Unlocking Detention 'visits' Tinsley House

Last week, Unlocking Detention visited Tinsley House, possibly one of the least well-known detention centres.


We heard powerful stories of the men that Nic Eadie, director of Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group, has met over eight years of visiting and supporting people detained in Tinsley.  Many of them speak with strong London accents, or Glasgow accents, or Manchester accents: “Almost as British as me”

Before he left Tinsley House John sent me some of his writings. In them he mixed his feelings of fear and dread with those of hope and strength. He tried to remain positive, drawing on the resilience that had helped him survive war, poverty, feelings of isolation, and a drug dependency that nearly killed him. In his last note he wrote me this:

‘I love life and hopefully life agrees with me. Nobody likes the feeling of being trapped, yet we all are somehow. One way or another we’re all trapped in a situation and do not completely feel free. My name is John, a detainee at Tinsley House. I’m not trapped in here. I’m here to expand my mind and meet people of different cultures and backgrounds. I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to pass through here, for I’m no longer naïve to certain people’s ways, or ignorant towards their religions and beliefs. I’ve learnt to live away from my loved ones until I see them again. And I’ll have a lot to tell them about my journey.’


We also heard from Colleen Molloy, City of Sanctuary National Development Officer, on the damage of indefinite detention.  City of Sanctuary supports the Detention Forum in calling for a time-limit on detention, and are holding their Sanctuary in Parliament event this week!

We had not intended to be political and we remain non-partisan with support from all the major political parties. However, when you connect asylum seekers and refugees with local people, inevitably relationships build. It is through these relationships, that we have learned from bitter experience about the inhumane process and painful journey that many asylum seekers experience in the bid to seek freedom and safety in the UK.

The most heart-rending and shocking experiences that our volunteers on the ground have found is that of the arbitrary detention of asylum seekers, often at the point of reporting and at the most unexpected of times.
In many dispersal areas, City of Sanctuary volunteers and befrienders have been shocked by their friends being uprooted and detained, often in remote locations. This experience has politicised them, and many of them have been motivated to campaign for their release, gaining thousands of signatures on petitions to the Home Office, raising much-needed funds for legal support and visiting their friends to bring them comfort and clothing and other necessary items. The shocking experience of visiting a detention centre has further motivated their desire to help.   Volunteers have told us “I was really shocked.  I didn’t think that could happen in Britain.  How could that happen in a democracy?”

The week’s live Q and A was quite a special one.  It was with Isa, who had been detained TWICE in Tinsley but has recently been released.


Isa described the “ticking, ticking, ticking” of the clock with no time-limit on immigration detention (yet):


Sadly, Isa is not able to enjoy his new-found freedom, because of the constant threat of being re-detained. “This is no life”

Read the full Q and A here.

 

"I've got a few questions for you": a letter to Colnbrook

This blog post was written by John for Unlocking Detention, in the form of a letter to Colnbrook, the detention centre where he was held for three and a half months.  John is a member of Freed Voices, a collective of experts-by-experience who have lost over 30 years between them to immigration detention in the UK. They are all present or former clients of Detention Action.

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Dear Colnbrook,

I’ve got a few questions for you in relation to the three and a half months you held me in detention.

Why were the Officers at the induction unit so mean and unwelcoming to me? I remember asking for a bed sheet and was given a pillow case. I remember asking for a tooth brush and waiting patiently for over 72 hours. I was treated harshly and spoken to rudely. Were you trying to give me a terrible first impression of Colnbrook, or did that just happen by mistake?

Why was my asylum claim treated in isolation to my family asylum claim? I claimed asylum as part of a family but was detained and dumped at Colnbrook all by myself. Were you just trying to scare me because I was so young?

Why did you only tell me I was on the Detained Fast Track after ten days of being on it? I hear it has been abolished now for being unlawful. Did you know how unfair and unjust it was when you put me on it? Every day, I watched your staff go home to their safe beds, and to their families, and then return the next morning. How did they live with that knowing what we were going through?

Why were we locked up in the room from 9pm to 8am every day? What was the point of this? Where were we going to go? Up and over the barbed wire? What message are you trying to send to the people they detain?

The officers at Colnbrook would always say ‘this is a high-security detention centre’. It wasn’t. It was a high security prison. I even had PRISON NUMBER printed in bold on the front page of my medical report. And yet, I have no criminal record, I haven’t committed a crime. I guess my question is, despite this, did you see me as a criminal?

I saw an old man in his late seventies with a walking stick. I saw a guy who had just had a major operation who struggled to pick up his medication. There was a survivor of torture, covered in scars. I heard people screaming at night because they were going mad inside in Colnbrook. What exactly is your definition of ‘vulnerable’ if you are detaining these kinds of people?

I prefer to call ‘Healthcare’ in Colnbrook, the ‘Inhuman Treatment Centre’. Are the staff there medically trained? Are they aware of medical ethics? Do you know that once I was given the wrong medication, complained of dizziness, and the doctor checked my medication and after 5 mins told me “yes, sorry the nurse gave you the wrong medication.” Really?! Do you know how many times I left ‘Healthcare’ with tears running down my cheeks simply because I was terrified I’ve been given the wrong medication again?

Do you think you’d be able to talk about your problems with someone who is doing everything they can to tell you they don’t like you?

Why are the nurses at Colnbrook so quick to dispense medications before listening to the patients, acting like they already knew what was wrong with them? I ended up feeling that their evil was intentional and a calculated attempt to terminate my life or create complications for me.

Were the staff in Colnbrook told to try and make my life, and the lives of my family, an agony? Were they just following orders?

Why was I given the opportunity to work and earn £1 an hour in Colnbrook but now that I am out of detention, I have automatically been stripped off this same right?

I met lots of people who had lost hope because they didn’t know when they were getting out. Is this why you don’t have a time-limit? So that people give up?

Even though I’ve been out now for two months, do you know I still have panic attack every time I think about the horror I went through in your detention centre? Three weeks ago I almost fainted at the police station where I usually sign, just because I saw two immigration officers walking towards me. In that moment, I thought I was going to be arrested. I thought I was going to see you again.

Goodbye Colnbrook. I hope I can clear your horror from my memory. I hope we never meet again.

Yours,

John.

“They want us to imprison and deport ourselves”

symaag400This post was written for Unlocking Detention by Stuart Crosthwaite, Secretary of the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG),  with thanks to the refugees and asylum seekers quoted here (some names changed) and to John Grayson whose ‘academic activism’ contributed to this article.  This post was published as our partner Justice Gap‘s #Unlocked15 article of the week.

The first event we in the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) organised was in 2007: a 3 day, 30 mile march from Sheffield Home Office to Lindholme Immigration Removal Centre near Doncaster to protest against detention. Lindholme is now closed, the Home Office building has moved but we are still here.

The Home Office South Yorkshire asylum reporting centre is now at Vulcan House in Sheffield on the banks of the River Don. Except for temporary holding cells beneath Vulcan House there is no immigration detention centre in South Yorkshire. The nearest is Moreton Hall in Lincolnshire. But for people seeking asylum who are obliged to report to Vulcan House each visit carries with it the threat that they will be detained. And the Home Office are keen to reinforce this fear. “I’m always sick… the week before I go to sign” Pride from Cameroon explained. Mohammed from Sudan couldn’t sleep the night before his reporting day at Vulcan House and packs all his immigration case papers in a rucksack each time he has to go to report.

“Don’t Interfere”

A condition for receiving asylum support is to report at Vulcan House weekly, monthly or every few months. Some people arrange for friends or supporters to accompany them when they report, feeling this provides them with more security or – if detained – an immediate campaign for their release. In the last year Home Office staff have sometimes tried to deny people the right to be accompanied. A retired teacher from Barnsley, who is an experienced volunteer, experienced this when he accompanied a South Asian family on a recent visit to Vulcan House: “As soon as I entered the building I was shouted at to ‘identify’ myself. One of the staff spoke to me as if I was a child. ‘If you’re not their lawyer what are you doing here? Get over there out of the way and don’t interfere.’”

Screenshot from 2015-11-26 16:46:01

Image – August 2008: South Yorkshire Sudanese community demonstrating outside Vulcan House for the right to work and to be treated respectfully. We soon discovered the newly built glass and steel Home Office HQ and surroundings had excellent acoustics.

The Home Office policy to create a “hostile environment” for ‘illegal’ migrants is being put into practice at Vulcan House.  Officials have handed out compulsory questionnaires (in English) to asylum seekers, demanding comprehensive personal and family information from people signing. Questions range from data-trawling: personal details of everyone who lives in the same house as the person reporting, to the apparently casual “how do you spend your time each day?” (designed to question voluntary activities). Then there’s the question “what are your hopes for the future”? Apparently innocent, but in the hands of the Home Office, a tool for entrapment. The question appears designed to push people into the ‘Voluntary’ Assisted Return and Reintegration Programme (VARRP) if anyone gives the (understandable) response of “I hope to see my family/country/home again”.

Going Home to Rotherham

The ‘Choices’ VARRP scheme has been heavily pushed by the Home Office at Vulcan House. Perhaps they’re in training for 2016 when the “Assisted Voluntary Return” programme is run directly by the Home Office. As people report at Vulcan House, they are bombarded with ‘Choices’ promotional material with pictures of smiling refugees who have ‘chosen’ to go back to the countries they fled from. Staff have clearly been instructed to push the scheme aggressively, even rudely, sometimes with unexpected results. I overheard this exchange between Grace, an exiled political activist from Malawi and a member of Vulcan House staff. (Grace is a destitute asylum seeker who has to walk miles each time she has to report to Vulcan House)

Home Office: “Do you want to go home?”
Grace: “Er…yes”
HO: We can help you with travel home, pay for your fare. Do you want us to help you with that?
Grace: Yes that would be good
HO: When do you want to go?
Grace: Today, now

When Grace explained that the bus to Rotherham costs £2.20 the nature of the misunderstanding became clear. She walked back home.

Prepare, Protect, Prevent, Pursue

Representatives from Sheffield asylum rights charities had sought a meeting with Home Office staff from Vulcan House to talk about the intrusive questionnaires, the rude and aggressive selling of the ‘Choices’ scheme and the right to be accompanied when reporting at Vulcan House.

At the meeting in February 2015 hosted by local MP Paul Blomfield, whose Sheffield constituency includes Vulcan House, the representatives were surprised to find that the Home Office had sent along its head of asylum ‘Reporting Centres’ for the Yorkshire and the North East region.

thedialThe charity people raised their concerns. The senior officer from the Home Office was apparently in no mood to apologise for her staff or give any ground to “you voluntary organisations”. Instead, she brusquely handed out copies of The Dial (see left) which seeks to criminalise and persecute people seeking safety in the UK

Then she read out a lecture about her exercise of powers under the new Immigration Act of 2014 (checking on addresses and landlords who housed illegal immigrants) and hinting that anyone (not just landlords) giving assistance to “illegal immigrants” in the future might find themselves subject to the law. She also threatened the representatives with the prospect of an order “at present on the Minister’s desk waiting to be signed off” banning volunteer escorts from all Reporting Centres.

“Playing a Game to Scare Us”

The Home Office’s Vulcan House has also been the chosen location for the organised interrogation of 26 Sudanese asylum seekers by Sudanese Embassy officials, described as “re-documentation interviews” in 2011. In testimonies from those people subjected to this – possibly illegal and clearly intimidatory – practice there were reports of threats to the asylum seekers’ families in Sudan and attempted bribery. “The Border Agency are playing a game to scare us” was one man’s assessment of the process and a report titled with this statement was compiled and presented to the Home Office. Despite repeated questioning of the procedure by SYMAAG and Waging Peace the (then) UKBA response was vague and evasive.  A reference to our report on this practice in the August 2015 Sudan Country Information Guidance (see 4.1.4) blithely states that attendance at the interviews was “purely voluntary”. What would you do if you feared renewed torture in Sudan and received a Home Office letter stating (in bold) that “Failure to do so” (attend the interview) may affect any outstanding claim you may have with the Home Office”?

Opposition to these interviews sparked the formation of support networks within Sudanese communities in the UK and with campaigners. On other issues, people seeking asylum and asylum rights advocates have worked closely. In 2012 approaches to (then) UKBA at Vulcan House resulted in a commitment from them to ensure all staff wore clearly identifiable numbers, after complaints of rudeness and bad treatment. UKBA added that the new ID would also enable particular staff to be congratulated on their ‘good practice’. While it’s not clear how many official compliments have been received by Vulcan House staff from people forced to report there, asylum seekers are quick (and generous) to point out that some workers there are respectful and efficient.

“Soft detention”

The baffling changes in reporting regulations and the general regime at Vulcan House suggest that many measures are the knee-jerk responses of Vulcan House officials to higher management and ministerial pressure to ‘get tough’ and ‘get results’. For example the questionnaires mentioned above were heavily pushed to people reporting at Vulcan House for a few months with repeated warnings that it was “compulsory” to complete them. After a few months these badly photocopied grey sheets were forgotten and have never been mentioned again. The Home Office at Vulcan House appear to lurch from one fear-inducing scheme to another but with the clear intention of making life hard for people who can’t return home because of the threat of war and persecution.

The 2014 Immigration Act attempts to turn landlords, bank workers and health workers into informers and border guards. The Dial strategy seeks to smear people seeking asylum as somehow linked to “organised crime”, thereby enlisting state and private security forces to spy and enforce when required. State and private data-holding/collecting bodies like the DWP and Experian invisibly back up the effort. Capita were paid to send texts direct to peoples mobile phones, telling them: “You are required to leave the UK as you no longer have right to remain.” Despite that fiasco – many people texted were UK residents, an immigration lawyer in one case –  Capita are now paid more public money to tag asylum tenants who have committed no crime. Asylum housing landlord G4S also runs detention, transport, even asylum advice services – a kind of monitoring and enforcement one-stop-shop. There are signs in G4S asylum houses in Sheffield issuing curfews, telling the tenants they must stay in the house overnight. “Soft detention” as John Grayson calls it.

This summer I demonstrated alongside many other people against Yarl’s Wood detention centre, despite its physical remoteness. It was a visceral experience, hearing and seeing the women’s resistance, watching the perimeter fence pulled, rocked, then torn down as the police looked on awkwardly. Later we learned that Serco had tried, pathetically and unsuccessfully, to distract the women with a game of bingo with “cash prizes” while we demonstrated. It was a public relations disaster for Serco and the Home Office and both demonstrators and detainees were emboldened. I’m not suggesting that brick walls, bingo and security guard style immigration detention is finished but that it will be increasingly augmented with means of surveillance, confinement and coercion that are harder to locate, identify and therefore challenge. As an Iraqi Kurdish refugee in Sheffield astutely remarked “They want us to imprison and deport ourselves”.

All eyes on amendment 32: time to stop the same trends repeating

This blog post was written for Unlocking Detention by Eiri Ohtani, coordinator of the Detention Forum.

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A sense of deja vu

The latest statistics on the government’s use of immigration detention released yesterday show a worrying 11% increase in the number of people entering the detention estate in the UK.

For the year ending September 2015, a total of 32,741 people were detained, an increase of 3,250 people from the previous period (29,491).

Yet, the proportion of people leaving detention to be removed from the UK has continued to decrease.

Only 47% of people were removed from detention in the year ending September 2015, meaning that 53% of those who left detention returned to their community.

A sense of deja vu?

We find the same trend, again and again, each time the official statistics on detention are released.

Detention up, removals down.

And yet again, these statistical figures raise a series of political questions.

Why are these people detained in the first place, when so many of them are released back to the community anyway, at vast financial and human cost?

Could their detention not have been avoided, bearing in mind the negative impact of immigration detention on individuals’ well-being as well as the devastating impact on their families, friends and communities?

Another question these statistics force us to ask is whether it is indeed necessary to maintain the current size of the detention estate.

The statistics show that many incidents of deprivation of liberty were pointless from the government’s point of view, as they do not result in removals.

Indeed, closing down detention centres is not an entirely unfamiliar idea.

Haslar Immigration Removal Centre (160 beds) shut its doors earlier this year and now stands empty.  The closure of Dover Immigration Removal Centre (316 beds) was also announced just last month.

It is therefore possible to close down more detention centres, save money and reinvest that money to improve the quality of decision making and support people in the community.

At the moment, however, the government appears to be concentrating on getting bidders for detention centre contracts to undercut each other, possibly at the expense of the quality of services that are available to people who are in detention.  The cost of detention per day has now gone down to £90.41 from £91.61 since June 2015. The National Audit Office is currently investigating the tendering of contracts for Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, and the issue of the costs is likely to come under some scrutiny.

The Immigration Bill

These statistics were announced just as the Immigration Bill 2015 is reaching its report stage on Tuesday 1st December.

Of the numerous amendments to the Bill which have been submitted, many deal with pertinent detention issues, including the detention of vulnerable people and provision for automatic bail hearings.
amendment32

All eyes are on Amendment 32, which would introduce a 28 day limit on the length of time the Home Office can keep someone in immigration detention.  It is an impressive display of consensus across MPs from different political parties, including all the main opposition front-benches, who do not necessary agree on general immigration policies.  It also reflects the main recommendation made by the cross-party panel who conducted an eight-month long parliamentary inquiry into the use of immigration detention.

Another interesting development is New Clause 13, which creates an obligation for the Secretary of State to commission an independent review of immigration detention.

This new clause reflects:

“the unanimous agreement of the House of Commons to the recommendations of the joint APPG on Refugees and APPG on Migration inquiry into immigration detention” and “requires the Secretary of State to appoint an independently-chaired panel to consider the issues raised therein and report to Parliament within three months of Schedule 7 to the Bill coming into force.”

This Bill, another attempt to create an even more “hostile environment” for our community members who don’t happen to have a British passport, is expected to reach the House of Lords before Christmas.

The heightened discomfort with indefinite detention, a legacy of the Parliamentary Inquiry both in Parliament and in civil society organisations, will certainly ensure that the focus on detention will continue in House of Lords, whether the government likes it or not.

If a time limit on immigration detention were to be introduced, the detention regime will have to look radically different.  We are likely to see a far smaller detention estate, with far fewer people detained for shorter periods.  Of course, as one of the MPs said during the course of the Immigration Bill committee debate, the introduction of a time limit does not go far enough in ending the policy of detention.  However, it still offers “a massive step in the right direction.”

In the meantime, for those thousands of people trapped in detention and people living in community with fear of detention, change can’t come fast enough.

Time to listen to the experts: it's time for a time-limit

This blog post was written for Unlocking Detention by Lisa Matthews, coordinator of Right to Remain.  Right to Remain are a coordinating group of the Detention Forum, leading on communications and campaigns, and run Unlocking Detention on behalf of the Detention Forum.

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As we draw into the final weeks of this year’s Unlocking Detention project, I’ve been thinking about two distinct themes that have come up during our virtual tour of the UK’s immigration detention estate.

On the one hand, I’ve noticed that despite having campaigned on this issue for years, I’ve heard and learnt so many new things about the experience of detention, most notably from people who have been detained or those vital visitors to people in detention.  When you speak to someone who has had direct experience of detention, or read their testimony, you are hit by astonishing turns of phrase that stay with you for a long time.  For example, during the live Q and As that Ben from Detention Action has done a brilliant job on throughout the tour, speaking to people detained right now in the detention centre we’re shining a spotlight on that week.  There was this, the way that Yaw who is being held in Harmondsworth, describes the time lost to detention:


Or the way that Joe, who was detained in Dover detention centre for three years, described his location:

You felt you were on the edge of a nation, sitting on the border. Sometimes you would get French signal on your phone or French stations on the radio.

And on the other hand, the same persistent problem keeps knocking on the door.  The damage done by indefinite detention; the specific harm of not knowing how long the unjust and inhumane policy of immigration detention will be inflicted on you.  The UK is the only country in the EU with no time-limit on detention.  Despite the Immigration Minister’s protestations which are based on him not understanding (or choosing not to understand) the word ‘indefinite’, indefinite detention is a daily reality for the 30,000 people detained each year and the tens of thousands more threatened with this injustice.

Bearing witness

The corrosive effect of indefinite detention on people’s minds, bodies and spirit comes across so clearly in the pieces we’ve published by visitors to detention.

A long-term visitor to Campsfield House detention centre near Oxford noted:

immigration detention itself, with its extraordinarily uncertain length and outcome, is highly damaging to people’s mental health and is a source of vulnerability in itself. People who are detained with existing issues may well have these worsened by being detained.

Another visitor to Campsfield described the distressing deterioration of Adam over the months he was detained there, and of the suicide attempt of Mahmoud, a torture survivor who should never have been detained in the first place.

The indefinite nature of detention has been a cause for concern to visitors to The Verne, a relatively new detention centre (in an old building).  These visitors are largely new to the issue of detention, and so their first impressions are particularly striking:

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.

Indefinite detention: toxic effects

You do not have to dig deep to discover the harm that indefinite detention does to people.  This harm stays with people, and affects people’s relationships, families, and the community more widely.  The damage of indefinite detention does not end when someone is released (and most people are released into the community and are not removed from the UK, begging the question of the point of detention in the first place).  People who have experienced the lack of a time-limit are quick to remark on its impact on others.

Last week, Unlocking Detention ‘visited’ Yarl’s Wood, and heard from Gloria who is currently detained there.  When asked about the impact of there being no time-limit on detention, she said:

In advance of parliament’s debate on immigration detention in September, we asked people to share what they would say if they could speak in the debate.

“It’s time for a time-limit” was an oft-repeated demand.  Michael was detained for several years, and describes how detention didn’t just affect him:

This gentleman from Sudan was himself detained for nine months, and comments on the how people detained without a time-limit are “suffering so much”:

28 day time-limit

The parliamentary debate in September was in response to the first-ever cross-party parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention.  The inquiry panel produced an excellent report with strong recommendations, central to which was the introduction of a 28 day time-limit.   It was encouraging to hear so many MPs back this time-limit in the detention debate, and indeed to hear so many recognise that this is an essential first step to ending detention altogether.

2015 Immigration Bill

The 2015 Immigration Bill is currently making its way through parliament.  It is at the stage where amendments can be proposed, debated and voted on by MPs, and this is a clear opportunity for the UK to make great progress for human rights and liberty by introducing a 28 day time-limit on immigration detention.

On Tuesday 1 December, MPs will debate some of the proposed amendments.  This is your chance to make change happen!  Ask your MP to support Amendment 32, which calls for a 28 day time-limit on immigration detention.

It is time to listen to the experts – those who have experienced this injustice first-hand, those who have supported and cared for those detained and who have born witness to this cruel and harmful policy.  These people are the experts, but this is not a complicated issue.  It’s a simple message, simply put by someone who experienced years of this unfairness:

“In prison, you count the days down until you are released.  In immigration detention, you count the days up.  It’s time for a time-limit”.

The damage of indefinite detention

This blog post was written by Colleen Molloy, City of Sanctuary National Development Officer.  The image used at the start of this blog post was produced for City of Sanctuary by Patti McKenna, a community artist in Swansea.

Detained-home from home400When City of Sanctuary launched 10 years ago in Sheffield, our aim was to build a movement connecting local people with those seeking sanctuary and to build a culture of welcome into everyday life.

Since then network has grown through groups in cities, towns and villages across the country, spreading across the Irish Sea and engaging people in Northern Ireland and Ireland.

Our groups vary from big dispersal cities like Manchester to villages like East Hoathly and Halland in East Sussex but all groups share the vision of making our society more welcoming to those seeking sanctuary.

We have raised awareness, networked and built partnerships and have tried to develop the culture of welcome across the voluntary and statutory sectors and have even engaged local businesses in understanding the needs of asylum seekers and refugees. We have also developed what we call streams, including schools, health, maternity, arts, faiths and other themes where we can bring ideas, resources and good practice together across a theme.

We had not intended to be political and we remain non-partisan with support from all the major political parties. However, when you connect asylum seekers and refugees with local people, inevitably relationships build. It is through these relationships, that we have learned from bitter experience about the inhumane process and painful journey that many asylum seekers experience in the bid to seek freedom and safety in the UK.

The most heart-rending and shocking experiences that our volunteers on the ground have found is that of the arbitrary detention of asylum seekers, often at the point of reporting and at the most unexpected of times.

In many dispersal areas, City of Sanctuary volunteers and befrienders have been shocked by their friends being uprooted and detained, often in remote locations. This experience has politicised them, and many of them have been motivated to campaign for their release, gaining thousands of signatures on petitions to the Home Office, raising much-needed funds for legal support and visiting their friends to bring them comfort and clothing and other necessary items. The shocking experience of visiting a detention centre has further motivated their desire to help.   Volunteers have told us “I was really shocked.  I didn’t think that could happen in Britain.  How could that happen in a democracy?”

These volunteers have also stored their friends’ belongings for them whilst they await their release back into the community. Some of these campaigns are successful, but sadly some haven’t and the loss of a friend to deportation and uncertainty has further galvanised volunteers to become involved in campaigns to humanise the asylum process.

In Leicester, the campaign to free Ali was started by the local anti-racist football team, which had welcomed him. As a Hazaran, who had lost his entire family, he was terrified of being returned to Kabul and could barely eat as the weeks in detention passed by.  Ali returned to us after 12 hours in handcuffs at Heathrow airport and the local group helped him through a year of depression afterwards and then supported him into employment after eventually gaining refugee status. But we still miss Anashe, mother and grandmother to British citizens, who was detained twice before deportation back to Zimbabwe and such grave danger that we have lost contact with her completely. Lessons have been learned from both these campaigns and more local people have been mobilised and had their consciousness raised.

In Leeds, we are still saddened by the deportation last year of Adenze after being detained with her two young daughters, seeking sanctuary from a forced marriage and the threat of FGM in Nigeria. Their campaign was featured in national media and a petition was signed by over 100,000 people. Despite this, the family were returned, caught malaria within days, lived in a Muslim Women’s hostel (despite their conversion to Christianity) and then faced destitution, relieved only by continued local support and fundraising.

Volunteers in Leeds fight on for Anita who has been involved in setting up and running Toast Love Coffee, a pop-up Pay As You Feel community café. Her life was thrown into chaos last year when she was detained with her 5-year-old son and a campaign began to release them, led by her friend Anna from Toast Love Coffee and supported by her friends, community and supporters across the country. They were released from detention four days later but are fighting again to stay in the country after Anita’s fresh claim was recently refused (you can sign the petition for Anita to be granted leave to remain here.)

In Bradford, Camila, was dawn raided and taken to Yarl’s Wood with her 18 month old baby. She was not allowed to have physical contact with her daughter throughout her time in detention. After release, her reactive depression led to a suicide attempt but her community rallied around. Having a befriender, making friends and finding opportunities to volunteer for the City of Sanctuary has enabled this young mum to rebuild her life. She now chairs the regional health stream of sanctuary and is doing an access to law course and hopes to become an immigration solicitor if she is granted status.

In Oxford, Ariana managed to escape her traffickers who were planning to sell her to a brothel. She was dehydrated, sick and eight weeks pregnant. After a stay in hospital, the police took her to Yarls Wood Detention Centre. She found it a depressing and stressful environment and became so ill that she was returned to hospital where she was accompanied by 2-3 guards continually, even when going to the toilet. She was treated like a criminal and even though she was released from detention, she had further stays in hospital and was moved to Birmingham and then Leeds whilst still pregnant. Her life and the life of her baby was put at risk. Fortunately, through the City of Sanctuary’s network, she was supported, made friends and found a volunteer to be her birth partner. She was threatened with dispersal soon after her baby was born but by then City of Sanctuary volunteers had rallied round and managed to stop this and she is now accessing counselling and waiting a decision from the Home Office.

In many other places, through cities and towns of sanctuary networks, ordinary people in mainstream groups and organisations have been learning about the damage of indefinite detention through their connection with asylum seekers. Children’s friends are missing them and those who tried to help are also emotionally scarred.  Families have been ripped from communities that accepted them and then plunged back into danger.

The connection with people and experiencing their pain and our own pain when we lose them, is a powerful motivating factor and engages people in the movement for change and social justice.

Most names and places have changed to protect and anonymise asylum seekers, who are still vulnerable. 

#Unlocked15 'visits' Yarl's Wood

Last week, Unlocking Detention paid a virtual visit to perhaps the UK’s best known detention centre, Yarl’s Wood – known for all the wrong reasons.   Yarl’s Wood is one of the detention centres where women can be detained, and has become notorious as the site of widespread allegations of abuse.  It has also become the site of widespread protest, with huge demonstrations being organised by Movement for Justice.

It was another week of moving and thought-provoking pieces on our blog, including this article by Heather Jones who has been visiting Yarl’s Wood for eleven years – “Pregnancy ought to be a happy time”


Music in Detention also work with women in Yarl’s Wood, and shared some of the music created there:

This week’s Justice Gap article was by Britte van Tiem, on how refugees and other migrants are being detained as they make there way across Europe, and if they make it to the UK, face indefinite detention here too.  Refugees Welcome?

Continuing our community perspective theme, this week we featured an intriguing perspective from Belfast, in a piece written by someone who both visits people in detention (at Larne House short-term holding facility) while also being at risk of detention him/herself:


And we heard directly from women detained in Yarl’s Wood.  We heard from June, a fiery, inspiring woman who shared her voice via Women for Refugee Women – “It’s like an apartheid that’s gone underground”

We once again had a unique insight into life for those detained, thanks to Gloria who is currently detained at Yarl’s Wood.

We rarely get to hear about these details of the day-to-day routine:

You can read the full Q and A in this Storify round-up.

Almost as British as me

This blog post was written by Nic Eadie, director of Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (@GatDetainees). It was originally published by our #Unlocked15 partners, Justice Gap.

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I’ve been working with people detained at Tinsley House and Brook House for over eight years now. In that time I’ve answered our phone to people who speak many different languages, so I have become something of an expert in recognising where a particular accent comes from when I am spoken to in English by someone from another land. But more and more I’ve been picking the phone up to men who sound very much like me. A British accent, often from London, sometimes Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester. Without exception they tell me how they don’t understand why they are there, how they didn’t know places like this existed, how they are now facing removal back to countries they left when they were children, and to which they now feel little or no connection, leaving everyone and everything they know behind. They are almost as British as me. But not quite.

I remember clearly one of the first people I met who greeted me in a strong London accent. John was from DRC, came to the UK more than 20 years previously when he was 9 years old, and had been granted indefinite leave to remain as a refugee here along with his family. He had two young daughters he clearly adored, but for a period of his life his addiction to crack cocaine held him firmly in its grasp and led him down a treacherous path. He told me of his life as a qualified chef, then of the chaos of his addiction as it took grip – about how he’d ‘died’ for ten minutes when he was stabbed, later to be resuscitated, and about how he’d committed a series of petty shoplifting and fraud offences to fund his habit. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a sentence of 6 weeks for stealing a steak. That pushed him over the 12 month threshold, and a deportation order followed soon after. John was a writer, both before and after his addiction, and he sent me numerous writings, all based in a spiritual outlook that was hard to define but went to the very heart of who he was. I visited John for almost six months, then suddenly he was gone. I never did find out where he went, whether it was back to the country he had fled from with his parents decades earlier, and where he knew nobody, but I can only assume that this was his fate. We had grown close and were he released he had promised me he would let me know. Before he went he talked a lot about how he was trying hard to find acceptance about what had happened in his life, to find some peace within himself, even during this difficult time when he was locked up away from everyone he loved.

John’s accent was most definitely from the Isle of Dogs, where he had lived until his detention. Since then I have heard many more British accents. Frequently they have been from men who have come to the UK during their early years, some even as babies, endured difficult childhoods which commonly included periods in care, entered the criminal justice system, then found themselves facing a triple punishment of prison, detention and deportation. These men then usually went on to spend long periods in detention, away from partners, children and wider family, watching as those ties were put under immense strain, and sometimes snapped entirely. They would often be the first to admit that they have made mistakes, that they deserved to be punished for their offences, but then fail to understand why that punishment hadn’t ended when it would have, had they had the same passport as all of their friends they had grown up with.

I remember Charles, who had been doing some volunteering with a charity that works with young people at risk of being recruited into gangs, as he had been himself a decade earlier, when he was picked up, three years after his last prison sentence had ended. He was informed that he was to be deported back to his home country, despite not having been there since he was 9 years old and knowing no one back there who could give him any kind of help. He was told he was a risk to the public, yet he talked to me at length about how he had not been involved with any gangs for almost five years and had turned his life around in the intervening period, going back to college and getting engaged to his long-term partner, whose two children had treated him as though he were their father. I read a report from a forensic psychologist who said his risk of reoffending was low, yet this has been dismissed by the Home Office. He asked me if I thought the Home Office actually believed it when they said they were removing him to make the UK a safer place when he had been working with young people to urge them to avoid the gang life and instead to engage in education and I couldn’t answer him.

Then there was Ali, who was facing the prospect of being sent back to a country he had never actually been to. He’d lived in the UK since he was three months old and had never left, after being born on a UK Army base in Europe, but was facing removal back to the Asian country where his father had been born. He had a history of mental health problems that saw him switch from cheerful and charismatic to frustrated and angry in quick succession. He saw his deportation as an effective death sentence. It was hard to see how he would be able to survive, dumped in a foreign land with nothing and no one.
There have been plenty of others.

Nobody says that these cases are easy. We do of course have laws that we all must abide by or face the consequences, and many of the people I’ve visited have indeed been punished for their actions via the criminal justice system. Some would say that those who break the rules should not be allowed to stay here, but my own experience is that when you actually meet and talk to the people behind the labels the stories you hear are much more complex than can be summarised in one simple rule. To deprive a father of his family, and to deprive children of their father and a wife of her husband, forever, there has to be overwhelmingly compelling reasons to do so. A drug addict stealing a steak surely cannot be a reason to split a family, and permanently deport a man back to a failing country with no means to survive.

Before he left Tinsley House John sent me some of his writings. In them he mixed his feelings of fear and dread with those of hope and strength. He tried to remain positive, drawing on the resilience that had helped him survive war, poverty, feelings of isolation, and a drug dependency that nearly killed him. In his last note he wrote me this:

‘I love life and hopefully life agrees with me. Nobody likes the feeling of being trapped, yet we all are somehow. One way or another we’re all trapped in a situation and do not completely feel free. My name is John, a detainee at Tinsley House. I’m not trapped in here. I’m here to expand my mind and meet people of different cultures and backgrounds. I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to pass through here, for I’m no longer naïve to certain people’s ways, or ignorant towards their religions and beliefs. I’ve learnt to live away from my loved ones until I see them again. And I’ll have a lot to tell them about my journey.’

Pregnancy ought to be a happy time: women in Yarl's Wood

This post was written for Unlocking Detention by Heather Jones, who visits women detained in Yarl’s Wood.

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In 2014 ninety-nine pregnant women were detained in Yarl’s Wood.  This was despite Home Office Guidance which includes a list of people whom the Home Office thinks should be considered suitable for detention in only very exceptional circumstances.  The list includes ‘Pregnant women, unless there is the clear prospect of early removal and medical advice suggests no question of confinement prior to this.’  Evidence gathered by Medical Justice in their report of 2013, ‘Expecting Change’ states that most pregnant women are released rather than removed.

Pregnancy ought to be a happy time.  A woman would normally be looking forward to the future and preparing for the birth of her baby.  How can a woman in detention prepare? She does not know when she will leave Yarl’s Wood or where she will be living.  I cannot imagine how anyone can reasonably expect a pregnant woman to find somewhere to live and a means of supporting herself and her baby on arrival in a country she left sometime before, often in traumatic circumstances.   I have met many pregnant women held in detention, some were facing removal during the late stages of pregnancy.  Most of these women were eventually released, sometimes after lengthy periods of detention, but a few were removed.
The most memorable thing I have done as a visitor was to attend the burial of a baby, stillborn at around 20 week’s gestation.  There were only three of us there, the mother, a hospital chaplain and me.  The mother had a history of miscarriage and had been complaining of pain in her abdomen for the last three weeks of her detention.  She had been detained for most of her pregnancy and only released after the death of her baby who was born in hospital with uniformed escorts present.  I do not know if her baby would have lived if she had received better care but she should not have been held there for so long.   She was eventually granted the right to stay here but the trauma of her detention remains with her.
I have now been visiting Yarl’s Wood for nearly eleven years.  During that time I have met many women in other categories that Home Office rules state should not be detained.  The elderly or disabled.  Mentally ill women.  Victims of torture or trafficking.  I have met those whom I really felt should have been granted status, many with very sad tales of abuse to tell. Women flee for all the same reasons that men do but also for some reasons specific to their gender, the risk of FGM, forced marriage or abortion for example.  A large number are survivors of rape.
Most of the staff I meet are very friendly but there are still far too many male officers, which some detainees find very intimidating.  Many women tell me that some of the officers are very kind; “They are doing their best”; “They try to help” but that is often followed by “but some of them are rude”.  These comments strongly contrast with some terrible accounts that have come out of Yarl’s Wood during the past few years including sexual assault.   The most recent report was undercover filming documenting unacceptable, derogatory conversations between officers.
Earlier this year many staff lost their jobs because a new contract meant savings needed to be made.  Two conversations I had with officers that were leaving have stayed with me.  Both were well thought of by detainees, I had met them both many times.  The first was a quietly spoken woman with a very gentle manner.  She told me that she would miss working with the women but that she was glad to be going to a job she could be proud of.  The second told me about his decision to leave.  He told me he had spent some time talking to a young couple facing removal.   The wife was pregnant and unwell.  He encouraged them to trust their solicitor who was working on stopping their removal and persuaded them that it would be best not to make a fuss by refusing to go. He took them to reception where they were due to be collected by escorts for their flight.  As soon as they had walked through the door, escorts jumped on the man, knocked him to the floor and pinned him to the ground.  He had said nothing, he had not resisted in any way.  The removal was later cancelled.  It was this that made him decide he could no longer work there.
I have visited Yarl’s Wood with a range of people, some local, some from quite a distance away. Family, funders, clergy, MPs, Councilors, students, all sorts of people interested in finding out for themselves just what Yarl’s Wood is really like.  All of them have been moved by listening to accounts by women of their past experiences and of the difficulties they face detained in Yarl’s Wood.   Some women manage to appear remarkably strong and smile as they are let through the locked door at the far end of the visit hall but often the sadness behind that smile is all too evident during the visit.
The recommendations of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Detention earlier this year were widely welcomed by campaigners and anyone who has been affected by detention.  Anyone who has visited Yarl’s Wood or lives nearby as I do, is affected by detention.  There is a growing strength of feeling that there must be change.   This year there have been regular demonstrations outside Yarl’s Wood and other detention centres.  Women held in Yarl’s Wood really appreciate this noisy demonstration of support, it is really important to continue to show our support for this very vulnerable group until this horrible, expensive, damaging and ineffective policy is finally changed.

"It’s like an apartheid that’s gone underground"

This blog post was written by June, who is currently detained in Yarl’s Wood.  This piece was originally published on Women for Refugee Women’s blog and has been republished with their kind permission here.

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Yarl’s Wood is like prison, your freedom has been taken away, your rights don’t apply. They talk to you like you’re a child. If the fire alarm comes on, they’re like “go to your room, go to your room, go to your room!” even though we’re old enough to know what the fire alarm means. Those of us who’ve done health and safety know that your room is the last place you should go – we should go to the fire exit.

We’re in the middle of nowhere here. No one is seeing what is happening, so they use that opportunity to manipulate and dictate. They push things under the carpet until it is their word against ours. We don’t know what the next thing is going to be. We have to use everything we have to protect ourselves and each other. They use their uniforms to exercise their power.

When I’m talking about this, I just feel like exploding because everyone has this mindset that Britain is safe, that everyone can exercise their rights here. But it’s not. It’s like an apartheid that’s gone underground. You don’t know who is going to believe you when you speak about it.

After you leave here, that’s when you suffer more. We get to know each other and love each other and understand each other. People outside can’t understand in the same way. The pain we go through makes us strong, we bond and care for and protect each other. If you hear a scream, even if you are eating, you drop everything and run to see what is happening to one of us. If I let them treat one of us this way, tomorrow it might be me they come for.

The food is terrible. When I first came here I couldn’t believe when I saw a woman carrying a tray with a jacket potato and chips. The other day we had pasta and rice. No sauce. It’s like they’re trying to choke us with pasta, rice and bread! They don’t care, they don’t care at all. They just think ‘who are you going to tell this to and they’ll believe you?’

As an asylum seeker you can’t work [in the UK, outside of detention], but some of the women here work, washing dishes for £1 an hour. I’m too political to find myself washing their dishes; if I’m going to work here, they can issue me a work permit and pay me minimum wage!

They always threaten you with Kingfisher [segregation] for anything. They say it’s not prison but it applies the same. Even the bedding, the cutlery looks like in prison. In prison it’s better because you know you’re serving your sentence and then that’s it.

My journey always meets with pain, trauma and abuse. It’s always up-hill. Yarl’s Wood is just part of my journey.

When I came to Britain I had a taste of being cared for, of being considered someone at last by people I met in the community. It’s an experience I’m grateful for and will never forget. It’s from that experience, that’s how I know that what’s happening here is not right. Even when the hope is lost, I know there is light at the end of the tunnel.