Super selfies!

One of the ways we asked people to get involved with the Unlocking Detention tour was by tweeting @DetentionForum a selfie, with a statement challenging immigration detention.

We received so many selfies, thank you to everyone who tweeted us!   Take a look at the selfies below (and this isn’t even all of them …)

 

The Deserving Detainee?

This International Migrants’ Day post was written for Unlocking Detention by Melanie Griffiths.  Melanie is an ESRC Future Leaders Fellow at the University of Bristol. Her project, entitled Detention, Deportability and the Family: Migrant Men’s Negotiations of the Right to Respect for Family Life, is on the family lives and Article 8 rights of men at risk of deportation.


I have been visiting Immigration Removal Centres since early 2008. I clearly remember my early trips, as a new PhD student and volunteer visitor. I remember disconcerting feelings as I approached the intimidating prison-like centre and was stripped of my sense of security as a British citizen in the course of being checked, searched, scanned and separated from my possessions. I remember intense feelings of helplessness, meeting a series of people diverse in so many ways but linked by the common experience of enduring one of the most frightening and dehumanising times of their lives. I had intended to research the asylum system but was being introduced to one of the most extreme faces of immigration enforcement. Those surveillance cameras, fingerprint checks, pat-down searches, high fences, suspicious gazes and locked doors were a violent reminder of the state’s distaste for those who seek to avoid or negotiate authorised migration routes.

Immigration detention is a peculiar technology. It marks the intersection of the sharp end of state power – the deprivation of a person’s liberty – with the rationale of bureaucracy and processual efficiency. Immigration detention is intended to facilitate immigration goals, not punish or reform individuals. However, not only is detention experienced by those affected as punishment, but the centres look like prisons and the general public often assume that they have much the same function. As such, immigration detainees tend to be publicly and politically stigmatised as criminal and dangerous; not only deserving of segregation and punishment, but also responsible for their own predicament.

Although it frustrates me, I understand why the general public might have this view. The impression provided by politicians and the media is persistently inaccurate. Recently, however, I have found myself debating the acceptability of detaining certain people, not with those who know little about migration and detention, but with people who dedicate their voluntary or professional lives to this field.

The argument

‘We are steadfastly against the locking up of asylum seekers but we don’t want to be accused of supporting foreign criminals.’

‘It is scandalous that the UK detains women.’

‘The Home Office should immediately release this promising, straight A-scoring student.’

The argument starts with the assertion that detention is inexcusable and inhumane and unfair… for certain people. For women. For asylum seekers. Refugees. The trafficked. The law abiding. For the popular and talented student. For those who are victims and had no choice. For people of a certain nationality, experience or sexuality. For exceptional individuals or special groups.

I don’t deny that detention is inherently harmful for these people, I know that it is. And I do have sympathy for those individuals and organisations that make the case for the release of particular groups of people. However, by emphasising the injustice of the detention of exceptional sufferers, we inevitably produce and entrench their imagined opposites. The argument – sometimes implicit, but often explicit – is that for some people, detention is acceptable. Or even: that for some people, detention is deserved. These are usually men. Economic migrants. Single adults. People with criminal records. Foreign national offenders. Those with few redeeming features or those – the most demonised category of all – who choose to cross borders.

The dangerous logic of criminality

One counter to these assertions is that such division is simplistic and these categories are often not mutually exclusive. For example, although many of those I speak to in detention have never been part of the criminal justice system, I frequently meet people who have both criminal records and asylum claims. In many cases this relates to what has been described as the ‘criminalisation’ of migration, in which the act of moving is recast as an illegal or criminal act. The ever-expanding number of migration offences reinforces this conceptualisation. If you can’t enter the UK without a false passport or visa, can’t survive without working illegally, or refuse to sign the paperwork to leave the UK, you are likely to end up in the prison system, whether or not you are also an asylum seeker.

The majority of people in detention who have a criminal record committed immigration, paper-based or driving offences, rather than the types of crimes that most excite the Tabloids. But even those with more serious criminal records have served their sentences by the time they reach Immigration Removal Centres. They would be free from the criminal descriptor, considered ‘redeemed’ characters, if only they were British. As it is, their foreign citizenship ensures that their criminal record is indelible. An association with the criminal justice system remains for these individuals, even when they are instead incarcerated for bureaucratic purposes.

Victims and villains

sosharmondsworthThe ‘foreign criminal’ category is toxic for the NGOs that support asylum seekers and other migrants. It is considerably easier for organisations to garner public support, volunteer manpower and ever-elusive funds by mobilising concern for migrants who have avoided contact with the criminal justice system. However, the detention system is wrong because it is wrong to incarcerate people in the name of administrative expediency, especially under indefinite, uncertain, opaque and frightening circumstances. If we start to cherry pick, are we not suggesting that although all people are equal, some are more equal than others? That although detention is bad for all, it is worse for some?

I have sympathy for the need to make strategic arguments for certain kinds of vulnerability, for example around the detention of children, people with mental health problems and those at risk of physical or sexual abuse in detention. But there is a risk that this lumps together certain people as ‘victims’, simplifying the complexity of human beings and their experiences. It can homogenise people on the basis of a single aspect of their identity, and pacify those we deem worthy of our sympathy into victims without agency.

This is also an implicitly gendered debate. Each year the UK detains around 4,000 women and 26,000 men. And yet the gender bias towards detaining men is countered by a research and advocacy bias pointed heavily towards women. This is surprising given the figures and seems inadequately justified through nebulous appeals to the vulnerability of women.

There is also a risk that a focus on the ‘good’/exceptional/vulnerable detainee excuses the detention of all those excluded. It may even suggest that it is acceptable to administratively detain people who are considered to be tough, unworthy or downright ‘bad’. At the risk of sounding flippant, if you are illiterate, male, untalented, ugly, friendless, poor, black and/or have a criminal record, your chances of a Twitter campaign developing around your detention are painfully low. In fact, if I had to identify one group best placed to withstand detention, I’d suggest we only detain photogenic, native English speakers, who have at least degree-level formal education – preferably in law, in order to give them a fair chance at challenging the system – and who have lots of money and outraged middle class British friends to organise media campaigns.

Imagined categories

campaign-detentionImmigration categories do not accurately reflect reality. There is nothing ‘real’ about them; they are simply cultural and historical legal constructs. ‘Asylum seekers’ are people who have made a legal claim for a state to recognise them as a refugee, as narrowly defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention. Many individuals greatly fear being returned to a certain country. However, whether or not they are labelled an ‘asylum seeker’ or ‘refugee’ is down to the bureaucratic and legal processes they may or may not undergo. An individual might not claim asylum, might not be believed by the decision maker who studies her case or might have a fear that does not fit under the extraordinarily restrictive criteria of the Refugee Convention. The inhumanity of their detention is not altered by the lack of an administrative classification.

Similarly, crossing borders cannot be reduced to a passive/active dichotomy of refugees versus migrants. People remain self-determining agents even when there is little choice left but to flee and no luxury of time to plan. Conversely, movement may involve urgency and limited options even without Convention-style persecution. Life and people are complex and the reasons we do things, including cross borders, are fluid, multifarious and often contradictory.

Delegitimising detention

I came to the field with an interest in asylum but it quickly became clear that life is messier than is suggested by international legislation. People’s experiences do not fit neatly into single immigration categories. There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ migrants, no people more or less deserving of immigration detention. The devastation caused by detention does not discriminate between immigration labels or gender. It doesn’t really matter if you are a man or a woman, have claimed asylum, overstayed a visa, had your college declared ‘bogus’ and shut down, worked more hours than you were entitled to, suffered the breakdown of your marriage, entered the UK without a visa, had your passport deemed false or fell into detention in any other of the myriad ways possible.

Whatever your route into immigration detention, for most, it is a confusing, scary, destabilising and traumatic experience. The 350 or so detained people that I have spoken to over the last six years have almost exclusively described being ‘stuck’, powerless, afraid and swamped in a system that feels irrational and unpredictable (1). Without a time limit, immigration detention simultaneously stretches indefinitely and yet can end with forced removal at any moment, creating a debilitating double temporal uncertainty.

We, as advocates, researchers and campaigners, need to challenge the fundamental claim that it is reasonable to remove a person’s liberty for administrative expediency. If we only focus on the detention of exceptional individuals or ‘victim’ categories, and if we perpetuate state classifications (such as ‘foreign criminal’) and divisions (like economic migrant versus refugee), we contribute to the legitimisation of the detention system. We risk condemning certain people as deserving of detention. However, whatever the route into detention, whatever legal category a person finds themselves in and whichever centre they are trapped in, immigration detention is an ingeniously effective way of destroying people’s lives. All people’s lives.


(1) Griffiths, M. (2012). ‘‘Vile liars and truth distorters’: Truth, trust and the asylum system’, Anthropology Today, 28(4), 8-12.

Many thanks to Luke de Noronha and Cetta Mainwaring for their invaluable comments in the drafting of this post. I, however, remain solely responsible for the content and any errors.

Detention knows no borders

This piece by Eiri Ohtani was first published on openDemocracy on 15 December 2014, as part of Unlocking Detention series.
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The first ever parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention in the UK listened to the voices of ‘experts-by-experience’ and those still trapped in detention. How will the report in February 2015 reflect the shocking testimony that was heard ?
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On the evening of Human Rights Day, a large group of people in Bristol were taken on a virtual detention tour. After cajoling the audience into closing their eyes, JP, a member of Bristol Refugee Rights, took us on a dark journey taken by many of their members, a journey into immigration detention. On stage with JP, I watched well over a hundred people, packed in a community centre under a picture of Malcolm X, close their eyes as instructed.
JP’s softly spoken voice commanded you to imagine being someone with irregular immigration status. You go to a reporting centre regularly so that the Home Office can monitor your whereabouts. Suddenly, you are arrested. You are bundled into a van, which eventually takes you to what looks like a prison. It’s well past midnight. You are tired and scared. You don’t know where you are or what to do. You are shown into what looks like a small cell, with a bed, washbasin and a toilet. There are already other occupants there, who don’t speak your language. The metal door is then shut behind you and you are locked from outside. Overwhelmed by a sense of uncertainty and fear, you lose your appetite, you can’t eat any more. And you have no idea what is going to happen to you or how long you are going to be there.
As I listened to JP with my eyes closed, I was reminded of the Unlocking Detention ‘tour’ that the Detention Forum has been running since September. Also a virtual ‘tour’, Unlocking Detention has been ‘visiting’ all of the sites of immigration detention by combining regular pieces on openDemocracy with regular tweets, selfies and blogs. The ‘tour’ destinations included Dungavel, the only detention centre in Scotland, situated in an isolated rural area, 45 minutes drive from Glasgow. The ‘tour’ peeked into the little known world of Short Term Holding Facilities, located at the border not very far from the airport lounge where holiday makers are waiting for their planes to take off.  In prisons, we found forgotten immigration ‘detainees’ whose liberty is taken away long after they have completed their criminal sentences. Although it is often said that child detention has ended, some children are mistakenly classified as adultsand can still end up in one of the detention centres.
The aim of the ‘tour’ has been to bring immigration detention with no time limit and our varied experience of it to those who have the luxury of not knowing anything about it. Another purpose of Unlocking Detention was to generate more public interest in immigration detention as the first ever parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention was taking place. Immigration detention is a topic that even human rights, civil liberties or immigration NGOs tend to avoid talking about in public, at least in the UK.
With the month-long tour finishing this week, has anything changed?
One unintended outcome of the inquiry, which is yet to publish its report, has been a conceptual shift for those of us participating in it: it has become clear that detention does not stop at the gates of the detention centres, it continues to take its toll long after people have been released. This became increasingly evident as we and others collected evidence for the inquiry from communities in different cities and towns up and down the country.  In the end, the inquiry received almost 200 submissions of evidence.
There was a striking similarity in the sense of themselves of these ‘ex-detainees’. Detention, simply, seems never to leave them.
As woman we met in Middlesbrough said, “The murder happens inside detention. But they let you die outside.”
Sharif’s letter to Harmondsworth detention centre finishes with the question: “Do you think that when I left Harmondsworth, Harmondsworth left me? I think about you guys every day.”
Similarly, H said, “I’m outside detention now but I still feel as if I am in detention. I still feel controlled.”
Voices from inside detention were also devastating. Describing his predicament in Haslar detention centre, Henry commented that there are too many laws and not enough justice. Joe, when asked what can be changed about detention in Colnbrook, angrily replied ‘What kind of improvement? There is no improvement that can be made. What kind of improvement?’
The inquiry panel’s decision to place these voices of ‘experts-by-experience’ at the centre of their investigation was a wise one.  During the three oral evidence sessions, these voices were often the most articulate and urgent, hammering in the inevitable message that this is not how we want our society to be. In the first oral evidence session, everyone in the parliamentary room gasped when one of the ‘detainees’ phoning in from Harmondsworth detention centre said that he had been detained for almost three years.  Listening from the public gallery, I often felt that I had no words to respond to them.
Their voices unwittingly encouraged a far more questioning attitude to the conventional wisdom that detention can be somehow made better, through training and better conditions in detention.
Who could forget how, in the third oral evidence session, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, asserted that no amount of improvements to conditions would be enough?  His words were that ‘Even in the best run centre, with caring staff and effective management, the distress people feel is the uncertainty of their situation’. Citing indefinite detention, he insisted that fundamental changes, not tweaking, are needed for detention reform. Or how inthe second oral evidence session, Dr Allen, previously of Colnbrook detention centre, argued that locking up and taking away hope from those who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was a sure way to make their conditions worse.
The Unlocking Detention pieces were also at pains to attack the fallacy that detention can be made okay.
My colleague, Nic Eadie at Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group, wrote for Unlocking Detention:
‘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.’
I learned during the preparation for Unlocking Detention ‘tour’ that Tinsley House detention centre, run by G4S, is often regarded as having good conditions and good ‘detainee’-guard relationships. The latest monitoring report by the Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons says that ‘Tinsley House is one of the best centres we have inspected’.  In John’s case, however, this was no consolation.
A case of unlawful detention and the breach of human rights was detailed in Jerome Phelps’ Unlocking Detention piece: a woman who came to the UK to join her refugee husband, only to be detained at the airport on arrival. She went on to be detained for seventeen months. An initially healthy woman, after months of detention her mental health had deteriorated to the point that she no longer had capacity to instruct a solicitor.
Evidence of the harm of detention is so crystal clear that what is so shocking is not these tragedies but the fact that most remain silent on them. Even those who know what is happening inside and outside the detention centres are not quick enough to demand a fundamental change to the system, if not its outright abolition.
In contrast to this clear evidence of harm and the clarity of the voices of ‘experts-by-experience’, everything to do with immigration detention policy remains opaque.  The government has not been able to say exactly why it is has made plans to more than double the size of Campsfield House detention centre, even before the outcome of the detention inquiry is known, other than by vague reference to operational concerns. It makes little sense that the detention estate, which exists for the purpose of removing people from the UK, is growing, when the number of removals has been going downLocal activists, some MPs and some of us are now locked in a battle to stop this expansion.
During the Unlocking Detention ‘tour’, however, we have seen a shift in community groups’ response to indefinite detention. On 31 October, there was a vigil to remember those who have died in immigration detention and to call for a time limit on detention.  The event was organised by CitizensUK, whose 2015 Manifesto includes putting a time limit on detention. The Sanctuary Summit on 15 November launched the Birmingham Declaration.  Signed by hundreds of groups across the UK, one of its demands to the Government is that no one should be locked up indefinitely.  We are now waiting to find out what kind of recommendations the inquiry panel is going to make on the issue of indefinite detention.
In Bristol, JP’s soft voice concluded a journey into detention that had no happy ending. But when he asked us to open our eyes, we saw JP and his fellow members who had experienced detention standing tall under banners showing their demands. They were speaking up against detention, in the community, with the support and solidarity of others. He reminded us that even on Human Rights Day, there were many who were still trapped in the detention centres. In Bristol, on Human Rights Day, something new was taking shape in our collective struggle for justice. Will the same happen everywhere else too?
The Detention Forum would like to thank all its members who contributed to Unlocking Detention series. 
This is the final article in the Unlocking Detention series on 50.50 which has been running in parallel with the first ever parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention in Britain. The inquiry will report in February 2015. 

 

Like a chicken surrounded by dogs

By Kate Alexander, coordinator of Scottish Detainee Visitors (a member of the Detention Forum).  This article originally appeared in Open Democracy’s Unlocked series.


Scotland may have a different relationship with immigration from the rest of the UK, but at least for now, Dungavel, which has been detaining men and women migrants since 2001, remains open.

Forty-five minutes south of Glasgow, six miles from the nearest village of Strathaven, along a winding, country road cutting through the rolling South Lanarkshire countryside, lies Dungavel House Immigration Removal Centre. Here, effectively in the middle of nowhere, up to 249 people are detained, indefinitely.

Dungavel is the only centre of its kind in Scotland, where we have a different relationship with immigration from the rest of the UK. Between 2001 and 2011, Scotland’s migrant population grew faster than in other parts of the UK but it is still relatively small. Although falling well short of positive, Scottish public opinion on immigration is less negative than elsewhere in the UK and there is, at least at Scottish Government level, acceptance that future immigration, particularly of working aged people, is necessary to the Scottish economy. The recent referendum campaign even raised the possibility of a more humane asylum system and the closure of Dungavel.

But in the end, the Scottish population said no to independence and, at least for now, Dungavel remains open.

It is an outlier in the immigration detention estate. The closest immigration removal centre (IRC) to Dungavel is Morton Hall in Lincolnshire, 270 miles away. There are also two short-term holding facilities slightly nearer, at Manchester airport and in Larne in Northern Ireland. Dungavel’s remote position, as well as its status as the only IRC in Scotland, presents the men and women incarcerated there with particular challenges.

People are brought to Dungavel from all over the UK, taking them far from their families and the social networks they have built up. It is not on a bus route and the nearest train station, in Hamilton, is 14 miles away, so even people who have been living in Glasgow before their detention struggle to see family and friends regularly. For people who have no car, the journey to Dungavel can be lengthy. And for people coming from the south of England or the north of Scotland, a visit to a detained partner, parent, relative or friend necessitates an overnight stay.

As visitors to detainees in Dungavel, my colleagues and I frequently talk to people whose families and friends are unable to afford to visit them. If it were not for us, they would see nobody apart from other detainees and Dungavel staff for many weeks, and sometimes months and years.

For detainees applying for bail, this difficulty is amplified. It is not possible for a guarantor (or cautioner in Scotland) to give evidence by video link at their local Tribunal. They are required to attend in person in Glasgow. This is despite detainees having no option but to make their application by video link. Furthermore, there are no provisions for cautioners to attend later in the day, so they often have to travel early in the morning or the night before to appear at court for 9.30am. This can make the prospect prohibitively expensive for many. We regularly listen to detainees who are upset and frustrated that their bail application has no chance of success because their cautioner is unable to get to Glasgow.

Immigration law operates throughout the UK, but in Scotland it works within a separate Scottish Legal Aid Board, a separate legal profession of solicitors and advocates, and a separate court system. This has a number of impacts for people who are detained in Dungavel.

The 2012 Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which has severely restricted access to legal advice for detainees in other parts of the UK, does not apply in Scotland. This means detainees, while they are in Dungavel, are usually able to engage a solicitor to represent them. However, the centre’s remoteness means solicitors are unable to visit their clients regularly. Communication, where it happens, is often by letter or phone, which is further complicated by poor mobile reception. We often have concerns that detainees have not fully understood their legal position or the advice their solicitor has given them.

Our observations in the visits room also suggest that the isolation of the centre can cause difficulties for detainees needing access to interpretation services. We have seen other detainees being brought into the lawyers’ consulting room to interpret for friends. On one occasion, a solicitor asked one of our visitors to interpret for him.

Detainees, wherever they are detained, are subject to frequent and apparently unnecessary and arbitrary moves around the detention estate. This is an issue that the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (AVID) expressed its concern about last year, in its evidence to the UK Parliament Home Affairs Committee’s inquiry into asylum.

These moves are disruptive and disorienting to any detainee and can compromise, and potentially frustrate, their ability to protect their fundamental rights. But when the moves are between Dungavel and centres in England, the disruption can be catastrophic because of the differences in the legal systems. Our experience is that a move to England often takes place just before an attempt is made to remove a detainee. It may then not be possible for the detainee’s Scottish solicitor to make representations on their behalf in England and they may not be able to find an English solicitor in time to challenge a possibly unlawful removal.

The position of women in detention has been the subject of considerable scrutiny in recent years. Research by Women for Refugee Women focusing on the stories of asylum seeking women in detention found that rape and torture were common experiences, and the allegations of sexual abuse at Yarl’s Wood have again highlighted the vulnerabilities of women within the system. While attention, quite rightly, is focused on women in Yarl’s Wood, it is easy to forget that women are also detained in Dungavel.

Their situation is a cause for concern. There are just 14 bed spaces for women compared to 235 for men. Over the years that we have visited, it has not been unusual for just one or two women to be resident in the centre. This can be particularly isolating and frightening. In a film made by SDV, one woman who had been detained there described it as being “like a chicken surrounded by dogs”. A former detainee recently told me of his disquiet that women were detained in such an environment. He said unwanted attention and remarks from male detainees were commonplace. The histories of detained asylum-seeking women, as described in the Women for Refugee Women research, would make this experience particularly painful.

It is exacerbated by the accommodation available for women. Dungavel’s most recent inspection report notes that inspectors’ previous recommendation that women detainees should have access to single and double rooms rather than dormitories had not been met. The centre had made a funding application to UKBA (now the Home Office) to build more appropriate accommodation but this had been unsuccessful. The report notes that women find the large rooms unsettling, particularly when they arrive, often in the middle of the night.

People may have heard of Yarl’s Wood or Harmondsworth because scandals and disturbances occasionally bring such centres to the top of the news. Dungavel has been detaining people in Scotland since 2001 and I still get blank looks from some people when I mention it. It carries out its business in a way that generally does not bring it to public attention and its location, far from public view, can make it invisible. But it is as much a part of the UK’s cruel and increasingly challenged system of indefinite detention as those other centres.

Immigration Detention and the Scottish Referendum

This post was written by Detention Forum Scotland, in response to the Detention Forum’s question of ‘what are your hopes for the detention inquiry in light of the ‘NO’ vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum.  This post originally appeared on the Detention Forum website on 29 September 2014.


 
Many organisations working within the field of migration, and the individuals whose lives are affected daily by UK immigration policy, waited with baited breath for the result of the recent Scottish Referendum. Emotions ran high, the air was tense, everywhere you turned there was talk and arguments laid out for one side or the other. A Scotland with a new and progressive immigration system seemed possible.

For the Detention Forum Scotland and the people held in Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre (Scotland’s only detention centre) the promise that, ‘In an independent Scotland, we will close Dungavel’ (Scotland’s Future, p271) was encouraging. Like every other policy change and promise the Scottish National Party (SNP) put forward in the run up to the referendum, there was scepticism and unanswered questions regarding what closing Dungavel actually meant for the people held there. What would the future hold for people whom Scotland still planned to remove? Nonetheless, it was a hugely progressive promise. A promise that moved Scotland’s potential immigration policy far from the attitude that prevails in Westminster. A promise that could show what more humane attitude towards immigration policy throughout the UK would look like.

As Scotland voted to remain part of the UK with a majority of 55%, this promise must not be left to fade away into a distant memory. The organisations and individuals who were waiting hopefully for change must keep hoping, talking, and raising awareness of immigration detention. The parliamentary inquiry has thus come at an opportune time. We see that this Inquiry is the place where these memories can be kept alive.

Detention Forum Scotland has held two meetings to discuss some of the submission of evidence from Scotland. From these meetings organisations including; Bridging the Gap (a community organisation in Glasgow), Scottish Detainee Visitors (SDV), Glasgow Refugee, Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet), Scottish Refugee Council, and the Refugee Women’s Strategy Group will be submitting written evidence. There have also been individuals who feel strongly about detention involved, including an immigration solicitor, community members and former detainees.

Some of these organisations have also supported individuals who are currently held in Dungavel to tell their stories. For SDV, supporting current detainees to get their voices heard was more problematic than was first expected. For some detainees the task of giving evidence was too emotionally draining. The detainees who wished to submit evidence faced a number of barriers in getting their voice out. Language barriers prevented them from writing submissions, poor phone reception prevented visitors from being able to talk over the phone to detainees and record their evidence. This left the detainees having to give evidence to an SDV visitor in the centre’s visit room. A room in which there is no privacy, officers are present at all times. It is deemed neither a safe space nor a confidential one in which detainees are able to give a full account of their experiences.

It is crucial to acknowledge these issues both in relation to the barriers that immigration detention creates in allowing the voices of detainees to be heard, but also as elements of immigration detainees’ daily, lived experiences. These conditions will be familiar, wherever people are detained in the UK. But for a while, we in Scotland were able to experience those conditions in the hope that they might come to an end. For some of us, this referendum was not about nationalism, but about something more hopeful and inclusive. This Inquiry now carries forward that hope.

Colnbrook, in conversation

Joe is an asylum-seeker from East Africa. He has been in Colnbrook IRC for four months. In this interview for the ‘Unlocking Detention’ twitter-tour, he talks to Detention Action‘s Ben du Preez about life inside Colnbrook, the emotional impact of indefinite detention, and why reforming the UK’s detention estate is more than just case of ‘improvements’.
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Life after detention

This piece by Saskia Garner was first published by openDemocracy on 1st December 2014.  Saskia works at Refugee Action as Policy Manager.
The adverse effects of being detained in an immigration removal centre harm possibilities for reintegration in the country of origin.
Being detained can be a traumatic experience for anyone, but for individuals who have been forced to leave their home and arrive in a foreign land with nothing but their life, it can be even worse. Yet, as this recent series on openDemocracy 50.50 has shown, this is the experience of thousands of immigration detainees, many of whom have sought safety in the UK and now face removal to a country where their life is at risk, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The experiences of individuals locked up in the UK’s Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) have long been recorded by civil society groups, academicsand medical professionals as well as in the first-hand accounts of current and former detainees. They starkly document the harm done by the system to the health and well-being of detainees, even if the period of detention is relatively short.
These concerns were again highlighted in written and oral evidence submissions presented to the recent Parliamentary Inquiry into Immigration Detention by organisations, medical and legal professionals and, most poignantly, by former and current detainees.
New research by charity Refugee Action supports accounts of the adverse impact of detention on the physical and mental health of detainees both in the short and long-term. In late 2013, Refugee Action staff interviewed more than 60 male detainees in five IRCs in south east England (Harmondsworth, Colnbrook, Dover, Brook House and Tinsley House). Thirty-seven gave their consent for their interviews to be used to support research and policy-making.
Life in detention
Poor and deteriorating health was a major concern among immigration detainees. More than half of those interviewed said that they had developed a physical or mental health condition whilst in detention. Conditions individuals reported as having developed in detention included depression, insomnia, various physical pains such as back pain or toothache, infections, and stress.
Almost two-thirds said they needed medical assistance but had not received it. People reported that this was mainly due to an inadequate response by a medical professional to a perceived medical problem e.g. having been prescribed paracetamol when a stronger painkiller was required or having had an inadequate health-check to investigate a health complaint. One man said: ‘I have medical problems that have not been properly addressed so it makes me feel subhuman and intolerable.’
Many people interviewed spoke of experiencing depression in detention and reported feelings of loneliness and unhappiness. One said: ‘I have spent 45 days here and it’s like I spent three years. I am so upset and helpless’ while another said ‘I feel like an animal in a cage. I feel isolated and very lonely.’ These comments emphasise the desperation people feel whilst in detention and bring home the reality of people’s experiences whilst cut off from friends and family and having little idea of how long they will remain there.
Others said: ‘I don’t feel good and it’s not easy to gauge the magnitude of our agony and grief’ and ‘People treat us as if we were criminal. I am a victim and came to London to be a free man and ask for protection, but it’s not the case. I came to be protected by human rights.’
Limited communication, misinformation and lack of access to proper legal support worsened the experience of detention. Sixty-two per cent of those interviewed stated that they were not told about their right to apply for bail in their induction and half stated that they were not told how to make an appointment with a legal advisor on their first day in detention. Without this information, it’s difficult to see how anyone could obtain the necessary advice to secure their release or adequately pursue an application to legally remain in the UK.
The negative experiences of detention expressed by so many of those interviewed in our research, and reflected more widely by other organisations working in detention centres, make it no surprise that those affected continue to struggle with the impact of detention even after they return home.
Life after detention
Refugee Action is currently the only organisation that receives funding from the Secretary of State through the Home Office to deliver Assisted Voluntary Return (AVR) programmes. We do so through our Choices service, which is confidential, impartial, independent and free. Through Choices, people receive non-directive advice, information and support to help them decide whether to return to their country or attempt to stay in the UK.
Those who decide to return through the scheme do so in a dignified way. Unlike those who are forcibly removed, there are no handcuffs as people who opt for voluntary return check in to their flights like any other passenger. The cost of the journey is funded. Those who need it can receive help obtaining travel documents. All receive help with planning how they’ll reintegrate after returning. And those in an eligible group receive financial support and support from an NGO in their country. This can help with issues like retraining, obtaining accommodation, receiving healthcare or setting up a business.
In the year April 2013-March 2014, Refugee Action assisted almost 7,000 people to apply for the AVR programme and 4,257 people to return. Over 50% of returnees were detained in IRCs at the point of application. Yet while Refugee Action’s grant agreement to provide AVR services was extended until March 2015, its mandate to provide services to people in detention ended on 1 April 2014. We estimate that the removal of AVR services from detainees will impact on approximately 2,000 people per year.
Refugee Action believes that the withdrawal of Choices from detainees will prove a costly mistake – both in monetary terms to the government and, more importantly, to the mental and physical wellbeing of highly vulnerable people who should be offered the same support as non-detainees in making decisions about their future.
Returns under an AVR programme are not only more humane and informed, but also more likely to result in an individual being able to support themselves and make a sustainable return, than those who are forcibly removed, or who return through the Home Office Voluntary Departures scheme without in-country advice and financial support.
People who have experienced immigration detention often require extra support in reintegrating as they continue to struggle with the effects of being detained.
Impact of detention on reintegration
In order to support people after return, Refugee Action has a network of overseas partners who we contract to deliver services to people after they have returned to their countries through AVR. Agreds-Ghana, our partner in Ghana, reports it can take two to three months longer to build trust with a person returning from detention than someone returning from the community. The returnee will often perceive them to be affiliated to the structures in the UK that arrested and detained them. As a result a person returning from detention requires more patience and an approach that focuses on trying to build trust straight away.
Agreds-Ghana says those who return from the community are usually “mentally sound, stable and find their way”, whereas those who return from detention are often “emotionally charged, angry, bitter and their experience of being detained haunts them”.
Our partner, Caritas Bangladesh reports similar difficulties assisting people who have been detained, often for months, before returning. Caritas Bangladesh say that returnees report feeling “caged”. They can then find it hard to reintegrate and adapt to life in Bangladesh and are often confused after returning – seeming unsure whether they are safe or not.
The decision to return
While the decision to return is a positive one for many and reunification with families and homes is celebrated, it is nevertheless important to note that for others the decision is more complex and exacerbated by negative experiences in the UK.
Iqbal and Ali from Bangladesh decided that return was preferable to staying in detention. Both had been imprisoned in two detention centres, one for six months and one for three and a half months. Iqbal had high blood pressure, a heart condition and diabetes, conditions which were exacerbated by the poor quality and quantity of food in the IRC, the lack of staff care and the delay of proper medical help when requested. He said his health problems worsened to the extent that he decided to return to Bangladesh because he feared that otherwise he would die in detention. Ali had had a heart attack a year before he was detained. He said that he could not get the medical attention he needed whilst in detention and decided to return to Bangladesh before his health deteriorated further rather than continue with his claim.
Both men opted for Assisted Voluntary Return as a result of their health needs not being met whilst in detention in the UK but both said that they felt unsafe in Bangladesh and would have preferred to have continued to pursue their asylum claims in the UK. Choices caseworkers support people to make complex decisions about return such as these by giving people independent and non-directive advice on all aspects of staying or leaving and the decision is ultimately their own.
What is clear from these stories is that the limited legal advice and healthcare provided to many people in IRCs is so significant that some choose to return to difficult and challenging environments as a preference to remaining in detention. Without the opportunity of receiving independent and impartial advice through the Choices programme – in addition to in-country support on return –  it is likely that people won’t be fully informed of all the risks and advantages of returning and are less likely to have an opportunity to raise issues that may mean that their return would be complicated or unsafe. Instead of cutting services to detainees, the Home Office should be investing more resources to ensure that the decision to return is taken by that individual in an environment that ensures that their best interests  are protected
The way forward
We are extremely concerned that the harmful effects of detention impact on people’s decision to return, and their ability to fully integrate upon return. Return is not a decision to be taken or carried out lightly. People need support in making this decision and immigration detention is a difficult place in which to plan ahead.
The government is currently planning an expansion of the detention estate in order for more people to be detained. Rather than expansion, the government needs to respond to the repeated and widespread calls to address the inadequate immigration detention system as it stands, and adhere to the recommendations of the Parliamentary Inquiry into Detention when it publishes its report in 2015.

No end to the horrors of detention

This piece by Ben du Preez was first published by openDemocracy on 1st December 2014.  Ben works at Detention Action and is a member of the Detention Forum Communications Working Group.
The invisibility of immigration detention centres and the trauma of detention has meant that the heavy psychological baggage many migrants bring back with them into UK communities following their release has also gone unseen and unaddressed.
Barbara, a young Nigerian woman, had sat in silence throughout the group-evidence session in Middlesbrough. She had listened intently as others had offered their testimonies, but had said nothing herself. Only at the end, when the discussion turned to the long-term impacts of detention, did Barbara speak: “The murder happens inside detention,” she said. “But they let you die outside.”
Barbara was giving evidence for a North-EastCommunity Submission to theParliamentary Inquiry into Immigration Detention. The inquiry has held three oral sessions so far, each one as harrowing as the last.  Former minister Sarah Teather and her cross-party panel of parliamentarians have heard from an acclaimed cast of policy experts, legal and medical practitioners, independent inspectors and migrants, like Barbara, with direct experiences of detention. Together, they have helped paint a vivid picture of the UK’s detention estate. Violent, unchecked, it is the picture of a system in crisis – one riddled with inadequacies, crippled by inefficiencies, subjugated by political priorities, almost wholly indifferent to the UK’s commitment to human rights, bloated andexpanding still.
To those of us who work with the people trapped within this system, it is both a deeply distressing and worryingly familiar portrait. And yet, this inquiry – jointly led by the All Party Parliamentary Groups on Refugees and Migration – has also shed light on some other, less well-documented (albeit equally unwelcome) realities facing migrants incarcerated in the UK. In a bid to go beyond the scope of previous parliamentary attempts to examine the use of immigration detention, the inquiry panel have sought to look at the detention system as a whole, and the journey through it from ‘beginning’ to ‘end’.
Trying to determine precisely when the end actually is the end, however, has proved illuminating in of itself. The key finding here is that one’s experience of detention does not necessarily come to a close when the gates of Colnbrook, or Campsfield, or Yarl’s Wood, finally swing open. In other words, there is no conclusive end to the horrors of detention. Or, as expert-by-experience Shariff poignantly put it in a recent piece for the Unlocking Detention tour entitled ‘A Letter to Harmondsworth‘: “Do you think that when I left Harmondsworth, Harmondsworth left me? I think about you guys every day.”
There has of course been extensive research into the brutal, sometimes lethal, psychological and emotional impact of immigration detention (see Medical Justice’s excellent ‘Second Torture‘ report, the Royal College of Psychiatrists’position paper on mental health in detention, or Jesuit Refugee Service Europe’s ‘Becoming Vulnerable in Detention‘ study, to name but a few). This has been supplemented by mounting evidence on the extent to which detention causes as well as exacerbates mental illness. Articles in this very series, have highlighted precisely how and why the safeguards in place to protect vulnerable migrants simply do not work. The truth is that the UK is generating a unique quantity of evidence on the harm done to migrants in detention and no-one can plead ignorance.
But whilst research into the emotional impact of detention has understandably focused on the deterioration of mental health in and/or during detention, much less has been done to explore what Dr. Katy Robjant and Professor Cornelius Katona of the Helen Bamber Foundation have referred to as the ‘longitudinal impact of detention on mental health, as well as the subsequent social acculturation process’ post-release. To their credit, the inquiry panel have specifically attempted to address this issue. Included in their list of prompts for those submitting evidence was the call for information about “the longer-term impacts of detention on you, your family and/or your wider community.”
The event attended by Barbara was just one of several group-evidence sessions across the UK organised by Detention Action in collaboration with other members of the Detention Forum.  It was shocking to hear participants speak about the extent to which detention continues to exert a mental toll on their everyday life. In some instances, participants were still feeling the effect of their experience of detention years after they had been released. Many felt as if they had never left.
Esther said that after five months in Yarl’s Wood (over two years ago) she still heard the sound of doors slamming and keys turning every few minutes. Gabriel, a male survivor of trafficking, noted how three years of sitting in the shadows of Colnbrook had altered his sensitivity to light and almost a year on, he only felt comfortable in dark spaces. Others reported problems with memory recall, mental disorientation and repeated flashbacks: “Even now, I am not really out of detention. It is still with me. Every night I think of Colnbrook. I have night-terrors.”
Abdal, an activist from Sudan, stressed that detention in itself was a site of extreme trauma, comparable in its lasting effect to his previous experiences of torture: “Detention is harder than physical torture. And it never ends, even when you are out.  Even now, I am now in total depression. I think about detention all the time and I am on seventeen different kinds of medication.” Such psychological suffering has subsequently made re-integration into families, friendships, and local communities extremely difficult for many people. Numerous participants spoke about how detention had affected their ability to socially interact with others post-release:  “Because you have been kept locked up for no reason, against your will, and all of the staff in detention are there to deport you, you don’t trust anyone. When I came out I realised how scared I was of other people.” In turn, those welcoming back loved-ones also, inadvertently, bare the emotional scars of detention.  A woman from Newcastle told us how detention had not just changed her husband, it had transformed him. “Now he sleeps all day. He cannot remember anything. He is not himself. This experience [detention] has ruined us.”
Underlying all of these testimonies was the sense that there simply was not enough structured support – emotional, practical, and financial – for individuals who had experienced the trauma of detention. Amadou, now based in Gateshead, said he felt like a ‘new-born baby’ when he was released, unable to care for himself: “I was there for years in detention. I am institutionalised, I know it. Now no-one helps me with that grief. I have got to process everything that was done to me on my own. It is impossible. I have lost everything. I need help.” Mohammed from Algeria expressed disbelief that, after detention had left his mental health in tatters, he was the one who had to pay for his own healthcare, not the Home Office: “The Home Office detained me for no reason, gave me mental health issues, released me, and then made me pay for my own treatment.”
This testimony-based snapshot of the ‘longitudinal’ impact of detention is rudimentary and unscientific but it issues several warnings nonetheless. First and foremost, there is clearly a need for more research into the long-term impact of detention on migrants released back into British society – on them as individuals, but also on the families and communities they are returning to.
Second is the relevance of trying to understand detention as trauma. Many of those individuals who have experienced detention in the UK clearly continue to demonstrate symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other depressive disorders – such as flashbacks, panic attacks, feelings of incapacitation, anger, and anxiety – long after leaving detention. (This, incidentally, echoes research in Australia which found that mental health effects persist for a prolonged period after detention, independent of other established predictors of psychiatric morbidity in migrants, such as past exposure to trauma.) The fear here is that, as is the case with many other kinds of trauma, proper rehabilitation following detention could take an extremely long time and even then, might only be possible if accompanied by a degree of mental, physical and financial stability. For those recently released from detention in the UK, that is highly unlikely.
Instead, after having been warehoused in prison-like conditions for an indefinite period of time – maybe four months, maybe four years – they are much more likely to find themselves unceremoniously dumped back into the community as if nothing had happened. They will be housed far away from friends and family. They will receive inadequate financial support, inappropriate or no accommodation, and will be refused the right to work. Some will be strapped with electronic tags and governed by strict curfews. All will be expected to pick themselves up even though the odds of reintegration are crudely stacked against them. Such a lack of support only serves to compound the sense of vulnerability, powerlessness and isolation that defined life in detention.
The reality is that, unless someone tragically dies in detention, the suffering that takes place there usually goes unnoticed. Detention centres have long been our immigration system’s ‘black-sites’; kept at arm’s length from the general public, out of sight, out of mind. For many years, this invisibility has meant that, following their release, the heavy psychological baggage many migrants bring back with them into the community has also gone unseen, unappreciated, unpacked.
Perhaps, until now. For just as the Parliamentary Inquiry has highlighted the ongoing ill-effects of detention on individuals long after their release into the community, so too has it provoked a response from the communities themselves. For every participant with direct experience of detention at the group-evidence sessions we helped run, there was another who had never stepped foot in an IRC. They were there because they knew someone – maybe a family member, maybe a friend, neighbour, or a member of their church or mosque – who had been deeply affected by detention and they wanted to find out why. They were there because they represented local organisations who, in the absence of any structured governmental reintegration support, were trying to identify the needs of those recently released from detention. They were there because, like so many of us, they wanted an end.

Working with women in Colnbrook

Detention Action’s Shashika Heiyantuduwa describes their work with women in Colnbrook detention centre.  This piece was originally published on the Detention Action website on 12 August 2012.  Detention Action is a member of the Detention Forum.


[In 2012] we held the first workshop at the Rose unit for women in Colnbrook detention centre. We were feeling slightly nervous because it is such a different set up to that which we are used to when working with men in the centre, and working with a new client group – women in detention – we were anticipating many new challenges.

In the Rose unit there is very little privacy.  The only space to conduct the workshop is the laundry/living/sleeping/eating place.  If someone does not want to see us, there is very little apart from close their eyes they can do to get away.

When we arrived Z was the first person to ‘approach’ us.  She welcomed us to sit down and made tea.  She had the most tragic story I had heard that day.  She was detained on her wedding day before she had the chance to tie the knot, despite having asked for permission from UKBA to get married.  The photo on her centre ID card was of her in her wedding dress. Despite being humiliated by the UKBA, in front of their friends and family gathered to witness the ceremony, she was incredibly composed and positive.  She had overstayed her visa.  She accepted her life in UK was not meant to be and had decided with her partner that they would go back to her country and make a home where they were both more welcome.

Rose unit is a short term holding facility for women being detained under immigration powers.  It is located within Colnbrook IRC which is designed and run as a high security holding facility for men.  Before Rose unit existed, women were held in the short term unit for men, where they have severely restricted access to facilities.  The Rose unit is a little better.  It is a self-contained unit with limited facilities.  It holds 8 women at any one time.  Most of the unit is open plan-there are six small beds in a small area. In the middle is a small living space with a couple of book shelves, two computer stations, a TV and some couches.    There are another two small rooms for vulnerable women, they have doors that close and sealed windows that look into the common area.  There are four windows in the room; all sealed that are right opposite the visits hall so the curtains are almost always drawn.  The unit is usually guarded by a female officer who is responsible for maintaining the unit and taking the women out for fresh air breaks twice a day as they cannot go outside when they please.

Women are brought to the unit either because they are about to be removed, to attend an embassy interview or they have recently been detained and are waiting to be transferred to another centre. It is not designed to hold people for more than a few days.   So if they want legal advice, they are not usually able to access it, as there is usually a waiting list.

Men in the centre have access to recreation facilities, legal surgeries and are given information about facilities available at the centre during their induction.  Each unit has designated buddies who new detainees can approach for help and advice about practical issues.   These facilities are not available for women at so it can be a confusing, frightening and isolating experience.

Often the women are newly detained, confused about what their next steps should be and distressed about being locked up. One of simplest but most powerful things that we can do is offer emotional support, advice about their next steps and signposting to other organisations that can help them.

If you are interested in getting involved and are female, please consider volunteering with Detention Action.