Why political pressure needs to be ramped up now

The Detention Forum which runs Unlocking Detention is a network of many groups who have been working together to challenge UK’s immigration detention policy and practice.  Jon Featonby, one of its Coordination Group members, explains why now is the time for everyone to start taking action against detention. 
There can be no better time for #Unlocked17 to have started. The next six months are crucial in terms of opportunities to push for reform of a system which, as Unlocked will show, is broken.
And the theme of #Unlocked17 could not be more appropriate. To take maximum advantage of the opportunities that are coming up, ‘Action’ is required: Action to make sure more people know about the horrors of the detention system; Action to shape public opinion; and Action to ensure those with the power to change the system know that there is a demand for reform.
One of the central reasons why the next six months is such an important period is that Stephen Shaw will be undertaking his follow-up review. Shaw, a former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, was first commissioned to carry out a review in early 2015 by Theresa May, then the Home Secretary. With a remit to look specifically – and perhaps limitedly – at the welfare of vulnerable people in detention, Shaw spent several months visiting detention centres and gathering evidence.
When Shaw’s first report was published in January 2016, it ran to some 346 pages, and contained 64 recommendations. The recommendations cover a wide range of elements of detention practice, but his conclusion was clear:
“There is too much detention; detention is not a particularly effective means of ensuring that those with no right to remain do in fact leave the UK; and many practices and processes associated with detention are in urgent need of reform.”
The report was published mid-way through the Immigration Act 2016’s progress through Parliament, and informed much of the debate on detention at the time. In the House of Lords, the Government were defeated by proposals to bring in a time limit and to end the detention of pregnant women. Although the Government were ultimately able to block these changes, it had to agree to some significant reforms – the introduction of automatic judicial oversight (albeit only after four months of detention), and a time limit of 7 days on the length of time a pregnant woman can be detained.
It also necessitated the Government committing to bringing back Stephen Shaw to carry out a follow up review “in order to assess progress against the key actions from his previous report.”
Shaw is expected to submit the outcome of his review to the Home Office early next year. This presents both an opportunity and a risk: An opportunity to highlight the fundamental reforms that are still needed and to create an environment where change can happen; a risk that if Shaw’s report is received by the Home Office in a context devoid of the wider calls for change, then Ministers will not feel under pressure to act.
This is why action is so important now and in the coming months. In particular, there is a need to highlight the key conclusion that Stephen Shaw made the first time around – that there is too much detention – and the Government’s commitment in response that they would introduce reforms that would “lead to a reduction in the number of those detained, and the duration of detention before removal, in turn improving the welfare of those detained.”
Nearly two years on from that commitment, according to the latest statistics around 3,000 people are still in detention at any time and nearly 30,000 people were detained over the last year. No more can the Government tinker around the edges – it’s time for meaningful reform.
Parliament is ultimately responsible for the laws that govern the use of detention in the UK, and parliament should be one of the focal points for action. This includes not just telling MPs and peers what the problems are, but also giving them some of the solutions.
Calls for a maximum time limit of 28 days have gathered momentum in recent years, and the need for a time limit is still evident. Not only would a time limit end the harmful and arbitrary system of indefinite detention, but it would also necessitate the Home Office rethinking how and why they detain people.
A time limit should be coupled with the greater use of community alternatives to detention. Community-based alternatives, that allow people to remain in their communities while their immigration cases are resolved, with case-management support that places people at the centre of the process, would enable the reduction in detention that Shaw called for and the Government have said they aspire to.
An increasing number of MPs know that detention is an issue, and that is largely down to the number of people who now contact them to say they want to see change. This not only needs to be kept up in coming months, but ramped up.
Whether it’s writing to your MP, asking to meet them in their constituency surgery, or simply tweeting at them (why not tell them to look at the #Unlocked17 hashtag? Or a do a ‘selfie’ for Unlocking Detention?), we can all do something.
You can ask your MP to write to the Home Secretary asking her to introduce a time limit on detention, ask a question in parliament, or sign up to this Early Day Motion calling for reform. There will also be some specific MP-focused actions being launched in the very near future, so watch this space.
Over the next six months, we want MPs to know more and more about why systemic reform is needed, and that another way is possible. So why delay, take action today. And tweet at us and let us know what action you have taken.
 

Week 2: #Unlocked17 visits Yarl’s Wood

This week Unlocking Detention visited Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire. Like other centres, it is isolated and hard to reach. However, with space for up to 304 women and 68 families, it is notorious for the detention of women. Stephen Shaw said it hosts “one of the largest concentrations of women deprived of their liberty anywhere in Western Europe”. Women are also detained in Colnbrook, Dungavel, prisons and short-term holding facilities. Up to 38 men can also be detained in Yarl’s Wood.


Novelist and campaigner Zadie Smith called Yarl’s Wood “an offence to liberty, a shame to any civilised nation, and a personal tragedy for the women caught in its illogical grip”.

Visiting Yarl’s Wood

If you were to visit Yarl’s Wood, your journey might be a little like this:


You can follow the whole journey through this photo essay. It includes Eiri’s experience travelling to the centre, and her reflections afterwards, but no photos from inside the centre – because it’s not allowed. (If you are visiting other detention centres, can you consider writing a photo essay like this for Unlocking Detention?).
All UK detention centres, including Yarl’s Wood, have dedicated visitors groups who regularly visit these hard-to-reach places:


This week, Sonja Miley of Waging Peace reflected on her very first visit to Yarl’s Wood with the Sudanese Volunteer Visitor’s Group.

Experts-by-experience

What’s it like to be detained in Yarl’s Wood? We are very grateful to Boatemaa, Ijeoma, and all those who have shared their experience.
Boatemaa was detained in Yarl’s Wood earlier this year. She was recently released to continue with her asylum case, after four months in detention. She says, at the end of her blog, “I don’t understand why I am being treated like this. I buried what happened to me for so long – and then when I spoke about it, and asked for help, this is what happened to me.”


Also this week, we heard from Ijeoma Datha-Moore, from Let Us Learn. Ijeoma looks back on her 15-year-old self who – after 13 years of living in the UK – suddenly found her and her family detained at Yarl’s Wood. She says, This experience of detention changed me. I wasn’t as open as I was before. … Detention is very damaging, to both children and adults alike. I now work at Just For Kids Law, which is the best place for me after all my experiences. 
To people who are reading this and feeling angry about immigration detention, I would say challenge it!”


In 2015, Aderonke Apata – detained in Yarl’s Wood for nearly a year – gave evidence to the Parliamentary inquiry on immigration detention. She said, It was life threatening. Horrific… Everything bad in this world. It was such an isolating thing, where I had to wake up every day doing the same thing for nearly one year, despite asking for bail. The applications were all turned down. I was not even given a ticket to go home for nearly a year but was still kept in detention. I only got a deportation order in Jan 2013. It broke my family. It exacerbated my mental health problems.”


The long-lasting effects of detention, described by Aderonke, are unfortunately extremely common.

Music from Yarl’s Wood

Many organisations participate in the Unlocking Detention tour, sharing their own experiences and resources relating to detention. This adds a lot of variety and depth to the tour – like these beautiful recordings, shared by Music in Detention. Thank you!


 

What can you do?


Thank you so much to everyone who has been following and sharing the tour, and sending us your selfies. Please keep them coming!

Finally, congratulations to Callum Tulley…

This week, Callum Tulley won the Liberty Courageous Voice Award for “blowing the whistle on the chaos, violence and abuse at Brook House immigration removal centre.

‘I try to forget about everything that I went through at Brook House.’

Paul* was removed from Brook House to Jamaica earlier this year, after being detained for over two years.  For the last six months of his detention, he had signed up to return voluntarily.  Paul talked to Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, who supported him during his detention, about his attempt to ‘forget about everything’ that he went through at Brook House.  (This is not his real name.)
I was held at Brook for over two years. I’m Jamaican by birth, but had been in the UK over 20 years. I originally stowed away on a ship to get out of Jamaica, to escape persecution. I had built a life for myself in the UK, I had family in London. I made some mistakes in my life and took some bad decisions. Nothing, though, prepared for how me hard it was being in detention. It was really stressful. You are locked up and you just don’t know when you’ll get out.
When I arrived at Brook House, I didn’t know what was going to come next, but I thought something might at least happen quickly – whether they released me or deported me. Other detainees told me about it being possible to get bail, to be released. It was a comfort to me to think there were options. But it didn’t happen. Something happened in the courts, and my bail application had to be withdrawn. I had a solicitor, but to be honest they weren’t much help. Legal aid rules meant it was restricted. And after the try for bail…nothing. I was stuck, just waiting, waiting for news.
At Brook, they lock you up for a lot of the day. We are woken and allowed out at 8am, then locked up at 12 for roll call, then 12.30 is lunch. In the evenings they lock you up again to check everyone at 5, then 5.30 is dinner. In the evenings, there were activities: for example, gym, or church. But you are locked up again in the wing at 8. And there are no windows. There is very little fresh air, and little to do.
In my time at Brook, I shared cells with lots of other people. It would often be 4 or 5 in the morning when a new person was moved in with me. I would often sit with them and comfort them. They’d just arrived in detention, they didn’t know what to do; they were often in tears. It was so stressful for them. The cells were hard, two of you in the space, and a toilet in the room.
I was aware of a lot of people taking drugs, and a lot of people self-harming. People hurting themselves and needing medical help – it would happen every day.
I’ve seen Panorama [the programme screened 4th September 2017, which showed undercover footage from Brook House, capturing horrifying abuse and attitudes from staff]. Someone sent me the video. There were definitely moments where it was like that [as captured by Panorama]. But when those things were happening, when someone was hurting themselves or clashing with officers, we would all be ushered away. So it was usually hidden.
To cope, I made myself a routine. It was terrible being locked up all the time. I was stressed out, and I knew how hard it would be if I did nothing, if I was left just thinking all the time. So, each day, I went to the gym, I took Spanish classes, and – in the afternoons – I worked in the laundry, trying to save the little money I was paid. I took art classes and even won prizes. That kept me occupied. Because otherwise, the thoughts overwhelm you. People lose their minds in there.
I had a visitor, Mary, from Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, who visited me every week and gave me a lot of help, particularly getting healthcare. I needed eye operations while I was held at Brook, and I waited months and months to get the treatment. While I was waiting for my cataract operations, I really struggled to get around the centre. For some time I had one eye with an eye-patch while it recovered from treatment, and one eye still with a cataract, and so I could barely see. I kept walking into things; it was very frustrating. I felt very vulnerable. I remember having to count the steps to the shower so that I could work out where I was.
After a year and a half in detention, I reached a point where I had simply had enough. I thought: release me back to my life in the UK, or remove me to Jamaica, if you must, but please let me get out of Brook. I just didn’t want to be stuck in a prison next to the runway at Gatwick anymore. The Home Office didn’t seem to be doing anything. I didn’t have faith in my solicitor; I could not reach them most of the time, they always seem to busy. I was at a point where I had to make a decision. So I took the hard choice to apply for voluntary return.
When I signed up to return, I thought that at least then I would get out of Brook quickly. But it took nearly 6 months still. My final departure was 4 months after the Home Office had promised. I was on 2 flights that were cancelled. On one of the flights, the airline wouldn’t take me in the end because they thought I might create a problem. But I was leaving on voluntary return! It didn’t make any sense. Mary and I had to keep talking to the High Commission and the Home Office to try to work out what had happened. No-one took responsibility for the mistakes, and no-one seemed to care how distressing it all was for me. I was very down, and desperate.
When I was finally on the flight back to Jamaica, I felt good. I was scared about what would happen when I landed, but I was just processed quickly through the airport and let go.
It’s hard being back in Jamaica in some ways. There’s a lot of poverty and I had been away a long time. But at least I’m not in detention anymore. I’m free now. It’s as if a burden is off my back. I try to forget about everything that I went through at Brook House. I’m trying to move on. I just want to live.
 
 

Remembering My First Time

Though no official survey exists, UK is one of the few countries around the world where each detention centre has a dedicated visitor’s group, in addition to other groups who visit formally and informally multiple centres.  Hundreds of people must be regularly visiting those held in detention centres, but what does visiting really do?  Sonja Miley of Waging Peace write how she found an answer to this question, during her very first visit to Yarl’s Wood.

Dr. Amara turned up for her weekly obligatory immigration sign-in when she was briskly and without warning taken into custody, with only the clothes on her back and the items in her possession. Without warning she had her personal belongings taken away, she was held for several hours in a locked room and then bustled into a van for the journey to an unknown destination which turned out to be Yarl’s Wood IRC several hours away. Upon being re-detained, as in Dr. Amara’s case, the psychological stress and trauma increased infinitely when she was also given removal directions with an airline ticket within a week to return to Sudan; to the same situation, the same government, the same country she risked life and limb to flee. Return would almost certainly cost her her life.
This is not a scenario from long ago nor is it depicting life in a faraway land. This is a true account of what happens on a daily basis in 21stcentury Britain. We need to start talking about detention.
It was a cold January day when we visited Dr. Amara at Yarl’s Wood IRC, an immigration detention centre in Bedfordshire just outside London. Waging Peace operates a Sudanese Volunteer Visitor’s Group matching trained volunteers to meet people in detention to provide non legal yet hugely and vitally important emotional support; human being to human being. Very often there is a language barrier which makes it difficult for non-Arabic speaking individuals to provide the kind of support needed but Dr. Amara was fluent in English and this particular instance called for a visit from my colleague and me specifically – both of us non-Arabic speakers. This was my first visit to a detention centre and I had no idea what to expect. And I was nervous and tense. I mean, how can I really help? What can I do?
As I prepared to meet Dr. Amara, the impact the detention centre would make on me blindsided me. It wasn’t the back of beyond physical location of the detention centre that initially got to me, nor was it being bussed-in by a small van to a walled up, barbed wire fenced-in facility. It wasn’t even the cold and unwelcoming reception from the front desk staff who only allow you to proceed with your visit once your fingerprints and official photographs are taken and stored on their system. It was the general atmosphere. I was shocked at how prison-like the operations were. This continued as I observed stark barren walls with the exception of one or two signs posting stern warnings that no visitor was to take anything – not a pen or paper, not an offering of food, not a book, not a sliver of any humanity from the ‘outside’ world, not even your own belongings – into the visitor lounge.
The only thing allowed in your pockets is change in coins up to and strictly no more than £10. A small number of lockers are available to store your personal belongings and if they are already full or you don’t have a pound coin to hand, there is no other recourse. I didn’t have exact change so went back to the front desk but my request was met with unhelpful shrugs of “sorry, we can’t help”. I had to remind myself that the woman I was about to meet was not a prisoner, she was a person, who happened to be an asylum seeker under humanitarian grounds fleeing extreme conditions in her home country after being victimized by her own government and subjected to torture, sexual violence and traumatised.
“Yarl’s Wood detainees aren’t there because they have been charged with a criminal offence:”, reported BBC Home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw in his article ‘Yarl’s Wood: Years of misery and controversy’ (June 2015), “they are people, many of them vulnerable, whose claims for asylum or right to stay in Britain have been rejected or are being challenged.”
I finally sorted out the storage of my belongings and was now free to wait in line to enter, one by one, into a small and secure room with an officer and an x-ray scanning machine. After walking through the x-ray machine, I was given a pat down by the officer and asked to take the coins, up to £10 only out of my pocket to be counted. When the officer was satisfied, she unlocked the door to the visitor lounge and finally I made my way to find Dr. Amara.
But how can I help I thought? What can I do? I smiled as I approached Dr. Amara and warmly extended my hand. She returned my smile with a sense of sadness and despair and with no other words she collapsed into sobs into my arms. I gently embraced her and when she was ready, we sat down and talked for the next two hours. It was finally clear to me. The value of a volunteer is not in what we do. By meeting people where they are, we don’t have to ‘do’ anything. Dignity, comfort, care and empathy are the outstretched arms of humanity. In detention, humanity is stripped away through every locked door, through each pair of eyes watching your every move even in your most intimate moments. You fear being alone. You fear being with anyone else. You lose hope. And despair is a false friend which hovers near as you have no recourse to knowing when release may come. The UK is the only remaining country in Europe that still does not have a time limit #Time4aTimeLimit so people exist from day to day in no-man’s-land.
What did my colleague and I do that day? And what do hundreds of volunteer visitors do daily in UK detention centres? We offer hope. Hope that someone is watching. Hope that someone is fighting with them. Hope that someone cares. Hope that they will be heard. Hope that they are not alone.
For more information about detention visiting, visit AVID website here.  

‘A country I had called home for 13 years had imprisoned me.’

Families with children were regularly detained at Yarl’s Wood and Dungavel detention centres until the change of policy in 2010 drastically reduced the number of children detained.  Now, a smaller number of families with children are detained in an unit within Tinsley detention centre.  But what happened to many children who were detained at Yarl’s Wood and who are turning into adults in the UK?  Ijeoma Datha-Moore, from Let Us Learn, looks back on her 15-year-old self who suddenly found her and her family detained at Yarl’s Wood.  When she finished writing this piece, Ijeoma said I’ve done it. I can’t tell you how odd it felt, but empowering. I am so proud of myself for being able to do this.’ A big thank you to Ijeoma for sharing her story with Unlocking Detention. 
I was detained in October 2009, at the age of 15, my brother was about 11.  It was in fact two days after I had turned 15. I was never informed of where I was being kept, but I firmly believe it was Yarl’s Wood.
I had no idea such things (as immigration detention) even existed before I was detained.  It was so peculiar to me, I felt like a prisoner in a country I called home.  My first impression was that it looked nice, it most definitely didn’t look like a place you’d be terrified of being in from the outside and the inside was decent. It was clean, I could still smell cleaning chemicals. In places it was bright, I believe this was for the benefit of the children.
I remember the smell of food – I think it was lunch time when we arrived. I remember the first meal we had was some chicken and rice. That was the only good thing about the place, the food. It felt very clinical in some areas, a little too white, which made me feel uneasy, but the spaces dedicated to children were bright and beautiful.  You could always hear people talking.  The only real dull moment you had was when everyone went to sleep.
I remember when I walked in with my little brother and my father; there was a room they kept you in before you were called.  It was so bright; it made me feel at ease, as if I’d have a good time or that it was a place filled with laughter.
In the detention centre we were kept in, as there were kids there, they had a make-shift school. Honestly, the first couple of days I was up for going to ‘school’, but after the first three days or so, I hated it.  I wanted out.  They mixed kids from 11 to 17 in one class.  I was missing my actual school for what I considered, and what was clearly, a bullcrap ‘school’.  Aside from so-called school, I spent time with other kids in the game room along with my brother and that was pretty much it…
I was angry at the system for keeping me in such a place at such a young age. I know 15 may not seem young, but in the eyes of the law I am not an adult, so why treat me like one?!  My heart broke for my brother, he had no clue what was happening!  I basically had to be mum and dad for him and try to keep us both strong. We were estranged from our father, so it was the worst possible situation. He was only detained with us because he had come to visit me for my birthday and stayed for the weekend celebrations. It was horrendous. A country I had called home for 13 years had imprisoned me.
My mum had to run away from the flat we had as she didn’t want them (the Home Office) to get her too.  She had been working hard on regularizing our immigration status and had been doing so for a number of years to the best of my knowledge. She was never one to burden me with such information.
After we were released, my brother and I were sent to live with a family my father knew, while he was detained and then later deported.
When I got back to school I told my friends I had just been away due to it being my birthday…  I didn’t care if they believed me or not, I just didn’t want to re-live the trauma.  I never spoke about my experience to friends until I was 17…  Even then I only told about two people.  They were so shocked, but what could I do.

My mum was affected the most; she spent almost two years apart from her children. That had never happened before; the most she’d spend away from us was a few days, or at the longest, a week. Those around her made her more frightful and on the off chance she came to see us, she would be terrified when police went by in case they would snatch her.  She would shake!  Imagine being so scared about being taken away that you shake at the sound of sirens or when a police officer walks by.  She didn’t even look like she was getting enough sleep.
I don’t recall getting any one to one support inside the detention centre. The only people that were nice were other kids!  I mean it made sense seeing as we were all going through the same travesty. There was a room for worship, no matter the religion. You could set it up how you wanted. This was beneficial to those of faith, a way of helping them cope. It was a place I went to for quiet time and to pray. Even after I got out, I never received professional support. It was needed, especially for my younger brother.
I didn’t really witness anything in the centre because I stayed in my room.  It was my coping mechanism.  I didn’t want to be around other people, I was very reclusive.  However, after coming out of there and as I got older, I wanted to know more. I read about people who had died in detention.  I was shocked!!  I also heard about a guy that tried escaping a couple years back and when trying to scale the fence, he impaled himself. It is a TRAGIC place.
This experience of detention changed me.  I wasn’t as open as I was before.  I was very distrustful of lawyers or those working with the law in general.  I hate G4S to this day.  Before I went inside, I loved to cook and be around family.  Now I’ve lost my zeal for cooking, I’d much rather be on my own.  It’s made me a more inward person.  Although I’m glad to say that I’m coming out of this now…  it’s only taken almost 10 years.  Detention is very damaging, to both children and adults alike. I now work at Just For Kids Law, which is the best place for me after all my experiences.
To people who are reading this and feeling angry about immigration detention, I would say challenge it!  Many people in detention will be like me, awaiting a Home Office decision or putting their papers in.  The government doesn’t care.  I mean I saw a four-year-old in detention.  4?!
You should petition, you should protest.  Just get out there and do what you can. I most definitely think we should find a different way of dealing with immigration detention, it shouldn’t even exist. The Home Office is terrible at response times which is why many families are in the situation.  What you should really do is challenge people’s way of thinking.  If people have connections with MP’s, use them…  Something needs to be done about how much we pay to get our official documents and how much we pay to renew them. Many families cannot afford the cost and they only keep increasing every April.
I am now involved in Let us Learn, which is a youth led movement campaigning for higher education for all.  We develop young leaders through the work we do for a better and brighter future.  We wanted to change the way the system looked at those with limited leave or discretionary leave to remain.  If we wanted to go to university, we would be charged international fees, going upwards of £15,000 even though a lot of us had been here from around 6 or 7 years old.  We were young, gifted and blocked.  If we wanted to wait to be able to access home fees, we needed to wait 10 years with legal leave in the country.  By then most would be almost 30.  In 2015, we changed the law, with the help of the lawyers at Just for Kids Law and now we only have to wait 3 years!  You can read more about our story here.
I have been the only one detained within Let Us Learn, which I am happy about. I wouldn’t want anyone else to experience the sort of trauma I was put through.  As there are so many groups that deal with issues about detention, it is not a primary focus for us at the moment.  Possibly in the future we will focus a little more, but for now, we will help other organisations in their plight.

Ijeoma Datha-Moore at Let Us Learn

Photo essay 'To Yarl's Wood detention centre'

Yarl’s Wood detention centre is perhaps the most high-profile centres in the UK.  This photo essay is for those of you who have never been to this detention centre.
If you are visiting other detention centres, can you consider writing a photo essay like this for Unlocking Detention?  Remember, not many people make the journey you are making – and people want to know what it’s like to visit detention centres.
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I have visited a number of detention centres over the last decade.  For me, each journey to any of the centre feels as surreal as the visit itself.  And that very moment when you step out of ‘the normal’ to step into ‘immigration detention, I often feel blank.  It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe.  When you leave the centre, I notice I am always doing a psychological ‘deep breath’, and it takes a while to return back to whatever I was doing before the visit.
Here is a photo essay of my visit to Yarl’s Wood detention centre in September 2017.

Setting off to Bedford from central London.  On the platform of Luton Airport Parkway station where my train passes, I see groups of hyper-excited young people, wearing beach sandals and straw hats, presumably jetting off to somewhere sunny on holiday.

Arriving at the station. Improbably sunny. Few people are about at the station. The station cafe even seem to close in between train departures/arrivals.

Heather picks me up at the station, and we start driving towards the detention centre. I notice a lot of red-brick buildings.

What you see on your way to Yarl’s Wood is deceptively peaceful.  You can’t help wondering what the local people living in these houses think about people who are locked up without a time limit not very far from their dinner tables.

The first signage to the detention centre.  Nobody seems to have bothered to change the sign from I.D.C. (Immigration Detention Centre) to I.R.C. (Immigration Removal Centre).  The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 changed these centres’ official names to ‘Immigration Removal Centres’.  In reality, half the people who enter ‘Immigration Removal Centres’ are not removed from the UK.

Another signage.  Again, it still says ‘I.D.C.’.  We drive past beautifully tended church yard.

After about 10 minutes in the car, we are at the entrance of TwinWoods Business Park in which Yarl’s Wood sits.  This time, the signage does say ‘IRC’. Among its neighbours, I find ‘Bedford Pets Crematorium’ and ‘Flow House’, an indoor sports centre.

More signage. We are nearly there.

At the entrance. I spot a sign stating that photography is not permitted: I stop taking photos at this point.  We park our car, have a long chat and go inside the centre.  A gardener is busily tending the plants around the parking lot.  I see a body of a dead rabbit in an empty parking space in front of us.

After the visit.  The glare of the sunlight is painfully disorientating.  I am thinking about a difficult and inevitably inconclusive conversation with a person detained as Heather drives me back to the station.

Heather drops me off at Bedford station.  I continue to contemplate on my conversation in the detention centre while waiting for my train.

Back at home, I realise I am still wearing this yellow security bracelet.  I assume it’s used to distinguish those who must stay in the detention centre and those who are allowed to leave from the visitors’ room.  I am the lucky one on this occasion.

A few days later, I find this bus timetable in my bag.  I picked this up at the reception area of Yarl’s Wood and have completely forgotten about it.  I stare at the patronising font used for ‘Social visitors bus timetable’: it grates.  The staff at the reception duty were polite and patient and I have no personal animosity against whoever the person who designed this document.  I am happy to assume that the font was chosen out of vaguely benign feeling, in an attempt to make all this barbarism of detention friendly and normal.  Detention centres can never be welcoming for or welcomed by anyone.  And the font is trying to do the job of co-opting us into giving consent to the society’s pretence that immigration detention is okay. I tear up the document and scatter its pieces into the bin.
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Eiri Ohtani is the Project Director of the Detention Forum and manages Unlocking Detention.  She tweets at @EiriOhtani

'Everyday in Yarl’s Wood is a struggle'

This week, Unlocking Detention tour is ‘visiting’ Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedford.  Boatemaa* was detained in Yarl’s Wood earlier this year.  She was recently released from Yarl’s Wood, to continue with her asylum case, after four months in detention.  She shares her story here.  (This is not her real name.)
I never knew my real parents. I was handed over to a family friend at the age of six, and then to an uncle a few years later. He raped me from the age of 10 onwards.
In 2011, I came to the UK to escape him. A man I knew did the immigration paperwork for me, and he brought me to the UK, but I was detained at the airport and taken to Yarl’s Wood. That first time I was detained, it was for two weeks.
When I was released the man who brought me to the UK took me to a house. At first the family who lived in the house treated me ok, but then less so. At first I had to sleep in with the children, but later on the floor of the living room. I wouldn’t sleep well and then they would shout at me if I fell asleep during the day. I did all the household chores on my own, and sometimes I would be left in the house to look after the children. I was never paid at all.
In the end I managed to run away. I went to live with some friends, but when they were arrested and detained I was in the house, and so I ended up back in Yarl’s Wood. I fell when enforcement came to the house and hurt my leg badly. I am still limping today.
First they took me to a police station. Whilst I was there I felt this horrible pain go through my whole body. I couldn’t stand up but I was told that it wasn’t an emergency. They put me in a wheelchair and after four hours they took me to hospital.
The nurse at the hospital said there was nothing wrong with me, and laughed at me. “You think this is funny?” I asked her. I never speak up for myself usually. That was honestly the first time I opened my mouth to someone.
I was told to walk back to the police car. I explained that I couldn’t walk. The nurse brought a wheelchair but wouldn’t bring it close enough for me to get into it. She just said to me “you can walk.”
From the police station I went to Colnbrook. I felt so bad. I was scared of saying anything.
When we arrived at Colnbrook I asked for help getting out of the van. They said no. I was in so much pain but nobody helped me. They said “why are there no reports from the hospital?” It was like I was lying. After a day at Colnbrook I was transferred to Yarl’s Wood.
I claimed asylum in Yarl’s Wood. I talked about the abuse my uncle put me through for the first time. I never dared mention it before because he had made me swear never to mention it. Even now I wonder what the consequences might be of mentioning it. I am in constant fear. I am sure he will find a way of punishing me.
But then the Home Office rejected my asylum claim. They said I didn’t have enough evidence, so they didn’t believe me.

Photo credit: Aliya Mirza

 
After a while, my solicitor told me about Rule 35 assessments, and I was given one, but it went very badly. I told the doctor about the torture and abuse my uncle had subjected me to, but she summarised it in a way that wasn’t right. She didn’t write down anything about all my scars. And she didn’t ask me anything about my experiences when I first arrived in the UK, so I didn’t mention it. She even got my country of origin wrong.
I got in touch with the charity Medical Justice. They tried to get me another Rule 35 assessment, and one was booked for me. However, when I went to the appointment, Healthcare said there was no record of it, and no assessment was carried out.
I have been so ill in detention, with pains in my leg, back and stomach. I have fibroids and it is like I have a big stone inside me, moving around. It is very painful. I was taken for a hospital appointment but I need an operation.
Sometimes I think about ending it. I went and spoke to Wellbeing. I told them everything and they wrote it all down. Unlike Healthcare, they were helpful. They listened to me. They took me seriously. They were kind. They tried to help me with the doctor at Healthcare.
But everyday in Yarl’s Wood is a struggle. Because of my injured leg I can’t use the stairs. Some guards let me use the lift, others refuse. One said to me “you are not on a care plan, so you can’t use the lift.” When I pressed the alarm bell in my room because I needed help, a guard came in and said “I am not your carer. Don’t press the alarm again.”
I see other people being treated so badly. There were seven of them, all around a woman, restraining her, her hands behind her back. They dragged her off to segregation.
I don’t understand why I am being treated like this. I buried what happened to me for so long – and then when I spoke about it, and asked for help, this is what happened to me.
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Boatemaa spoke to Sarah Cope, Campaigns and Research Officer at Women for Refugee Women, about her experience, who prepared this piece.
 

'The Seamed Zones'

Photo above: Michael from the Freed Voices speaking at the launch of ‘The Seamed Zones’ on 12 October 2017. 
Where does ‘invisibility’ of immigration detention centres start?  Ben du Preez, Campaigns Coordinator at Detention Action, stares into the gap between nonplace-ness of detention centres and their material human impact and finds hope in Experts-By-Experience’s power to bring the truth to light.  
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Last week, I delivered a speech alongside Michael from the Freed Voices group at the launch of Rob Stothard’s new photo exhibition on detention, entitled ‘The Seamed Zones’.
In perfect dovetail with Unlocking Detention, it is an exhibition which addresses one of the main paradoxes of immigration detention in this country: that despite being one of the most flagrant abuses of civil liberties and human rights in the UK today, the physical sites of this extreme form of physical and psychological violence still remain hidden in plain sight for many members of the public.

Yarl’s Wood IRC, Twinwoods Business Park, Thurleigh Road, Milton Ernest, Bedforshire, MK44 1FD
One of the first photos in the exhibition that catches my eye is of the sign for Twinwoods Business Park near Milton Ernest, a small village about 60 miles north of London. It is a sign that leads drivers into a cul-de-sac where one can find, among other things, Bedford Pets Crematorium, an office of Bedford Borough Council and the headquarters of a company that offers indoor skydiving. The buildings are all unremarkable in their appearance and give few clues as to the practices unfolding inside. There is seemingly nothing to challenge in this banal, Grey nothingness. Everything about it suggests it is one of those common spaces that most people in UK move freely in and out of every day without so much as a second thought. In the corner, however, there is a small concrete pocket holding four hundred people, who cannot leave, or lock eyes with the rest of us, or explain who they are. They have no idea when they will be freed and have extremely limited resources to help them get out. They are trapped in Yarl’s Wood detention centre, perhaps the most infamous of all detention centres in the UK, and the focus of #Unlocked17 tour between 23 and 29 October 2017.
Yarl’s Wood is in no way unique in this respect. Stothard documents every site of immigration detention across the UK – from the short-term holding facilities up in Larne House, Northern Ireland, down to the Verne detention centre on the Isle of Portland – and shows how each of them are reached from everyday roads on the fringes of rural lanes, within the perimeter of airports, or along the exterior walls of former prisons. All of them sit on the ‘seamed zone’ between free and restricted movement. All of them are representations of the way the industrial-immigration-complex has created new physical landscapes, or at the very least re-articulated existing ones into something else. As the exhibition curator, Nicole Sansone, notes, “in an era in which private interests and discriminatory legislation that articulates the infrastructure of segregation and surveillance has become commonplace, IRCs can appear to represent a smooth line of continuity with the fields, fences, homes, businesses and transport hubs in their midst.” This ‘smoothness’ does two things. Firstly, it allows detention centres to go un-seen. Members of the public can almost unconsciously navigate them in the same way pedestrians might  move past/through some one begging for money on the street: they can ignore that which they think does not directly impact their familiar lives. Secondly, it obliterates the question of access: notions of belonging and exclusion have been so normalised, so smoother over, that some seem to have forgotten to even dispute the very idea of detention in of itself.

Larne House, 2 Hope Street, Larne, Antrim, BT40 1UR
The reality is that the ‘invisibility’ surrounding detention centres does not start with the buildings themselves. It starts with the casting and portrayal of those warehoused inside. Career politicians and the gutter press have long cast migrants as monstrous, Others, unchecked, bogus, illegal, temporary. As Freed Voices noted in their recent submission to the Home Affairs Select Committee; “The Government and the press talk about us like we aren’t even human beings. So in detention we are seen as less than animals. We’re just commodities.” This process of dehumanisation, active long before the decision to detain, justifies and enables detention to continue unchecked. On a collective level, it translates into around 30,000 people detained each year. On a personal level, it means individuals are locked away for weeks, months, and sometimes years.
Over time then, the naked violence of indefinite incarceration is forgiven, then muted, then forgotten. The outstanding implication of this is that these people in detention are not worthy of the same kind of duty of care and access to rights, liberties and protection afforded British citizens. Speaking at the exhibition launch, Michael reflected on the recent BBC documentary on Brook House IRC which showed, among many other instances of abuse, someone being held in a choke-hold by detention centre staff: “Can you imagine what would happen to a migrant if they committed the same kind of offences that we experienced every day in detention? Can you even imagine?! There have been thirty-two deaths in detention and no-one been even prosecuted. It is a moral disgrace.”

Heathrow IRC, Colnbrook Bypass, Harmondsworth, West Drayton, UB7 0FX
Sansone describes the UK’s detention estate as a ‘geography of fascism’ and too often fascist policies benefit from invisibility, or partial visibility, growing in the shadows, in silence. When Michael stood up at the exhibition opening and spoke-out about his experiences of detention and the changes he wants to see, he took a wrecking ball to the architecture of detention. His words offer a direct block on the co-operation of racism and power, making visible the sites and processes the Home Office would otherwise have hidden away or slip quietly into the landscape around us. Stothard’s photos seek to do a similar job, as does Unlocking Detention. If you’re not already involved in shining a light on these sites of estrangement, it might be worth asking ‘why not’?
Get involved in this year’s Unlocking Detention! More information here
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Rob Stothard’s photography exhibition – ‘Seamed Zones: The Everyday Life of Immigration Removal Centres in the United Kingdom’ – runs until the 29th October at Sluice Art Gallery, Arch 11 & 12 Bohemia Place, E8 1JB, London.

"We need it now. People are dying." Freed Voices lobbying for #Time4aTimeLimit

The theme of this year’s Unlocking Detention is ‘action’ so who better to hear from than the Freed Voices group. Earlier this week, Mishka from Freed Voices joined campaigners Fred Ashmore and Timothy Gee from the Quakers to lobby the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable. We sat down with Mishka to ask him a few questions about the experience.

Why is political lobbying important to Freed Voices?
It is important for us to lobby MPs because even though we are the Experts, they are ultimately the policy makers. Many of them are interested in detention but don’t know the details. As Mr. Cable said, we can be their ‘ammunition’. We can educate them to understand and change the policy as it is. We also want to target all MPs, not just the liberal ones because every political party put a time-limit in their election manifestos…except one.
Why is political lobbying especially important now?
After the General Election, Freed Voices decided to focus on targeting MPs. We looked at the small majority government and the fact the Immigration Bill is coming next year and thought this was where we could have a big impact. There is also a lot more attention around the issue than before. The Panorama documentary [on abuse in Brook House] also brought a lot of attention. Unfortunately, so have the recent deaths in detention – three in the last month. Change is urgent. I saw this week that Keir Starmer [who we also lobbied] said that ‘indefinite detention will end, it is just a matter of when.’ Well, we cannot wait one, two, three, four years. We need it now. People are dying.
Why is Vince Cable an important person for Freed Voices to meet and persuade that indefinite detention is an issue worth addressing?
Vince Cable is Leader of the Liberal Democrats. Their last two election manifestos have been in line with the philosophy and asks of Freed Voices. Many of Mr. Cable’s colleagues also recently signed the Early Day Motion (EDM) in Parliament about the BBC Panorama documentary. So, we know they are engaged with the issue. But this was an important meeting for us because it is a leader of a political party meeting with us and recognising us as Experts on the issue. We want to develop this relationship for future endeavours. We were not just meeting him for the sake of meeting him. We believe the Liberal Democrats are an important part of the cross-party fight for change on detention.
Who else was there? Why were they keen to be involved?
We were joined by two representatives from the Quakers, Fred and Tim. The Quakers are a faith group that believe in human rights, peace and equality. They have been working on detention a lot over the last year and believe that it is inhumane and inefficient. They are not experts-by-experience but they represent the impact of detention on the community. And that is why it was ideal that they were involved in this alongside Freed Voices. They believe that change is possible and it is worth being a part of that change. It was great to work with them.
What were your objectives for the meeting?
One: to give a strong and clear message to Vince Cable that reform is urgent. Two: to highlight that detention is not an asylum issue, it is a civil liberties and human rights issue. Third (and most importantly): we wanted action rather than more talk and empty, hollow promises. Some decision-makers think that just by meeting experts-by-experience they’ve done their job. No, we wanted him to take the issue out of the room. We wanted direct contact with his parties’ Home Affairs leads so we could work with them on the matter.
What were your expectations of the meeting?
As I said, I was concerned that it would not just be empty promises. And I knew that he is a busy man so we might not get so much time with him. But we also know from the lobbying work we have done that before, that the real work happens now, after the meeting. So I had managed my expectations for the meeting itself.
How did you prepare for the meeting?
Freed Voices always prepare a lot for this kind of thing. We went through the different documents we wanted to give Mr Cable, including the Freed Voices Parliamentary Briefing we have. I also worked with the Freed Voices Coordinator on a script to help guide me. It is always easier when you know what you are talking about and the script is useful when you have limited time to give a strong message to the MP. We also did some work to not feel nervous – to remember I am the Expert – because sometimes these things can go wrong if you are too worried.
What message/state of mind did you want Vince Cable to leave the room with?
Firstly, I wanted him to feel that we are credible group and professional to the extent that he could confidently work with us going forward. Secondly, I wanted him to feel determined and encouraged to work with us to reform the detention system. Finally, I wanted him to realise that we needed more than just his words of support.
How did the meeting go?
Overall, it went very well in my opinion. We had a bit longer than we thought we would with him so we were able to cover everything we wanted. However, a lobbying meeting like this is never a unanimous thing and nothing goes 100% perfectly in this world. The Quakers were very helpful and considerate to give Freed Voices the opportunity to play a major role and lead on the meeting. Essentially, we got what we came for. Now we have to make sure it materialises into action.
What did you lead with?
I started by thanking him for giving us this opportunity and including a 28 day time limit in his election manifesto. I also noted that we were pleased that his colleagues signed the EDM. Then I gave some information about my background and then pushed on with the facts and our policy arguments for change.
How important was it for you to talk about the policy as well as your experiences? Why?
It is very important for me to show that we are competent at speaking policy because it proves that the Freed Voices are a proficient group of genuine campaigners rather than a bunch of cry-babies who crave sympathy or attention, which I detest. I think you have to explain some of your personal experiences of detention so you can prove your credibility to then talk about the policy – this is the concept of Freed Voices as experts-by-experience – but talking about the change that needs to happen is always the most important part for me.
How did he respond?
He obviously has some real interest on this matter. He asked a few questions and agreed with our main points. He also said ‘yes’ to everything we asked for. But it is up to us now to get him to actually push these through. As my colleague Michael from Freed Voices says; “we’re done with lip service”.
How did you feel as you left the meeting?
I felt like we achieved something on the road to change. This is hopefully the beginning of a long-term working relationship with the Liberal Democrats, with their Home Affairs leads’ and with the Quakers as campaigning partners. We are not crazy – we know change doesn’t happen overnight. But I think making these kind of connections with political allies are part of pushing through a time-limit and alternatives to detention. And on a broader level, I think it is important for senior politicians to see experts-by-experience face-to-face, in action, talking policy.
Did you enjoy it?
I enjoyed the day. Now let’s see what he comes back with…
 
 

Verne closes, Shaw looms

Detention Action has been running advice surgeries every month at the Verne detention centre, which is set to close at the end of this year.  Jerome Phelps, Director of Detention Action, considers what our next task is.  
Detention centres feel permanent.  There is nothing like the experience of visiting a detention centre, confronting the walls and locked doors and razor wire, to give a doomy sense of inevitability.
All the more so when the detention centre you are visiting is The Verne, a three hour train journey and half hour taxi ride from the scrutiny of Parliament.  Its symbolism could hardly be more crushing – after you leave the spectacular causeway of Chesil Beach, the taxi takes you onto the Isle of Portland, a seeming enclave of extraterritoriality.  A mile out into the Channel, inside the peak of the closest Dorset gets to a mountain, five hundred migrants are locked away.
It is a journey that Detention Action staff and volunteers have been making to hold advice surgeries every month for nearly four years, since it opened.
Yet last week, the Home Office quietly announced that The Verne will close by the end of the year.  It will revert to its former identity as a prison, less than four years after the Home Office instilled the extra razor wire to adapt it to detain migrants.  By January, every night around 500 fewer people will bed down to sleep or insomnia in a British detention centre.
Why is the Home Office closing its second largest detention centre?  The official explanation is that the detention estate is to be consolidated around the main airports. This is undoubtedly accurate – there was an aborted attempt last year to close the remote Dungavel detention centre in Scotland and replace it with a small short-term holding facility at Glasgow Airport.
But it isn’t the full story, unless consolidation is understood to also mean reduction.
Indeed, the then Immigration Minister last year promised that fewer migrants would be detained, for shorter periods.  It hasn’t happened, until now (although Dungavel closure would have helped, if planning permission hadn’t been refused).  But the political momentum for change has not gone away.
The Minister was responding the first review of welfare in detention by Stephen Shaw, ordered by then Home Secretary Theresa May following the scathing indictment of detention by a cross-party Parliamentary Inquiry.  Shaw did not mince his words, describing the treatment of mentally ill people in detention as ‘an affront to civilised values’.  Neither did he attempt to separate welfare from detention policy as a whole, condemning the scale of detention and the lengths of time migrants are held.
Unfortunately, since the former Minister’s statement, neither the numbers of migrants detained, nor lengths of detention, have gone down.  Detention remains unreformed.
It is an unsolved problem that has suddenly become a high profile political problem again, in the wake of the appalling abuse revelations of the BBC Panorama documentary on Brook House.  The sustained media focus on detention coincided with three more people dying in detention.  Last week, the High Court found unlawful an aspect of the Home Office’s flagship adults at risk policy, its main response to the criticisms of the Shaw Review.  And only yesterday, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission demanded an independent inquiry into the issues raised by the Panorama documentary, including the Home Office’s use of private contracts and the impact of indefinite detention, and threatened to launch its own investigation.
All of this is happening at the worst possible time for confidence in the detention estate, because Shaw has just begun his follow-up review of Home Office progress.  He is unlikely to be impressed.
This is ultimately a political problem for a Government that can ill afford any more political problems.  The follow-up Shaw Review was promised following unprecedented parliamentary pressure for wholesale detention reform during the passage of the Immigration Act 2016.  The Government was twice defeated in the Lords on amendments that would have introduced a time limit for the first time, in line with the rest of Europe.  Led by parliamentarians who had been involved in the inquiry, both Houses gave Ministers a thorough grilling.  Compromise amendments, introducing a time limit for pregnant women among other things, were accompanied by promises that detention reform was in hand, with Shaw providing the oversight.
So detention is now a real problem for the Home Office.  It cannot afford Shaw to conclude that nothing significant has changed, giving further encouragement to the Lords to derail the coming Brexit immigration bill.  It knows that the political pressure will not go away, having been cultivated over many years by the Detention Forum’s broad and durable civil society alliance.
Indeed, detention reform could end up being an object lesson for anyone doubting that passionate, principled parliamentarians can change anything.  Given that one or two other things have been happening in politics lately, it has been astonishing how our allies in Parliament from all the main parties have continued to keep up the pressure.
In politics, it is easy to win the argument and lose the war.  So often, momentum and small wins fail to add up to radical reform.  The coming months are an unprecedented opportunity to convert those wins into major and lasting change.  Immigration will not completely go away as a political hot potato, but we can begin to build a fairer and more humane system that doesn’t have to depend on damaging and routine immigration detention.  We have set out in our report Without Detention how this can happen.
But for any change to happen, people demanding that change still need to come together and build a much bigger voice to capture the attention of the government.  The ongoing Unlocking Detention is the perfect online opportunity – join us.