Ten years on: reflections on a decade working on the injustice of detention

Immigration detention and the detention estate sometimes appear permanent and unchanging. However, underneath the surface, things are changing. Tamsin Alger, Casework and Policy Manager at Detention Action, looks back at a catalogue of actions people in detention, she and her organisation have taken to challenge immigration detention over the last 10 years.  
Ten years ago this month, I started working at Detention Action (London Detainee Support Group at the time). One of the first things I did was to attend our newly established information and advice workshops in Colnbrook. For the first time, I experienced the sterile, claustrophobic atmosphere that grew with each door that was unlocked and locked again behind us as we moved further and further into the centre, further and further away from the barbed wire fences and massive metal doors to the outside world. Last month, I was at Harmondsworth for another workshop. In that time, Detention Action has supported over 8,000 people in Colnbrook, Harmondsworth, the Verne and HMP Pentonville. Over that time, what’s changed in immigration detention, and how has Detention Action adapted to respond?
I remember that first workshop very clearly. The atmosphere felt tense, it was very noisy. Some people spoke to us urgently; others were angry, their frustration and desperation spilling out. One man was softly spoken, eyes not quite in focus, dosed up on medication, as he showed us his arms criss-crossed with self-inflicted scars, some old and faded, many new and raw-edged.
Most people I met that day had been detained for more than a year with no end date in sight. Two years, three years, in detention didn’t feel uncommon in Colnbrook at that time. They were mainly from countries that were considered too dangerous to return people to, like Somalia, or where there were problems getting travel documents, like Iran. Most were detained following a conviction, often spending far longer in detention under immigration powers than their original sentence.
Our focus was a new area of work, unlawful detention. We worked with a leading solicitor firm to identify and refer such cases for legal challenges in the High Court, building up a body of case law. From those early workshops in Colnbrook, our first campaign against indefinite detention was born. For the first time, following the publication of our research, Detained Lives, it felt like the issue of detention was on the map, the voices of those inside finally being heard beyond the borders of detention.
Next door was Harmondsworth. Another high security detention centre, Harmondsworth was dominated by the Detained Fast Track (DFT), a process where asylum seekers were held in detention for their cases to be heard on very tight timescales. The refusal rate was 99%.
One particular workshop sticks in my mind. This workshop was held in the wing set aside for people arriving or about to leave the centre. Over 50 people came to see us that day. There was a charter flight to Afghanistan two days later, and the wing was full of desperate people, spat out at the end of an unfair process that they hadn’t understood. They crowded round us, waving letters from the Home Office with the date, time and flight number of the plane that would return them to the country they had fled. There was so little that we could do. Most had solicitors who’d stopped representing them early in the process, saying they wouldn’t be able to get legal aid to carry on because of the way in which the DFT was stacked against them. As we sat down one by one, we picked out the most extremely vulnerable people where we might be able to persuade a keen solicitor to look into their case again in the very short time frame. For the rest, we listened to their fears, we heard their despair at the injustice they’d experienced in a country they’d always thought was a standard for human rights. And we decided that this had to stop.
Our second campaign, to end the Detained Fast Track, began with our report Fast Track to Despair.  I remember the launch event – a packed room, a sense of possibility despite some dissenting voices, and the spark of a movement that brought NGOs and lawyers together to support our legal challenge to the DFT. I’ve lost count of the number of times we were in court over the two years of litigation, as we kept winning each stage of the case, but had to keep fighting on and on for any meaningful change for the people we spoke to every day in Harmondsworth. Eventually, in July 2015, the DFT was suspended and in the December the Supreme Court ruled finally in our favour.
Last month, I was in Harmondsworth again with a group of staff and volunteers for another workshop. Most of our work is over the phone through our free helpline, in part due to the inaccessible nature of detention centres. Our volunteer visitors provide regular, one to one support to the most vulnerable or isolated people we are in touch with. So our workshops are a vital opportunity to meet new clients who drop in to see who we are and what we can do, as well as a means of renewing relationships face to face with people we’ve been supporting for weeks or months from the office.
Over the years my role has changed. As a manager, I am no longer as directly involved in casework as I used to be, although I make sure I go into the detention centres whenever I can. I have seen a shift away from the two large scale injustices at opposite ends of the spectrum (although it still happens): extreme long-term detention and the unseemly haste of the DFT. The ongoing injustice of detention remains, and yet that injustice now feels splintered into a myriad disparate experiences and often increasingly complicated cases. At the most recent workshop, we met 25 people in very different situations.
Our work, as ever, has changed accordingly. We reach out proactively to the most hard to reach people in detention, often with the most complex cases, and we have developed our expertise to understand their situation and to support their release. On that day, for example, I sat down with a Vietnamese man who had been trafficked to work in a cannabis farm. We’d met him before, when he’d shown us the injuries inflicted by his traffickers, not understanding why he was in detention despite the Home Office recognising he was a torture survivor. Communicating with him through our new volunteer interpreting project, we had referred him to a solicitor to challenge his conviction for cannabis cultivation and to enable him to be identified and protected as a victim of trafficking in line with government policy. He was recently released after several months in detention.
So much has changed in the last ten years. The one constant is the devastating human impact that immigration detention has on people who are held indefinitely. And throughout those ten years, with the changing issues and new challenges and opportunities, it is the human contact between our staff and volunteers and the people we are supporting that remains at the heart of what we do. And, fundamentally, it is people, those in detention and those who’ve been released, and all of us who know and care about this everyday atrocity in the UK who can and will make it change.

Five guys

Image courtesy of Michael Collins

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.

The Seamed Zones

Photo taken at the launch of ‘The Seamed Zones’ on 12 October 2017. 

Where does ‘invisibility’ of immigration detention centres start?  Ben du Preez, Campaigns Coordinator at Detention Action, stares into the gap between non-place-ness of detention centres and their material human impact and finds hope in Experts-By-Experience’s power to bring the truth to light.  

Last week, I delivered a speech alongside Michael from the Freed Voices group at the launch of Rob Stothard’s new photo exhibition on detention, entitled ‘The Seamed Zones’.

In perfect dovetail with Unlocking Detention, it is an exhibition which addresses one of the main paradoxes of immigration detention in this country: that despite being one of the most flagrant abuses of civil liberties and human rights in the UK today, the physical sites of this extreme form of physical and psychological violence still remain hidden in plain sight for many members of the public.

Yarl’s Wood IRC, Twinwoods Business Park, Thurleigh Road, Milton Ernest, Bedforshire, MK44 1FD

One of the first photos in the exhibition that catches my eye is of the sign for Twinwoods Business Park near Milton Ernest, a small village about 60 miles north of London. It is a sign that leads drivers into a cul-de-sac where one can find, among other things, Bedford Pets Crematorium, an office of Bedford Borough Council and the headquarters of a company that offers indoor skydiving. The buildings are all unremarkable in their appearance and give few clues as to the practices unfolding inside. There is seemingly nothing to challenge in this banal, Grey nothingness. Everything about it suggests it is one of those common spaces that most people in UK move freely in and out of every day without so much as a second thought. In the corner, however, there is a small concrete pocket holding four hundred people, who cannot leave, or lock eyes with the rest of us, or explain who they are. They have no idea when they will be freed and have extremely limited resources to help them get out. They are trapped in Yarl’s Wood detention centre, perhaps the most infamous of all detention centres in the UK, and the focus of #Unlocked17 tour between 23 and 29 October 2017.

Yarl’s Wood is in no way unique in this respect. Stothard documents every site of immigration detention across the UK – from the short-term holding facilities up in Larne House, Northern Ireland, down to the Verne detention centre on the Isle of Portland – and shows how each of them are reached from everyday roads on the fringes of rural lanes, within the perimeter of airports, or along the exterior walls of former prisons. All of them sit on the ‘seamed zone’ between free and restricted movement. All of them are representations of the way the industrial-immigration-complex has created new physical landscapes, or at the very least re-articulated existing ones into something else. As the exhibition curator, Nicole Sansone, notes, “in an era in which private interests and discriminatory legislation that articulates the infrastructure of segregation and surveillance has become commonplace, IRCs can appear to represent a smooth line of continuity with the fields, fences, homes, businesses and transport hubs in their midst.” This ‘smoothness’ does two things. Firstly, it allows detention centres to go un-seen. Members of the public can almost unconsciously navigate them in the same way pedestrians might  move past/through some one begging for money on the street: they can ignore that which they think does not directly impact their familiar lives. Secondly, it obliterates the question of access: notions of belonging and exclusion have been so normalised, so smoother over, that some seem to have forgotten to even dispute the very idea of detention in of itself.


Larne House, 2 Hope Street, Larne, Antrim, BT40 1UR

The reality is that the ‘invisibility’ surrounding detention centres does not start with the buildings themselves. It starts with the casting and portrayal of those warehoused inside. Career politicians and the gutter press have long cast migrants as monstrous, Others, unchecked, bogus, illegal, temporary. As Freed Voices noted in their recent submission to the Home Affairs Select Committee; “The Government and the press talk about us like we aren’t even human beings. So in detention we are seen as less than animals. We’re just commodities.” This process of dehumanisation, active long before the decision to detain, justifies and enables detention to continue unchecked. On a collective level, it translates into around 30,000 people detained each year. On a personal level, it means individuals are locked away for weeks, months, and sometimes years.

Over time then, the naked violence of indefinite incarceration is forgiven, then muted, then forgotten. The outstanding implication of this is that these people in detention are not worthy of the same kind of duty of care and access to rights, liberties and protection afforded British citizens. Speaking at the exhibition launch, Michael reflected on the recent BBC documentary on Brook House IRC which showed, among many other instances of abuse, someone being held in a choke-hold by detention centre staff: “Can you imagine what would happen to a migrant if they committed the same kind of offences that we experienced every day in detention? Can you even imagine?! There have been thirty-two deaths in detention and no-one been even prosecuted. It is a moral disgrace.”


Heathrow IRC, Colnbrook Bypass, Harmondsworth, West Drayton, UB7 0FX

Sansone describes the UK’s detention estate as a ‘geography of fascism’ and too often fascist policies benefit from invisibility, or partial visibility, growing in the shadows, in silence. When Michael stood up at the exhibition opening and spoke-out about his experiences of detention and the changes he wants to see, he took a wrecking ball to the architecture of detention. His words offer a direct block on the co-operation of racism and power, making visible the sites and processes the Home Office would otherwise have hidden away or slip quietly into the landscape around us. Stothard’s photos seek to do a similar job, as does Unlocking Detention. If you’re not already involved in shining a light on these sites of estrangement, it might be worth asking ‘why not’?

Get involved in this year’s Unlocking Detention! More information here

Rob Stothard’s photography exhibition – ‘Seamed Zones: The Everyday Life of Immigration Removal Centres in the United Kingdom’ – runs until the 29th October at Sluice Art Gallery, Arch 11 & 12 Bohemia Place, E8 1JB, London.

Week 5: #Unlocked16 visits Harmondsworth

There’s been lots of engagement with #Unlocked16 this week, as we visited the UK’s largest detention centre.  Harmondsworth can hold up to 676 people, all men.  Opened as a purpose-built detention centre in 2000, Harmondsworth is situated right by Heathrow airport.

https://twitter.com/EiriOhtani/status/796788355979735040

One of the most popular aspects of Unlocking Detention, and one of the most illuminating, is the live Q and As we do each week with a person in detention.  These wouldn’t be possible without the help of visitor groups, everyone who sends in questions to be asked, the incredible strength and courage of the person who agrees to be interviewed each week … and the unflagging brilliance of Ben from Detention Action who conducts the interviews and makes what is actually a fraught, complex and emotional process seem very simple.
This week, Ben was hoping to speak Mark, who is currently detained in Harmondsworth.  At the last minute, this wasn’t possible but amazingly, Justice who is also detained in Harmondsworth, stepped in.

Read the full Q and A with Justice here


Maybe it’s because we’re now halfway through (!!) Unlocking Detention, but we’re feeling in reflective mode and grateful for the stream (torrent?) of amazing blog posts and articles we’ve had every single week. Thank you so much to the contributors, and to everyone who has read them and shared them far and wide. Through this reading and sharing, we’re making human connections between the public, those detained, those who are still living with the psychological scars of detention, and all those individuals and groups who are standing together to end the outrage of immigration detention.
Our first piece this week was “A Footnote on Harmondsworth” by K, who is on his second spell in Harmondsworth:

“Before I was detained I was living in Liverpool. I lived there for 7 years. I feel like I grew up there, you know, my family’s there. I been to other cities like Birmingham, London and Manchester but Liverpool feels like home. The best things about Liverpool are its history and football. In Liverpool the only racism I seen was about which team you support – Liverpool or Everton. When I first came I wasn’t understanding football at all– cricket was my sport. Those days I was working in a take-away and when the supporters came in they explained it to me. Then I started watching highlights and now I’m a full Liverpool supporter. Even though my Mrs supports Everton!
These days my wife is my only visitor. It’s a long old journey from Liverpool but she comes down every week.”

Next up was Silvia, advocacy coordinator at Detention Action, who painted a vivid portrait of four of the individuals she’d met last time she visited Harmondsworth:

A young man shows us his birth certificate from a London hospital. He tells us of his shock when, at the completion of his criminal sentence, he first learnt that his case would be dealt with by the foreign-national ex-offenders team. He had never left the country in his entire life, how could he possibly be a foreigner? The Home Office is trying to deport him to Nigeria, where his mother is from. Since his mother didn’t have status when he was born he is not eligible for British citizenship, despite having been raised in this country. Astonishment made way for anger and despair when he realised that, however incredible this might seem, he is trapped in what appears to be an irreversible bureaucratic nightmare.
The next person who sits with us has only one request – he asks us to call and reassure his pregnant wife. Since he has been detained she had a nerve problem which is affecting her pregnancy. Years together in a partnership, followed by a religious marriage, and now a child on the way, and their family life has been deemed a sham by the Home Office. He might be issued removal directions at any moment. He shows us pictures of his wife, emails, private texts, intimate details of their love story that they have been urged to collect to document even their most private memories.
Another young father approaches us, he is livid and visibly impatient, he doesn’t want to sit down. His first baby was born a few days ago back home in Albania and he can’t wait to see him, but he is stuck in detention. His wife has bought him not one, but three tickets to come back but because of bureaucratic delays he has been unable to leave. Although most of the people we meet would never voluntarily leave the country he is not the only one who is paradoxically refrained from leaving by the same bureaucratic machinery which is supposed to facilitate his removal. A young man in his early twenties explains that he urgently needs to go back to his home town as his brother has just been killed by the Taliban. He knows it will be dangerous for him to return but needs to be there for the funeral and to support what’s left of his family. He would like to expedite the documentation process and withdraw his asylum claim, but communicating with his Home Office case-owner, the person responsible for his immigration case, has proved impossible so far.
The last person we meet in Harmondsworth is quietly sitting on a couch. He smiles politely at us. He has only a few teeth in his mouth and shows signs of mental health issues. He doesn’t speak a word of English but another individual we support offers his help to translate. The little information I manage to gather is shocking. After being trafficked into the UK this man has been detained for almost one year. After a few months in Harmondsworth, he was offered accommodation for his temporary release but he refused to leave the centre. I don’t understand – I ask why didn’t he leave detention when he was given the option? Because he was scared, my improvised interpreter explains. Because nobody told him why he was detained in the first place and what would happen next. Because after 5 months in detention without any form of psychological support and guidance facing the world out there seemed just too much. The man’s gaze is still lost in space as we are called to leave the room.

This week also saw the publication of the European Network on Statelessness’ report on the detention of stateless people in the UK. Jan Brulc, head of Communications for ENS wrote as part of Unlocking Detention for the Justice Gap online magazine, whose support of Unlocking Detention is invaluable.


As people recovered from the news of the election of Donald Trump as the next president of the USA, migrants, campaigners and allies rallied themselves for the tough fights ahead.  Connections and conversations are going to be needed more than ever, and this makes us even more proud of being part of Unlocking Detention.
It’s been great to hear so much positive feedback about the project this week, as there is a behind-the-scenes team of volunteers working so hard on this, a few frazzled staff, and the irreplaceable experts-by-experience who give their time, stories and bravery to make this project such a success.

https://twitter.com/ruthsays_/status/796291508517400576

Live Q&A with Justice, detained in Harmondsworth

This week Unlocking Detention has been ‘visiting’ Harmondsworth – the largest detention centre in the UK, with a capacity for 661 people, and once the ‘spiritual’ home of the now abolished Detained Fast Track. On Friday afternoon, Ben from Detention Action conducted a live Twitter Q&A with Justice, who’s been detained in Harmondsworth for two months and counting. You can recap the whole interview below: 

 

Entangled in Harmondsworth

Image courtesy of Michael Collins

By Silvia Maritati, Advocacy Coordinator at Detention Action.

“People detained under the Immigration Act powers are unique among the prison population in that their future is entirely uncertain…The degree of uncertainty which is facing detainees in this position is undoubtedly a source of great distress and anxiety, and it is not surprising that some of them emerge from their ordeal suffering from severe mental ill health.”

To anyone engaged in the fight to change the UK’s detention policy, these words might feel as familiar as they do urgent. And yet, they were first pronounced by Lord Avebury in the House of Lords in 1978. Eight years earlier, the opening of the Harmondsworth Detention Unit had given birth to the British detention estate as we know it. For the first time, the now normalised conflation of imprisonment and immigration control was materially translated into a space specifically designated for the short-term administrative detention of ‘undesired migrants’. Crucially, although the practice of detaining foreign citizens was already in use, the construction of the Harmondsworth Unit had symbolic as well as practical implications. Not least when we consider that the very material existence of ad hoc holding facility for migrants “actively inscribes differences, distance, and otherness” (A. Hall, Border Watch, 2012: 16), reinforcing their supposedly self-evident legitimacy.

The historical cornerstone of the UK immigration detention system, Harmondsworth detention centre today boasts the largest capacity for potential detainees across Europe – 661. The centre’s oppressive internal conditions are equally infamous: the recorded number of incidents of self-harm requiring medical attention appears starkly, disproportionately, higher than in any other detention centre. Stephen Shaw’s review into the state of welfare in detention found the Harmondsworth “claustrophobic” and with “the feel and look of contemporary gaols”, while the Independent Monitoring Board 2014 annual report concludes that “Harmondsworth IRC is in large parts a depressing, dirty place and in some cases has a destructive effect on the welfare of detainees.” Most recently, Harmondsworth has been given zero food hygiene rating, after a serious mice infestation was found in the main kitchen, with related cases of food poisoning. A telling indication of the disjointed manner in which Harmondsworth operates, the investigation revealed that, despite staff reporting the presence of mice in the kitchen this was not passed onto any pest control company, and subsequently, no action was taken.

I last visited Harmondsworth IRC a couple of weeks ago, along with four other members of the Detention Action team, for our monthly drop-in session. In our oversized bright purple Detention Action T-shirts, we walked through the labyrinth of corridors and stairs. Through one locked door after another, we were finally escorted into the Welfare Office – a common room where people can access the only fax machine available, ask for information and support, or book for a legal appointment. Despite the chaos that characterises this space, it is an important one for us – it is often our first point of contact with new clients, but it also allows us to link a face to the individuals we are emotionally and practically supporting on the phone from our office.

A young man shows us his birth certificate from a London hospital. He tells us of his shock when, at the completion of his criminal sentence, he first learnt that his case would be dealt with by the foreign-national ex-offenders team. He had never left the country in his entire life, how could he possibly be a foreigner? The Home Office is trying to deport him to Nigeria, where his mother is from. Since his mother didn’t have status when he was born he is not eligible for British citizenship, despite having been raised in this country. Astonishment made way for anger and despair when he realised that, however incredible this might seem, he is trapped in what appears to be an irreversible bureaucratic nightmare.

The next person who sits with us has only one request – he asks us to call and reassure his pregnant wife. Since he has been detained she had a nerve problem which is affecting her pregnancy. Years together in a partnership, followed by a religious marriage, and now a child on the way, and their family life has been deemed a sham by the Home Office. He might be issued removal directions at any moment. He shows us pictures of his wife, emails, private texts, intimate details of their love story that they have been urged to collect to document even their most private memories.

Another young father approaches us, he is livid and visibly impatient, he doesn’t want to sit down. His first baby was born a few days ago back home in Albania and he can’t wait to see him, but he is stuck in detention. His wife has bought him not one, but three tickets to come back but because of bureaucratic delays he has been unable to leave. Although most of the people we meet would never voluntarily leave the country he is not the only one who is paradoxically refrained from leaving by the same bureaucratic machinery which is supposed to facilitate his removal. A young man in his early twenties explains that he urgently needs to go back to his home town as his brother has just been killed by the Taliban. He knows it will be dangerous for him to return but needs to be there for the funeral and to support what’s left of his family. He would like to expedite the documentation process and withdraw his asylum claim, but communicating with his Home Office case-owner, the person responsible for his immigration case, has proved impossible so far.

The last person we meet in Harmondsworth is quietly sitting on a couch. He smiles politely at us. He has only a few teeth in his mouth and shows signs of mental health issues. He doesn’t speak a word of English but another individual we support offers his help to translate. The little information I manage to gather is shocking. After being trafficked into the UK this man has been detained for almost one year. After a few months in Harmondsworth, he was offered accommodation for his temporary release but he refused to leave the centre. I don’t understand – I ask why didn’t he leave detention when he was given the option? Because he was scared, my improvised interpreter explains. Because nobody told him why he was detained in the first place and what would happen next. Because after 5 months in detention without any form of psychological support and guidance facing the world out there seemed just too much. The man’s gaze is still lost in space as we are called to leave the room.

Walking back towards the external gate we cross the tarmac courtyard where a bunch of young Afghani men are playing football. For the first time, I notice that there is a net high over our heads. A couple of unfortunate birds have got entangled in the meshing and have died there, a grim metaphor for those entangled and deprived of their liberties beneath. I cannot help but think of the bitter irony of this highly-secure holding facility with its high walls, nets, wired fences, locks and gates, where, for the sake of security, no fresh air is allowed inside as all windows are locked, but where the health and safety of the population inside is constantly under threat.

Immigration detention is bleak and alienating for whoever experiences it. The indefinite confinement of people for administrative purposes is structurally unfair and has proven dysfunctional even by its own supposed purposes of facilitating the removal of individuals from the country. The human cost of places like Harmondsworth is immeasurable, only visible in the eyes of those held there, but devastating for anyone part of their lives. Forty-six years old, Harmondsworth IRC remains the outstanding emblem of this country’s blind, harmful and unnecessary abuse of immigration powers.

A footnote on Harmondsworth

Image courtesy of Michael Collins

As told by ‘K’.  Footnotes by Ciara Bottomley of Detention Action.

The first time I was detained was in 2010. (See below: 1)
I was in Harmondsworth then too. The centre was the same then as it is now. Nothing much has changed. This time round I’ve been in detention for 5 months. (2)
First at Dungavel in Scotland, then Colnbrook, and now Harmondsworth. In Dungavel it was more open, you could go to other rooms in the wing. Colnbrook and Harmondsworth are the same, it’s like high security in here, you’re very restricted. They moved me back to Harmondsworth in August. (3)
Before I was detained I was living in Liverpool. I lived there for 7 years. I feel like I grew up there, you know, my family’s there. I been to other cities like Birmingham, London and Manchester but Liverpool feels like home. (4)  The best things about Liverpool are its history and football. In Liverpool the only racism I seen was about which team you support – Liverpool or Everton. When I first came I wasn’t understanding football at all– cricket was my sport. Those days I was working in a take-away and when the supporters came in they explained it to me. Then I started watching highlights and now I’m a full Liverpool supporter. Even though my Mrs supports Everton!
These days my wife is my only visitor. It’s a long old journey from Liverpool but she comes down every week. (5)
Inside Harmondsworth there’s all these sorts of tensions. Everyone has their own situation they are trying to deal with. The staff don’t offer any emotional support, so people do what they can – share information, ciggies – they are friendly but everyone has their own case, their own problems. It’s difficult to really get to know people.
I don’t sleep well in here. They lock the cell doors at 8.45. I usually lie down at 10/10.30 when I take my medication and I start thinking and thinking. (6)  I worry about what will happen to me, will I be deported? Will I find my family? When I leave the airport where will I go? What will my village look like now? Most of my friends and family have left because of the war – they’ve gone to other countries. Sometimes I dream about them, waking up and realising it’s just a dream breaks my heart.
Recently I’ve started to have panic attacks. I have nightmares, sometimes I remember them, sometimes I don’t. Usually it’s something coming after me, something scary – always related to my life. I’ve had this problem since I 12 years old – I went to hospital with my father and they gave tablets for 6 months and afterwards I was ok. But they don’t give me the right medication here. (7)
I wake up and I’m so stressed my heart is beating and beating and my head aches. I pray to Allah. I just feel like I want to go out and walk around. But the doors are locked. I can’t go out. Because the dream, it’s like a hole in my mind. It feels like I’m dying.
My roommates complain to security when I have these attacks. I’ve been moved a lot because of this, I’m on my 3rd room. I ask security for medicine, but they can’t do anything. When I say I want to call for an ambulance they threaten to put me in the black – like as if I been fighting. Once they put me in for 48 hours. (8)
I heard they did a kitchen inspection recently and they scored badly.I seen some people coming to check the kitchen. They came at night time. I didn’t see any rats but I seen them setting traps. (9)
In the day, we spend time outside in the yard. Some people play football, some people just walk around. There’s no grass, just concrete. We are surrounded by the centre walls. You can’t see anything apart from sky and the planes – taking off and landing at Heathrow. (10)
The other day they came for me and took me to the airport. They handcuffed me and were bending my fingers and hands – I had bruises all over. My wife came to the airport as well. She was crying, saying ‘you can’t send him back.
Then they changed their minds and took me back to the centre. My neck was all bruised. I went to healthcare but they don’t take you seriously.
I don’t really think about what needs to change in detention. A lot of people in here have problems that mean every day is a bad day. They are suffering from torture that comes from inside. It’s hard for them to be in here. People need human rights, they want freedom.


(1) The majority of those detained (around 52% last year) end up being released back into the community – their detention serving no purpose. Many of these individuals are then re-detained at later dates despite, once again, there being no clear removal plan in place.
(2) The UK remains the only country in the EU with no time-limit on detention. Thousands of people are locked up in prison-like conditions every year. For some this could be a matter of days or weeks, or months like K. For others it could be years. This uncertainty can have a profound psychological impact on people in detention.
(3) Transfers between detention centres are as common as they are inexplicable and can have devastating effects on an individual’s ability to fight their detention. On one hand, a transfer (especially from Dungavel in Scotland to a detention centre in England) can mean losing a local legal representative and having to start building your case again. On the other, transfers can lead to extreme geographical and social isolation, cutting you off from family, friends, community and support networks.
(4) Detention doesn’t just destroy the lives of individuals detained; it also destroys families, communities, whole swathes of the UK. Many of those detained indefinitely have been snatched from cities they have developed roots in, and in some cases,  in for some cases, lived most of their lives.
(5) The train journey from Liverpool to Harmondsworth costs around £90 return and takes about 4 hours. For many families either dependent on asylum support or with no recourse to public funds at all, this is an impossibility.
(6) Research into mental health issues have repeatedly highlighted the dangers of re-traumatisation in immigration detention in the UK. The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ position paper on mental health in detention found that for many individuals detention was likely to be ‘painful reminder of past traumatic experiences’ and to ‘aggravate fears of potentially imminent return’.
(7) The latest HMIP inspection of Harmondsworth found that people in detention were very negative about health services provided. Significant problems in relation to medicine management, with reports of long waiting times to obtain medicine and inadequate storage and record keeping were reported.
(8) In their report, ‘A Secret Punishment’, Medical Justice found that segregation and solitary confinement were consistently misused as a form of punishment in detention and as a way to manage detainees with mental health issues. They concluded: ‘The over-reliance on, and misuse of, segregation in immigration detention reflects the abdication of the state and its private contractors of their moral and legal obligation to treat those in their custody humanely.’ 
(9) A telling insight into the way this government sees those it detains, the kitchen at Harmondsworth IRC recently received a food hygiene rating of ‘0’ by the Food Standard’s Agency.  
(10) For many in Harmondsworth, the sight and sound of planes offer a chilling reminder of their potential return to places of torture, persecution and estrangement. This quote comes from Freed Voices member, Boone: ‘Every minute and a half a plane flew past my cell window. Each one reminded me I was going to be deported back to my country. I came to learn every different kind of plane in the skies. I can distinguish different models from their sounds. They trace my nightmares.”

Unlocking Detention: A week at Harmondsworth

This week, Unlocking Detention visited Harmondsworth detention centre near Heathrow airport.  Harmondsworth is not only the biggest detention centre (immigration removal centre) in the UK, but also in Europe.  Catch with all our tweets – including our twice daily ‘tours’ – on Twitter with the hashtag #Unlocked15.  You can also scroll through the tweets from the Detention Forum, and our retweets, on this blog (see right-hand side!).

We heard from a Music in Detention volunteer, about her experience of making music with men detained in Harmondsworth.  We were also reminded about this ‘letter to Harmondsworth‘, written for last year’s tour.

The detained-fast track system for processing asylum applications was suspended in July.  Read about Detention Action’s amazing legal battle here.    Detention Action made this audio piece back in July about the changes they started to see at Harmondsworth as a result of the suspension of the fast-track.   When Yaw, who is currently detained in Harmondsworth, was asked about the suspension in our live Q and A with him today, he said:

It was really inspiring to hear from Yaw, who is in detention right now.  We really appreciate him taking part in the Q and A, and providing such powerful responses to the questions.  Thanks to Detention Action for doing such a brilliant job on the interview!

When Yaw was asked if people in detention are aware of political developments going on outside, such as the Immigration Bill, he said:

You can see all the questions Yaw was asked, and his responses, here.

Visiting a detention centre – even virtually – always involves visiting or revisiting misery.  This week, as Unlocking Detention ‘visited’ Harmondsworth, an inquest heard how 84-year-old Alois Dvorzac who suffered from heart disease and dementia, was detained in Harmondsworth for two weeks prior to his death.  A report by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman into the incident stated:

“It is a tragic indictment of the system that such a frail and vulnerable man should have spent his final days in prison-like conditions of an immigration removal centre”

This week we also published a piece featuring the voices of visitors to the Verne detention centre, who explained why they started visited, what they had learned, what they found most difficult, and talked about their experiences.  It’s a really absorbing read, and we highly recommend it.  Read it on our blog here.

This week’s article hosted by Justice Gap was by Maddy Crowther of Waging Peace, an active member of the Detention Forum.  Maddy’s article clearly showed how detention affects communities at large, in this case, the Sudanese community.

Each time someone is detained or re-detained, those with a similar legal status also lose trust in the system. Panic sets in and false and unhelpful rumours, for instance about the ‘correct’ arguments to use to secure the right to remain, or about lawyers who can get you released for an upfront cost, spread quickly. The arbitrariness of decisions to detain can even force people to give up on the process entirely: they may fail to report the next time they’re asked to, or even live off the grid entirely. In true Kafkaesque style, the Home Office then uses this as proof of their non-compliance and lack of credibility and so as reasons to refuse grants of asylum or humanitarian protection.

Detention also affects wider communities, even those persons with right to remain in the UK. For instance, in the immediate aftermath a good friend might be entrusted to go gather the person’s belongings from his or her home. Family will rally around and protest the detention to the detainee’s lawyer if they have one, or try to find representation if they don’t. Organisations like our own are contacted to try and see what can be done, and to find out whether a visit can be arranged.

Once someone is released, it requires a massive collective effort to rehabilitate them; from organisations that provide mental health support and mentoring schemes, therapeutic programmes that use tools such as gardening and arts, down to individuals like you and me who can offer compassion and understanding.

Not all ex-detainees react in the same way: some retreat inwards and cut off contact with the outside world, whereas others are furious at the system which locked them up, and may even end up externalising this onto the organisations like our own, that have worked hard to get them released.

In every case though, the person who emerges from detention is not quite the same as the person who went in. It takes a lot of work to bring someone back to themselves.

At the close of the week, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published its report ‘Is Britain Fairer?’, the most comprehensive review ever carried out on progress towards greater equality and human rights protection in Britain.  Read what Detention Forum members Rene Cassin made of it here.

The report stated that ‘the lack of an immigration detention time limit in the UK, in contrast to other European Union countries’ is amongst a number of ‘serious challenges’ to the UK’s human rights record.

Another weighty voice saying, it’s #Time4aTimeLimit

Jammin’ & bluesin’: Music in Detention at Harmondsworth

This blog post was written by Music in Detention volunteer, Alicia.  

I have been volunteering in the office at Music In Detention (MID) for the last two months and I was really excited when I found out I was going to the YMCA in Hayes, and Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) to experience my first music workshops. I met the artists for this project, Shammi and Oliver at my first stop, which was the YMCA. As soon as I walked in I heard one of the kids MC’ing on the mic, and his flow was absolutely ridiculous. He was so talented and confident, and in retrospect it was a great warm up for the session.

Shammi and Oliver began the session by trying to get the young people to think about the meanings they attribute to their home. Not all of the young people spoke English, and so the artists asked them to draw a picture of home. Generally, home was a positive place, it was warm, reminded them of cooked food, and a safe haven. Shammi then asked them to think about what life would be like without home, what would that feel like, and how would you cope? And actually, I had a think about that myself, and I was reminded of my friend’s trouble having her visa rejected two weeks before she was due to begin university. Previously, she had described home (Nigeria) in much the same way as these young people had, but to be sent home was devastating for her, and so home took on a new meaning completely. Being born British, I have never known that concern about the insecurity of whether you stay here or are deported; a situation that is completely out of your hands. It was an interesting exercise… The session continued, and there were young people rapping, playing the drums, and others who just listened and soaked up the atmosphere. The children recorded questions for the detainees at Harmondsworth for later, and the session was wrapped up with pizza.

As a Criminal Justice student I’ve had the opportunity to go to two prisons, one visit was to a prison restaurant run by the prisoners, and another was an actual tour of the prison. On my first visit I found the whole experience very depressing, and very claustrophobic. It was obvious to me that some of the prisoners were suffering with anxiety, and were in a constant state of alert, which I guess is indicative of the whole unpredictability of the prison. As I reflected on my previous visits on the way to Harmondsworth, I was apprehensive as I considered the prison and the detention centre to be like first cousins. I was unsure of what I would find, how peoples’ state of mind would be, and how I would be received by the detainees. The security point at Harmondsworth was very claustrophobic and reminded me of the prison security; I wanted to be out of these confines and delivering music! After over an hour of this limbo, and jarring key-churning sounds, we were allowed to go through into the arts block. On the way I did see some detainees, and I was immediately struck by their demeanor. I like to paint, and I feel that the eyes reveal so much about how a person feels, and I definitely saw a lot of powerlessness, fear and loneliness in that place…

We walked onto the arts wing and were greeted by a spiritual art teacher. She teaches a form of spiritual art, otherwise known as healing art, which helps the detainees feel positive, allowing them to feel and express powerful emotions, thoughts, sensations, memories, visions and dreams. She had two students at the time, and one man was so into his painting that he did not look up once. He was so talented, and I got to see some of his previous artwork. As I looked around the room, I kept seeing these amazing artworks, which displayed the trauma and angst of a lot of the detainees. They used such bright colours, and some used really heavy impasto strokes, and there was a ton of mixed media work, and other things that I had no idea how to make. Next it was down to the music, I was really looking forward to this!

We went into the music room, it was a decent size, and full of instruments, they had a keyboard, djembe drums, electric guitars, bass guitars, and a drum kit and we had the addition of the Cajon and other instruments from the artists own collection. Because of the delay in security processing, the artists decided to start with a jam session playing music and singing, with the door wide open so as to attract people who would like to come in and join. Shammi and Oliver played some really amazing music with their guitars, I played the Cajon, and Michael, one of the guards at Harmondsworth played the drum kit.

I’ve not been to many live concerts, let alone held a concert of my own, but I think today was the day. It was so much fun and I think there was a sort of reggae vibe going on, which reminded me of Jamaica. In no time, a few men from Albania came along and they were absolutely loving it! They listened at first, and Shammi encouraged them to play music themselves. At first they didn’t want to, but Shammi persisted, and one of the guys played the keyboard, Shammi gave him some notes to play and I took over from Shammi playing the bass guitar. I have never in my life played a bass guitar, but I must say I picked it up pretty quickly, and really enjoyed it. It was so relaxing, and I felt all the nerves and anxiety from before leave me. If it had that effect on me, I could definitely see the impact it would have on the detainees. Soon after, I synced up my chords with the new notes the detainees had just learnt on the keyboard.

More detainees, some from Bangladesh, others from China and Turkey came along, some sat down and played the drums and others just sat and watched. One moment that was quite moving for me was we were playing, and then one man came in and played the drums for a while, then he stopped and just looked around, and listened. After that he got up and left, and it made me feel that music is very powerful and can make you miss home, and even resent your current situation. On the other hand, maybe he had other things to do! But, I did sense a bit of frustration about detention in general, and the unnecessary pain it causes people, who ordinarily wouldn’t be in this position. I could tell I was amongst talented people, fathers, husband, brothers, doctors, students and more.

Towards the end of the session, the artists played some of the questions from the children and young people at the YMCA. One of the Albanian men was happy to record some answers for them. We finished off by singing a chorus together as a group, which we recorded, and we also recorded the piece we had played earlier. A really great addition to the piece was a rap recorded by a man from Bangladesh, and his talent just beamed through!

Some of the detainees told us how long they had been detained, the liveliest of the group had been detained for 4 days, and one man had been detained for 2 years. It was hard for me to imagine that kind of experience, and I now have a great appreciation of the damage done by detention in the UK, especially indefinite detention, and its psychological impact on people. As I packed up for the night I felt so privileged to have met the people I had met over the course of the day, and I was so proud to have given some joy to people’s lives through music.

Harmondsworth: Story of those detained within the walls

Image courtesy of Michael Collins

This blog post was written by Susannah Willcox, who is an Advocacy Co-ordinator at Detention Action. Working in this capacity, she regularly visits and runs workshops in Harmondsworth detention centre.

This story of Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) is not mine to tell.  It is the story of those detained within its walls.

Some of them were moved there on the day of their ‘release’ from prison. Some of them were detained there while reporting to the Home Office each week. And, up until the suspension of the Detained Fast Track asylum processing system earlier this year, many more of them were detained there after claiming asylum on their arrival in the UK or during an appointment with Visas and Immigration department of the Home Office.

Harmondsworth, Europe’s largest detention centre, was the primary home of the government’s delinquent child – the Fast Track, whose potential as a swift, dispassionate asylum processing mechanism was loudly proclaimed by ministers and government officials until its spectacular fall from grace earlier this year.

But this story focuses on those detained in Harmondsworth who are perhaps less visible than those who were detained on the Fast Track. During my time as a volunteer with Detention Action, I visited several people who were detained in Harmondsworth after serving time in prison. They first heard of immigration detention on the day they were due to be released from prison. Instead of being released, they were issued with a Deportation Order and transferred to Harmondsworth, where their incarceration continued, in some cases for a year or more.

Travelling to Harmondsworth each week to visit these men was always a disheartening experience. Walking along the less-than-picturesque Colnbrook Bypass in the biting wind, being fingerprinted and given a table number, then sitting for up to hour in the visits reception waiting for the detainee to be brought out, often watching small children play in the corner while their parents snatched what little privacy they could – none of this was designed to inspire hope or joy. Spending time with the men themselves, however, was in turns heartbreaking, surprising, educational, challenging, hilarious and eye-opening. That their curiosity, sense of humour and capacity for empathy – their humanity – persisted despite the conditions in which they were detained indefinitely constantly amazed me.

Two of the men I visited stood out in particular. Both came from difficult backgrounds and ended up involved in gang violence, leading to criminal convictions. Both struggled with mental health problems prior to being detained in Harmondsworth. During their time in Harmondsworth, their mental health endured unimaginable strain.

The uncertainty, isolation, loneliness and lack of escape from their inner mental world weighed heavily on them. This impact manifested itself in different ways. P became angrier with each visit, railing against the system that kept him locked up without time limit. He found it increasingly difficult to find any sense of hope or normality, or any outlet for the rage and frustration he felt.

L, on the other hand, would repeatedly ask himself how he had come to this place and why he was being held there indefinitely, at a distance from his family and from any hope for the future. Was it God, luck, karma or something more terrifyingly banal? Although initially lucid, L gradually withdrew into a world of mysticism and mythology, in which he went on great adventures through time and space. The pyramids of Egypt, the rebirth of Christ, the death of President Kennedy – all of these have more meaning for L now than his own battle for recognition in the UK.

Witnessing the deterioration of someone you care about is a painful process. We can never know the extent to which the conditions inside immigration removal centres like Harmondsworth contribute to the emotional and psychological distress of those detained indefinitely, but there is no doubt that they have considerable influence – and not for the better.