Detained for sleeping rough

Increased detention and deportation of EU citizens from the UK has been in the news for some time, especially in the context of debates surrounding Brexit.  NELMA has been working with EU citizens who have been detained while sleeping rough.   
North East London Migrant Action (NELMA) and The Public Interest Law Unit at Lambeth Law Centre have been granted permission for a judicial review of the Home Office’s policy of detaining and deporting homeless EU citizens—just for sleeping rough.
From 9am-12 noon on Tuesday November 21st—the first day of the judicial review hearing—NELMA and other groups opposed to the policy will be holding a demonstration outside the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand. The aim of the demonstration is to show the government—and the judge—the extent of public opposition to this most inhumane of ‘hostile environment’ policies.
Over the past year NELMA has been interviewing EU citizens affected by the policy. Here we present Mihal and Teodora’s story.
Mihal and Teodora*
We’re from Bulgaria, but before we came to the UK we lived in Greece for a long time. We did seasonal work in the fields, mostly picking olives. For four months of the year we could earn well—€30 a day—but the rest of the year was hard.
We came to the UK because we had heard it was the country with the most work. We thought it would be good here, and at first it was. Mihal got a job as a handyman. He was earning decent money. Then we found a place to live in Ealing.
Mihal doesn’t speak much English, so he worked with a friend. When his friend left, it became much more difficult for him to get jobs. The house in Ealing also turned out badly. The guy we were living with was drinking heavily and was impossible to live with. So we left.
We slept rough outside Victoria station for three nights because we had nowhere else to go. During the day we looked for work and for a place, and at night we slept out. We found a place to live in the first couple of days—we were just waiting for two people to move out.
But then immigration came. It was about one in the morning. They came to our sleeping site—there were lots of us sleeping there, mainly Romanians. We were sleeping on cardboard, and on top of us we had the blankets from our house in Ealing.
There were about five of them, maybe more. They were polite but they didn’t explain anything. They took our details and gave us papers saying we had to report to Becket House. That was all. We weren’t upset or worried at first. We had all our papers in order, so we would be fine.
But when we went to sign—this was three days later—they were rude to us. They told us we had been served papers because we were sleeping on the streets. We asked for an interpreter but didn’t get one. One immigration officer said: ‘Shut up! Fuck you! Go back to Bulgaria.’ We signed something else but I don’t know what it was. Then they took our passports away and detained us.
They put us in Yarl’s Wood. They took Teodora’s medication away and kept it at reception. She’s not well. She can’t do anything without it. We were in there for three months and fifteen days. It was time of fear and stress. Teodora was crying. Her pulse was fast. She couldn’t breathe. She was always in the hospital wing.
It felt like a prison. Knock on wood, we’ll never go back. We saw lots of people try to kill themselves. It happened every day. They took away our mobile phones. I would die before going back. I’m not a criminal.
Our solicitor got us out. We don’t know how or why. We could have been there forever. Whoever works in immigration needs to know it’s not a good job. They’re like criminals. I want the big boss to know what happened to us.
We want to leave the UK. We want to go back to our family. If they had just deported us straightaway, it would have been OK. But they kept us there for three months. And then they kept our passports after we got out. So we can’t get an address, or a National Insurance number, or anything. Teodora has been offered a good job as a cleaner in a hotel. But she can’t do it.
Lots of people have helped us. We wouldn’t have survived without them. Now we’re waiting for our day in court.
*Not their real names.

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. 

Julio y amigos: The impact of detention on the Latin American community in the UK

This year, the theme of Unlocking Detention is ‘friends and families’ and we’re focusing on the often unreported ‘ripple effect’ of indefinite detention and the way this experience can have tragic consequences beyond the individual detained. In this special Spanish recording for #Unlocked16, Julio from the Freed Voices group speaks to four close friends about the impact his detention had on them. In doing so, together – Julio, Luz, Maria, Isabel and Jair – provide a devastating insight into the wider affects of indefinite detention, how it shapes the Latin American experience of the UK, and the vitality of community organising in response to this extreme deprivation of civil liberties.
Huge/special thanks to Daniel Fernando Diaz-Cebreiro of the LondonLatinx for translating and transcribing this special recording for #Unlocked16 – please follow them on Twitter and Facebook, they do exceptional work supporting the rights of Latin Americans in the UK.
You can find Daniel’s translation of the audio below.

Julio: My name is Julio. I am a member of the Freed Voices group. We are a group of experts-by-experience who speak out about the realities of detention. Between us we have lost over 20 years of our lives to detention. I have lost 179 days in detention, which is equal to almost 6 months. Today, I am with people that are very important in my life – first, we talk with my great friend Alma Luz Lopez, and later with my friends Maria, Isabella and partner, Jair. Detention had a big impact on me as an individual, but I want to demonstrate how detention can affect us all and, more generally, how it affects the Latin American community in the UK.
Julio: How did you feel when you saw that I was being detained?
Luz: I felt annoyed, upset, it seemed so unfair. And the fact that they refused to listen to anything was shocking. I was saying, “Please wait, let me call his solicitor, he has his case open and his application has been completed.” But they don’t listen, and you feel powerless because what they’re doing is so arbitrary.
And so it was quite traumatising to see how they came and targeted people table by table, who were relaxing with their friends, chatting, sharing stories, everyday things that one normally does; and without warning they detain him. And we tell them, “You can’t take him just because he’s here, he was a case that’s already open and you need to look at it,” and they said “No, we have nothing to do with that, he’s ready.”
And so that was traumatising to witness, to see someone so close to you be taken and to see their face. Julio, your face fell because it was a terrible moment.
Julio: Do you remember when you visited me at the detention centre?
Luz: That was too traumatising. I had never seen anyone being detained before then. I began to cry because a person’s freedom is so important, and to treat you like that when you hadn’t done anything wrong. You know, if you’d come from another country without papers, and you had committed a crime then maybe, but when you’re trying to do everything properly with the right paperwork – it’s so unfair. I couldn’t even get near you or physically touch you at all because they are all over you, “oh you can’t touch his hands because he could get away.” So much restraint… “but why, why do you do this to human beings?” You have to be able to have human contact, be able to have a hug or a kiss, you know – freedom of movement. It was so awful to see you in the state you were in, your mood and self-esteem were so low. You were always such a happy, positive person and to see you like that was traumatising.
Julio: How did you find visiting me in the detention centre, and then returning to your daily life?
Luz: It was intense. I told myself that it felt awful that you weren’t a part of my life anymore. You were in there for so long. It was horrible to think that I wouldn’t see you again.
Julio: What was the impact of visiting me on you?
Luz: It’s just so many emotions hitting you at once, I didn’t know what to do to. I kept thinking; “What more can I do to make him feel better, to help him cope, to encourage him to keep fighting and not give up? What can I do to see him again, so that he carries on?” When this is someone who has never hurt anyone, who in fact has given so much to others, mostly to the community. Everyone knows that I’ve worked a lot in the community, and we both started a push to make the community more visible – as we’ve always been invisible. And so you’re part of that process, and then suddenly you’re not here and you’re in there, and it was like a battle had been lost.
Julio: How did this whole situation affect you?
Luz: The first two weeks were very intense, trying to move heaven and earth to get you out of there as we knew it was an unjust detainment. I lost weight, I spent weeks…I won’t say depressed because that is maybe too extreme…but two weeks desperately knocking on every door which I’d never had to do before, appealing to people’s kindness (especially those close to the community), convincing them that he was a worthwhile case and good person. And in the end we got their support and it was very good. However, they were two weeks in which I had no life because ringing you and knowing that I couldn’t get you out was traumatising.
Julio: Have you seen changes in my personality?
Luz: Yes, as I’ve said before you weren’t the same cheerful person you used to be, you tried to be brave for us and that is admirable. We tried to laugh, but we’d break down for a bit, breathe, and try to recover, and we’d try to support each other and give each other strength. But obviously, as I’ve known you for so many years I knew that you were making such a huge effort, I knew you were battling against yourself and I could see that you became depressed and that you wouldn’t accept it when I spoke about it. You tried to deny the fact that you were depressed, you would say “No I’m not, I have no reason to be” – but you were.
Julio: How has it been for you in supporting me, financially and emotionally? How do you feel about this situation?
Luz: Well I was working near the Immigration department in London since I arrived because I was often an interpreter at the airport on the other side, with the lawyers and other people. I think the country was in the middle of adapting to a new situation but the arbitrary side of how they deal with things is very difficult because they will not accept facts and they make many mistakes. And so it is very upsetting to know that it’s a process in which they’re not enforcing the necessary and right parameters to be able to judge these kinds of cases.
Julio: Another question: what do you think of detention centres?
Luz: I do think that there are things that need to be improved. I don’t think that detention centres should exist within the immigration process. Sure they could have delinquents but why detain an immigrant, why lower their self-esteem like that? And make their family see them in that situation, having to take their children and see how a child doesn’t want to say goodbye to their mother or father because they’re detained simply because of their immigration status. It’s difficult as they’re so much to do, but I don’t dare to say it because I respect the law and agree with it, but we must review them so that they are managed in a way that benefits all of us.
Julio: What changes could you see in my personality?
Isabel: It totally affected you, psychologically and emotionally. Just remembering those moments you cry and get depressed. It affected you physically, psychologically, you became so thin and those bright eyes you had aren’t there anymore. It’s had a big effect, right?
Maria: Yes, it’s affected you so much. You’re clearly on edge. You find it hard to concentrate, and to do things that you would have done. You were always so motivated, you always had such a driving force, an eagerness to do things. And now I don’t see it as much.
Isabel: And now it’s not even the immigration issue. He is being called by the council tax people, by credit tax people, because of the financial effects…all the chaos he had in his life. Because they [the Home Office] made a snap decision and had him there for six months and three days in total.
Julio: How have you found it, supporting me financially and emotionally…?
Isabel: Ah no, you know that you’ll always have support from me, Julito. Always. Whatever you need and however I can help, you will always have my support. Economically and emotionally. Because it’s not always a financial need, but also if you need to ring someone and talk you will always have us.
At the end of the day, if you go back to Colombia you have nothing there. You’ve already built your life and future here, you’ve been here for many years and all your friends are here – you have everything here, your whole life. You have your partner. And so you will always have me, one hundred percent.
Jair: And we’ll stay here like this.
Maria: And for me it’s been frustrating that sometimes I want to do more and I can’t. Sometimes I wish I could, for example when you were in detention, do all the work – fundraising, speaking with lawyers and this person and that. There was that frustration, of wanting to do more and not being able to, to get more done, getting signatures […]
Isabel: Getting so many signatures. And that experience also helps us to understand how much the Latin American community loves you – how much they’d fight for you – the number of people who supported you, how many signatures did we get, Maria?
Maria: Oh my god, at least 500?
Isabel: More than 500 signatures. Everyone I phoned all contributed £50, £100, £200, anything they could.
Maria: Hey, they would send us like, “oh I don’t have much but I’m chipping in at least £10.” So, so many people. Sending empanadas, everything that was made.
Julio: Well, how did my detention change your attitudes towards the law and the British government? What perspective do you both have?
Isabel: My view has completely changed. Simply that the government has policies and documents that, when you see it all online or in public it all seems to work perfectly as an organised system. But in reality it’s only a piece of paper. And it benefits people who it shouldn’t, it’s not a fair or equal system.
Maria: As I said before, I’ve become very cynical. I’ve become so cynical of all these empty words: “we’re a community, we’re a country which prioritises human rights, we’re a country where there is justice” – no. I don’t see it like that anymore. Justice only exists for the few. If we have the misfortune of falling on hard times like these, we don’t get justice.
Julio: What do you both think we can do to contribute? How can we change this, and prevent these things from happening?
Isabel: I think that we need to organise more in our community. If there were more Latin Americans in a position to take part in decision-making, and more representation in political and financial spaces. We have Elephant and Castle, for example, which has a great concentration of Latin American but in reality we don’t organise as a strong, influential group. And so it’s each to their own. And whilst there’s that drive and shared will to challenge the situation and fight for change, in reality I doubt it could happen because there isn’t representation in those areas where change can really happen.
Julio: And the last question that comes to me: what can be done to prevent people from getting detained?
Maria: More education so people can understand a bit more about how the immigration system works. And in your case I learnt how bad lawyers can be, who give really bad advice and only care about how much money they can get out of the client, instead of wanting to help you progress in your case and your immigration status. But they’re not interested in those benefits. So we need to educate, and campaign (as Latin Americans) so that people know that, if this is your situation you can go here and get help…more work within our community.
Isabel: I feel that the detention centre here is the closest thing you get to a torture facility. Because at that point when you completely lose your freedom, and your access to basic human needs, and thirdly, that they can come at whatever o’clock at night to make you pack your bags and take you to the airport to only be brought back three hours later…that’s the closest thing to torture that could ever exist. And that’s where the problem lies – the fact that they don’t treat someone like a human being.
Julio: Well that’s that. Thank you for coming. Thank you, my dears.

Boundary Making and the Broad Ripples of Immigration Enforcement

About the Author: Melanie Griffiths is a former COMPAS DPhil student and is currently an ESRC Future Research Leaders Fellow and Senior Research Associate at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol. She is leading the ‘Detention, Deportability and the Family: Migrant Men’s Negotiations of the Right to Respect for Family Life’ project, examining the family lives and Article 8 rights of men at risk of removal or deportation.
This article originally appeared on the blog of COMPAS: the Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society (COMPAS) is a Research Centre within the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography at the University of Oxford. 
Earlier this week my friend Amir and I went to a prison near Oxford to visit our mutual friend, Musa, who is serving a prison sentence of a few months for handling stolen goods. It’s a low security, small prison and, according to Musa, as prisons go it’s not that bad. But this prison is unusual. This prison only incarcerates foreigners, meaning that its social and legal functions go beyond ‘simply’ punishing and rehabilitating offenders.
The realisation that something special is going on begins during the long process of entering the prison for a visit. Standing outside the gates with the friends and families, the diversity of languages and passports on show are striking. Once inside, there is a heavy air of dread hanging over the visits hall, despite most of the men’s short sentences and light offences. The threat of deportation is ever present, because prisons like this one operate through a dual logic of criminal justice and migration management.


The process of forcibly removing someone like Musa from the country first requires his social mortification. Despite political promises to increase deportation rates (most recently made in the USA, by President-elect Trump), expelling inhabitants, even those with criminal records, is a complicated business. Lengthy legal processes of disentanglement and Othering are often required to make them legitimately deportable. Contrary to the seemingly straightforward indication of alterity presented by labels such as ‘foreign criminal’, ‘immigration detainee’ or ‘illegal immigrant’, in many cases people like Musa are socially embedded, long-term residents, who may even have family members (including British ones) in the country, giving them grounds to claim to belong.
Foreign national prisons – and the Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) that offenders move onto after completing their sentences – are spaces where this messy business of boundary-making occurs: where attempts are made to separate citizen from non-citizen, the ‘good’ migrant from the ‘bad’, the deportable from those who can successfully assert a claim to belong.
Musa is still in this process of disentanglement. Although he is clinging onto the fast approaching end of his prison sentence, he knows that that might not be the end. Musa claimed refugee protection in the UK well over a decade ago and now has indefinite leave to remain, as well as a home, long-term partner and friends in Oxford. However, he also has a deportation order as a result of being branded a persistent offender. As Musa explains it, on the day his sentence ends – and not before – he will discover whether he returns to Oxford as a reformed local, or is transferred to an IRC as a foreign criminal. He is resigned to this last minute revelation, finding it impossible to predict or make sense of people’s trajectories through the migration system.

A social phenomenon

The process of forced removal works by first individuating a person; attempting to separate them from their private and family life in the UK. And yet immigration enforcement is a social phenomenon, with the boundaries of IRCs extending far beyond the incarcerated individual. In the UK, 32,000 people lose their liberty to immigration detention each year, with many more living with the threat and/or memory of such experience. If we also consider the friends, families, communities and workplaces in the UK and beyond that are indirectly affected by someone’s detention, then we see that immigration enforcement is part of an enormous number of people’s ‘social universe’, even if they are never themselves detained.
For asylum seekers and other precarious migrants, the spectre of immigration detention is a disciplining force, reminding them of their own vulnerability and encouraging docility and compliance. But immigration enforcement not only harms non-citizens. Indirectly, it affects the hundreds of thousands of Brits who are connected to ‘detainable’ people by friendship, love or blood, a topic I am researching. Shockingly, as a result of the ongoing degradation of the rights of dual- and naturalised-citizens, immigration enforcement also directly threatens a growing number of British citizens.

The conditionality of neo-citizens

The line dividing foreigners from citizens is imagined to be clear and absolute, but in reality is blurry and requires constant (re)iteration. It is also moving and increasingly, when Amir and I visit friends in foreign national prisons or detained at Oxfordshire’s IRC Campsfield House, Amir is reminded of his own precarity through the experiences of his less fortunate co-ethnics.
Amir is a refugee and although he now has British citizenship, developments such as increased rates of depriving dual and naturalised Brits of their citizenship, means that he remains precarious despite naturalising. In today’s Britain, Amir is indelibly Other, despite the identical British passports that we use as our IDs on these visits.
Campsfield House is only six miles away from COMPAS, and yet such sites, and indeed the very practice of immigration detention, remains peculiarly out of sight. Attempting to raise awareness, the Detention Forum’s online initiative #Unlocked16, undertakes an annual two month-long virtual ‘tour’ of the UK’s detention estate. Now in its third year, this social media project ‘visits’ every site of immigration detention in the UK, including Campsfield this week and prisons previously. Tweets, blog posts and an interactive weekly Twitter-based Q&A with someone currently detained, help shine a spotlight on immigration detention.


This year, #Unlocked16’s theme is ‘Friends and Family’, acknowledging that in addition to people actually detained, immigration detention affects those like Amir and the families we waited with at that prison. Fundamentally, as Musa and Amir show us, immigration enforcement is a phenomenon that goes beyond the detained individual and traditional IRC sites, and that is entering new places and encompassing new groups. This is a trend some years in the making but that is accelerating with policies that lengthen and entrench the precariousness of non-citizens (and increasingly also of new and dual-citizens), and that multiply the spaces in which immigration checks and exclusions occur.
Given the centrality of migration to the UK’s recent EU referendum and the pledges by President-elect Trump to deport millions of people from the USA, we can be certain that immigration enforcement will remain high on political agendas worldwide. We urgently need to debate the role of immigration detention in boundary making and I’d urge you, whether or not you have (yet) been touched by the practice, to explore and participate in #Unlocked16.

"The endless uncertainty of detention…it’s like tick tock…tick tock….tick tock"

Read about this recent event co-organised by Detention Forum members René Cassin.  The event was held as part of Mitzvah Day, a day of faith-based social action.  Although rooted in the UK’s Jewish community, it is day that encourages and celebrates interfaith social action.


On November 22, as a part of Mitzvah Day, Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue and René Cassin held a joint event to raise awareness of indefinite detention of asylum seekers in the UK.  Northwood andPinner received the Mitzvah Day Interfaith  Partnership of the Year Award for a whole day of activities which focused on refugees.  Joining us on the day was Ben Du Preez from Detention Action who introduced the event with an explanation of the current system of asylum detention.

We first heard from Thiru, a member of Freed Voices, a group of experts in asylum detention through experience. Thiru recounted his recent experiences, describing the suffocating process of claiming asylum as like being ‘in a tornado, unable to breathe’. He told us how his detention was like torture which left him andhis fellow detainees stricken with mental scars.

Above all else, the audience was left with a real sense of injustice.  After all, Thiru was innocent; he had done nothing wrong, yet he was locked up without a trial and treated like a criminal.

We then heard from Fritz Lusting, a 96-year old German-Jewish refugee who had been interned on the Isle of Man during the Second World War.  Fritz came to the UK in 1939 in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, when it became clear that his life would be in constant danger as a Jewish person in Germany.

In response to the growing fear and mistrust of Germans living in Britain, the government instituted a policy of the internment of all German males.  Fritz spent a period of four months interned at camps in York and on the Isle of Man, before being released on the condition that he joined the British Army.

In Fritz’s speech, he described how the rhetoric in the media turned against him and his fellow refugees as the German army drew closer the Britain.

We can draw parallels here with some of the anti-refugee sentiment we see in the media today.  Just as Fritz escaped Nazi Germany, modern-day refugees are fleeing danger and authoritarian regimes in countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea.

René Cassin is working to introduce a time limit on detention in an effort to improve the conditions for people like Thiru. We are calling for the government to introduce an amendment into the Immigration Bill setting a 28-day time limit on detention.  Not only would it improve the mental health of detainees who suffer immensely from the uncertainty, it would also save an estimated £75 million per year of taxpayer’s money. The UK is the only country in the EU not to have a time limit; we need to introduce one if we are to restore our proud tradition of protecting human rights and civil liberties.

“They want us to imprison and deport ourselves”

symaag400This post was written for Unlocking Detention by Stuart Crosthwaite, Secretary of the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG),  with thanks to the refugees and asylum seekers quoted here (some names changed) and to John Grayson whose ‘academic activism’ contributed to this article.  This post was published as our partner Justice Gap‘s #Unlocked15 article of the week.

The first event we in the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) organised was in 2007: a 3 day, 30 mile march from Sheffield Home Office to Lindholme Immigration Removal Centre near Doncaster to protest against detention. Lindholme is now closed, the Home Office building has moved but we are still here.

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 Moreton Hall in Lincolnshire. But 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 packs all his immigration case papers in a rucksack each time he has to go to report.

“Don’t Interfere”

A condition for receiving asylum support is to report at Vulcan House weekly, monthly or every few months. Some people arrange for friends or supporters to accompany them when they report, feeling this provides them with more security or – if detained – an immediate campaign for their release. In the last year Home Office staff have sometimes tried to deny people the right to be accompanied. A retired teacher from Barnsley, who is an experienced volunteer, experienced this when he accompanied a South Asian family on a recent visit to Vulcan House: “As soon as I entered the building I was shouted at to ‘identify’ myself. One of the staff spoke to me as if I was a child. ‘If you’re not their lawyer what are you doing here? Get over there out of the way and don’t interfere.’”

Screenshot from 2015-11-26 16:46:01

Image – August 2008: South Yorkshire Sudanese community demonstrating outside Vulcan House for the right to work and to be treated respectfully. We soon discovered the newly built glass and steel Home Office HQ and surroundings had excellent acoustics.

The Home Office policy to create a “hostile environment” for ‘illegal’ migrants is being put into practice at Vulcan House.  Officials have handed out compulsory questionnaires (in English) to asylum seekers, demanding comprehensive personal and family information from people signing. Questions range from data-trawling: personal details of everyone who lives in the same house as the person reporting, to the apparently casual “how do you spend your time each day?” (designed to question voluntary activities). Then there’s the question “what are your hopes for the future”? Apparently innocent, but in the hands of the Home Office, a tool for entrapment. The question appears designed to push people into the ‘Voluntary’ Assisted Return and Reintegration Programme (VARRP) if anyone gives the (understandable) response of “I hope to see my family/country/home again”.

Going Home to Rotherham

The ‘Choices’ VARRP scheme has been heavily pushed by the Home Office at Vulcan House. Perhaps they’re in training for 2016 when the “Assisted Voluntary Return” programme is run directly by the Home Office. As people report at Vulcan House, they are bombarded with ‘Choices’ promotional material with pictures of smiling refugees who have ‘chosen’ to go back to the countries they fled from. Staff have clearly been instructed to push the scheme aggressively, even rudely, sometimes with unexpected results. I overheard this exchange between Grace, an exiled political activist from Malawi and a member of Vulcan House staff. (Grace is a destitute asylum seeker who has to walk miles each time she has to report to Vulcan House)

Home Office: “Do you want to go home?”
Grace: “Er…yes”
HO: We can help you with travel home, pay for your fare. Do you want us to help you with that?
Grace: Yes that would be good
HO: When do you want to go?
Grace: Today, now

When Grace explained that the bus to Rotherham costs £2.20 the nature of the misunderstanding became clear. She walked back home.

Prepare, Protect, Prevent, Pursue

Representatives from Sheffield asylum rights charities had sought a meeting with Home Office staff from Vulcan House to talk about the intrusive questionnaires, the rude and aggressive selling of the ‘Choices’ scheme and the right to be accompanied when reporting at Vulcan House.

At the meeting in February 2015 hosted by local MP Paul Blomfield, whose Sheffield constituency includes Vulcan House, the representatives were surprised to find that the Home Office had sent along its head of asylum ‘Reporting Centres’ for the Yorkshire and the North East region.

thedialThe charity people raised their concerns. The senior officer from the Home Office was apparently in no mood to apologise for her staff or give any ground to “you voluntary organisations”. Instead, she brusquely handed out copies of The Dial (see left) which seeks to criminalise and persecute people seeking safety in the UK

Then she read out a lecture about her exercise of powers under the new Immigration Act of 2014 (checking on addresses and landlords who housed illegal immigrants) and hinting that anyone (not just landlords) giving assistance to “illegal immigrants” in the future might find themselves subject to the law. She also threatened the representatives with the prospect of an order “at present on the Minister’s desk waiting to be signed off” banning volunteer escorts from all Reporting Centres.

“Playing a Game to Scare Us”

The Home Office’s Vulcan House has also been the chosen location for the organised interrogation of 26 Sudanese asylum seekers by Sudanese Embassy officials, described as “re-documentation interviews” in 2011. In testimonies from those people subjected to this – possibly illegal and clearly intimidatory – practice there were reports of threats to the asylum seekers’ families in Sudan and attempted bribery. “The Border Agency are playing a game to scare us” was one man’s assessment of the process and a report titled with this statement was compiled and presented to the Home Office. Despite repeated questioning of the procedure by SYMAAG and Waging Peace the (then) UKBA response was vague and evasive.  A reference to our report on this practice in the August 2015 Sudan Country Information Guidance (see 4.1.4) blithely states that attendance at the interviews was “purely voluntary”. What would you do if you feared renewed torture in Sudan and received a Home Office letter stating (in bold) that “Failure to do so” (attend the interview) may affect any outstanding claim you may have with the Home Office”?

Opposition to these interviews sparked the formation of support networks within Sudanese communities in the UK and with campaigners. On other issues, people seeking asylum and asylum rights advocates have worked closely. In 2012 approaches to (then) UKBA at Vulcan House resulted in a commitment from them to ensure all staff wore clearly identifiable numbers, after complaints of rudeness and bad treatment. UKBA added that the new ID would also enable particular staff to be congratulated on their ‘good practice’. While it’s not clear how many official compliments have been received by Vulcan House staff from people forced to report there, asylum seekers are quick (and generous) to point out that some workers there are respectful and efficient.

“Soft detention”

The baffling changes in reporting regulations and the general regime at Vulcan House suggest that many measures are the knee-jerk responses of Vulcan House officials to higher management and ministerial pressure to ‘get tough’ and ‘get results’. For example the questionnaires mentioned above were heavily pushed to people reporting at Vulcan House for a few months with repeated warnings that it was “compulsory” to complete them. After a few months these badly photocopied grey sheets were forgotten and have never been mentioned again. The Home Office at Vulcan House appear to lurch from one fear-inducing scheme to another but with the clear intention of making life hard for people who can’t return home because of the threat of war and persecution.

The 2014 Immigration Act attempts to turn landlords, bank workers and health workers into informers and border guards. The Dial strategy seeks to smear people seeking asylum as somehow linked to “organised crime”, thereby enlisting state and private security forces to spy and enforce when required. State and private data-holding/collecting bodies like the DWP and Experian invisibly back up the effort. Capita were paid to send texts direct to peoples mobile phones, telling them: “You are required to leave the UK as you no longer have right to remain.” Despite that fiasco – many people texted were UK residents, an immigration lawyer in one case –  Capita are now paid more public money to tag asylum tenants who have committed no crime. Asylum housing landlord G4S also runs detention, transport, even asylum advice services – a kind of monitoring and enforcement one-stop-shop. There are signs in G4S asylum houses in Sheffield issuing curfews, telling the tenants they must stay in the house overnight. “Soft detention” as John Grayson calls it.

This summer I demonstrated alongside many other people against Yarl’s Wood detention centre, despite its physical remoteness. It was a visceral experience, hearing and seeing the women’s resistance, watching the perimeter fence pulled, rocked, then torn down as the police looked on awkwardly. Later we learned that Serco had tried, pathetically and unsuccessfully, to distract the women with a game of bingo with “cash prizes” while we demonstrated. It was a public relations disaster for Serco and the Home Office and both demonstrators and detainees were emboldened. I’m not suggesting that brick walls, bingo and security guard style immigration detention is finished but that it will be increasingly augmented with means of surveillance, confinement and coercion that are harder to locate, identify and therefore challenge. As an Iraqi Kurdish refugee in Sheffield astutely remarked “They want us to imprison and deport ourselves”.

The damage of indefinite detention

This blog post was written by Colleen Molloy, City of Sanctuary National Development Officer.  The image used at the start of this blog post was produced for City of Sanctuary by Patti McKenna, a community artist in Swansea.

Detained-home from home400When City of Sanctuary launched 10 years ago in Sheffield, our aim was to build a movement connecting local people with those seeking sanctuary and to build a culture of welcome into everyday life.

Since then network has grown through groups in cities, towns and villages across the country, spreading across the Irish Sea and engaging people in Northern Ireland and Ireland.

Our groups vary from big dispersal cities like Manchester to villages like East Hoathly and Halland in East Sussex but all groups share the vision of making our society more welcoming to those seeking sanctuary.

We have raised awareness, networked and built partnerships and have tried to develop the culture of welcome across the voluntary and statutory sectors and have even engaged local businesses in understanding the needs of asylum seekers and refugees. We have also developed what we call streams, including schools, health, maternity, arts, faiths and other themes where we can bring ideas, resources and good practice together across a theme.

We had not intended to be political and we remain non-partisan with support from all the major political parties. However, when you connect asylum seekers and refugees with local people, inevitably relationships build. It is through these relationships, that we have learned from bitter experience about the inhumane process and painful journey that many asylum seekers experience in the bid to seek freedom and safety in the UK.

The most heart-rending and shocking experiences that our volunteers on the ground have found is that of the arbitrary detention of asylum seekers, often at the point of reporting and at the most unexpected of times.

In many dispersal areas, City of Sanctuary volunteers and befrienders have been shocked by their friends being uprooted and detained, often in remote locations. This experience has politicised them, and many of them have been motivated to campaign for their release, gaining thousands of signatures on petitions to the Home Office, raising much-needed funds for legal support and visiting their friends to bring them comfort and clothing and other necessary items. The shocking experience of visiting a detention centre has further motivated their desire to help.   Volunteers have told us “I was really shocked.  I didn’t think that could happen in Britain.  How could that happen in a democracy?”

These volunteers have also stored their friends’ belongings for them whilst they await their release back into the community. Some of these campaigns are successful, but sadly some haven’t and the loss of a friend to deportation and uncertainty has further galvanised volunteers to become involved in campaigns to humanise the asylum process.

In Leicester, the campaign to free Ali was started by the local anti-racist football team, which had welcomed him. As a Hazaran, who had lost his entire family, he was terrified of being returned to Kabul and could barely eat as the weeks in detention passed by.  Ali returned to us after 12 hours in handcuffs at Heathrow airport and the local group helped him through a year of depression afterwards and then supported him into employment after eventually gaining refugee status. But we still miss Anashe, mother and grandmother to British citizens, who was detained twice before deportation back to Zimbabwe and such grave danger that we have lost contact with her completely. Lessons have been learned from both these campaigns and more local people have been mobilised and had their consciousness raised.

In Leeds, we are still saddened by the deportation last year of Adenze after being detained with her two young daughters, seeking sanctuary from a forced marriage and the threat of FGM in Nigeria. Their campaign was featured in national media and a petition was signed by over 100,000 people. Despite this, the family were returned, caught malaria within days, lived in a Muslim Women’s hostel (despite their conversion to Christianity) and then faced destitution, relieved only by continued local support and fundraising.

Volunteers in Leeds fight on for Anita who has been involved in setting up and running Toast Love Coffee, a pop-up Pay As You Feel community café. Her life was thrown into chaos last year when she was detained with her 5-year-old son and a campaign began to release them, led by her friend Anna from Toast Love Coffee and supported by her friends, community and supporters across the country. They were released from detention four days later but are fighting again to stay in the country after Anita’s fresh claim was recently refused (you can sign the petition for Anita to be granted leave to remain here.)

In Bradford, Camila, was dawn raided and taken to Yarl’s Wood with her 18 month old baby. She was not allowed to have physical contact with her daughter throughout her time in detention. After release, her reactive depression led to a suicide attempt but her community rallied around. Having a befriender, making friends and finding opportunities to volunteer for the City of Sanctuary has enabled this young mum to rebuild her life. She now chairs the regional health stream of sanctuary and is doing an access to law course and hopes to become an immigration solicitor if she is granted status.

In Oxford, Ariana managed to escape her traffickers who were planning to sell her to a brothel. She was dehydrated, sick and eight weeks pregnant. After a stay in hospital, the police took her to Yarls Wood Detention Centre. She found it a depressing and stressful environment and became so ill that she was returned to hospital where she was accompanied by 2-3 guards continually, even when going to the toilet. She was treated like a criminal and even though she was released from detention, she had further stays in hospital and was moved to Birmingham and then Leeds whilst still pregnant. Her life and the life of her baby was put at risk. Fortunately, through the City of Sanctuary’s network, she was supported, made friends and found a volunteer to be her birth partner. She was threatened with dispersal soon after her baby was born but by then City of Sanctuary volunteers had rallied round and managed to stop this and she is now accessing counselling and waiting a decision from the Home Office.

In many other places, through cities and towns of sanctuary networks, ordinary people in mainstream groups and organisations have been learning about the damage of indefinite detention through their connection with asylum seekers. Children’s friends are missing them and those who tried to help are also emotionally scarred.  Families have been ripped from communities that accepted them and then plunged back into danger.

The connection with people and experiencing their pain and our own pain when we lose them, is a powerful motivating factor and engages people in the movement for change and social justice.

Most names and places have changed to protect and anonymise asylum seekers, who are still vulnerable. 

How detention affects my community: the view from Belfast

This piece was written for Unlocking Detention by the Larne House Visitors Group.  Larne House is a short-term holding facility near Belfast.  People are detained there for short periods of time before being transferred to another detention centre (in England, or Dungavel in Scotland). 

A perspective of a person at risk of detention

Although I’m with the visitors group, I am writing as someone who is at risk of detention. Visiting others who are already in detention has given me a good idea of the situation and conditions. But the fear of ending up there myself is always as fresh as it was 3 years ago when I came to Northern Ireland. It is probably worse for my brother and his family. They always talk of feeling sick with dread and anxiety every time they can’t reach me by phone or if I fail to answer their calls. They get the worst of their fears especially whenever I have to go for my reporting and I take an unusually long time before I communicate with them after. The constant expressed intent by the Home Office to lock me up in detention has relegated my family and most people in my community to the least respected in society.

Detention to me does not create good citizenship; its structure is based on ill advised policies and is not reflective of a rational society. The inaction by the government to revisit its policies on detention especially the unwillingness to introduce a time limit shows no respect for human dignity and freedoms.

Larne House

A visitors perspective

As a visitor to the Larne Detention Centre for over a year now, I have realised that security within the facility has constantly increased. The staff used to have great commendation from the detainees before but recently some of the detainees have been complaining about not getting sufficient medical help and not enough food provisions. Almost all the people that I have gone to visit have shown worrying signs of anxiety, distress and frustration because of a lack of enough information about their length of stay in detention. Some have spoken of harsh threatening language about forced deportation from Home Office officials. The Larne Detention Centre is quite distant from Belfast where most people would have been ordinarily resident before and it has proved quite a huge impediment to most detainees to receive full support from their families and communities. Some people who have been detained but would previously have been resident in England, Wales or Scotland have expressed displeasure due to the lack of enough information of where they will be taken to from temporary holding at Larne to allow their families to visit them on arrival.

The detainees that I have visited have generally expressed shock at the way that seeking refuge is being criminalised by the British government. Some of them have expressed how their time in detention has amounted to secondary victimisation after running away from wars and dangerous repressive environments in their country of origins. Instead of being sensitive about the plight of the people, I feel that the government should start taking as profound the reasons why people are being forced to leave their countries of origins and sometimes embarking on a risky journey to seek refuge here.

Note: The detailed account above is experienced and shared here by the same person: a volunteer within the ‘Larne House Visitors Group’ who runs the risk of detention him/herself. From tentative initial contacts to the group to seek information we gained a very active and valuable member. Being able to provide a first hand experience at events we organise around the wider refugee issue and the detention praxis in particular has resulted many times in attracting new volunteers and to get people involved on many levels. It also helped us often to put experiences and information we came across while visiting into context.

Keys to freedom: Bristol Immigration Detention Campaign

This blog post was written by Rissa Mohabir, coordinator of the Bristol Immigration Detention Campaign.  BIDC are members of the Detention Forum. 

With the impending parliamentary debate on detention on September 10th, Bristol Immigration Detention Campaign staged Pop Up Protests in three areas of the city of Bristol, engaging members of the public holding their keys as a symbol of support to stop indefinite detention of asylum seekers and migrants.  The result was dynamic; the courage to show up and not just be a faceless signature was welcomed by everyone.

A short film was put together by Ruth, Esam and me, as part of a ‘Walls That Talk’ series on human rights.  Music Action International & Freedom from Torture kindly donated their music.  The sense of community effort was extending beyond Bristol.

Public meeting

On 8 October, we held a public meeting so that people could find out more and become more involved in the Bristol Immigration Detention Campaign.   Bristol’s Palestinian Museum kindly donated their space for the meeting, the speakers their time and valued experience, and thank you to the audience who wanted to know more and be more involved in the Campaign.

Liz Clark shared the complexities as a GP writing medico-legal reports for Medical Justice in a system where she is challenged to remain impartial rather than an advocate of the individual in detention, for the purposes of the court.  Her honest approach provided an insight into the important role in providing evidence for Medical Justice.

Liz commented that:

Healthcare in detention  is supposed to be as good as provision on the NHS, but there is a lot of evidence that it isn’t. Some examples of people who might be seen for a medical report in detention are pregnant women, people with mental health issues, hunger strikers, people whose poor health determines if they are fit to fly, torture survivors, people whose health has deteriorated while in detention.

The next speaker was Mark Shepherd.  Mark has many years of experience in immigration law and battling with the unfair and unjust system and described detention as a “soft word for prison”. He took us down the corridors of Yarl’s Wood detention centre for women, near Bedford, describing a graphic account of one of his clients, who described the horror of the closed doors, the screaming, fear, and mental distress.

I then presented our film (see above!), followed by the audience being photographed holding their keys.

We then heard from Liz Price of Parliamentary Outreach.  Parliamentary Outreach aims to create awareness of the work of Parliament and show how the debates and decisions of the House of Commons and House of Lords are relevant to regions across the UK.  Liz addressed what action we can take.  She stressed the necessity for lobbying with some very helpful guides on the steps involved in navigating Parliament.

What’s next?

We are presenting at the Bristol Refugee Rights event on Human Rights Day on December 10th with the aim of enlisting more help and support as the steering group is currently undergoing a restructure for 2016.  We will continue to protest.