On International Migrants Day – reasserting the humanity and dignity of people in immigration detention

Image by@Carcazan

After weeks of our virtual ‘tour’ of detention centres which began in October, Unlocking Detention ends today, on International Migrants Day. People who are in immigration detention generally do not feature on International Migrants Day – the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ policy of locking people up is a powerful tool for erasure. And that is precisely the reason why we insist on ending our ‘tour’ on this particular day, in order to reassert their presence, humanity, rights and dignity in the world.   

While 2018 was characterized by the news of breathtakingly cruel damage to human lives caused by the ‘Hostile Environment’ and the scandal of gross mistreatment of the Windrush generation caught by it, when we look at the Unlocking Detention timeline, we see that 2018 is also crowded with small yet critical gains in our collective fight against immigration detention.

This year, The Detention Forum published a briefing paper on why we need a 28 day time limit. Another paper we released dealt with frequently asked questions on alternatives to detention, a theme that is gathering an unprecedented level of attention globally. These briefing papers should be useful resources not just for our colleagues but also for the Home Secretary, who, in July 2018, announced a series of ‘innovative reforms’ to the detention system in response to the second Shaw Review. The reform programme includes a community-based alternatives to detention pilot and an internal review of time limits: their exact details are still unknown, but we hope they will result in positive impact for people affected by immigration detention and lead to a fair and humane system for all.

At the same time, the ongoing inquiries into immigration detention by the Home Affairs Select Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights intensify public scrutiny over the Home Office’s detention policy and practice. At the latter’s evidence session recently, the Immigration Minister was pressed, once again, to seriously consider introducing a time limit. This was prompted by the Ten Minute Rule Bill led by Tulip Siddiq MP calling for a 28 day time limit on detention, which had astonishingly strong and wide cross-party support. It is a sign that local mobilization against immigration detention, led by campaigns such as These Walls Must Fall, Refugee Tales and many others, have opened many politicians’ eyes to the realities of immigration detention. Experts-by-experience, such as Freed Voices, of course, continue to play the most important, central role in this area, leading the way for the rest of us. We were honoured that they made a huge contribution to this year’s Unlocking Detention yet again in so many blogs. Many of their messages reiterated the urgency for change, their determination to continue speaking out and their growing hope that change will come. 

If there is going to be an Unlocking Detention tour next year, happily, there will be one less centre to visit. We welcomed the news that Campsfield detention centre will be closed by May 2019 – many of us still have a vivid memory of galvanizing our efforts opposing its expansion plan a few years ago. Other happy moments came from the celebration of Detention Forum Champions. Paul Blomfield MP, Stuart McDonald MP, Dame Caroline Spelman MP and Baroness Hamwee received the awards, which recognize their tireless work, stretching over years, standing up for the rights and dignity of people in immigration detention.

But the harsh reality is that the brutal regime of mass, routine and indefinite immigration detention continues and whatever the change process we may be witnessing, its pace is far too slow. A 51-year old Algerian man tragically lost his life in Harmondsworth detention centre on 2 December. And thousands of people spend International Migrants Day today locked up in immigration detention, not knowing when they will be released. Worldwide, there are thousands and thousands more who are also behind barbed wires, separated from their loved ones, experiencing immense stress, anxiety and harm – because they do not have the right passport. So our work continues.

Unlocking Detention is always a collective endeavour. We would like to thank everyone who contributed their blogs, people in detention who agreed to take part in our live Q&A sessions and all of you who followed this year’s ‘tour’, and shared and retweeted #Unlocked18 material. The ‘tour’ was only possible because of a team of very dedicated Detention Forum volunteers, who tweeted, who created gifs, who made visual material, who did illustrations for blogs, who wrote weekly summaries and who promoted Unlocking Detention in all sorts of ways. 

One of the volunteers this year was Carcazan. She sent us this to share:

Illustrating the many blogs, articles and aspects of #Unlocked18 has been a soul-searching and beautiful experience – initially one wonders how much difference can a drawing make, and then one sees the artwork of those who have been detained, or people formerly detained who want images to illustrate their stories, and it’s very humbling. It has been a rare privilege to work with such a dedicated, talented team, and to contribute in any way to this vivid campaign, both with the exciting team of volunteers and in terms of my own creative development. Like any rainbow, we each have a different colour which comprises the whole; I’m really excited to already see an ask of Detention Forum #TIme4aTimeLimit actually being proposed as a 10 Minute Bill to end indefinite detention. I’m definitely looking forward to continuing to support Detention Forum!

This year’s Unlocking Detention was coordinated by my colleague, Susannah Willcox, who had this to say:

After working with people held in immigration detention centres and prisons across the UK for years, I thought I was beyond shock. However, coordinating Unlocking Detention this year has opened my eyes – even further – to just how hard it is for the voices of people in detention to reach beyond those bricks and barbed wire. Their physical marginalisation is compounded by all the other ways in which detention stifles people’s agency and voice – lack of phone signal or credit (and, in prisons, lack of mobile phones altogether); lack of interpreters; lack of dedicated and appropriate mental health support; lack of psychological space to see beyond the next decision letter or bail hearing; lack of trust; lack of ears to listen. While Unlocking Detention can’t directly make up for many of these failings, at least it offers us the chance to stop, listen, reflect – and act.

And A. Panquang, one of Freed Voices members with direct experience of immigration detention, told us:

We don’t want what we went through to be a story to tell friends, family and community just for the sake of telling a story. We want our experiences to help people make changes, to better the immigration process and system for people who are experiencing it now and in the future.

If Unlocking Detention has inspired you to act to challenge this system, that will be a fitting end to this ‘tour’ and a beginning of new chapter in our collective fight against immigration detention. 

Eiri Ohtani @EiriOhtani

Project Director, The Detention Forum

“It is only an accident of fate that I was born in the UK.” Interview with Baroness Hamwee about her detention reform work

Image by @Carcazan

K.A., an expert-by-experience, interviewed Baroness Hamwee, a long-term advocate for detention reform in the House of Lords. She was recently named as a Detention Forum Champions, recognising her tireless work on challenging immigration detention.


Hello Sally,

My name is K.A. I spent 5 months in immigration detention between September 2017 and February2018. The effect it has had on me both mentally and physically is unimaginable. This is the very reason I am speaking out against the government’s unbridled use of detention. 

In the long term I would like to see an end the use of arbitrary detention where detainees are held in maximum security as prisoners. Detention should be used in exceptional cases and a reasonably short period of time. There also needs be an independent body outside of government to monitor any policy reforms made by the government department responsible for this.

Since I arrived in the UK, local people in the community have been very helpful. During my recent detention I relied a lot on charities such as Detention Action, Medical Justiceand Samphire. Right now I am looking for the right to live, work and contribute meaningfully to my community. At the moment I feel like I am under ‘house arrest’. But I just see all these as one of the adversities of life that I hope to overcome. 

It is very satisfying to know that there are some politicians who will look beyond political expediency and do what is right.

So my first question to you is, what is your main motivation for speaking against something which is very unpopular to talk about among politicians?


Hi, K

Thank you for your questions.

What is your main motivation for speaking against something which is very unpopular to talk about among politicians?

I think it is the whole subject of immigration that politicians find difficult to discuss, rather than immigration detention, because it is a subject that is often regarded as one where people have fixed ideas that immigration is a bad thing, and where it is very easy to lose votes – so it’s best just avoided. I have hardly given any thought over the years to my own motivation; it simply seems to me that a system which has such an impact on detainees, when they are in detention and following it, must be challenged; it is not what I want my country to be doing, in my name, and I am ashamed of it being applied so widely.  What is the point of being in politics if you don’t try to challenge what you think is wrong.

At a personal level, from time to time when someone tells me about an immigration problem, I catch myself thinking: Yeah, yeah, that’s what happens. I hate it that sometimes I have to remind myself to be shocked

Ironically, what has become known about how the Windrush Generation were treated has had a positive aspect. People who have not known much about the detail of restrictions on immigration, and detention and deportation, have thought about individuals caught up in this as individuals.  Once you see someone as an individual, not as a faceless threat, you feel quite differently. 

I am by no means unusual in this, but my thinking on immigration is affected by the fact that my family has not beenin the UK for all that long, though they were not refugees. My mother’s grandparents came from “somewhere near the Baltic” (I’ve not been able to get closer than that). My father’s parents were both born in Aleppo; my grandfather ended up in Manchester (the cotton trade was the link) and my grandmother came (an arranged marriage) to be married here. It is only an accident of fate that I was born in the UK.

What do you hope to achieve? In other words, what are your end goals and how are you going to achieve this amidst the mounting opposition to immigration detention?

The Parliamentary committee of which I am a member (the Committee on Human Rights) is looking at detention at the moment, and I can see that the evidence we are hearing is affecting everyone.  We haven’t yet formulated our report (and we cannot do more than make recommendations and generally get issues aired in public), but I hope we will make real progress in getting much wider acceptance that detention does damage (I don’t know how anyone can spend more than a day or two in detention without becoming “vulnerable”); that it must be limited, and known to be limited, to a short period at the outside (people seem to gather round 28 days); and that conditions in detention centres must be hugely improved.  I also hope that, in what should be only the few cases in which detention is justified, people can be picked up in a much more humane way than so often seems to be the case.

We have to go on talking about it.  As an opposition politician, that is what I have to do.

What in your view is the biggest obstacle to advocating for reform?

That too many people don’t want to hear.  Either their own problems are overwhelming; or they just don’t want to think about it; or the whole topic of immigration is “too difficult”, as you yourself suggest.  And after all, I suppose we all have our own causes and our different priorities. There is also a tendency in government to conflate immigration and security, and to suggest that if immigrants are not dealt with rigorously, then the UK’s security is put at risk.

Before you became a politician, did you know anything about immigration detention? How did you come across it for the first time?

No, it was not a subject that I was aware of.  In 2009 just after I had become the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on Home Affairs in the Lords (I had previously focused on Local Government), I asked if I could accompany a colleague on a visit to Yarl’s Wood. I was refused (I did visit fairly recently) – I never got a satisfactory reason (I was told it was a political issue, and we were too near a general election – at the time we didn’t know when there might be an election).  It did, however, lead to two diary pieces in The Guardian, both with cartoons (me in peer’s robes – which of course are not daily wear – concealing a knife in a chocolate cake, to make the tongue in cheek point that I am really dangerous). Naturally this sparked my interest.

What do you find most rewarding about your job? 

Leaving aside the very occasional times when we persuade the Government to change its view, or to acknowledge it has done so (they are not the same thing) in this context so often being inspired by the people I meet who are so resilient and optimistic.  It really is humbling to be told how grateful they are to be in the UK, when I am so aware of how much better we could treat them.

For many autumns to come

Image by @Carcazan

This blog was written by Mishka, a member of Freed Voices, a group of experts-by-experience committed to speaking out about the realities of immigration detention in the UK. And Mishka would like to introduce the blog himself…

This would be my final piece for Unlocking Detention 2018. It has been my absolute delight to be a part of this year’s Unlocking Detention as well – this is the third consecutive year I have contributed to Unlocking Detention.

Two days have passed since the bonfire night. Looking out from my room window, in between whilst I am typing this, I still see fireworks lighting up the sky, creating spectacular patterns. I am not certain where I would be next year by this time because my life circumstances are volatile like a drop of water on a red-hot metal plate. Nevertheless, I hope that by fall next year, we would see significant positive changes when it comes to immigration detention reform. If there would be Unlocking Detention 2019, I hope that most of the posts would be merry ones, including good memories, stories, and milestones about our prolonged fight against immigration detention in the UK and its success.

On that note, this time I decided to share something nostalgic.

One of the reasons I decided to share this piece is to convey the message that detention not only affects the individuals being detained; it affects relationships as well. I also want to convey the message that in detention you have humans, who like many others, have/had their own stories, own reasons, own dreams and hopes; who love/loved other humans and also are being loved/were loved by other humans. Detention is in some ways a graveyard of dreams and hopes and the ghosts of dead dreams and hopes can linger within those walls for months and years.

And I have one other reason as well…

At one stage of my time in detention, a point came where I was almost removed from the UK. Even though it did not happen like I had feared, I thought that I would be removed that night. Therefore, I sent one final message to an admirable woman I was in a romantic relationship with. I started composing this message two days before my proposed removal, and I sent this to her on the day I was supposed to be sent back.

The purpose of this message I sent was to inspire this admirable woman who always used to be one of my inspirations.

My final message to XXXXXX

“I am not sure where to even start. But all I know is that time is not on my side today. So, I am going to embed lots of … in between words and sentences. These embedded … in between words and sentences represent millions of feelings and thoughts that I am yearning to pour out, but I am finding it difficult. You know, it is because I am not used to pouring out my heart out into to yours in a rush. That, I prefer to do while taking a long walk – holding hands, during an autumn evening, on a trail with lots of trees with leaves turning multi colours. But I am not going to get that chance again…

You know that we have lost this battle and they will send me tonight. This means we will never meet again. I don’t know what is going to happen after they send me. Besides that, whatever it is going to be, you will not hear from me again. It is because I don’t want to stand on your path like a phantom or a wall made out of memories. I want you to move on, fall in love again, start a new life, and live your life to the fullest.

But… I have to tell you this before it is too late. Otherwise, I am not going to get another chance.

Firstly, there is no way on this earth I can ever thank you enough for everything you have done, for being there for me and with me during fond times and also dark times. Thank you for making the choice to love me. I feel honoured that you made that choice. On this earth, if I ever surrender to anything, it is not even going to be the scythe of the grim reaper; instead, it would be to the love from a woman like you.

I know that I seldom commented on your physical beauty when we were together, but I had a reason for that. So, let me declare this now: I have always been enchanted by your smile, your alluring husky voice, sparkles in your eyes, the gloss on your lips when city lights reflect on them… I can write my own book about it. There have been countless times I have been secretly staring at your beauty with wonder without you even noticing.

But… my love, for me, all these are just the features of the external cage ‘the real you’ residing. My deepest adoration and attachment is not towards that external cage you are residing. Peel down all your layers of flesh, veins, and bones: there lie your beautiful & compassionate mind and soul – these are what I adored the most and these are what always made me weak in the knees.

In some ways, I can say that I am an astronomer who was trying my best to explore the universe inside you, but I have failed in trying to do so. I got lost between those journeys because it is so vast and magnificent and I could not discover everything within three years. You, me… all of us have our own universes inside us with our own moons, stars, galaxies, and nebulas. But, we are not much keen to discover our own universes inside us because we are too focused on exploring the outer universe. We are too keen to open our eyes and watch the exteriors, but we do not close our eyes and look into our own-self enough. My request for you is to discover that exclusive universe inside you, discover its unique moons, stars, and galaxies and comprehend yourself that you are unique and incomparable to anyone else.

Even though I would not be there to hold hands, remember to walk on trails in this autumn with lots of trees with leaves turning multi-colours. While walking, remember to pick the dying bumblebees and keep them somewhere safe like you always do, so that people will not step on them. I found those miniature singular things not only commendable but also very alluring. When we have more and more people who are dedicated to helping others who cannot help themselves, this world becomes a safe and a beautiful place for everyone to live. You are one of those embodiments I have come across in my life.

I know that we both – like many others, had and have dreams and hopes. But sometimes, dreams shatter and hopes fade away without ever becoming a reality… just like some snowflakes melt halfway through the journey from the sky and hit the ground turning into teardrops. But, from time to time, it is a lesson that we feel the salty taste of our own tears instigated by the pain of our shattered dreams and hopes. This is an ideal way to learn that our actions can sometime shatter dreams and hopes of others and the pain they would feel is very similar to the pain we feel when our own dreams shatter and hopes fade away. If any of your actions would make someone else feel the salty taste of their tears, my request is that you make sure those tears are… tears of joy.

Let me declare this as well: quite a lot of the significant life lessons are, in fact, the ones I learned from you. You taught me most of these, sometimes inadvertently. You are one of my most distinguished mentors. You helped me to shatter many of my own insecurities; you were an inspiration to me to mould myself into a better man. But for this one last time, let me remind you all these because I want you to know that you have an innate ability to turn others to better people and your influence made me a carbon copy of you with many of your intrinsic worths.

Lastly, this is something I have learned over the time facing many hardships and overcoming them countless times: remember that your life circumstances sometimes or often can shatter you into millions of pieces. If that ever happens in your life, I want you to rebuild yourself. No matter how many times your life would shatter you into pieces, I want you to keep rebuilding yourself, because during that process of rebuilding… my love… you will find your true self.

I know that you are a strong woman… and you got this.

Good Bye…”   


So, to conclude this piece, I thought I would add a few final thoughts. To me, and for the Freed Voices group, this year has been a quite eventful year. One of the things I find fascinating during my work as Mishka from Freed Voices is that I get the opportunity to meet people with similar wavelengths. This year I met a few people who I would remember for many autumns to come.

Lastly, anyone who has been involved in this fight knows we will not see results overnight. We will need the same qualities to achieve what we are hoping to achieve, as you need to survive the experience of detention itself: determination, perseverance and belief.

The end…

“There was a chance justice would be done”

Image by @Carcazan

In this #Unlocked18 blog, Mishka at Freed Voices (@FreedVoices) interviews Tamsin Alger, Deputy Director at Detention Action about her experience of the Detained Fast Track (DFT) strategic litigation and campaign. The DFT litigation was one of the key highlights of the 2015 Unlocking Detention timeline.


XX December 2018,

Hello Tamsin,

I am Mishka from the expert by experience group, Freed Voices. This is my second Q&A blog for Unlocking Detention. This time, I thought of asking you a few questions about the Detained Fast Track (DFT) litigation instigated by Detention Action. This is something I consider as a vital legal challenge which goes hand in hand with immigration detention and the asylum system as well. I am aware that you were one of the key persons behind this litigation by Detention Action. I think it is important to highlight that I am someone who has gone through this DFT process.

Best wishes, Mishka.


XX December, London

Hello Mishka,

Thank you for your questions. These questions made me think!

1) Instigating litigation to challenge the DFT must have been a big decision. What was the motivation behind that decision? 

Instigating the litigation to challenge the DFT was a massive decision. We were a tiny organisation, and the DFT had the full weight of the government behind it and years of seeming to be untouchable. But hearing the fear, despair and desperation our clients voiced to us every day, we felt we had to take action. We were already campaigning against the colossal injustice of indefinite detention and the extreme periods of detention other people in detention experienced, and the DFT seemed to be at the other end of the spectrum of egregious human rights abuses in detention in the UK. Vulnerable asylum-seekers incarcerated and pushed through a system at breakneck speed, a system that seemed designed to fail them and where justice was nigh on impossible. There are many tools you can use in campaigning for social change, but our analysis showed us that litigation was the only effective option in this particular case.

2) What was the most difficult thing you all found during that 7 steps (please correct me if I am wrong) legal challenge?

It’s hard to pinpoint a specific moment that was the most difficult during a lengthy legal process that dominated our working lives for so long. It was a rollercoaster of ups and downs and a fair amount of frustrating and lengthy waiting too, particularly given the urgency of the issue. Perhaps the most difficult thing was simply to keep going. We were committed to seeing it through, but it was slow and painstaking work, and at times the end goal felt out of reach. What made a huge difference was the tremendous stamina and determination of our legal team and the growing sense that many others were joining in our fight. So many of our own volunteers, other NGOs, lawyers and supporters contributed huge amounts of energy, time and expertise. And the more we won at each stage and chipped away at the edifice of the DFT, the more we all sensed that we could really do this. We could really bring the whole thing tumbling down.

The reaction from people in detention was humbling and inspiring. As they followed the slow progress of the case, many knew that it was unlikely to bring any immediate benefit to them personally despite their own desperate situations. And yet we were struck again and again by their shared sense that the fight was worth having, the sheer fact we were standing up against this injustice was somehow a sustaining force. It gave people in detention courage, and they gave us courage. There was a chance justice would be done. If not for them, then for others in the future who would not face the same injustice.

3) Do you think the government will reintroduce something similar to the unfair DFT system?

Since the DFT was stopped in 2015, the government has repeatedly taken steps to explore if and how they could bring it back in one form or another. The most recent development has been a consultation from the Tribunal Procedure Committee on accelerated procedures for all immigration appeals in detention. At each point, Detention Action and others have responded vigorously with strong arguments that a re-worked DFT cannot overcome the fundamental unfairness of a fast track process in detention. Three years later, there is still no DFT. Someone once referred to the collective effort of the Detention Action litigation as it “taking a village” to achieve what we did. I agree. There is now a body of caselaw and a strength of conviction that I am confident the government would face a monumental battle were they to try to reintroduce the DFT. We are now in a very different landscape from where we were when our tiny organisation first took the government to court five years ago.

4) The DFT system had been running for years until the courts laid it to rest in 2015. What would have been the reason(s) the courts took such a long time to comprehend that this system is ultra vires and unlawful? 

There are many reasons why it took such a long time for the courts to finally reach this conclusion, although there were also many moments of insight along the way. I would probably highlight two reasons. Firstly, the DFT was an incredibly entrenched and political issue. It was not easy for the courts to put a stop to a system that the government had relied on so heavily and so extensively for many years. We focused on depoliticising the issue as much as possible, and I think that helped. Secondly, to fully understand the problem of the DFT, you have to grasp the cumulative nature of its unfairness. At each stage, it felt as if we would win one argument but the government would try to tweak something in the system to satisfy the courts. We (Detention Action, our lawyers and all the others who contributed so much) had to pull together vast amounts of evidence about what was really happening on the ground as the case progressed, to demonstrate that systemic unfairness continued. We had to show again and again that the system was fundamentally flawed throughout and the only option was to end it.


XX November 2018, Stoke.

Hello Tamsin,

Thank you for your insightful answers and for your questions as well. My answers are as below.

1) How has your experience of the DFT shaped your determination to campaign for detention reform?

Going through DFT felt like my natural justice was breached. My liberty was taken away and I did not have proper access to quality legal advice until the very last moment; my access to justice was severely undermined. This system denied the right to a fair consideration of my claim, and I felt like it was a battle against time and I lost that battle. I was surprised that even independent Immigration Tribunals and Judges were a part of this system. The environment in detention centres do not in any way give you an opportunity to lodge a proper claim. You are cut off from the external world and you cannot gather necessary evidence you need. You cannot even obtain an expert report to make your claim stronger. This experience of DFT therefore certainly shaped up my determination to campaign for detention reform.

However, in the meantime, whilst going through DFT, I comprehended that it is not only the asylum claimants facing unfairness while in immigration detention. The same set of difficulties I had to face under DFT, others also were facing. There were people with many other types of immigration situations, such as Article 8 cases, students and people fighting deportation decisions. They all were facing a similar unfairness like I was facing even though their circumstances were different to mine. This is one of the reasons why it is important for me to focus on everyone in detention during my campaign and advocacy work and I would say my experience of DFT had an impact on my determination and decision to become Mishka from Freed Voices.

2) What would you say to a government that tries to reintroduce the DFT?

Firstly, I would like to remind them the sort of damage the DFT has already caused to thousands of people who needed international protection for various reasons. I would try my best to explain that it is easy for the decision makers, relevant ministers, Immigration Judges and Home Office caseworkers to act and comment like superheroes and undermine the risks that asylum claimants could face as long as it is not happening to them. I will remind them about the human impact first. For example, some judges, Home Office caseworkers and their legal representatives often claim that people can maintain family ties via Skype and social media – but I don’t think they will see it that way if they were in the claimants’ position themselves.

Then I will also try my best to remind them and also enlighten them about a number of legal challenges that had already been brought against the DFT and as a result, now it has been concluded that DFT was an inherently unfair system and also ultra vires. There are still people who faced the DFT pursing their claims in the form of fresh asylum claims and some are pursuing judicial reviews. Claimants would not be satisfied with the outcome of their claim, if their claims were not concluded or determined properly and fairly. They would keep on pursuing their claims via other legal routes – they could win but they would do their utmost to pursue their claims as if they would never win, because they felt it was not fair and they were not taken seriously.

Peoples’ lives being stuck in limbo for years trying to get a fair hearing and the government wasting massive amounts of taxpayers’ money defending their broken argument and trying to bring back DFT – there will be no real winner here.

Best wishes, Mishka.

Looking back at #Unlocked15: “the involvement of experts-by-experience has always been one of the most meaningful parts of the project”

Unlocking Detention has been the result of so many different people’s efforts. In this #Unlocked18 blog, Mishka and Red at Freed Voices (@FreedVoices) interview Lisa Matthews, Coordinator at Right to Remain, about her experience of co-running Unlocking Detention in 2015. While reading the blog, have a look at our timeline which shows the history of Unlocking Detention.


XX November 2018, Stoke and Liverpool

Hello Lisa,

We are Mishka and Red from the expert by experience group, Freed Voices. Our group has been involved with and contributing to Unlocking Detention for five years now. We made variety of contributions such as blogs, poems, podcasts and drawings. We believe that Unlocking Detention is a distinguished endeavour that is shining a beacon of light uncovering the hidden world of immigration detention in the UK.

We are aware that you had been involved with Unlocking Detention 2015. We would like to ask you a few questions about your experience. We look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes, Mishka and Red.


XX November 2018, London

Hello Mishka and Red,

I am a coordinator at Right to Remain, which is a coordinating member of the Detention Forum. Before joining Right to Remain in 2011 (we were then called NCADC), I worked in Cairo, providing psycho-social support to refugees. I have also worked in mental health community outreach with London’s Somali and Bangladeshi communities, in asylum and immigration legal casework, in integration case management with refugees, and in asylum advice. In the first year of Unlocking Detention, I helped with the tweeting on behalf of the Detention Forum and then went on to co-run the project in 2015.

Thanks for the questions! I’ve had to delve deep into my memory to answer these…

My answers are as below.

To Mishka’s questions:

1) What is/was the most fascinating and also meaningful element to you about Unlocking Detention 2015?

Perhaps the most memorable aspect of #Unlocked15 was its alignment with parliamentary advocacy. Unlocked was taking place as the 2015 Immigration Bill made its way through parliament.  With very little notice we found out that an amendment had been proposed to the Bill by Lord Ramsbotham, that would introduce a 28-day maximum time limit on immigration detention.

In just a few days, we managed to produce a campaign image and set up a system for people to email their MPs to vote in favour of the amendment.  We we delighted that thousands of people contacted their representatives in such a short space of time, and that Unlocking Detention provided such an accessible and positive platform for that.

Ultimately, the amendment was defeated, but the pressure on the government was such that a compromise amendment was passed which introduced automatic bail hearings after four months for some people in detention (which the Home Office is now saying they will reduce to two months as a pilot).

2) Why do you think that the involvement of experts by experience is/was important and how that changed the overall context of Unlocking Detention 2015?

My answer to this could also be my answer to question 1 – the involvement of experts-by-experience has always been one of the most meaningful parts of the project.

There were some really memorable pieces by experts-by-experience in #Unlocked15.  I still think about the Three Scenes in Campsfield piece. It’s such an affecting piece and is so poignant now we have the fantastic news of Campsfield closing next year.   And a Letter to Colnbrook, still so powerful.

Both of these pieces came from Freed Voices members, who are pioneers in the field of expert-by-experience campaigning.

And 2015 was the first year we did live Q and As with people currently detained in the detention centre that is the focus for that week.  These were conducted by my good friend Ben du Preez (ex of Detention Action), who was my partner in crime on the project, and we did some nice reminiscing about #Unlocked15 to help me answer these questions!  I still think that the Q and As are the most powerful aspect of Unlocking Detention. It’s a real chance to connect people outside of detention with those detained, get the voices of people detained out (and engage a wider variety of experts-by-experience), and hear about simple but important every day things about the reality of detention and you get a really human picture.

To Red’s questions:

1) To raise awareness in the general public about Immigration Detention is one of the goals of Unlocking Detention, which ways are being used to achieve this and how effective have they been?

I think one really effective way is the Q and As that I mentioned above – those these are not easy to do, because communication with people in detention is so (deliberately) difficult.

I also loved the way the public engaged with the visual part of the tour in 2015 – which was asking people to send pictures in of what they would miss if they were detained. It was a great creative exercise and also good for creating bonds of empathy, as people had to stop and think about what it would be like, being detained.  You also got a nice insight into people’s personalities and lives!

I also liked running Unlocked workshops in different communities and at different events, as a way of taking the project beyond just the online world.

2) What have been the main changes that you have noticed since Unlocking detention 2015, have they been positive or negative and what needs to be made with urgency?

I think Unlocked has been part of the growing anti-detention movement – there’s a lot more people now who know, care about and are taking action against immigration detention.  There’s been lots of different campaigning happening and I think we need that variety – arts and creative events like the Channel Project recently in Bristol, protests at detention centres, legal challenges, community organising in places that don’t have detention centres nearby but whose residents are affected by detention.

The UK urgently needs to reduce the use of detention – in my view, once this has happened (and it is long overdue), decision-makers will see that the world doesn’t fall apart when you don’t detain and it will be easier to make the case for ending detention altogether.

I would like to questions for you both as well, and I look forward to reading your answers.

Best wishes,



XX November 2018, Stoke and Liverpool

Hello Lisa,

Thank you for your insightful answers and for your questions as well.

Mishka’s answers:

1) What do you think are the most important barriers/obstacles to achieving radical detention reform?

I think there are many reasons: the lack of awareness around this issue among the wider public including the politicians themselves as well. Also, the current political climate; overall attitude towards migration and false narratives around immigration detention that have been difficult to break. I also see the lack of interest by the government to explore and invest on alternatives to detention as one reason. Achieving detention reform eventually means that less people are in detention and this goes hand in hand with alternatives to detention.

But I am glad to witness that this is changing. There is a cultural change within the Home Office itself and now the wider public is more aware of the realities of detention. As a result, now we are seeing a positive trend towards reform.

2) In your opinion, what makes Freed Voices such effective advocates? Is there something more than ‘just’ being experts-by-experience?

A traditional way of involving individuals with direct experience of the issue often involved activities such as turning people into case studies to play a role of victims, and solely to share their stories. Even though sharing your personal experience is important, doing ONLY this is not enough.

Freed Voices have challenged this and have managed to change this approach, when it comes to how Freed Voices are involving in the fight against detention. This has resulted in a situation where now the Freed Voices have become a group of advocates with authority and competence as well – in addition to the credibility that is innate just by being armed with first hand experience of detention. This combination is very effective.

Red’s answers:

1) Do you think being part of Freed Voices has had a positive impact on other areas of your life, outside of detention campaigning?

Yes, it certainly has. In my opinion, the impact of Freed Voices is so positive because the project not only engages with its members at a formal level. The commitment is serious and the aim is to support each other in our fight for improving not only ourselves but also others. Freed Voices is not only about the messages but also about an effective and convincing way to deliver those messages. To do this, you also have to work with the messenger, with his spirit, body, and soul. Freed Voices do all these things and more. At the end of every Freed Voices session, I don’t feel tired; instead, I always feel positive and energized. This has a positive influence in many areas of my life outside of detention campaigning as well.

2) If you were the Home Secretary, what change to detention would you make and why?

This is a tough question indeed. The Home Secretary is responsible for keeping the “House” in order but this should be done in accordance with the law. In relation to detention centres, the first step I would take is to introduce a 28 day time limit to reduce the use of detention in both time and scale. The nature and the purpose of detention centres have been badly eroded and this is something that affects not only the image of the Home Secretary but also the Government and the whole country in general. Fixing this would be one of my priorities as well.

Whilst detention still exist, I will implement a proper and fully independent mechanism of quality control, to make sure that these facilities meet the minimum standards and that everything is done in accordance with and respecting the law. Obviously, the most effective quality control body would be one that consists in undercover members that would go into the detention centres as if they were detainees. I am sure that the outcome would be quite revealing. One more thing: every immigrant should have access to support to prevent them experiencing and getting in trouble; usual prevention is better than cure.

Best wishes, Mishka and Red.

Welcome and hospitality as a force of resistance and change: Sanctuary in Parliament 2018

Sanctuary in Parliament is an annual event which brings local City of Sanctuary groups from around the country to Parliament to meet their MPs to demand change. This year, it is aiming to generate an even bigger call for a 28-day time limit on immigration detention – and we’d like you to take action! Eiri Ohtani, Detention Forum’s Project Director, explains what you can do. She tweets at @EiriOhtani


City of Sanctuary is one of the Detention Forum members, and we are supporting this year’s Sanctuary in Parliament event, “Towards a Fairer System” on 12 November. We are excited that the event neatly falls during our Unlocking Detention tour, a perfect opportunity to spread the word. A huge thank you to City of Sanctuary for letting us contribute to the policy briefing papers and other material for this event.

Here’s our tweet you can retweet, to promote the event and show your support.

The event is focusing on the following three asks, which are all key to producing a fair and humane system for people seeking asylum and will be areas of scrutiny around the upcoming Immigration Bill:

  • The right to work for people who have asylum claims outstanding for more than six months;
  • Extension of refugee family reunion;
  • An end to indefinite immigration detention.

Immigration detention is not the answer for anyone. Detention Forum is challenging the immigration detention of not just people seeking asylum but also of everyone else. Indefinite immigration detention without a time limit affects everyone who gets engulfed by this system, regardless of their immigration histories or experiences, except in a very small number of cases of families with children and pregnant women. This is a great opportunity for us to communicate with and remind many local groups who are primarily concerned about the rights and dignity of people seeking asylum to encourage them to expand their understanding of immigration detention policy and its impact on individuals and communities.

The event in Parliament is already FULLY BOOKED, reflecting the determination and dedication of people involved in the City of Sanctuary movement across the UK, who are using welcome and hospitality as a force of resistance and change.

But we can all still participate – in fact, we urgently need your help! We need to make sure that as many MPs as possible are persuaded to attend the event and work with us towards a fairer and more humane system. This very helpful webpage about the event is packed with information and tools, such as a template letter, which you can use to engage your MP.

We’d like to highlight three items on this page which we strongly recommend you look through, regardless of whether you are attending the event or not. They are practical and educational and can help you improve your understanding and command of advocacy – something you will need beyond the event. A huge congratulations to the City of Sanctuary for putting these together.

‘A short guide to engaging with your MP’ – We often say ‘we need to engage our MPs’, but what does that actually mean? How do you go about doing that? What should you talk to your MP about? This short guide takes you through each of the stages in simple language. Crucially, it has a template form that allows the groups who take part in the event to send feedback to City of Sanctuary people (and us!) about their encounters with MPs. This collects absolutely vital intelligence for our advocacy, such as, which arguments do MPs respond to? What counterarguments do they use? Many tend to assume that meeting our MP means we tell them what we think and leave the room: but without understanding what they are thinking, it’s difficult to plan our next step.

Sanctuary in Parliament 2018 – Quick Policy Guide – This is a shorter version of a fuller and longer policy briefing, which you should also read. But what’s really useful about this document is that it shows you how you can make your point clearly and concisely when you meet your MP. You can also send this to your MP or use it to lobby your friends and family – do practice! Remember, MPs are busy people and you need to be able to communicate with them quickly and convincingly to attract their attention. Once they are interested, you can have more in-depth discussions and follow-up meetings and start developing constructive working relationships.

Social Media Guide for SIP 2018 – Don’t let the fact that you are not there yourself stop you from telling the world about it, before, during and after the event! This document gives you many useful sample tweets that you can use and modify to draw your MP’s attention to this event. You don’t know your MP’s Twitter handle? You can easily find it at https://tweetyourmp.com. The hashtag for this event is #AFairerSystem. And you should already know the one for ending indefinite detention: #Time4aTimeLimit

Lastly, as mentioned earlier, campaigning and advocacy often involves building a long-term and productive working relationship with your MP. And we all need to chip in, because we need not just one but many MPs’ support. We hope this gives you a chance to start building that relationship. Please join us and others in persuading politicians about the urgent need for change, for a better future for people seeking asylum and other individuals who are caught up in this cruel and dysfunctional immigration and asylum system.

And if you want to know more about why Detention Forum and others are calling for a 28 day time limit on immigration detention, do have a look at our briefing document here.


Eiri Ohtani @EiriOhtani

Project Director





“Your voice can make a difference”: Expert-by-Experience interviews a former minister about the parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention

Image by @Carcazan

Unlocking Detention started in 2014. That year, Sarah Teather MP, who was then the Chair of the APPG on Refugees started the parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention, together with APPG on Migration. In this blog, K.A., a member of Freed Voices who was recently detained and released, interviews Sarah about her experience of running the inquiry. Sarah also asked K.A. some questions about his experience of immigration detention. K.A. currently lives in Edinburgh. Sarah left parliament in 2015 and is now Director at Jesuit Refugee Service UK, based in London, one of the member organisations of the Detention Forum. You can see the Unlocking Detention timeline here


xx October 2018, Edinburgh

Dear Sarah,

My name is K.A., born in Ghana and currently living in Scotland. I spent five months in immigration detention between September 2017 and February 2018. Eight months after my release from detention, I am still trying to put the pieces back together and there is not a single day I do not get flashbacks of my experiences in detention. It’s a permanent scar that never leaves you. 

I would like to ask you:

  1. What were views towards the use of immigration detention before you started the parliamentary inquiry?
  2. Was there any particular watershed moment during your time on the inquiry panel or any incident that shifted your views in any way and what was it?
  3. What is the one thing that you would want to change regarding the government’s policy on the use of immigration detention?

Kind regards, K.A.


xx October 2018, London

Hello K.,

Thanks for asking me those questions. My answers are as below:

  1. I had met people in immigration detention as an MP and talked to people who had left. It was what they said about their experience of its damaging impact that prompted me to set up the parliamentary inquiry. I wanted to see whether we could get consensus across parties in any way that might limit its use.
  2. The moment when we took evidence down a crackly mobile phone line from inside detention was incredibly powerful. Realising the man giving evidence to us had been in detention in Heathrow IRC for three and a half years was shocking. Another who had previously experienced detention multiple times also gave very strong evidence in person, including a line that stuck in the committee’s mind about counting the days up in detention*.
  3. I would want to see a time limit of 28 days imposed on how long someone can be detained. But really I want to see the Home office weaned off it’s reliance on detention altogether.

Would you mind if I ask you some questions?

  1. What do you think the government policy on immigration detention should be?
  2. What gave you hope when you were detained and gave you strength to carry on? And what gives you strength now?
  3. What advice do you have for anyone who has experienced detention who might be reading this?

Kind regards, Sarah

*Sarah is referring to this quote by Souleymane.


xx October 2018, Edinburgh

Dear Sarah,

Thank you for your answers. It is always refreshing to know there is someone who is ready to sand up to an oppressive system.

With regards to your questions,

  1. I would like to see a reasonable time limit on immigration detention and also it is used in only exceptional cases and as a last resort, as spelled out in the immigration rules. Again there should be an independent body that can supervise the government department responsible for this to avoid abuse. There are clearly defined rules that detention should be used sparingly but because detention has become an industry, detention has become the preferred and easy choice.
  2. I have to say the first couple weeks was the most difficult and I almost fell into depression, but after a while I realised I had to pull myself together and seek help. I always believed throughout the ordeal that at least there will be someone out there who will listen to me. And speaking to charities like Detention Action and Medical Justice gave me hope that there were some people out there who cared. What gives me strength is the belief that once I have good health there is nothing that I can not do.
  3. 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.

Kind regards, K.


Image by @Carcazan

Welcome to #Unlocked18!

Welcome! #Unlocked18 is Unlocking Detention’s fifth ‘tour’ of the UK’s immigration detention estate, shining a spotlight on the hidden world of immigration detention. Maybe you are a repeat visitor, maybe this is the first time you’ve heard about Unlocking Detention.

Unlocking Detention’s ‘virtual tour’ uses Twitter, Facebook and blogs to ‘unlock’ the gates of immigration detention centres. Each week, we will be ‘visiting’ one of the detention centres in the UK, hearing from people who have been detained there, volunteer visitors, NGOs, campaigners and the families, friends, neighbours and communities over whom detention casts its long shadows.

Every year, behind the scenes, the ‘tour’ starts with mixed emotions. Seeing so many different things come together during the months of preparation is exciting: discussing themes, recruiting volunteers, choosing logos, contacting bloggers … It’s always a rewarding time of team work and creativity – and a lot of hard work, of course. On the other hand, we also have to ask ourselves the same question over and over: why on earth do we even have to do this again? Why do we still have immigration detention?

During this year’s ‘tour’, as well as introducing new material, we will also be looking back on the journey of Unlocking Detention – to reflect on our achievements and think about what is still to come. Our volunteers have also created an amazing timeline of Unlocking Detention story! We will be unveiling this over the following months – so please stay tuned! But before we begin this year’s tour, here’s some of our collective achievements.

More people are aware of the harm and injustice of immigration detention

Before 2014, immigration detention only hit the headlines when people died there. And by next day, everyone will have forgotten about immigration detention.  Now, immigration detention regularly gets featured by the media and more people know more about it: only a few weeks ago, the Guardian ran a series of articles and podcasts, highlighting the reality of immigration detention. Word is spreading, and people are waking up slowly but surely…

More experts-by-experience and groups are speaking up against immigration detention

2014 was the first year we (the Detention Forum) started using the terminology, experts-by-experience. We were always frustrated by the way that individuals with direct experience of immigration detention were used only as case studies, victims, “clients”, being expected to tell stories that the listeners wanted to hear. Now, we see more experts-by-experience leading campaigns and getting involved in advocacy. At the same time, more mainstream organisations are now involved in challenging immigration detention: in 2014, only detention specialists and some legal practitioners talked about detention. Our collective voice is getting bigger.

More politicians are willing to challenge immigration detention

Before 2014, immigration detention was such a minor subject in parliament that you could count the number of parliamentarians willing to talk about immigration detention on one hand. The 2014/15 parliamentary inquiry into the use of detention changed all that. As I write this, we have two committees (Home Affairs Committee and Joint Committee on Human Rights) conducting inquiries into immigration detention. Written Questions about detention are being asked almost daily. Just last week, I went to two parliamentary meetings where immigration detention was discussed. It has become such a hot topic that most of the political parties now include pledges to end indefinite detention in their election manifestos. This shift is huge.


The government now says that they are committed to detention reform

Many people’s efforts, numerous reports and inquiries, culminated with the oral statement delivered by the Home Secretary in July 2018. In response to the follow-up Shaw Review, Sajid Javid announced a package of ‘innovative reforms’ in immigration detention system, including the introduction of a community-based alternatives to detention pilot for vulnerable women and an internal review into time limits in other countries. This is probably the most concrete sign that the government is taking the need for detention reform seriously.

Where and what all these achievements are leading to is yet to be seen. Yes, several detention centres have been closed down over the last years. Yes, the number of people entering detention has also gone down somewhat. Yet, the reality is that thousands of people remain locked up, today, right now, not knowing when they will be released. Change is yet to come, and we hope more people will join us in metaphorically unlocking the gates of detention centres. See you at the ‘tour’!

Eiri Ohtani (@EiriOhtani)

Project Director, The Detention Forum