Visiting people held in Dungavel immigration detention centre

Abigail, SDV | Unlocked19

To close this year’s Unlocking Detention by a ‘visit’ to Dungavel and reflect on what’s next, we have asked volunteer visitors of Scottish Detainee Visitors, ordinary people doing extraordinary job of witnessing what’s happening to people locked up in Dungavel, to share their experiences.

Carol (not her real name)

I had heard about Scottish Detainee Visitors from my daughter (who used to be a visitor) but did not think there were visitors from Edinburgh. Have considered volunteering with Freedom from torture but couldn’t find a way to do it. Eventually went on a course with Scottish Refugee Council, which lead to joining SDV.

I was quite unsure about what I would be doing and how I would speak to the people I visited when my visiting started. I am not quite sure what my expectations were, but found it difficult knowing what to talk about, and aware the people we visited were wanting us to help them get out which we could not do so rather frustrating. Having to talk to a person through a glass window, as she was not allowed into the visiting room, was a bit of a surprise.

Another surprise was that the UK detains and often deports Europeans who have committed a crime and served their sentence, rather than releasing them after their sentence.

Before each visit, I make sure I have identification, English money* in case needed, enough paperwork, and pens. If organising visit, I decide who to visit, and phone and text them.

(*Scottish Detainee Visitors give a small cash gift to people who are being removed. They have learned that if the give them Scottish notes, they can be difficult to exchange, so visitors go to a bank that will issue bank of England notes.)

On the way there, we often discuss who we are to visit, and the political injustice that leads to people being detained. On the way back, we are usually talking about the problems and injustices we have just encountered. It worries me there is very little we can do. Nothing encourages me.

Since I started visiting, my view of the UK has changed. I did not realise what an unwelcoming country we are. I did know there were problems for asylum seekers, but never realised the extent of the desire of the government to get rid of people who have families here, and have worked here for many years.


I saw Kate Alexander at Scottish Refugee Council whilst i was volunteering there and got interested in visiting after hearing about how much of a difference it makes to people in detention. My son was once in detention so I identified with the need.

I had visited my son in detention once and so I had an idea of what detention was like- prison like. I expected Dungavel to be just like Morton Hall or worse but I found it to be better although the fence outside was not what I expected. The fence made it look like a maximum prison.

The most memorable positive experience was when a person I was visiting gave me a playing card case that he made at one of the handcraft sessions with a flag of Zimbabwe and a statement “Abigail Thank you” painted on it as well.

Being a visitor has taught me to have unregarded positive response, that is accepting everyone who comes down to see us when we visit as they are and not being judgemental towards those who would have come having served prison sentences. I just see them all as people who need to be valued and supported the best way we can.

I am sure people who have never visited Dungavel do not know that you cannot take certain things like food, old CDs or DVDs, books, toiletries that have an alcohol ingredient in them etc.  You cannot hand over directly whatever you take for people in detention. Just like visiting a prison, visitors are subject to security checks. Whilst visitors are seated with people they are visiting, there is always an officer watching their every move. People visited cannot use visit room’s toilets. There is however refreshment kiosk machines that visitors and the people visited can obtain snacks from.  The provision of dining tables in the visitors’ room is good although I may not know how frequently they are used.

Before visiting, I check the rota days before to see who is visiting with me and also to see if I am driving. I need to make sure I have my ID so I am not stopped from visiting.  If I am organising a visit, I print out previous visit reports and people’s list.  I collect all the necessary paperwork to give to people in detention.  If I have read on the visit report of individuals confirmed for removal, I take £30 for each person so when they get to their destination they have a bit of cash with them.  I make sure I have used the convenience room before I head off to avoid being desperate whilst waiting outside the gate.  I have found it helpful to phone the people on the visit list so they can expect us and be waiting near the visit room.

It feels good on the way to Dungavel as I think about the good cause of visiting people in detention but can be very stressful on the way back at the realisation that there is not much we can do as visitors to get people out of detention. It is not a good feeling when during the visit you learn that a person has been given a ticket to be removed to their home country where they will face danger or even death on arrival.

But when we are informed about the release and grant of bail for people we had visited, that is encouraging.

My view of the UK has changed since visiting people in detention in the sense that I thought the UK observed human rights but I have found the Home Office to be a law in themselves especially regarding the indefinite length of stay for people In detention.

If I had the chance to meet the Home Secretary, I would say, stop the inhumane system of putting people in immigration detention centres. And close all detention centres and find an alternative way of managing people’s immigration statuses.


I applied to become a volunteer visitor after volunteering in Calais because I wanted to do something to support people affected by the UK’s “Hostile Environment“.

I was nervous about how to speak with people in detention as somebody who’s in a privileged position by comparison. However, I found it much easier to chat with people in Dungavel than I’d feared.

It’s hard to say what my most memorable experience has been but I was really moved when, during our last visit before Christmas, we were given a beautiful card for Scottish Detainee Visitors signed by all the people we’d been seeing and who were still in Dungavel at that time.

Surprisingly, it has been uplifting to meet people in detention – some of them having been detained for many months and who are very scared of the possibility of being removed – who provide wonderful emotional support to others in Dungavel and look out for new and particularly vulnerable people there.

Following the Panorama expose of staff brutality against people detained in Brook House and evidence of very abusive, inhumane actions in other detention centres, it can be easy to imagine that many or most people working in detention centres have a racist attitude and engage in abusive behaviour. That doesn’t seem to be the situation in Dungavel, where people routinely say that “the staff are fine – it’s the Home Office whose fault it is we’re here”.

Instead, at Dungavel, we’re seeing an inherently oppressive and abusive system (abusive in terms of detaining people indefinitely simply because of their immigration status) being implemented by people who’re perfectly ordinary and friendly and who may think they’re helping the people they help keep locked up. That in itself seems very depressive – although, of course, it would be far worse if there were staff behaving in such an appalling way as happened at Brook House.

I think people who don’t know about immigration detention need to know this.

Firstly, people are forced to waste months if not more of their lives, locked up with nothing to do and no control over their lives and future. Secondly, people’s spirit and mental health are being eroded as the weeks and months pass by in immigration detention. And thirdly, it is an oppressive system that is entirely arbitrary and Kafkaesque.

When I organise a visit, I spend time looking through the last visit report and people’s list and writing out two lists of who I’ll ask for – a minimalist one to hand to the staff and one with more info for the visitors. I try to phone as many of the people to see as possible and leave messages – and make sure we have money for anyone getting removed and enough paperwork between us. During the journey, if somebody missed the last Edinburgh visit, we update him/her and share anything important to know. But otherwise, we have nice chats about family, holidays, etc.

When I started visiting, I was really worried about my future status as an EU-27 citizen because of Brexit and had a great deal of stress involved in getting Permanent Residency (before the easier Settled Status applications were announced). Although my situation couldn’t be compared to that of people in immigration detention, it felt as if the Home Office cast a shadow over a lot of my life. Even more so because we were hosting an asylum seeker at the time who’d been in Dungavel before and was at high risk of being detained again.

I wouldn’t want to meet Priti Patel (who was the Home Secretary before the General Election). How could I speak with somebody who basically doesn’t believe in the common humanity of people wherever they come from and for whatever reasons they are here – and who displays no empathy in her speeches and decision-making.


I had started reading about immigration in the UK and found out about detention, which before that I didn’t even know existed as I think many people still don’t. I found that lots of detention centres have visiting groups and I had a look to see if there was one in Scotland and then found out about Dungavel and Scottish Detainee Visitors.

I was nervous about visiting for the first time and really didn’t know what to expect but when you reach the gates and barbed wire fences it does still shock you at how intimidating a place it is. Then I felt guilty about that because at least I got to leave.

Lots of the stories about how many people are treated by the Home Office are very memorable for the wrong reasons. But the great positive memories are meeting friends who I made in Dungavel in Glasgow for coffee or lunch after being released and especially when one friend got his leave to remain and we chatted about how great it was to spend time just like normal friends and most people get to do daily and completely take for granted.

I think most people even if they have heard about immigration detention don’t know where Dungavel is. It is completely isolated and in the middle of nowhere so for people that do have families it’s very difficult for them to visit, especially if they don’t live in Scotland.

On the way to a visit I try to keep and open and positive mindset but I worry about it if I’ve had a bad day at work before setting off or I’m feeling tired but knowing how lucky I am to even be able to work and not have to worry about deportation, immigration policy or many other issues that people in Dungavel have to deal with motivates me.

I worry a lot more about the UK and the way the immigration system currently works but also feel so lucky and so guilty that I benefit from so many privileges that come with simply being born in the UK.

If I met the Home Secretary, I would tell her to speak to actual people affected by policies but using compassion and humanity instead of treating everyone as if they are lying.


‘I lost my religion, my family and my country, but I found hope’.

Mustapha's hope | Unlocked19

Mustapha is a young ambassador on the Red Cross’ Surviving to Thriving project, which supports refugees and asylum seekers aged 11 to 25 in Birmingham, Leeds and Peterborough who don’t have parents or guardians in the UK. He described how he ‘stopped feeling’ when he fled Morocco and how he regained his confidence and dignity after and during his very challenging life events, including being detained at Morton Hall immigration detention centre. 

My name is Mustapha and as a young man, I lost everything to be able to follow the religion of my choice. I left my life in Morocco to seek protection in the UK, but instead, I found myself in detention. It’s been 2 years since I arrived in the UK and my asylum case has been refused several times. From my experience, I can tell you that persecution is not always physical, it can also be mental. And the second is no less dangerous than the first. 

Here is my story

My struggle with mental health started the day I decided to convert from Islam to Christianity. From that moment on, I started to lose everything that has always been essential in my life. I lost Allah with whom I grew up and worshipped. I lost my country and my community, where many people now wish me dead. The most difficult to accept is that I lost my family. When my mother said, “I wish you died before telling me because for me you just died today“, I felt my heart being crushed a thousand times.

Losing my faith

When I began to question the religion I had grown up with, the religion of my family, the religion that had been the source of great comfort for me as a young man, it was like questioning my entire identity. Admitting to myself that I was losing my faith shook my foundations and I no longer knew who I was. This was a very hard period of my life.

Scared of being found out

Having lost such an important part of myself, all I wanted was the support of my family and my community, but unfortunately that wasn’t to be. I began to suffer from extreme anxiety and had to look left and right every time I left my house, expecting somebody to come with a knife and stab me. Whenever someone called my name my heart trembled.

I left my country in July 2017 to save my own life. I fled from the house. That was when I stopped feeling.

Denied and detained

When I arrived in the UK I was 23, but I felt like a child. Thankfully, I found the church. I met a priest who heard my story and told me about asylum. They adopted me and treated me like one of them. Now, when someone uses the term ‘family’, I think about my church family.

For a while, I felt like life was improving. But then my asylum claim was refused by the Home Office and I was detained. I cannot describe the feeling of being ‘denied’ by the country that you have sought protection in. Suddenly nowhere feels safe. They wanted to send me back to Morocco. I spent almost two months in detention without knowing what my crime was. My life rocked and deteriorated. Alone in my cell, I stayed awake at night and slept during the day. I was depressed, undead.  

When I was transported to another detention centre, they put me in a prisoner’s vehicle with three other asylum seekers in four separate cells. The cell inside the vehicle was dark and exactly the size of the chair I was sitting on. The journey lasted three hours and I screamed for help the whole way. That day, I discovered I had claustrophobia. 

In detention, my flashbacks and nightmares grew worse until I was eventually discharged. It was at this stage that I attempted to take my own life. 

Finding the Red Cross

I will always consider it a blessing the day I came across the Red Cross. They have helped me beyond words. They have helped me find a solicitor who is helping me to access the legal support I need. They have also helped me to access weekly therapy sessions, so that I can start to deal with my trauma. Without the Red Cross, I would have struggled to access my rights in this country and would have had to rely on the generosity of the church. 

Through the Red Cross’ Surviving to Thriving project, I have been reminded that I have a voice and can influence my destiny and future. They have even given me the opportunity to speak to policymakers about my issues! During Refugee Week, I attended a parliamentary event as a Refugee Ambassador and spoke to 58 MPs about my experience. It felt wonderful to have such important people listen to what I had to say! I am regaining my independence and confidence in who I am and I’m so grateful for that. 

Hope through adversity

My asylum claim is still pending and my future is uncertain, but I am determined to challenge the feeling of uncertainty and take advantage of what I have. I gained Level 2 in Community Interpreting (Arabic – English – French) and am now studying Theology. To other young refugees and asylum seekers struggling with their mental health, I would say don’t waste time or lose hope. Never be ashamed to talk to people about how you feel and let them help you. 

Now I am full of optimism and I will not let my situation or mental health issues come between me and my dreams. 

My detention clothes

My Detention Clothes | Unlocked19

Safiyyah (not her real name) has lived in the UK with her family over ten years. She explains how she was suddenly detained with her sister at a reporting centre, then taken to Sahara Unit in Harmondsworth detention centre and later to Yarls Wood detention centre.

My orange dress with a black cardigan are my detention clothes – I was wearing them when I was
detained on one Thursday. Even today when I wear them, I call them “my detention clothes”. That is
the day which I can never forget.

My family need to report every four weeks. When we arrived there around 9:30am on that
Thursday, my sister and I were told by an immigration officer at the counter that we had a short
interview booked and we had to wait.

We were separated from our mother and made to wait in a locked interview room where even the
windows were locked. It was airless. About an hour later, someone came to give us another security
check. They left and locked us from outside again.

Short Interview

Hours passed and by mid-afternoon, my sister and I were started to feel hungry and also desperately
needed to go to the toilet. The chairs we were sitting were uncomfortable. Another officer was
passing by, so we knocked the door from inside and told him that it has been a very long time for a
‘short interview’.

The officer then came in and told us that our case has been refused and the refusal letter had been
sent. I was surprised, because we did not receive it and told him that. He was adamant that we did
receive it, either us or our solicitor, but we calmly assured him that we had not received any such
letter. He then said that he was going to go back to his office and bring proof of the recorded
delivery and that it had been received by us. He came back around an hour later, and said he was
not able to find any tracking number for the post but it did not matter, as he can serve it to us in
person now. He wrote down the date on the top of the refusal letter, gave it to us and said we had
now been detained.

My sister and I started panicking. He said that he had already informed our mother about our
detention and she had gone to the solicitor to apply for bail. We were then moved from the
interview room to a holding room: all the people there were crying, knowing that they were in a
serious situation. We were being taken to Harmondsworth detention centre.
The immigration officer then came to the holding room and gave us our mother’s phone, it wasn’t a
smart phone, so we were allowed to have it. Then the phone rang after a few minutes – it was our
mother. We started screaming into the phone “Please get us out of here.” and we could hear our
mother also crying hysterically on the other end of the line.

“That night was torture for us”

We then waited there for hours for the immigration van. All the men were taken first, and we waited
for the van to come back. It was around 10pm by this time. I saw they were putting handcuffs on
everyone to take them from the building to the vans outside. They put the handcuffs on my sister
first and when I saw this, it felt as if everything had finished for me. I must have cried all the way
from the reporting centre to the detention centre.

When we reached there, they took our pictures and had a nurse look at us where I told the nurse
that I take anti-depressants and he gave me some. Then they provided us with some food but by
that time, we were not hungry at all. Afterwards, they took us to the Sahara Unit which is the female
only unit in Harmondsworth with 13 rooms. The rooms face each other and each room contains
three beds but only two people are allocated to each room. My sister and I were given one room
together. That night was a torture for us.

Next day, an immigration officer came to see us and handed us a letter. It said our removal was
imminent and our deportation flight was booked in four days. After hearing this, I could feel that my
mental condition was deteriorating. I felt hopeless and helpless. My sister was sleeping and I could
not discuss with her but I felt as if I had to tell someone about my condition. I went to the welfare
team in our unit and they then filled out a Rule 35 form for me that night. And the next morning, I
was placed on a constant watch for my own safety.

The deportation date was approaching. I knew my mother and an MP were doing everything they
can to get us out of this situation and I was feeling worse. I was sitting waiting for my turn to see a
nurse, when the welfare officer walked in and told me that our flight had been deferred. I fainted as
soon as I heard the news and I was treated by the nurse. But, later on, we also received the bad
news that we were going to be moved to Yarl’s Wood detention centre the next afternoon.

Unsupervised and not in handcuffs

At Yarl’s Wood, we were then called to attend another interview. It began again with the
immigration officer asking us that if we knew why we were brought to the detention centre, when
another officer came into the room and asked the immigration officer to go with him somewhere. As
soon as he left, a chilling sensation went through me that maybe another flight has been booked for
us. My sister and I were just crying. The immigration officer then came back into the interview room
and gave us the best news that we had been released on bail. The officers then gave us a train ticket
from Bedford to our place. When we walked outside unsupervised and not in handcuffs, we felt like
we got our freedom and life back.

After the detention, our family have become more protective of each other and more close-knit.
Before when we used to go to reporting, it would just be normal but now when we go, it feels as if
we are walking into a prison. All three of us shiver with fear as soon as we walk into the reporting
centre building. I feel as if my heart will burst out of my chest and this horrible feeling is there every
time we report now.

I am actually confused as to what the ending to this blog could be. Obviously, my main purpose for
writing this piece was so that the people see our situation and the Home Office gives us visa that we
need. But my hope for the future is also that no one goes through what we and what thousands or
millions of others go through each second in immigration detention. That humiliation and the
betrayal by the Home office where they use the “detain first and ask questions later” tactic. We just
want to live in the UK and integrate and contribute to the society in a positive way.

Your guide to #Unlocked18

#Unlocked18 marked the 5th year of Unlocking Detention, our virtual ‘tour’ of the UK’s immigration detention estate. Whether you followed the tour from the beginning or you’re just joining us now, we hope you find something to whet your appetite for learning more about detention and how to challenge it. Here’s a guide to the contributions featured in #Unlocked18, with highlights selected by our team of Detention Forum volunteers and images by @Carcazan.

Week 1: Welcome to Unlocking Detention 2018

22 October: Welcome to #Unlocked18!

Detention Forum Project Director Eiri Ohtani welcomes you to the 5th year of Unlocking Detention.

22 October: Unlocking Detention timeline

To mark the 5th year of Unlocking Detention, this timeline tells the story of immigration detention reform from 2014-2018. We released one year at a time as #Unlocked18 progressed and the whole timeline is now available.

22 October: Immigration detention: The glossary

To help navigate the world of immigration detention, we created a visual glossary with key terms and acronyms used during Unlocking Detention. The images from this glossary are available to download and share

23 October: ‘When I become untamed’: Reflections on life in detention

A powerful, evocative poem written and recorded by Red (not his real name), while he was detained in Colnbrook detention centre. Red is a member of the Freed Voices, a group of experts-by-experience, people with lived experience of immigration detention who are committed to speaking out about the realities of immigration detention in the UK. 

25 October: Depicting wisdom: Drawings from detention

Mishka (not his real name) talks about five drawings he created based on his time in immigration detention. Like Red, Mishka is a member of the Freed Voices. Mishka writes, “when I drew these drawings, the pain and trauma blended into these drawings had already healed and turned into wisdom.”

29 October: Week 1: Launching #Unlocked18

Our first weekly roundup for #Unlocked18. Each week of the tour, we published a roundup of everything shared the previous week to make it easier to look back to find your favourite content or see what you’ve missed.

Week 2: Brook House and Tinsley House

29 October: We can make this world like heaven, or we can make it like hell

A blog from Rafiq (not his real name) who was detained in Brook House detention centre. Rafiq says, “I want to speak out about what I experienced there, and I want to talk about how we can fight for justice”.

30 October: #28for28: Working for ‘the better imagined

Anna Pincus at the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group writes about her work with Refugee Tales’ ‘28 tales for 28 days’. This campaign began on 11 September and featured the release of 28 videos of tales over 28 days, to highlight the need for a 28 day time limit for immigration detention. 

31 October: How to help end indefinite detention

Zehrah Hasan, Policy and Campaigns Assistant at human rights campaigning group Liberty, writes about Liberty’s campaign to ‘End Indefinite Detention’.

1 November: Live Q&A with Marino in Brook House

The Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group put us in touch with Marino (not his real name), who joined us on the phone from Brook House for our first live Twitter Q&A for #Unlocked18.

The live Q&A’s were definitely the highlight of #Unlocked18 for me. It was such a privilege to speak with DAK, Seed, Siarhei and Marino, who were generous in sharing their time, expertise and insight. The behind-the-scenes hiccups (illness, language barriers, phone numbers changing at the last minute, losing phone reception) made it more interesting but also brought home – once again – the difficulty of being heard from inside detention.

Susannah, Detention Forum Coordinator

2 November: ‘I leave you to judge’: Reflections from a visitor

Richard (not his real name), a volunteer with Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, has been visiting people detained in Brook House and Tinsley House detention centres for 13 years. He asks, “Do these stories suggest an inadequacy in the detention system of effective legal representation and of support for emotional suffering?”

5 November: Week 2: #Unlocked18 visits Brook House and Tinsley House

Week 3: Prisons and short term holding facilities

5 November: No one left behind: Including people detained in prisons in immigration detention reform

Benny Hunter, from AVID (the Association for Visitors to Immigration Detainees), reminds us that people detained under immigration powers in in prison are often left forgotten in demands for reform. 

5 November: ‘Your voice can make a difference’: Expert-by-Experience interviews a former minister about the parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention

In 2014, Sarah Teather MP, who was then the Chair of the APPG on Refugees started the parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention, together with APPG on Migration. In this blog, K.A., a member of Freed Voices who was recently detained and released, interviews Sarah about her experience of running the inquiry, and Sarah asked K.A. about his experience of immigration detention. 

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

Sanctuary in Parliament is an annual event which brings local City of Sanctuary groups from around the country to Parliament to meet their MPs to demand change. In 2018, one of its focus issues was a 28-day time limit on immigration detention. Detention Forum Project Director Eiri Ohtani explained how to amplify this demand.

6 November: Immigration detention centres have no place in Manchester or the UK

Lauren Cape-Davenhill, Organiser with These Walls Must Fall, writes about the reopening of a residential short term holding facility near Manchester airport amidst local resistance to immigration detention.

7 November: Immigration detention: Mental torture

A. Panquang, a Detention Forum volunteer and member of the Freed Voices, explores the lasting impact of indefinite immigration detention.

The lack of time limit, the lack of knowledge about who can or might be detained, the lack of control over people’s own immigration process, lack of communication with friends, family and community, the lack of legal advice, access to legal evidence, lack of proper healthcare and the lack of basic humane treatment are instruments used by the Home Office to maximize the mental torture of people in detention.

A. Panquang, Freed Voices

8 November: Detention happens closer than you might think

Katherine Maxwell-Rose, Digital Communications Manager at IMiX, highlights the uncomfortable fact that inhumane detention practices do not just happen elsewhere but also right here in the UK.

9 November: “Immigrants emigrate, hopeful anticipate

Ralph, detained for a total of 14 months in two prisons and a detention centre, wrote these lyrics reflecting on the impact of the UK’s immigration system on his life and family.

13 November: Week 3: #Unlocked18 visits short term holding facilities and prisons

Week 4: Yarl’s Wood

12 November: Theresa: letter from a hunger striker

This letter was sent to the Duncan Lewis Public Law team by Theresa (not her real name), a young mother, from Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. Theresa was one of the leaders of the high-profile hunger-strikes in 2018. She wrote this letter the same evening that she had been refused bail. 

13 November: Resisting state violence: The Yarl’s Wood hunger strike

Fidelis Chebe, Project Director at Migrant Action, writes about the 2018 hunger strike in Yarl’s Wood and other forms of resistance to the use of detention as an instrument of state and corporate violence.

14 November: “For me, Yarl’s Wood was another torture

A blog from Gabby (not her real name), an activist campaigning against immigration detention in the UK who was detained in Yarl’s Wood twice in 2017. She is now an active member of Women for Refugee Women’s network, regularly performing her own poetry and speaking out to call for change.

15 November: Snow: Visiting in Yarl’s Wood

Ali Brumfitt, volunteer coordinator with Yarl’s Wood Befrienders, writes about her experience as a volunteer befriender. She explains, “The journey does not end after detention. Detention changes people. It adds more trauma onto any trauma a person is already carrying.”

16 November: “Every day, they used to walk in and pick somebody”: Living with the uncertainty of detention and removal

Bristol Free Voice, a citizen journalism project, contributed this audio recording of a woman previously detained in Yarl’s Wood reflecting on her experience of detention.

17 November: Eight times in detention: Why?

This blog features words and images produced at one of the weekly ‘drop in’ sessions held by Yarl’s Wood Befrienders, a space where women detained at Yarl’s Wood can come and have a conversation, share a hot drink or play a boardgame. 

22 November: Week 4: #Unlocked18 visits Yarl’s Wood

Week 5: Campsfield House

19 November: Campsfield closing: How did we get here, and what next?

In the first of a two-part blog, a campaigner from Campaign to Close Campsfield looks back at its history and tries to make sense of the government’s recent announcement that Campsfield is to close in 2019.

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

Mishka and Red from Freed Voices (@FreedVoices) interview Lisa Matthews, Coordinator at Right to Remain, about her experience of co-running Unlocking Detention in 2015, and the collective effort involved in bringing it all together.

21 November: Campsfield closing: A history of resistance

In this second part of a two-part blog, a campaigner from Campaign to Close Campsfield looks back at the local history of resistance during the 25 years that Campsfield House detention centre was in operation.

22 November: Q&A with Siarhei in Campsfield House IRC

With assistance from Duncan Lewis solicitors, we spoke to Siarhei, currently detained in Campsfield House. Via interpreter, Siarhei told us about being detained in Campsfield and under immigration powers in prison.

23 November: The voiceless place

Maddy Crowther, Co-Executive Director of Waging Peace and Article 1, co-wrote this blog with Mohammed (not his real name), who has been detained on several occasions. Mohammed talks about the contrast between his treatment in detention and on a recent visit to Parliament.

It’s a big difference to stand in front of huge beautiful doors in Parliament, rather than lay down behind awful steel doors in detention, isn’t it?


27 November: Week 5: #Unlocked18 visits Campsfield House

Week 6: Harmondsworth and Colnbrook

26 November: “We both hoped there wouldn’t be a next visit”: The paradox of visiting detention

In the first of a two-part series from Detention Action, volunteer Anthony talks about his time visiting people detained in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook detention centres.

26 November: “I regularly speak to people who are in absolute despair

In a second blog from Detention Action, volunteer Mary-Ann talks about the eye-opening experience of providing casework support to people detained in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook.

27 November: Three years after Moroccan Jew’s death in detention, why no inquest?

Hannah Swirsky, Campaigns Officer at René Cassin, writes about the hidden cruelty of immigration detention as news comes that the inquest into the death of Amir Siman-Tov, a Moroccan Jew who died in Colnbrook immigration detention centre in 2016, has been postponed for a third time.

28 November: “Allowing people to see what might be possible”: Volunteering in detention

Two volunteers with JRS UK reflect on what it’s like to support someone in immigration detention. 

I can’t have any certainty that I will see the same person the following week, either because they are not able for different reasons to come and see me or they have been moved to another centre, released or returned to their home country.

Cashel Riordan, JRS UK volunteer

29 November: “I cannot do anything from here”: LGBTQI+ asylum seekers in detention

Gabriella Bettiga, Legal Officer at UKLGIG (UK Gay and Lesbian Immigration Group), looks at the particular challenges faced by LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers in immigration detention.

It’s hard to choose, much of the content was so affecting, but this was one of two blogs that really brought home the indignity of detention for me (the other was Luke Butterly’s piece on reporting, below). It highlights how immigration detention strips people of their dignity, where LGBTQI+ people who may have left a country where they will have had to conceal their identity for fear of persecution are expected to come out to a Home Office official on arrival or fall foul of the rules and risk deportation.

Catherine, Detention Forum volunteer

29 November: Double-header Q&A: DAK and Seed answer your questions from Harmondsworth IRC

DAK and Seed (not their real names), both detained in Harmondsworth detention centre, spent two hours answering questions sent in from across the UK. DAK had been detained in Harmondsworth for over a year; Seed for a few weeks – and yet both told us about the uncertainty, oppression and wastefulness of indefinite immigration detention.

30 November: “We are not outsiders, we are one of your own”: Hearing Voices peer support groups in detention

Mishka and Red (Freed Voices) and Akiko Hart (Hearing Voices Project Manager at Mind in Camden) discuss the role of peer-facilitated support groups for people who hear voices in immigration detention.

6 December: Week 6: #Unlocked18 visits Harmondsworth and Colnbrook

Week 7: Morton Hall

3 December: “I have seen that the detention system in the UK is broken

Rhiannon Prideaux, a visitor with the Morton Hall Detainee Visitors Group, tells us about the experience of visiting people in detention for over three years. She concludes, “I still think of the people that are detained there every day with no idea what will happen to them and hope that some time in the near future we will see some drastic changes to how the detention system is run in the UK.”

4 December: “There was a chance justice would be done

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

6 December: Immigration detention is mental torture

Souleymane, a member of Freed Voices, was detained for three and a half years. He writes, “Detention is worse than prison, because in prison you count your days down and in detention you count your days up… and up… and up…”

6 December: “Once a criminal always a criminal”, especially if you don’t have a British passport

Celia Clarke and Rudy Schulkind at BID (Bail for Immigration Detainees) write about the ‘hidden scandal’ of people detained in prisons.

This blog by BID describing the specific and additional disadvantages faced by people detained under immigration powers in prison stood out for me. It also lays out how detention relates to, and is a consequence of, other features of the hostile environment. 

Charlotte, Detention Forum volunteer

7 December: Your pocket Home Office phrasebook: A dialect of dehumanisation

Patrick Page, senior caseworker at Duncan Lewis Solicitors (@DLPublicLaw) and founder and editor of No Walls, contributed this widely-read blog on the insidious language used to dehumanise people in detention.

8 December: “The stain of detention will haunt us for the rest of our lives, but I don’t want it to define us”: Experts-by-experience give evidence to the JCHR inquiry

A. Panquang, a member of Freed Voices and Detention Forum volunteer, talks about giving evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ inquiry into immigration detentionalongside Michael, another member of Freed Voices.

13 December: Week 7: #Unlocked18 visits Morton Hall

Week 8: Dungavel

10 December: For many autumns to come

Mishka (Freed Voices) shares a letter written from detention to someone dear to his heart on the eve of his intended removal from the UK. He writes, “Detention is in some ways a graveyard of dreams and hopes and the ghosts of dead dreams and hopes can linger within those walls for months and years.”

This piece moved me on several levels. It’s beautiful, lyrical, intensely human, shattering, selfless and ultimately positive and very uplifting. Despite the anticipated outcome for him, Mishka renews the reader’s faith in the human spirit.

Gareth, Detention Forum volunteer

11 December: Separation and abandonment as a result of detention

A. Panquang, a member of Freed Voices and Detention Forum volunteer, examines the lasting impact of the separation of families when a parent is detained.  

11 December: Because of detention | In spite of detention

Members of the Life After Detention group (LAD) based in Glasgow reflect on the ongoing devastation caused by indefinite detention, as well as the more positive aspects of building a life after detention. 

12 December: When a ‘good’ inspection report is bad news

Kate Alexander, Director of Scottish Detainee Visitors, dissects the latest HMIP report on Dungavel detention centre.

13 December: Hidden in plain sight: Working with trafficked people in detention

Beatrice Grasso, Detention Outreach Manager with JRS UK, writes about their report on the indefinite detention of trafficking survivors. She explains, “Despite showing clear indicators of abuse and vulnerability, they remain hidden in plain sight of those authorities who should protect them.”

13 December: “If I don’t come back, call my lawyer”: Practical solidarity for people at risk of detention

Luke Butterly from Right to Remain talks about ways of showing practical solidarity for people at risk of being detained, including setting up a local signing group.

This is the second blog that really brought home for me the indignity of detention (alongside Gabriella Bettiga’s piece on LGBTQI+ people in detention). Reporting seems to be an exquisite bit of nastiness in this cruel system. As well as showing us the indignity imposed on vulnerable individuals, both of these pieces describe how immigration detention and the hostile environment affect us all. How can a good society allow such indignities to be carried out in our name?  

Catherine, Detention Forum volunteer

14 December: Rebuilding a life after detention

Indre Lechtimiakyte, who coordinates the Ex-Detainee Project for Samphire, tells us about the hopes, fears and challenges faced by people released from detention across the UK. 

14 December: Life after closure: The experiences of the Verne Visitors Group

Ruth Jacobson writes to us from the Verne Visitors Group, established in 2014 to support people detained in The Verne detention centre until its closure in December 2017. “What should be we doing now we were no longer going to be taking the coast road up to the Verne citadel with its deliberately forbidding entrance tunnel and massive walls?”

18 February (better late than never!): Week 8: #Unlocked18 visits Dungavel IRC

Week 9: International Migrants Day

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

K.A., an expert-by-experience and member of Freed Voices, interviewed Baroness Sally Hamwee, a long-term advocate for detention reform in the House of Lords. She was recently named a Detention Forum Champion in reocognition of her tireless work in challenging immigration detention.

18 December: On International Migrants Day – reasserting humanity and dignity of people in immigration detention

Detention Forum Project Director Eiri Ohtani concludes #Unlocked18 with a rousing piece calling on us to continue to assert the presence, humanity, rights and dignity of everyone affected by detention.

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

Image by @Carcazan

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


Hello Sally,

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

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

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

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

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


Hi, K

Thank you for your questions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you find most rewarding about your job? 

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

‘If I don’t come back, call my lawyer’: Practical solidarity for people at risk of detention

Luke Butterly works for Right to Remain, a UK-based human rights organisation challenging injustice in our asylum and immigration systems. This blog has been reposted with kind permission from Red Pepper.

In communities across the UK, around 80,000 people with pending asylum and immigration claims have to ‘report’ with the Home Office. This happens at regular intervals – weekly, fortnightly, monthly – and can often be logistically complicated, expensive, and disruptive.

Earlier this month it was revealed that the Home Office is forcing hundreds of people in Stoke-on-Trent to make a weekly five-hour journey to reporting sessions.

This change from reporting in the local community happened without consultation or even pre-warning to the people and support organisations there. Reports came through of the toll this was having on people, especially those with physical or mental health issues, or childcare responsibilities. Missing a reporting date has serious consequences. People can lose their financial support, and it goes on their record when they are making further applications to the Home Office.


Reporting is often stressful, even without the additional difficulties faced by people in Stoke.

Mishka from Freed Voices explains that you don’t know what to expect each time you report. He says that people can travel for hours to a reporting centre just to have “a two minutes ‘show your face and go home’ appointment”. But other times, it can be more serious.

Looming over each visit is the possibility of being detained indefinitely. This is particularly the case if someone’s application has been refused, which they may not know until they go and report. Mishka says that,

“The fear of detention is one of the biggest fears that always lingers in your mind. The Home Office is unpredictable and you never know whether you would come home or they would just lock you up again indefinitely for any irrational reason”.

Immigration detention is very harmful to people’s physical and mental health, it cuts people off from their families, friends, neighbours and support networks, and makes it very difficult to pursue a legal case and access justice. While people are detained from every community in the UK, there are only detention centres in a few places. Therefore, detention can often mean being moved away from your community, lawyers, and support.

There are times when you are at greater risk of detention, such as when you first enter the UK; when you claim asylum;  or if you do not have any immigration status or applications pending and you are picked up by an immigration enforcement team. Yet if you do not have the right to remain in the UK, you are liable to be detained at any time.

People are picked up from their homes (sometimes in dawn raids), during immigration raids on businesses, and stop-and-searches at train and bus stations.

But it is common for someone to be detained when they go for their regular reporting event at the Home Office, and that’s why it’s so important to be prepared.

Solidarity and support

At Right to Remain, as part of our Toolkit and other resources, we produce materials and trainings to help people prepare in case of detention. One of the most important aspects of this is having a system in place so that if you are detained, people know straight away and start taking action for you.

Some people phone a friend when they are entering the reporting centre, with instructions for what to do and who to contact if they are detained. If the friend does not get a call within an hour or two to say they are safe, the friend can call their lawyer or support group if they have one.

Across the UK local support groups have set up systems to provide practical ‘signing support’. The person going to report will check-in with the group first, who keep a record of everyone’s contact details and emergency instructions of what to do if they do not come out.

The Unity Centre in Glasgow gives practical support and solidarity to all asylum seekers and other migrants in Scotland. They have a little office near the Home Office, and say that: “Anyone who is required to sign at the Home Office reporting centre on Brand Street can stop by our office on their way to sign into our signing book. This means we can act quickly if anyone gets detained by the Home Office.” Other groups, for example Leeds No Borders, have set up an informal telephone check-in system.

In Belfast, Ryan from Homeplus, a drop-in centre for migrants, says they and the local community operate a version of signing support to combat the uncertainty that comes with reporting: “People will ring me before signing on, saying ‘if I don’t come back before a certain time, contact the solicitor’. People also have this relationship with each other – and that seems to work pretty well.”

The Bristol Signing Support Group says that as well as providing some practical help and assistance, they also provide emotional support. “A lot of people go there very traumatised, very nervous, very fearful of what might happen. Signing is part of a very humiliating…deliberately humiliating system. And, although what we can do is tiny, it’s something against that [system].”

Setting up a signing support system

If you are involved in a community project supporting asylum seekers or other migrants, you can set up a scheme to help people to prepare for, avoid, or better deal with detention and the threat of detention.

A signing support system also means that the person going to sign knows people are looking out for them, and that there is a plan in place if things go wrong and they are detained. This can reduce the psychological burden of reporting at the Home Office.

A system like this can save valuable time: friends and supporters can start finding out exactly where the person is, what has happened, and what can be done to help straight away.

Ultimately, none of us are free until we get rid of this unjust and inhumane policy altogether. Standing with those at risk of detention can play a real role in both supporting people today, and building the kind of society we want for tomorrow.

Because of detention | In spite of detention

Content warning: torture. Image by @Carcazan

This contribution comes from the Life After Detention group (LAD) based in Glasgow and facilitated by Scottish Detainee Visitors. Between them, members of LAD have lost 4 years and 8 months of their lives to detention. The first part, ‘Because of Detention’, reflects on the ongoing devastation caused by indefinite detention. The second, ‘In spite of detention’, highlights the more positive aspects of building a life after detention, though still in the shadow of it. 

Because of detention

Because of detention I have lost my way forever

Because of detention I experienced fear, disrespect, feeling absolutely hopeless, pressure, sadness, sickness and some kind of disability that I never had felt in all my life

Because of detention I was always waiting, waiting, waiting…

Because in  detention male officers came and looked at us at night,  I can’t sleep, I’m scared

Because of detention my future is broken

Because of detention my family is broken. My relationship didn’t survive and now I only see my son twice a month

Because of detention I am a nervous wreck, terrified of the authorities.

Because of detention my life changed.  Not knowing when I would get out took away my mental health, my confidence, my hope

Because of detention I lost all my belongings, including the only photos I had of my late father

Because of detention, I am sick; really really sick.  I am not who I was three years ago

Because of detention I was constantly reminded of the torture in prison in my own country

Because of detention I can’t sleep for a week before signing at the Home Office in Glasgow

Because of detention I am always terrified of being detained again

The 10 people in our group were detained for a total of four years and eight months.

That is 1,709 days that none of us can get back again.

41,000 hours of life, simply, lost.

And for what?

In spite of detention

In spite of detention, I found my partner and feel I have been given a good life. We’ll get married. Now I have a gift from God. It’s a little angel.

I like learning English.

I have a diamond on my finger!

In spite of detention, my life is good. I keep myself busy. I volunteer every week, go to English classes and attend church on Sundays.

When I go to the Home Office to sign I am scared, as I remember detention; this stops me sleeping at night

Life in detention is very hard. Life after detention is good, if the Home Office don’t put you back again

In spite of detention I go to college. I like studying

I like to meet people in Glasgow

I water tomatoes

I go to church

I like to drink a lot of tea

I feed frogs!

In spite of detention I have made new friends; we share food and stories. We laugh. I see people building a new life despite everything; I see strength, bravery and determination

In spite of detention I now I go to different social groups like LAD. I have made many friends. God blessed me with two beautiful daughters. They are my whole asset. I have built up a family life stronger than ever before.

In spite of detention I volunteer with three charities

I go for walks in the park

I meet new people in Glasgow

I am going to make a new life for myself

I have plans to be successful

In spite of detention, my friends have regained their smile

They have managed to start a life in Glasgow

They found hope again

They fell in love with Scotland

Detention made me stronger than before. I now have confidence to deal with people; to deal with everything

Separation and abandonment as a result of detention

This blog comes from A. Panquang, a member of Freed Voices (@FreedVoices) and Detention Forum volunteer. 

Detaining anybody simply means separating them from their familiar surroundings; away from friends, family and community. Everyone has a family and being in detention usually means being separated from them. The UK immigration system doesn’t take into account whether one has a young family or other dependents. Immigration enforcers don’t care where they arrest somebody, who is present, when it happens; (in the middle of the night, during the day or early morning), nor do they care how. They have their orders and they will use any means possible, including inflicting humiliation and eternal scars (mental and physical) on everyone present.

If nine months in detention told me one thing, it is that no one is ever warned before being dragged to a detention centre. People are detained while trying to comply with their Immigration Bail conditions – for example, when signing or reporting. Some are arrested on the streets, while at work, in hospital, at their place of residence and almost everywhere else. Immigration enforcers enter the house at 2 a.m. to arrest a father in his boxers; who has been woken up from bed with his wife. The kids are woken up by multiple loud immigration officers. Their seven month old daughter starts crying in her baby cot, mum tries to go and comfort her daughter and she is stopped, because the Immigration Enforcers think she is trying to abscond.

I remember a kid in a detention visitors’ room asking, “Mum, who is the man?”, to which mum said “Your dad”. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how long he had been in detention for. There was a teenager, who hadn’t seen her dad since she was a baby. The dad had been in prison for 10 years and the rest of the time in detention. I knew a guy in detention. While he was detained, his British-born children were sent to live with his sister in his country of birth. How would these kids survive in a country that is not their own, with a language they don’t understand and without the friends they have left behind? How can they cope after such a feeling of abandonment, separation anxiety and loss of attachment? Separating a family should be the very, very last resort. Everything should be done to avoid separating a family.

For those left behind, that is the friends and family of someone detained, they first feel the absence. This absence – especially for young kids who do not understand why the parent is not there anymore – will lead to more problems in the future. They start blaming themselves. Abandonment as a result of the detention of one or both of the parents can lead to child abandonment syndrome; and this abandonment can manifest itself both as physical and emotional abandonment. The absence can also result to resentment. Mum can be blamed for dad not being there or the other way round. The child can also blame themselves for not being good enough. If the parent is arrested in front of the kids, that parent – the hero, the protector and provider – becomes a bad person in the kids’ eyes, because only bad people are arrested and taken away. It affects their social cycle and general well-being. Educational bodies (teachers, school psychologist) have complained about kids performance (school work and among their friends).

If you keep families separated, anyone at the borderline of depression will flip over. This trauma will be relived years after, whenever any form of stress surfaces. This affects the family especially the kids, including unborn babies. Research on proprioception and trauma has proven that the stress hormones from a pregnant woman are passed to the unborn baby, thus increasing the probability of the child suffering from depression in the future. Separating parents from kids leaves a void (detachment ,abandonment), that can have a domino effect on future generations, a void thatis transferrable to the kids of kids and so on. The works of Dr. Aletha Solter (attachment-Style parenting), K. L. Rosenblum and C. J. Dayton (Communicating feelings) have proven that this void can affect the parents and their children’s parenting and so on and so forth.

While in detention, it became evident that most of my conversations were with other parents. I advised friends to encourage their kids to talk to the school psychologist about how they are feeling; especially after many of them also confirmed that the estrangement between them and their mothers made it difficult for their kids to tell their mums how they felt. Another thing we had in common was our kids demonstrated one or more of the following: mood swings, too much anger, decreasing self-esteem, losing their ability to trust, low self-worthiness and all of us mentioned about the kids obsessing about what would happen if we are deported (obsessive and intrusive thoughts about being left behind).

When I came out of detention it became obvious to be I had to rebuild the relationship with my daughter from scratch. I spoke with my daughter every day, for the nine months I was in detention. When a child is born, all the 5 senses are used to knowing the child and developing a relationship with the child. While in detention one cannot use those senses; at best one has the sense of hearing. I have heard others saying their kids initially felt uncomfortable around them when their got out. It took me everything to rebuild a relationship with my daughter. The same applies to friends, relationships and other family member; one’s community as well.

The Home Office has said many times that taking one parent away is not separating a family. That is not true. The family remains broken with one parent away. The trauma of separation affects all members of the family, including children, parents and pregnant mothers. I often say that I wouldn’t wish for my worst enemy to experience life in a UK immigration detention centre. The impact on one’s mental health is overwhelming and long-lasting. It is to the UK’s shame that this happens on our shores. The Home office should offer its staff, including immigration caseworkers, some of Dr Marion Rose’s courses on understanding children’s feelings. When parents separate, the NHS would recommend treatment for stress and depression as a result, including attending a course to learn how to cope as a single parent. But when the Home office forces families to separate, there is no such recommendation or support. 

In my nine months in detention I met many men whose families broke down because of their detention. The trauma, legal insecurity and financial instability can cause permanent damage to children’s lives. The UK banned the detention of children back in 2011. It’s time to stop forcibly separating them from their families too.

For many autumns to come

Image by @Carcazan

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

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

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

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

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

And I have one other reason as well…

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

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

My final message to XXXXXX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Bye…”   


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

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

The end…

‘The stain of detention will haunt us for the rest of our lives, but I don’t want it to define us’: Experts-by-experience give evidence to the JCHR inquiry

This blog comes from A. Panquang, a member of Freed Voices (@FreedVoices) and Detention Forum volunteer. On 28 November, A gave evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ inquiry into immigration detention alongside Michael, another member of Freed Voices.

I have never given evidence in Parliament before. The first thing that I noticed was that it was a normal activity for the Joint Committee. I guess I was expecting more.

To prepare myself to give evidence I read some of the other evidence that had been given to the JCHR before mine. To call these people experts is not completely misleading, because they are experts in their respective fields, but none of them know what it’s like to experience detention. We from Freed Voices are experts by experience. If anyone needed to understand about the inhumane conditions in immigration removal centres (IRCs), if anyone wanted to get a clear picture of the violations of Human Rights, they should be speaking to Freed Voices – Experts by experience.

You can watch the whole interview online.

First of all, I am grateful that an inquiry has been organised to deal with the situation in UK IRCs. I hope the evidence we gave can influence the Immigration Bill coming out next year.

We were told to express ourselves as best as we could, to cover every subject we wanted to cover. We did our best to make our suggestions and tell our stories; our experiences. Most of what we said seemed to be news to their ears, because it wasn’t what they expected.

I felt the questions they asked were target orientated – mainly about legal support given to people in detention. They were interested in how we were detained, if we felt fairly and justly treated, if we had adequate legal advice and representation, and if we received ample warning before being detained. The truth is although many of our experiences are similar, no two people have the same story. No two people feel the same way about their immigration situation. What was obvious was how inhuman the conditions were and how the incompetence of the Home Office affected us. Detention centres are meant to facilitate transition, but most of the privately-run IRC management teams use IRCs to make profits and marginalise the humanity of those in detention.

My fellow member of Freed Voices had much more to say, because he had more experience and had been dealing with this longer than myself. So I was happy to let him take the lead. I added what I thought could fortify our evidence. We don’t want what we went through to be a story to tell friends, family and community just for the sake of telling a story. We want our experiences to help people make changes, to better the immigration process and system for people who are experiencing it now and in the future. Ideally we want these detention walls to fall, we want a time limit, but most of all we would like to start by demanding better and more humane conditions for people in detention at the moment.

If I had to make any recommendation other than what I suggested during the evidence giving process, it would be for such a committee to interview Freed Voices earlier in the process. The disadvantage of giving evidence so late meant the questions from the committee to us were already impregnated with theoretical and imaginary information. The truth about the practical, day-to-day experience could only be gathered from experts-by-experience. Questions should have been coming from our narration, not the other way round.

At this point in time, I cannot comment on the outcome. I don’t know how much of my evidence will enact change, I don’t know how much of our information will be used. I am hopeful that what we gave as evidence is taken into consideration.

When Freed Voices are described as ‘former detainees’, I think this does us a disservice. This title brainwashes people from the reality. There are millions of people who still have an ill-conceived idea of detention: ‘detainees’ are bad, they are a danger to the community and they should be locked up. Yes, we are ‘former detainees’, but we were people before detention and now that we’re Freed Voices members it means we are no longer in detention. The stain of detention will haunt us for the rest of our lives, but I don’t want it to define us. Our true title is ‘Experts-By-Experience’ not former detainees.