The Importance of Being With

Beatrice Grasso is Detention Outreach Manager at Jesuit Refugee Service UK where, with volunteers, she supports many detained in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook detention centres. In this blog, she explains how their mission “Accompany, Serve and Advocate” informs and shapes their work in these detention centres, ‘places most people don’t even realise exist’.
Imagine being taken away from home in the middle of the night, no time to pack, to call your friends. Imagine being driven around in a van for hours not knowing your destination, no breaks, strangers joining you in your mutual confusion. And now imagine being told you’re going to be detained, indefinitely.
No, this isn’t a prison, but it sure looks like one. You don’t know when you’ll be released, or indeed even if you’ll be allowed to stay in this country at all. It might just be possible that you’ll be put on the next plane to a country you left as a child, where they speak a language you don’t understand, where you’ll be a foreigner in everything but your documents. You don’t know if you’ll see your home again, laugh with your friends, play with your children.
Your life as you knew it is officially over: you might leave detention at some point, but detention will never leave you.
This can’t be real, right? It certainly sounds like a nightmare, not like something that could ever happen today in the UK. Yet, for many of the people we regularly visit and support inside immigration detention centres, this is exactly how it works.
At the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) UK, we’re committed to caring for those who are totally neglected or inadequately attended to, supporting the most vulnerable members of our society. People held in Immigration Removal Centres definitely fall into this category, forgotten as they often are in places most people don’t even realise exist.
Providing pastoral care to people in detention is a challenging task we have set ourselves, but one that our many committed volunteers nonetheless tirelessly dedicate themselves to, visiting the Heathrow Immigration Removal Centres every week. We strive to provide what support we can, attempting to bring comfort where there is only distress.
This is not without its difficulties: how can we avoid giving in to the despair that surrounds us? What can we do, when we are faced with so many questions we simply do not know the answers to? Where can we find the strength to battle the frustration and the helplessness we feel when we realise there is nothing we can do to change that person’s situation?
To find the answers to these questions, we need to go back to our mission: “Accompany, Serve and Advocate”. Accompanying these men through what is possibly one of the darkest times in their life means walking alongside them as they navigate their fears and the uncertainty their future holds. Serving them as companions, putting them at centre of all that we do, and accepting the fact that sometimes there is nothing we can do except to be: to be present and available for whatever is needed, be it a word of comfort or just a shared silence, and sometimes simply to be there, with them and for them. And lastly, to advocate, giving them the voice that has been taken away from them, making sure that, while they might be out of sight, they are not put out of mind.
When starting our service in detention, many of us are guided by a deep desire to fight injustices and change the world. We are soon confronted with the fact that this is much too big a task for anyone to carry out by themselves. When the sadness surrounding us becomes overwhelming, it is tempting to think that this has all been a pointless exercise. When we witness the mental and physical deterioration of so many over time, it is hard to remain convinced that we still have a meaningful role to play.
When our ideals seem just illusions, it is easy to start feeling hopeless. It is in those times, then, that we need to remind ourselves of the true strength of our work, which is not found in grandiose gestures, but in little, daily acts of love. A phone call every few days tells a young man that he is in our thoughts. A visit gives him something to look forward to. A listening ear gives him the space to express his anger and pain, knowing that, for once, he will not be judged for what he says.
There have been many instances in the past where this has become apparent, but one episode in particular resonates with this. During one of our regular visits, we were approached by a young man who, like so many others, was devastated by the fact that detention was tearing his family apart. His greatest despair, he told us, was that he would not be there for his child’s fourth birthday the following week. His greatest fear was that she would think he had forgotten about her, and this constant worry was breaking him. Thanks to the generosity of many, we were able to help him by sending his daughter a small gift and a birthday card in his name. The joy in his voice when we saw him again is a memory that will last for a very long time. What was only a small gesture to us, had helped this family feel together again, if only for a brief time, and had, in that moment, made his stay in detention slightly more bearable.
It is through these small acts of care, then, that we can try to shine a small light of hope in the dark void that is indefinite detention. For until this inhumane practice is brought to an end, and a time limit on detention is introduced, this is all we can wish to do. We might not be able to change the world, but we must do all we can to change one person’s world.
 

Four days in Colnbrook

This blog was written by Helen*, a US citizen who travelled to the UK and was detained earlier this year. She spent four days in Colnbrook detention centre, before being returned to the US.  In this blog, she recounts her experience.
*This is not her real name.
Day 1:
I arrived at Gatwick Airport, from the US, at 10.15am. I spoke to a UK Border Control agent, who questioned me about my plans in the UK.
I told him that my friend, a British Citizen, was already at the airport waiting for me and that we had planned to meet in the UK, so that we could travel around Europe then make our way back to the US to see my family. I was requesting up to 30 days in the UK for us to be able to make appropriate plans together.
The officer escorted me to a small waiting area and told me that I had to wait until they found my friend. I waited for two hours, at which time they told me I was being detained for questioning. I asked why and they said they needed more information, which was fine – I had nearly everything they could ever want with me: my birth certificate, paycheck stubs, disability papers, health insurance information, cash, cards… everything.
They immediately confiscated all my baggage, my cellphone, my laptop and my journal. They brought me to a room in the back, with seven other people in it. Everyone was distraught and crying and there were people of all nations there, male and female, husbands and wives who were refused to see each other or where only one spouse was let through while the other was detained.
They said I could make a call but when I said I needed to call my mother in the US they told me I was not permitted to make international calls. I asked them where my friend was and if they found him yet, and they said they were not permitted to tell me.
It was freezing cold, because the air conditioner was on full blast. I was really upset and scared because no one was telling me anything or letting me talk to anyone. I couldn’t stop crying and I was freezing cold and tired and I could barely even think properly.
I was in that room for four hours before they took me to an interview room and questioned me. I answered the best I could and informed them I have diagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and I was not feeling mentally well enough for any of the current experiences.  I kept asking them if they found my friend yet, and they said they did and that they were going to question him and then make a decision to grant or deny entry. I knew that my friend was going to tell them what I had told them.
They put me back in the cold room for another four hours. My mind was slowly being put in a very dark place and I was not thinking clearly. They finally informed my friend they were refusing entry at 7pm and told him not to tell anybody.
They came to me at 9pm, and told me that I was going to be sent to a removal center, which is a nice way of saying prison, for four days and then they were sending me back to Pittsburgh. I asked them why – they said they were not permitted to tell me and I would have to wait for them to issue a report that they would give me a copy of.
At this point I had already been crying for many hours, I had not slept or eaten, and for what seemed like no good reason I was being treated like a criminal.
They took me into a room where they took photos and fingerprints then sent me back to the cold room. I asked where I was going and was told I would be taken “someplace” five minutes down the road in an hour. They couldn’t tell me the name of the place. I lay on the ice-cold metal bench until 11pm.
Three hours later, at 2am, I was escorted into a dark tinted van and taken “someplace” an hour away. The only clue I had was when I was able to see one road sign that said, “Heathrow Airport”.
When I got to the destination I had to be let through many levels of security fences with barbed wire at the top and bars on all the windows. I knew this was a prison as soon as I saw the fences. I couldn’t believe I was being taken to such a place simply because I’d booked a flight to London to see my friend.
They took me inside where I was fingerprinted again and photographed. They told me to wait in another room. I told them I was not feeling okay and that I thought I was going to collapse. They told me to lay down on the bench in the room and wait. They never once offered medical treatment or a medical examination during this entire process, even when I told them that I have a serious diagnosed disability, and was not feeling well enough to receive the treatment I was given.
Finally, at 5am, I was escorted into yet another freezing cold room with a bed with two other women. They allowed me to call my mom. I told her everything that had just happened and went straight to sleep.
Day 2:
I woke up and was offered breakfast but I was still unable to eat. I had been given a towel and bedsheets the previous night, but I had no access to my clothing or toiletries. I couldn’t change my clothes. I noticed other women with some personal belongings and asked how they got them and they told me I had to put in a request so I did. They said it may take a few hours so I looked around the unit I was in.
There were ten bedrooms with three beds in each room, and a main room with a couch, a TV, a Nintendo Wii, four computers with internet access, a multi-religious prayer room, a laundry room, a small kitchen, a shower room, and two separate toilet rooms.
It actually didn’t seem so bad other than the fact that it was freezing cold outside and yet inside they had vents in the ceilings of every room, blowing out freezing cold air. There had been many complaints by everyone about how cold it was. My roommates had taken pieces of paper and taped them over the vents in our bedroom hoping that would lessen the icy room temperature but it did not seem to help much.
I was given a cell phone without a camera. They provided a sim card for me to be allowed calls from my family. I was able to make calls to the UK for free but in order to contact my family I had to buy top up cards from the store. I wasn’t able to buy anything, despite having cash being held for me, because it was US currency. They said I would have to put in a separate request to allow them to exchange my money which would allow me to purchase what I needed. I asked them to do that but they never did.
I was allowed access to the internet but every website was blocked except for my email. I used my email to contact my family and my friend.
I mostly used this time to begin to heal myself and talk to the other women for support. There were women there from mostly Asian countries, a few from African countries, a woman from one European country, a woman from Russia, and one other American. The American and the Russian woman stayed in the same room as me. We were all able to communicate pretty well despite some language barriers. Most of the women came to me asking to help them translate things into English or communicate their needs to the guards, as I was able to understand what they were trying to communicate despite not knowing their languages – mostly through hand motions and body language.
At least I could feel as if I was helping – even though I was in need of help myself, at least I knew what was going on by that point. I could only imagine being locked up in one of their countries where I didn’t know what anyone was saying to me. To take focus off my own struggle I spent a lot of time listening to other women talk about their experiences and why they were in there and the despair they felt being taken from their loved ones in such an inhumane fashion only to be treated like criminals.
They were all mothers and lovers and survivors and strong beautiful women in the same situation regardless of race, color, creed, class. There were students, women with all the right paperwork, visas, return tickets, a lot of money, no money. There were women who had been detained multiple times and went back to get the right paperwork and tried to re-enter after doing everything properly and still it didn’t seem to matter.
I kept reading all the paperwork they gave me as to why they refused me and realized that they had not even listened to anything my friend or I told them in the interviews. They just basically twisted all my words to conform to whatever mold they chose no matter how incorrect it was. They had ALL of my information, legitimate and official US documents, way more than most people travel with – yet they claimed I didn’t have anything reliable or sufficient.
Day 3:
I still hadn’t received any of my clothes or toiletries. I was offered breakfast, lunch and dinner and tried to eat but was still unable to hold down any solid food. I was given no medical treatment or an examination. I was told my requests for money exchange and clothing had still not gone through. The whole place is highly disorganized.
I asked when I would be released because I needed to let my family know when to pick me up at the airport. They told me they didn’t have this information and I would have to wait until I am picked up for my flight on Friday afternoon.
Day 4:
Instead of being picked up in the afternoon as I was told, I was woken up at midnight, only one hour after I fell asleep, to be driven back to the airport. I still had no idea when my flight would be. I arrived at Gatwick Airport at 2am where they took me back into the cold room.
I asked them if there was any information about my flight and they told me they were neither permitted to tell me when I would leave nor would I be given any of my information, paperwork, passport or possessions until I left the UK, and was at my connecting flight in another country.
The officer told me that I would be there until one hour before my flight, then I would be escorted to the airplane. I waited with five other people for seven hours with no food or drink, until 9am when I was escorted to the airplane and boarded in a separate door before any other passengers were seated.
I was given all my possessions when I was transferred to a connecting flight, including a folder with all the paperwork from the entire experience inside. As I read through it I could not believe all the lies and misinformation that was included in the reports.
They claimed I was offered medical examinations and refused them all, which was absolutely untrue.
They claimed “I declined to be health screened saying she did not know why she was here” when in fact I had told them I was suffering symptoms of my disability and did want to be screened.
***
The entire experience has left me distraught. As I am starting to gain back strength and clarity, from my understanding, they decided I was an immigrant trying to come into the country and never leave, or overstay my welcome. Even though there was overwhelming evidence to prove that wrong, it did not matter.
I understand that the law played a huge role in this. No matter how right or wrong the law is, they were doing all the things the law required them to do for the situation they thought was happening. What bothers me more than the incredibly extreme laws was the way I was being treated and the total lack of understanding. After answering everything honestly and providing all the evidence they required to prove I was not an asylum seeker or trying to immigrate, they still treated me like I was an object that they could just put in the refrigerator and forget about. I was not given proper treatment or care whatsoever.
Now I am in their system for “the end of a period of ten years beginning with the day on which the fingerprints were taken.” So even if I wanted to visit the UK again, which I don’t, they would just keep detaining me continuously for the next 10 years.
After I got home, I did some research about immigration detention in the UK. After reading all the facts and statistics about this, I find no comfort in knowing I am one of these statistics. I only hope that in the future more people will come forward and keep sharing their stories so that one day these laws can be exposed – they are in desperate need of reform.

Week 6: #Unlocked17 visits Campsfield House

The focus of this week’s #Unlocked17 tour was Campsfield House, near Oxford airport. It has been an immigration detention centre for almost a quarter of a century – a 24th anniversary demonstration took place this week.
Since it was converted from a young offender institution to a detention centre in November 1993, over 30,000 people have been detained here.
Up to 282 men can be held here at any one time. In 2015, local action helped to prevent it from being doubled in size.

An introduction to Campsfield, in tweets

Walls of Resistance

This week we heard from Jose of Freed Voices, who was detained in Campsfield. He talks us through the pictures on his wall, describing those who inspired him musically and politically while in detention (and afterwards).
He tells us about how detention politicised him, and made him believe that change is both necessary and possible. In a powerful call-to-action, he says, “Detention… will only change if people in the street are engaged with it. Rightly or wrongly, this government was chosen by the people. The responsibility for the human disgrace of detention must be shared. It is not just the government to blame. The people themselves need to remember their own role in a parliamentary democracy. They have to remind the MPs that they are representing them and their values.” 
(Have you written to your MP? If not, there’s some more info about why you should contact them, and what to say, here. You can find your MP here.)

Also on the blog this week:

On Tuesday, we heard from North East London Migrant Action (NELMA) and the Public Interest Law Unit at Lambeth Law Centre. The have been granted permission for a judicial review of the Home Office’s policy of detaining and deporting homeless EU citizens. In this blog, they tell the stories of Mihal and Teodora, EU citizens who were detained for sleeping rough.


On Wednesday, Toufique Hossain, Director of Public Law at Duncan Lewis Solicitors, wrote about the strategic litigation case of “slave wages” in detention centres. Detention centre providers employ those who are detained to do essential work for them, with a maximum wage set by the Home Office of £1 an hour.
Toufique concludes, “We will keep fighting for an end to this state-sanctioned slavery. Like immigration detention as a whole, there is absolutely no place for it in a civilised society, but it is happening just down the road.”


For Thursday’s blog, we went back to Campsfield. Ruth Nicholson, a musician, and a volunteer both for Music In Detention (MID) and the Detention Forum, described a day of songwriting workshops in Campsfield House. You can also watch a film about MID’s work in Campsfield:


Dan Godshaw wrote a blog highlighting the findings and recommendations of a new piece of research that he conducted with Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG). You can read the blog here, and the full report here.
The research uncovers the ways in which people who arrived in the UK when they were under 18 become detained as adults, and explores how detention affects them as a distinctive group.


The final blog of the week came from Bridget Walker, part of the Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network. She says, “When I first visited someone in immigration detention I knew I must speak out. It is one of the darkest corners of our asylum system and not widely known. It is against our testimony to equality and must be brought into the light and brought to an end.”

 24th Anniversary Demonstration

On Saturday 25th November, there was a 24th anniversary demonstration at Campsfield House, organised by the Campaign to Close Campsfield.


Both of Oxford’s two MPs – Layla Moran MP (Oxford West), and Anneliese Dodds MP (Oxford East) – spoke at the demonstration, showing their support for detention reform.
Layla Moran said she has “always felt the system is broken, and that it is a slight on society that these centres even exist – let alone that we are one of the few developed countries where we have indefinite detention”.
Anneliese Dodds MP called the centre “a stain on our here in conscience in Oxford”. In five months of casework (since she became an MP), she is already seeing the impact that indefinite detention has on people’s physical and mental health, and the “gradual grinding down people feel when they don’t know when they will be with their families or have a normal life”.

Dungavel demonstration

Also this week, a group from Justice and Peace Scotland gathered outside Dungavel (in the snow!).
Unlocking Detention’s virtual tour of Dungavel will take place from the 11th – 17th December – follow us on Twitter and via #Unlocked17 to join us.

Ten years on: reflections on a decade working on the injustice of detention

Immigration detention and the detention estate sometimes appear permanent and unchanging. However, underneath the surface, things are changing. Tamsin Alger, Casework and Policy Manager at Detention Action, looks back at a catalogue of actions people in detention, she and her organisation have taken to challenge immigration detention over the last 10 years.  
Ten years ago this month, I started working at Detention Action (London Detainee Support Group at the time). One of the first things I did was to attend our newly established information and advice workshops in Colnbrook. For the first time, I experienced the sterile, claustrophobic atmosphere that grew with each door that was unlocked and locked again behind us as we moved further and further into the centre, further and further away from the barbed wire fences and massive metal doors to the outside world. Last month, I was at Harmondsworth for another workshop. In that time, Detention Action has supported over 8,000 people in Colnbrook, Harmondsworth, the Verne and HMP Pentonville. Over that time, what’s changed in immigration detention, and how has Detention Action adapted to respond?
I remember that first workshop very clearly. The atmosphere felt tense, it was very noisy. Some people spoke to us urgently; others were angry, their frustration and desperation spilling out. One man was softly spoken, eyes not quite in focus, dosed up on medication, as he showed us his arms criss-crossed with self-inflicted scars, some old and faded, many new and raw-edged.
Most people I met that day had been detained for more than a year with no end date in sight. Two years, three years, in detention didn’t feel uncommon in Colnbrook at that time. They were mainly from countries that were considered too dangerous to return people to, like Somalia, or where there were problems getting travel documents, like Iran. Most were detained following a conviction, often spending far longer in detention under immigration powers than their original sentence.
Our focus was a new area of work, unlawful detention. We worked with a leading solicitor firm to identify and refer such cases for legal challenges in the High Court, building up a body of case law. From those early workshops in Colnbrook, our first campaign against indefinite detention was born. For the first time, following the publication of our research, Detained Lives, it felt like the issue of detention was on the map, the voices of those inside finally being heard beyond the borders of detention.
Next door was Harmondsworth. Another high security detention centre, Harmondsworth was dominated by the Detained Fast Track (DFT), a process where asylum seekers were held in detention for their cases to be heard on very tight timescales. The refusal rate was 99%.
One particular workshop sticks in my mind. This workshop was held in the wing set aside for people arriving or about to leave the centre. Over 50 people came to see us that day. There was a charter flight to Afghanistan two days later, and the wing was full of desperate people, spat out at the end of an unfair process that they hadn’t understood. They crowded round us, waving letters from the Home Office with the date, time and flight number of the plane that would return them to the country they had fled. There was so little that we could do. Most had solicitors who’d stopped representing them early in the process, saying they wouldn’t be able to get legal aid to carry on because of the way in which the DFT was stacked against them. As we sat down one by one, we picked out the most extremely vulnerable people where we might be able to persuade a keen solicitor to look into their case again in the very short time frame. For the rest, we listened to their fears, we heard their despair at the injustice they’d experienced in a country they’d always thought was a standard for human rights. And we decided that this had to stop.
Our second campaign, to end the Detained Fast Track, began with our report Fast Track to Despair.  I remember the launch event – a packed room, a sense of possibility despite some dissenting voices, and the spark of a movement that brought NGOs and lawyers together to support our legal challenge to the DFT. I’ve lost count of the number of times we were in court over the two years of litigation, as we kept winning each stage of the case, but had to keep fighting on and on for any meaningful change for the people we spoke to every day in Harmondsworth. Eventually, in July 2015, the DFT was suspended and in the December the Supreme Court ruled finally in our favour.
Last month, I was in Harmondsworth again with a group of staff and volunteers for another workshop. Most of our work is over the phone through our free helpline, in part due to the inaccessible nature of detention centres. Our volunteer visitors provide regular, one to one support to the most vulnerable or isolated people we are in touch with. So our workshops are a vital opportunity to meet new clients who drop in to see who we are and what we can do, as well as a means of renewing relationships face to face with people we’ve been supporting for weeks or months from the office.
Over the years my role has changed. As a manager, I am no longer as directly involved in casework as I used to be, although I make sure I go into the detention centres whenever I can. I have seen a shift away from the two large scale injustices at opposite ends of the spectrum (although it still happens): extreme long-term detention and the unseemly haste of the DFT. The ongoing injustice of detention remains, and yet that injustice now feels splintered into a myriad disparate experiences and often increasingly complicated cases. At the most recent workshop, we met 25 people in very different situations.
Our work, as ever, has changed accordingly. We reach out proactively to the most hard to reach people in detention, often with the most complex cases, and we have developed our expertise to understand their situation and to support their release. On that day, for example, I sat down with a Vietnamese man who had been trafficked to work in a cannabis farm. We’d met him before, when he’d shown us the injuries inflicted by his traffickers, not understanding why he was in detention despite the Home Office recognising he was a torture survivor. Communicating with him through our new volunteer interpreting project, we had referred him to a solicitor to challenge his conviction for cannabis cultivation and to enable him to be identified and protected as a victim of trafficking in line with government policy. He was recently released after several months in detention.
So much has changed in the last ten years. The one constant is the devastating human impact that immigration detention has on people who are held indefinitely. And throughout those ten years, with the changing issues and new challenges and opportunities, it is the human contact between our staff and volunteers and the people we are supporting that remains at the heart of what we do. And, fundamentally, it is people, those in detention and those who’ve been released, and all of us who know and care about this everyday atrocity in the UK who can and will make it change.
 

Five guys

Reflections on indefinite detention are often framed in the singular, as personal and introspective testimonies. In this special piece for Unlocking Detention, however, Mishka from Freed Voices, sketches five guys that shaped his experience of Harmondsworth detention centre and continue to dominate his thoughts today, post-release.
SKELETON
I first saw this guy in healthcare in May. He was on hunger strike. I think he had just started. He was thin but still a bit toned and muscular. To be honest, I thought he would give up after some time because…well, otherwise he would die. Two and a half months later I saw him when I returned to healthcare to pick up my depression medication. This time…wow…he was a skeleton. Really, skin and bones. I did not recognise him at first. He had a friend pushing him in a wheelchair and I had to ask if it was the same guy. His body was nothing now, it had left him. In that moment, I felt ‘this guy will die’. I didn’t know why he was on hunger strike but I understood the desperation. When you see there is no way out, or if you are an asylum seeker with a genuine reason to be scared of return, this kind of thing becomes the only option. For the Home Office, it is completely the opposite, the other way round. For them, these people are just frustrating a removal. To them it is further evidence of non-compliance, not of real human desperation. I don’t know what happened to him. I never saw him again.
LIFER
We had probably been detained for a month or so at this point. Me and my brother would always try and go to the canteen at the end of the hour, when there were less people. This time we sat at a vacant table and after a while a man came and joined us. I am not sure if he was a befriender or not but I recognised him as someone who was always helping people fill out forms. He was an Asian man, in his 50s or so. He started the conversation with us. He asked us how long we’ve been here, how we are doing etc. We asked him how long he had been detained and he said ‘over two years’. Both me and my brother were completely stunned. I could not believe it. I had never known someone detained this long. I genuinely didn’t think it was possible. But you could also see that after so long inside the detention centre had become his home in a sad way. Everyone knew who he was in our wing. Officers would talk to him in a different way to other detainees. He had become part of the furniture at Harmondsworth. There is research that shows that the longer you are detained the more likely you are to be released at the end, and I hope this was the case for this guy. On the other hand, he had become so used to this environment I think re-integration would have been hard. I don’t know what happened to him.  I remember seeing him again when I was being escorted out for my release.
BLOOD
I went to the washroom at around ten o’clock in the night. They keep the florescent lights on 24-7 and I saw the blood straight away. There was blood everywhere…on the sink, by the entrance, by the toilet. Big drops. The floor is a dark blue colour but you could still see the outline of the blood very clearly. It was thick. I was not particularly shocked to be honest. I had seen blood like this before in detention. You get used to seeing this kind of colouring in detention. Images of pain become normalised. I could hear some big fusses when I came out the toilet. Someone said there had been an attempted suicide. I heard someone was crying very loud. A few hours later, I saw the guy on his bed. I had not spoken to him before but I recognised he was from my wing, on the same corridor. He was a very young Asian man, around twenty. He had plasters on his wrists. There were a few other suicide attempts that week. I had a hernia around this time and was waiting to go to hospital but they said they could not take me because all of the detention officers were busy watching people on suicide watch. That has to tell you something. I never saw that guy again.
BROTHER
My brother entered and left detention as two different people. He was a very positive man before. Very strong, both physically and mentally. He was 90 minutes older than me and played a big brother role very well. Whenever I would get emotional he would set me straight. He would always return me to the logic. He was a bit more mature than me…he was stable.
I never, ever, expected he would try and kill himself. So when someone that strong comes to that crossroads, when they turn to death, you get a very clear insight into what the environment of detention does to people.
After the second attempt, they took him to segregation. I asked to see him one last time before he would be removed. The F Wing manager said ‘ok, I will give you an exception’. His flight was at 6.30pm. They let me see him at 5pm but they said there would be a table between us and I could not touch him. We spoke for ten minutes with one officer standing right there next to us, on the edge of the table. At the end, we shook hands and in that moment I realised he was not the same person any more. He had been changed. That handshake was the hardest moment in my life. I haven’t seen him again since.
MICHAEL
After my brother was removed, I did not talk to too many people. I kept myself to myself. I would go out and sit out on a bench in the garden and just think and think and think. From the bench I could see the table tennis table. There was this guy called Michael, from Nigeria. He was brilliant at table tennis. Really, he was a remarkably talented guy. He was also a pool table expert. He was seriously multi-talented. His case was refused after he could not find a solicitor. He prepared all his documents for his own Judicial Review. The bundle was around 100 pages. I know how hard he worked without any guidance. He had removal directions and he had only ten days to fight it. I got to know him over this period very well. Eventually, his JR was refused. He spoke to me about the charter flights. He was expecting to be put on one and was very scared. I just remember feeling so sad about this man. He was clearly such a brilliant individual – so well mannered, so organised, great English, great work ethic, very skilled, always trying to be positive. His life was being wasted in detention. I remember feeling that if this guy isn’t considered a credit to the country, then what chance do the rest of us have? I don’t know what happened to him. I never saw him again after I left detention.

'When I first visited someone in immigration detention I knew I must speak out.'

Immigration detention is an important issue for many Friends (Quakers). Bridget Walker, who is part of the Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network, details the conditions she witnessed and those endured by detained peoples.  This blog was originally published by Quakers in Britain
When I first visited someone in immigration detention I knew I must speak out. It is one of the darkest corners of our asylum system and not widely known. It is against our testimony to equality and must be brought into the light and brought to an end.
Every year around 30,000 people are detained in immigration detention centres in the UK. This is a vast increase since the 1980s when numbers were in the mid-hundreds.
Anyone with ‘irregular status’ can be detained – new arrivals, people with no papers or ‘wrong passports’, overstayers. Most have not been charged with any crime. Those who have, if they had had British passports, would have been released on licence or walked free. Any foreign national offender who has served a sentence of more than 12 months is now subject to forced removal.
The decision to detain is an administrative one – there is no judicial oversight and people can be held indefinitely. The recommendations for a time limit from the all-party parliamentary inquiry of 2015 and the more recent Shaw report, have not brought change. Nearly half of all those detained are subsequently released back into the community. Detention has served no purpose.

The demonstration outside Campsfield Detention Centre near Oxford.

Indefinite detention affects mental health. Yet men and women are detained who should be exempt, under the government’s own rules; these include those with severe physical and mental health problems and torture survivors.
Most detention centres are run under licence from the government by private companies for profit, often in difficult to access locations. The annual cost to the tax payer is around £75 million but there is limited accountability. The Independent Monitoring Boards play an important role, but often lack the authority to make changes.
Conditions are variable, with no consistent standard. At one IRC there can be up to 6 men in a room, there are problems over food, and health care is poor.
There are many ways in which Friends can and do act. These include demonstrating outside detention centres and visiting those inside, supporting their families, standing surety when they apply for bail and offering help on release. Friends also challenge the system, lobbying MPs, campaigning for a 28 day time limit on detention, contributing to submissions to parliament and engaging with the private companies which run the centres.
Based on this experience, we believe that immigration detention is neither right nor necessary. Detention is not the answer – for anyone.

'Young arrivers' caught in immigration detention

Dan Godshaw (@DanGodshaw) has worked for NGOs on migrant advocacy and support for 10 years. He has visited people held at Brook House IRC as well as supporting Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group’s (@GatDetainees) research and campaigning work since 2013. Dan holds an MA in Migration Studies from The University of Sussex, and is currently an ESRC-funded doctoral researcher on immigration detention and gender at The University of Bristol.
(Artwork above © Only if you see what’s on the inside by Ridy)
There are many ways that children who do not have British citizenship can enter the UK, including as unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors, as dependents and through birth, where neither parent has citizenship or settled immigration status. Children who are not citizens, or ‘young arrivers’ often face difficulties growing up in the UK, but their rights are generally more extensive than those of adults. It is far less likely that they will be detained or deported than adults. Once children approach 18, they move from protected to unprotected status. Many are not able to secure settled immigration status, but even when they do, they risk automatic deportation orders if they go to prison.
Having spent a significant part of their formative years in the UK, some adults end up detained in Immigration Removal Centres while the government tries to deport them to places that feel foreign. This can be a frightening process which dramatically challenges identities and rights that they previously took for granted. But there has been little written on the topic and no research about this group in relation to immigration detention.
A new research project I conducted with Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG) uncovers ways in which people who arrived when they were under 18 become detained as adults, and explores how detention affects them as a distinctive group. The report, Don’t dump me in a foreign land: Immigration detention and young arrivers, provides a platform for the voices of people whose conceptions of safety, belonging and Britishness have been shaken by the immigration controls they are now subjected to. Drawing on interviews with those held in detention and practitioners who work with them as well as analysis of Home Office documents, we established a number of key findings which showed that that young arrivers share common routes to detention and experience specific forms of harm while detained.
First, young arrivers in detention are likely to have experienced trauma as children and to have been in the care system. Inadequate support and inappropriate care placements can leave them vulnerable, and local authorities sometimes fail to regularise immigration status and citizenship. A lack of guidance as well as use of police intervention to deal with disruptive behaviour can lead to early convictions.
Social services are the main reason I’m [in detention]…If they didn’t just see me as caseload, if they saw me as a person instead, all of this could have been avoided with one thing – getting me a passport…that should have been part of their duty of care…the actual care was bad enough, but not doing that was even worse (Anthony, Brook House)
Second, detained young arrivers are likely to have been through the criminal justice system. Crimes that lead to deportation orders are often minor and are inextricably tied to growing up as marginalised young people in Britain, but their status as foreign national prisoners mean that they are treated differently to their British peers. Young arrivers are not adequately informed about the possibility of detention and deportation, and are not granted opportunities for rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
[Young arrivers in detention] grew up on council estates where people sold drugs and got into trouble. We never knew any different…The judge said that I’m a product of this environment, that I didn’t come to this country to commit a crime. He’s learnt this in the UK so he’s our problem (Ahmed, formerly detained)
Third, young arrivers feel deeply connected to the UK, and being detained triggers intense shock. Detention causes people who had previously felt British to begin to feel foreign, excluded from society and the identity they had grown up with. Detention causes fear about being deported to places where they have few connections, meaning that post-deportation futures are unimaginable and feel impossible.
They’re trying to send me somewhere I don’t know…I’ve never been to Jamaica…I’ve never even been on a plane before…It’s not right on anybody to detain or deport them, but I think it’s 10 times worse for someone…who doesn’t know nothing else…I’d be shocked. I can’t really imagine it (Christopher, The Verne)
Finally, young arrivers, who often have substantial networks of family and friends in the UK, face difficulties in maintaining relationships in detention which leaves them isolated from their support networks. Young arrivers are also likely to experience prolonged detention and are particularly vulnerable to mental illness while detained. These findings show that recent Home Office guidance to prevent vulnerable people being detained in response to Stephen Shaw’s Review into the Welfare in Detention of Vulnerable Persons are not being implemented.
I used to jump and scream if someone shouted. I’m taking Clomipramine. I’ve been diagnosed with depression and PTSD… [in detention] there is no enjoyment for me…I’m alone…sometimes I feel that my heart will blow up…you need education, hospital, nice food, nice people…You can’t find this in here. You just wait. Depression affects me a lot (Bidar, Brook House)
These findings led to a series of policy recommendations for government, local authorities and support services. GDWG urges the government to implement the following key recommendations without delay:

  • Indefinite immigration detention should be brought to an end and replaced with a 28-day limit and community-based alternatives.
  • The 2016 Home Office ‘Guidance on adults at risk in immigration detention’ should be implemented properly and administrative factors should never take precedence over safety and wellbeing.
  • Young arrivers should be classed as a potentially vulnerable group generally unsuitable for detention and Home Office guidance should consider the dynamic nature of vulnerability in detention.
  • When people arrive in the UK as children, settled immigration status should be granted swiftly. They should then automatically be on a path to citizenship.
  • There should be an advocate who takes responsibility for regularising every child’s status and, one this is achieved, registering them as a British citizen.
  • Links between criminality and growing up in Britain, including within the care system, should be recognised. Young arrivers should not be demonised as foreign national prisoners and automatic deportation orders should not be issued.

Presenting the research at The Hive, Dalston
Photo © Thangam Debbonaire

I presented the research to an audience of practitioners, academics, people formerly held in detention, students and local community members at The Hive in Dalston on the 2nd November. The presentation was followed by a panel Q&A, chaired by Thangam Debbonaire (MP for Bristol West and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees), with Ridy (an artist and expert by experience, held in detention for more than 5 years), Melanie Griffiths (researcher on immigration detention and deportation, University of Bristol) and Hindpal Singh Bhui (Detention Team Leader, HM Inspectorate of Prisons). The discussion was lively and hopeful, and it was inspiring to see a large audience so engaged and passionate about the problem of immigration detention. To conclude this blog post, I’ll explore three important points raised in the discussion.
In response to claims by the research participants that their treatment by immigration authorities was racist, an audience member asked the panel to describe examples of institutional racism. In their responses, the panel addressed differential media attitudes that present the detention and deportation of white migrants from powerful countries as abhorrent compared to relative silence over migration controls far more commonly applied to black or other racialised migrants. They also talked about the many levels on which institutional racism operates on those in detention – from administrative decisions to predominantly detain people from particular racialised groups, through to the postcolonial logic of controlling, objectifying and excluding people from former colonies.
Another audience member made the point that detention is intimately linked to deportation and asked why, by detailing the experiences of young arrivers in detention, we were not going further to challenge the practice of deportation more broadly. There was agreement amongst the panel that challenging deportation is vital work because of the potential impact on safety, family life, identity and wellbeing of young arrivers as well as the fact that there is growing evidence that deportations often fail and lead to re-migration. However, from a campaigning perspective, the panel agreed that a focus on detention was needed at present in the context of renewed media and parliamentary interest in the issue.
The final question put forward in the discussion was what we, as ordinary people, can do to support and change policy and practice towards young arrivers. Several valuable ideas were put forward by the panel members and by the chair. They included contacting your MP directly and persisting until you get a response, working carefully with journalists to shift mainstream representations of young arrivers, volunteering with a local detention visitors group or other support service and, crucially, helping to create cultural change in attitudes through grassroots campaigning work and everyday conversations with friends and family, colleagues, and other acquaintances.
This research is a tool for change, and I would encourage organisations and individuals to use it to help bring about a transformation in the way that young arrivers are treated in the UK, as well as to encourage meaningful detention reform more widely.
 

"Time After Time": music from Campsfield House detention centre

In this blog, Ruth Nicholson describes a day of Music In Detention’s songwriting workshops in Campsfield House. Ruth is a musician, and a volunteer both for Music In Detention (MID) and the Detention Forum. This blog was originally published by Music in Detention in March this year here where you can also listen to the music recorded in Campsfield.
On a foggy, chilly morning in January, I joined two Music In Detention artists for a day trip to Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre, where we would make music with men being held there as immigration detainees. Michael, Oliver and I squashed ourselves into a car full of musical instruments and equipment and drove through the grey haze towards Oxfordshire.
Campsfield House is located at the end of a long country lane, opposite Oxford Airport and just outside a village called Kidlington. We arrived about 45 minutes before our first workshop, and were greeted enthusiastically by Munya, an officer originally from Zimbabwe who would escort us all day and supervise our two workshops. He said he always looks forward to Music In Detention visits and Oliver agreed he “brings the hype”, making sure there are always plenty of people in attendance.
Our objective was to record a song in a day, but it’s important to be flexible in these workshops. As Michael said in the car on the way, “It’s like if you’re a vet and someone brings in a snake, and you say “Oh, I don’t want to treat a snake… Have you got a rabbit instead?” You’ve got to deal with what’s in front of you.” We can’t guess what the atmosphere of a workshop will be like, and we can’t predict who will come, what they’ll want to do or what kinds of skills they’ll have.
We set up for the first session in the ‘big screen room’, or cinema, where the end-credits of a film were rolling. We’d brought a couple of guitars, a drum machine, a few amps, a melodica, a multi-track looping recorder, microphones, a violin, lots of cables and other assorted pieces of equipment. Munya helped us carry a keyboard (a tone out of tune, as the pitch-bend wheel was broken), a couple of drums and more small amps from the chapel, and a bass guitar and a couple of beaten-up guitars from a locked cupboard.
Soon the room was filled with men wondering what was about to happen. “Are we having a music festival?” “Are you going to perform for us?” Oliver responded: “We’re all going to sing and make music together.” Michael and Oliver plugged in and straight away got a groove going using the drum machine, bass guitar and multi-track looper, and Oliver improvised lyrics over the top, inviting the men to join in. I plugged in my violin and jammed along, and Oliver gave me a space to improvise a solo. The workshop kicked off very quickly – the room was suddenly full of curious faces, and before long the microphone was being passed around for people to share songs.
There were three participants who stood out to me: first, a charismatic Kurdish man who performed in Arabic, galvanising the excitement and participation of other Arabic speakers in the room; second, a Bengali man who was initially shy about performing, but sat attentively with a djembe drum through the other performances, eventually gaining the confidence to sing himself; and finally, a young Indian man who showed Michael the keyboard accompaniment of a song he knew and performed at the end of the session.
The atmosphere of this first workshop was lively and loud, with lots of energy and excitement. It was quite chaotic, and very much led by the detainees! People sang songs they knew, and improvised vocals over beats and riffs provided by Michael, Oliver and me. Munya joined in with drums and dancing, and Michael and I were persuaded to play ‘My Heart Will Go On’ (not for the first time!). Two hours flew by and it was time to finish. There had been a camera going around the group for the whole session, and several of the men were keen to get photos of us with them.
After a much-needed pub meal in Kidlington, we went back to Campsfield House for the evening session. There was a big football match being shown in the big screen room so we moved the equipment and instruments into the education room, which was smaller. We set everything up, and Oliver and Michael recorded and looped some riffs we’d come up with in the first session.
The room filled up very quickly, with some of the same people from the first session, and plenty of new faces. The first workshop had been very cathartic and excitable, and this one was too, but in a more focused way. The atmosphere was electric. We started the same way as the first workshop, with the three of us jamming together to draw people in, and then Oliver inviting them to join in. This time the men taking part wanted to take turns freestyling raps to a beat. They would tell us the vibe they wanted (one guy was really into grime, and another wanted old-school hip-hop beats) and Michael and Oliver would immediately produce that sound using the drum machine, keyboard, guitar and bass. Sometimes I joined in on the violin, but only when I felt the music called for it. Otherwise I just enjoyed listening.
Michael was great at coming up with cool keyboard riffs on the spot, and Oliver was excellent at encouraging the men to speak or sing into the microphone. One man with a gold tooth began his rap by saying “This is my first time spitting bars!” and everybody cheered. And he was great. Another picked up the microphone, opened his mouth and said “Immigration … f*ck!” Everybody laughed and clapped. It seemed everybody felt they could just say whatever was on their minds – whether that meant talking about life in detention, or imagining themselves chatting someone up in a bar. It was heartening to be in such a warm and welcoming space, where people were egging each other on.
Very organically, this session had become about creating new music rather than performing known music, and Oliver got to work making sure it got recorded. Powerful streams of words were spilling out of the men’s mouths; they took turns, almost competing, with wide grins on their faces. The eventual song Oliver captured was based, by request, on Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’, with Michael playing the keyboard.
“I like it how the music workers help us release our stress. They came here, gave us some entertainment, trying to kill time. I’m thinking right now, is it midnight?”
“Some people outside, they say, they got a lot of addictions: alcoholics, crackheads… and they have so much, you know, but I don’t think … nothing that can be more addictive than music.”
At the end of a long day, we drove back home feeling exhausted but accomplished.

Week 5: #Unlocked17 Visits The Verne

From the 13th – 19th November, #Unlocked17 visited The Verne, a remote detention centre on the edge of Dorset, which is scheduled to close at the end of this year. With nearly 600 beds, it is the UK’s second largest detention centre (the largest is Harmondsworth, with 676). 
Alongside the virtual visit to the Verne, this week #Unlocked17 visited parliament for a meeting on immigration detention, bringing together MPs, peers, experts-by-experience and others campaigning for detention reform. You can read a summary of the meeting here.


Maddie Biddlecombe, a member of Verne Visitors Group, wrote a blog for #Unlocked17 based on her experiences of visiting this remote centre: “Sometimes we wave out the window at my life waiting patiently for me out on the grass, in the sunshine, but mostly we talk of life lessons, and things that don’t matter or matter so much that I shed a tear.” 


The Verne’s isolated location – on the Isle of Portland, off Weymouth in Dorset – makes it the least visited centre in the UK. As Jerome Phelps of Detention Action described, earlier in the #Unlocked17 tour: “A mile out into the Channel, inside the peak of the closest Dorset gets to a mountain, five hundred migrants are locked away.”
On the blog this week, Ruth Jacobson of the Verne Visitors Group described how this isolation “exacerbates the already appalling effects of indefinite detention”: leading to a greater sense of separation from friends, family and community and severely limiting access to legal support.
What happens to a visitors group when a centre closes? As Ruth’s blog shows, members of the Verne Visitors Group have seen the injustice of indefinite detention, and its “appalling effects”, first hand. They will not give up:


As one person wrote in a comment at the end of the blog: “Thank you so much Ruth for so eloquently capturing the injustice and inhumanity of detention.”

The closure of the Verne

In October, the Government announced that the Verne would close at the end of 2017. As we argued at the time, this is a welcome first step towards detention reform, but a far more fundamental and radical change is long overdue. As shown in the latest statistics, the number of people in detention has not gone down and there has been no change in the UK’s trend of long-term detention. With or without the Verne, thousands of people will still be detained indefinitely in the UK.
On Sunday morning, a 27-year-old Iraqi man died at Morton Hall – the tenth person to die in detention this year. The closure of the Verne does not change the fact that we urgently need systemic reform.
The need for change is clear in Juan’s powerful poem, posted on the blog this week. Juan was detained in the Verne twice, for three months altogether. He wrote this poem in response to the news of its closure. Near the end, he says:
I am pleased to hear that the Verne is closing.
But for those of us that have already experienced it, it will always be open.
This is the real meaning of indefinite detention.
Detention is a demon that stays with you forever.
 
I am a man and I don’t know how it is to walk alone as a women in the street but I have many female friends and when they explain their fear, it sometimes feels familiar to me.
When you have experienced detention, you walk every day with the experience on your back.
It is a trauma that follows you everywhere.
You are always looking behind you.
 
… All we can do is speak out – about the pain, and the cruelty, and the alternatives.”

Trafficked into detention

This week also saw the launch of new research from Detention Action: “Trafficked into detention: How victims of trafficking are missed in detention.” The report shows that trafficked people in detention are being denied the full protection of the Home Office’s flagship system for protecting victims of modern slavery.
The report identifies the structural factors contributing to the failure of the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) to identify, advise, support and eventually release victims of trafficking in detention. One such factor is the Home Office’s conflict of interest between its responsibility to identify and protect victims of trafficking and its role in detaining and removing undocumented migrants.


On the blog this week, Susannah Wilcox of Detention Action describes their findings, and how they came to light through Detention Action’s casework. As she explains,
“Our work is driven by the stories people tell us about the barriers and frustrations they face while detained indefinitely.
One of the stories that has emerged over the last few years is about the difficulty that people in detention face in gaining advice, support and recognition of their experiences of trafficking.”

How does the detention of a parent affect their children?

The impact of detention extends far beyond any one individual. Writing for #Unlocked17 this week, Nick Watts of the charity Migrant Family Action summarises a range of evidence relating to the impact on children when a family member is detained. Concluding that, “we can quite safely say that the impact of immigration detention on children is huge”, he then explains what can be done in this situation to support children affected. 

#TheseWallsMustFall Manchester

This year, Unlocking Detention is trying to shine a light on the many actions that people are taking to challenge immigration detention. On the blog this week, Luke Butterly of Right to Remain reported back on a recent campaign event of These Walls Must Fall which took place in Manchester.
Human rights campaigners, union members, migrant rights groups, political representatives and other members of the public came together to hear from experts-by-experience and others about the harms of indefinite detention, and to discuss what they can do to locally challenge detention.

Yarl’s Wood inspection report

This week, while #Unlocked17 visited the Verne, the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons released their report on their latest independent, unannounced inspection of Yarl’s Wood. According to the report:

  • At the time of the inspection, 15 people had been held for between six months and a year and one had recently been held in detention for more than three years.
  • Nearly 70% of those detained were released back into the community.
  • One in five of those in detention had been assessed by Home Office to be ‘at the higher levels of risk’. In several cases, detention was maintained despite the acceptance of professional evidence of torture.

The report repeats its recommendation from 2015, calling for a strict time limit on the length of detention.
You can read our response here.

Slave Wages: How Our Clients Shone a Light on Detention Centre Exploitation

Toufique Hossain, Director of Public Law at Duncan Lewis Solicitors, specialises in challenging Government policy and practice in asylum and immigration law, with a particular focus on unlawful detention policies. He tells Unlocking Detention about the strategic litigation case of “slave wage” in detention centres he has been involved with and what it is like to represent people who are caught up in this never-ending nightmare of immigration detention.  
The Home Office’s shameless conduct when it comes to those detained under immigration powers just doesn’t seem to end. Working in an area where you are exposed to such conduct on a regular basis, I always fear that you can become a little too hardened by it all. Working with detainees for so many years, I fear I may get used to the idea of immigration detention; begin to think that it is normal in a civilised society. But it isn’t. It shouldn’t be.
I first started representing immigration detainees in 2002. I remember, as a trainee, the regular long drives to Oakington or Campsfield House. I remember feeling that these places were prisons. I try and remember all the clients I’ve come across through the years: torture survivors, refugees, people who later won unlawful detention claims. I also remember the ones who were eventually removed. Fifteen years later, things just seem worse than ever.
Although I am now in a position to help more detainees than ever before, through strategic group litigation challenges, I find myself utterly despairing every time something new emerges, and feel that these injustices cannot go unchallenged. I don’t believe our litigation normalises detention: the bleak reality is that people are in detention, and while this remains the case, we need to help improve their lives however we can.
That the Home Office have set a maximum wage of £1 per hour for immigration detainees filled me with such despair and so my team began to identify brave clients willing to take on this abhorrent policy.
Detention centre providers employ detainees to do essential work for them: to wash, clean, work as barbers, but they are disqualified from the national minimum wage. ‘You can work,’ detainees are told, ‘but you are not a worker.’ Indeed, according to the conservative peer Baroness Williams when questioned in the House of Lords on the issue, ‘this money is not wages as the ordinary working population would see it.’
This strange predicament is typical for the residents of the UK’s grim removal centres. I emphasise ‘removal’ because that is what the Home Office calls them. A transit area where immigrants temporarily reside as their removal is imminent. The reality is that many detainees are held there for the long haul. In the meantime, detainees are neither prisoners, nor considered members of society. Out of sight, out of mind.
Until, that is, we read that one of them has died in detention, hanged by their own makeshift noose. Or we watch footage on TV of a detainee being choked by G4S staff as we did this September, when whistle-blower Callum Tulley heroically exposed physical and verbal abuse at Brook House IRC by G4S officers in a harrowing BBC Panorama documentary. But as Sarah Teather, the former chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention, put it in their own illuminating report: ‘These reports shine a light briefly on the inmates of immigration detention, but the interest is fleeting, and little seems to change for those who languish there, hidden from public view.’
One way of bringing the abusive system of immigration detention to public attention is through high-profile strategic litigation. In May we sent a letter to the Home Office, on behalf of several clients, setting out why the maximum wage of £1 is irrational, discriminatory and unlawful. We put it to them that there was no reason to limit the amount detention centre providers could pay detainees. We argued that there should be flexibility in how much detainees are paid, that detainees should be able to apply to be paid more, and that there should be a higher basic rate of pay. In the letter we put the Home Office on notice that we intend to bring this matter to the High Court if our demands are not met.
The Home Office replied to our letter in June. Their response contained a number of strange justifications for the policy. Shockingly, it emerged in an internal document from 2008 that a limit of 75p had originally been considered appropriate but, the memo cautioned, ‘there would be a risk of detainees refusing to engage any longer, and even of disgruntlement.’
Staggeringly, the memo’s author only recommends the higher rate of £1 per hour ‘reluctantly’. It seems our clients should be grateful for their £1 per hour salary.
Another strange justification offered for the lack of flexibility was that ‘distinguishing between detainees in terms of the rate of pay may cause resentment, particularly if work at higher rates is not available.’ There you have it, our Secretary of State for the Home Office Amber Rudd, who earns over £100,000 a year, simply cannot bare wage inequality or unequal opportunities.
The Home Office also replied that work is provided ‘as a means to meet the “recreational and intellectual needs” of detainees and to provide ‘relief from boredom’, and that detainees do not need money for their day to day existence in detention. ‘Work – like other activities – is not compulsory.’
The picture painted by the Home Office is of detainees contentedly working lathes, throwing ceramic pots and pruning roses. This depiction is as perverse as it is disingenuous and it needs to be dissected.
First, to characterise the work simply as another ‘activity’ is misleading. Our clients and other detainees are doing work essential to the management of the immigration removal centres, much of it banal and tiring. They are working as cleaners, barbers, laundry workers, litter-pickers and food servers.
Second, this work would otherwise need to done by workers paid at least the minimum wage. As the Immigration Law Practitioners Association (ILPA) told Shaw: ‘The private contractor’s model is dependent upon the use of their labour.’ Private contractors such as Serco and G4S make savings by employing detainees at these exploitative rates.
Third, as my colleague Philip Armitage told Nick Ferrari on LBC Radio, clients do need money for their day-to-day existence. They need money to buy credit to speak to their lawyers and their family, and to buy essentials. Men and women deprived of their liberty, in a position of powerlessness, are forced to carry out unedifying jobs for next to nothing by the circumstances which have been imposed on them. If this isn’t slavery I don’t know what is.
As one of our clients, who seeks asylum on the basis of her sexuality and was detained despite evidence of her being a victim of torture, told us:
‘Many detainees are forced to take such work, as purchasing items from the detention centre “shop” is the only way to buy essentials such as body cream during their incarceration. This derogatory rate of £1 is well below any minimum wage, yet detainees are being forced to do work that would otherwise be performed by paid staff, purely for the benefit of the company operating the centre. Detainees have to work in many areas of the detention centre, including the kitchen, the laundry room and as general cleaners. In my opinion this is inhumane and effectively amounts to modern day slavery.’
It should be noted that the only shops in the detention centres are, of course, owned by the private contractors, and so the meagre wages get ploughed back into their profits.
The Home Office response concludes by noting that they were supposed to consider whether the £1 limit was consistent with the Equality Act 2010 in 2015, admitting: ‘It does not appear that such a review has occurred’, confirming that they will now conduct such a review of the rates of pay. We are still waiting to hear from the Home Office about this review, which is supposedly imminent.  We will keep fighting for an end to this state-sanctioned slavery. Like immigration detention as a whole, there is absolutely no place for it in a civilised society, but it is happening just down the road.