Unlocking Detention: a week at Harmondsworth

This week, Unlocking Detention visited Harmondsworth detention centre near Heathrow airport.  Harmondsworth is not only the biggest detention centre (immigration removal centre) in the UK, but also in Europe.  Catch with all our tweets – including our twice daily ‘tours’ – on Twitter with the hashtag #Unlocked15.  You can also scroll through the tweets from the Detention Forum, and our retweets, on this blog (see right-hand side!).

We heard from a Music in Detention volunteer, about her experience of making music with men detained in Harmondsworth.  We were also reminded about this ‘letter to Harmondsworth‘, written for last year’s tour.

The detained-fast track system for processing asylum applications was suspended in July.  Read about Detention Action’s amazing legal battle here.    Detention Action made this audio piece back in July about the changes they started to see at Harmondsworth as a result of the suspension of the fast-track.   When Yaw, who is currently detained in Harmondsworth, was asked about the suspension in our live Q and A with him today, he said:


It was really inspiring to hear from Yaw, who is in detention right now.  We really appreciate him taking part in the Q and A, and providing such powerful responses to the questions.  Thanks to Detention Action for doing such a brilliant job on the interview!


When Yaw was asked if people in detention are aware of political developments going on outside, such as the Immigration Bill, he said:

You can see all the questions Yaw was asked, and his responses, here.

Visiting a detention centre – even virtually – always involves visiting or revisiting misery.  This week, as Unlocking Detention ‘visited’ Harmondsworth, an inquest heard how 84-year-old Alois Dvorzac who suffered from heart disease and dementia, was detained in Harmondsworth for two weeks prior to his death.  A report by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman into the incident stated:

“It is a tragic indictment of the system that such a frail and vulnerable man should have spent his final days in prison-like conditions of an immigration removal centre”

This week we also published a piece featuring the voices of visitors to the Verne detention centre, who explained why they started visited, what they had learned, what they found most difficult, and talked about their experiences.  It’s a really absorbing read, and we highly recommend it.  Read it on our blog here.

This week’s article hosted by Justice Gap was by Maddy Crowther of Waging Peace, an active member of the Detention Forum.  Maddy’s article clearly showed how detention affects communities at large, in this case, the Sudanese community.

Each time someone is detained or re-detained, those with a similar legal status also lose trust in the system. Panic sets in and false and unhelpful rumours, for instance about the ‘correct’ arguments to use to secure the right to remain, or about lawyers who can get you released for an upfront cost, spread quickly. The arbitrariness of decisions to detain can even force people to give up on the process entirely: they may fail to report the next time they’re asked to, or even live off the grid entirely. In true Kafkaesque style, the Home Office then uses this as proof of their non-compliance and lack of credibility and so as reasons to refuse grants of asylum or humanitarian protection.

Detention also affects wider communities, even those persons with right to remain in the UK. For instance, in the immediate aftermath a good friend might be entrusted to go gather the person’s belongings from his or her home. Family will rally around and protest the detention to the detainee’s lawyer if they have one, or try to find representation if they don’t. Organisations like our own are contacted to try and see what can be done, and to find out whether a visit can be arranged.
Once someone is released, it requires a massive collective effort to rehabilitate them; from organisations that provide mental health support and mentoring schemes, therapeutic programmes that use tools such as gardening and arts, down to individuals like you and me who can offer compassion and understanding.
Not all ex-detainees react in the same way: some retreat inwards and cut off contact with the outside world, whereas others are furious at the system which locked them up, and may even end up externalising this onto the organisations like our own, that have worked hard to get them released.
In every case though, the person who emerges from detention is not quite the same as the person who went in. It takes a lot of work to bring someone back to themselves.

At the close of the week, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published its report ‘Is Britain Fairer?’, the most comprehensive review ever carried out on progress towards greater equality and human rights protection in Britain.  Read what Detention Forum members Rene Cassin made of it here.

The report stated that ‘the lack of an immigration detention time limit in the UK, in contrast to other European Union countries’ is amongst a number of ‘serious challenges’ to the UK’s human rights record.

Another weighty voice saying, it’s #Time4aTimeLimit

 

‘The person who emerges from detention is never the same as the person who went in’

This piece was written by Maddy Crowther of Waging Peace, for Unlocking Detention.  The article was first published on the Justice Gap, who are partnering with us on #Unlocked15

Detention centres are remote places. Some are marooned in bleak and unexceptional business parks and one is situated on what amounts to an island, just off the UK coastline. You don’t have to be a cynic to imagine that this is purposeful: the government hopes they’ll be ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for the British public, and it works. Most people don’t seem to know where detention centres are, or what daily life is like for their inhabitants. At the moment, if you don’t live near an immigration removal centre or know someone inside, you are unlikely to hear about the abuses that occur there or to be able to oppose the injustices carried out in your name.

However, the effects on the people who’ve been detained are harder to hide and these may cause ripples or even make waves much beyond the immediate vicinity of the centre, severely impacting on whole communities. I know this first-hand through my work with the NGO Waging Peace and its sister charity Article 1, both of which help Sudanese asylum seekers navigate the UK’s labyrinthine immigration process. We also run a Sudanese Visitors’ Group which connects Sudanese people who are detained with their fellow nationals for support and guidance, or just a friendly face.

Working with just one nationality across all UK detention centres gives us unique insight into the effects of detention on a particular group. Each time a Sudanese person is detained, others with a similar legal status – which at the moment are mostly those facing removal to Italy under Dublin rules – sleep a little less soundly. Many call us before they are due to attend an appointment at a Home Office reporting centre, terrified that they’ll be snatched just as their friends were. Many have been detained once before, but released again in a pointless cat-and-mouse game. This is true across the detention estate: almost as many people are released back into the community as are deported following a stay at an immigration removal centre, despite ‘removal’ being the express purpose of detention.

Each time someone is detained or re-detained, those with a similar legal status also lose trust in the system. Panic sets in and false and unhelpful rumours, for instance about the ‘correct’ arguments to use to secure the right to remain, or about lawyers who can get you released for an upfront cost, spreadUnlocked banner quickly. The arbitrariness of decisions to detain can even force people to give up on the process entirely: they may fail to report the next time they’re asked to, or even live off the grid entirely. In true Kafkaesque style, the Home Office then uses this as proof of their non-compliance and lack of credibility and so as reasons to refuse grants of asylum or humanitarian protection.

Detention also affects wider communities, even those persons with right to remain in the UK. For instance, in the immediate aftermath a good friend might be entrusted to go gather the person’s belongings from his or her home. Family will rally around and protest the detention to the detainee’s lawyer if they have one, or try to find representation if they don’t. Organisations like our own are contacted to try and see what can be done, and to find out whether a visit can be arranged.

Once someone is released, it requires a massive collective effort to rehabilitate them; from organisations that provide mental health support and mentoring schemes, therapeutic programmes that use tools such as gardening and arts, down to individuals like you and me who can offer compassion and understanding.

Not all ex-detainees react in the same way: some retreat inwards and cut off contact with the outside world, whereas others are furious at the system which locked them up, and may even end up externalising this onto the organisations like our own, that have worked hard to get them released.

In every case though, the person who emerges from detention is not quite the same as the person who went in. It takes a lot of work to bring someone back to themselves.

asylum clinic

We saw this very clearly in our recent work with a gentleman who was detained for nine months. On release, he said he no longer wanted to see anybody, to be just with himself. He withdrew from others, became severely depressed and struggled to address any problems in his life – his asylum application faltered and his mental and physical health declined. It is only after around a year of intensive support, primarily through a drop-in asylum and refugee clinic we help coordinate at the Sudanese Community Asylum clinic and Information Centre in London, that he was able to recover his confidence. Similarly, we worked with a woman who was left disabled by the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder she acquired following a stay at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, requiring months of hospital stays and outpatient treatment to regain the ability to walk, and countless hours of support, in person or on the phone, to feel safe again. These are sadly not exceptional cases. There are hundreds of other examples I could cite from our casework.

These cases hopefully paint a picture, and show that the costs of detention are borne not just by the person detained, but also by others at risk of detention and the communities that support them both before and after their release. Ultimately, the government itself pays some of the price too. I’m not just talking about pay-outs for unlawful detention cases, which numbered £14.3m at last count, but also about the ongoing costs associated with maintaining an ineffective immigration process. Where community-based alternatives are used in other countries, costs are lower and removal rates are better, as people are more likely to comply with a system they see as fair and balanced. The evidence is clear: a more joined-up approach requires the end of detention, or at the very least the imposition of a 28-day time limit, and the use of community-based alternatives.

 

Visiting the Verne detention centre

We asked members of the Verne Visitors group to share their thoughts and experiences on visiting people at the Verne.  We were interested to hear what led them to start visiting, what they discovered when they started visiting, what they thought the hardest part of visiting was, and to describe their experiences a little. 

Verne

David

I started visiting in January this year.  I had heard about the Verne becoming an IRC (Immigration Removal Centre), and I had some friends who expressed an opinion that locking people up for administrative purpose was not a thing that a civilised society should do. So I thought I could find out about what was going on, and give some help to people.

I really had no experience of this sort of thing, so it came as a shock to find out the effect that indefinite detention can have on people.  The first chap I visited was educated and articulate, and had been active in his community in London.  But the time he was detained broke his spirit (not permanently I hope).  He became distressed and frustrated, to the extent of talking about ending it all.  We had interesting chats, as we had some common interests, but my overall feeling was of frustration that I was not able to give him much practical help, despite spending time communicating with various agencies in an attempt to help him get bail.  I learnt such a lot about his home country and the persecution he faced there, and I really got to understand his fear of being returned.  He would ask, and be interested, in what I did over the weekend, family outings, places I’d visited – but I was always so aware that he was stuck where he was.

The different people I have visited each have their own story, and have reacted to detention differently, but they share a sense of injustice.  I have learnt from them.

Verne

Judith

I started visiting because of the increasing unjust treatment of refugees.    I discovered that no two cases are alike, and that the laws regarding asylum are very complicated.

It’s difficult waiting upstairs for the detainee to arrive.  The visiting room is quite pleasant and spacious, with comfortable chairs and activities for children. There is no clock and, as sometimes you have to hand over your watch, it is difficult to time the visit.

I wonder – as it happens so often – why some detainees do not turn up.

Claire

I have always felt concerned about immigration rights in this country and when we moved to Weymouth recently and realised the prison we could see on Portland from our kitchen window had become an IRC, I couldn’t ignore it and had to get involved, especially as my dad was from Portland and had brought me up to work for equal rights and justice for all. I tracked down the visitor’s group and asked what they needed to help the detainees and they got back to me with a training date for potential visitors.

It is a total privilege to be allowed into the trust of a person detained and despite the terrible situation, feels like something precious.

It is pointless to look for logic in the Home Office’s decisions. Detainees have very few rights and most people have no idea of the ridiculous and inhumane things they have to go through.

Staff at the detention centre (Verne) appear to be doing their best in very difficult circumstances (hugely understaffed, no holidays, no proper breaks, no cultural training or languages, violence and mental health problems in detainees) and often, the left hand often doesn’t seem to know what the right hand is doing. Staff are often equally frustrated and baffled by Home Office decisions.

The hardest part?  Feeling helpless to enable a detainee out soon or reassure them this will happen. Having to listen to someone feeling desperate or helpless. Not being able to make things less complicated and frustrating for them. Waiting around while various officers try to work out where your detainee is/because the doors are broken/because the family in front of you is visiting for the first time with many bags and different officers are giving them conflicting orders/ because the officer forgot to ring for your detainee etc etc etc.

The visiting room is a large, light prison visiting room with bright multi-coloured soft comfy chairs, some paintings, a colourful childrens’ play area with toys, books and soft play on one side. There are separate cubicles used for solicitor’s meetings with detainees and a big desk for several guards with computer/phones etc, plus two other stations for guards. Overhead cameras filming everything. A toilet for men only (women and children/babies have to be let out through two locked sets of doors as toilet is downstairs). There is a kitchen which appears to be off limits for anyone except the officers, although there is supposed to be a detainee whose job it is to offer tea/coffee (not in my experience). Visitors have to buy drinks and snacks from three vending machines for themselves/families/the detainee they are visiting. Food and drink cannot be brought in from outside. If you stand in one corner, you can just see the sea! (Detainees generally cannot see outside the IRC grounds from their rooms but it is nearly surrounded by the sea).

This work is also very rewarding. When a detainee gets released/gets bail (even if you or he doesn’t understand why all of a sudden), it’s amazing. Although, sometimes, speaking to them once they’re out, it’s hard to hear how badly their mental health has been affected. Other times you get really happy endings which is lovely and detainees and ex-detainees are generally so grateful for any help, it’s very moving.

Sometimes it’s very hard to empathise with a detainee’s opinions/ethics/strongly held religious beliefs that seem to conflict with mine but I’m not there to argue. If I have a good, trusting, longer visiting relationship with them, I will banter and discuss their takes on different cultural mores. It’s certainly an education!

Verne 1

Joanna

I wanted to visit people detained in the Verne because I felt it important that people in detention have some support in the community.   I think the Verne is well run and the officers seem well trained and supportive, although I think the lack of a set time limit for the inmates is so frustrating for them that they cause problems for everyone.

The hardest thing is knowing that I can walk out into the open air and my detainee has to go back inside.

The visiting room is spacious, sunny and well furnished with colourful, comfortable chairs and pictures and children’s play equipment.  It is a pleasure to spend time in.

The hardest time was when my detainee texted me to say that the man in the closest cell to him had killed himself in the night.  Also I had to ask that somebody be put on suicide watch on my second visit. I believe he was well looked after.

Verne 3

Rachelle

What led me to start visiting:?  I have always been sympathetic to the plight of refugees and/or economic migrants in any case (all four of my grandparents came into this category).  I had in my early life been a prison teacher ( including at the Verne) so I had an idea what kind of environment the detainees were being held in and what that felt like if you had committed a crime, let alone if you hadn’t.

The things I discovered when I started visiting, that I perhaps hadn’t expected before, were how inefficient the whole system was. I expected it to be inhumane (which it is) and that the staff locally would struggle but on the whole do their best. I didn’t expect the system to be so chaotic and so hopelessly inefficient.

The hardest part of the visiting is the difficulty of offering hope to the detainee. One of them asked me about his rights and I had to explain to him that under our law he could be detained indefinitely. I think the “indefinitely” is the hardest part for them, as there appears to be no end in sight to the uncertainty.

The visiting room is large, I have never visited when it has been crowded, there is plenty of space for visitors and detainees to sit around brightly coloured and reasonably comfortable (new) armchairs. There are attractive pictures on the wall and there is a large children’s area with plenty of toys and books. There are two vending machines in the corner as you go in. These are a pain, they break down frequently or are not restocked, they do not give change and they are quite expensive as it is. Occasionally they have an orderly on duty in the little kitchen who can make cups of tea or coffee free of charge but he is not there very often and the detainees I have visited prefer Coke in any case.

Jammin’ & bluesin’: Music in Detention at Harmondsworth

MID

This blog post was written by Music in Detention volunteer, Alicia.  

I have been volunteering in the office at Music In Detention (MID) for the last two months and I was really excited when I found out I was going to the YMCA in Hayes, and Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) to experience my first music workshops. I met the artists for this project, Shammi and Oliver at my first stop, which was the YMCA. As soon as I walked in I heard one of the kids MC’ing on the mic, and his flow was absolutely ridiculous. He was so talented and confident, and in retrospect it was a great warm up for the session.

Shammi and Oliver began the session by trying to get the young people to think about the meanings they attribute to their home. Not all of the young people spoke English, and so the artists asked them to draw a picture of home. Generally, home was a positive place, it was warm, reminded them of cooked food, and a safe haven. Shammi then asked them to think about what life would be like without home, what would that feel like, and how would you cope? And actually, I had a think about that myself, and I was reminded of my friend’s trouble having her visa rejected two weeks before she was due to begin university. Previously, she had described home (Nigeria) in much the same way as these young people had, but to be sent home was devastating for her, and so home took on a new meaning completely. Being born British, I have never known that concern about the insecurity of whether you stay here or are deported; a situation that is completely out of your hands. It was an interesting exercise… The session continued, and there were young people rapping, playing the drums, and others who just listened and soaked up the atmosphere. The children recorded questions for the detainees at Harmondsworth for later, and the session was wrapped up with pizza.

As a Criminal Justice student I’ve had the opportunity to go to two prisons, one visit was to a prison restaurant run by the prisoners, and another was an actual tour of the prison. On my first visit I found the whole experience very depressing, and very claustrophobic. It was obvious to me that some of the prisoners were suffering with anxiety, and were in a constant state of alert, which I guess is indicative of the whole unpredictability of the prison. As I reflected on my previous visits on the way to Harmondsworth, I was apprehensive as I considered the prison and the detention centre to be like first cousins. I was unsure of what I would find, how peoples’ state of mind would be, and how I would be received by the detainees. The security point at Harmondsworth was very claustrophobic and reminded me of the prison security; I wanted to be out of these confines and delivering music! After over an hour of this limbo, and jarring key-churning sounds, we were allowed to go through into the arts block. On the way I did see some detainees, and I was immediately struck by their demeanor. I like to paint, and I feel that the eyes reveal so much about how a person feels, and I definitely saw a lot of powerlessness, fear and loneliness in that place…

We walked onto the arts wing and were greeted by a spiritual art teacher. She teaches a form of spiritual art, otherwise known as healing art, which helps the detainees feel positive, allowing them to feel and express powerful emotions, thoughts, sensations, memories, visions and dreams. She had two students at the time, and one man was so into his painting that he did not look up once. He was so talented, and I got to see some of his previous artwork. As I looked around the room, I kept seeing these amazing artworks, which displayed the trauma and angst of a lot of the detainees. They used such bright colours, and some used really heavy impasto strokes, and there was a ton of mixed media work, and other things that I had no idea how to make. Next it was down to the music, I was really looking forward to this!

We went into the music room, it was a decent size, and full of instruments, they had a keyboard, djembe drums, electric guitars, bass guitars, and a drum kit and we had the addition of the Cajon and other instruments from the artists own collection. Because of the delay in security processing, the artists decided to start with a jam session playing music and singing, with the door wide open so as to attract people who would like to come in and join. Shammi and Oliver played some really amazing music with their guitars, I played the Cajon, and Michael, one of the guards at Harmondsworth played the drum kit.

I’ve not been to many live concerts, let alone held a concert of my own, but I think today was the day. It was so much fun and I think there was a sort of reggae vibe going on, which reminded me of Jamaica. In no time, a few men from Albania came along and they were absolutely loving it! They listened at first, and Shammi encouraged them to play music themselves. At first they didn’t want to, but Shammi persisted, and one of the guys played the keyboard, Shammi gave him some notes to play and I took over from Shammi playing the bass guitar. I have never in my life played a bass guitar, but I must say I picked it up pretty quickly, and really enjoyed it. It was so relaxing, and I felt all the nerves and anxiety from before leave me. If it had that effect on me, I could definitely see the impact it would have on the detainees. Soon after, I synced up my chords with the new notes the detainees had just learnt on the keyboard.

More detainees, some from Bangladesh, others from China and Turkey came along, some sat down and played the drums and others just sat and watched. One moment that was quite moving for me was we were playing, and then one man came in and played the drums for a while, then he stopped and just looked around, and listened. After that he got up and left, and it made me feel that music is very powerful and can make you miss home, and even resent your current situation. On the other hand, maybe he had other things to do! But, I did sense a bit of frustration about detention in general, and the unnecessary pain it causes people, who ordinarily wouldn’t be in this position. I could tell I was amongst talented people, fathers, husband, brothers, doctors, students and more.

Towards the end of the session, the artists played some of the questions from the children and young people at the YMCA. One of the Albanian men was happy to record some answers for them. We finished off by singing a chorus together as a group, which we recorded, and we also recorded the piece we had played earlier. A really great addition to the piece was a rap recorded by a man from Bangladesh, and his talent just beamed through!

Some of the detainees told us how long they had been detained, the liveliest of the group had been detained for 4 days, and one man had been detained for 2 years. It was hard for me to imagine that kind of experience, and I now have a great appreciation of the damage done by detention in the UK, especially indefinite detention, and its psychological impact on people. As I packed up for the night I felt so privileged to have met the people I had met over the course of the day, and I was so proud to have given some joy to people’s lives through music.

Harmondsworth: story of those detained within the walls

This blog post was written by Susannah Wilcox, who is an Advocacy Co-ordinator at Detention Action.  Working in this capacity, she regularly visits and runs workshops in Harmondsworth detention centre.

Harmondsworth

This story of Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) is not mine to tell.  It is the story of those detained within its walls.

Some of them were moved there on the day of their ‘release’ from prison. Some of them were detained there while reporting to the Home Office each week. And, up until the suspension of the Detained Fast Track asylum processing system earlier this year, many more of them were detained there after claiming asylum on their arrival in the UK or during an appointment with Visas and Immigration department of the Home Office.

Harmondsworth, Europe’s largest detention centre, was the primary home of the government’s delinquent child – the Fast Track, whose potential as a swift, dispassionate asylum processing mechanism was loudly proclaimed by ministers and government officials until its spectacular fall from grace earlier this year.

dft

But this story focuses on those detained in Harmondsworth who are perhaps less visible than those who were detained on the Fast Track. During my time as a volunteer with Detention Action, I visited several people who were detained in Harmondsworth after serving time in prison. They first heard of immigration detention on the day they were due to be released from prison. Instead of being released, they were issued with a Deportation Order and transferred to Harmondsworth, where their incarceration continued, in some cases for a year or more.

Travelling to Harmondsworth each week to visit these men was always a disheartening experience. Walking along the less-than-picturesque Colnbrook Bypass in the biting wind, being fingerprinted and given a table number, then sitting for up to hour in the visits reception waiting for the detainee to be brought out, often watching small children play in the corner while their parents snatched what little privacy they could – none of this was designed to inspire hope or joy. Spending time with the men themselves, however, was in turns heartbreaking, surprising, educational, challenging, hilarious and eye-opening. That their curiosity, sense of humour and capacity for empathy – their humanity – persisted despite the conditions in which they were detained indefinitely constantly amazed me.

Two of the men I visited stood out in particular. Both came from difficult backgrounds and ended up involved in gang violence, leading to criminal convictions. Both struggled with mental health problems prior to being detained in Harmondsworth. During their time in Harmondsworth, their mental health endured unimaginable strain.

The uncertainty, isolation, loneliness and lack of escape from their inner mental world weighed heavily on them. This impact manifested itself in different ways. P became angrier with each visit, railing against the system that kept him locked up without time limit. He found it increasingly difficult to find any sense of hope or normality, or any outlet for the rage and frustration he felt.

L, on the other hand, would repeatedly ask himself how he had come to this place and why he was being held there indefinitely, at a distance from his family and from any hope for the future. Was it God, luck, karma or something more terrifyingly banal? Although initially lucid, L gradually withdrew into a world of mysticism and mythology, in which he went on great adventures through time and space. The pyramids of Egypt, the rebirth of Christ, the death of President Kennedy – all of these have more meaning for L now than his own battle for recognition in the UK.

Witnessing the deterioration of someone you care about is a painful process. We can never know the extent to which the conditions inside immigration removal centres like Harmondsworth contribute to the emotional and psychological distress of those detained indefinitely, but there is no doubt that they have considerable influence – and not for the better.

Unlocking Detention: Morton Hall week

This week it was the turn of Morton Hall to be visited by the virtual Unlocking Detention tour.


Morton Hall was built as an RAF base, then served a low security prison.  It was re-opened, with more security, as a detention centre.


People are locked in their cells from 8pm and 8am, and at further times throughout the day.


Detention centres are often remote and hard to visit – Unlocking Detention seeks to bring the realities of detention a little closer to home.


Isolation was a theme of this week’s innovative Q and A, in which Michael (detained in Morton Hall for TWO YEARS) and his partner Holly came up with questions for each other about the experience of detention, and recorded the results.


Listen to this fascinating Q and A, in which Michael describes how important Holly was to him, ‘a rock’ and Holly speaks of the shock of Michael being kept in detention, something they didn’t think could happen to them.

This week also heard about vulnerability in the immigration detention context, and looking behind the labels, in this fantastic article by Ali McGinley of AVID, published by Justice Gap.  The article draws on the Detention Forum’s recent research report, Rethinking ‘Vulnerability’ in Detention: a Crisis of Harm.


Scottish Detainee Visitors highlighted the acute impact that detention has on people by sharing extracts from their visit reports:


And we continued to explore how detention affects us all, all over the UK, even when the nearest detention centre is many miles away.

Morton Hall: Michael and Holly's story

To mark the Unlocking Detention tour’s visit to Morton Hall IRC this week, this Q and A features Michael, a member of the Freed Voices group, and his partner Holly, reflecting on the two years he was detained at Morton Hall in Lincolnshire, and the impact it had on them and their relationship.

Michael and Holly decided what questions they wanted to ask each other, asked them, and recorded the results.  It’s a very human and touching insight into the realities of detention, and how it affects far more people than just those detained.

A friendship to treasure

This blog post, about “an unlikely friendship, forged behind barbed wire and in the shadow of indefinite detention” was written for Scottish Detainee Visitors, and has been republished by Unlocking Detention with their permission.   It was written by Giovanna Fassetta, Chair of SDV.

IMan Tajik Photography

I first met Simon in Dungavel in August 2010. He was detained for a long time and little by little, the two of us became friends. It was an unlikely friendship: he a young man in his early thirties, with a taste for rap and bling, and me a woman of almost fifty, with no taste for rap or bling.

We had some fun visits with Simon. He was always upbeat, even after months of constant disappointment and frustration. He had served a prison sentence (having been involved in a drunken fight) and this was how he had been found not to have papers. So, after a few months in prison, he had been sent to Dungavel. We spoke on the phone between visits, and I trailed the shops trying to find a pair of trendy but cheap jeans that would be low enough in the waist for the look he was after (he wanted to keep his HMP denims, as he said they would fetch a good price on ebay).

Simon had arrived in the UK as a teenager with his mother, having left a country with a dreadful human rights record to which the Home Office had suspended returns. However, he was born in a country deemed safe and it was to that country that the Home Office was determined to send him, after he had spent half of his life in the UK. Telling the authorities that he knew no one in his country of birth, having moved away as a child of three, and that all his family was in the ‘unsafe’ country, made no difference.

Having spent almost two years in detention, with no end in sight, he eventually decided that going back to Africa was preferable to the life in limbo he was living and that at least in this way he could regain some control over his fate. So he was sent to the ‘safe’ country of his birth and, for a while, he disappeared. I was very concerned for him, and kept trying to get in touch with him via email and on Facebook.

Eventually, in June 2012, almost a year after he’d been ‘returned’, he resurfaced. He had slowly made his way to the unsafe country, and he had managed to get in touch with his family. He was ok, he reassured me. Simon is a fighter.  I should not have worried, but I was very relieved. We are still in touch and occasionally he writes an email, when he manages to get access to a computer.

A few months ago, I happened to notice his status update on Facebook. It read:

“Giovanna Fassetta I will be forever thankful for your hospitality, it meant a lot to me that you were there during tough times!! God bless!!!”

This is a friendship I treasure.


Unlocking Detention visits Brook House

Last week, it was Brook House detention centre’s turn to be ‘visited’ by Unlocking Detention.

We had some brilliant articles published during Brook House week.  There was a really interesting piece published by our partners The Justice Gap, on the politics of space and time, looking at the Refugee Tales walk along the Pilgrim’s Way, which involved people who had experienced detention first-hand.

This article lead to a discussion on Twitter about making the ‘invisible spaces’ of detention visible, a key aim of the Unlocking Detention project.  Jenny Edkins, Professor of International Politics at the University of Aberystwyth, made the connection between Unlocking Detention and the work of Tings Chak.  You can read more about Tings’ publication ‘Undocumented: the architecture of migrant detention’ here.

During Brook House week, the Immigration Bill 2015 got its second reading in the House of Commons.  Read about what the Bill means for immigration detention, and what happens next, in this piece by Jon Featonby, parliamentary manager at the Refugee Council and parliamentary lead for the Detention Forum.


We heard from Yann, detained in Brook House for 4 months and detained for a year and half overall.

Also last week, Bristol Immigration Detention Campaign released their fantastic Keys to Freedom video in support of Unlocking Detention.  Take a look!

On Friday, we ended the week with our now traditional Q and A with someone detained in the IRC that is the focus of the week’s ‘tour’.  This week, Ray answered your questions.  Ray is currently detained in Brook House.

Catch up on all the questions put to Ray, and his illuminating responses, here.

Some thanks are due:  Thank you to Ray for providing such valuable insight into life in detention, thank you for all your questions, thanks for Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group for putting us in touch with Ray, and a special thanks to Ben from Detention Action for interviewing Ray.

We also continued to get some amazing contributions to our Unlocked15 theme – What would you miss if you were detained? (Or for those who actually have been detained, what did you miss?).  Remember you can still share yours on Twitter, using the hashtag #Unlocked15.


And finally, there was big detention news last week, not related to Brook House.

This is great news, and we hope more will follow.  No reason has been given for the closure at this point, but we like to think that the Unlocking Detention visit to Dover the week before the news broke was the final nail in the coffin!

How detention affects Devon: a looming dread

This post was written for Unlocking Detention by Abbie Grace, support worker at Refugee Support Devon, and someone who lives in Devon and has experienced detention first-hand.

devon
Although detention may seem far away from us in Exeter, the nearest centre being over 60 miles away, we are constantly reminded of this dark side of our asylum system. It looms as a dreaded possibility for many who have to report regularly and who, each time, must endure the anxiety and uncertainty it brings. Detention also continues to have an effect on many people we meet; there are examples of appalling treatment which has severely damaged people’s views on authority in the United Kingdom, stories about people being taken miles away, across the country and so distancing them from all the support networks they have built, and accounts of how individuals fought to keep strong during these times.

Often the only light in such accounts are the accompanying stories of compassion and solidarity shown by others in detention, by campaigners, visitors groups, religious support networks and “reporting partners”. The outrage and willingness to help despite people’s apparent distance from the issue is heartening. Battered copies of the report from the parliamentary inquiry into detention and the “I am human” report by Women for Refugee Women  are passed around our service users and volunteers, petitions are signed, letters written to our MP urging him to attend the parliamentary debate  on detention that took place in September, and (extremely early!) trains booked to make it up to London and add our voices to protests in London and at Yarl’s Wood.

It is sometimes difficult to gauge the impact that supporters down here in the South West are having. But, it is important to remember, that this is not a part of the asylum system that the Home Office want to shine a light on. If we want them to change this policy, it is essential that we raise awareness amongst those who wouldn’t otherwise know, that we maintain the pressure on the politicians who are accountable to us and that we help to keep that light shining and exposing the injustices of detention.

And now, one service user at Refugee Support Devon (who wishes to remain anonymous) shares his experience:

I am an asylum seeker that was going to the police station every 6 months to sign.

I did not attend one of them due to illness, so I contacted the UKBA to inform them about the reason for not attending, and they set another date to go and sign, I did attend on that date and all went well until one day the immigration officers came to the house and took me to the police station. I asked one officer for the reason that they taking me away and he said because I did not attend to sign when I did actually go back and signed. So it turned out that they made a mistake and there were a record that I did attend and sign on the date the set for me. But still they said that I have to spend a night in the cell until I get picked up and be taken to the detention centre.

Around 3am I was woken up by one officers there and taken to the detention centre.

Detention centre was an ex-prison with a depressing atmosphere.

I was held there for nearly three weeks until I came out on bail with a solicitor help (although I have to still wear an electronic tag). The food in there was a leftover from days before and not enough amount to fill a man up. Even one of the officers in there said the food is disgusting and even prison food is much better than these.

We have a limited time to go on the internet and not many website were allowed which make it even worst and more depressing.

It was a very depressing three weeks that made me cry and think about ending my life.