When an individual is detained everyone is affected

Image courtesy of Michael Collins

This blog post is written by Gemma Pillay, from Nottingham.  She works for the Nottingham and Notts Refugee Forum

On Sunday 28th June 2015 I received a text from my friend Imran:

Hello gemma its Imran here I went to loughborouh for sign and they detained me can you help me please?

He had been detained the preceding Thursday (25th June) and moved from Morton Hall in Lincolnshire to Harmondsworth in London.


Imran was waiting for his substantive interview and complying with all reporting restrictions – he was devastated when the guards took him to a side room, placed him in handcuffs and calmly told him that he was now officially detained. He had nothing with him to prepare for this, no change of clothes or toiletries, and neither would he get any for a further week when the bag of clothes we brought for him took four days to cross Harmondsworth and finally reach him.


Imran had been on the demonstrations outside Harmondsworth detention centre but now found himself on the other side of the walls. No banners, no chanting.  Instead a windowless room and staff who felt it necessary to remind him that he wasn’t in a hotel. But having been at the demonstrations, having been part of the crowds of people demanding an end to immigration detention, Imran knew that he wasn’t entirely alone.

I spoke to Imran on that Sunday morning and something he asked me to do dramatically changed things for him and also for all of us on the outside: He asked me to tell everyone we know what had happened to him. I sent out a message and the support came flooding back. He was contacted every day by people who wanted to help him by sending powerful messages of solidarity and defiance, by praying for him and even making a joke to cheer him up. When four of us went down to London to see him we had dozens of messages of support for him and a strong collective question of “What are we doing about Imran?”

When an individual is detained everyone is affected. I have heard the rumours which circulate and the questionable truths which emerge: “perhaps it was because he asked to report less frequently”, “that’s why you should never report”, “they’re detaining all people from that country now”. In reality there appears to be little in the way of consideration or predictability in the decision to detain someone. It is nothing short of state intimidation and breeds mistrust, shock, and a fear of both compliance and non-compliance with the system.

Why detain?

What could be the objective of detention? To control the movement of asylum seekers who are under the radar? If that were the case why detain people who are reporting, because they are exactly the people who are not making any attempt to avoid their temporary admission requirements. Is it to save money? Hardly. Home Office figures in late 2014 estimated that it cost £97 per day to detain one person. Is it to prevent the likelihood of absconding? The people I have known who have been detained include a young woman who is the full time carer of her mother with a  spotless record of reporting compliance, unlikely to abscond, and a young man with a fresh claim submitted, living in a charity house with no likelihood of eviction, also unlikely to abscond. With such an apparently random approach to detention it is unsurprising that the community of people who are liable to detention see no clear instruction of how to behave in order to avoid it. It serves to maintain a constant threat, fostering the suspicion that you are damned whatever you do.

On Monday 6th July 2015 Imran was released. Having indefinite detention in the UK meant that Imran had no idea that his ordeal would end in 12 days. He spent every day living in a desperate panic that he would be left there for months, maybe more. He was put under pressure to meet with Home Office officials when he didn’t have time to contact his solicitor, much less arrange her attendance. He had no opportunity to have his documents translated. He knew that these would be central to his case and without them his claims would be unsubstantiated. He was locked in his room at night and heard through the door the casual cynicism with which guards dealt with the attempted suicide of another detainee. On Imran’s first reporting event after his release I went with him. He felt physically sick and when he was in the waiting room he was so scared he thought he would have a heart attack.

When Imran was in detention he sent me a message in response to all his support from friends, he said “We’re all a family now”.

We all felt very much that one of our people had been taken and were overjoyed when he was released. But what was achieved by his detention? Imran is still suffering with poor sleep and anxiety. Here in Nottingham we breathed a sigh of relief that we got Imran back and the monster had, for now, moved on to some other poor individual. And still, against all intuition and logic, everyone, including Imran, had to continue to go and report.

Constant threat


I go to Loughborough every four weeks with Ivan, my husband. We live with the constant threat that one day he might go into that building and I will be expected to leave without him. The next time I see him will be in a visitors’ room, and I will have undergone prison security searches before I can see him. We won’t know if or when he will be released. And he, along with every other immigration detainee, has done nothing wrong. Detention affects everyone. Husbands and wives, friends, communities, brothers and sisters, children and parents.

I am certain that one day people will look back at immigration detention and say “Did we really do that to people who were seeking sanctuary?” Fortunately, there are plenty, and a growing number of people who are asking that question now.

Harmondsworth week…

26 Oct to 1 Nov – the Unlocking Detention team looks back on the week they visited Harmondsworth detention centre, right beside Heathrow Airport.

Our Harmondworth week started with ominous news, which only confirmed the UK government’s commitment to ‘Hostile Environment’ to make immigrants’ lives as difficult as possible.  The only difference, this time, is that it is played out on the Mediterranean. And the hostility meant simple deaths – no rescue if migrants drowned during their passage to Europe.

‘Did someone turn the lights of civilisation out?’ ‘Have we lost our sense of common humanity?’ People were asking the same question that we posed, when the long term hunger striker, Isa Muazu, was held in Harmondsworth detention centre.

While the above is an official image of Harmondsworth detention centre, the one many of us remember vividly is the one below.

The center literally being next to the runway of the airport, it’s difficult to escape from the sense of proximity to removals and deportations.

Harmondsworth week coincided with the week in which the second part of the appeal hearing of the Detention Action’s the Detained Fast Track litigation took place.

While Detention Action team was getting themselves ready for another day at the High Court…

… noisy, regular demonstrations continue outside the detention centre.

This was a particularly busy week, as far as immigration detention was concerned. Vice ran a great piece about the LGBT asylum seekers, many of whom end up being on the DFT.  Our member, UKLGIG was quoted in the piece below.

Another member, Refugee Action, published their report on immigration detention.  A beautifully written piece, Detention Breaks the Soul, by one of their volunteers, who was himself detained, appeared in Huffington Post.

Opposition to detention is spreading – and a community organising group, CitizensUK, organised a vigil to remember those who died in immigration detention at the end of the week.

Alois Dvorzac, who died in handcuffs in Harmondsworth, was one of the people who was remembered at the vigil.  He was 84 years old and was suffering from Alzheimer.

There was a call for action…

…and this was the result of the vigil. The candles are laid out to show a clock – for a time limit.

Although the start of the week was pretty depressing, we were heartened by more support for Unlocking #Detention.  There was a really great group selfie…

… and the first time ever, one of our followers used our selfie card for their Twitter profile photo!  We were stunned (in a good way)!  Thank you, Kim!

There was also a thoughtful and much-needed piece of writing which appeared on openDemocracy, dissecting the consensus around the figure of “foreign criminals”.  Many people who are labeled “foreign criminals”, having finished their sentences, languish in immigration detention centres waiting for deportations which sometimes do not take place for years – or ever.  We tend to use the terminology of foreign national ex-offenders if we need to; as Luke points out, “foreign criminals” is the catch-all phrase that has come to embody the contemporary norm = foreigners must be excluded at whatever the cost or the circumstances.  We also need to face up to the fact that some only oppose immigration detention of asylum seekers and not of foreign national ex-offenders.  For them, these “foreign criminals” are an inconvenient fact which contaminates the “deserving asylum seekers are unfairly detained” narrative.

When tweeting constantly about detention, it’s easy to feel gloomy and depressed.  So when someone spontaneously shared a good news using the hashtag of #unlocked, it felt really good and positive.  Thank you, Ben!

Looking back, lots happened during this Harmondsworth week.  The most moving thing that happened this week, however, was a letter to Harmondsworth written by Sharif who was detained there for three months, which we published on our website.  In the letter, he asks over 30 questions – knowing very well that he will not get any answers.

If you have any answers to Sharif’s questions, please do tweet at us.
By Unlocking Detention Team

A Letter to Harmondsworth

Image courtesy of Michael Collins

This letter was written by Shariff who was detained in Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre.

Dear Harmondsworth IRC,

I know you are very busy at the moment but I have a few questions about the three months you held me in detention.
Why do the rooms in Harmondsworth feel like you are living in a coffin? Do you do this on purpose?

If Harmondsworth is not a prison, then why does it look like a prison? Why does it smell like a prison? Why do the guards treat you like a prisoner?

Why were people allowed to work in Harmondsworth but outside detention we are not allowed to work?

Why do you have a department called ‘Healthcare’ when it does not offer ‘health-care’?

You lost all my medicine and my individual case-file – where did they go? Did someone steal them? Is there a black hole somewhere in Harmondsworth?

Do you have anything else in healthcare other than paracetemol?
If someone has vomiting, or someone has a broken leg, or someone cannot sleep – do you really think that paracetemol is the answer in every situation?

Are your healthcare staff trained and qualified?

I went to get a Rule 35 from your doctor. He said “ok, what do you want me to put?” I said, “you are the doctor, you need to say what is wrong with me.” He said, “If I do that we’ll be here for three, four hours.” In the end, he wrote something very quickly. In court, the judge didn’t even look at it. Can you tell me – what is the point of Rule 35 if this is the kind of doctor you employ to do it? What is it really worth?

Why do you not bring in doctors from outside? Have you ever been seen by a NHS doctor? Can you tell the difference in the standard of care?

Why did no-one in Harmondsworth try to help me understand the asylum process? Why did no-one even tell me I was on the Detained Fast Track? Do you give your staff orders to confuse us on purpose? Or maybe they just don’t know anything about the immigration system either?

What is the Detained Fast Track for? What is the honest reason for it? Is it just to deport people? Has it got anything to do with a fair trial? What do you think the Detained Fast Track says about the British justice system? If you are going to reject 99% of cases, why even put us through the stress of the system?

I got five minutes with my solicitor before my asylum interview – do you think this is enough time to prepare for the most important interview of your life?

Superman could not prove his innocence on an appeal in just two days, from the inside of a cell – why not blindfold us and give us two hours?

Do you think ‘North Africa’ is one country? Do you think an Algerian interpreter can effectively translate for an Egyptian, like me?

I saw people cut their own necks and swallow razor blades in Harmondsworth – if detention is designed to make us suffer so we agree to go home, do you consider this as a success?

Once in detention, I was feeling bad in my cell and I banged the door to ask for help. Four or five men arrived, acting like they were all Jean Claude van Damme. They shoved me to the floor, handcuffed me and took me to isolation. They kept me there for two days. They said my ‘behavior’ was the problem. Do you train your staff to be violent and aggressive?

Do you think that when I left Harmondsworth, Harmondsworth left me? I think about you guys every day.

I look forward to hearing your answers.

Yours sincerely,

Interrupting the implacable: Fighting the Detained Fast Track

This piece by Jerome Phelps first appeared in openDemocracy on 27 October 2014.  Jerome is the Director of Detention Action.

The UK Court of Appeal will hear an appeal this week over the lawfulness of automatically detaining asylum seekers while their appeals are heard. The era of expansion of this practice is already over and further change is likely. 

The Detained Fast Track, the system which incarcerates asylum seekers as a matter of routine as they await the result of their application for protection in the UK, has long been seen as implacable.

Primarily, it is implacable to the person who has just claimed asylum. Asylum seekers who arrive in the UK frequently find themselves locked up without warning, usually in Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre, where most of the wings are equivalent to a high security prison. They are told that they are not being held for removal, but for their asylum claim to be processed to accelerated timescales. As I have written previously on openDemocracy 50.50, everything from their provision to meals and healthcare to access to a lawyer is arranged by those who are directly or indirectly detaining them.

The Detained Fast Track is also implacable in its internal logic: once you are detained on the Detained Fast Track (DFT), there is often no way out. Individuals are refused asylum because they don’t have evidence and they don’t have time to get evidence because the Fast Track requires that applicants make their appeal within two days.

Finally, until recently, the DFT has appeared implacable in its expansion. It was introduced in 2000 to respond to unprecedented numbers of asylum claims. Although asylum claims have fallen dramatically since then, to just23,507 in 2013, the DFT system continues to grow. A higher proportion of asylum seekers are now detained, for longer periods, in worse conditions, with tighter timescales, than was ever initially intended.

Following a major expansion of bed-space, almost one in five asylum seekers are currently put through the DFT, amounting to 4,286 asylum-seekers in 2013.  Sharif, a survivor of torture from a North African country, was one of them.

“The stress was unbelievable,” he told me. “My blood pressure went extremely high. I had to have medicine for anxiety and depression. People told me ‘if you contact the Home Office, they try to send you back to your torturers.’ I wish I had listened to them. They were right.”

This implacability was interrupted on the 9th July 2014.  In a long-awaited ruling on a legal challenge brought by NGO Detention Action and represented by theMigrants’ Law Project, the High Court found that the DFT “as operated carries an unacceptably high risk of unfairness” to vulnerable or potentially vulnerable applicants. In the order of 25 July 2014, the High Court confirmed that the Fast Track “was to that extent being operated unlawfully.” Previous legal challenges to the DFT had failed to demonstrate unlawfulness, leaving the Home Office to believe that it could expand the scale and scope of the DFT as it chose. For now, at least, the development has been put on hold, yet a number of challenges remain.

Suitable for a quick decision?

The DFT is designed for asylum claims that are considered to be suitable for a quick decision.  However, the decision to detain and fast-track an asylum case is based on a screening interview, when very little is known about the person’s situation.  As a result, people with complex cases, including victims of torture, trafficking, gender-based violence and homophobic persecution, are regularly detained on the DFT.
Sharif’s screening interview lasted ten minutes. “The man asking me questions was racing through it. What is your nationality? Have you had your fingerprints taken? Where are your family? Nothing about my torture. Nothing about if I was fit for detention. Nothing about ‘Fast Track’.”

The High Court in Detention Action found “deficiencies” in the screening process and noted that “the process inherently cannot identify all the claims which are in fact unsuitable for detention or a quick decision”. Mr Justice Ouseley expressed “real unease about the cases which go through the DFT system when they should not have done so.”

Wrongly entering the DFT can have devastating effects on a vulnerable person’s chances of asylum. The Home Office refuses 99% of asylum claims which they have placed on the DFT.

If a person is wrongly put on the DFT, there are safeguards that should ensure that they are taken off. For example, Rule 35 of the Detention Centre Rules requires medical staff to report on any person for whom detention is harmful or who may have been a victim of torture. However, the High Court concluded that Rule 35 reports “are not the effective safeguard they are supposed to be” and do not work as intended to remove unsuitable cases from the DFT.

The threshold of unlawfulness

However, in the view of the High Court, it was the delayed and limited access to legal advice that tipped the operation of the DFT into unlawfulness. Asylum seekers were waiting an average of a week in Harmondsworth to be allocated a lawyer by the Home Office. This had the result that they often had only half an hour with their lawyer immediately before their second and substantive asylum interview, allowing very little time to build trust, explain their case and to receive advice.

For Shariff, it was just a matter of minutes. “Five minutes before the interview, they presented me with a solicitor. I sat with him and he asked me some basic questions. But every time we started to go into my case, the immigration officer would come in and say ‘Come on, no more time, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.’ Everybody was in a rush.”

The High Court found that the “seemingly indefensible period of inactivity”, when the person was detained but could do nothing to work on their case, combined with the shortcomings elsewhere in the process, created an “unacceptably high risk of unfairness” in the process as a whole  The system, Mr Justice Ouseley concluded, “does not permit [the Home Office] to run it quickly only when it suits, and slowly when it does not.”

Change in sight?

It remains to be seen how the DFT will ultimately change as a result of this ruling. The Home Office immediately took steps to ensure that lawyers are allocated quickly and have at least four working days before the asylum interview. As a result, lawyers now have a small window to get people taken off the DFT and released. The High Court and the Court of Appeal refused to suspend the operation of the Fast Track to allow a more thorough review and more significant changes.

However, it may be that the DFT is still operating unlawfully, as the High Court was only prepared to say that the Home Office’s changes had the potential to make the process lawful. It is likely that there will be further legal challenges by individuals whose cases have been handled unfairly. The Court of Appeal will hear Detention Action’s appeal on 30 October 2014 over the lawfulness of automatically detaining asylum-seekers while their appeals are heard. Further change is likely – the era of implacable expansion is over.

Sharif was released from detention, and is now living in the community.

“At the time, I did not know that the thing ruining my life was called the ‘Fast Track’. I found out what it is the hard way. People go into it balanced and they leave broken. I know now how lucky I am to have survived it.

“Now the judges say the whole operation is wrong, but it continues. What justice is this? I am very pleased about the changes to the time people will have with solicitors. But it is not enough. No changes to the screening process? No changes to Rule 35? No changes to the appeal system? It does not surprise me that the Home Office have got away with it.”

Handfast: A poem for Isa Muazu

Visiting | Unlocked19

Image by @Carcazan

For Isa Muazu
by E. E. Jones

Think of his starved hand
Reaching for England
As they stretchered him
Towards the exit: his small wrist
Helpless in the terminal
Darkness, and his thin fingers,
Through which Justice slipped.
If you could stand and listen
To his thin lips whispering freedom
Like a password – his sole prayer
To breathe our English air –
Then would you hold that hand,
I think you would
If it were up to you, though
England’s grim-eyed guards
Say otherwise, and ranks of hobnailed
Headlines stand behind them.
Would you cast off the newsprint’s
Mailed glove, to save a dying man?
If you could choose – I say
You’d take his hand and hold it fast,
Not letting go. Handfast,
An English word.

Music in Detention: Reflections on three visits to IRCs in 2012

This post was written by Zoe Burton, Programme Manager (maternity cover, 2012 and 2014) for Music in Detention (MID).  MID is a member of the Detention Forum. 

I was delighted to be recruited to Music In Detention as Programme Manager (maternity cover) in Jan 2012 to coordinate a number of participatory music making programmes in four Immigration Removal Centres. I had previously worked in a drop- in day centre for refugees and asylum seekers where I had seen first -hand how arts based projects provided an opportunity for people to make friends, escape the relentless worry about their situations and enjoy a release through self -expression. These activities also helped to alleviate the acute boredom people felt, brought on by the day- to -day struggle to survive with no means to do anything or go anywhere.

People experiencing detention talk about the extreme mental anguish they go through due to the uncertainty of their situation. Often separated from loved ones, including partners and children, people are detained with no time limit to their imprisonment and live with the constant threat of deportation, possibly to a country where they have no ties or affinities.

“We’re being tortured… We’re not physically bullied, but we’re mentally beaten.”

Day to day life in detention is routine, in some centres there is limited access to facilities, such as an internet suite, library or gym and little opportunity to mix with other detainees in a social setting. With too much time on their hands it is hard for detainees to escape their worries or to build up the strength to deal with the anxiety of the unknown.

“So at the moment there’s no other music activities going on?

“No, not at the moment. Because nowadays, it’s same old, same old, playing pool or just library, and apparently it’s going to be packed after this, because more people are going to be coming in. So it’s going to be hard, you can only use the computer for one hour. So basically there’s not going to be much activity or much to do.” (Discussion with a detainee at Campsfield House, June 2014)

Unlike prison, where there is often a focus on rehabilitation and acquisition of skills, in detention, it can seem that people are simply ‘warehoused’ prior to removal or release, left to languish in a bureaucratic limbo.

“So does anyone here talk to you about the future, about careers, I know you were saying you want to do community work, does somebody come and talk to you about studying or jobs?

No, they’re all looking to send us home so why would they!?” (Discussion with detainees at Campsfield House, June 2014)

People in detention are currently denied access to social media platforms such as Facebook, which increases their isolation from the outside world and makes it difficult pre- removal or release to enlist the help needed, such as being met at the airport.

Music In Detention was founded in 2006, bringing participatory music making into detention centres to help people cope; as a means of stress relief and self -expression, building self-esteem and connecting with other people, both in detention and with people living in communities near the centres, ‘over the wall’ so to speak.

“So that music workshop was heaven. We’ve got digital TVs here, we’ve got library but it’s not really something to do is it? But when you got the music workshop…”

You mean it occupies you? Because there are things to do right, there’s the gym, there’s the hairdressing and the … “One week with that is enough!  Stay here for one week. Then you’ll have the feeling. Because Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday the head is in a deep depression, but Thursday me know say 2 o clock music class –there’s going to be music…” extract from a discussion with detainees at Yarl’s Wood IRC, March 2012

People who are detained feel a huge sense of powerlessness which is compounded by the rigid routines, a lack of varied activity and timely information about their immigration case.

“The whole thing: eat, sleep and shower everyday – just that. We’re not children, you know… There’s so many things which you could be doing for yourself and then you can’t because there’s no information coming to you”

People are also mistrustful of the Home Office decision making processes, things seem arbitrary, and the system makes people feel dehumanized. … “and they leave you. It’s like you buy a Christmas toy and you leave it on the shelf – you got no connections to that toy – that’s exactly how it feels. It’s like you’re being left on the shelf and you’re waiting for the immigration, which is the little kid, to come and play with you, to come and take you and connect you back to the world and put you in use. And then when they don’t want you again they just put you back on the shelf.”

Within this context of uncertainty detainees suffer a negative impact on their mental and physical health which can worsen in severity over time. A recent study found that 83% of detainees suffered depression and 22% had considered suicide. (Bosworth & Kellezi, Oxford University, 2012)

So in my new role at Music In Detention I was keen to visit some workshops. My first visit was to Campsfield House IRC in Oxfordshire. After the unnerving experience of going through security and being searched I got into the mood for the session.  The workshop was based around celebrating Chinese New Year and that was some party!  About 60 detainees came to the ‘big screen room’ and all participated at some level or other during the four hours of drumming, percussion and Chinese scarf/fan dancing. Lots of detainees recognized the artists from previous visits saying hello and shaking hands as they arrived, looking excited about the workshop ahead. Of course, this was great to see but also unsettling as I realized some people must have been there for quite some time.

At first the MID artist, Paul, distributed his unique junk percussion instruments to as many people as possible and got live Chinese rhythms going. People let off a lot of steam and reveled in the chaotic, raucous atmosphere, joking with each other, egging each other on and crashing symbols as a joke near the Detention Custody Officers who were escorting the workshop. I was delighted to see these jovial challenges to authority. Some of the Afghani guys enjoyed having a laugh putting various random items into the back of the MID artist’s drum and hence changing the sound. The artist did an amazing job getting people to participate while trying to keep some semblance of musicality in the room!

Then a pause, MID artist Yan appeared in a beautiful costume and performed an enchanting series of traditional Chinese dances.  After the crescendo of sound there was a hush in the room as everyone watched, took a breath and a seat.  After this break the participatory element came back and Yan demonstrated some moves with scarves and fans so that everyone could copy. The Kurdish and Afghanis especially loved this, dancing wildly, spinning the scarves and fans, or wearing the scarves on their heads. Then three guys (Chinese, Afghan and Jamaican) took centre stage and enacted a surreal bull fight with a red scarf and a drum, all the detainees were laughing at this impromptu drama! Then the party continued as some danced and others kept the beats going.

By now the atmosphere was electric, cleaning and canteen staff started peering into the room, joining in too, and everyone was smiling. One member of staff came in grinning and said “I’m trying to sleep out there!” and the detainees responded with a rousing drum roll and howls of delight. Another staff member stood on a window ledge shaking his percussion instrument with joy, smiling across the room.

There were many points I forgot I was in a detention centre. Until of course the party was over and I could go home. A film came on which may have helped people calm down a bit but I think a lot of people just went to their beds, with the promise of another MID workshop coming soon. One Indian detainee said to me when it was over “My mind is so clear now”.

I learned from the MID percussion artist, Paul, that it is very rare in Chinese culture for people to participate in traditional dance forms (and music); people are either audience members or performing artists. So in this unusual context of an IRC, where so many cultures come together in such a music workshop, people were learning traditional forms from their home country.

“Two hours will pass and you stop thinking when am I getting deported, when am I getting released, you just focus on the music and there are Jamaicans and Chinese and Indians and everyone, all playing together. And we learn what other cultures do and it makes a unity, we share it together.” (Workshop participant at Campsfield House, 2012)

My next visit to a MID workshop was at Yarl’s Wood IRC, Bedfordshire (Females & families with adult children).  This workshop was a unique combination of Taiko and Tabla drumming, facilitated by Liz Walters and Sanju Sahai from Asian Music Circuit.

We were in the ‘party room’, small and cozy, with turntables, mixing desk and replete with disco lights. At first it seemed a strange anomaly to me considering the context but I was assuming the ‘residents’ wouldn’t feel like dancing and there I was working for a charity which puts on music workshops in detention centres! I could see efforts were made to soften the environment, with lots of colourful drawings and paintings in all the corridors, like a school, but for grown-ups who aren’t allowed to leave. The smell, akin to British school dinners, wafted around and there seemed to be frequent tannoy announcements that were indecipherable. The beauty salon was busy and lively and the library quiet with attentive staff around.

The group was small, partly because the party room is hidden away so not many people could hear the drumming (best advertisement for a MID workshop!). However the ensuing hour of Taiko was uplifting and powerful, considering none of us in the room had ever been near a Taiko drum.

Liz’s sensitive and gentle approach enabled everyone to feel safe in their drumming circle as the beats got louder, the smiles bigger and the movements more precise and all in tune with each other. “This is really good for stress releasing!!” shouted one lady grinning from ear to ear and ready to play again at the next session.

One participant chose to sit out; she had had two wisdom teeth removed that morning and was coping with the pain, having had a couple of Paracetamol earlier. However she said she really wanted to stay in the workshop and enjoyed watching throughout. She added a lovely presence to the room.

Then we moved on to the Tabla. Sanju asked participants to close their eyes and imagine a steam train whilst he played the most incredible rhythms on his Tabla. This completely absorbed everyone as they were already physically relaxed from the Taiko and now mentally and physically relaxed further from the mesmerizing and beautiful sounds of Sanju and his Tabla.

The session finished with Liz speaking to everyone about how they felt after the session, how they were doing generally. After listening to their responses I realized  just how isolated everyone is from each other, subsumed in their problems and separated by language, culture and ethnicity; it isn’t easy for people to even converse in detention, never mind make friends.

As I left I was overcome by the combination of vulnerability and resilience I had seen amongst the group, and of course, again I was going home, leaving the surreal environment of Twinwoods Business Park as the women went for their evening centre roll call.

“Sometimes it’s so good to know that somebody’s feeling the way that you feel because when you read her lyrics …and you say wow that’s what I was thinking about, I didn’t write it but that’s it!” (Workshop participant at Yarl’s Wood talking about a recent MID songwriting project, 2012)

Later in the year I went to visit a workshop at Harmondsworth IRC, London Heathrow (Male) facilitated by H Patten and Alex D Great from Music for Change. After the astonishment of seeing the gigantic gates and enormous clunky keys as I was escorted through the various buildings to get to the music room I was pleasantly surprised to see such a well -equipped music resource with colourful murals on the walls of people playing instruments.

The session started off with H teaching the group some drumming rhythms. H is an expert in enabling people to let off steam with the drums! He knows that for us novices (my first experience) our hands will soon start to smart and you can’t continue at that pace. Soon we were united in rhythm and everyone started to relax by feeling energized as a group. We were joined by two members of staff, great musicians themselves on tenor sax and bass guitar and accompanied by a detainee who was a brilliant drummer. Two other members of staff also participated throughout the sessions. I could see the tensions and normal hierarchies between staff and detainees melt away as we all became human beings simply enjoying a jam.

After the dinner break people from another wing had their session but many came from the earlier one as the staff kindly escorted them to the music room. Following another percussion session it was time for detainees to lead and sing together. Alex was amazing at facilitating people’s choices in music and accompanying people who took to the mic to sing their favourite songs. We had a proper jamming party culminating in a karaoke style sing along with one detainee drenched in sweat as he joyously led the session with many Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff favourites. Spontaneous bouts of dancing broke out too.

As people were enjoying themselves the staff let the session run on a bit later than planned. During this time none of us were worrying about our problems. Getting home around 11pm that night I was full of memories, wondering what was going to happen to all the people I had met, people who missed their loved ones on the outside and felt at the mercy of the UK immigration system while detained indefinitely.

“Intact. Sanity intact. It keeps my sanity intact”. (Workshop participant, Yarl’s Wood IRC, 2012.)

Hamid on alternatives to detention

Image courtesy of Freed Voices

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

In the three and a half years I was in detention, I was visited twice by the Home Office – first, they took my fingerprints and then to take my photo. That was it. They gave me no reasons why I was at Harmondsworth IRC or how long I would stay. The monthly reports they sent me just said they were waiting to hear back from the Iranian embassy. But I knew that without passport or ID card, the Iranian embassy would not give them travel documents. I knew it, the embassy knew it, the Home Office knew it, everybody knew it. The Iranian embassy even closed and they still kept me locked up! I could not understand why I was not being released. I co-operated from day one. I started to think the Home Office were evil and torturing me on purpose. I tried to understand their reasons but I could not find any. It did not make sense. I remember thinking to myself that ‘there must be another way’.

When I was finally released from detention I felt lost. I felt scared. I had been isolated so long I couldn’t look people in the eye. I was so used to only ever moving a few metres this way or that, I found it difficult to walk any more than that. The Home Office had turned off my brain for three and a half years, so I had trouble reading. Even basic street or shop signs.

Last week, almost fifteen years after I first claimed asylum, I won the appeal on my fresh claim. When I look back it is still very difficult to understand why I was ever in detention during this period. Even the Home Office do not seem to know. Earlier this year, they offered me tens of thousands of pounds in financial compensation. They admitted that my detention was unlawful. So why did they do it then? They knew I could not go back. They have lost lots of money, I have lost my mental health. So who won? I did not need to be locked up for them to telephone the Iranian embassy every few months. With support and structure, I could have been adding to society. That way, everyone would have benefited.

We must ask politicians the million-dollar question: if detention does not work, and there are better and cheaper alternatives, why is the UK government still putting people in detention?

I think it is because detention in the UK is Big Business.

“As the weeks pass their demeanour changes”

Refugee Action are members of the Detention Forum and used to provide advice about assisted return to people in detention, before the Home Office withdrew the contract.  These are some of the experiences of one of their caseworkers.

[At Dover IRC], we run an advice surgery at the removal centre. Today it’s grey, windy and drizzly, but on a clear day we can see France. At the centre, detainees of all nationalities approach us cautiously; some about returning, others just desperate to talk to someone new. Depression is common; I’ll sometimes meet someone perky, but as the weeks pass their demeanour changes. It’s sad. I try to build a good rapport with my clients; they tend to be lovely people considering all they’ve experienced.

[At Harmondsworth IRC] I complete AVR [assisted voluntary return] applications for asylum seekers and irregular migrants. I’m also approached by an Israeli conscientious objector, an extremely frustrated Nigerian client, and a client who believes he’s been unlawfully detained. I refer him to Bail for Immigration Detainees and plan to follow up the other cases later.

Visiting someone in detention

Image courtesy of Michael Collins

Many years ago I used to visit a man in Harmondsworth. He was from North Africa. He made it to the airport in the UK, on his way to another country to seek safety. Because he was using a false document – he could not leave his country otherwise, he said – he was sent to prison and then ended up in a detention centre.

By the time I met him, he was in the UK for longer than a year. But the only parts of the UK he saw were the prison and the detention centres, and what he saw through the TV. He spoke what to me sounded like prison-English – slangs and phrases that were unfamiliar to me.

He was curious and eager to know what the UK was ‘really like’. As I described the physical environment outside the detention centre that he had never seen, the sad little bus stop from which I walked to the centre, that there were houses just outside the centre, a busy highway that separated the centre from the airport – I felt responsible acting as his eye and tried to remember all the tiny details that lie outside the fence. I also felt inadequate not being able to communicate everything – how do you describe the world outside for people who have never stepped out of the detention centre?

After a few visits, we established a ritual. This involved him buying me a cup of rather disgusting coffee from the vending machine in the visitors’ room as soon as we finish greeting each other and enquiring about each other’s’ health and family. We were introduced to each other through a visitors group and of course did not know each other. When he first offered to buy me coffee, I declined his offer and offered to buy drinks for both of us instead. He was adamant that he would buy the drinks. So we settled on each of us buying our own coffee. The first time it happened, I mulled over the incident on the bus back to the tube station, feeling bad. Surely I should be offering to buy him coffee, as someone who has freedom and much else that he doesn’t have? The second time, I did the same and felt even more uncomfortable. In my third visit, I decided to graciously accept the coffee, bought by his money. I realised that it was this gesture of being able to do something for me was important to his sense of self and self-respect. He always smiled ear to ear when he brought those beige plastic cups of coffee back to our table. I felt satisfied that I was able to play a role in helping him to retain his humanity and dutifully drank all the disgusting coffee.

During our visits we chatted this and that, always in a light-hearted way. It was hard to guess what the right approach to him should be. His situation was miserable but he always smiled. But in each conversation, there was always something that kept you in your track. That his mother whom he phoned weekly did not know he was in detention so all his siblings had to pretend he was doing well in another country. That he said he didn’t feel like taking his cap off during one of the visits. He said he was on suicide watch – I could see that he was crying and his eyes were swollen from his tears.

One day, I arrived at the centre and reported to the visitors’ reception. I was told that he was no longer there. Eventually I managed to track him down in another centre, of course miles and miles away, and spoke to him on the phone. I introduced him to another visitors’ group. The following week, I started visiting someone else.