be deported. An ex-detainee who spent 2 years in detention and was interviewed by René Cassin said that:

Detention is exactly like in prison but I would say even worse. I can tell because I spent 6 months in prison but prison is better than detention for two reasons. In prison I felt more useful because I was repaying my debt to the society and I was also working there. In prison, I knew when my detention will end; it even ended before because of my well behaviour. But in detention, you never know when it will end, you just wait and you are put from a centre to another.  [Ex-detainee]

In the particular case of women, many of who have sought asylum due to rape and torture, being imprisoned in a detention centre is doubly distressing if they go on to receive further discrimination according to their gender. WRW’s study reported that 61% of women had suicidal thoughts, 93% were depressed, 83% were lonely and 85% felt scared while in detention.

Compelling evidence

As part of René Cassin’s work, we collected testimonies from migrants who have experienced detention to be submitted as written evidence for the Parliamentary Detention Inquiry. Those willing to retell their stories have been brave enough to denounce the inhumane conditions of detention centres. Among the recounted stories, lack of gender sensitivity in detention and the serious damage it can cause on women appeared as a recurrent issue.

The testimony given by Clair to René Cassin powerfully illustrates some of these seriously unacceptable issues. Clair had been victim of sexual abuse by close family members since the early age of 17, after her father died she received death threats from her brothers and fled to the UK to seek asylum. Here in the UK her asylum claim was denied even though she was a victim of sexual violence. She was finally receiving appropriate help from the organisation Rape Crisis, when she was detained and sent to Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre. Clair’s description of the conditions and mistreatment found in this centre and their impact on her is disturbing:

The way I was treated in detention was inhuman and degrading. I can never exactly explain how awful it was because I was physically and psychologically mistreated in detention. The conditions of detention are so awful that my health, especially my mental health, started deteriorating very quickly. I had nightmares, sleep disturbance, difficulties to eat and suicidal thoughts. [Clair, ex-detainee]

Despite being a victim of sexual violence, during her time in detention Clair never had access to counselling, even after several suicide attempts.  She describes the precarious access to health care in the centre:

In detention centres you don’t have real access to doctors, it’s just a formal access to respect the rules. When you manage to have an appointment, the doctors are there, in the room, you can see them but you cannot speak to them. You are just allowed to speak to a nurse but never directly to the doctors, the nurses always speak on your behalf and you have a limited amount of time so you can’t explain everything. […] Also even after my suicide attempts, I never had access to counselling or to psychiatric or psychological care. I was never able to speak to a psychiatrist or a psychologist to tell how I feel and I was just receiving medication despite the fact that I was in suicide watch.  [Clair, ex-detainee]

Male guards

It is clear that detention centres present a lack of appropriate health treatment for victims of sexual violence and women detainees in general. Furthermore, although the Yarl’s Wood Centre is a detention centre for women, it is predominantly staffed by male guards. The relation between detainees and guards is already intrinsically hierarchical and unequal gender relations only reinforce these dynamics.

WRW’s research found that 70% of women, guarded by male staff reported feeling uncomfortable. In addition, in Yarl’s Wood, it is common practice that male guards enter women detainees’ rooms without previous warning, clearly violating their right to privacy and often catching them while still undressed. Clair, for example, suffered a shocking humiliating attempt of deportation in which she was taken out of her room by several male guards while still being naked:

… in one attempt to remove me from the UK, I was dragged naked out of my room by several male guards. The conditions of my deportation were so shocking that it led to spontaneous protests by more than 100 woman detainees from the Yarl’s Wood detention centre. [Clair, ex-detainee]

The predominance of male guards in Yarl’s Wood Centre especially puts at risk those women who are the most psychologically vulnerable, namely, those who have attempted suicide. The centre operates a so-called ‘suicide watch’ system which is highly controversial. During the first UK Parliamentary Detention Inquiry oral evidence session, on 17th July 2014, two women previously detained in Yarl’s Wood Centre spoke about the way in which ‘suicide watch’ creates the conditions for women’s sexual harassment.

Because I’m very angry about the suicide watch so I have to say a little bit about it. Suicide watch, I think, they just made it to put you under even more mental torture. If you’re on suicide watch and your health is not good, but it’s not that bad, suicide watch can make it more bad. And I can tell you, anybody who is suicide watch has sexual harassment in Yarl’s Wood, because those male guards they sit in there watching you at night, sleeping and being naked.’  [Maimuna Jawo, ex-detainee]1

Alice who experienced first-hand sexual harassment while being in suicide watch also confirms Maimuna’s statements when giving her oral evidence in the Parliamentary Inquiry:

Yes, it’s true sometimes when you are washing, you need to remove something or, even if you need to go to the toilet, the guard will stay. After they are staying they are laughing and they are saying “she have big boobs”, “She have big breasts”. They are just laughing between themselves; they are just looking at you. [Alice, ex-detainee]2

Ongoing ordeal

Women with a history of sexual abuses and suicidal tendencies should not be kept in detention in the first place but this is even truer when the conditions in detention subject them to sexual harassment. Traumatising experiences with male guards are recurrently reported by women in detention. In WRW’s study 50% of women said they were verbally abused by male staff, three women reported being physically assaulted, and even more shockingly, one woman said she was sexually assaulted3.

It is outrageous that women asylum seekers fleeing their country due to persecution based on their gender are likely to suffer persecution based on this same aspect of their identity while in detention. In reality their persecution rarely ceases once they arrive in the UK, but is further perpetuated by the asylum system. The UK detention system is in need of urgent review.

1. APPG on Refugees and APPG on Migration Joint Parliamentary Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention. 1st Oral Evidence Session. July 17th 2014. Available here.

2. APPG on Refugees and APPG on Migration Joint Parliamentary Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention. 1st Oral Evidence Session. July 17th 2014. Available here.

3. Women for Refugee Women, ‘Detained: Women Asylum Seekers Locked Up in the UK’ by Marchu Girma, Sophie Radice, Natasha Tsangarides and Natasha Walter. Available here.

Artwork courtesy of Detention Action – created by an individual who has experienced detention first-hand.

Immigration detention: a most un-British phenomenon

By Lea Sitkin and Bethan Rogers. This article originally appeared in Open Democracy’s Unlocking Detention series.

Lea Sitkin is Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Westminster. She holds a DPhil in Criminology from the University of Oxford. Lea has also worked with a number of NGOs, including volunteering as a detention support worker for immigration detainees in Campsfield House, Oxford.

Bethan Rogers has practiced as a barrister for 5 years dealing with criminal law, detention and bail. She also volunteers at Liberty to assist in providing advice to members of the public whose human rights and civil liberties have been infringed. She is a trustee of the Habeas Corpus Project.

Strict prohibitions against arbitrary detention are a central element in any system that celebrates liberty. It is time to learn the lessons of history and extend this right to migrants.

Britain’s proud tradition of liberty is a common trope in both academic and political discourse. In 1923, celebrated legal theorist A. V. Dicey argued that ‘in no other country, are people as free from arbitrary power’. Some 90-odd years later, in an article marking the 799th anniversary of the Magna Carta, British Prime Minister David Cameron argued that ‘the values I’m talking about – a belief in freedom, tolerance of others accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law – are the things we should try to live by every day. To me they’re as British as the Union Flag, as football, as fish and chips’. Our protection of personal freedoms is something that we Brits pride ourselves on; it is something that forms part of our conception of what it means to be British; it is something we judge other countries for lacking.

Strict prohibitions against unlawful detention are a central element in any system that celebrates liberty. As William Blackstone, the famous legal historian remarked, ‘[T]he glory of the English law consists in clearly defining the times, the causes, and the extent, when, wherefore, and to what degree, the imprisonment of the subject may be lawful’. Prohibitions on unlawful detention significantly precede the formation of the modern British state. First recorded in 1305, the writ of habeas corpus ad subjiciendum enabled a court to require custodians to produce a detained person and explain the reasons for detention so the court could decide if detention was lawful. Later, article 39 of that most British of all documents – the Magna Carta – stated that ‘no freeman shall be taken or imprisoned…except upon the lawful judgement of his peers or the law of the land’.

Further, prohibitions were not confined to English citizens, but applied to all persons on English territory. This principle was tested in the landmark case of James Somerset v Charles Stewart, which saw Judge Lord Mansfield rule against the unlawful imprisonment of the former – a Jamaican slave – by the latter – his British Master. As Blackstone argued, ‘this [British] spirit of liberty is so implanted in our constitution, and rooted in our very soil, that a slave or a Negro, the moment he lands in England falls under the protection of the laws and becomes co instanti a freeman’.

However, the notion that people were protected from arbitrary, unlawful detention in Britain was more often cherished as an ideal than evident in reality. In particular, the tradition of liberty of which Britons are so proud should perhaps be tempered by the numerous episodes where we have tolerated lower levels of freedom for immigrants. For instance, both World Wars saw the mass internment – without trial and without right to habeas corpus – of thousands of people of German descent– including, in the case of the Second World War, many Jewish refugees from Germany.

History has judged those episodes, but has not learnt from them. In particular, contemporary, institutional xenophobia finds its expression in the ever-increasing number of foreign nationals detained in ‘removal centres’ and prisons in Britain. Here, the famed British rule of law is a fantasy. As the series of articles on openDemocracy 50.50’s Unlocking Detention series has explored, the British immigration detention features a number of highly problematic aspects from the perspectives of human rights. These include: the detention of vulnerable groups such as torture victims and asylum seekers, particular under the Detained Fast-Track procedure; serious issues with the bail application process; and the retrenchment of legal aid funding. Further, and unlike most other European countries, detainees in the UK enjoy neither the protections afforded by a statutory time limit to detention, nor the fruits of automatic judicial review processes. As such, migrants can be detained indefinitely without charge or trial.

A new charity – the Habeas Corpus Project – has been created to hold the Secretary of State to account on her use of her power to detain people under the immigration regime. Taking its name from the long-established writ which, as above, allows courts to determine whether a custodian has lawful authority to detain a prisoner, the Habeas Corpus Project aims to fill the gap left by the cuts to legal aid by providing pro-bono representation to immigration detainees who want to challenge their unlawful detention in the High Court. This avenue of redress is currently restricted to those who can afford to risk the legal fees and potential high costs in the event of a loss. The Habeas Corpus Project will assist claimants who would otherwise remain detained and unheard. More broadly, it challenges a regime under which potentially illegal detention decisions routinely go unscrutinised.

The need for Habeas Corpus Project will only intensify in the coming year. The Immigration Act 2014 contains a number of provisions in the area of detention and bail. Some of these will be positive, including changes within the child detention regime. However, the Act also contains a number of problematic provisions from the perspective of detainees’ rights. For instance, the Act introduces a blanket ban if bail applications are made within 28 days of a previous refusal and there has been no material change in circumstances. However, this fails to allow the First-tier Tribunal to rapidly correct its own errors. Further, the decision as to whether there has been a material change in circumstance will be made by the Tribunal. This means the decision as to whether the application can go forward will be made without advocacy from the detainee’s legal representative.

The Act also introduces a requirement that bail applications made within 14 days of a proposed date of removal can only be granted on the consent of the Secretary of State. However, as charity BID  has argued ‘as anyone who works with detainees will know, the service of Removal Directions does not inevitably result in removal from the UK, and Removal Directions are often cancelled by the Home Office only to be set again, sometimes repeatedly over several months’. This requirement will therefore cast a net over a far wider group of people than first appears. Finally, the Act radically retrenches the ability of detainees to appeal immigration decisions, first, by allowing the Secretary of State to remove the right to in-country appeals for certain types of deportees, and second, by radically reducing the number of immigration decisions that attract appeal rights to the Tribunal.

What these developments mean is that there will be fewer avenues for detainees to challenge the basis upon which they are being removed and detained. The Immigration Act 2014 pushes migrants even further into the margins of society, and affords them even less protection by the rule of law. As academic Kay Saunders wrote, in reference to internment policies during the two Worlds Wars, ‘Taking a person into custody and then incarcerating him or her without a charge, without a hearing in a court and no right to an open appeal denies all the premises upon which English civil and political culture is embedded’. We are making the same mistake again – although this time, our xenophobia plays out without the nominal excuse of a world war. Today’s immigration detention regime is a stain on our national pride; it is one that we will look back on in shame. In such circumstances, the need for organisations like Habeas Corpus Project is urgent.

An ever-expanding detention estate: make your voice heard

By Melanie Griffiths, academic and campaigner 

The government has recently submitted plans to the Cherwell District Council for the major expansion of Campsfield House, an Immigration Removal Centre situated just outside Oxford. This is just the latest phase of a wider move towards the expansion of the UK’s immigration detention estate. Much of the recent increases in detention bedspace have occurred quietly, without much room for objection. However, the Campsfield plans present an opportunity for the public to make known their views on immigration detention and the growth of the detention estate. Now is truly the time to voice concerns.

Immigration detention in the UK

In many ways Immigration Removal Centres resemble prisons. They are closed centres, where people are held against their will, surrounded by patrolling guard dogs, surveillance cameras, locked gates and high fences topped with razor wire. However, although immigration detention feels like prison by those held there, it is an administrative rather than judicial power. The decisions are made by civil servants not judges. Immigration detainees are not held as the result of a conviction, but for the purpose of an immigration goal, such as deportation. Indeed, unless a detainee challenges their detention or applies for bail, they may never go before a court.

The Home Office argues that people are detained for minimal periods of time, usually just before they are removed. However, for a variety of reasons detainees often are not at the end of their immigration case. Many have asylum claims or immigration appeals pending. Others cannot be removed, often through no fault of their own, for example if conditions in their country are too unsafe or if the Home Office is unable to obtain travel documents for them.

Indeed, my PhD focused on people with disputed identity, many of whom became stuck in detention as embassies and the Home Office fought over their identity. Such people can be detained for months or even years. Because the UK opted out of the EU Removals Directive that restricts immigration detention to 18 months, there is no maximum period for detention in the UK. People can literally be detained indefinitely, with no idea when change in their situation might occur, nor what that outcome might be.

We have one of the largest – and expanding – detention estates in Europe, are unique in the continent for detaining people without time limit, and have been repeatedly criticised domestically and internationally for inappropriately detaining vulnerable people (see here). For more information on immigration detention in the UK, see the Detention Forum briefing paper.

A growing phenomenon

We now have well over 4,000 immigration detention bed spaces in the UK, double the number just six years ago. The number is closer to 5,000 if you include the number of people that can be held under Immigration Act powers in prisons.

An extra 800 detention spaces were created in 2014 alone. Just a few weeks ago, Her Majesty’s Prison the Verne was redesignated as an Immigration Removal Centre, adding 580 spaces to the detention system. Extra beds have also been quietly added to existing detention centres, by squeezing more beds into – increasingly overcrowded – rooms. This includes 60 beds at Campsfield House alone. On top of this, the government is now seeking to add another 290 beds through creating a whole new, large building at Campsfield.

Campsfield House

handsbarsCampsfield opened as an Immigration Removal Centre just seven miles outside Oxford in 1993. It has been beset with problems since it opened, with over half the detainees on hunger-strike just four months after the centre opened and the first ‘riot’ occurring three months later. Since then there have been hungerstrikes, escapes, disturbances and suicides. Just last year a major fire destroyed much of the largest residential unit. The fact that sprinklers had not been fitted greatly increased the damage and danger of the fire.

Until recently, up to 216 adult men could be detained at Campsfield at any time. The figure is now 276 and will increase to 566 if plans to build a new section of the centre go ahead. This would make it one of the largest detention centres, not only of the UK, but of the whole of Europe.

The land for the proposed new three storey building at Campsfield is Green Belt land, meaning that ‘very special circumstances’ must apply before planning permission is granted. The Home Office is arguing that this requirement is met by the UK’s need for more immigration detention, in order to increase removals from the UK.

However, as groups that visit immigration detainees can testify, people are routinely detained even when they are not at the end of the legal process and/or when they cannot be removed, resulting in their either being ‘warehoused’ in detention for long periods, or being detained only to be released back into British society, meaning that they needlessly endure this torturous process. Although we detain more migrants than ever before, we actually remove fewer people from our shores. So, in addition to damaging individuals and their families, immigration detention fails to achieve the government’s own objectives.

Making your voice heard

A large number of political, religious and charitable organisations in Oxford and beyond are coming together to fight the proposed expansion, on the basis that indefinitely detaining people for immigration purposes is inhumane, does not meet the government’s own immigration objectives and is prohibitively expensive. An open letter to this effect was recently sent to the Prime Minister and Home Secretary, signed by 21 concerned local organisations (see media coverage).

Individuals can also feed into the decision-making process by writing to their MPs and submitting objections to the planning application, going through the Cherwell District Council website. The Planning Committee is likely to decide the application on 22nd January, and submissions should be made well before this date. For more information about how to make a submission, the Campaign to Close Campsfield are running a workshop on the process at 7pm on 3rd December in Kidlington, just outside Oxford. They are also organising a march and demonstration to mark the 21st anniversary of Campsfield on 29th November. Further details about these events and support for getting your voice heard, including template letters for MPs, are available on both the Campaign to Close Campsfield and Detention Forum websites.

There are many problems with immigration detention, as is being made clear in the current evidence gathering stage of the first ever Parliamentary Detention Inquiry, chaired by Sarah Teather MP. It seems especially important that any expansion is halted until the Inquiry has concluded its task and produced its recommendations. Please add your voice to those telling the government that we are ashamed of our immigration detention system and that extending it further is not the answer to responding to public concerns around immigration.

Artwork in this piece is by people who have experienced immigration detention in the UK, used courtesy of Detention Action.