British Justice?

British Justice | Unlocked19

You come here to study and find yourself in immigration detention – that’s what has happened to some of the so-called TOEIC students, international students wrongly accused of cheating in 2014. They are being supported by Migrant Voice to campaign to clear their names. As part of Unlocking Detention, they shared with us their experiences of immigration detention and views of British justice. The blog was written by Eiri Ohtani, @EiriOhtani

It’s midway through the discussion about the benefits of a solidarity group, when A suddenly says:

‘Well, if there was any positive thing about this campaign, I got my mum’s trust back because of it. Because the campaign exists, she now believes that this was really happening to me and I wasn’t lying to her.’ 

Another member of the group, B, adds by way of clarification: ‘Many people in our countries absolutely believe in British justice, and never imagine that there could be injustice under the British system. When we tell them we are being wrongly accused (by the Home Office), they think we must be lying.’

I am meeting a group of international students who have been accused of cheating on their English tests by the Home Office and have had their student visas annulled. They are fighting to clear their names and get their lives back on track. 

The Home Office failed to ensure innocent people were not wrongly deported in an operation which saw more than 2,400 students removed from the country as a result of cheating allegations in English language tests, a major report has found.

The National Audit Office (NAO) launched an investigation earlier this year after it emerged almost 34,000 international students had been accused of cheating in English language tests, and with no proper right to challenge the decision, told they had no right to stay in the UK.

They were targeted after an investigation by the BBC’s Panorama in 2014 exposed systematic cheating at some colleges where candidates sat the Test of English for International Communication (Toeic), one of several that overseas students can sit to prove their English language proficiency, a visa requirement.

Home Office failed to ensure innocent students were not wrongly detained in cheating scandal, report finds | The Independent, 24/05/2019

Migrant Voice, ‘a migrant-led organisation empowering migrants to speak out, challenge perceptions and change public debate’, supports the group. With guidance from its tenacious director, Nazek Ramadan, and her colleagues, the student group managed to draw media attention to their struggle and secured some limited traction from the Home Office and the Home Secretary. (See the list of further reading at the end of the blog for more information.)

The consequences of the Home Office accusations have been severe. Some of the students in the group have found themselves locked up in immigration detention, after heavy-handed raids at home. Some have already been removed or simply given up. Legal fees for appeals are expensive and, of course, not everyone can afford it. These are some of the costs of seeking justice, and a somewhat familiar tale for people who have been wronged by the Home Office. 

‘Preparing for immigration detention’

People willing to ‘do something’ about immigration detention often want to do something in detention centres.  But there is a huge unmet need that is not often talked about: preparing people for immigration detention. That’s what I have come to do at Migrant Voice’s office. When I arrive at their campaign meeting on the hottest day in late July, there is frustration in the room. Although a recent APPG report recommended a moratorium on enforcement for students who are in the appeal process, the students are still at risk of detention and removal.  Many must regularly report to the Home Office, each time not knowing whether they will be able to return home or be detained. 

Explaining immigration detention to a group of anxious people is emotionally taxing. Reading from a script that says ‘27,000 people are detained every year’ makes you feel as though you are playing a part in the government’s deliberate plot to paralyse people with fear. Unlike immigration detention centres, this fear is invisible and renders invisible the vast numbers of individuals, families or groups dispersed across the UK who live in fear of immigration detention. It takes a huge psychological toll on everyone. 

Luckily, I have Right to Remain’s zine with me, a vital resource and the last line of defence for communities threatened with detention. Written with ‘experts-by-experience’ who were themselves detained, the zine goes beyond equipping people with practical advice: it guides them into developing a mutual support system that can be relied upon as a safeguard. Though even talking about the threat of detention in a safe space is hard, it gives a little boost to their sense of solidarity and togetherness.

Having migrants’ variety of voices heard and listened to

In an otherwise bleak space, Migrant Voice and others’ facilitating role in this recent shift towards the emergence of grassroot solidarity groups gives me some small hope. As a migrant myself, it’s a relief to see increasing numbers of fellow migrants taking the lead in the fight against the UK government’s Hostile Environment policy. It is powerful, and also disruptive in a good way, when the people who are directly affected, rather than professional NGO staff, take centre stage.

Nazek says “When the students first came to us, we found it hard to believe that this kind of injustice could be happening in the UK today. We felt so strongly about it that we had to do what we could. A big part of that has been providing a space for them to come and speak and be listened to, and to be valued and respected for the people who they are – then working with them to tell their stories in a way anyone can understand. We’ve been calling for a very simple solution – for all these students to have the chance to sit a new test. If they pass, they should get their visa back and be allowed to restart their lives.”

At a follow-up meeting, we have more time for in-depth discussions about the solidarity and shared experiences of the group in the face of the threat of immigration detention. The students are frustrated by the lack of attention given to their plight by the general public. At one point, someone points out ‘Imagine this was happening to Americans, Europeans, white migrants…’. His voice trails off and we become silent. The group members are composed of Commonwealth nationals, from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, previously colonised by Britain. It is a thought that has crossed my mind too – immigration laws and rules, after all, stem from the society which is underpinned by often unacknowledged racial hierarchy.

I suspect there are probably additional explanations for this relative lack of attention. The students are no doubt victims of injustice but they do not fit the accepted stereotype of the victim: rather than appearing vulnerable, powerless, voiceless, the students are vocal and articulate. Some of them come from relatively well-off families, well-off enough to be able to pay for education in the UK. I wonder if that unspoken class element makes it hard for the general public to ‘place’ them in their imaginary of migrants.

Another possible complication is that while they are here in the UK and are migrants (though some might object that international students are not migrants – I have been told that before), they wanted to be here only temporarily, usually to get qualifications, and many can’t wait to go back home or somewhere else. But they are stuck, in limbo, because without the qualifications they have set out to obtain here, they cannot move onto their next stage of their life plan. How we understand, interact and build relationships with people who are temporarily here as migrants on their own volition but who wish to see their lives unfolding somewhere else is not something we’ve often talked about or dealt with in migration space. We don’t have a wide enough range of vocabularies to describe changing patterns of human mobility and vastly different motives that drive people to move – yet.

Image of Britain – before and after immigration detention

We talked about how the students had felt when they first arrived in the UK and their overwhelmingly positive feelings. Perhaps their words might strike some as naïve or even banal, but they still reminded me of a sense of hope many people have when they move, something I have completely forgotten about. Having worked in this area far too long, I accept I am too jaded. However, I, too, did have some sense of hope when I first arrived in Germany, and then when, after a few years, moved to London, almost 30 years ago. We must be careful though to recognise that every person’s hope is unique and, more importantly, human mobility does not always come with hope. Mine was a result of a myriad of privileges and opportunities that I was born into. Others have no choice but to hope when they move, because staying where they are is not an option.


Of course, these ideas were shattered when they were accused of fraud and found themselves fighting to clear their names or thrown into immigration detention.

British Justice? | Unlocked19


One of the most profound impacts of their experience is strained family relationships. Many were caught off guard by their families’ utter refusals to believe their stories, because of their unshakeable trust in the British system. 

When they said we’d take you to detention, I thought it would be like a house. But it was a prison.’

B says he initially wanted to go to the US or Canada to study. It was his father, who has high regard for the UK’s democracy and parliament, who insisted on the UK as his son’s educational destination. After their initial disbelief at what had happened to his son, B’s parents are now supportive of the campaign. His father says ‘If you believe that you didn’t do anything wrong, you must finish this battle before coming back. It is about your future – otherwise you need to carry this blame the rest of your life.’  His mother however has no knowledge of the fact that he was in detention: she has been shielded from it, B says. 

‘I thought in Britain, detention should be something different. It’s not something that should be happening here.’

C confesses that when he was initially detained, he felt a tinge of excitement because nobody in his family had ever been to prison. It was when he phoned his brother and he started crying as he told him what had happened that the reality dawned on him. Eventually the rest of the family found out and their response was not exactly encouraging: ‘If this is happening, you are not coming back to our house’. C adds ‘My family lives in a small village, I don’t come from an urban area. People there don’t understand what English language test is or what the Home Office does, but they do understand the word ‘fraud’’.

‘They said ‘This is the room’, I thought where is the bed? It was just a mattress. The toilet was in the same cell, with no privacy.’

It turns out that they are the lucky ones. Some have been completely disowned by their families, who say, ‘They have brought shame on us and used all the family’s fortune.’  I am told of one of their members, who has returned to his home country, is street homeless as his family has completely rejected him.  

I ask about their huge diaspora communities in the UK? Experiences have been mixed and complicated. ‘I was disappointed when Imam said to me, why are you staying here? With your children? His attitude was negative.’ ‘I was told ‘You are a burden on my country.’ They didn’t believe what happened to us at first’.

Is your solidarity borderless?

Their struggle continues and the campaign has provided a platform to advocate for themselves. Pooling their knowledge and experience has helped the campaign to find direction and given strength to the members of the group to carry on. 

D talks about how she met the others for the first time at the parliamentary event:

I saw them at the event and was surprised. There were these people who seemed to know what they are talking about and they knew each other. I introduced myself and joined the group. Before, I was just alone and had no family or friends to speak to share the worry. After meeting them, now I have a hope.’

C adds ‘The second time I was in detention, as a team you got me out, you got me released after a few days. The first time I was in detention, I was there over 100 days.’ 

Hearing this, D points at another member with a smile. ‘I now text you, when I go signing (to the reporting centre). We support each other.’

Looking back on parliamentary lobbying they have done, B says, ‘The fact that we have been able to apply pressure to the government is giving us hope. Lots of people say Parliamentarians can’t do anything, but we created this opportunity now. We can do this.’

The group is aware that their India-Bangladesh-Pakistan solidarity group doesn’t necessarily mirror the countries’ not so straightforward diplomatic relationships with each other. Someone says with a laugh, ‘If not for our experience here in the UK, you probably wouldn’t have seen some of us working together like this.’ This comment leads to other interesting topics that I wish I had more time to delve into. What do they think of the members of their diaspora community working for immigration enforcement, locking you up, assessing your cases and working at the reporting centres? What’s their views of Sajid Javid and Priti Patel, whose families have immigrant background? 

I leave the room wondering what stories they will be telling others about British justice and immigration detention when they win their battles and return home. Another question that lingers in my mind was whether these groups’ newly found solidarity will be extended to other groups of migrants and communities also experiencing injustice, regardless of their immigration status or other circumstances. Truly borderless solidarity is the only tool we might have for a truly just and humane world – but it still feels elusive. 

Further reading:

  • You can order Right to Remain’s immigration detention zine from their webpage. Highly recommended! 
  • Jan 2019: Financial Times long read about the issue and campaign
  • Mar 2019: ITV News interviews with students affected and Stephen Timms
  • May 2019: Amelia Gentleman interview with Raja Noman 
  • May 2019: Independent article on the damning National Audit Office report on the issue (the video at the top is a clip from “Inquisition”, the film about the TOEIC students)
  • July 2019: Independent article on the report by the APPG on TOEIC, which exposed some very concerning information about the Home Office actions on this matter in 2014
  • September 2019: Mirror article about the report by the Public Accounts Committee, which described the Govt’s handling of the matter as “shameful”

An ingredient for successful parliamentary lobbying? A lack of ego

Parliamentary Lobbying | Unlocked19

Since the Detention Forum was founded 10 years ago, parliamentary lobbying on immigration detention reform has evolved dramatically. First of all, there is a lot more of it. Secondly, it is done more meticulously. And thirdly and most importantly, it is having an impact. 

However, with it developed an unspoken hierarchy of perceived importance which sees parliamentary lobbying as the most important and ‘high value’ tool in change making. Is it an exclusive activity that only elites should be concerned about? Or should it be open to everyone who wants to be heard by politicians? We asked Sam Grant (@Sammy_G1988) Policy and Campaign Manager at Liberty and one of the Coordination Group members of the Detention Forum, to tell us if parliamentary lobbying is as glamourous as it is sometimes assumed to be.

Parliament can sometimes appear an impenetrable place of jeering and grandstanding. But if you are a campaigner you’ll likely have to engage with MPs and the parliamentary machinery at some point. 

I didn’t plan to work in political campaigning.  But I always wanted to be involved in campaigning against the injustices I saw and felt around me – and that led me to think a lot about how to build relationships with the people who have the power to create change. I started my career at a small charity before joining Liberty – and have learned that whatever size the organisation, the principles of political campaigning remain the same. 

Visiting Parliament to meet an influential MP is exciting. It’s an opportunity to bring someone on side, move campaigns forward and build a relationship for the future. 

Make every second count

However, the reality isn’t always as glamorous as it sounds. 

You are rarely the MPs’ most important meeting that day – in fact you might not even be in the top three. I’ve had MPs introduce themselves to me as if we’ve never met despite the fact its our third or fourth meeting. MPs might cancel as you wait to meet them – or send out an advisor instead of taking the time to meet with you themselves. I’ve learned it’s important not to take this personally – and to remember what I’m trying to achieve. And when I get time with an MP – however short –to make every second count.

I haven’t always got it right.  I’ve had bad meetings with MPs that may have taken me months of emailing to arrange. Or left a meeting and realised I didn’t manage to get the MP to commit to anything. MPs are skilled at dodging topics they don’t want to discuss and not every meeting is going to be a home run. With all that in mind, below are a few things I’ve learnt from the mistakes I’ve made. 

Before reaching out to an MP, do your research and build a list of target MPs. On immigration detention – and many other issues – there are many MPs I won’t try to convince because I know there is little chance of changing their mind. Focus on the MPs who are persuadable. For our parliamentary work on detention we split meetings with MPs across a range of different organisations. This doesn’t just help share the load. Different MPs might respond to established NGOs like Liberty differently than faith-based or frontline organisations, or experts by experience. Or vice versa.

Meetings with MPs are mostly targeted and pre-arranged. Securing a sit down often involves working with an MP’s advisor and can sometimes take months of cajoling. Think about the best way of making that happen. That might involve asking other MPs to make introductions – or working out exactly how to phrase an email or letter. For example, one MP finally agreed to a meeting after Liberty commissioned a report looking at the cost savings a 28-day time limit would make – so I made sure that was central in my communication with that MP going forward. 

Once you’ve secured a meeting it’s important to ask yourself what success looks like – and what your key ‘ask’ for the MP is. Remember MPs are not experts on everything. Break things down so they know why your issue is important for them and understand the fundamental concepts, then point to a reason why they might support the campaign. If you’ve done your research you should know whether to push on the moral, political, or even financial reasons – or the right mix of all three. All MPs have different motivations, background and experiences. Find out about their political interests, opinions, parliamentary friends, what have they said on the issue, and any relevant local issues for them. For example, have they got a detention centre in their constituency? Have they been outspoken on modern slavery? 

Best way to learn is by doing

Building relationships with MPs is an art – not a science. And relationships you build today can pay off in unexpected ways in the future. When it goes well it can bring almost 100 MPs of all parties together – as we saw with the campaign for a 28-day time limit on immigration detention in the latest Immigration Bill. That political backing will be central to the next stage of the time limit campaign and work to end indefinite detention once and for all.

Of course, political campaigning shouldn’t happen in a vacuum. The public and the media can influence MPs or make them more inclined to take a meeting or accept an ask. An MP is more likely to meet an NGO if they have received correspondence from their constituents or heard an issue on the radio. All these campaign methods connect – so when pushing for legislative change you need people and organisations working on the inside as well as from the outside.

It takes patience, forward planning and sometimes a lack of ego to be an effective political campaigner. The best way to learn is by doing.  Be ready to learn from others– and be assured you will get better with every meeting. The best coalition work makes the most of all the campaigning tools available. That’s how we have built parliamentary consensus around a time limit. But until that is written into law, we must keep working to turn that consensus into the end of indefinite detention in the UK.  

Who am I again?

Who Am I Again? | Unlocked19

Testimony is a powerful way of helping those of us lucky enough not to have experienced the blunt end of immigration detention to understand a little bit of what it must be like. It can inspire us to action. But at what cost to those who have to continuously revisit the experience; who become known to us only as one of the many de-humanising labels we use like ‘detainee’, ‘asylum seeker’.  Mishka who volunteers for the Detention Forum, has agreed to share his ‘expertise-by-experience’ of life in and after detention.

I cannot visit any detention centres because I do not have the required identification to pass the security. How strange: I was held in three detention centres for five months when I did not want to be there and now I am not allowed to visit them even if I wanted to. This issue came up when I was preparing for the blog I wrote for Unlocking Detention a few months ago. Instead of visiting Tinsley and Brook House detention centres myself, I talked to others who have that privilege of being able to pass the security and visit people there. 

My passport is with the Home Office while they assess my asylum claim and I do not have any other form of ID. An ID is one of the many basic things people navigating the immigration system could lose. Naturally, I cannot travel outside the UK. The Biometric Residence Permit (BRP) is another form of ID migrants use or a driving license. As I have none of these, I do not have anything to verify my status in the UK at all.

When I tell people that I do not have any ID they are surprised. On occasions when I was asked to provide ID, it was hard to explain why I do not have any. I recently wanted to check in to a hotel that a campaign organiser booked for me and the reception asked for my ID. Initially, I could not convince him that I don’t have an ID. I showed him the booking confirmation and text messages verifying the booking. He looked at me for a few seconds and said it is because he wants to know my age! When I said I am over 30 years old, he said: “Dear me, you look much younger”! 

Emotional Implications

Of course this causes practical inconveniences. Far more importantly though, there are emotional implications. Not being able to prove who I am is a constant reminder that I am an asylum claimant and my future in this country is uncertain. This uncertainty also makes it difficult for me to plan important things in life. 

Who am I then? I decided to be an ‘expert-by-experience’, with the name of ‘Mishka’ to campaign against immigration detention and make a change. The reality of this experience is that overall, for me, it has not always been good. I constantly have to introduce myself as someone who has been in detention, or an ‘ex-detainee’ as some call it. On top of this, I still have an ongoing asylum claim and this makes me ‘an asylum seeker’. Another is ‘client’: when I meet people from NGOs and organisations, there is a tendency for them to see me as their client, even if I have never been their client. 

Though I end up wearing many labels, ‘expert-by-experience’, ‘Mishka’, ‘asylum seeker’, ‘ex-detainee’, not being seen and treated as an ordinary person feels similar to not having any ID: you are unsure about who you are and others who meet me as Mishka’, ex-detainee’ or ‘asylum seeker’ are only seeing a small part of who I really am.  

Even though my first hand experience of detention is one of the reasons why I decided to become ‘Mishka’, I find it frustrating when I am expected to talk about it all the time. A few times, for example, when I was writing newspaper articles, I was asked to add more about my personal story to ‘make it more emotional and punchy’. To be honest, I have already spoken about my experience of detention during campaign work many times and sometimes I want to choose to focus on something else. Whether to share my personal experience or not has to be my own choice. It takes time for me to open up to strangers. When I was in detention, I knew about visitors’ groups but I never wanted to have a visitor. I could not imagine myself speaking to a stranger I have never met about my personal circumstances. 

In this case, when I was asked to write about my detention experience for this blog, the decision to talk once again about my story came easily to me. I have been volunteering with Detention Forum for a long time now and I believe strongly in their campaigns. I know other volunteers and Detention Forum staff, and many of its member organisations put a lot of thought into how to communicate with respect about and with people in immigration detention. I knew that the decision about what to share of my story and how to share it would be mine. 

I was in Harmondsworth, Colnbrook and Haslar (which closed down) for a total of five months a few years ago. There are of course many reports about these detention centres but they can’t tell you everything about them, or what it is really like inside. 

Waiting and Waiting Some More

For example, most days, things could get heated in Harmondsworth while people waited for the thick metal door to open to access the shops, barber and computer room. I was in the ‘Dove’ wing and we had specific times to access these on each day. Hundreds of people desperately waiting in line behind this door. There were often arguments about people trying to jump the line, people pushing each other and running like they were running for their lives when the door opened to secure a place in the computer room, the barbers and the shop. People were also impatiently waiting for vacant washing machines, table tennis tables and pool tables. There was generally a lot of waiting. 

My favourite place in Harmondsworth was the computer room. That is the place I could find evidence to support my ongoing case, I communicated with my solicitor and I could listen to some music once in a while. I felt I was in control of my own situation. 

The worst place for me was the healthcare in Harmondsworth where I had to go often during my time there. I had been referred to undergo surgery before I went into detention, but the appointment was cancelled and my condition became worse. I thought it would be a simple matter of rearranging an appointment, but I was surprised to experience the conflict of interest between their duty to impartially assess your medical condition and their willingness to facilitate removals. They repeatedly told me that I had no medical condition even though I had already been referred for surgery. I also disliked what they called ‘legal visits’, which were meetings in a separate building with Home Office staff where you were informed about refusals and removal directions: most of the time it was bad news after bad news. 

I was initially taken to Colnbrook with my brother. Then we were taken to Haslar detention centre in Portsmouth for two weeks and finally to Harmondsworth. I have no idea on what basis they decided to take us all the way to Haslar in Portsmouth from Colnbrook and brought us back all the way to Harmondsworth. I didn’t know that Colnbrook and Harmondsworth were close to each other. I was surprised when I got to know that these two centres are just walking distance from each other. 

I am not surprised, though, when I read critical findings in monitoring reports, such as suicide attempts. I have seen this more than enough during my detention there. On the one hand, I am sad to know that these are still happening even after five years. But on the other hand, I also feel a little bit positive when I read about some improvements, such as numbers are reducing and new alternatives to detention pilot initiative. 

During my last few days at Harmondsworth, I spent a lot of time staring at the small pond in the garden. The water was green because of the summer sun and a couple of small fish used to appear from that green water occasionally. Pigeons used to wander in this garden and people were told not to feed them. But I know some people secretly threw pieces of bread while there was no detention centre staff present. I am not sure if that pond is still there or not.

Laptop Bag and Two Black Garbage Bags

I was released from Harmondsworth on immigration bail. That is one day I will remember forever. I was given a travel ticket and I had to find my way to Section 4 accommodation myself. Amid all the uncertainty about how I was going to find the place, when I got that train ticket, one side of my heart felt excited like a child getting a ticket to Disney Land. I had my laptop bag and two black garbage bags: one with a massive bundle of documents and another with some clothes and shoes. It felt so strange after being held under that much security for five months when they just opened those 20-foot tall gates and let me walk out. 

I still remember getting on a train and then a bus, carrying my two black garbage bags. My beard was way overgrown, as I did not trim it for five months while in detention. It was difficult to find the place, I got lost a few times and finally got there around 11pm. 

Five months in detention is not that long compared to many others who have been in detention centres for years. But the experience was intense. My brother was removed from the UK. Then I was informed of the news of my dad’s passing. I could not even attend my dad’s funeral. All I had was a picture of him lying in his coffin that was emailed to me a couple of weeks after. I printed out the picture from the Harmondsworth printer and I still have that printout with me. 

All these things I have endured – they have made me wiser, but also a bit delicate. If I rewind back the time by ten years or so, I was a very different person. I used to be very energetic and fierce with a ‘warrior mindset’– that’s gone now. But in a way, I like it. Now I am wise and feel mature: mature not only in age, but inside my head. 

For a few years, I contributed to Unlocking Detention as a guest blogger, but this year I am contributing as a volunteer. My identity in relationship to Unlocking Detention has also changed. If there is Unlocking Detention 2020, I would still be very happy to contribute. But, I hope that by that time, I will have my ID back and I will be my own person. 

My detention clothes

My Detention Clothes | Unlocked19

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

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

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

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

Short Interview

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

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

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

“That night was torture for us”

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

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

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

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

Unsupervised and not in handcuffs

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

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

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

Your guide to #Unlocked18

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

Week 1: Welcome to Unlocking Detention 2018

22 October: Welcome to #Unlocked18!

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

22 October: Unlocking Detention timeline

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

22 October: Immigration detention: The glossary

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

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

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

25 October: Depicting wisdom: Drawings from detention

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

29 October: Week 1: Launching #Unlocked18

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

Week 2: Brook House and Tinsley House

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

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

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

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

31 October: How to help end indefinite detention

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

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

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

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

Susannah, Detention Forum Coordinator

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

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

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

Week 3: Prisons and short term holding facilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 November: Immigration detention: Mental torture

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

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

A. Panquang, Freed Voices

8 November: Detention happens closer than you might think

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

9 November: “Immigrants emigrate, hopeful anticipate

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

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

Week 4: Yarl’s Wood

12 November: Theresa: letter from a hunger striker

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

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

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

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

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

15 November: Snow: Visiting in Yarl’s Wood

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

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

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

17 November: Eight times in detention: Why?

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

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

Week 5: Campsfield House

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

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

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

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

21 November: Campsfield closing: A history of resistance

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

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

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

23 November: The voiceless place

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

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


27 November: Week 5: #Unlocked18 visits Campsfield House

Week 6: Harmondsworth and Colnbrook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cashel Riordan, JRS UK volunteer

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

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

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

Catherine, Detention Forum volunteer

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

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

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

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

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

Week 7: Morton Hall

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

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

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

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

6 December: Immigration detention is mental torture

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

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

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

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

Charlotte, Detention Forum volunteer

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

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

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

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

13 December: Week 7: #Unlocked18 visits Morton Hall

Week 8: Dungavel

10 December: For many autumns to come

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

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

Gareth, Detention Forum volunteer

11 December: Separation and abandonment as a result of detention

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

11 December: Because of detention | In spite of detention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catherine, Detention Forum volunteer

14 December: Rebuilding a life after detention

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

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

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

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

Week 9: International Migrants Day

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

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

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

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

Hidden in plain sight: Working with trafficked people in detention

Content warning: torture. Image by @Carcazan

This blog comes from Beatrice Grasso, Detention Outreach Manager with JRS UK, who recently published a report on the indefinite detention of trafficking survivors. While JRS’s research draws on case studies from Harmondsworth and Colnbrook immigration removal centres (IRCs), this issue affects people detained across the UK. The campaign #DucMakesGlasgow highlighted the plight of Duc, a trafficking survivor detained in Dungavel and Colnbrook IRCs earlier this year.

Sitting in the bustling Welfare Office in Harmondsworth as one of our regular outreach drop-ins is about to start, I find myself looking at the faces of those waiting. Some are there to see us, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), where they already know they can come to for a listening ear and a friendly face; others are waiting to see a solicitor or the Home Office. Some look defiant, ready to fight their case and make their voices heard; others already look defeated, depleted of all energy. All of them hold on to the hope that when they leave the office they will be slightly better off than when they entered. In a system built on uncertainty, their greatest achievement would be to receive some answers: “What will happen to me?”, “When will I be allowed to leave this place?”, “Why am I here?”. The same questions are repeated over and over again, in the hopes that one time, this time, they will finally have an answer.

And that’s when I notice them, sitting together in a corner, talking quietly amongst themselves. They look young, though their faces betray a difficult past, lost childhoods and immeasurable suffering showing clearly without the need for words. One breaks off from the group, tentatively making his way to our table, encouraged by his friends and our smiles, a rare sight in that place. The volunteer who accompanies me is a Vietnamese religious sister, and it is to her that the initial conversation is directed, as he apologises profusely for not being able to speak any English. In a place that generates isolation by its very nature, cutting people off from wider society, some people end up being trapped in their own language too.

Once the young man (whom we’ll call Xuan) starts talking, it becomes very quickly apparent that he has a lot to say. And soon, comforted by the reassuring presence of my companion on the day, he starts sharing a truly harrowing account of exploitation and abuse, starting from a childhood on the streets of Vietnam and culminating in being trafficked to the UK as a minor, forced to work in a cannabis farm and ultimately made to pay by being disbelieved and imprisoned. One by one, the rest of the group all make their way to us. The details of their stories vary, but the broad elements are very similar: most of them were forced to work in cannabis farms in the UK and brutally tortured if they tried to refuse or to escape; they were arrested during police raids, convicted and subsequently transferred to detention on completion of their prison sentence.

Over the last year and a half, we have worked with 13 Vietnamese men who, like Xuan, displayed clear indicators of trafficking and were being held in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook. They came to us looking for comfort, someone to acknowledge their experiences and, in some ways, their very existence in a system where they go largely unseen, trapped in a web woven by their abusers. Fear, shame, threats to family are ever-present shadows hanging over them, making it almost impossible to know who to trust. Dealing with an immigration system that routinely challenges disclosures and tends to not believe individuals is also taxing: one man told us he had never believed his traffickers when they told him that he should not approach authorities because they would only deport him, but he now thought they had been right all along.

The negative impact that continued detention has on these men can hardly be underestimated. All of them tell us that detention reminds them of their previous captivity at the hands of their traffickers, and that this leads them to having flashbacks, nightmares and re-experiencing the abuse. Most of them carry physical marks of the torture, scars as visible reminders of what has happened to them, and other health problems resulting from a long history of abuse. And yet, they are often not officially recognised as victims, and even when their accounts are accepted, they are kept in detention because of their “unacceptable behaviour” or the “danger to the public” because of their convictions, a direct result of their exploitation. Despite showing clear indicators of abuse and vulnerability, they remain hidden in plain sight of those authorities who should protect them.

After 7 long months in detention, Xuan was finally released with appropriate care thanks to the support and involvement of many different individuals. Many others were, sadly, not so lucky and disappeared soon after being released without adequate support arrangements in place. Others yet are still fighting to make their voices heard, knowing that we at JRS and many others will be standing beside them, giving a voice to the voiceless and restoring hope to those who have lost it, and ensuring that what was hidden is brought to light.

Week 6: #Unlocked18 visits Harmondsworth and Colnbrook

From the 26 November – 2 December, Unlocking Detention visited Colnbrook and Harmondsworth, the two detention centres next to Heathrow Airport. Here, a few hundred metres from the runway, well over 1,000 people can be detained indefinitely.

As well as six new blogs, this week we had a double Q&A with two people in Harmondsworth, DAK and Seed (not their real names), who spent over an hour answering questions sent in from across the UK.

Read on for a summary of the week, and click here to catch up on the Q&A.

About Harmondsworth and Colnbrook

The paradox of visiting detention

We began the week with a two-part series from Detention Action volunteers. In the first blog, volunteer Anthony wrote about his experience of visiting people held in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook. Anthony writes,

After the visit it was tough for me not to feel angry about the situation people in detention find themselves in. The isolation and loneliness is almost palpable within the centre and as I left through the car park I couldn’t help but feel a sense of guilt.

All the people I have met have had vastly different stories and diverse paths which led them to detention. Despite their different personalities, they all shared the same feelings of fear and isolation.

Anthony talks about SA, someone he visited in Harmondsworth for three months. He recalls:

The hardest thing, he said, about being in detention was the fact that you don’t know when or if you will be let out. He said this point effects every single person in detention and undoubtedly has an effect on people’s mental and physical states.

The second blog in this series came from another Detention Action volunteer, Mary-Ann. Reflecting on what she has learnt from supporting people detained in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook, Mary-Ann writes,

I am struck again and again by the often incredibly difficult circumstances that people have endured, and survived, only to find themselves locked up in prison-like conditions indefinitely. Indefinite detention is a psychological torture for any human being. Even people in the criminal justice system know the length of their sentence. I regularly speak to people who are in absolute despair, as many of them fall between the cracks of a very complex, inefficient and harsh immigration system.

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

In 2016, Amir Siman-Tov died in Colnbrook. Amir was described as “intelligent and kind”. He had been placed on suicide watch at the detention centre prior to his death. In this blog, Hannah Swirsky, Campaigns Officer at René Cassin, asks why the inquest into his death has been postponed until March 2019, meaning questions about how and why he died will have been left unanswered for more than three years.

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

On Wednesday, we published a combined blog from two volunteers with JRS UK, who support people detained in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook. Cashel Riordan provides counselling services in the two centres, and Martin is a new volunteer visitor. You can read about their experiences here.

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

In this blog, Gabriella Bettiga, Legal Officer at UKLGIG (UK Gay and Lesbian Immigration Group), highlights the challenges and barriers faced by LGBTQI+ people trying to submit an asylum claim from detention, and the frustration and isolation they experience. She writes,

When you are detained, your phone is taken away, and you get another one, with no access to internet. It is often difficult to contact friends and family who know your sexual orientation or gender identity and could provide support for your claim.

You may end up splitting up from your partner, losing touch with people that matter to you, and you don’t have access to your photos, your paperwork, your evidence.

You prepare your case with what you have, but you know that you could do more if you were free.

Day after day you wait for a decision from the Home Office or the tribunal, which will probably be a refusal.

You desperately attempt to put together new evidence. Your lawyer tells you that they can help you prepare a fresh claim if you have new material. But how can you find new material if you are locked up? If you have lost the phone number of the people who may be willing to support you?

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

The final blog of the week was a collaboration between Akiko Hart, the project manager of the Hearing Voices project at Mind in Camden, and Mishka and Red from Freed Voices. Akiko joined Freed Voices at their November monthly meeting.

Akiko reflected,

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.

Mishka and Red write,

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.

You can read the full piece here.

Take action

Thanks for all your selfies this week! You can download signs for selfies here, and read about other ways to take action here.

“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.

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

Content warning: suicide. Image by @Carcazan

This blog comes from Gabriella Bettiga, Legal Officer at UKLGIG (UK Gay and Lesbian Immigration Group). You can find them on Twitter at @UKLGIG

Among those held in immigration detention, there is a group of people that feel more isolated than most.

Often scared to reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI) to others in detention, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and intersex (LGBTQI+) people may be forced to hide their SOGI in the confined environment of an immigration removal centre (IRC), where perhaps they are held because they failed to disclose their SOGI at the first opportunity.

Having left a country where they had to conceal their true selves for fear of persecution, LGBTQI+ asylum seekers are expected to come out in front of the Home Office officers upon arrival.

This is often unrealistic and therefore many do not disclose their SOGI immediately, or at all during their asylum claim. They end up raising it in the context of a “fresh claim”, once they have been in the UK for a while and feel more confident to talk about their sexuality.

Others are unaware that being LGBTQI+ could be a reason to apply for asylum, believing that asylum can only be claimed for political reasons.

Applications based on SOGI are complex because there isn’t a specific way to prove that one is gay, lesbian, bisexual etc.

Everyone has a different story and the best way to tell this story is by writing a good statement. To take a good statement one needs a good solicitor, and the opportunity to spend enough time with them. This is not possible in detention, where people can see solicitors for 30 minutes at the free legal surgeries that are run at each centre, but it may take weeks before they find a lawyer who can take on their case on a legal aid basis.

Securing legal representation is not easy, and even when one manages to find a solicitor, it is difficult to communicate with them.

More than a physical barrier

When you are detained, your phone is taken away, and you get another one, with no access to internet. It is often difficult to contact friends and family who know your sexual orientation or gender identity and could provide support for your claim.

You may end up splitting up from your partner, losing touch with people that matter to you, and you don’t have access to your photos, your paperwork, your evidence.

You prepare your case with what you have, but you know that you could do more if you were free.

Day after day you wait for a decision from the Home Office or the tribunal, which will probably be a refusal.

You desperately attempt to put together new evidence. Your lawyer tells you that they can help you prepare a fresh claim if you have new material. But how can you find new material if you are locked up? If you have lost the phone number of the people who may be willing to support you?

“If they released me, I could contact my friends, my ex-partner, people in my country. I could access my documents”.

“I cannot do anything from here, there’s no one to help me”.

This is what I often hear when I visit LGBTQI+ people detained in IRCs or when they contact UKLGIG by phone.

Sometimes I talk to them once, others call many times, for some legal advice, or simply to have someone at the other end of the line to talk to.

“How can I prove that I am gay? What else can I tell the Home Office if they did not believe me the first time around?”

I understand this frustration, which I am sure is shared by many good lawyers who try their best to help their detained clients.

I wish I could do more, but detention is not only a physical barrier between you and the rest of the world. It is a wall of hopelessness, confusion, despair.

“If I go back to my country I will kill myself.”

“I am a trans woman but they kept me at Harmondsworth [a detention centre for men] for a while.”

“Here I live openly as a lesbian, in my country my family will force me to marry a man.”

“Why the Home Office doesn’t understand this?”

I don’t have an answer. I can only suggest to each person to get the help of a good lawyer, to keep fighting, to believe in justice. But that’s not easy when your future is at stake, and you are behind bars.