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:

The Importance of Being With

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

Four days in Colnbrook

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

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.

Week 8: #Unlocked16 visits Colnbrook

In this week of Unlocking Detention, we visited Colnbrook detention centre next to Heathrow airport (and the high-security neighbour of Harmondsworth).

The first blog post of the week was a heartbreaking photo-essay by Jon from the Freed Voices group.  Jon shares the letters he received whilst he was detained at Colnbrook detention centre for 99 days last year. These letters – from his younger brother, mother, younger sister and father – provide a harrowing inside into the wider affects of indefinite detention on families and communities.
Read Colnbrook, by post

Next up was another visual essay, by Jay who has been detained in Colnbrook for 3 months. This is the second time he has been detained – he was previously released from detention in 2014.  Jay spoke to Ciara from Detention Action about the impact of detention and how for better or worse, drawing helps to focus his mind in difficult circumstances.  His incredible artwork and devastating story moved many people.
From a supporter on Facebook:

“I hope you can tell him that people are reading his words and understanding the art, and I for one would like to convey my deep concern for him and heartfelt wishes for a good future.”

And via the comments on the blog:

“This is an incredibly moving account by this young man. Being able to express his emotions in drawings is a gift that communicates his situation visually to others. Sometimes I am ashamed to be British, but feel glad I am free to say that. What he says’ one day God will judge this country the Home Office’ resonates with me on so many counts. Good luck my friend, I hope you can stay here until it is safe for you to return home.”

Read My Drawing is My Feeling

Nine months on from the death of Amir Siman Tov in Colnbrook, Michael Goldin reflected in his blog post for Unlocking Detention on the man he knew.
Read A Prison In All But Name

In a special piece for Unlocking Detention, published by Novara Media, Luke de Noronha wrote about the intimate connection between detention and deportation, sharing the stories and views of those deported to Jamaica: “The ghosts that begin to haunt people in detention, stay with them, and follow them to Jamaica”
Read A View From Jamaica

On the Friday of Colnbrook week, tragic news began to break of a death in Colnbrook, and that a murder investigation had been launched. 
We decided that the sharing of the Q and A with Ali should go ahead, as it was more important than ever to get the word out from detention, and share experiences of every day life there.  Because the Q and A wasn’t live, the interview didn’t mention the news of the death.  As ever, there were really thought-provoking questions and engaging, moving and fascinating answers.  Thank you Ali.
See the full Q and A here
It’s been great to hear how Unlocking Detention is reaching people, making people think, and encouraging people to take action (speaking of which – have you read this piece yet about asking your MP to demand the promised detention reform?)

Q and A with Ali, currently detained in Colnbrook

This interview with Ali, who is detained in Colnbrook, took place last week and we planned as usual to tweet the Q and A throughout the afternoon on the Friday of Colnbrook week of #Unlockd16.
On Friday morning, news broke that a man had died in Colnbrook and that a murder investigation had been launched.  As the interview with Ali was not live, there are no questions about this terrible news, or how the people detained in Colnbrook are dealing with such a stressful situation.
We decided it was important to go ahead with getting Ali’s voice out into the wider world.
Here’s the full interview:

From inside Colnbrook: my drawing is my feeling

Jay has been detained in Colnbrook for 3 months.This is the second time he has been detained – he was previously released from detention in 2014.
Jay spoke to Ciara from Detention Action about the impact of detention and how for better or worse, drawing helps to focus his mind in difficult circumstances.

My drawing is my feeling. When I feel something bad or good I have to draw something. When I draw something bad, it’s because everything is bad and all day long it will feel like that. I don’t know how to explain, when I draw something it makes me feel no bad no good, just to keep my mind busy. My drawing is to escape the torture.
I came to the UK to study English and to stay away for a little while, to keep safe, while the situation was not safe in my home country. I was very political before detention. At home I was involved with student protests – protesting education, protesting everything the government is doing to destroy my country. But freedom of expression is a problem.
DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] is not like the UK or Europe. When you say something the government doesn’t like, you can be in trouble with police or the army. I had to leave.
I didn’t leave my country to come here and claim asylum. But now my situation’s changed and it’s becoming more and more difficult for me to go home. I joined a resistance movement in the UK. They are all over the world except for in the DRC. Before I was just a member, and in the end I was working for them in London. I thought I could go back but when I spoke to my friend – he said ‘don’t come. They will kill you.’
I used to draw before I was in detention. I don’t know if the pictures have changed now but I draw many things about me. Drawings about returning home and what will happen if I go back and how I am afraid.
Now I’m feeling very bad. I don’t know what I’m doing here. In 2014 and 2015 I was in here. I was reporting when they took me, they didn’t just say I was going to the IRC [immigration removal centre/detention centre], they said they were deporting me. I refused to go to Heathrow. One officer said when they come back to me again, if I’m still strong, they will restrain me and tell everyone I’m crazy. I’m not crazy.
That made me feel very bad, very bad. And every time for 2 weeks I was watching on computer how they beat people. Sometimes they can inject you, to make your body feel lazy and tired.
‘One day god will judge this country of Home Office’
Anyway, they already kill my mind before my country kill my body back home. When they will send me at home to be kill and my story will finish in this world.
I was a detainee when I was 19 in 2014.
My name is Jay.

‘A prison in all but name’

Nine months on from the death of Amir Siman Tov in Colnbrook IRC, Michael Goldin reflects on the man he knew.  Michael is an alumni of the René Cassin Fellowship Programme who previously worked for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants
I first met Amir Siman Tov when he called me up at work looking for someone to represent him in his Judicial Review. We spent a long time talking about his long and complex immigration histories. Born in Morocco, he had spent time in Iran and Afghanistan in both Muslim and Jewish communities and was now trying to make a life for himself in the UK.  Unfortunately, we were unable to help him due to lack of capacity and I directed him on to another law firm.  We stayed in touch however and I would often visit him in his home where we would talk, drink Moroccan tea and he would tell me the aspirations he had for him and his wife in the UK once his immigration problems were sorted.
He would text me every week to wish me Shabbat Shalom, the Jewish greeting for the Sabbath and I would reply in kind. However, after a couple of months his texts stopped. I tried once or twice to get hold of him but to no avail. I knew he had legal representation so I wasn’t too worried and I assumed he would get in touch with me in due course.
Then one day, as I was walking into work reading the news, I discovered that my friend was dead. He had been detained at Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre and one morning had been found dead in his room. The circumstances around his death were, as they remain, unclear. Suicide was mooted as a possibility, as was medical negligence on the part of the Colnbrook staff. Amir had severe mental health issues and immigration detention would not have been a safe place for him to be. He needed to be taking regular medication and in a supportive environment, not in a detention centre – a prison in all but name.
For that is what they are. Every door is locked, your daily schedule is strictly regulated and contact with one’s family and legal representatives is limited. There is also limited opportunity for social activities and the provision of healthcare is narrow.  All this makes life in detention extremely difficult but what is perhaps worst of all is that the end is almost never in sight. Indeed, the UK is the only country in Europe that still has indefinite immigration detention. It is one thing to be locked up, it is quite another never knowing when exactly you will be able to wake up free and not inside a compound surrounded by barbed wire and uniformed guards.
Amir had extensive family in the UK and his brother told me he was the one who looked after the family and kept them together.  Had he been afforded the opportunity to stay in this country he would’ve been a major asset. He was intelligent and kind and exactly the sort of person we need in these turbulent times.
While it is important that his family is told the truth and that as a society we can make sure something like this doesn’t happen again, the reason for Amir’s death is ultimately irrelevant.  What needs to be acknowledged is that he was an extremely vulnerable man at the mercy of a state that failed him.  Immigration detention is a controversial and politically charged issue, but what is manifest is that there is simply no justification for locking people up indefinitely when they have committed no crime and just at the point of their life when they need the most support. We need to care for people in Amir’s situation not treat them as criminals.

Colnbrook, by post

This year, the theme of Unlocking Detention is ‘friends and families’ – we’re specifically focusing on the often unreported, or buried, ‘ripple effect’ of indefinite detention and the way this experience can have tragic consequences beyond the individual detained. In this special photo-essay for #Unlocked16, Jon* from the Freed Voices group shares letters he received whilst he was detained at Colnbrook detention centre for 99 days last year. These letters – from his younger brother, mother, younger sister and father – provide a harrowing inside into the wider affects of indefinite detention on families and communities.
Huge thanks to both Jon and his family for sharing such a personal correspondence.
My Younger Brother
My Mother
My Younger Sister
My Father
*The name of this Freed Voices member has been changed to protect his anonymity. 

Unlocking Detention 'visits' Colnbrook

The latest stop on the #Unlocked15 tour was Colnbrook detention centre, near Heathrow airport.  The virtual visit fell during a very busy week in the fight to end indefinite detention, with both Sanctuary in Parliament (organised by City of Sanctuary) and the report stage of the Immigration Bill in the House of Commons.

Immigration detention was a key issue at both of these parliamentary events. The Sanctuary in Parliament event was raising awareness of destitution, detention, and the need to provide safe and legal routes for refugees.

Eiri Ohtani of the Detention Forum asked everyone at the Sanctuary in Parliament event to show their support for people currently held in indefinite detention, and this is what happened:


Although detention was notable in its omission from the 2015 Immigration Bill, much of the report stage debate focused on indefinite detention with key amendments calling for a time-limit on detention to be introduced which received cross-party support.

Colnbrook detention centre certainly epitomises many of the injustices of the UK’s detention regime.

Many of our tweets features photos by Nana Varveropoulou and people detained in Colnbrook themselves, part of a photo project by Varveropoulou to try and show what Colnbrook is really like, from the inside. “There are no windows, no wind”.

For the Unlocking Detention ‘visit’ to Colnbrook, John wrote a letter.  John, a member of the Freed Voices group, wrote a letter to Colnbrook, where he was detained for three and a half months.

Dear Colnbrook,

I’ve got a few questions for you in relation to the three and a half months you held me in detention.

John signed off his letter:

Goodbye Colnbrook. I hope I can clear your horror from my memory. I hope we never meet again.

Read John’s letter here.

We also heard from Danae, who works for Detention Action and supports people detained in Colnbrook.

I first visited Colnbrook 5 years ago, when I was volunteering at one of Detention Action’s workshops. What struck me most back then, was the number of high security doors we came across; the electric gates, the weird-shaped keys, the big fat locks on every door, and the dense barbed wire that sat on the thick tall walls surrounding Colnbrook. I could not understand why these men were deemed so dangerous so as to justify the level of security.

Continuing #Unlocked15’s theme of how detention affects communities across the UK, we heard from South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG), on the impact of detention on communities in Sheffield:

The Home Office South Yorkshire asylum reporting centre is now at Vulcan House in Sheffield, on the banks of the River Don. Except for temporary holding cells beneath Vulcan House there is no immigration detention centre in South Yorkshire. The nearest is Morton Hall in Lincolnshire. For people seeking asylum who are obliged to report to Vulcan House each visit carries with it the threat that they will be detained. And the Home Office are keen to reinforce this fear. ‘I’m always sick… the week before I go to sign’, Pride from Cameroon explained. Mohammed from Sudan couldn’t sleep the night before his reporting day at Vulcan House and he packs all his immigration case papers in a rucksack each time he has to go to report.

We finished up the week with a live Q and A with Sergey, currently detained in Colnbrook.

Sergey’s descriptions of the impact of detention on him and his family were tough to hear, but provided vital honesty about just how harmful detention is.  Read the full Q and A here.