Snow: Visiting in Yarl’s Wood

Image by Vee Travers, a volunteer with the Yarl’s Wood Befrienders

This piece is written by Ali Brumfitt about their experience visiting as a volunteer befriender for Yarl’s Wood Befrienders (YWB). Ali now works part time as volunteer coordinator for YWB.

In February I woke up one morning to find it had snowed heavily overnight. The wind had blown the snow drifts about in garden and made pretty patterns. I grabbed my phone to take a snap and message it to a friend who had told me earlier that week she had never seen snow. As soon as I had the phone in my hand I remembered ‘of course I can’t send her a message, her phone can’t receive pictures.’

My friend was in Immigration Detention at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. People in detention are not allowed smart phones. She had an old phone which makes it hard to even send and receive text messages. I decided I would call her later to ask if she had seen the snow out of her window.  I hoped there would be a hint of a smile in her voice. I would have called straight away but she would not be up. She had not been sleeping well. Nobody sleeps well at Yarl’s Wood. In the day, there are distractions, people to talk to. At night people are locked on their wing, so can’t visit friends in other areas of the Centre.

Everyone who has ever had a problem knows the night is when they stalk. I remember the darkest times of my life, when I have laid awake at night with worries. I can’t imagine having worries the size my friend has to carry. I don’t think I would be strong enough. I can’t get my head around how I would cope if I were locked up, with no idea when I might be released. How would I feel if the weight of the legal system was pushing on me to try and force me out of the country? How would it feel to tell a story of tragedy and abuse over and over and over, only to be disbelieved over and over and over?

The next day I was worried the snow would prevent me from visiting. Thankfully the roads were passable. I am glad my friend is well enough for a visit, recently she has had to cancel because she has not been well enough. I had been visiting for several months. Every week a little bit more hope seemed to be squeezed out of her. I was scratching around for places to find hope. We talked about an impending bail hearing. I would make some calls to check people are coming. I would talk to the lawyer and make sure everything was in place. It seemed so little.

We talked more about the snow. My friend told me that the winter here is like summer where she is from, except a different colour. In the UK in winter there are no leaves on the trees, not much growing and the weather is too harsh to go out. Where she is from it is like that in the summer, but it is dust that covers everything and not snow. It was one of only the few times we talked about where she is from.  She often said reading the news about where she had fled from made her afraid. She fled here to save her life. To save her life and build a new life. And the Home Office locked her up.

So we talk about snow. I mean, I am British. When conversation is difficult, you can rely on the British to talk about the weather. She told me some people went into the yard to try and make a snowman, but the yard is small and there wasn’t enough snow. She is glad of the coat that the Befrienders provided for her. People often arrive at detention without enough clothes. People have told us of managing with broken bra straps and having to rinse out the same pair of knickers and wear them every day.  Befrienders are able to provide people with basic items: socks, knickers, tracksuits, trainers. It can help people feel a bit more comfortable and a bit more human.

The next day my friend calls. She is checking in on me. I had mentioned my pipes were frozen and she wants to make sure I am okay in the snow. I am always astounded how often she asks after other people’s wellbeing, despite the weight of her own situation. I am so often inspired by the way that women I meet in detention keep hold of their compassion and care for others, despite so little having been shown to them.  

My friend was released from detention earlier this year. The journey does not end after detention. Detention changes people. It adds more trauma onto any trauma a person is already carrying. And then there is the stress of any ongoing legal process.

The Home Office have now granted my friend leave to remain.

If it snows this year perhaps we will go for a walk in the snow with my dog, Colin, together? My friend knows Colin and often asks after him. Things are very different now. Although, I suspect I will still receive a phone call to ask how I am managing in the cold and whether my pipes are frozen.


“For me, Yarl’s Wood was another torture”

Image by @Carcazan. Content warning: rape, self-harm, suicide

This piece comes from Gabby (not her real name), an activist campaigning against immigration detention in the UK. She was detained in Yarl’s Wood twice in 2017 before being released to continue her asylum claim within the community. She is now an active member of Women for Refugee Women’s network, regularly performing her own poetry and speaking out to call for change.

A version of this piece was originally published by The Independent.

Being locked up in Yarl’s Wood twice has turned my world upside down. I came here to escape abuse, but for me Yarl’s Wood was just another torture.

The first time I was locked up in Yarl’s Wood I was in there for three months. My room was like a prison cell. When I walked in, my new roommate was taking a shower in the corner. The mattress on the bed is plastic, thin and hard. The floor too, is like plastic over concrete. Under our beds there is a drain that we tried to cover with sanitary towels because it stinks like a sewer. I think this is for washing the floor when women cut themselves or are sick. It’s like living in a bathroom, a bathroom that you share with a stranger.

One of the hardest parts was not knowing when I’d be released or what would happen to me if I got sent back home. I was treated like a target for deportation, not a person. If I had been sent back I would be dead by now, or being exploited by men who raped me before. I do think that there should be a time limit on how long the Home Office can keep people locked up because the not-knowing is destroying people’s minds. I saw women in there starving themselves, cutting themselves, jumping off staircases – it was so traumatising to see those things.

I am out now but I have not recovered. My hair started falling out in there because of the stress. It doesn’t grow back, so my hair is gone. I still don’t sleep properly and I’m lucky if I get an hour each night. I suffer from high anxiety. Every time I get a letter from the Home Office the world closes in on me and I can’t breathe. This anxiety is taking over my whole life. I had to move out of my family’s home because they were worried I would try to kill myself and my sister didn’t want to find me dead.

All of that is because of detention and reliving my past. I keep having to tell the Home Office what happened to me when I was 10 years old. It’s not right. I’m not the same person, I’m in a very dark place. If I lie down it hits me so I have to keep busy – drawing, cleaning, writing – anything I can do to keep my mind from going back to Yarl’s Wood.

Earlier this year, Stephen Shaw published his follow-up review into the welfare of vulnerable people in detention. He found that the government’s new ‘Adults at Risk’ policy has not worked to reduce the number of vulnerable people in detention. This doesn’t surprise me. I met with Stephen Shaw in December last year with a group of women who’d also been in Yarl’s Wood for a long time. Every single one of us should not have been detained under that policy.

The Home Office just doesn’t make any effort to find out what has happened to people before they lock them up. There needs to be people in the system working to identify vulnerable people. They should be trained to make people feel comfortable and ask them questions about their lives, to actively find out what happened.

Both times I was detained I was only asked very general questions about my health. It took a lot of support from Women for Refugee Women, for me to be able to speak out about what had happened to me back home and why I couldn’t go back there. I didn’t know that what I had been through was trafficking.

With the Home Office it’s like the left hand is not talking to the right hand. There’s such poor coordination and communication. When they accepted that I was a survivor of trafficking and forced prostitution they said they were going to release me the next day. But then, that evening, they gave me a plane ticket. I just crumbled with terror and that nearly finished me.

Stephen Shaw also recommended that reducing the number of women locked up in detention centres needs to be a priority. I couldn’t agree more. Detention is killing us, it’s wrong. I was abused, but instead of getting help and support I was locked up. I deserve to be free and safe.

It’s time the Home Office stopped detaining vulnerable women so that other women don’t have to live through the trauma that I am living with. Yarl’s Wood will haunt me forever.

You can follow Women for Refugee Women on twitter: @4refugeewomen #SetHerFree

Week 3: Short-term holding facilities and prisons

Most weeks, Unlocking Detention visits a specific detention centre. Last week was a little different. From the 4th-11th November, Unlocking Detention focused on the hundreds of people held under immigration powers in short-term holding facilities and prisons across the UK. Those detained in prisons are even less visible than those held elsewhere in the UK’s detention estate, and face additional challenges.

Here’s a summary of the week.

Immigration detention in prisons

At the end of June 2018, 321 people were being detained in prisons, representing 14.4% of the total population detained under immigration powers. This interactive map, created by AVID and FWDS London, shows how many people are detained indefinitely under immigration powers in prisons and where.

We’ve been tweeting about immigration detention in prisons all week, and also featured this blog from Benny Hunter at AVID on why the hundreds of people detained in prisons must not be forgotten when we talk about detention reform.

Short-term holding facilities

This week we also focused on the UK’s 40 short-term holding facilities. Here, people can be detained for up to 24 hours or seven days, as explained in the graphic below.

These Walls Must Fall organiser Lauren Cape-Davenhill wrote about the re-opening of the Manchester Residential Short Term Holding Facility and the local opposition to immigration detention. In her words:

The Manchester Airport detention facility that opened this June comes at a time when many people in Manchester and the North West are saying, loudly and clearly, that we’ve had enough of people being taken from our communities and locked up in prison-like conditions, just because of their immigration status. Councillors, union activists, refugee and migrant groups and community organisations have been uniting to say ‘no’ to detention.

She also highlighted the actions you can take to challenge detention. Read Lauren’s blog here.

K.A. interviews Sarah Teather

We had a new feature this week: an interview with former MP Sarah Teather, conducted by expert-by-experience K.A. K.A. interviewed Sarah over email about her experience of running the parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention.

At the end of the interview, K.A. said:

What I would say to people out there reading this is never give up. You only lose when you give up. More importantly, tell your story. These little voices coming together that will send out the greater voice to make a difference. Your voice can make a difference.

You can read the whole interview here.

Immigration detention: mental torture

Also this week, we heard from A. Panquang, a Detention Forum volunteer and member of Freed Voices who was detained for 9 months. A. said:

It doesn’t matter how you jeopardised your immigration status, if and when you are detained, you will be detained indefinitely. It will affect you and your family mentally, it will drain funds and resources, you will lose control and sight of your own immigration process, you’ll have no idea when your fate will be decided, even if you have the desire and power to legitimise your stay in the UK. All control will be taken away from you, you have limited legal resources at your disposal. It is the Home Office’s way of exerting mental control over you.

A.’s blog is a must-read. Find it here.

Detention happens closer than you might think

The next blog of the week came from Katherine Maxwell-Rose of IMiX.

Katherine reflects on listening to the ‘horrifying details’ of detention in China’s Xinjiang region – and then realising that the UK ‘has dark secrets of its own – and many people know little or nothing about them’. As she writes,

  • Each year in the UK thousands of people subject to immigration control are detained indefinitely with no trial or time limit given.
  • Last year over 27,000 people were held in detention, many of who were ‘adults at risk’
  • According to a recent survey, 30 per cent of those in detention have child dependents living in the UK.

Read her blog here.

“Immigrants emigrate, hopeful anticipate”

The final piece of the week came from Ralph, who was detained for a total of 14 months in two prisons and a detention centre. After this experience, Ralph writes,

Considering the level of suffering and my thirst for freedom, I opted to leave in January of 2015 voluntarily and I’ve been trying to get back to my four children ever since. It’s been nearly three years without my kids. Bear in mind I lived in the UK well over 12 years before all of this.

Read Ralph’s powerful contribution here.

Actions to end detention

As always, a huge, huge thank you to everyone who has taken part in the tour this week and who takes action to end detention, year-round. Here are just a few of the ways people are challenging detention that we saw on Twitter this week:

Take action

There’s no shortage of ways for you to take action to challenge immigration detention. Some of these were featured in Lauren’s blog, and in the tweets below. Also this week, we featured a blog about the Sanctuary in Parliament event. Although the event has now taken place, the blog still contains lots of helpful info about engaging with your MP.

Finally, we love your selfies. Please keep them coming!

Resisting state violence: The Yarl’s Wood hunger strike

Image by @Carcazan

This blog comes from Fidelis Chebe, Project Director at Migrant Action. Migrant Action is a small organisation based in Leeds providing information, guidance, advocacy support and direct practical assistance to migrants who do not fit into ‘neat’ categories of migration, including those who have been detained or are at risk of detention.

In February 2018, 120 people detained at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre (IRC) in Bedfordshire embarked on a hunger strike that lasted over a month. There was a staggering lack of interest by mainstream media in covering the strike and exposing the inhumane treatment of people detained at Yarl’s Wood. As one woman in Yarl’s Wood puts it rather poignantly,

My life is just in limbo, it’s the uncertainty as well. You don’t how long you’ll be locked up, you don’t when you’re getting out, you don’t know where you’re going, I can’t describe that feeling. I feel like I have been kidnapped basically, I don’t know where I am going, I don’t know what’s going on.

Detention: An instrument of state and corporate violence             

The Yarl’s Wood hunger strike is a desperate cry for help within a detention estate where people are treated not as humans but as ‘merchandise’ by the private security companies who run the majority of the UK’s detention centres. (In the case of Yarl’s Wood, this is Serco.) Human and civil rights hardly find accommodation within a detention estate underpinned by profit-driven corporate governance. Such profit-led detention provision embeds structural violence and dehumanisation which finds expression in hunger strikes and other forms of resistance. In the words of a Migrant Action client who had previously been detained, ‘detention is very good business, these guys [private security companies] don’t care about human lives’.

Immigration detention centres are state institutions and, increasingly, detention has become a weapon for policing and managing migration by the state. The weaponisation of detention is integral to the government’s policies designed to create a ‘hostile environment’ mainly, but not exclusively, for ‘irregular’ migrants. These policy instruments are designed to act as a deterrent to more migration to the UK. In 2014, former immigration minister James Brokenshire summed up the rationale of the policy, saying ‘I want to send out a very clear message today to people on both sides of the Channel – Britain is no soft touch when it comes to illegal immigration’.

Detention reinforces the government’s mind-set and policy with regard to migration and its determination to communicate its key message to current and prospective migrants. This collusion between state and corporate hostility creates an environment in which rights, dignity, justice are undermined and the voices of people in detention are silenced whilst structural violence is routinely embedded. Viewed in this context, the Yarl’s Wood hunger strike is symptomatic of deliberate collusion to create a hostile environment, and epitomises migrant resistance to such violence. The women’s strike captures a deep yearning for a culture change in Yarl’s Wood and across the detention estate that recognises and prioritises dignity, rights, humanity, equality and justice for people in detention. The strike is a desperate appeal for a more human rights-led migration policy.

Social action and system Change

The Yarl’s Wood hunger strike is a ‘protest’ against State and corporate violence. The strike represents the ‘voice’ of people in immigration detention and their advocacy for system change. Although locked up in detention centres, they have not lost their agency to challenge injustice and bring about change. However, the sustainability of their ‘voice’ is inextricably linked to the mobilisation of public conscience and social consciousness towards building a movement against the government’s ‘hostile environment’ led-migration policies. The urgency and relevance of social action and movement building is compelling for the protection of rights, justice and dignity of vulnerable migrants.  It is in this context that more collaboration and coordination across human and civil rights, social justice, advocacy and grassroots organisations is vital in order to stem the tide of state hostility whilst nurturing solidarity and increasing integration.

Migrant Action’s work and vision is rooted in social justice, advocacy, migrant rights, solidarity, integration and system change. As such we will continue to advocate for a non-hostile environment whereby migrant rights, justice and dignity are safeguarded and solidarity, human rights and justice and shared humanity constitute core values of social policy and social discourse.

Migrant Action recently gave evidence at the People’s Permanent Tribunal hearing on the ‘hostile environment‘, held in London in October 2018. You can read their evidence here.


Theresa: Letter from a hunger-striker

Content warning: suicide. Image by @Carcazan

This letter was sent to the Duncan Lewis Public Law team by Theresa (not her real name), a young mother, from Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. It was originally published by No WallsTheresa was one of the leaders of the high-profile hunger-strikes earlier this year. She wrote this letter the same evening that she had been refused bail. You can see the hand-written letter itself below. 

Theresa has since been released.

What can I say right now, I feel terrible, frustrated, angry, bitter, I just want to scream so loud maybe I’ll feel better.  

I am hanging onto a thread of hope, if it was not for God today, I could choose to die, end my life and know that life is indeed meaningless.  

I wish I can explain the exact pain pounding inside my heart. Why do people have to suffer like this? When can I be wholly happy and successful in life.  

The words of my father that I’ll never amount to anything still re-echo inside my mind, being in this detention centre reminds me of that every day.  

Where is the smile I had before I grew up to suffer and struggle through life, where is that little sweet Theresa that was full of innocence and went through pain but the innocence of the child in her covered it all.  

Life becomes so hard and hits you so hard that you wish you can return to your mother in the womb where you didn’t have a single knowledge of what the world holds out for human beings.  

I never thought that for once in my life, I would be placed in a position where someone doesn’t care about another human being – Home Office in this case. I call it inhuman for a human being to decide on someone’s life at the expense of someone’s safety and protection.  

Pain of Home Office not vetting the beauty that lies in people is too much. 

There is no “what if” in the minds of the Home Office. We are judged based on the past but not on our future because the Home Office does not really consider what immigrants can become in the future but they are rather judged on what they were or went through before.  

How come we don’t mistreat “tourists” when they come to our countries, we do not even ask for their history, they are not illegal, we call them “investors” and our hands are always wide open.  

Where is the compassion and hearts of humanity in this country with the Home Office, where is the respect for life? Animals in Britain are far better than immigrants, even a cat that fears water.  

Life of immigrants to the Home Office is like a pack of playing cards or playing casino, it’s just a game, it’s become a bet for them.  

Claiming one’s life is in danger and evidence given does not move them at all, refusing the claim makes me feel like Home Office is on a game roll over my life. Asking me to return to my persecuting country of origin is like telling me bluntly “I don’t care whatever happens to you, just go back to the den of hungry lions.” 

Playing politics and statistics on my life is very unfair, ticking off boxes that “good riddance, one immigrant has gone back”, hitting targets of numbers and forgetting people’s lives are at risk and more vital than even a tablet of paracetamol is more human, is a Godly thing to do.  

Our lives matter a lot more than the target of a caseworker has saying NO to a persecuted frightened immigrant or asylum-seeker.  

Our lives matter more than the Brexit or political targets of reducing the number of asylum-seekers or immigrants that are in the country.  

If I am returned to Uganda, my life which is already in danger will not be the same again, it’s more than just a Home Office caseworker doing a job, take home a pay check but failing to humanly think about what lies ahead of the asylum-seeker they have denied protection and sent back where they fled.  

My heart bleeds right now and only God can save it. I am a mother and being away from my daughter kills me slowly, makes me run crazy and makes me feel like I am a very big disappointment to my daughter.  

I cannot sleep at all and the thoughts of anger, anxiety, bitterness are quite overwhelming me right now.  

If God doesn’t save me, I am a dead woman.   


“Immigrants emigrate, hopeful anticipate”

Write | Detention Forum

Image by @Carcazan

This contribution to #Unlocked18 comes from Ralph, who got in touch via Twitter. Ralph was detained for a total of 14 months in two prisons and a detention centre. Ralph tweets as @RO2tm

I was detained on two separate occasions. First was after serving a 10 month custodial sentence. The home office detained me for another 8 months. This was between 2012- 2013, then I was released in December of 2013 and detained again in August of 2014. I was first detained in HMP Hewell, then HMP Wormwood Scrubs, then Harmondsworth IRC.

Considering the level of suffering and my thirst for freedom, I opted to leave in January of 2015 voluntarily and I’ve been trying to get back to my four children ever since. It’s been nearly three years without my kids. Bear in mind I lived in the UK well over 12 years before all of this.

Commercial and social shackles are generally unjust, oppressive, and impolitic. As an immigrant, I chose to live in the UK because it is one of the free and most vibrant nations in the world. And as an immigrant, I feel an obligation to speak up for immigration policies that will keep the UK the most economically robust, creative and freedom-loving nation in the world. Immigration is a necessary component of economic growth.

Believe me, I understand the majority’s anguish about immigration, but what I can’t and will not understand is the racism. I will support concrete and progressive immigration reform based on three primary criteria: family reunification, economic contributions, and humanitarian concerns.

Immigrants emigrate

Hopeful anticipate

Teachers educate

I am what I am without

A shadow of doubt one of a kind

Walk through tryna find my place

Tryna escape all the hardships

I’m confronted with

Revolving around me was a law that facilitates hate premeditated

Judgement never got a fair

Judgement spent a lot of time down in the seg

Thankfully I had my pen’s intervention

Don’t seek revenge

But I seek redemption for the separation

I’ve got see my kids got to show them love got to give them kisses

Detention happens closer than you might think

Image by @Carcazan

This blog comes from Katherine Maxwell-Rose, Digital Communications Manager at IMiX– a communications and media hub for the refugee and migration sector. She tweets at @KatherineMaxi

The BBC’s recent report into China’s vast detention centres was terrifying. Releasing new evidence into the nature of these centres, the report uncovered that China is locking up hundreds of thousands of Muslims without trial in the western region of Xinjiang. Named by the Chinese government as ‘vocational schools’ established to combat terrorism and religious extremism, these centres look anything but educational.

Few stories emerge from the centres where security is tight with razor-wire fences, watch towers and guards on the gates but those that do are disturbing. Families separated without any contact for years; children taken away from their parents with no explanation given of their whereabouts and testimonies of bullying and brainwashing. Perhaps worst of all though is that no date is given for their release.

It’s the stuff of an Orwellian nightmare. A covert, underground world hidden from sight.

As I listened to the horrifying details of ‘Xinjiang’s dark secret’, it struck me that the UK has dark secrets of its own – and many people know little or nothing about them. Each year in the UK thousands of people subject to immigration control are detained indefinitely with no trial or time limit given. Last year over 27,000 people were held in detention, many of who were ‘adults at risk’ – meaning people with serious physical and mental health conditions as well as survivors of torture, trafficking and gender-based violence. Children are also held in detention and, according to a recent survey, 30 per cent of those in detention have child dependents living in the UK.

The Guardian ‘snapshot’ investigation drew attention to life inside detention centres, highlighting the psychological impact and repercussions after release. Alieu, a refugee from Gambia who was tortured in his home country says the effects of being held in detention do not go away easily. Seven years on the trauma is still very real:

‘I was locked up in a very small space and was too scared to sleep. I’m still scared of people in uniform. The trauma from being locked up in detention after I’d already experienced torture will stay with me for the rest of my life.’

Savita Vas, who was held in detention in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) after being refused a spousal visa despite living, studying and working in the UK for a decade, described the centre as ‘horrifying’. Romana, a Jamaican woman held for 149 days in Yarl’s Wood IRC while pregnant, still experiences flashbacks.

Despite these stories, why do so many people know and do so little to respond to our own detention scandal?

Much of the UK’s detention estate is hidden away in the leafy countryside, closed off from the rest of the world. Out of sight for many, detention centres are also out of mind. The majority of people living in the UK, unlike the people held inside, do not have to face the reality of them every day. It’s not just a physical but also a metaphorical distance.

To face up to the UK reality is much harder particularly when as a nation we so often pride ourselves on our human rights record, and brings the challenge of a greater responsibility. Yet the proximity to the issue can make it seem overwhelming and unbearable leaving even those of us sympathetic to the issue feeling confused and helpless. Acknowledging the detention system even exists on our own soil may be where some of us need to begin before any action can be taken.

‘Knowledge is power’; the famous line attributed to Francis Bacon is important in this debate which is why #Unlocked18 with its extensive insight and first-hand testimonials, is such a great tool for those of us, like me, still being enlightened on the topic. Edging closer to the issue rather than shying away will actually make us feel more empowered. It falls on us, after all, to speak up, speak out and raise our voices against this injustice and shame on our nation.

Image by @Mishka_anonym

Immigration detention: Mental torture

Content warning: suicide and self-harm

This blog comes from A. Panquang, a Detention Forum volunteer and member of the Freed Voices. A was detained for 9 months.

I called and met up with my pub buddy. The guy is British, one of the coolest guys anyone could hang out with, as long as it is in a pub. I asked him what he knew about Immigration Detention.

“Oh yeah! I heard about something like that on the news. Is it not the thing about these guys jumping on lorries in Calais and coming and taking our jobs, benefits and our women?”

“Really? Is that all you think?” I asked him.

“No worries,” he said, “They catch them, lock them and then throw them back out later. I tell you mate, don’t worry we are SAFE here. No one will take our jobs.”

He then carries on, without realising how shocked I was about what he was saying. “But I have to say, I still don’t know why they don’t throw out the Polish and the Lithuanians. They are the worst…”

“Really? Dude!” I interrupted. “I am a foreigner too and I was in immigration detention for 9 months.” “No Way!” he said.
“Yes way!” I said.

If you have ever been unfortunate enough to fall on the wrong side of the law, irrespective of what law – civil law, law of torts, criminal law, business law, just to name a few – the judicial system will quantify your punishment and most importantly you will know for how long your punishment will be. The same doesn’t apply to immigration irregularities.

Indefinite immigration detention is costly, inhumane and ineffective

If you find yourself on the opposite side of the Home Office, here is my advice for you: just forget about time; because in the UK, there is no time limit on immigration detention. It doesn’t matter how you jeopardised your immigration status, if and when you are detained, you will be detained indefinitely. It will affect you and your family mentally, it will drain funds and resources, you will lose control and sight of your own immigration process, you’ll have no idea when your fate will be decided, even if you have the desire and power to legitimise your stay in the UK. All control will be taken away from you, you have limited legal resources at your disposal. It is the Home Office’s way of exerting mental control over you. This is mental torture: the Hostile Environment and the difficult environment (from 39 minutes onwards) and the immigration system with teeth promised by Amber Rudd.

As if that is not enough mental strain, people are never sure whether they will be deported or released back into the UK community, because it doesn’t matter to the Home Office, even if you have asked to leave voluntarily. You know why? Because the Home Office won’t allow you to buy your own return flight ticket, while you are in detention. They wouldn’t even allow you to fly to a country where you have no visa restrictions. And even if they manage to deport you, you cannot be sure you would be deported to your own country or anywhere close to your local city, town or village in your own country.

Fun Facts:

  • When in detention you have limited communication with your friends, families, and communities. You are not even sure you will be deported or released back to the UK community.
  • More than 50% of people detained are release back to the UK community. The latest statistic shows that 64% of those detained in Yarl’s Wood IRC were released back into the UK.
  • Home Office Caseworkers were given targets of people to remove.

Funny how can they have targets of people to remove, when they don’t know how many people are in the UK without formal immigration status. It is so obvious that detention doesn’t work, but the Home Office still pays £160-£320 million to private companies to detain immigrants. Someone needs to remind the Home Office of Einstein’s definition of insanity. It costs the tax-payer £33,000-£103,000 to detain an immigrant for a whole year and the government detains around 30000 people a year. These resources could put to better use elsewhere in the UK (see this). Thinking of this alone makes my head hurt, then imagine how such thoughts would affect someone in detention mentally. More money should go to cure the mental health issues caused by the misuse of these resources.

Immigration detention and mental health

Home Office Enforcement Officers arrest people diverse places: while working, at home in front of their kids, friends, and family. This traumaremains on kids’ and parents’ minds. Some are arrested at the Hospital or GP surgery while seeking treatment or accessing other services like the NHS. This humiliation adds more mental stress on them and their family, friends, and communities.

When you are detained, the many inhumane forms of torture include the humiliation of being cuffed and dragged in a van, the lack of communication facilities to keep friends and family informed, and the long hours of transits. These have an irreparable impacton people’s mental state and it only gets worse when you discover that the UK is the only EU Country to detain people indefinitely.

Numerous researchers, GPs, psychologists, psychiatrists, and other health professionals have attested that being detained indefinitely has a massive impact on one’s cognitive abilities. Even those with well-developed mental resilience are at risk of succumbing to some form of mental instability after being locked up indefinitely. The UK is the only EU country with indefinite detention.

Mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions that can cause life to spiral out of control. That is because mental illness affects thoughts, feelings, behaviours, and general interactions with the world and oneself. Assess anyone that has been detained – especially those detained for more than 28 days – using
the symptoms of mental illness, and you would see the majority of them show many of these symptoms.

How does detention affect your mental health?

While working for £1.00 per hour serving food to other detained immigrants, I was lucky enough to gather worrying statistics that would be a cause of alarm in many other institutions. For example; an average of 17 people are absent for meals in each block. This means that more than 10% of people miss meals each day. Why is this? Depression, stress, suicidal thoughts and symptoms of poor mental health come to mind. Mental illness increases the longer one is detained, particularly when receiving a rejection letter from the Home Office. There are also increasing cases of self-harming and suicide.

The worst part about everyday life in detention is the awareness that one is never in control. Like many others, I suffer from teeth sensitivity, waking up every morning meant starting my day by brushing my teeth in pain. I bet you wouldn’t think of that. This is a rigorous torture, which could be avoided, if basic needs are met, if humane conditions were maintained in IRCs. I was taking my shower with parts of my body exposed to the guards (males and females) and other people in detention. The same breakfast; don’t let me start on the food. Almost everyone nowadays has a smartphone to keep up-to-date and to remain in contact with friends, family and community. I guess the fear of missing out (FOMO) is often used flippantly, but in detention it’s real; the fear of missing out on your children’s birthdays, for example.

Lack of control plays a massive part in people’s mental state. No control over how your immigration process will go; limited access to legal advice. Duty solicitors try their best to ‘help‘. There are 2 firms which come twice a week and see a maximum of 10 people. There are about 300 people detained in Colnbrook, 80 would be lucky to see a solicitor in a month. So one needs private representation. If you were living in the community with family, you could take care of the kids, food and other basics, so that money for luxuries like a childminder, takeaway and cleaners could be diverted to legal representation. In detention these family and friends will not be there, meaning there is no money for legal representation. This creates more mental pressure and limited access to legal advice and evidence

There is limited communication with the outside world; not only the lack of social media. You only get a mobile phone that can be used for voice calls and sending short messages. Family and friends have to help you top up your phone, No credit means no communication, except if you are lucky enough to use another person’s phone to request call back from solicitors and other people vital to fighting your case. There are just 15 computers for more than 300 people detained in Colnbrook, It feels like one has been sent back to the age of no technology and this is another way the Home Office mounts pressure on one’s sanity.

Some of the guards who have been doing this for a while understand they are just there to facilitate people’s time in detention. They go about their jobs as expected. But most of those who come from the prison system think they are still running a prison. They are power hungry and treat people in detention as invalids. The work as Home Office tools to increase the mental torture of people who are detained. They don’t respond to an emergency medical request for more than 2 hours. They threaten people with writing bad reviews on their record. These reviews are used by the Home Office to create people’s bail summaries and monthly reports. These officers make people feel dehumanized. They add more impact, standing there in your face making it not only a mental torture but also a living hell.

The lack of clarity keeps people stressed and frustrated. The lack of time limit, the lack of knowledge about who can or might be detained, the lack of control over people’s own immigration process, lack of communication with friends, family and community, the lack of legal advice, access to legal evidence, lack of proper healthcare and the lack of basic humane treatment are instruments used by the Home Office to maximize the mental torture of people in detention.

The Stephen Shaw Report commissioned by the government, as well as many reports from Amnesty international, Red Cross, Detention Action and other organisations have pointed out the mental torture people detained are suffering. You would imagine the Home Office would rather reduce NHS spending on curing problems caused by immigration detention.

Immigration detention centres have no place in Manchester or the UK

This blog comes from Lauren Cape-Davenhill, Organiser with These Walls Must FallAn earlier version of this piece was published in The Meteor.

As an organiser in the northwest of England with These Walls Must Fall, a grassroots campaign to challenge immigration detention, I was glad to see local media coverage of the re-opening of a facility by Manchester Airport called the Manchester Residential Short Term Holding Facility (formerly Pennine House) in June this year.  The facility is operated by troubled outsourcing company Mitie, under a £25 million, ten year contract. It is important that the local community knows that people are being held under immigration powers within our city.

I recently visited the newly re-opened Manchester ‘short term holding facility’ to see someone who had been detained there after reporting with the Home Office. Leaving the hustle and bustle of Manchester Airport train station, full of holiday makers excited about their upcoming trips, you go out past car parks and small airport roads until you’re in the airport freight terminal. This part of the airport is quiet – there are no people or houses around, just low buildings full of cargo. And yet tucked away amongst the freight – discrete and difficult to find – is a building where people are held against their will for immigration purposes. The person I visited, an asylum seeker, was frightened, isolated, and had no idea what was going to happen next. We spoke for around 20 minutes, and then they returned to their wing with an officer – doors locked behind them. I signed out, and was free to leave. Going back through the airport, the contrast between the comings-and-going of people heading off on holiday and the site of administrative incarceration just down the road could not have been more stark.

In the publicity around the holding facility near Manchester Airport those detained under immigration powers at the centre have been described as “failed asylum seekers, visa over-stayers, sham husbands and brides, and people caught clinging to lorries”. But anyone without a British passport, or extensive documentation to prove they are UK citizens, are potentially liable to be detained.

As we have heard so clearly through the Windrush scandal, the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’ has led to the detention of many long-term British residents. There has also been a sixfold increase in the detention of European nationals since 2010 when the Conservatives gained power. These are not just ‘foreign offenders’, but many people from the European Economic Area who are targeted and detained for being homeless, a Home Office policy only ruled unlawful by the High Court last year.  Asylum seekers, too, may find themselves detained at any stage of the asylum process – and for those fleeing persecution, being locked up in prison-like facilities often triggers and exacerbates mental health issues such as PTSD. Staff are poorly equipped and under resourced to deal with these health issues, resulting in obscenely high suicide rates amongst detainees.

At Immigration Removal Centres, people can be held without time limit, and this may be for days, weeks, months or even years. A report by the HM Inspectorate of Prisons on Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre, near Heathrow Airport, found that from the 552 detained during the time of the report, 23 had been held for more than a year and one man had been held for four years.  The UK is the only country in Europe with no time limit on immigration detention. People are often transferred from short-term holding facilities such as the Manchester Airport centre to long-term centres such as Yarl’s Wood, where they may be held indefinitely.

The government-commissioned Shaw Report, ‘Review into the welfare in detention of vulnerable persons’ was published in 2016, and concluded:

“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 following year, 2017, was the deadliest on record in UK immigration detention, with six deaths in detention including at least three suicides. In 2017 we also saw the Panorama documentary revealing appalling abuse by officers at Brook House detention centre. Welfare provision in detention remains a shambles – and locking people up in prison-like conditions without time limit produces vulnerability. As one female asylum seeking Manchester resident with experience of detention said to me, “Everyone in detention is vulnerable.”

The Manchester Airport detention facility that opened this June comes at a time when many people in Manchester and the North West are saying, loudly and clearly, that we’ve had enough of people being taken from our communities and locked up in prison-like conditions, just because of their immigration status. Councillors, union activists, refugee and migrant groups and community organisations have been uniting to say ‘no’ to detention. Last November, Manchester City Council became the first local authority in the UK to pass a These Walls Must Fall motion condemning indefinite detention – and has swiftly been followed by Liverpool, Cambridge and Brighton and Hove councils.

Local groups coordinated protests and rallies in solidarity with the Yarl’s Wood hunger strikers in March. Earlier this month, students and academics at the University of Manchester organised an event attended by over 200 people to kickstart action to challenge detention both on and off university campuses. Politicians including Afzal Khan MP and Julie Ward MEP have stood up and said that indefinite detention must end. Whether it’s short term holding facilities or immigration removal centres, they have no place in our city or our country.

We’re encouraging people to take local action wherever they live in the UK to challenge detention. Because when local communities, trade unions, faith groups, activists and local councils stand together to say ‘no’ to detention, that adds up to some serious people power – and the politicians will have to listen. You know best what action might work in your community – but some ideas from the North West include:

– Ask your local council to pass a motion pledging to challenge immigration detention

 Contact your MP

– Get a motion passed in your trade union branch

– Organise a presentation to raise awareness of detention in your student society or faith group

– Coordinate solidarity and support for people going to report in your local area

If you want some ideas for local action, see:

Together, we can challenge the injustice and inhumanity of immigration detention. These Walls Must Fall!

Week 2: #Unlocked18 visits Brook House and Tinsley House

This is the first week that #Unlocked18 has focused on specific detention centres. From the 29th October to the 4th November, we ‘visited’ Brook House and Tinsley House, two detention centres next to the runway at Gatwick airport. Over 600 people can be detained across these two sites, both of which are privately run by G4S.

Here’s a recap of the week.

Rafiq’s story: “We can make this world like heaven, or we can make it like hell”

The week began with a blog by Rafiq about his experiences of being detained in Brook House. Rafiq successfully challenged the Home Office in court over the conditions in Brook House – the judge said that the Home Office had failed to look at the rights of Muslim in detention properly, and had discriminated against them.

Rafiq says:

My advice to anyone fighting the Home Office darkness is this: stay strong. You need to be very strong. You should try to understand the rules and the regulations, fight for justice, go to the court. If we fight, one day it will be right and fair for everyone.

The blog was accompanied by an illustration by @Carcazan.


The second blog of the week came from Anna Pincus of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, focusing on the #28for28 campaign. The #28for28 campaign featured 28 videos of the stories of those who have experienced detention, released over 28 days to highlight the need for a 28 day time limit. Anna’s blog tells the story of the campaign: from idea to crowdfunding to realisation, how it was received, and what comes next. Anna reflects:

We realise we measured time in story. Opening out the 28 days has given us a new sense of the time. It felt a long time. An age. It felt too long to be incarcerated and not a lot to ask.

How to: Help end indefinite detention

Zehrah Hasan, Policy and Campaigns Assistant at Liberty, wrote a blog about their campaign to end indefinite detention. Zehrah’s blog clearly sets out the actions you can take to help end indefinite detention: from signing their petition, to writing to your MP, to organising your own campaign event.

Live Q&A with Marino in Brook House IRC

On the 1st November, we held the first live Twitter Q&A of #Unlocked18. We spoke to Marino (not his real name), who has been detained in Brook House since May. If you missed it, you can find a full recap here.

A huge thank you to Marino, and to everyone who sent us questions.

‘I leave you to judge’: Reflections from a visitor

The final blog of the week came from Richard (not his real name), a volunteer with Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group who has been visiting people detained in Brook House and Tinsley House for 13 years. He reflects on the stories of two of the people he visited during that time, and on the responses of some of the people he talks to about detention, asking:

Would these people change their minds if they were able to meet and listen to the stories of people who are detained? I believe they would. That is why the more the plight of people in detention is publicised, the better the chance they will be treated fairly.

Get involved!

Finally, a huge thank you to everyone who has been participating in the tour this week, and who has sent us selfies! On our website, you can read more about how to get involved and take action.