Animals or slaves? Memories of a migrant detention centre

Image courtesy of Michael Collins

This article by H was published as part of Unlocking Detention series on Open Democracy.

One man tells of his experience of being incarcerated in the UK for three years for being a migrant, and why the memories of violence and conflict in Brook House – where he attempted suicide – will never leave him.

Brook House is a migrant detention centre next to Gatwick airport. It is one of eleven detention centres across the UK where migrants can be detained indefinitely.

When I arrived I had never heard the name ‘Brook House’ before and I didn’t know where it was. I didn’t know what county I was in or which part of the UK I was in. I had been trafficked here and I had committed no crime.

When we stopped at the gates waiting for them to open I heard the sound of planes. I was in a van and it was intimidating and appalling because I was locked in with no window for fresh air.

When I saw it, it looked like a prison. And hearing the planes meant I was always reminded of the fear of being put on a plane by force and returned to persecution in my country. I’d been locked up in the past in my own country as a child, again, for committing no crime. Going back into a building of that nature again made me feel sick. It really wasn’t so different, except that in the UK I wasn’t beaten.

During the three year period I spent locked up in the UK for being a migrant, I experienced life in several of the UK’s eleven detention centres. The face of the building is always the same. But being locked up at night was different at Brook House. In some of the other centres there was a ‘risk assessment’ and only the detainees who posed a risk were locked up. But at night in Brook House the officers shouted that everyone should get behind their door and they went round locking everyone in their room. The doors banged and crashed shut and the noise was amplified because everything echoed in Brook House. Some detainees banged the doors and shouted. Eventually it went quiet unless the officers came to force someone to leave the centre to catch a plane. To be woken up by that noise was to feel choked, petrified, scared.

In Brook House you were in a small cell. No-one could have called it a room. There was no air through the windows because the glass couldn’t be opened. When you are in detention, you think about the air a lot. In the detention centre in Dover the windows opened a slit and they had bars but in Brook House the window was closed like a wall. If I could speak to the architect who designed Brook House, I would ask the architect to make the windows with a slit to let the air in.

The toilet was in the room and I would also ask the architect to make that separate. There should also be a door for privacy. Privacy makes you feel like a human being. I just sat on my bed and read my Bible and waited for the next day to come. I tried to focus on the word of God to survive. People watched TV in their cells and I sometimes watched football and tennis but I didn’t like to watch adventure or suspense movies because they made me feel bad.

In Brook House I spent most of my time in the Chapel. It was calm in the Chapel whereas in other places people had arguments and there was trouble. The Chapel looked small in size but it was inviting. It helped me to be able to get through my time in Brook House. I remember the scent of incense and the smell of candles. We sang in the Chapel and at those times I felt I could cope for a moment until I was back on my wing with TVs blaring.

The noisiest place in Brook House was the shop. It was so expensive! There were fights about queuing which seemed petty given that we were all together in detention. When there was a fight, officers would run to the place where it was happening and Brook House would get ‘locked down’. I had the feeling people should be worrying about their case and their lives and their future rather than about a shop queue. But the queue was a magnet for people to air their frustrations. There’s no way in Brook House to release your tension and people have many different cultures and outlooks and that makes them find it difficult to get on. If I needed to buy things from the shop I would run there ten minutes before it closed to avoid a busy time with conflict.

There’s a yard in Brook House. It’s very small and people go there to sit and smoke. The visits room in Brook House provided a rare glimpse of the outside world where you could express yourself for the first time.

When you talked to someone in the visits room you could forget where you were for a moment, until you went back in. The visits room was welcoming and you felt happy when someone was sitting there waiting for you. The end of a visit was hard. I used to wish the end of a visit would never come. At the end of a visit I remembered where I was again and that I had no freedom, and the reality of Brook House came flooding back. You were searched when you left the visits room and you passed through three doors. When you got back to your room it felt very cold.

Some people didn’t have a single visit the whole time they were there.
Being in Brook House for a long time affects your mental health. I tried to kill myself twice in Brook House because it was just too much. They put my name in a special book and then officers came to check on me every thirty minutes. I never liked it at all because I didn’t want to see their faces. When I saw them, I felt angry. Once I was taken to ‘the Block’ in Brook House. The cell in the Block has only a mattress and no bedding. People go there before they go on a flight and so you hear people crying.

Now I’ve been out of detention for 10 months and I’m living with a friend, reporting weekly and trying to turn my life around. But the rest of my story remains to be told. I am young, but I have had a hard life and I am still suffering. I think the reason my trauma stays with me is because of the three years I spent in detention. I’m outside detention now but I still feel as if I am in detention. I still feel controlled.

Brook House was built for people to be there for short periods of time. It doesn’t have what people need if they are there for months. If it was understood that people were coming for a long time there could at least be more education. In the three years I was in detention – in Brook House and other centres – I could have taken a degree! Human resources are being wasted. My life has been wasted. If I could speak to the people who run the Centre, I would ask them to respond to people as human beings because we were treated like animals or slaves. What your master says is what you have to do.

I still have nightmares. I dream about Brook House. I can’t escape from the memories.

“Under detention they think you’re criminal”: Henry speaks out from Haslar

Henry, currently detained in Haslar detention centre and facing deportation to Nigeria, has been previously featured on this blog writing powerfully about “Too many laws, not enough justice”.  You can read Henry’s blog post here

Henry has now been interviewed by Ben Fishwick of Portsmouth News:

Henry, 53, has been held in detention since February and was moved to the centre in Gosport for several weeks.  From Nigeria, he has lived in England for 31 years and has applied three times without success for leave to remain in Britain.

Three weeks ago he was told he would be deported – something he believes is down to a prison sentence he served for a non-violent crime in 1997.

He spoke to The News on the eve of his threatened but eventually stayed deportation to Nigeria – thousands of miles away from his British wife and children.

Henry said:

If I’m deported there’s no chance of seeing my son.  I left Nigeria 31 years ago – where on earth I going to stay? I don’t know anybody in Nigeria, my mum died in 2002, my dad died when I was four years old.

What happens to my wife and who looks after my son

‘They call this justice – there is no justice in the Home Office.

‘Detention is inhuman – I don’t know what to do.

A Home Office spokeswoman said it cannot comment on Henry’s case.

But she said: ‘Those who come to the UK must abide by our laws – and those who do not should be removed at the earliest opportunity.  We take all necessary steps to deport foreign criminals and have removed 19,000 since 2010.’

She added last-minute appeals disrupt deportations but the recent Immigration Act has cut appeal rights from 17 to four.

Henry is still in detention and does not know what will happen to him.  Before his threatened deportation last month he spoke about his stay in Haslar, which has medical provision, a library and job placements for detainees.

He says:

I would rather sleep in a dungeon with the hope I will be set free to go back to my wife and my kids, than to enjoy some kind of comfort as a slave in detention.

I’ve been in detention for eight months and I haven’t set eyes on my family.

It’s more than difficult, it’s traumatic.

The Home Office policy is not working at all. If you’re under detention they look at you like a criminal.

Henry is brave in speaking out about how he feels the system has treated him.

Detention, which costs the government £98 per day per person, remains a sensitive subject.  Former detainees who have been released still fear speaking out publicly will affect their chances of staying.  And with heavy cuts to legal aid, detainees struggle to get advice or representation.

Portsmouth-based Haslar Visitors Group – now called Friends Without Borders – this year marked 20 years of visiting detainees.

Co-ordinator Anne Dickinson visits new detainees who arrive in Gosport.

She said: ‘There’s comings and goings – just before Christmas time it gets very full.  I was recently told the average length of stay in Haslar was 33 days but when you speak to the guys in there, they’ve been to five different detention centres.  There was one guy not that long ago who was in there for three-and-a-half years.  You can get people sent down from Scotland – it seems very arbitrary why people are moved to the places they are.

Haslar, the UK’s oldest immigration removal centre, is run by the Prison Service. A wide variety of people are held there.

‘There are asylum seekers, there are people who have right-to-family-life claims – people who have a wife, husband or kids here,’ explains Anne.

‘There are people who have a deportation order as they have a criminal offence and there are people who are known as lorry-drop cases.  They are people who’ve been picked up from the back of a lorry and put in a detention centre.  But there are people who have been tortured and with serious medical and mental health problems.’

She added there also students who come to the UK to study but their college ends up losing Home Office approval, leaving them either having to start elsewhere or face removal.

Friends Without Borders, a voluntary organisation, also gives calling credit to detainees and supports them accessing materials online.

Restrictions in the centre mean social networking websites and Skype are blocked. ‘When you’re locked in you can’t just go down to the local library and get what you need,’ Anne says.

‘They operate by prison service rules, which are quite limited in terms of internet access. There was a guy who was a member of the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe and he was trying to get information about the MDC.

‘One of the officers said it was material designed to incite. It was just a report about the MDC.

‘If they won’t let them download there then we download it here.’

The latest inspection report from Her Majesty Inspectorate of Prisons describes Haslar as a ‘respectful institution’ but did find some failings.

Those included sparse legal representation, poor progression of case work and that detainees were not prepared for removal or release.

One man, who spent seven years in custody – some in a prison – was given just three hours before being moved to the other end of the country.

Another man, who asked not to be named, was released from Haslar but says he did not get enough help when he left the centre.

An additional problem is origin countries want proof the person being removed is from there. And war-torn countries and countries the UK has poor relations with can be difficult to work with.

At Haslar, HMIP said detainees who were at risk of committing suicide were held in a special unit – but that it was not staffed adequately.

But the report does highlight improvements in the centre since its last inspection in 2011.

One of those was people could participate in work or education within 24 hours of entering the centre.

A Freedom of Information request put into the Home Office request found that £106,562 was paid to detainees at Haslar between January 1, 2013 to August 31 this year.

The total amount of paid hours at the centre was 106,562 – meaning detainees were paid just £1 an hour.

They are exempt from minimum wage under Section 59 of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006. Paid work includes cleaning, garden maintenance, satellite library orderly, induction orderly and dormitory representatives.

But the HMIP report said the Home Office should not withhold work placements for people who do not co-operate.

In all, the inspectorate made 71 recommendations to the Home Office and centre manager. The Home Office did not respond to a request from The News to interview the governor.

Too many laws, not enough justice: A voice from Haslar

We received this blog entry from Henry who is in Haslar Immigration Removal Centre.

My name is Henry, aged 53, and though of Nigerian and Sierra Leonean mixed parentage, I have spent the last 31 years of my life in the United Kingdom. I have a British wife, and two sons who were born here. I was arrested and detained since the beginning of Feb 2014 despite not having defaulted on anything for four years. I am considered a ‘risk to society’ by the Home Office because of a non-violent crime I committed, and served prison time for, 17 years ago. I have been detained in Haslar Immigration Removal Centre since March and on Wednesday I am due to be deported to a country I have not visited for 31 years and in which I have no family or friends. The following blog is part of my submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry into the use of Immigration Detention in the UK.

I feel we shouldn’t kid ourselves with fancy words. Immigration Removal / Detention Centres are prisons to all intent and purpose. The regime is prison affiliated and trained. Due to my experience, IRC is something I wouldn’t wish even on my worst enemy. I submit that we shut these centres down with immediate effect. No amount of revamp, restructure, amendment or similar, could change the principle behind it. However, if the final decision is to keep them then I suggest that the Home Office must be in a position to act within a maximum TWO weeks from the detention of a detainee; either deport or release the illegal immigrant from detention.

You may not believe it but it is actually more preferable serving a custodial sentence in a maximum prison than to be detained in an IRC. In a prison environment, one is focused on the fact that he or she has been found guilty of a criminal act and given a determinate sentence. This is not so with a so-called IRC. A person is locked up in a prison environment for not committing a CRIMINAL offence; this individual, who has never been in prison all his life and has never committed a criminal act, is committed to prison. To make it worse, the period of committal is indeterminate; it could be just six months or as much as and in excess of three years as has been in some cases!

The most painful thing about my incarceration which will live in my memory forever is that I am detained at a centre which is NINE hours away from my wife and six year old son. I did try on numerous occasions to apply to be moved to a centre closer to my family (my wife cannot sit still for medical reasons on a moving transport for more than two hours). All my requests were declined by the local immigration office. The reason given was that they had a blanket ban on transfers. Yet, I have known of cases where they transferred individuals they felt were risk cases from Haslar to either Brook House or far Dover.

Though I speak to my wife and son more than TWENTY times a day (and I do get frequent free calling credit from Friends Without Borders charity) it is never the same as seeing them, hugging them, crying with them, make jokes with them and sharing simple basic bonding; therefore each night I cry myself to sleep and pray to a God who seem to have deserted me at the age of 53 and hope for a better tomorrow. My sad conclusion is that detention in itself is very damaging to families and families left behind are more victims than the detainee.

At Haslar IRC, medical welfare is rated very high and the medical staff and healthcare officials appear to be doing their utmost best, under stressful conditions, clearly hampered by the limit they are allowed to go. The nurses, healthcare manager and attending doctors strive to do their best to support detainees. However, medical care is seriously lacking in all aspects of health caring of mentally challenged detainees. There are absolutely NO facilities for vulnerable detainees who have physical and emotional problems apart from the various NGOs and Charities like Friends Without Borders and IMB who, from all feedback appear to be doing a tremendous job within their physical capabilities. This is a serious failing that could spell major disasters.

Dolphin Way College, based within Haslar is the best thing that has and could happen to any detainee. They are a far cry from what I witnessed from four other detention centres where I was sadly detained (Harmondsworth, Colnbrooke, Brook House and Morton Hall). The teachers are absolutely fantastic and the few courses they offer are unequalled. I know of various individuals from non-English speaking EU nations, Africa and Asia who, after a few weeks became proficient in spoken and written English, IT, Arts, Music, Drama and a few other courses.

In-house legal assistance for immigration matters is non-existent and should be addressed in the spirit of British fairness. There is a sizeable proportion of detainees who are considered to be ineligible for legal aid, usually because they had used up their given eligibility prior to being detained and though their circumstances have changed, they are still regarded are non-eligible. There is a third significant proportion of the IRC population who cannot speak English and from my personal experience, they are completely ignored and suffer in silence. As a dormitory representative, they tend to approach me all the time seeking assistance with basic matters like how to fill in a legal form, how to explain the often inaccurate immigration monthly report given to them every month by the Home Office local representatives (good practise in Haslar IRC) and a few other simple minor legal issues associated with their immigration matter. At Haslar IRC, during some of our weekly meetings with the management, Home Office representative and others, I tabled this matter many times. The feedback from the Home Office staff was clearly impenitent, unrepentant, somewhat disheartening and perhaps truthfully harsh. They made it clear that their duty was to ensure we were all deported; as simple as that.

I then discussed this issue with the management staff and Education Department, though it was clear that neither could assist. According to their employment and contract agreement (which I sourced and read) they were not allowed to assist “us” with immigration or legal issues neither could the Education Department assist as they do not have the prerequisite Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC) regulation. It was then suggested we approach the local CAB (Citizens Advisory Bureau) who clearly were neither trained on immigration advice nor are they specifically licensed or regulated to offer immigration advice by the OISC or the SRA (solicitors)! Moreover, one would have thought that the CAB was set up for the benefit of “citizens” as the name suggests and not for illegal aliens who may not have the same rights as the citizens. Catch 22, really! This is another aspect of IRCs I passionately consider to be unacceptable and heartless.

Again I submit that we shut these centres down with immediate effect. Although issues such as mental health care, legal representation and education are important and often problematic, nothing can truly improve the uncertainty and damage of detention for detainees and their families. However, if they are to kept then I suggest that the Home Office must limit detention to two weeks; then either deport or release the immigrant from detention. This is definitely better than locking up an innocent man or woman in a prison disguised with fancy words when he or she is not a criminal. This is better than denying someone his simple dignity and basic human rights of being with his family, all in the name of some biased, wicked, arrogant and uselessly faulty immigration rules and powers. This is what I call being British, being humane and being a leader in the fight against immigration offence. At the moment there are too many laws and not enough justice.

Kuka on the Parliamentary Inquiry

Image courtesy of Freed Voices

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

In 2008, the Independent Asylum Commission did an assessment of the UK’s asylum system. They decided it was time for a ‘root and branch review’.

I arrived in the UK in 2012 and I was put on the Detained Fast Track after I claimed asylum. My time in at Harmondsworth detention centre was hell. It was mental torture. I suffered greatly. If the conditions I experienced were after four years of progress, then the situation back in 2008 must have been unimaginably bad. It is clear the ‘root and branch review’ stayed on paper. Its recommendations were ignored. And the people who would have been affected by those recommendations – people like me – were forgotten.

And that is why I have mixed feelings about the ongoing Parliamentary Inquiry on Detention.

In many ways, the Inquiry is a great step forward. It is different to other investigations because it looks at detention as a whole – not just children in detention, or the Detained Fast Track, or legal access. This is important because detention in the UK is an industry. Everything is connected. From bad decision making to poorly trained staff. From safeguards that don’t work to rubbish healthcare. From violent removals to greedy private investors. It is a spider-web. I hope this Inquiry can show how these are all linked together.

This Inquiry has also put people like me, with experiences of detention, at the centre. It is easy to make decisions that impact people you never have to see. Or whose stories you don’t have to hear. But it is much more difficult when you must look those people in the eye and listen to the way that detention ruined their lives. I was there at the first evidence session in Parliament in July. I could see how shaken the cross-party panel of Parliamentarians were listening to people tell their stories.

It was important for the MPs to listen but it was also important for us to speak out and not be silenced by the Home Office. For this Inquiry to be a success, it needs to involve the detainee and ex-detainee’s voice at every stage. We are experts-by-experience. They need to take on our testimonies but they also need to take on our recommendations.

What scares me is the thought that this will just be another report. Like the one in 2008. And all the Independent Monitoring Board reports. And all the reports from the Independent Chief Inspectors. And all the reports from charities and NGOs. I am worried it will also just stay on paper. I am worried there will be no action. Because the truth is that we already have lots of evidence to make an informed decision.

How many more deaths in detention before we realise we need a change? How many more mental breakdowns? How many more people on hunger-strike? How many more self-harmers? How many more cases of sexual harassment? How many families broken? How many more lives ruined?

I have a friend who gave evidence in the first oral session. He is a survivor of torture and was trafficked as a child. He has been diagnosed with PTSD and doctors have told the Home Office many times he should not be in detention. He has been locked away for over three years. On no charge.

I hope that for him, and others like him still in detention, this Inquiry will end up being more than just a nice read. I hope it will bring real change.

The art of listening?

By Eiri Ohtani from the Detention Forum.

Yesterday morning, I joined colleagues from Right to Remain, Detention Action and JRS UK who nervously gathered at JRS UK’s headquarters in east London.  We had a reason to be nervous.

Last month, the Co-ordination Group of the Detention Forum produced guides for individuals and groups to encourage others to take part in the parliamentary detention inquiry.  Because the inquiry panel is keen to hear directly from people with experience of detention and because we knew how rare it is for these people to be given an opportunity to speak up for themselves, we hastily put together these guides on how to collect evidence from individuals.  Having suggested others what to do without trying it ourselves first felt rather irresponsible.  So we were going to figure out whether our guides actually work in practice.  We have already heard from groups who have used the guides and said they were helpful.  Now, were they just being polite or do they really work?

We were also joined by The Forum based in west London, some of whose users have experienced detention. They are not a member of the Detention Forum, and this was particularly welcomed. We don’t “own” detention issues – no one does. So, from our point of view, the more groups and individuals raise their voice against detention, the better.

A total of six people with experience of detention attended the session.  We divided ourselves into two small groups, each supported by a facilitator and a scribe. I was tasked to take photos and compose live tweets.

Before the session started, I got talking to A over coffee, who was in detention for years.  The first thing he asked me was if I knew what actually happened at Morton Hall over the weekend.  After hearing my summary of several media articles I read, he shook his head saying ‘Nothing changes.  Nothing changes.’  He then explained to me how he was in detention when someone sadly passed away.  I asked him how he found that out. ‘Everyone started banging the door like this.’  He gestured the banging motion with his fist. ‘We knew straight away something terrible happened. It was crazy.’  He then told me about how the police in riot gear came and the frightening atmosphere that ensured.

B, at this point, joined in the conversation.  I know he has been slightly sceptical about the inquiry, and probably for a good reason.  Catching the end of A’s sentence, he said ‘We tell them what’s wrong and they do nothing.’  We discussed how so much evidence that shows harm of detention is already out there.  We talked about the need to make recommendations and be clear about what we want to see changed.

As the session started, the facilitator asked everyone to introduce themselves.  A was the first to go.  ‘My name is A.  I am an ex-detainee’.  This was already painful to hear, that A decided to define himself by his experience of detention.  Whenever possible, I personally refuse to use the words ‘detainees’ and ‘ex-detainees’ to describe people with experience of detention.  Why should they be defined by the forms and practices of domination meted out by the state?

But before I had time to regain composure, the next person, very hesitantly said in a small voice, ‘My name is C.  I am … also an ex-detainee’.  Asking people to share their personal experiences often raises ethical and moral issues.  I felt complicit in making C identify with something that she might not rather not think about if she had a choice.  I also wished that the parliamentary panel could hear that gap in C’s sentence and the way her voice diminished as she finished her sentence.

In the following two hours or so, I was busy tweeting in between fetching water for the participants and looking out for later comers.   I wished I was able to convey not just the words people used, but how they were said – 140 character-limit of tweets made it impossible to do other than just picking some phrases.  These words were not always angry.  They were more often than not dignified, even when people were sharing their inner most pains, stigma and shame.  It was clear that these people all in their own way resisted and ‘fought’ detention, the system which constantly tried to dehumanise them.  They refused to be degraded.  They did not make themselves into ‘heroes’ and ‘heroines’ when sharing these details: they plainly explained that it was just how they survived.

I was also struck by how respectful they were of each other, giving each other space to talk.  Unlike many meetings that I have attended in my life, no one talked over the others.  No one dominated the conversation.  There was no ‘competition’ to see who had the loudest voice.  They actually listened to each other.

After saying goodbyes, I sat down with my colleagues.  We were all completely drained after such intense hours.  It made me reflect on the constant demand we make on people with experience of detention to talk, in a bid to change people’s minds about immigration detention.  We were now in possession of their words.  And the responsibility to relay them to the outside world felt heavy.  I hope people actually listen to their words – because if you really listened to what they said, you would never be able to believe that status quo is an option.

“This is not what I was expecting. This prison is scary”: HMP The Verne

By Ben du Preez from Detention Action, with testimony from Jamal who was detained in HMP The Verne.  Detention Action is a member of the Detention Forum.

On 24th March 2014, vans carrying migrants began arriving at HM Prison the Verne. Jamal was one of the first 30. He says he will never, ever, forget looking through the van windows up at the looming Napolenoic fortifications which dominate the hill atop of the Isle of Portland.

“It was a four hour drive from London. I didn’t know where we were going. No-one told us. I felt like we were driving to the end of the world. And then we reached the sea. And the van drove up the hill. And then we saw those big gates…’wow’, I said to myself. ‘This is not what I was expecting. This prison is scary.’”

Jamal, and those others with him, had been expecting a detention centre. That is what they had been told: “After being stuck in prison under immigration powers with no rights, I was excited about moving. I know its crazy to say, but I was actually looking forward to a detention centre.” What he got was an enormous fortress of a prison, which had been re-designated as a detention centre (with 580 bed spaces, set to be the third largest detention centre in Europe), only for it to be re-re-designated as a prison for migrants at the last moment. The reason given? To provide flexibility within an overcrowded prison estate. Instead of just feeling as though they are in prison, those held in the Verne actually are in a prison, run to the Prison Rules, without the additional (though limited) rights normally granted to detained migrants.

This means no mobile phones, no incoming telephone calls and no internet. Positioned out in the geographical extremities of the country, this basically assures almost zero contact with the outside world. As Jamal notes; “I was isolated from everyone and everything I knew. With no way of speaking to anyone outside, I really felt forgotten.” That also meant feeling forgotten by the justice system. 59% of the migrants Detention Action have met in our workshops in the Verne have been unrepresented, although the Legal Aid Agency has now belatedly agreed to fund on-site legal advice. Many do not even know what an immigration solicitor is.

Those in prison under immigration powers also miss out on key safeguards which should prevent the detention of people who are psychologically vulnerable. In detention centres, there is an (inadequately implemented) procedure for centre doctors to inform the Home Office about migrants whose health will be damaged by detention. In prisons, there is no such system: vulnerable people may fall apart without any report to the Home Office on their suitability for detention.

This forms part of a wider cloak of statistical invisibility, whereby those detained in prisons like the Verne are excluded from Home Office records. For many migrants in detention, the worst part of being locked up is the open-endedness: immigration detention in the UK is without time limit and where return is impossible, migrants may find themselves locked up for years. Last year, Home Office publications showed that at the end of 2013 seventy-five people had been detained for over a year. But these did not include those detained in prisons, despite those individuals frequently being held for the longest periods. Jamal, for example, had been held in prison under immigration powers for eighteen months following completion of half of a twenty-week sentence. According to ministerial statements, almost a thousand migrants were being held in prisons even before the Verne opened.

Today, the future status of the Verne remains uncertain. The Home Office plans to convert it to a detention centre in September 2014 but given their flip-flop earlier this year, everyone involved is holding their breath. Some things, however, are certain: hundreds of migrants continue to languish in prisons around the country, in a black hole ignored by official detention statistics, often out of the reach of lawyers. Equally indisputable is that these individuals are not prisoners, they are not serving criminal sentences at the order of a court and they have no ‘debt’ to society to pay. The truth is they are there for the administrative convenience of the Home Office.

But of all these truths, perhaps most harrowing of all is the fact that the routine imprisonment of migrants shows no signs of ending.

Immigration detention: Time for a time limit

By Jessica Kennedy and Penny Keza. Jessica is Development Co-ordinator at The Forum, which supports refugee and migrant communities and individuals in the UK. Penny is a former detainee.

Published at OpenDemocracy, as part of a series of articles on unlocking detention.

The countdown to the UK general election is on, and with a collective push we could yet make change for those still languishing in immigration detention centres on our shores.

Over 30,000 people were locked up in the UK last year – but not because they had committed a crime. They were trying to apply for the right to stay in this country. They had the misfortune to enter a system that uses detention in prison-like conditions, sometimes for years, as an administrative tool.

Immigration detention is meant to be a last resort, just before a person is removed from the UK. According to Home Office policy, detention can be used ‘where there is a realistic prospect of removal within a reasonable period’. Detention ‘must be used sparingly, and for the shortest possible period necessary’. But how can someone be ‘about to be removed’ for three, four or five years?

There are many reasons why people cannot be deported, as this collection of twenty stories from across the EU illustrates. People who do not have travel documents. A disputed country of origin. Statelessness. Medical issues. The courts have found several times that the UK government has illegally detained people when there was no realistic prospect of removal – yet there seems to have been no change in policy. Not only is it wasteful, detention is expensive, estimated to cost around £47,000 per person.

If you have never been to detention, or never had a phone call from someone you care about from detention, count yourself lucky. I first got a phone call from someone in detention on an afternoon in November. Hearing the desperation in my friend’s voice – he had been taken to detention and told he would be deported, despite having an ongoing case with the Home Office – I realised that I was near powerless to help. That feeling will never leave me.  I now work with the Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum (The Forum), which promotes the rights of refugees and migrants in the UK. We support a large number of people who have been in detention, often for months and years at a time.

I invited Penny, one of our members who recently won the right to stay in this country and who had spent 14 weeks in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, to share her story.

Read the article at OpenDemocracy