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.

Visiting, unlocked – Danae on Colnbrook

This blog post is an #Unlocked15 interview with Danae Psilla, Advocacy Co-Ordinator at Detention Action.

Can you remember the first time you visited Colnbrook? What were your hopes/fears/assumptions?

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.

I returned to Colnbrook as a Detention Action staff member 5 months ago. This time it was the interior spaces that drew my attention. When entering Colnbrook, I was greeted by jolly photographs on the walls of healthy looking men engaging in numerous activities; lifting weights at the gym, cooking in the kitchen, reading in the library. In the visiting area, paintings of the animal kingdom are decorating the walls, and gentle announcements on billboards remind both visitors and detainees how to behave themselves.  I was confused by these evident efforts to normalise what is essentially still quite a violent space, and I wondered if the men detained here have ever notice them. When your right to liberty is so abruptly taken away, can you see colours, smell, taste, understand the space that indefinitely confines you in the same way that we who visit these spaces do?

What was the first thing that struck you about Colnbrook – ie. something maybe you were not expecting?

What struck me was what strikes most detainees too, I think.

Detainees often bring it up when I talk to them – that the majority of the detention centre staff are of immigrant background. There is a level of tragic irony for people in detention. You’re picked out from a community because do not satisfy the requirements that would allow you to continue being its member, confined in a centre while someone decides on your fate, and ‘guarded’ by people who are just like you.

Was is it like having to collaborate with the staff members in Colnbrook?

We tend to have positive working relationships with staff members in Colnbrook. It can really make a huge difference when you come across someone working there who is genuinely nice and who does not want to set yet another wall between us, as well as between staff members and people in detention.

We recently visited the healthcare unit in Colnbrook where there are about 6 rooms for detainees with physical as well as mental health problems. A female staff member greeted us with a smile on her face, despite the evident fatigue hiding behind that smile at 6 o’clock in the evening. We ended up chatting for a long time to one middle-aged man who had been held in healthcare for several months. He described how his days and nights in detention are long, at times never ending, and that most days there is no reason for him to get out of bed. Yet, when he hears the voice of this particular staff member – trying to get people out of bed for breakfast – he knows his day will be a good one, or at least that it will not be a terrible one. He could not understand why all the other staff members couldn’t be like her: kind, calm, polite and caring towards all the people held there.

From your perspective, what do you think is the main thing that gets people through places like Colnbrook – what enables them to survive? What kind of coping mechanisms have you seen different people employ?

Knowing that others have made it through, and knowing that there organisations, like Detention Action, who are aware of what people in immigration detention are going through and are fighting for them. A sense of solidarity is very important.

You often see people in detention gain that extra strength when they realise there is someone else that is struggling alongside them, and that this person could do with a bit of support, or direction, or company. It’s amazing to see the number of people who act as interpreters, they listen to each other’s stories, they act as each other’s mediator. There’s a whole underground workforce of counsellors in places like Colnbrook, just made up of the people detained there. Of course it shouldn’t be like this but they give one another a purpose, a sense of agency, that was in part snatched away from them when they were put in detention in the first place.

What do you think are the long-term impacts on those individuals you’ve working with who have been detained in Colnbrook?

I have seen immigration detention scar people. I know people who chose to return to a country they had never known before,  where their life would potentially be in danger rather than to remain indefinitely confined in a detention centre in the UK. Unlike serving a sentence in prison, the punitive character of detention is very hard justify and to rationalise to those that experience it. I have seen spirits being broken, slowly and tacitly. And I have seen men go numb, and men who pause growing.

As someone with a background in working with migrants across Europe, but specifically in Cyprus, are there any outstanding differences in our respective countries’ approach to detention as a means of immigration control?

Unfortunately, there are no great differences in the way Cyprus and the UK use detention as a means of immigration control. In a country of the size of Cyprus however, small tweaks to the way policies and regulations are implemented can actually bring about positive change in a short amount of time. Currently in Cyprus, there are very few asylum seekers left  in immigration detention centres after a decision was taken in late 2014 that stated that people who had come to the country with an intention to apply for asylum, should not be detained even if they had entered illegally or been arrested for irregular stay. It is still the case however, that people who cannot be returned to their country of origin, may spend months in Cypriot immigration detention centres before the lawfulness of their detention can be challenged – after 18 months. If their challenge is successful, they are released only to be re-detained some months later as the law currently in place makes it extremely difficult for migrants to regularize their stay in the country. Just like the UK, there is no automatic review of the lawfulness of detention in Cyprus.

One would hope that a small country like Cyprus, where the current number of people in immigration detention facilities does not exceed more than a couple of hundred, could have been pioneers of alternatives to detention, whose advantages for both the state and the individual have already been well-proved by other EU states that have been implementing them for several years now.

Does working with people in detention make you feel differently about your own status as a migrant in the UK? Do you find people respond to your differently as a migrant yourself?

My work with people in detention definitely reinforces the way I come to understand the numerous injustices that characterize the current global immigration system – a system set in place to satisfy the very needs and wants of the countries that have set it up.  I was born only 70 nautical miles away from Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. The fact that I have been able to travel freely to the UK, study here, get a job here and make this country my home simply because I happened to be born in a country which is on the ‘right’ place on the map, can at times be baffling and frustrating. People in detention would not usually ask most of us working at Detention Action with a non-British accent where we are from, either because there are many of us here, or simply because to them this is ok. A few people ask however, out of genuine human curiosity, and no matter how many times this question was posed to me, I always find myself feeling awkwardly strange and not knowing for a few seconds how to justify – where there is no need to – the fact that my experiences as a migrant in the UK are utterly different to theirs. Should I be feeling ‘lucky’ to be allowed to stay here while not even belonging to any of the ‘great’ nations that have created the rules of the game? Still, the rules of this game seem to changing pretty quickly it seems, so I might not be one of the lucky ones for too long anyway.

“I’ve got a few questions for you”: A letter to Colnbrook

Image courtesy of Michael Collins

This blog post was written by John for Unlocking Detention, in the form of a letter to Colnbrook, the detention centre where he was held for three and a half months.  John is a member of Freed Voices, a collective of experts-by-experience who have lost over 30 years between them to immigration detention in the UK. They are all present or former clients of Detention Action.

Dear Colnbrook,

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

Why were the Officers at the induction unit so mean and unwelcoming to me? I remember asking for a bed sheet and was given a pillow case. I remember asking for a tooth brush and waiting patiently for over 72 hours. I was treated harshly and spoken to rudely. Were you trying to give me a terrible first impression of Colnbrook, or did that just happen by mistake?

Why was my asylum claim treated in isolation to my family asylum claim? I claimed asylum as part of a family but was detained and dumped at Colnbrook all by myself. Were you just trying to scare me because I was so young?

Why did you only tell me I was on the Detained Fast Track after ten days of being on it? I hear it has been abolished now for being unlawful. Did you know how unfair and unjust it was when you put me on it? Every day, I watched your staff go home to their safe beds, and to their families, and then return the next morning. How did they live with that knowing what we were going through?

Why were we locked up in the room from 9pm to 8am every day? What was the point of this? Where were we going to go? Up and over the barbed wire? What message are you trying to send to the people they detain?

The officers at Colnbrook would always say ‘this is a high-security detention centre’. It wasn’t. It was a high security prison. I even had PRISON NUMBER printed in bold on the front page of my medical report. And yet, I have no criminal record, I haven’t committed a crime. I guess my question is, despite this, did you see me as a criminal?

I saw an old man in his late seventies with a walking stick. I saw a guy who had just had a major operation who struggled to pick up his medication. There was a survivor of torture, covered in scars. I heard people screaming at night because they were going mad inside in Colnbrook. What exactly is your definition of ‘vulnerable’ if you are detaining these kinds of people?

I prefer to call ‘Healthcare’ in Colnbrook, the ‘Inhuman Treatment Centre’. Are the staff there medically trained? Are they aware of medical ethics? Do you know that once I was given the wrong medication, complained of dizziness, and the doctor checked my medication and after 5 mins told me “yes, sorry the nurse gave you the wrong medication.” Really?! Do you know how many times I left ‘Healthcare’ with tears running down my cheeks simply because I was terrified I’ve been given the wrong medication again?

Do you think you’d be able to talk about your problems with someone who is doing everything they can to tell you they don’t like you?

Why are the nurses at Colnbrook so quick to dispense medications before listening to the patients, acting like they already knew what was wrong with them? I ended up feeling that their evil was intentional and a calculated attempt to terminate my life or create complications for me.

Were the staff in Colnbrook told to try and make my life, and the lives of my family, an agony? Were they just following orders?

Why was I given the opportunity to work and earn £1 an hour in Colnbrook but now that I am out of detention, I have automatically been stripped off this same right?

I met lots of people who had lost hope because they didn’t know when they were getting out. Is this why you don’t have a time-limit? So that people give up?

Even though I’ve been out now for two months, do you know I still have panic attack every time I think about the horror I went through in your detention centre? Three weeks ago I almost fainted at the police station where I usually sign, just because I saw two immigration officers walking towards me. In that moment, I thought I was going to be arrested. I thought I was going to see you again.

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



Colnbrook, in conversation

Joe is an asylum-seeker from East Africa. He has been in Colnbrook IRC for four months. In this interview for the ‘Unlocking Detention’ twitter-tour, he talks to Detention Action‘s Ben du Preez about life inside Colnbrook, the emotional impact of indefinite detention, and why reforming the UK’s detention estate is more than just case of ‘improvements’.

Working with women in Colnbrook

Image courtesy of Michael Collins

Detention Action’s Shashika Heiyantuduwa describes their work with women in Colnbrook detention centre.  This piece was originally published on the Detention Action website on 12 August 2012.  Detention Action is a member of the Detention Forum.

[In 2012] we held the first workshop at the Rose unit for women in Colnbrook detention centre. We were feeling slightly nervous because it is such a different set up to that which we are used to when working with men in the centre, and working with a new client group – women in detention – we were anticipating many new challenges.

In the Rose unit there is very little privacy.  The only space to conduct the workshop is the laundry/living/sleeping/eating place.  If someone does not want to see us, there is very little apart from close their eyes they can do to get away.

When we arrived Z was the first person to ‘approach’ us.  She welcomed us to sit down and made tea.  She had the most tragic story I had heard that day.  She was detained on her wedding day before she had the chance to tie the knot, despite having asked for permission from UKBA to get married.  The photo on her centre ID card was of her in her wedding dress. Despite being humiliated by the UKBA, in front of their friends and family gathered to witness the ceremony, she was incredibly composed and positive.  She had overstayed her visa.  She accepted her life in UK was not meant to be and had decided with her partner that they would go back to her country and make a home where they were both more welcome.

Rose unit is a short term holding facility for women being detained under immigration powers.  It is located within Colnbrook IRC which is designed and run as a high security holding facility for men.  Before Rose unit existed, women were held in the short term unit for men, where they have severely restricted access to facilities.  The Rose unit is a little better.  It is a self-contained unit with limited facilities.  It holds 8 women at any one time.  Most of the unit is open plan-there are six small beds in a small area. In the middle is a small living space with a couple of book shelves, two computer stations, a TV and some couches.    There are another two small rooms for vulnerable women, they have doors that close and sealed windows that look into the common area.  There are four windows in the room; all sealed that are right opposite the visits hall so the curtains are almost always drawn.  The unit is usually guarded by a female officer who is responsible for maintaining the unit and taking the women out for fresh air breaks twice a day as they cannot go outside when they please.

Women are brought to the unit either because they are about to be removed, to attend an embassy interview or they have recently been detained and are waiting to be transferred to another centre. It is not designed to hold people for more than a few days.   So if they want legal advice, they are not usually able to access it, as there is usually a waiting list.

Men in the centre have access to recreation facilities, legal surgeries and are given information about facilities available at the centre during their induction.  Each unit has designated buddies who new detainees can approach for help and advice about practical issues.   These facilities are not available for women at so it can be a confusing, frightening and isolating experience.

Often the women are newly detained, confused about what their next steps should be and distressed about being locked up. One of simplest but most powerful things that we can do is offer emotional support, advice about their next steps and signposting to other organisations that can help them.

If you are interested in getting involved and are female, please consider volunteering with Detention Action.

Souleymane on indefinite detention

This post is written by Souleymane, who has experienced immigration detention.  His testimony was provided for Detention Action‘s forthcoming annual report.

I was in detention for three and half years.

At first, I would look for signs it would end. I would get hopeful when I saw my solicitor or when other people were released. Or when they took me to the embassy. But slowly that hope faded into the walls around me.

After one year, the waiting got too much. I had rejected the Home Office’s offers to sign for voluntary return many, many times. But just waving goodbye to the days had become too hard. It was a tough decision, but I actually felt great relief after I did it – ‘at least I can have control of my own destiny again’, I said to myself.

I thought my hell in detention would end there and then. But I waited a week and heard nothing. Silence. Another week. They told me they were waiting on travel documents. Another week. Another week. Another week. Another week … Indefinite detention.

Lots of people around me collapsed mentally. They cut their wrists or hung themselves. They couldn’t take the endless not-knowing. They couldn’t take the sense of hopelessness that is the younger brother of indefinite detention – it’s always following it around, the two come together.

I gave up thinking about life outside of Colnbrook. I told myself ‘Colnbrook is your home now – that is the only way to survive’. My cell became my bedroom. The canteen became my kitchen. When I look back now, it’s crazy to think how normal it became to be locked up at night, every night.

Those three and half years in detention served no purpose.

For me, not having a time limit had a huge impact on my mental health. The stress and anxiety of indefinite detention is unimaginable. When I was released it was like coming out of a cave. I couldn’t sleep and couldn’t trust anybody. I still have to fight hard to not think back to that mental torture.

For the taxpayer, it’s also a huge waste. I personally cost the taxpayer over £175,000. For what? That same money could have been spent on a caseworker, to work with me while my claim was assessed in the community. It could have been spent on the community.

For the government too, indefinite detention does not work. They tell me the policy is there to help stop re-offending and absconding. But after two, three, four years in detention, you are a mess when you come out. I remember the first time I had to go and report to sign at Beckett House after I had been released – I was so terrified of being returned to detention, I almost didn’t go.

We need changes. We have to put detention on trial. The current system does not work – for anybody. I will never get those three and a half years back, but there are others in detention, who have also been there for years. And the clock is still ticking for them.

It is time for a time limit on detention.