Five guys

Reflections on indefinite detention are often framed in the singular, as personal and introspective testimonies. In this special piece for Unlocking Detention, however, Mishka from Freed Voices, sketches five guys that shaped his experience of Harmondsworth detention centre and continue to dominate his thoughts today, post-release.
SKELETON
I first saw this guy in healthcare in May. He was on hunger strike. I think he had just started. He was thin but still a bit toned and muscular. To be honest, I thought he would give up after some time because…well, otherwise he would die. Two and a half months later I saw him when I returned to healthcare to pick up my depression medication. This time…wow…he was a skeleton. Really, skin and bones. I did not recognise him at first. He had a friend pushing him in a wheelchair and I had to ask if it was the same guy. His body was nothing now, it had left him. In that moment, I felt ‘this guy will die’. I didn’t know why he was on hunger strike but I understood the desperation. When you see there is no way out, or if you are an asylum seeker with a genuine reason to be scared of return, this kind of thing becomes the only option. For the Home Office, it is completely the opposite, the other way round. For them, these people are just frustrating a removal. To them it is further evidence of non-compliance, not of real human desperation. I don’t know what happened to him. I never saw him again.
LIFER
We had probably been detained for a month or so at this point. Me and my brother would always try and go to the canteen at the end of the hour, when there were less people. This time we sat at a vacant table and after a while a man came and joined us. I am not sure if he was a befriender or not but I recognised him as someone who was always helping people fill out forms. He was an Asian man, in his 50s or so. He started the conversation with us. He asked us how long we’ve been here, how we are doing etc. We asked him how long he had been detained and he said ‘over two years’. Both me and my brother were completely stunned. I could not believe it. I had never known someone detained this long. I genuinely didn’t think it was possible. But you could also see that after so long inside the detention centre had become his home in a sad way. Everyone knew who he was in our wing. Officers would talk to him in a different way to other detainees. He had become part of the furniture at Harmondsworth. There is research that shows that the longer you are detained the more likely you are to be released at the end, and I hope this was the case for this guy. On the other hand, he had become so used to this environment I think re-integration would have been hard. I don’t know what happened to him.  I remember seeing him again when I was being escorted out for my release.
BLOOD
I went to the washroom at around ten o’clock in the night. They keep the florescent lights on 24-7 and I saw the blood straight away. There was blood everywhere…on the sink, by the entrance, by the toilet. Big drops. The floor is a dark blue colour but you could still see the outline of the blood very clearly. It was thick. I was not particularly shocked to be honest. I had seen blood like this before in detention. You get used to seeing this kind of colouring in detention. Images of pain become normalised. I could hear some big fusses when I came out the toilet. Someone said there had been an attempted suicide. I heard someone was crying very loud. A few hours later, I saw the guy on his bed. I had not spoken to him before but I recognised he was from my wing, on the same corridor. He was a very young Asian man, around twenty. He had plasters on his wrists. There were a few other suicide attempts that week. I had a hernia around this time and was waiting to go to hospital but they said they could not take me because all of the detention officers were busy watching people on suicide watch. That has to tell you something. I never saw that guy again.
BROTHER
My brother entered and left detention as two different people. He was a very positive man before. Very strong, both physically and mentally. He was 90 minutes older than me and played a big brother role very well. Whenever I would get emotional he would set me straight. He would always return me to the logic. He was a bit more mature than me…he was stable.
I never, ever, expected he would try and kill himself. So when someone that strong comes to that crossroads, when they turn to death, you get a very clear insight into what the environment of detention does to people.
After the second attempt, they took him to segregation. I asked to see him one last time before he would be removed. The F Wing manager said ‘ok, I will give you an exception’. His flight was at 6.30pm. They let me see him at 5pm but they said there would be a table between us and I could not touch him. We spoke for ten minutes with one officer standing right there next to us, on the edge of the table. At the end, we shook hands and in that moment I realised he was not the same person any more. He had been changed. That handshake was the hardest moment in my life. I haven’t seen him again since.
MICHAEL
After my brother was removed, I did not talk to too many people. I kept myself to myself. I would go out and sit out on a bench in the garden and just think and think and think. From the bench I could see the table tennis table. There was this guy called Michael, from Nigeria. He was brilliant at table tennis. Really, he was a remarkably talented guy. He was also a pool table expert. He was seriously multi-talented. His case was refused after he could not find a solicitor. He prepared all his documents for his own Judicial Review. The bundle was around 100 pages. I know how hard he worked without any guidance. He had removal directions and he had only ten days to fight it. I got to know him over this period very well. Eventually, his JR was refused. He spoke to me about the charter flights. He was expecting to be put on one and was very scared. I just remember feeling so sad about this man. He was clearly such a brilliant individual – so well mannered, so organised, great English, great work ethic, very skilled, always trying to be positive. His life was being wasted in detention. I remember feeling that if this guy isn’t considered a credit to the country, then what chance do the rest of us have? I don’t know what happened to him. I never saw him again after I left detention.

Walls of resistance

This piece is written for Unlocking Detention by ‘Jose’ of the Freed Voices group (the author’s name has been altered to protect their identity). ‘Jose’ was detained in Campsfield detention centre.  
Before I went to detention, I had posters of musicians on my wall. No revolutionaries, or civil rights leaders or anything like that. I think I maybe had a ‘Banksy in Palestine’ or something, but that was it, nothing personal to my politics. It was a true representation of where I was at. I was interested in politics but it was an informational relationship. I would have a conversation about political things with people but never really a debate. I didn’t want the confrontation. I also never really believed I could be part of anything that would bring a change. Or that change itself was really possible. Or necessary, to be honest. Detention changed everything. It politicised me.
This is what my current wall looks like and why:

  • Detention Music Group

This is a picture of me with me with my music group in detention. Music saved me in that place. Playing the guitar there was the only place I felt creative and detention looks to suppress anything like that, any kind of expression – musical, emotional or political. A few people heard me play and said they wanted to learn. I said, ‘well we have plenty of time here – our detention is indefinite’. So we set up a class and I facilitated this small group of guys. Just the fact that someone is acknowledging you and your skill – or even your potential to learn that skill – is very rare in detention. It reflects a humanity at odds with the process. I got a lot from teaching and from the fact people kept coming back. Recently, months after leaving detention, I found out another guy had set up a similar group. That genuinely moved my heart. It made me very proud. I want to hug that guy. Because I know how important it will be for him and for others to survive mentally.

  • Karl Marx

When a government challenges you in the way detention challenges does, you start to re-evaluate the systems that framed that experience. It is not necessarily that I see myself as a Marxist. It’s more a reminder that it is important to hold on to an idea about how society could, and should, be better. And to bring that about sometimes that demands real, radical action. I also respect Marx because he wasn’t just a political thinker, he was also a sociologist, an economist and a philosopher. He wasn’t defined by one thing and I don’t intend to be defined by one thing either: ‘migrant’, ‘ex-detainee’, no…He was also different from the political leaders of today who just try to appeal to whoever will get them re-elected. He was fighting for something much bigger than himself. He is a reminder that we need to keep going even if we aren’t going to be the ones to benefit directly by the change. I am inspired by his legacy.

  • Gandhi

This picture was a gift from a friend of mine who gave it to me after a conversation we had after my release from detention. I like Gandhi because he reminds me of the importance of finding a balance. You experience so much violence in detention…so much ugliness…that you can get stuck in a kind of aggressive state. I think it’s important not to lose this but I want to change the system, not simply destroy it. So I need to find the strength and resilience to think tactically and channel my anger in the right ways. Gandhi encourages me to use my brain. I want to get violent with my words, with my struggle, but not necessarily with my body.

  • Jimmy Hendrix

A revolutionary in so many ways, Hendrix has to be on the wall. His whole being was a fight against boundaries and imagined borders about what is ’right’ and ‘wrong’. I thought about him when I was in detention. I tried to create a kind of musical environment around me in Campsfield. It genuinely helped me so I didn’t get too depressed. It saved me from self-harm and suicide, which I saw many people try. It made me feel like I was reaching out beyond the fences. Sometimes I think it is ok to escape reality in that kind of a place. Because the reality there can feel like you are living in a nightmare.

  • The Demonstration

I don’t actually know where this scene of a demonstration is from. I don’t even know what it is about. But whenever I look at it I think ‘the fight is in the street’. Detention, for example, will only change if people in the street are engaged with it. Rightly or wrongly, this government was chosen by the people. The responsibility for the human disgrace of detention must be shared. It is not just the government to blame. The people themselves need to remember their own role in a parliamentary democracy. They have to remind the MPs that they are representing them and their values. Knowing that this picture is also of an old demonstration also makes me think about my own responsibility to carry on the baton for justice…The fight never ends. We go on.

  • Maria Callas

This picture is a reminder for me that there is power in creativity. I don’t know so much about her struggles or her causes. It’s more that she reminds me how beautiful and special human beings can be. And I guess I find something innately political in that in a way I did not before.

  • Nelson Mandela

I knew about Mandela before. But is only after experiencing something like detention – no right to a fair trial, indefinite imprisonment, racism – that I really connected with his words in a very personal way. He actually really help me understand that detention made me an expert-by-experience. He’s a kind of expert-by-experience champion in that sense. I remember reading his quote when I was in detention: “To deny any person their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.” It still amazes me, having come from a ‘third world country’ to a ‘first world country’, that I only fully understood this to be true here in the UK. I knew so many good facts about the UK but I never heard about detention. Mandela’s words, his fight, mean a lot to me. He is a reminder of how change happens.
 

"When you see injustice – speak out!": These Walls Must Fall in Manchester

Without people taking action, change won’t happen.  Luke Butterly of Right to Remain reports back on a recent campaign event of These Walls Must Fall which took place in Manchester.  This blog was originally published on Right to Remain’s website here.  
On 2 Nov 2017, human rights campaigners, union members, migrant rights groups, political representatives and other members of the public met to campaign against immigration detention.


Gathering at Manchester’s historic Mechanics Institute, over 120 people heard from experts, asked questions, made contacts, and proposed some really great and imaginative solutions to a policy which damages and divides local communities.


The These Walls Must Fall campaign aims to highlight that residents of Greater Manchester are being taken from local communities, locked up in far-off detention centres with no time limit, no idea of when they might be released.


The UK is the only country in Europe to operate a policy of indefinite detention for migrants, simply because they don’t yet have the correct immigration papers. Around 30,000 people pass through the government’s detention estate of 14 centres each year, with around 3,000 people detained at any one time. The closest centre to Manchester is Morton Hall, in Lincoln – four hours away on public transport. (You can find out more about all of the UK’s detention centres through the Unlocking Detention tour). 
Yet against these steep odds, Right to Remain’s Michael Collins reminded the group that the challenges and victories that have come to the hostile immigration system, have often come from local communities.
Those in attendance then had the opportunity to have their questions about detention answered by Michael from Freed Voices – an experts-by-experience group that between them have lost 20 years to immigration detention. As well as answering questions like ‘how long you can be detained?’ (indefinitely!), Michael neatly illustrated how detention is not (just) an immigration issue, but a civil one – it effects us all, by taking people from our communities, and wasting money that could be spent on other social goods.


Julie Ward, MEP for the North West England region, won her seat in the European parliament by defeating the fascist BNP leader Nick Griffin in 2014 – and since then has tirelessly championed human rights issues.


She spoke passionately about the need to resist the government’s ‘Hostile Environment’ – which is seeing homes, banks, schools and hospitals all turn into border posts. Julie noted:
“If we look back at our family history, somewhere along the line we would discover we had been people who needed to be somewhere else; we needed to flee, we needed to move.”
Mariam Yusuf, campaigner with These Walls Must Fall and Women Asylum Seekers Together, spoke of the hardship that detention has caused for the women she organises with; and that women she knows are being ‘broken’ by the system. The recurring nature of detention she described is reflected nationally – the majority of people who are detained are then released, their detention having served no purpose.


Armed with knowledge and fired up by the speeches, attendees broke into tables to plan and discuss what they – as individuals and as members of groups – can do to locally challenge detention. Among the great suggestions were:

  • working with local MPs and councillors
  • putting pressure on Tories as the last major party to yet have committed to a 28 day time limit for detention
  • Getting motions passed in trade unions, councils,
  • Writing letters to local papers
  • Speak with people in our local communities about detention
  • Get famous people to speak out against detention
  • Creative actions, like building a wall through Manchester city centre!


It’s clear there will be lots of actions coming up in Manchester and around the country; one happening now is getting your MP to attend this week’s parliamentary meeting on detention. All details here, and you can find your MP here. 
Click here to stay informed on the These Walls Must Fall campaign.
You can also see the storify of the Manchester event here

'The Verne is closing but for those of us who experienced it, it will always be open'

We are told that the Verne detention centre will be closed at the end of 2017.  But is it really closing in the minds of those who were detained there? ‘Juan’ from Freed Voices responds to this news with this poem.
 
The Verne is closing but for those of us who experienced it, it will always be open
By Juan, from Freed Voices.  
 
Last week I had an appointment with my therapist.
I see them for PTSD.
I have trauma from my time in the Verne.
 
As I left my therapy, I searched for the address of where I had to go for a volunteer interview but I soon realised I had lost it.
I went home to get it and on my way, I passed through a park.
I was stopped by a police officer.
He asked me if I smoked or sold drugs.
It was 11am.
I said no.
He asked why I was here at this time.
I explained I was coming from my therapist.
He asked for my status.
I explained my case was ongoing.
He said he needed to search me and took my I.D.
I said I wanted to call my solicitor.
He said there was no need.
He made a quick telephone call and then he said that we would need to go to the police station.
He said the Home Office would come and see me there.
 
In that moment, I felt an extreme panic.
For a second, I thought I would die there and than in the park.
All I could think about was the Verne.
I felt the walls were closing in on me again
I felt like I was falling down, down, down, down…
 
I have been to the Verne twice before.
Altogether, I was detained there for three months.
All I knew was that I would have preferred to die in that park then go back .
 
The officer put me in handcuffs like a criminal.
Even now my wrists are burning.
They took me to the police station.
They took my belongings.
They did not let me call my solicitor.
They took a police photo of me and my fingerprints.
They put me in a small cell with a bright, UV-light.
 
After two hours, an immigration officer came in.
He made the room feel very cold.
He said I had not complied.
I explained my medical situation.
He said he needed to speak to his superior.
He said one of two things would happen:
One – I would be released.
Two – I would be taken back to detention.
 
Just thinking about the Verne makes me think of death.
So many people have died inside detention – 31 now.
The Verne is a cemetery for hope.
I don’t see how I would survive a fourth time in detention.
You are cut off from the rest of the world there.
You are completely isolated.
You are waiting to die.
It is inhumane.
It is a torture.
 
When the immigration officer said detention, my heart started beating very, very fast.
I starting to crash.
My head went blank.
My legs started to feel very weak.
I lost control.
I felt like an old cancer had returned to my body after a period of remission.
 
I was in this kind of state for the next two hours before they released me.
I went to a friend’s house that night.
He hugged me the whole night I was so scared, I could not stop shaking.
I did not want to go out on to the street again.
 
I am pleased to hear that the Verne is closing.
But for those of us that have already experienced it, it will always be open.
This is the real meaning of indefinite detention.
Detention is a demon that stays with you forever.
 
I am a man and I don’t know how it is to walk alone as a women in the street but I have many female friends and when they explain their fear, it sometimes feels familiar to me.
When you have experienced detention, you walk every day with the experience on your back.
It is a trauma that follows you everywhere.
You are always looking behind you.
 
I think a part of me died in detention.
I am different person now.
The abuse in that factory changed me – I have a different identity.
Sometimes I can say ‘ok, pick yourself up now, keep going, move forward.’
Other times, I stop and say ‘wow, I really miss who I used to be.’
 
Detention does not just change the way people see migrants.
Detention also changes the way that migrants see ourselves.
That is the horror of detention, for me.
 
I am finding strength in the community of people around me and the other members of Freed Voices.
These kind of triggers release a lot of emotions and they are a family that can share and absorb them.
They are helping me find my feet again.
For how long, I don’t know.
 
All we can do is speak out – about the pain, and the cruelty, and the alternatives.
All we can do is speak out – about the pain, and the cruelty, and the alternatives.

"We need it now. People are dying." Freed Voices lobbying for #Time4aTimeLimit

The theme of this year’s Unlocking Detention is ‘action’ so who better to hear from than the Freed Voices group. Earlier this week, Mishka from Freed Voices joined campaigners Fred Ashmore and Timothy Gee from the Quakers to lobby the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable. We sat down with Mishka to ask him a few questions about the experience.

Why is political lobbying important to Freed Voices?
It is important for us to lobby MPs because even though we are the Experts, they are ultimately the policy makers. Many of them are interested in detention but don’t know the details. As Mr. Cable said, we can be their ‘ammunition’. We can educate them to understand and change the policy as it is. We also want to target all MPs, not just the liberal ones because every political party put a time-limit in their election manifestos…except one.
Why is political lobbying especially important now?
After the General Election, Freed Voices decided to focus on targeting MPs. We looked at the small majority government and the fact the Immigration Bill is coming next year and thought this was where we could have a big impact. There is also a lot more attention around the issue than before. The Panorama documentary [on abuse in Brook House] also brought a lot of attention. Unfortunately, so have the recent deaths in detention – three in the last month. Change is urgent. I saw this week that Keir Starmer [who we also lobbied] said that ‘indefinite detention will end, it is just a matter of when.’ Well, we cannot wait one, two, three, four years. We need it now. People are dying.
Why is Vince Cable an important person for Freed Voices to meet and persuade that indefinite detention is an issue worth addressing?
Vince Cable is Leader of the Liberal Democrats. Their last two election manifestos have been in line with the philosophy and asks of Freed Voices. Many of Mr. Cable’s colleagues also recently signed the Early Day Motion (EDM) in Parliament about the BBC Panorama documentary. So, we know they are engaged with the issue. But this was an important meeting for us because it is a leader of a political party meeting with us and recognising us as Experts on the issue. We want to develop this relationship for future endeavours. We were not just meeting him for the sake of meeting him. We believe the Liberal Democrats are an important part of the cross-party fight for change on detention.
Who else was there? Why were they keen to be involved?
We were joined by two representatives from the Quakers, Fred and Tim. The Quakers are a faith group that believe in human rights, peace and equality. They have been working on detention a lot over the last year and believe that it is inhumane and inefficient. They are not experts-by-experience but they represent the impact of detention on the community. And that is why it was ideal that they were involved in this alongside Freed Voices. They believe that change is possible and it is worth being a part of that change. It was great to work with them.
What were your objectives for the meeting?
One: to give a strong and clear message to Vince Cable that reform is urgent. Two: to highlight that detention is not an asylum issue, it is a civil liberties and human rights issue. Third (and most importantly): we wanted action rather than more talk and empty, hollow promises. Some decision-makers think that just by meeting experts-by-experience they’ve done their job. No, we wanted him to take the issue out of the room. We wanted direct contact with his parties’ Home Affairs leads so we could work with them on the matter.
What were your expectations of the meeting?
As I said, I was concerned that it would not just be empty promises. And I knew that he is a busy man so we might not get so much time with him. But we also know from the lobbying work we have done that before, that the real work happens now, after the meeting. So I had managed my expectations for the meeting itself.
How did you prepare for the meeting?
Freed Voices always prepare a lot for this kind of thing. We went through the different documents we wanted to give Mr Cable, including the Freed Voices Parliamentary Briefing we have. I also worked with the Freed Voices Coordinator on a script to help guide me. It is always easier when you know what you are talking about and the script is useful when you have limited time to give a strong message to the MP. We also did some work to not feel nervous – to remember I am the Expert – because sometimes these things can go wrong if you are too worried.
What message/state of mind did you want Vince Cable to leave the room with?
Firstly, I wanted him to feel that we are credible group and professional to the extent that he could confidently work with us going forward. Secondly, I wanted him to feel determined and encouraged to work with us to reform the detention system. Finally, I wanted him to realise that we needed more than just his words of support.
How did the meeting go?
Overall, it went very well in my opinion. We had a bit longer than we thought we would with him so we were able to cover everything we wanted. However, a lobbying meeting like this is never a unanimous thing and nothing goes 100% perfectly in this world. The Quakers were very helpful and considerate to give Freed Voices the opportunity to play a major role and lead on the meeting. Essentially, we got what we came for. Now we have to make sure it materialises into action.
What did you lead with?
I started by thanking him for giving us this opportunity and including a 28 day time limit in his election manifesto. I also noted that we were pleased that his colleagues signed the EDM. Then I gave some information about my background and then pushed on with the facts and our policy arguments for change.
How important was it for you to talk about the policy as well as your experiences? Why?
It is very important for me to show that we are competent at speaking policy because it proves that the Freed Voices are a proficient group of genuine campaigners rather than a bunch of cry-babies who crave sympathy or attention, which I detest. I think you have to explain some of your personal experiences of detention so you can prove your credibility to then talk about the policy – this is the concept of Freed Voices as experts-by-experience – but talking about the change that needs to happen is always the most important part for me.
How did he respond?
He obviously has some real interest on this matter. He asked a few questions and agreed with our main points. He also said ‘yes’ to everything we asked for. But it is up to us now to get him to actually push these through. As my colleague Michael from Freed Voices says; “we’re done with lip service”.
How did you feel as you left the meeting?
I felt like we achieved something on the road to change. This is hopefully the beginning of a long-term working relationship with the Liberal Democrats, with their Home Affairs leads’ and with the Quakers as campaigning partners. We are not crazy – we know change doesn’t happen overnight. But I think making these kind of connections with political allies are part of pushing through a time-limit and alternatives to detention. And on a broader level, I think it is important for senior politicians to see experts-by-experience face-to-face, in action, talking policy.
Did you enjoy it?
I enjoyed the day. Now let’s see what he comes back with…
 
 

The closure of Dungavel? The fight must continue

By Pinar Aksu.  Pinar works with Migrant Voice as a Community Development worker in Glasgow and with Active Inquiry using Theatre of the Oppressed methods and is also a member of Right to Remain’s management committee.  She has been involved with asylum and refugee rights since a young age.
signtoDungavel700
I’m experiencing mixed feelings. As much as I am very happy that it’s been announced that the only detention centre in Scotland will be shut, I also have worries about what it would be replaced with and what it will mean for refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland.
When my family was detained in 2007, twice in Dungavel for 4 days and once in Yarl’s Wood for 2 months, I never knew what detention was.  As I got older, it was then when I noticed the injustice my family and many others went through. Locking people in prison-like detention centres while seeking asylum for safety and future is horrible. Knowing that Dungavel will be gone will erase the memories of my and many families who were detained there.
When I first read the news headline, ‘Dungavel immigration detention centre to close’, I was extremely happy. I knew that finally, after years of campaigning for the rights and freedom of detainees, we have finally achieved a major victory. I knew that this terrible place where innocent people have been being detained will be gone. Even though this will never bring back the time lost when  people were being detained, for days, weeks, months and years, it would bring an end to the pain in the future. People will be free!
However, as I continued reading the article, I found that not everything is as positive as it sounds at first. The government had plans for a ‘short-term facility’ near Glasgow Airport.   UK Immigration Minister Robert Goodwill says, ‘The new short-term holding facility would provide easy access to London airports, from where most removals take place, meaning those with no right to be in the UK can be removed with less delay’.
People could be removed quicker with the new short-term facility; either to detention centres in England or back to their country of origin. By making this move, the Home Office thinks they can stop us, in Scotland, from campaigning. Wrong! We will campaign more than ever before because we cannot watch money being spent on building walls in Calais or watch the implementation of the Immigration Act 2016 and the scrapping of the Human Rights Act. Now more than ever, we will not and we cannot stop campaigning. We will stand together, organise apply pressure until every detention centre is closed.
No human is illegal. End detention now.

Colnbrook, by post

This year, the theme of Unlocking Detention is ‘friends and families’ – we’re specifically focusing on the often unreported, or buried, ‘ripple effect’ of indefinite detention and the way this experience can have tragic consequences beyond the individual detained. In this special photo-essay for #Unlocked16, Jon* from the Freed Voices group shares letters he received whilst he was detained at Colnbrook detention centre for 99 days last year. These letters – from his younger brother, mother, younger sister and father – provide a harrowing inside into the wider affects of indefinite detention on families and communities.
Huge thanks to both Jon and his family for sharing such a personal correspondence.
My Younger Brother
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My Mother
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My Younger Sister
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My Father
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*The name of this Freed Voices member has been changed to protect his anonymity. 
 

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

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

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

How detention split me and my brother in half

This year, the Unlocking Detention blog is particularly focusing on the impact of detention on an individual’s immediate social circle – their friends and family. This piece is written by “Mishka”, of the Freed Voices group (the author’s name has been altered to protect their identity.)
Trigger warning: suicide; torture.  
I am a twin. We are identical – he has long hair, but no beard. We came here together. We were young in our twenties when we came to the UK. We were always very, very close. We have a twin connection in our minds. I don’t feel physical pain when someone hit him on the other side of the world, but I feel it on an emotional level.
When we came to the UK, we only had each other. We lived in the same room. We went to the same university. We had the same part-time jobs. We always used to talk to each other. We always talked about the situation; why we came, what is happening back home because of our decision coming to save our lives, what we should do next.
We spoke a lot together about applying for asylum, but we were scared. The government back home tortured my mother because we left. And they told her we must never speak about what is happening in my country.
Home Office picked us up together from our home. They specifically came for us. They asked the landlady: “Are the twins in?”
It was just the two of us in the Tascor van. We thought that we are being sent to get killed. We thought we going to be deported back to our mother’s torturers.
arrested-by-the-home-office
They put us in the same room in detention. Just me and brother – the two of us. We supported each other. We tried to get all the evidence together. We faced the world together. We helped each other keep the fear down. We tried to keep each other positive about our case. We wanted to stay afloat. We played chess together to keep our minds off. We only had each other. We became strong together.
The water became really hot when they tried to deport us, but we refused to fly. They gave us another ticket for next month. But they gave my brother his ticket with departure date one week before mine.
And this is the other side of being a twin. When things are very bad, when you get separated, then there is great pain. This was the very worst month for us. My brother got really down mentally. He was very depressed. And of course, we are twins, so I also felt exactly the same. He told me that he would murder himself. He knew if we were sent back, we would get tortured or killed.
Two days before his flight, we were in the library looking for evidence. He said he going to the washroom. Even after ten minutes…I felt something bad is happening. I was too late. Blood everywhere…He cut his arms with a razor blade. His left a letter- it said: “I don’t want to face My Enemies and die. Please Home Office, don’t deport my brother.” He said afterwards that he felt “this is the only way to get the message across to the Home Office”.
suicide-attempt
I was shocked to see him all in red. I didn’t know if he would survive or not. I called the officers, the nurses. They came and they were so annoyed. They are thinking he is just trying to escape from his deportation. The nurse put a plaster on his wrists. He was taken to segregation. I was allowed to visit him a few times. He tried to commit suicide again using some metal piece from the wall.
On the morning of his flight, I asked to see him. I said it maybe last time I will ever see my brother. First, they refused. Then they said I can come visit him, but they make a barrier of tables. He was on one side, me on the other. He looked like he had cried a lot. His wrists were covered in plasters. When I looked at him, I wished it was me in his position.
The detention officer was standing on the side. He said the only thing we can do is shake hands. No hug. He said even this was out of procedures.
final-meeting
My brother said: “It is too late. I’m not sure what is going to happen to me.” We had promised to our father we would not return home. He made us swear we should never come back. My brother said: “I am sorry I am breaking that promise.” They took him.
This was the first time ever in my whole life we became separate. In childhood and growing up and studies and working…we are always together. No separation. I cried. The detention officer outside saw me and she tried to be kind. She said: “Don’t worry he will be fine.” I said, “No, you don’t understand my country…He won’t be fine.”
My brother was tortured for 6 hours at the airport when he landed. He was released and tortured again two days later. In this same bit – while I am still in detention, my brother got tortured – my father died. My brother sent evidence of his torture to my solicitor in the UK. My flight was cancelled. I was released.
We lost faith in humanity in detention. We were hopeful, positive brothers. We experienced hate in there. It changed the way I saw the UK. It made me think about all times the UK has interfered with other countries’ ‘human rights issues’. You see places like the detention centre and you understand this is a great contradiction. You see detention and you will realise things are being run by white-collar criminals.
My brother escaped my country again. He is still going through head-pain of detention. It was the beginning of his torture. It was the first chapter. I feel his torture in myself. And yes, I hate detention for this.
I feel like detention took away half of me. Detention split me in two.
This is why I want to speak out. I want people to know my story of detention. His story. Our story.
after-his-deportation
 

Detention and Friendship: Knowing you inside (and) out

This year, the theme of Unlocking Detention is ‘friends and families’ and in this (very) special #Unlocked16 recording, Kasonga from Freed Voices interviews his old friend, Harsha, about the impact his detention had on him. In doing so, they offer a rare insight into the (all too often unreported) ‘ripple affect’ of indefinite detention and the way this traumatic experience can have tragic consequences beyond the individual detained; the stigma of talking about detention, even among loved ones; and the vitality and strength that comes with solidarity and support.

Please do share the audio widely!