Immigration detention is mental torture

Content warning: graphic descriptions of suicide and self-harm. Image by @Carcazan

This blog comes from Souleymane, a member of Freed Voices. Freed Voices are a group of experts-by-experience who are committed to speaking out about the realities of immigration detention in the UK. They are on Twitter at @FreedVoices.

My name is Souleymane and I am a member of Freed Voices. I was locked up in detention in the UK, without trial, without time-limit, for three and a half years. I want to share with you about my experiences as an asylum seeker already in the UK. I want to focus on my time in detention because this, more than anything else, has defined my experience of the UK.

I came to this country in 2003 to escape persecution. Because I am stateless, I had to use false documents to get here. When I arrived I was put in prison for a short time because of this. I thought when I left prison I would be a free man. I did not think I would be taken somewhere worse.

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…

The UK is the only country in Europe with no time-limit on detention. There is no end in sight. And this is where mental torture really kicks in. The stress of indefinite detention had a huge impact on my mental health. It is like you are carrying a heavy load on your head everywhere you go.

I saw a lot of people around me collapse mentally. They could not take it anymore – the limbo in detention killed them. I saw people try and hang themselves. I saw people go crazy with fear. I saw a man take a razor blade and slash, slash, slash, he cut his arms. There was blood everywhere. This is indefinite detention, and the impact detention has on people when they are released. This is happening on your doorstep.

Sadly, the mental effect of detention does not stop when the gates open. When I was released, I felt like I had come out of a cave. I had been there so long I felt powerless and weak. I heard voices. I did not trust anyone. Even now, sometimes I wake in the night from flashbacks. The mental torture has not gone.

I realise now that detention is trauma – it stays with you for life.

The truth is there are many refugees and asylum seekers that need your help that are already in the UK. In 2017 27,300 people entered immigration detention. 56% were released back into the community. Their detention served no purpose.

The financial cost is very big. You even cannot begin to measure the human cost. Many of these people are now destitute or suffering on section 4 support [government-provided bail accommodation]. They are still in limbo.

Please, join our fight for justice here, in the UK. It is time for a time limit. Toda raba, thank you.

“There was a chance justice would be done”

Image by @Carcazan

In this #Unlocked18 blog, 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.


XX December 2018,

Hello Tamsin,

I am Mishka from the expert by experience group, Freed Voices. This is my second Q&A blog for Unlocking Detention. This time, I thought of asking you a few questions about the Detained Fast Track (DFT) litigation instigated by Detention Action. This is something I consider as a vital legal challenge which goes hand in hand with immigration detention and the asylum system as well. I am aware that you were one of the key persons behind this litigation by Detention Action. I think it is important to highlight that I am someone who has gone through this DFT process.

Best wishes, Mishka.


XX December, London

Hello Mishka,

Thank you for your questions. These questions made me think!

1) Instigating litigation to challenge the DFT must have been a big decision. What was the motivation behind that decision? 

Instigating the litigation to challenge the DFT was a massive decision. We were a tiny organisation, and the DFT had the full weight of the government behind it and years of seeming to be untouchable. But hearing the fear, despair and desperation our clients voiced to us every day, we felt we had to take action. We were already campaigning against the colossal injustice of indefinite detention and the extreme periods of detention other people in detention experienced, and the DFT seemed to be at the other end of the spectrum of egregious human rights abuses in detention in the UK. Vulnerable asylum-seekers incarcerated and pushed through a system at breakneck speed, a system that seemed designed to fail them and where justice was nigh on impossible. There are many tools you can use in campaigning for social change, but our analysis showed us that litigation was the only effective option in this particular case.

2) What was the most difficult thing you all found during that 7 steps (please correct me if I am wrong) legal challenge?

It’s hard to pinpoint a specific moment that was the most difficult during a lengthy legal process that dominated our working lives for so long. It was a rollercoaster of ups and downs and a fair amount of frustrating and lengthy waiting too, particularly given the urgency of the issue. Perhaps the most difficult thing was simply to keep going. We were committed to seeing it through, but it was slow and painstaking work, and at times the end goal felt out of reach. What made a huge difference was the tremendous stamina and determination of our legal team and the growing sense that many others were joining in our fight. So many of our own volunteers, other NGOs, lawyers and supporters contributed huge amounts of energy, time and expertise. And the more we won at each stage and chipped away at the edifice of the DFT, the more we all sensed that we could really do this. We could really bring the whole thing tumbling down.

The reaction from people in detention was humbling and inspiring. As they followed the slow progress of the case, many knew that it was unlikely to bring any immediate benefit to them personally despite their own desperate situations. And yet we were struck again and again by their shared sense that the fight was worth having, the sheer fact we were standing up against this injustice was somehow a sustaining force. It gave people in detention courage, and they gave us courage. There was a chance justice would be done. If not for them, then for others in the future who would not face the same injustice.

3) Do you think the government will reintroduce something similar to the unfair DFT system?

Since the DFT was stopped in 2015, the government has repeatedly taken steps to explore if and how they could bring it back in one form or another. The most recent development has been a consultation from the Tribunal Procedure Committee on accelerated procedures for all immigration appeals in detention. At each point, Detention Action and others have responded vigorously with strong arguments that a re-worked DFT cannot overcome the fundamental unfairness of a fast track process in detention. Three years later, there is still no DFT. Someone once referred to the collective effort of the Detention Action litigation as it “taking a village” to achieve what we did. I agree. There is now a body of caselaw and a strength of conviction that I am confident the government would face a monumental battle were they to try to reintroduce the DFT. We are now in a very different landscape from where we were when our tiny organisation first took the government to court five years ago.

4) The DFT system had been running for years until the courts laid it to rest in 2015. What would have been the reason(s) the courts took such a long time to comprehend that this system is ultra vires and unlawful? 

There are many reasons why it took such a long time for the courts to finally reach this conclusion, although there were also many moments of insight along the way. I would probably highlight two reasons. Firstly, the DFT was an incredibly entrenched and political issue. It was not easy for the courts to put a stop to a system that the government had relied on so heavily and so extensively for many years. We focused on depoliticising the issue as much as possible, and I think that helped. Secondly, to fully understand the problem of the DFT, you have to grasp the cumulative nature of its unfairness. At each stage, it felt as if we would win one argument but the government would try to tweak something in the system to satisfy the courts. We (Detention Action, our lawyers and all the others who contributed so much) had to pull together vast amounts of evidence about what was really happening on the ground as the case progressed, to demonstrate that systemic unfairness continued. We had to show again and again that the system was fundamentally flawed throughout and the only option was to end it.


XX November 2018, Stoke.

Hello Tamsin,

Thank you for your insightful answers and for your questions as well. My answers are as below.

1) How has your experience of the DFT shaped your determination to campaign for detention reform?

Going through DFT felt like my natural justice was breached. My liberty was taken away and I did not have proper access to quality legal advice until the very last moment; my access to justice was severely undermined. This system denied the right to a fair consideration of my claim, and I felt like it was a battle against time and I lost that battle. I was surprised that even independent Immigration Tribunals and Judges were a part of this system. The environment in detention centres do not in any way give you an opportunity to lodge a proper claim. You are cut off from the external world and you cannot gather necessary evidence you need. You cannot even obtain an expert report to make your claim stronger. This experience of DFT therefore certainly shaped up my determination to campaign for detention reform.

However, in the meantime, whilst going through DFT, I comprehended that it is not only the asylum claimants facing unfairness while in immigration detention. The same set of difficulties I had to face under DFT, others also were facing. There were people with many other types of immigration situations, such as Article 8 cases, students and people fighting deportation decisions. They all were facing a similar unfairness like I was facing even though their circumstances were different to mine. This is one of the reasons why it is important for me to focus on everyone in detention during my campaign and advocacy work and I would say my experience of DFT had an impact on my determination and decision to become Mishka from Freed Voices.

2) What would you say to a government that tries to reintroduce the DFT?

Firstly, I would like to remind them the sort of damage the DFT has already caused to thousands of people who needed international protection for various reasons. I would try my best to explain that it is easy for the decision makers, relevant ministers, Immigration Judges and Home Office caseworkers to act and comment like superheroes and undermine the risks that asylum claimants could face as long as it is not happening to them. I will remind them about the human impact first. For example, some judges, Home Office caseworkers and their legal representatives often claim that people can maintain family ties via Skype and social media – but I don’t think they will see it that way if they were in the claimants’ position themselves.

Then I will also try my best to remind them and also enlighten them about a number of legal challenges that had already been brought against the DFT and as a result, now it has been concluded that DFT was an inherently unfair system and also ultra vires. There are still people who faced the DFT pursing their claims in the form of fresh asylum claims and some are pursuing judicial reviews. Claimants would not be satisfied with the outcome of their claim, if their claims were not concluded or determined properly and fairly. They would keep on pursuing their claims via other legal routes – they could win but they would do their utmost to pursue their claims as if they would never win, because they felt it was not fair and they were not taken seriously.

Peoples’ lives being stuck in limbo for years trying to get a fair hearing and the government wasting massive amounts of taxpayers’ money defending their broken argument and trying to bring back DFT – there will be no real winner here.

Best wishes, Mishka.

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

Content warning: hearing voices, mental distress. Image by @Carcazan

On 21 November, the Freed Voices group invited Akiko Hart, the project manager of the Hearing Voices project at Mind in Camden, to their November monthly meeting. Akiko and Freed Voices members Mishka and Red have contributed some thoughts about this meeting.

I am Akiko Hart. I work as the Hearing Voices Project Manager at Mind in Camden, where I help set up and facilitate Hearing Voices peer support groups in the community, prison, secure units, detention centres, and children and adolescent services. I am also the Chair of ISPS UK and sit on the Hearing Voices Network England Committee.

I was recently invited to a Freed Voices meeting to talk about Mind in Camden’s work with people who hear voices in Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs). We have been funded to develop peer support groups and deliver workshops in IRCs, for people who hear, see and sense things others don’t, or who experience extreme states or distress. Part of what we do is train staff to better support people with these experiences.

Our approach is different to more mainstream mental health ones, in that we believe these experiences are meaningful and can be understood in many different ways; not necessarily as symptoms of an illness, but as a response to difficult life events, trauma, or adversity, or as spiritual transformation, or neurodiversity – and many more explanations in between and beyond these. Peer support groups can be a way of bearing witness, connecting with one another, and holding space for people to be able to make sense of their experiences in the best way for them. They can be transformative on both a personal and collective level.

We have set up two Hearing Voices groups at Harmondsworth and Colnbrook, have trained staff and volunteers from Heathrow, Gatwick and Campsfield House, and will be delivering workshops at Yarl’s Wood.

On a personal level, I’m struck by the disconnect between the way in which some policy makers and practitioners talk about mental health in IRCs, and the reality. Given the deep uncertainty people in detention have to hold, the anger, the sense of helplessness, the environmental conditions which are closer to a prison even though the regimes may be different, the separation from loved ones, the stress, the boredom, and what so many experience as dehumanising conditions – it seems obvious to me that pretty much everyone in an IRC will experience distress. Therefore, talking about tackling mental ill-health in terms of interventions such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), or even offering peer support groups can feel inadequate.

The main changes that would improve mental health in detention are in fact structural. This echoes wider mental health conversations around not just thinking about mental health as a problem within the individual: we need to take account of social and economic factors such as poverty, inequality and discrimination.

My meeting with Freed Voices was hugely impactful. What hit me straightway were the parallels between their work as experts-by-experience (“not case studies”) advocating for changes in detention, and the work of survivors and service users who advocate for change in mental health. Having a seat at the table is not enough: it is about centring the voices of those at the heart of the system. I imagine there might be similar challenges around having one’s experiences and views side-lined, tokenised or co-opted.

Freed Voices is an advocacy and campaigns group with an innate peer support group element, and what I’d like to do next year, in the first instance, is offer them a free training around Hearing Voice peer support group facilitation. It might be that some of them go on to facilitate a Hearing Voices group in an IRC or the community, but I think the main outcome will be learning from each other and deepening our understanding of how peer support can be mobilised for both personal support and political action. One member asked me: is what you are doing in IRCs just a sticking plaster? I don’t know, I said. I hope not, but it might be. But I need to keep on asking myself that question.

Freed Voices members Mishka and Red also shared their thoughts. Freed Voices is a group of experts-by-experience committed to speaking out about the realities of immigration detention in the UK and calling for radical detention reform. They tweet at @FreedVoices

Freed Voices group is really thankful to Akiko for coming to our November 21 monthly session and sharing more information about the Hearing Voices projects. We were impressed by her awareness around the issue of mental health in immigration detention centres. We found this meeting very interesting and the Hearing Voices approach seems very compelling to us.

One of the main purposes of Freed Voices group is raising awareness around immigration detention in the UK, and we are seeing many important achievements in relation to our goals. However, immigration detention centres are still there, and yearly, roughly 28000 people have to go through the everyday psychological stresses and trauma of immigration detention. This is why we believe that projects like Hearing Voices have a huge potential in helping people facing this situation.

Our group is looking forward to undergoing free training around Hearing Voices support group facilitation and we are thankful for this opportunity. Some of our members are also looking forward to facilitating Hearing Voices groups in the community and also in detention centres as well, such as Harmondsworth or Colnbrook. Being involved in a project like Hearing Voices could be a challenging experience for some of our members, as it may involve returning to a place that would make us recall our terrible memories of detention. Detention is a place where an important part of our lives were stolen.

However, the fact that we have already been in detention and our will to participate in this project could provide an important opportunity to reach more people incarcerated in detention centres, and to enable them to handle and overcome the psychological pressure that they are facing everyday.

Freed Voices members have first hand experience of detention, which increases our credibility. As Red said,

“When we go to visit people incarcerated in detention centres as a part of Hearing Voices group facilitation, we can tell them that we have been where you are now; we are not outsiders, we are one of your own; we are here to listen and we’ll do all we can to help, even if all the help that we can give is to share your pain, so you no longer feel isolated, so you no longer feel hopeless and on your own; we are here to show you that no matter how difficult or impossible as it may seem, it is always possible to heal.”

This is the kind of contribution Freed Voices can provide to the project to make it more effective.

It is also important to highlight that the damage and trauma of detention can stay even after someone is released and this is carried back to their families and their communities as well. This is why it is important to have projects like Hearing Voices for people even after they are released from detention. Freed Voices members are very keen to be involved in any such projects as well. Mishka said,

“We are optimistic about this opportunity and look forward to being involved in this project. Like Akiko, we at Freed Voices also believe that one of the main outcomes of this future collaboration between Freed Voices and Hearing Voices will be about learning from each other and intensifying our understanding of how peer support can be mobilised for both personal support and political action.”

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

Communication | Unlocked19

Image by @Carcazan

This week, we spoke to two people detained in Harmondsworth immigration removal centre (IRC), DAK and Seed (not their real names), who spent over an hour answering questions sent in from across the UK.

Some of their experiences are similar, some are very different. DAK has 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.

Thanks to JRS UK and Detention Action for putting us in touch, and a particular thanks to DAK and Seed for their time, thoughtfulness and insight.

The voiceless place

Maddy Crowther is Co-Executive Director of Waging Peace and Article 1, which support Sudanese asylum-seekers and refugees to build meaningful lives in the UK. They run a Sudanese Visitors’ Group supporting their clients held in detention. Maddy has co-written this blog with Mohammed (not his real name), who has been detained on several occasions. Maddy is on Twitter at @CrowtherMaddy, and tweets for Waging Peace @WagingPeaceUK.

Often the first thing that strikes me when I visit an immigration removal centre is that this is a voiceless place. Which isn’t to say that they are quiet. Often the sounds of a centre are loud and jarring, and eerily similar to those you might expect in a prison – heavy doors clanging open, keys jangling from a guard’s belt.

No, by voiceless I mean that those inside seem to be treated as if they lack agency. In at least some sense the drive to detain, rather than let people fight their cases in the community, is an attempt to contain and silence those within. I have always felt it was particularly cruel that centres may remove an individual’s phone on arrival, replacing it with a new and more basic mobile, and so robbing them of the contacts and connections they have outside those four walls. On a practical side, it means volunteers associated with visitors’ groups like our own, are often at a loss of how to stay in touch with people; we may lose contact with someone precisely when they need us the most.

Even when we have been able to visit someone, and fight for them to be released, that person can emerge subdued and less able to advocate for themselves. We think an important part of our work is to offer them the chance to use their voices to heal. This is exactly what we have focused on in recent years, providing training to around 164 individuals on how to enlist the help of our democracy, including via trips to Parliament which were timed to coincide with City of Sanctuary’s ‘Sanctuary in Parliament’ initiative.

There are a mix of backgrounds in these groups. Not all will have experienced detention, but many will have, as most of the asylum-seekers we support do at one time. This is the case even though in the past 4 years, and out of our thousands of clients, only onehas been forcibly deported back to Sudan, and only a handful of others to a third country. All others were either granted status, or are still awaiting a decision. This calls into question the value of their detention in the first place – it cannot always have been to effect removal.

Across these 164 people who have directly benefited from our training, one man stands out to me, Mohammed (name changed). We first came into contact with Mohammed in 2015, during a period of detention at Morton Hall, despite the fact that we, as well as both his lawyers and medical staff, knew about his experience of severe torture in Sudan. We encountered him again in 2017, when he was detained first at Morton Hall, and then at Brook House. In short order he was given removal directions to Italy, where he was first fingerprinted in Europe. Of this time, he told us, “They will come back and take me by force, hearing the sounds of their keys (the guards) sends me into panic. All organs inside me feel panic.”

The manner of Mohammed’s removal attempts was shocking. In an attempt to avoid deportation Mohammed decided to start a hunger strike, and also stripped naked. Because of this, detention staff refused access to a volunteer visitor that we had arranged. But, hypocritically, Mohammed’s state did not prevent them taking him to the airport on a chilly late autumn day, and forcing him to board the plane with just a sheet wrapped around himself. It was only because the entire flight was cancelled that Mohammed was allowed to go back to the centre. Eventually he was released.

Having worked with Mohammed so intensely, we offered him the chance to come to our next lobbying training, just weeks after the attempted removal in late 2017. It was Mohammed’s first time entering Parliament. The difference in how he was treated that day – by MPs and Lords, Parliamentary staff, even the servers in the canteen – to how he had been treated in detention, was stark. Simply by the fact of his being in the Palace of Westminster, he was assumed to be a human being deserving of respect, dignity, and with a voice. I think if the same could be assumed of all those in immigration removal centres, then a lot would be improved with the detention estate in the UK. I’ll never forget leaving Parliament with Mohammed after the training, and him saying, “This is one of the best days of my life. I will never forget this day for as long as I live”.

But that’s enough from me. I’ll let Mohammed tell his story in his own words below. I know that this platform is even more meaningful to Mohammed, as there was a time he felt voiceless.

I’m one of those people who has suffered a lot and been detained for a variety of periods in different detention centres, two times in Morton Hall, two times in Brook House, once in Oxford, between 2014 and 2017. I’ve never ever forgotten those places. It seems as if I’d committed a crime, but I had not. Do you think I am guilty just being an asylum seeker? Do you think I deserve punishment for that?

Can you imagine what a tough life I had? I bet you can’t.

There were a few people from different organisations I knew, such as Karag charity in Coventry lead by lovely ladies Beth and Joan. I also remember two kind ladies Theresa and Helen who fought just to visit me, from Coventry Women’s Community. They did the best to do so. I don’t know how to thank them. Also Waging Peace did a lot of efforts to help me with all the procedures.

In this space I would like to share my experience with the readers, then I will leave you to make your judgment.

There was a gloomy atmosphere in the hell (detention). Sad faces everywhere, hopeless people, every day. The agony starts at night, no good sleep at all. Why? Because the guards come many times during the night, making fear in the atmosphere. You can hear loud key sounds. That means they want to take someone to deport them or perform a routine check. We called that moment execution. It felt like you would be beheaded.

It’s really tough to be behind steel doors. I’m doing the best to eliminate these kinds of memories. I despised my life, but this feeling has faded.

A few weeks after my last period of detention, I was invited to attend a course in Parliament organised by Waging Peace. It’s a completely contradictory feeling. It was an unforgettable day. I met some MPs, and such a lovely Lord, the Earl of Sandwich, with great hospitality. They were very generous people. We discussed a variety of issues relevant to Sudan. We focused particularly on human rights, discrimination, and inequalities against the Darfuri people. We were grateful to every single person we met there.

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?

There was one feeling I had, among the group I was with. There is a place in Parliament where Nelson Mandela stood. When I put my feet where the great man Nelson Mandela had stood, and when I read the words written telling me that this is where he put his feet – at that moment tears came down. I compared myself with him. Both us of were looking for freedom. Everybody has his own battle. He has to fight until he gets victory.

When I was in detention I consoled myself by listening to some songs to give me hope, like ‘Another Day in Paradise’ by Phil Collins, and ‘Tears in Heaven’ by Eric Clapton. These songs are like a gift from me to everybody still suffering in detention.

I hope to change these systems to stop the detention of asylum seekers. They deserve good treatment and to save their dignity.

Thank you for reading my story.

Waging Peace and Article 1 run lobbying training with various Sudanese community groups in the UK, and held a repeat of the training Mohammed attended just last week. The photo above is from last week’s training and does not feature Mohammed.

Q&A with Siarhei in Campsfield House IRC

Image by @Carcazan

This week, Unlocking Detention has been ‘visiting’ Campsfield House detention centre in Oxfordshire. The Duncan Lewis Public Law, Civil Litigation and Immigration teams put us in touch with Siarhei, who is currently detained in Campsfield. In addition to the normal barriers to communication faced by everyone in detention, Siarhei speaks no English, so Anastasija Vasiljeva in the Civil Litigation team at Duncan Lewis kindly helped to interpret for us.

A huge thank you to Duncan Lewis for their assistance, and to Siarhei for his reflections on being detained in Campsfield and under immigration powers in prison.

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

Unlocking Detention has been the result of so many different people’s efforts. In this #Unlocked18 blog, Mishka and Red at Freed Voices (@FreedVoices) interview Lisa Matthews, Coordinator at Right to Remain, about her experience of co-running Unlocking Detention in 2015. While reading the blog, have a look at our timeline which shows the history of Unlocking Detention.


XX November 2018, Stoke and Liverpool

Hello Lisa,

We are Mishka and Red from the expert by experience group, Freed Voices. Our group has been involved with and contributing to Unlocking Detention for five years now. We made variety of contributions such as blogs, poems, podcasts and drawings. We believe that Unlocking Detention is a distinguished endeavour that is shining a beacon of light uncovering the hidden world of immigration detention in the UK.

We are aware that you had been involved with Unlocking Detention 2015. We would like to ask you a few questions about your experience. We look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes, Mishka and Red.


XX November 2018, London

Hello Mishka and Red,

I am a coordinator at Right to Remain, which is a coordinating member of the Detention Forum. Before joining Right to Remain in 2011 (we were then called NCADC), I worked in Cairo, providing psycho-social support to refugees. I have also worked in mental health community outreach with London’s Somali and Bangladeshi communities, in asylum and immigration legal casework, in integration case management with refugees, and in asylum advice. In the first year of Unlocking Detention, I helped with the tweeting on behalf of the Detention Forum and then went on to co-run the project in 2015.

Thanks for the questions! I’ve had to delve deep into my memory to answer these…

My answers are as below.

To Mishka’s questions:

1) What is/was the most fascinating and also meaningful element to you about Unlocking Detention 2015?

Perhaps the most memorable aspect of #Unlocked15 was its alignment with parliamentary advocacy. Unlocked was taking place as the 2015 Immigration Bill made its way through parliament.  With very little notice we found out that an amendment had been proposed to the Bill by Lord Ramsbotham, that would introduce a 28-day maximum time limit on immigration detention.

In just a few days, we managed to produce a campaign image and set up a system for people to email their MPs to vote in favour of the amendment.  We we delighted that thousands of people contacted their representatives in such a short space of time, and that Unlocking Detention provided such an accessible and positive platform for that.

Ultimately, the amendment was defeated, but the pressure on the government was such that a compromise amendment was passed which introduced automatic bail hearings after four months for some people in detention (which the Home Office is now saying they will reduce to two months as a pilot).

2) Why do you think that the involvement of experts by experience is/was important and how that changed the overall context of Unlocking Detention 2015?

My answer to this could also be my answer to question 1 – the involvement of experts-by-experience has always been one of the most meaningful parts of the project.

There were some really memorable pieces by experts-by-experience in #Unlocked15.  I still think about the Three Scenes in Campsfield piece. It’s such an affecting piece and is so poignant now we have the fantastic news of Campsfield closing next year.   And a Letter to Colnbrook, still so powerful.

Both of these pieces came from Freed Voices members, who are pioneers in the field of expert-by-experience campaigning.

And 2015 was the first year we did live Q and As with people currently detained in the detention centre that is the focus for that week.  These were conducted by my good friend Ben du Preez (ex of Detention Action), who was my partner in crime on the project, and we did some nice reminiscing about #Unlocked15 to help me answer these questions!  I still think that the Q and As are the most powerful aspect of Unlocking Detention. It’s a real chance to connect people outside of detention with those detained, get the voices of people detained out (and engage a wider variety of experts-by-experience), and hear about simple but important every day things about the reality of detention and you get a really human picture.

To Red’s questions:

1) To raise awareness in the general public about Immigration Detention is one of the goals of Unlocking Detention, which ways are being used to achieve this and how effective have they been?

I think one really effective way is the Q and As that I mentioned above – those these are not easy to do, because communication with people in detention is so (deliberately) difficult.

I also loved the way the public engaged with the visual part of the tour in 2015 – which was asking people to send pictures in of what they would miss if they were detained. It was a great creative exercise and also good for creating bonds of empathy, as people had to stop and think about what it would be like, being detained.  You also got a nice insight into people’s personalities and lives!

I also liked running Unlocked workshops in different communities and at different events, as a way of taking the project beyond just the online world.

2) What have been the main changes that you have noticed since Unlocking detention 2015, have they been positive or negative and what needs to be made with urgency?

I think Unlocked has been part of the growing anti-detention movement – there’s a lot more people now who know, care about and are taking action against immigration detention.  There’s been lots of different campaigning happening and I think we need that variety – arts and creative events like the Channel Project recently in Bristol, protests at detention centres, legal challenges, community organising in places that don’t have detention centres nearby but whose residents are affected by detention.

The UK urgently needs to reduce the use of detention – in my view, once this has happened (and it is long overdue), decision-makers will see that the world doesn’t fall apart when you don’t detain and it will be easier to make the case for ending detention altogether.

I would like to questions for you both as well, and I look forward to reading your answers.

Best wishes,



XX November 2018, Stoke and Liverpool

Hello Lisa,

Thank you for your insightful answers and for your questions as well.

Mishka’s answers:

1) What do you think are the most important barriers/obstacles to achieving radical detention reform?

I think there are many reasons: the lack of awareness around this issue among the wider public including the politicians themselves as well. Also, the current political climate; overall attitude towards migration and false narratives around immigration detention that have been difficult to break. I also see the lack of interest by the government to explore and invest on alternatives to detention as one reason. Achieving detention reform eventually means that less people are in detention and this goes hand in hand with alternatives to detention.

But I am glad to witness that this is changing. There is a cultural change within the Home Office itself and now the wider public is more aware of the realities of detention. As a result, now we are seeing a positive trend towards reform.

2) In your opinion, what makes Freed Voices such effective advocates? Is there something more than ‘just’ being experts-by-experience?

A traditional way of involving individuals with direct experience of the issue often involved activities such as turning people into case studies to play a role of victims, and solely to share their stories. Even though sharing your personal experience is important, doing ONLY this is not enough.

Freed Voices have challenged this and have managed to change this approach, when it comes to how Freed Voices are involving in the fight against detention. This has resulted in a situation where now the Freed Voices have become a group of advocates with authority and competence as well – in addition to the credibility that is innate just by being armed with first hand experience of detention. This combination is very effective.

Red’s answers:

1) Do you think being part of Freed Voices has had a positive impact on other areas of your life, outside of detention campaigning?

Yes, it certainly has. In my opinion, the impact of Freed Voices is so positive because the project not only engages with its members at a formal level. The commitment is serious and the aim is to support each other in our fight for improving not only ourselves but also others. Freed Voices is not only about the messages but also about an effective and convincing way to deliver those messages. To do this, you also have to work with the messenger, with his spirit, body, and soul. Freed Voices do all these things and more. At the end of every Freed Voices session, I don’t feel tired; instead, I always feel positive and energized. This has a positive influence in many areas of my life outside of detention campaigning as well.

2) If you were the Home Secretary, what change to detention would you make and why?

This is a tough question indeed. The Home Secretary is responsible for keeping the “House” in order but this should be done in accordance with the law. In relation to detention centres, the first step I would take is to introduce a 28 day time limit to reduce the use of detention in both time and scale. The nature and the purpose of detention centres have been badly eroded and this is something that affects not only the image of the Home Secretary but also the Government and the whole country in general. Fixing this would be one of my priorities as well.

Whilst detention still exist, I will implement a proper and fully independent mechanism of quality control, to make sure that these facilities meet the minimum standards and that everything is done in accordance with and respecting the law. Obviously, the most effective quality control body would be one that consists in undercover members that would go into the detention centres as if they were detainees. I am sure that the outcome would be quite revealing. One more thing: every immigrant should have access to support to prevent them experiencing and getting in trouble; usual prevention is better than cure.

Best wishes, Mishka and Red.

Eight times in detention: Why?

This contribution is a collaboration between women detained in Yarl’s Wood detention centre and the Yarl’s Wood Befrienders.

These words and images were produced at one of the weekly ‘drop in’ sessions held by Yarl’s Wood Befrienders. Drop in is a space where women detained at Yarl’s Wood can come and hang out with befrienders. We have tea, coffee and biscuits and there is colouring, jigsaws and games for people to play.

One of the notes says ” 8 x in detention Why?” The woman who wrote this told us that she had been detained for the second time and that her mother had been detained eight times before being given status.

The themes of things feeling more difficult as time goes on and not knowing how long they will be there come up all the time. It is particularly noticeable at the moment. I think as seasons change, it marks time and people who arrive in the summer are shocked and disheartened to find that they are still there as it turns to autumn. For those people who celebrate Christmas, it is particularly difficult to think that they might still be detained come Christmas.

We spoke to one woman last week who is detained for the second time.  The previous time she had also been detained over Christmas, so the thought of repeating the experience is terrifying her.

If this piece has moved you to take action, please get in touch with the Yarl’s Wood Befrienders or visit our take action page for more ideas.

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

Content warning: suicide and self-harm. Image by @Carcazan

This contribution comes from Bristol Free Voice, a citizen journalism project facilitating a safe platform for media for refugees and asylum seekers, to challenge the dehumanising narrative often seen in the mainstream media.

In one of our recordings, a woman speaks of her experience of detention. We follow her from reporting at the police station for three years – an often compulsory part of being an asylum seeker – to being detained in a police centre for three days, before moving to Yarl’s Wood detention centre.

She takes us through her experience of being detained. The level of fear and anxiety induced through being threatened with deportation left her feeling ‘spiritless’. She felt a completely different person when she was released.

This is just one women’s experience of being detained in Yarl’s Wood and being an asylum seeker in the ‘hostile environment’ with a constant fear of detention and deportation against her will. As she illustrates, there are families, children, disabled people and those with mental health issues detained, many without a time limit.

As the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on Refugees and Migration found in their 2014-15 Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention, ‘the lack of basic respect for privacy is unacceptable, made even more traumatic given the prior experiences of many women prior to detention’. Indeed, in the woman’s account, she met a lady with her baby who were taken from their home at 6am in a ‘dawn raid’.

Reforming detention to allow dignity is vital, and this means putting a time limit on detention. Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Green Party have all committed to introducing a time limit in their manifestos. In Bristol, the These Walls Must Fall campaign is trying to create a cross-party council motion backing the end of indefinite detention. We hope this will get passed through our local government. As this is being passed in other parts of the country, we hope that we send a clear message to the national government that it is not in our name.

Please listen to the woman’s experience here

“For me, Yarl’s Wood was another torture”

Image by @Carcazan. Content warning: rape, self-harm, suicide

This piece comes from Gabby (not her real name), an activist campaigning against immigration detention in the UK. She was detained in Yarl’s Wood twice in 2017 before being released to continue her asylum claim within the community. 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.

A version of this piece was originally published by The Independent.

Being locked up in Yarl’s Wood twice has turned my world upside down. I came here to escape abuse, but for me Yarl’s Wood was just another torture.

The first time I was locked up in Yarl’s Wood I was in there for three months. My room was like a prison cell. When I walked in, my new roommate was taking a shower in the corner. The mattress on the bed is plastic, thin and hard. The floor too, is like plastic over concrete. Under our beds there is a drain that we tried to cover with sanitary towels because it stinks like a sewer. I think this is for washing the floor when women cut themselves or are sick. It’s like living in a bathroom, a bathroom that you share with a stranger.

One of the hardest parts was not knowing when I’d be released or what would happen to me if I got sent back home. I was treated like a target for deportation, not a person. If I had been sent back I would be dead by now, or being exploited by men who raped me before. I do think that there should be a time limit on how long the Home Office can keep people locked up because the not-knowing is destroying people’s minds. I saw women in there starving themselves, cutting themselves, jumping off staircases – it was so traumatising to see those things.

I am out now but I have not recovered. My hair started falling out in there because of the stress. It doesn’t grow back, so my hair is gone. I still don’t sleep properly and I’m lucky if I get an hour each night. I suffer from high anxiety. Every time I get a letter from the Home Office the world closes in on me and I can’t breathe. This anxiety is taking over my whole life. I had to move out of my family’s home because they were worried I would try to kill myself and my sister didn’t want to find me dead.

All of that is because of detention and reliving my past. I keep having to tell the Home Office what happened to me when I was 10 years old. It’s not right. I’m not the same person, I’m in a very dark place. If I lie down it hits me so I have to keep busy – drawing, cleaning, writing – anything I can do to keep my mind from going back to Yarl’s Wood.

Earlier this year, Stephen Shaw published his follow-up review into the welfare of vulnerable people in detention. He found that the government’s new ‘Adults at Risk’ policy has not worked to reduce the number of vulnerable people in detention. This doesn’t surprise me. I met with Stephen Shaw in December last year with a group of women who’d also been in Yarl’s Wood for a long time. Every single one of us should not have been detained under that policy.

The Home Office just doesn’t make any effort to find out what has happened to people before they lock them up. There needs to be people in the system working to identify vulnerable people. They should be trained to make people feel comfortable and ask them questions about their lives, to actively find out what happened.

Both times I was detained I was only asked very general questions about my health. It took a lot of support from Women for Refugee Women, for me to be able to speak out about what had happened to me back home and why I couldn’t go back there. I didn’t know that what I had been through was trafficking.

With the Home Office it’s like the left hand is not talking to the right hand. There’s such poor coordination and communication. When they accepted that I was a survivor of trafficking and forced prostitution they said they were going to release me the next day. But then, that evening, they gave me a plane ticket. I just crumbled with terror and that nearly finished me.

Stephen Shaw also recommended that reducing the number of women locked up in detention centres needs to be a priority. I couldn’t agree more. Detention is killing us, it’s wrong. I was abused, but instead of getting help and support I was locked up. I deserve to be free and safe.

It’s time the Home Office stopped detaining vulnerable women so that other women don’t have to live through the trauma that I am living with. Yarl’s Wood will haunt me forever.

You can follow Women for Refugee Women on twitter: @4refugeewomen #SetHerFree