Putting stock Home Office statements in the stocks

Morton Hall | Unlocked19

Image courtesy of Michael Collins

New Freed Voices member, John P.*, was recently released after ten months detained in Morton Hall IRC in Lincolnshire. For this #Unlocked17 special, he sat down with Detention Action to go through his thoughts on some of the stock phrases the Home Office trot out in response to anti-detention campaigners.

*John P. is not the author’s real name. This has been changed to protect his identity.


The UK is the only country in Europe that practices indefinite detention: from the moment someone enters detention they have no idea how long they will be there for. Immigration statistics released only last week showed one person had been detained 5 years…and counting. These figures came only a few days after the Immigration Minister, Brandon Lewis, had responded to calls for an end to indefinite detention in Parliament with some very (very) familiar lines:

“We do not have indefinite detention in this country. Our policy is that there is always a presumption of liberty. Individuals are detained for no longer than is necessary.”

“For me, the definition of ‘indefinite’ is simple: something with no end. It is infinite. It is the opposite of finite. It is not rocket science. No-one told me how long I’d be there for when I was detained because they couldn’t. They just shrugged: ‘we don’t know.’ Altogether, I have been detained 16 months, three different times. This response from the Immigration Minister just shows you how in denial they are. They are desperately trying to justify a lie. They are literally dancing around the word. It’s actually pretty embarrassing, really. I think they are maybe also just ashamed of what they are doing in detention and that is why they can’t face up to the truth of the situation.”


In January 2016, the Shaw Review found ‘incontrovertibly that detention in and of itself undermines welfare and contributes to vulnerability’. In response, the Government promised to implement a new reform programme (the Adults at Risk procedure) that would ‘safeguard the most vulnerable’. Over the last month, reports from Women for Refugee Women, Bail for Immigration Detainees, Detention Action and the British Medical Association have all outlined how and why the Adults at Risk policy is failing, identifying large numbers of vulnerable people still in detention. In response to each report the Home Office had the same stock response:

“We operate on a presumption against detention, and our adults at risk policy aims to improve our approach to identifying individuals who may be particularly vulnerable to harm in detention. When people are detained this is for the minimum time possible, and the dignity and welfare of those in our care is of the utmost importance.”

“Everyone knows this is a complete lie…There is no effective screening before or during detention. I suffer from severe depression, for example. The Home Office were well aware of this. Did it factor into their decision to detain me? Not for a second. Their interest in removing you will always outweigh your vulnerability, there is no contest there. I saw loads of vulnerable people inside Morton Hall. Lots of psychotic episodes, people self-harming because they were so depressed. I saw someone cut their throat in front of me. I met a Vietnamese boy in there who had been trafficked to the UK to make cannabis. He never should have been there. I saw physical scars on people’s bodies. You’d walk around and think ‘wow, I can’t believe he’s in here…wow, I can’t believe he’s in here…wow, I can’t believe he’s in here.’ But really, everyone is vulnerable in detention. From the moment you walk in, you’re changing. You’d see someone come in one week and they would have deteriorated into a different person by the next week.”


The potentially lethal impact of indefinite detention is well-documented: there have been thirty-three deaths across the detention estate; ten deaths in the last calendar year; four in Morton Hall alone. In response to each (and every) one, the Home Office has had the same stock response:

“As is the case with any death in detention, the police have been informed and a full independent investigation will be conducted by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman. We will make no further comment while this is being investigated. The dignity and welfare of those in our care is of the utmost importance.”

“That’s absolutely pathetic. It’s insulting, really. I experienced two deaths in the ten months I was in Morton Hall. When the Polish guy died, all they did was put up a tiny notice. When my friend Spencer died, they tried to cover the whole thing up as quickly as possible. It was incredibly traumatic. Especially for those close to him. There were no follow-up questions, no support for the depression we all felt. It was very, very difficult – harder than the sixteen months, to be honest. It was genuinely terrifying to be somewhere where four people had died in the last year. You think that doesn’t affect the people inside? You start thinking when it will be your turn, when am I gonna go? If I have a stroke, can I trust that these guys are really gonna call an ambulance? Or are they just gonna leave me on the floor? It’s terrifying…very, very scary. You start to look at these guards as guys with blood on their hands.”


In September this year, the BBC Panorama documentary on Brook House highlighted the culture of psychological and physical abuse that has become normalised across the detention estate as a whole. In response to this programme, and other allegations of abuse, the Home Office has provided the same stock response:

“We are clear that all detainees should be treated with dignity and respect and we expect the highest standards from detainee custody officers. We take all allegations of misconduct or mistreatment of detainees seriously.”

“People’s dignity was breached on a daily basis in detention. And the staff there know it. Two guards resigned from Morton Hall in the time I was there. I asked one of them why and he said he couldn’t do it anymore. He said he could not physically bring himself to lock me up at night for nothing. He had some integrity, to be honest, he could see what they doing was wrong. As for taking allegations seriously, you are also strongly discouraged from making any allegations in the first place. They always try and put pressure on you, they tell you your claims are ‘unsubstantiated’ and ‘this will affect your case’.

Intimidation tactics are common. I’m not fresh off the boat, so I would tell them to go do one, but many people are too scared to speak out. And I understand why. Can you imagine what would happen to a migrant if they committed the same kind of offences that we experienced every day in detention? There would immediately be criminal prosecutions. Immediately, no doubt. But in detention? People have died in detention and not one person has gone to jail, not even suspended! That tells you everything you need to know about how serious they are following up on ‘mistreatment’.”


The classic catch-all response to charges laid at the Home Office detention policy is that – despite the deaths, the crisis of harm, the culture of abuse and the failed measures to protect the vulnerable – detention is necessary, whether we like it or not…

“Detention is an important part of our immigration system, helping to ensure that those with no right to remain in the UK are returned to their home country if they will not leave voluntarily.”
John P.

“What?! I’m here aren’t I, talking to you now. Last year, I gave them my passport and told them to put me on a plane. We even discussed extra luggages and flights. But it became clear there was a problem with my country and so instead, they brought me to detention…even though it was clear my removal was not going to happen. Sometimes I think it is just a business, and we are just the stock being moved around. Over half of everyone in detention gets released, not removed. So why is it even called an Immigration Removal Centre? They need to change that name. It’s false advertising. They should change the names to British Guantanamo Bay I, British Guantanamo Bay II, British Guantanamo Bay III…but not IRC.”

Over 150 people demonstrate to mark 24 years since Campsfield ‘House’ opened

This blog was written by Bill MacKeith, joint organiser of the Campaign to Close Campsfield, for Unlocking Detention. Photos: Campaign to Close Campsfield
On 25 November 1993, two white vans arrived at Campsfield main gates, 6 miles north of Oxford. They brought the first detainees to the new Campsfield detention centre from Harmondsworth near Heathrow. Since then some 30,000 people have been locked up here without time limit, without charge, or proper legal representation in a place run for profit (currently by MITIE). And detainees and their supporters have insisted, month by month, year by year, that it be closed, along with all other detention centres, including some 290 monthly demonstrations.
The 24th anniversary demonstration at Campsfield this year was special for the campaign to radically challenge immigration detention in the UK: both Oxford’s MPs attended and spoke.
The member of parliament for the constituency of Oxford West and Abingdon that includes Campsfield detention centre, Layla Moran, spoke. As did Oxford East MP, Anneliese Dodds, who sits on the opposition front bench. We are fortunate in that our two local MPs agree that immigration detention needs to be radically challenged.
Layla Moran said:
The existence of Campsfield House is a scar on our local community and society at large. It is my firm belief that it, along with most of the UK’s detention estate, should be closed.  
Anneliese Dodds said:
I am strongly opposed to the current excessive use of immigration detention. It puts Britain to shame. It is unfair, it doesn’t work and it is cruel. Immigration detention causes real distress and anxiety for individuals and families and I am clear that indefinite detention of people in the asylum and immigration system must end. This commitment was in the Manifesto I stood on in the last general election.
Demonstrators heard from Jawad, who has spent 9 months in four different detention centres, including Campsfield:
I have suffered 9 months in detention asking for my UN treaty rights … I have a message for all the people at Campsfield today. Be patient and God will listen to everyone. This will soon be stopped as we are all working on it.
Also speaking was Helen Brewer, one of 15 people from End Deportations, Plane Stupid and Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants who last March 28th successfully stopped a mass deportation flight to Nigeria and Ghana. The Crown Prosecution Service has charged them with a Terrorism related offence under the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990. Represented by Michael Mansfield QC, they appeared in Chelmsford Crown Court on the 4th of September, pleading Not Guilty. Their trial is listed for 4-6 weeks from 5th March 2018 in Chelmsford Crown Court.
Phillis, vice chair of South Yorkshire Migrant and Asylum Action Group, addressed the Barbed Wire Britain gathering at nearby Kidlington after the demo. He recounted the mass protest by detainees inside Campsfield on 7 August 2007, which he led; on that day 26 people took direct action to retrieve what was theirs by right, their freedom, and escaped.
Neo, an Oxford campaigner for the rights of homeless people, and singer songwriter Robb Johnson inspired and moved the demonstrators with their songs.

Week 7: #Unlocked17 visits Harmondsworth and Colnbrook

The seventh week of #Unlocked17 focused on Harmondsworth and Colnbrook: two detention centres alongside one another, a stone’s throw from the runway at Heathrow airport. Around 1,000 migrants are detained across these two sites.
Harmondsworth alone has space for up to 661 men – making it the largest detention centre in Europe (yet another shameful record the UK holds, alongside being the only country in Europe without a time limit, and for detaining more migrants than any other country in Europe, except Greece).
Harmondsworth and Colnbrook are both run by for-profit company Mitie: in 2014, they won a bid worth £180 million to run the two centres until 2022. 
This week also saw some encouraging news from Manchester in the campaign against immigration detention: scroll down to learn more!

Inside Harmondsworth

The latest Prisons’ Inspector report, published in 2015 (after Mitie took over the running of the centre), was scathing. It said, “Many of the concerns that we identified in 2013 have not been rectified and in some respects matters have deteriorated.”
The report flagged the vulnerability of many of those in detention: in their survey, 80% of men said that they had had problems on arrival and nearly half said they had felt depressed or suicidal.
They also highlighted the length of detention, noting that over half were detained in the centre for over a month. 18 people had been held for over a year, and one man had been detained on separate occasions adding up to a total of five years.

This week’s first blog for Unlocking Detention came from Mishka from Freed Voices, who was detained in Harmondsworth. He sketches five guys that shaped his experience of Harmondsworth and continue to dominate his thoughts today, post-release. The five vignettes are called ‘Skeleton’, ‘Lifer’, ‘Blood’, ‘Brother’ and ‘Michael’. It’s a must-read piece, available here.

We also re-visited some older pieces written by experts-by-experience about Harmondsworth, such as Shariff:

Inside Colnbrook

Neighbouring Harmondsworth is Colnbrook, a high-security detention centre with capacity to detain just over 400 people, the majority men.
A Prisons’ Inspector report published in 2016 flagged the continued detention of vulnerable people and issues in the provision of care, noting, “Healthcare was an area of particular concern. Chronic staffing shortages affected the continuity and consistency of care. Care for those with severe mental health needs was generally good, but it was concerning that people with such severe illnesses were in immigration detention at all”

This week, we had an insider’s account of Colnbrook from Helen, a US citizen who was detained in Colnbrook for four days after travelling from to the UK to visit a friend. She wrote a detailed account of her experiences, documenting the injustice she felt and saw. You can read it here

Visiting Colnbrook and Harmondsworth

As part of Unlocking Detention’s virtual tour of Colnbrook and Harmondsworth, we also heard from individuals involved in visiting these centres and challenging detention.
First, Tamsin Alger, who has worked at Detention Action for ten years, looked back at actions taken over the last decade to challenge the injustice of immigration detention, including by people in detention, herself and her organisation, and at what’s changed in that time.
She concludes: “So much has changed in the last ten years. The one constant is the devastating human impact that immigration detention has on people who are held indefinitely.” Read her reflections here.

Beatrice Grasso is Detention Outreach Manager at Jesuit Refugee Service UK. With volunteers, she supports many detained in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook detention centres. In this blog, she explains how their mission “Accompany, Serve and Advocate” informs and shapes their work in these detention centres, ‘places most people don’t even realise exist’.

Finally, we had a post from Candice Morgan-Glendinning and Dr Melanie Griffiths, examining the intersection of family life and immigration policy for families consisting of British or EEA nationals and men with precarious or irregular immigration status.
They write, “Experiences such as immigration detention significantly impacts people’s mental health and feelings of belonging, with research participants describing themselves rejected as ‘nothing men’, ‘ghost men’ and ‘useless’. Detention and deportability led to people feeling both of being outside British society, and yet permanently bonded to the country through citizen children and partners.
You can read their blog here.

Manchester City Council passes a motion condemning immigration detention

We had some great news from Manchester this week, with the city council becoming the first in the UK to pass a motion condemning immigration detention. The full wording of the motion is here. Visit These Walls Must Fall to find out more!

And more support for #Time4aTimeLimit, including from a celebrity:

It’s about time – a time limit on immigration detention

Since the publication of Detained Lives (which Tamsin Algers refers to in her earlier blog here), a campaign to end UK’s practice of indefinite detention has been gathering pace.  Rachel Robinson, Advocacy Manager for Liberty, argues why the time is now to end this practice once and for all.  
There are few things more difficult than waiting. At an airport. In traffic. For a diagnosis. To see your family again.
But what if time goes by and the uncertainty never ends? Hope fades. Despair grows.
This is life for the thousands of people held indefinitely in immigration detention in the United Kingdom every year – and for the loved ones they are separated from.
Because the Home Office’s detention regime lets immigration officers lock people up with no time limit – a brutal practice that devastates mental health and has made self-harm and suicide commonplace.
People are dying on the Government’s watch here in the UK.
Cases can and should be processed in the community. Other countries do this successfully, and there are even projects in the UK that show a person’s immigration status can be resolved without the need for this cruel and expensive practice.
Thousands of people are being forced to put their lives on hold and live in legal limbo for no good reason.
Liberty wants to see an end to immigration detention except in the most exceptional circumstances to allow for immediate removal.
But for now – and it’s about time – we need to end this darkest of stains on our human rights record, stop the suffering and uncertainty and put a 28-day time limit on immigration detention.
Waste of life
The UK’s detention estate is the largest and most draconian in the EU. Its centres are akin to prisons but with two major differences: those locked up weren’t sent there by a judge – and they haven’t been told when they’ll get out.
Medical evidence shows mental health deteriorates significantly after just one month in detention. As of June 2017, one person had been locked up for 1,514 days – more than four years.
Those held include children and survivors of torture, slavery and rape. Pregnant women are still incarcerated despite a Government-commissioned review recommending expectant mothers are never detained for immigration purposes.
As part of a recent study Women for Refugee Women interviewed a group of asylum-seeking women held at Yarl’s Wood detention centre. They found that 88 per cent of these vulnerable women had been detained for more than a month. The same percentage said their mental health had suffered. Half of them had thought about killing themselves. Two had tried.
In 2015 there were 393 suicide attempts in UK detention centres. In the same year, 2,957 people – including 11 children – were on suicide watch.
Since 2000 there have been at least 35 deaths. Ten people have died in the past year alone. Four of those died at Morton Hall, where just a year ago an unannounced inspection exposed a surge in violence and a threefold rise in self-harm since 2013.
Inspections like this, the vital work of journalists uncovering this shadowy world and several major legal cases have revealed centres are failing to meet the most basic standards of safety and respect for human dignity. They are overcrowded and filthy, medical treatment is denied, guards have fatally restrained detainees and there have been allegations of verbal, physical and sexual abuse.
On numerous occasions the courts have ruled the Home Office has violated detainees’ human rights by subjecting them to inhuman and degrading treatment.
It’s about time
Indefinite immigration detention is a waste of human life. No one should be locked up on the say so of an official with no idea when they will be released.
Brexit is dominating the Westminster agenda and it suits the Government to keep immigration detention off the table. But these are people’s lives, and we can’t afford to wait any longer.
The UK is at a turning point and now is the time to make sure we leave the EU as a country which respects human rights.
We will take the fight to Government and we will not be alone. The Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP manifestos all committed to end indefinite immigration detention. The Greens, Plaid Cymru and some Democratic Unionists are also in support.
Next year, the Government will publish an Immigration Bill as part of a package of new Brexit laws. That could be our opportunity to get a 28-day time limit guaranteed in law.
For the sake of all those held in detention, we have to seize it. We can’t keep them waiting any longer.

Mapping detention

Images courtesy of Freed Voices

At Unlocking Detention, we occasionally receive emails from people, including those who say they are journalists, asking us to let them join the “tour”. These requests stem from misunderstanding: some assume we are organizing physical, guided tours of the inside of these immigration detention centres, while we are actually running a “virtual” tour unearthing facts and voices from these centres.

While their interest is welcome, it also makes us feel uneasy – what legitimizes our gaze inside these centres, when it is not for an official purpose of monitoring or supporting people inside the centres? Should these centres be open for casual inspection by anyone who happens to be curious, knowing that people who are detained there are having a truly devastating time of their lives? When does this gaze transgress into the sphere of voyeurism? What makes us think that we can fully understand immigration detention through seeing its infrastructure?

In this piece, Freed Voices members are our guides to the psycho-geography of detention centres, including Morton Hall which Unlocking Detention is visiting this week. The piece was originally published on Detention Action’s webpage here in 2016, in response to Unlocking Detention. Please do visit the original webpage which contains a full piece with more visual material.

*The names of some Freed Voices members in this piece have been changed.

A few weeks ago, during the fallow days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the Freed Voices group met to reflect on a busy twelve months of campaigning and to mark the conclusion of ‘Unlocking Detention’ – Detention Forum’s annual, virtual tour of the UK’s detention estate.
In homage to the latter – (which digitally ‘visited’ those sites of indefinite incarceration up and down the country that the Government would otherwise have you believe are ‘out of sight, out of mind’) – the group conducted their own exercise in ‘mapping detention’.

To begin with, they plotted the general outline of a detention-centre (most Freed Voices members have experienced several different IRCs so chose the detention centre which resonated most). Then they filled in ‘key landmarks’, such as their rooms, healthcare, the canteen, visiting rooms, legal services, the shop, the yard, welfare and/or induction areas.

Next, Freed Voices members detailed the different demographics that might make up any given detention centre – where were the detention centre staff based? Where did new arrivals come in? Where were their friends in relation to their own rooms? Did different national or religious groups congregate in different spaces? Who dominated the yard? What was their typical movement through the detention centre on any given day?

Lastly, they designed a post-it key, with different colours to represent different emotional states. The group then pin-dropped these across their maps in different loci they associated most with that particular feeling.

Feeding back to each other, and reflecting on their respective maps, several outstanding themes emerged.

Firstly, the group acknowledged how they had (at least initially) all interpreted the exercise’s leading direction – ‘to draw the outline of the detention centre’ – very differently. Some members experienced greater freedom of movement throughout their incarceration and could detail the wider physical perimeters of the detention centre in great detail.
Others (despite, in some cases, spending longer periods of time in detention) did not map out anything beyond their wing. As John* explained, “this is really where day-to-day detention happens – everything you need to know about detention is on your wing.”

All agreed, however, that this was equally applicable to their rooms – that the essence of detention boiled down to four brick walls, complete with one or two bunks, maybe a toilet, and more often than not a hermetically sealed window (occasionally with a birds-eye view of a nearby airport).
Boone, who was detained for 7 months in Colnbrook, adjacent to Heathrow, said that ‘every minute and a half a plane flew past the window. Each one reminded me I was going to be deported back to my country. My room was my hell.” Omid said ‘my room was hopeless(ness)…I thought I never ever go out and that’s why in my nightmares I can see this room.” Shariff described his room as ‘My Coffin’.

Second was the extent to which members described how their identities had been unmade, made and remade again whilst they had been detained. Almost all noted how their primary physical/emotional interaction with detention had been under the cloak of darkness, arriving in a blacked-out van, usually at around two or three in the morning, handcuffed, and marched through high-security gates like a criminal.

Joe, a survivor of torture from East Africa, spoke about how, when he arrived at Dover detention centre (where he spent the next two years) he had to pass through its three enormous gates. At the first one, they registered his name and country of origin. At the second, they frisked him. At the third, they gave him a ‘Prison Number’ and waved him through. “I had never committed a crime in my life, I received no trial, and yet I was given a life-sentence?”

John, who was predominately detained in Colnbrook, spoke about being stripped of the most important aspect of his identity: his humanity. He recounted how he had been spoken to like an animal, caged like an animal, and barked at by immigration officers like an animal – and not in a figurative sense, but with an actual guttural canine-growl.

Thiru, a survivor of torture from Sri Lanka, highlighted his time in segregation – or the ‘Isolated Rooms’, as he called them – as the darkest part of his detention experience (a sentiment concurred by several other members). Thiru described how here, in solitary confinement, his past and present traumas had merged into one. He said he felt; “Tortured again. Only this time I wasn’t sure why. Back home, I knew it was because of who I was. But here, it was because of who I wasn’t. It was confusing.”

Freed Voices members largely agreed that the inevitable result of these kinds of experiences – the violence of segregation, the dehumanisation encouraged by staff, the deteriorating sense of self – was an intense distrust in everything around them. On one hand, this was directed at the individuals and systems that compounded their detention: Home Office-picked solicitors, the complaints system, welfare, healthcare staff.

But it also occasionally, tragically, resulted in a self-imposed isolation, either from those going through similar experiences and/or from those with shared national, ethic or cultural backgrounds. Both Omid and Thiru marked out on their maps where people from their home country of origin, Iran and Sri Lanka respectively, tended to congregate in detention. But they also noted how, over time, they had both drifted away from these groups, and in turn, the social links/bonds to their ‘pre-detention identities’. Omid said; “I must be alone in Harmondsworth. After time, everyone the same to me. I see just faces, all the same.”

This dissolving of national identities was not the case for Michael, who has been based in the UK since he was 12, and who spent his two and a half years of detention exclusively in Morton Hall.

His English fluency, English upbringing, and English partner were all a cause of social stigma within detention, where he wasn’t enough of an Other. At the same time, his proposed deportation promised to wipe clean these cultural indicators, erasing any sense of self in one fell swoop: “I grew up in the East End on pie and mash. I supported Chelsea. I went to British school. And now I’m an illegal immigrant about to be deported? I had no idea whether to hold on to who I was in detention, or let it go.”

Michael did note however, that some sense of self was salvaged whenever his partner – someone from outside Morton Hall’s walls – came to visit. Only then was he reminded who he was and what was normal.

This was echoed by other members, who also relied on some kind of external ‘force’ (real or imagined) to help puncture the mind/identity-bending bubble of detention. Boone took great solace in the Colnbrook’s chapel, which he said brought him closer to his family, ‘even though they were thousands of miles away’. Joe’s room at Dover IRC looked out over the sea and he spoke about how, on a clear day, he could see France and that this vague outline of land became a source of calm: “It helped me focus. I remember why I came to the UK in the first place.”

Others reiterated the vitality of visitor-groups, like the Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group, Detention Action or the Verne Visitors Group, who provided practical advice and support but also treated them ‘as individuals’. “We weren’t just numbers to them,” reflected Michael.
Lastly (although perhaps unsurprisingly), was the omnipresent black cloud of indefinite detention. Fogging every other aspect of life in detention, the psychological impact of not-knowing when they would be released was the singular, outstanding theme Freed Voices members kept coming back to. ‘Torture’ was repeatedly used to express the horror of endless incarceration.

Freed Voices members were quick to point out that it was almost impossible to delineate and dissect other aspects of life in detention – whether it be the activities available to them or conditions more generally – in separation from indefinite detention. Timelessness infected everything. At one point in the exercise, Thiru covered almost his whole map in post-it notes in an attempt to explain the geographical translation of this pervasive emotional violence. Shariff said that indefinite detention meant that ‘even the smallest details in detention make you lose hope’. Joe spoke about the mental and physical fatigue that comes with bearing this psychological weight everyday: “I felt every second of my detention. I was there more than two years. It was exhausting.”

From British playgrounds to Immigration Removal Centres

Authors: Candice Morgan-Glendinning and Dr Melanie Griffiths (University of Bristol)
The following post is informed by an ESRC-funded project running at the University of Bristol. The research examines the intersection of family life and immigration policy for families consisting of British or EEA nationals and men with precarious or irregular immigration status. Further project information, including a report and policy briefings can be found here: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/ethnicity/projects/deportability-and-the-family/
‘They never told me when you come to England that you can’t have a girlfriend and you can’t have a baby. They never told me, no one told me. Even if they had told me, come on, it is life.’ (Undocumented father)
These are the words of a man who arrived in the UK nearly two decades ago, fleeing his country as a lone fourteen-year-old. They are the words of a father of an eight-year-old British child. The words of a man who has also spent nearly five years in immigration detention. A man who’s spent more than half his life in the UK, transformed from expectant father to a foreign national prisoner whose residence in the UK is fiercely contested.  The stress and long uncertainty of his immigration detention and threatened deportation has broken up his relationship and is stopping him from being the present and active father he wants to be. Although finally out of detention, he’s still trapped far from his family and penniless, living under the limbo of a Deportation Order.
Each year thousands of men are forcibly removed from the country, including many who arrived in the UK as children and teenagers, as the Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group report Don’t Dump me in a Foreign Landillustrates. Their family lives and social bonds in the UK are threatened by separation through deportation for immigration and/or criminal offences. As a result of a series of policy changes over the last decade, deportation in ‘the public interest’ can occur for increasingly low-level criminality, or even just on the basis of allegations (potentially with little evidence) of criminal ‘character’ or ‘lifestyle’, as discussed further below. For these young men, as well as those guilty of serious criminality, the fact of having spent formative years in the UK raises serious questions over the proportionality of deportation, and the country that should be held responsible for their offending and rehabilitation.
From protected child to Foreign National Offender
There are certain protections afforded to unaccompanied under-18-year-olds subject to immigration controls in the UK, generally including exemption from immigration detention and deportation. Before turning 18, and thereby becoming detainable and deportable, these ‘young arrivers’ may enjoy periods of relative stability; living in communities, attending school, forming networks and relationships.
They may well also have disadvantaged starts in life; growing up in care or experiencing marginalisation and discrimination, whether from racism and deprivation, or xenophobia from the increasingly ‘hostile’ nature of the immigration discourse. Such factors, coupled with exclusion from lawful employment, increases their risk of criminalisation. Despite this, many of the ‘young arrivers’ who participated in the research felt British and settled. Most were entirely unaware that their behaviour could be used to bring their foreignness to the fore and justify their deportation.
For many, the route to deportability is via the criminal justice system. Young people subject to immigration controls often occupy the same spaces as their British Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) peers. The recent David Lammy report highlights the over-representation of BAME youth within all aspects of the criminal justice system, although he does not acknowledge the additional vulnerabilities arising from a precarious immigration status. Changes made to deportation policy in recent years severely reduce the scope of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to respect for one’s family and private life) for foreign nationals with criminal records. There are increasingly severe immigration consequences for criminal offending, now with ‘automatic’ deportation for those sentenced to 12 months imprisonment, whether as a single sentence, or accrued over multiple short sentences.
These trends are further developed by Operation Nexus, a little-known police-Home Office interagency arrangement first piloted in 2012. Nexus reinvigorates ‘intelligence-led’ deportation, including on the basis of police contact and ‘non-convictions’ such as stop-and-searches (even if nothing is found), charges that are withdrawn or made in error, and being present at crime scenes, even as a victim or witness.
Nexus-related appeals are heard in the Immigration and Asylum Tribunal and are not within the scope for legal aid. Appellants often have no legal representation and are at serious disadvantage. And yet they are made highly vulnerable by the low standard of proof of the Tribunal, which allows the use of hearsay, anonymous allegation and circumstantial evidence. Allegations of gang membership and drug offences, for example, were prevalent in the Nexus-related hearings observed during the research. These accusations were frequently unevidenced, which is particularly concerning given that ‘drugs’ and ‘gangs’ are concepts said to be commonly used to signify racialised young men. For more information on Operation Nexus and the policy implications, see this Policy Briefing 
Barriers to maintaining family life
Once labelled a ‘foreign criminal’, even people who grew up in the UK are liable to immigration enforcement measures. Experiences such as immigration detention significantly impacts people’s mental health and feelings of belonging, with research participants describing themselves rejected as ‘nothing men’, ‘ghost men’ and ‘useless’. Detention and deportability led to people feeling both of being outside British society, and yet permanently bonded to the country through citizen children and partners.
First love, first child. I feel like I’ve got nobody except her. She’s my life, my love, she’s everyone to me.” (Undocumented partner and father)
Ties to family in the UK provide people with practical and emotional support. However, immigration detention, particularly its indefinite nature, puts considerable – sometimes terminal – strain on relationships. Maintaining relationships is challenging, and there is scant policy on supporting such relationships, especially when compared to provisions for prisoners. Indeed, the immigration and detention systems erect multiple hurdles to continued family life, including through practical, financial and emotional barriers against visiting detained loved ones, as described in another policy briefing, Detention of Fathers in the Immigration System. In any case, family visits can bring mixed feelings: loss and guilt, as well as love and strength.
Some participants consider immigration detention to be a governmental tool, intended to destabilise their lives, break their spirits and encourage immigration or criminal offending. Removed from their family and support networks, relationships were irreversibly damaged and people’s resolve and mental health often deteriorated. Increasingly, separation from one’s family also has legal consequences, by weakening claims to have ‘genuine and subsisting’ relationships with partners or children, thus undermining Article 8 based applications. This is so even when such separation is involuntary, through detention or removal.
‘Your family does not need you’ 
Immigration policy now explicitly places less weight on the family lives of foreign nationals if they have irregular immigration status or criminal records (see blog post: Invisible Fathers of Immigration Detention in the UK). There are also suggestions of gender, racial and class biases affecting the value placed on non-citizen family figures. In some cases people’s relationships simply were not recognised by the authorities, in others they were acknowledged but dismissed as unimportant. Fathers, boyfriends and husbands in immigration detention found it particularly difficult to have their private lives valued, with some accused of opportunistically having children in an attempt to undermine border controls.
By emphasising present realities over potential futures, decision-makers commonly use separation through detention and a prevention from lawful employment to dispute the strength of the men’s family roles. Many participants were told by the Home Office that paternal relationships could continue after deportation, with communication technology sufficiently replacing the physical contact of fathers (the ‘Skype hug’). But as a British female wife of a deported husband explained:
Yes, we’ve got WhatsApp and Facetime, but it’s not the same as that person being there.’ (Partner of a deported man, with whom she has two children)
Decision makers also often argue that the whole family – including British citizens – can relocate to the country of deportation, including countries that the Foreign Office warns against travelling to. Such suggestions undermine self-determination and overlook considerations such as extended family and networks in the UK.
Reunite and respect
Rather than being prison or punishment, immigration detention is an administrative process, generally intended to facilitate a person’s removal from the country. Yet, such language belies the emotional violence of indefinite incarceration and the threat of deportation to distant ancestral homelands. It also obscures the active role of detention in separating individuals from families and social networks, which, in a cruel twist, may then be used to weaken people’s chances of having their relationships deemed ‘genuine and subsisting’, thereby easing their exile from the country and their families.

The importance of being with

Image courtesy of @Manchestermisol

Beatrice Grasso is Detention Outreach Manager at Jesuit Refugee Service UK where, with volunteers, she supports many detained in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook detention centres. In this blog, she explains how their mission “Accompany, Serve and Advocate” informs and shapes their work in these detention centres, ‘places most people don’t even realise exist’.

Imagine being taken away from home in the middle of the night, no time to pack, to call your friends. Imagine being driven around in a van for hours not knowing your destination, no breaks, strangers joining you in your mutual confusion. And now imagine being told you’re going to be detained, indefinitely.

No, this isn’t a prison, but it sure looks like one. You don’t know when you’ll be released, or indeed even if you’ll be allowed to stay in this country at all. It might just be possible that you’ll be put on the next plane to a country you left as a child, where they speak a language you don’t understand, where you’ll be a foreigner in everything but your documents. You don’t know if you’ll see your home again, laugh with your friends, play with your children.

Your life as you knew it is officially over: you might leave detention at some point, but detention will never leave you.

This can’t be real, right? It certainly sounds like a nightmare, not like something that could ever happen today in the UK. Yet, for many of the people we regularly visit and support inside immigration detention centres, this is exactly how it works.

At the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) UK, we’re committed to caring for those who are totally neglected or inadequately attended to, supporting the most vulnerable members of our society. People held in Immigration Removal Centres definitely fall into this category, forgotten as they often are in places most people don’t even realise exist.

Providing pastoral care to people in detention is a challenging task we have set ourselves, but one that our many committed volunteers nonetheless tirelessly dedicate themselves to, visiting the Heathrow Immigration Removal Centres every week. We strive to provide what support we can, attempting to bring comfort where there is only distress.
This is not without its difficulties: how can we avoid giving in to the despair that surrounds us? What can we do, when we are faced with so many questions we simply do not know the answers to? Where can we find the strength to battle the frustration and the helplessness we feel when we realise there is nothing we can do to change that person’s situation?

To find the answers to these questions, we need to go back to our mission: “Accompany, Serve and Advocate”. Accompanying these men through what is possibly one of the darkest times in their life means walking alongside them as they navigate their fears and the uncertainty their future holds. Serving them as companions, putting them at centre of all that we do, and accepting the fact that sometimes there is nothing we can do except to be: to be present and available for whatever is needed, be it a word of comfort or just a shared silence, and sometimes simply to be there, with them and for them. And lastly, to advocate, giving them the voice that has been taken away from them, making sure that, while they might be out of sight, they are not put out of mind.

When starting our service in detention, many of us are guided by a deep desire to fight injustices and change the world. We are soon confronted with the fact that this is much too big a task for anyone to carry out by themselves. When the sadness surrounding us becomes overwhelming, it is tempting to think that this has all been a pointless exercise. When we witness the mental and physical deterioration of so many over time, it is hard to remain convinced that we still have a meaningful role to play.

When our ideals seem just illusions, it is easy to start feeling hopeless. It is in those times, then, that we need to remind ourselves of the true strength of our work, which is not found in grandiose gestures, but in little, daily acts of love. A phone call every few days tells a young man that he is in our thoughts. A visit gives him something to look forward to. A listening ear gives him the space to express his anger and pain, knowing that, for once, he will not be judged for what he says.

There have been many instances in the past where this has become apparent, but one episode in particular resonates with this. During one of our regular visits, we were approached by a young man who, like so many others, was devastated by the fact that detention was tearing his family apart. His greatest despair, he told us, was that he would not be there for his child’s fourth birthday the following week. His greatest fear was that she would think he had forgotten about her, and this constant worry was breaking him. Thanks to the generosity of many, we were able to help him by sending his daughter a small gift and a birthday card in his name. The joy in his voice when we saw him again is a memory that will last for a very long time. What was only a small gesture to us, had helped this family feel together again, if only for a brief time, and had, in that moment, made his stay in detention slightly more bearable.

It is through these small acts of care, then, that we can try to shine a small light of hope in the dark void that is indefinite detention. For until this inhumane practice is brought to an end, and a time limit on detention is introduced, this is all we can wish to do. We might not be able to change the world, but we must do all we can to change one person’s world.

Four days in Colnbrook

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

Week 6: #Unlocked17 visits Campsfield House

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

An introduction to Campsfield, in tweets

Walls of Resistance

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


Also on the blog this week:

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

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

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

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

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

 24th Anniversary Demonstration

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

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

Dungavel demonstration

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

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

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