Guantanamo Bay, a tube ride away

In the final week of Unlocking Detention, we are now looking at where we will go from here. And we believe it is a perfect opportunity to publish this speech delivered last month by Jose, from the Freed Voices group to launch Amnesty’s #WriteForRights project. Jose says, ‘hope calls for action, just as action is impossible without hope’ and shares what gave him hope when he was in detention and when he is campaigning to end indefinite detention. The speech was originally published by Detention Action here
“To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.”
I read that quote around a year ago.
It is from Nelson Mandela.
He wrote it when he was detained in Robben Island.
I read it when I detained in Campsfield House detention centre.
It is in Oxford, 60 miles from here.
Harmondsworth – the largest detention centre in Europe – is even nearer.
It is in Heathrow, less than an hour away by tube.
At this exact time, about 600 men in Harmondsworth will be preparing to be locked in their cells…like animals.
These are innocent men.
Their only crime is that they are migrants.
Like the other 30,000 people detained in the UK every year, they are being held without the right to a fair trial.
They are being held at the administrative convenience of the UK Government.
They are being held without an end in sight.
Because – and this is something I did not know before I came here – the UK is the only country in Europe that has a policy of indefinite detention.
People are locked away in mini-Guantanamo Bays all over your country.
It’s not just Cuba, Kabul, Kingston I’m afraid…
It’s also Dorset, and Lincoln, and Bedfordshire.
No-one in detention knows how long they will be there for.
I was held for four and half months.
The Freed Voices group as a whole has lost over twenty years of our lives to detention in the UK.
Before I came here, when I thought of the UK I thought of the best music, rock and roll,
I thought of a modern, first-world country…with a ‘strong and stable’ economy.
I thought of a country with respect for human rights and human decency.
I actually read that Nelson Mandela quote before I was in detention, back home in Venezuela, where I am from.
But it still amazes me that I had to come from a third world country to a first-world country to really understand the truth of it.
It is very difficult to explain the impact of indefinite detention to someone who hasn’t experienced it themselves.
Indefinite detention destroys your trust in everything, and everyone, around you.
It is designed to make you feel powerless.
It is designed to make you think that your imprisonment is inevitable.
And so, depression and death are part of the DNA of detention.
20,000 people have been on suicide watch in detention since 2007.
The rate of suicide attempts is now more than one a day.
31 people have died in detention – three between August and September this year, alone.

Hope is in very, very short supply inside detention – they squeeeeze it out.
And that is why I thank you for making a detention a focus of your Write for Rights project this year.
I survived detention because people from outside, came in – not physically, but emotionally…in solidarity.
I remember one of the first things I did was a live Twitter Q&A with Ben from Detention Action.
He asked me what I could see from my window.
Even this simple question made me feel a bit more human, a bit more real.
A few weeks after the Q&A there was a demonstration outside the detention centre.
The people there were not directly affected by the issue.
But they stood and shouted: ‘Set Them Free! Set Them Free!’
In that moment, I did not feel alone.
I felt like there was an army behind me, winds of justice in my sails.
It gave me the strength to fight my case…and eventually, I was released.
If your letters can do that – if they can give people the hope to fight – then they can be half the battle.
I say half because, in reality, we need more than letters of support – we need real change, real action.
Because hope calls for action, just as action is impossible without hope.
And so, I am using this opportunity to urge you all to get involved in the fight against indefinite detention.
It is one the most serious human rights and civil liberties abuses in the UK today.
The Home Office’s own report last year concluded it was ‘an affront to civilised values’.
And so…to finish…I guess the real question is: what are British values?
What are Amnesty values?
What are your values?
And do they allow for something like indefinite detention…just a tube ride away.
Thank you.

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

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

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

'Do you know what immigration detention is?' Part 1 Told by Mrs A, expert-by-experience

As we begin this year’s Unlocking Detention tour, we are sharing this two-part series by Mrs A, submitted by her solicitor at Duncan Lewis.
We have not met Mrs A.  We have no idea who she is.  We understand that she was detained herself and wants to tell you about the secret world of immigration detention.  And here it is, her take on immigration detention in the United Kingdom.
Do you know what immigration detention is? Part 1
Is immigration detention necessary?
If you were to ask many people unfamiliar with detention whether it is necessary, many will probably say yes.  The public’s perception of detention is based on the incorrect picture painted in the media by the Home Office. This picture is one that says detention is necessary for immigration control and is only used sparingly and for the shortest time possible before removal and that detainees are treated in a humane manner.
You will also hear that detention is not the same as prison. Well, from my own experience, I am here to tell you that this could not be further from the truth.
In my experience, a high percentage of those detained have been removed from their own homes at addresses on file with The Home Office. The very fact that these people were resident at their official addresses, indicates that they appear to be attempting to normalise their status and could not normally be considered a flight risk. Others have been detained when reporting to Home Office offices as requested, again demonstrating their attempt to comply with such restrictions.
Journey to detention centres in the dark of the night
Many such detainees spend between one day and a week in police custody waiting to be transported to detention centres. The fact that detainees are held for such a long period before even arriving at a detention centre, appears to indicate that the initial process is being performed purely for administrative convenience, rather than due any immediate need for the detainees removal from the country.
Once in police custody, transfer to a detention centre usually appears to take place in the middle of the night. Again, this seems to be part of a routine shuttle of such prisoners between police stations and detention centres.
The timing of such transfers is highly disorientating as not only does it happen during the night causing stress to the detainee, but friends and relatives attempting to locate their detained loved one, are often unable to make contact or establish where they have been moved, until sometime after the event.
The detained individual will often spend several hours or more being transported across the country in a van to an unknown location, arriving in the early hours of the morning. By the time their processing at the centre is completed, it will most likely be after 5 AM.
Induction at the detention centre – ‘labour’ of £1 per hour
New detainees are inducted by a fellow detainee who is employed by the Home Office for £1 an hour. Many detainees are forced to take such work, as purchasing items from the detention centre “shop” is the only way to buy essentials such as body cream and the smallest of luxuries such as sweets, during their incarceration.
This derogatory rate of £1 is well below any minimum wage, yet detainees are being forced to do work that would otherwise be performed by paid staff, purely for the benefit of the company operating the centre.
Detainees have to work in many areas of the detention centre, including the kitchen, the laundry room and as general cleaners. In my opinion this is inhumane and effectively amounts to modern day slavery.
Part 2 of Mrs A’s story is here.

Detention and Friendship: Knowing you inside (and) out

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

Please do share the audio widely!

"The endless uncertainty of detention…it’s like tick tock…tick tock….tick tock"

Read about this recent event co-organised by Detention Forum members René Cassin.  The event was held as part of Mitzvah Day, a day of faith-based social action.  Although rooted in the UK’s Jewish community, it is day that encourages and celebrates interfaith social action.


On November 22, as a part of Mitzvah Day, Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue and René Cassin held a joint event to raise awareness of indefinite detention of asylum seekers in the UK.  Northwood andPinner received the Mitzvah Day Interfaith  Partnership of the Year Award for a whole day of activities which focused on refugees.  Joining us on the day was Ben Du Preez from Detention Action who introduced the event with an explanation of the current system of asylum detention.

We first heard from Thiru, a member of Freed Voices, a group of experts in asylum detention through experience. Thiru recounted his recent experiences, describing the suffocating process of claiming asylum as like being ‘in a tornado, unable to breathe’. He told us how his detention was like torture which left him andhis fellow detainees stricken with mental scars.

Above all else, the audience was left with a real sense of injustice.  After all, Thiru was innocent; he had done nothing wrong, yet he was locked up without a trial and treated like a criminal.

We then heard from Fritz Lusting, a 96-year old German-Jewish refugee who had been interned on the Isle of Man during the Second World War.  Fritz came to the UK in 1939 in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, when it became clear that his life would be in constant danger as a Jewish person in Germany.

In response to the growing fear and mistrust of Germans living in Britain, the government instituted a policy of the internment of all German males.  Fritz spent a period of four months interned at camps in York and on the Isle of Man, before being released on the condition that he joined the British Army.

In Fritz’s speech, he described how the rhetoric in the media turned against him and his fellow refugees as the German army drew closer the Britain.

We can draw parallels here with some of the anti-refugee sentiment we see in the media today.  Just as Fritz escaped Nazi Germany, modern-day refugees are fleeing danger and authoritarian regimes in countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea.

René Cassin is working to introduce a time limit on detention in an effort to improve the conditions for people like Thiru. We are calling for the government to introduce an amendment into the Immigration Bill setting a 28-day time limit on detention.  Not only would it improve the mental health of detainees who suffer immensely from the uncertainty, it would also save an estimated £75 million per year of taxpayer’s money. The UK is the only country in the EU not to have a time limit; we need to introduce one if we are to restore our proud tradition of protecting human rights and civil liberties.

Time to listen to the experts: it's time for a time-limit

This blog post was written for Unlocking Detention by Lisa Matthews, coordinator of Right to Remain.  Right to Remain are a coordinating group of the Detention Forum, leading on communications and campaigns, and run Unlocking Detention on behalf of the Detention Forum.


As we draw into the final weeks of this year’s Unlocking Detention project, I’ve been thinking about two distinct themes that have come up during our virtual tour of the UK’s immigration detention estate.

On the one hand, I’ve noticed that despite having campaigned on this issue for years, I’ve heard and learnt so many new things about the experience of detention, most notably from people who have been detained or those vital visitors to people in detention.  When you speak to someone who has had direct experience of detention, or read their testimony, you are hit by astonishing turns of phrase that stay with you for a long time.  For example, during the live Q and As that Ben from Detention Action has done a brilliant job on throughout the tour, speaking to people detained right now in the detention centre we’re shining a spotlight on that week.  There was this, the way that Yaw who is being held in Harmondsworth, describes the time lost to detention:

Or the way that Joe, who was detained in Dover detention centre for three years, described his location:

You felt you were on the edge of a nation, sitting on the border. Sometimes you would get French signal on your phone or French stations on the radio.

And on the other hand, the same persistent problem keeps knocking on the door.  The damage done by indefinite detention; the specific harm of not knowing how long the unjust and inhumane policy of immigration detention will be inflicted on you.  The UK is the only country in the EU with no time-limit on detention.  Despite the Immigration Minister’s protestations which are based on him not understanding (or choosing not to understand) the word ‘indefinite’, indefinite detention is a daily reality for the 30,000 people detained each year and the tens of thousands more threatened with this injustice.

Bearing witness

The corrosive effect of indefinite detention on people’s minds, bodies and spirit comes across so clearly in the pieces we’ve published by visitors to detention.

A long-term visitor to Campsfield House detention centre near Oxford noted:

immigration detention itself, with its extraordinarily uncertain length and outcome, is highly damaging to people’s mental health and is a source of vulnerability in itself. People who are detained with existing issues may well have these worsened by being detained.

Another visitor to Campsfield described the distressing deterioration of Adam over the months he was detained there, and of the suicide attempt of Mahmoud, a torture survivor who should never have been detained in the first place.

The indefinite nature of detention has been a cause for concern to visitors to The Verne, a relatively new detention centre (in an old building).  These visitors are largely new to the issue of detention, and so their first impressions are particularly striking:

One of them asked me about his rights and I had to explain to him that under our law he could be detained indefinitely. I think the “indefinitely” is the hardest part for them, as there appears to be no end in sight to the uncertainty.

Indefinite detention: toxic effects

You do not have to dig deep to discover the harm that indefinite detention does to people.  This harm stays with people, and affects people’s relationships, families, and the community more widely.  The damage of indefinite detention does not end when someone is released (and most people are released into the community and are not removed from the UK, begging the question of the point of detention in the first place).  People who have experienced the lack of a time-limit are quick to remark on its impact on others.

Last week, Unlocking Detention ‘visited’ Yarl’s Wood, and heard from Gloria who is currently detained there.  When asked about the impact of there being no time-limit on detention, she said:

In advance of parliament’s debate on immigration detention in September, we asked people to share what they would say if they could speak in the debate.

“It’s time for a time-limit” was an oft-repeated demand.  Michael was detained for several years, and describes how detention didn’t just affect him:

This gentleman from Sudan was himself detained for nine months, and comments on the how people detained without a time-limit are “suffering so much”:

28 day time-limit

The parliamentary debate in September was in response to the first-ever cross-party parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention.  The inquiry panel produced an excellent report with strong recommendations, central to which was the introduction of a 28 day time-limit.   It was encouraging to hear so many MPs back this time-limit in the detention debate, and indeed to hear so many recognise that this is an essential first step to ending detention altogether.

2015 Immigration Bill

The 2015 Immigration Bill is currently making its way through parliament.  It is at the stage where amendments can be proposed, debated and voted on by MPs, and this is a clear opportunity for the UK to make great progress for human rights and liberty by introducing a 28 day time-limit on immigration detention.

On Tuesday 1 December, MPs will debate some of the proposed amendments.  This is your chance to make change happen!  Ask your MP to support Amendment 32, which calls for a 28 day time-limit on immigration detention.

It is time to listen to the experts – those who have experienced this injustice first-hand, those who have supported and cared for those detained and who have born witness to this cruel and harmful policy.  These people are the experts, but this is not a complicated issue.  It’s a simple message, simply put by someone who experienced years of this unfairness:

“In prison, you count the days down until you are released.  In immigration detention, you count the days up.  It’s time for a time-limit”.

The damage of indefinite detention

This blog post was written by Colleen Molloy, City of Sanctuary National Development Officer.  The image used at the start of this blog post was produced for City of Sanctuary by Patti McKenna, a community artist in Swansea.

Detained-home from home400When City of Sanctuary launched 10 years ago in Sheffield, our aim was to build a movement connecting local people with those seeking sanctuary and to build a culture of welcome into everyday life.

Since then network has grown through groups in cities, towns and villages across the country, spreading across the Irish Sea and engaging people in Northern Ireland and Ireland.

Our groups vary from big dispersal cities like Manchester to villages like East Hoathly and Halland in East Sussex but all groups share the vision of making our society more welcoming to those seeking sanctuary.

We have raised awareness, networked and built partnerships and have tried to develop the culture of welcome across the voluntary and statutory sectors and have even engaged local businesses in understanding the needs of asylum seekers and refugees. We have also developed what we call streams, including schools, health, maternity, arts, faiths and other themes where we can bring ideas, resources and good practice together across a theme.

We had not intended to be political and we remain non-partisan with support from all the major political parties. However, when you connect asylum seekers and refugees with local people, inevitably relationships build. It is through these relationships, that we have learned from bitter experience about the inhumane process and painful journey that many asylum seekers experience in the bid to seek freedom and safety in the UK.

The most heart-rending and shocking experiences that our volunteers on the ground have found is that of the arbitrary detention of asylum seekers, often at the point of reporting and at the most unexpected of times.

In many dispersal areas, City of Sanctuary volunteers and befrienders have been shocked by their friends being uprooted and detained, often in remote locations. This experience has politicised them, and many of them have been motivated to campaign for their release, gaining thousands of signatures on petitions to the Home Office, raising much-needed funds for legal support and visiting their friends to bring them comfort and clothing and other necessary items. The shocking experience of visiting a detention centre has further motivated their desire to help.   Volunteers have told us “I was really shocked.  I didn’t think that could happen in Britain.  How could that happen in a democracy?”

These volunteers have also stored their friends’ belongings for them whilst they await their release back into the community. Some of these campaigns are successful, but sadly some haven’t and the loss of a friend to deportation and uncertainty has further galvanised volunteers to become involved in campaigns to humanise the asylum process.

In Leicester, the campaign to free Ali was started by the local anti-racist football team, which had welcomed him. As a Hazaran, who had lost his entire family, he was terrified of being returned to Kabul and could barely eat as the weeks in detention passed by.  Ali returned to us after 12 hours in handcuffs at Heathrow airport and the local group helped him through a year of depression afterwards and then supported him into employment after eventually gaining refugee status. But we still miss Anashe, mother and grandmother to British citizens, who was detained twice before deportation back to Zimbabwe and such grave danger that we have lost contact with her completely. Lessons have been learned from both these campaigns and more local people have been mobilised and had their consciousness raised.

In Leeds, we are still saddened by the deportation last year of Adenze after being detained with her two young daughters, seeking sanctuary from a forced marriage and the threat of FGM in Nigeria. Their campaign was featured in national media and a petition was signed by over 100,000 people. Despite this, the family were returned, caught malaria within days, lived in a Muslim Women’s hostel (despite their conversion to Christianity) and then faced destitution, relieved only by continued local support and fundraising.

Volunteers in Leeds fight on for Anita who has been involved in setting up and running Toast Love Coffee, a pop-up Pay As You Feel community café. Her life was thrown into chaos last year when she was detained with her 5-year-old son and a campaign began to release them, led by her friend Anna from Toast Love Coffee and supported by her friends, community and supporters across the country. They were released from detention four days later but are fighting again to stay in the country after Anita’s fresh claim was recently refused (you can sign the petition for Anita to be granted leave to remain here.)

In Bradford, Camila, was dawn raided and taken to Yarl’s Wood with her 18 month old baby. She was not allowed to have physical contact with her daughter throughout her time in detention. After release, her reactive depression led to a suicide attempt but her community rallied around. Having a befriender, making friends and finding opportunities to volunteer for the City of Sanctuary has enabled this young mum to rebuild her life. She now chairs the regional health stream of sanctuary and is doing an access to law course and hopes to become an immigration solicitor if she is granted status.

In Oxford, Ariana managed to escape her traffickers who were planning to sell her to a brothel. She was dehydrated, sick and eight weeks pregnant. After a stay in hospital, the police took her to Yarls Wood Detention Centre. She found it a depressing and stressful environment and became so ill that she was returned to hospital where she was accompanied by 2-3 guards continually, even when going to the toilet. She was treated like a criminal and even though she was released from detention, she had further stays in hospital and was moved to Birmingham and then Leeds whilst still pregnant. Her life and the life of her baby was put at risk. Fortunately, through the City of Sanctuary’s network, she was supported, made friends and found a volunteer to be her birth partner. She was threatened with dispersal soon after her baby was born but by then City of Sanctuary volunteers had rallied round and managed to stop this and she is now accessing counselling and waiting a decision from the Home Office.

In many other places, through cities and towns of sanctuary networks, ordinary people in mainstream groups and organisations have been learning about the damage of indefinite detention through their connection with asylum seekers. Children’s friends are missing them and those who tried to help are also emotionally scarred.  Families have been ripped from communities that accepted them and then plunged back into danger.

The connection with people and experiencing their pain and our own pain when we lose them, is a powerful motivating factor and engages people in the movement for change and social justice.

Most names and places have changed to protect and anonymise asylum seekers, who are still vulnerable. 

Detention knows no borders

This piece by Eiri Ohtani was first published on openDemocracy on 15 December 2014, as part of Unlocking Detention series.
The first ever parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention in the UK listened to the voices of ‘experts-by-experience’ and those still trapped in detention. How will the report in February 2015 reflect the shocking testimony that was heard ?
On the evening of Human Rights Day, a large group of people in Bristol were taken on a virtual detention tour. After cajoling the audience into closing their eyes, JP, a member of Bristol Refugee Rights, took us on a dark journey taken by many of their members, a journey into immigration detention. On stage with JP, I watched well over a hundred people, packed in a community centre under a picture of Malcolm X, close their eyes as instructed.
JP’s softly spoken voice commanded you to imagine being someone with irregular immigration status. You go to a reporting centre regularly so that the Home Office can monitor your whereabouts. Suddenly, you are arrested. You are bundled into a van, which eventually takes you to what looks like a prison. It’s well past midnight. You are tired and scared. You don’t know where you are or what to do. You are shown into what looks like a small cell, with a bed, washbasin and a toilet. There are already other occupants there, who don’t speak your language. The metal door is then shut behind you and you are locked from outside. Overwhelmed by a sense of uncertainty and fear, you lose your appetite, you can’t eat any more. And you have no idea what is going to happen to you or how long you are going to be there.
As I listened to JP with my eyes closed, I was reminded of the Unlocking Detention ‘tour’ that the Detention Forum has been running since September. Also a virtual ‘tour’, Unlocking Detention has been ‘visiting’ all of the sites of immigration detention by combining regular pieces on openDemocracy with regular tweets, selfies and blogs. The ‘tour’ destinations included Dungavel, the only detention centre in Scotland, situated in an isolated rural area, 45 minutes drive from Glasgow. The ‘tour’ peeked into the little known world of Short Term Holding Facilities, located at the border not very far from the airport lounge where holiday makers are waiting for their planes to take off.  In prisons, we found forgotten immigration ‘detainees’ whose liberty is taken away long after they have completed their criminal sentences. Although it is often said that child detention has ended, some children are mistakenly classified as adultsand can still end up in one of the detention centres.
The aim of the ‘tour’ has been to bring immigration detention with no time limit and our varied experience of it to those who have the luxury of not knowing anything about it. Another purpose of Unlocking Detention was to generate more public interest in immigration detention as the first ever parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention was taking place. Immigration detention is a topic that even human rights, civil liberties or immigration NGOs tend to avoid talking about in public, at least in the UK.
With the month-long tour finishing this week, has anything changed?
One unintended outcome of the inquiry, which is yet to publish its report, has been a conceptual shift for those of us participating in it: it has become clear that detention does not stop at the gates of the detention centres, it continues to take its toll long after people have been released. This became increasingly evident as we and others collected evidence for the inquiry from communities in different cities and towns up and down the country.  In the end, the inquiry received almost 200 submissions of evidence.
There was a striking similarity in the sense of themselves of these ‘ex-detainees’. Detention, simply, seems never to leave them.
As woman we met in Middlesbrough said, “The murder happens inside detention. But they let you die outside.”
Sharif’s letter to Harmondsworth detention centre finishes with the question: “Do you think that when I left Harmondsworth, Harmondsworth left me? I think about you guys every day.”
Similarly, H said, “I’m outside detention now but I still feel as if I am in detention. I still feel controlled.”
Voices from inside detention were also devastating. Describing his predicament in Haslar detention centre, Henry commented that there are too many laws and not enough justice. Joe, when asked what can be changed about detention in Colnbrook, angrily replied ‘What kind of improvement? There is no improvement that can be made. What kind of improvement?’
The inquiry panel’s decision to place these voices of ‘experts-by-experience’ at the centre of their investigation was a wise one.  During the three oral evidence sessions, these voices were often the most articulate and urgent, hammering in the inevitable message that this is not how we want our society to be. In the first oral evidence session, everyone in the parliamentary room gasped when one of the ‘detainees’ phoning in from Harmondsworth detention centre said that he had been detained for almost three years.  Listening from the public gallery, I often felt that I had no words to respond to them.
Their voices unwittingly encouraged a far more questioning attitude to the conventional wisdom that detention can be somehow made better, through training and better conditions in detention.
Who could forget how, in the third oral evidence session, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, asserted that no amount of improvements to conditions would be enough?  His words were that ‘Even in the best run centre, with caring staff and effective management, the distress people feel is the uncertainty of their situation’. Citing indefinite detention, he insisted that fundamental changes, not tweaking, are needed for detention reform. Or how inthe second oral evidence session, Dr Allen, previously of Colnbrook detention centre, argued that locking up and taking away hope from those who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was a sure way to make their conditions worse.
The Unlocking Detention pieces were also at pains to attack the fallacy that detention can be made okay.
My colleague, Nic Eadie at Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group, wrote for Unlocking Detention:
‘A few years ago I visited an extremely vulnerable man in Tinsley House. Weeks later I received a phone call saying that he had thrown himself against a wall and broken his own neck. When I read that sentence back again it still shocks me and brings back memories that I wish I did not have. The next time I saw this man, who I will call John, it was in East Surrey Hospital, a few miles from Gatwick Airport, where I found him lying paralysed in a hospital bed. Today he still lies paralysed, requiring 24 hour care, and he will of course never recover.’
I learned during the preparation for Unlocking Detention ‘tour’ that Tinsley House detention centre, run by G4S, is often regarded as having good conditions and good ‘detainee’-guard relationships. The latest monitoring report by the Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons says that ‘Tinsley House is one of the best centres we have inspected’.  In John’s case, however, this was no consolation.
A case of unlawful detention and the breach of human rights was detailed in Jerome Phelps’ Unlocking Detention piece: a woman who came to the UK to join her refugee husband, only to be detained at the airport on arrival. She went on to be detained for seventeen months. An initially healthy woman, after months of detention her mental health had deteriorated to the point that she no longer had capacity to instruct a solicitor.
Evidence of the harm of detention is so crystal clear that what is so shocking is not these tragedies but the fact that most remain silent on them. Even those who know what is happening inside and outside the detention centres are not quick enough to demand a fundamental change to the system, if not its outright abolition.
In contrast to this clear evidence of harm and the clarity of the voices of ‘experts-by-experience’, everything to do with immigration detention policy remains opaque.  The government has not been able to say exactly why it is has made plans to more than double the size of Campsfield House detention centre, even before the outcome of the detention inquiry is known, other than by vague reference to operational concerns. It makes little sense that the detention estate, which exists for the purpose of removing people from the UK, is growing, when the number of removals has been going downLocal activists, some MPs and some of us are now locked in a battle to stop this expansion.
During the Unlocking Detention ‘tour’, however, we have seen a shift in community groups’ response to indefinite detention. On 31 October, there was a vigil to remember those who have died in immigration detention and to call for a time limit on detention.  The event was organised by CitizensUK, whose 2015 Manifesto includes putting a time limit on detention. The Sanctuary Summit on 15 November launched the Birmingham Declaration.  Signed by hundreds of groups across the UK, one of its demands to the Government is that no one should be locked up indefinitely.  We are now waiting to find out what kind of recommendations the inquiry panel is going to make on the issue of indefinite detention.
In Bristol, JP’s soft voice concluded a journey into detention that had no happy ending. But when he asked us to open our eyes, we saw JP and his fellow members who had experienced detention standing tall under banners showing their demands. They were speaking up against detention, in the community, with the support and solidarity of others. He reminded us that even on Human Rights Day, there were many who were still trapped in the detention centres. In Bristol, on Human Rights Day, something new was taking shape in our collective struggle for justice. Will the same happen everywhere else too?
The Detention Forum would like to thank all its members who contributed to Unlocking Detention series. 
This is the final article in the Unlocking Detention series on 50.50 which has been running in parallel with the first ever parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention in Britain. The inquiry will report in February 2015. 


Souleymane on Indefinite Detention

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

I was in detention for three and half years.

At first, I would look for signs it would end. I would get hopeful when I saw my solicitor or when other people were released. Or when they took me to the embassy. But slowly that hope faded into the walls around me.

After one year, the waiting got too much. I had rejected the Home Office’s offers to sign for voluntary return many, many times. But just waving goodbye to the days had become too hard. It was a tough decision, but I actually felt great relief after I did it – ‘at least I can have control of my own destiny again’, I said to myself.

I thought my hell in detention would end there and then. But I waited a week and heard nothing. Silence. Another week. They told me they were waiting on travel documents. Another week. Another week. Another week. Another week…Indefinite detention.

Lots of people around me collapsed mentally. They cut their wrists or hung themselves. They couldn’t take the endless not-knowing. They couldn’t take the sense of hopelessness that is the younger brother of indefinite detention – it’s always following it around, the two come together.

I gave up thinking about life outside of Colnbrook. I told myself ‘Colnbrook is your home now – that is the only way to survive’. My cell became my bedroom. The canteen became my kitchen. When I look back now, it’s crazy to think how normal it became to be locked up at night, every night.

Those three and half years in detention served no purpose.

For me, not having a time limit had a huge impact on my mental health. The stress and anxiety of indefinite detention is unimaginable. When I was released it was like coming out of a cave. I couldn’t sleep and couldn’t trust anybody. I still have to fight hard to not think back to that mental torture.

For the taxpayer, it’s also a huge waste. I personally cost the taxpayer over £175,000. For what? That same money could have been spent on a caseworker, to work with me while my claim was assessed in the community. It could have been spent on the community.

For the government too, indefinite detention does not work. They tell me the policy is there to help stop re-offending and absconding. But after two, three, four years in detention, you are a mess when you come out. I remember the first time I had to go and report to sign at Beckett House after I had been released – I was so terrified of being returned to detention, I almost didn’t go.

We need changes. We have to put detention on trial. The current system does not work – for anybody. I will never get those three and a half years back, but there are others in detention, who have also been there for years. And the clock is still ticking for them.

It is time for a time limit on detention.

Looking beyond the border in Dover

By Fraser from Samphire.  Samphire are a member of the Detention Forum.

Dover Immigration Removal Centre stands above the town of Dover on its Western Heights, holding around 400 detainees. I work for Samphire, a charity in the town of Dover which provides emotional and practical support to those detainees in Dover and to ex-detainees nationwide.

Dover: on the cliffs

Perched on this hill facing the English channel, the weather plays a large part in the experience of detainees in Dover detention centre. On good days the sun splits through the wire and the fences and it feels airy and relatively bearable. You can see France sometimes, although that is easier to appreciate when your stay is for an afternoon rather than months or years. But in winter, the wind whips the rain into your face and your thoughts are not of France but of staying warm and dry.

The detention centre is built around a set of fortifications originally built to defend the country against Napoleon (complete with a moat). This, together with its location so close to France, makes it an easy metaphor for how many Dover residents see the UK’s immigration system – an outpost defending against foreign hordes. However, that metaphor ignores the complexities both of Dover and the detention centre that stands above it.

Long Stay irc signThe detention centre is not a simple processing point for those who come off the boats from Calais. In reality, most detainees we meet have been transferred there from another centre, or have been detained at one of their weekly signing appointments with the Home Office. Many have been in the UK for years and some for decades.

For many, particularly the stateless and unreturnable, they can face an arduous shuffle around the detention system that can take years with no time limit or sentence to count down to. For them Dover is anything but a point of arrival or departure.

Dover: in the town

Down in the town itself, tourists passing through Dover from France only glance at the picturesque Dover Castle perched on the white cliffs to the East as they drive through a town unable to thrive on its tourist attractions. So it’s little surprise they’re not aware of the detention centre hidden from sight on the hill to the West.

That oversight extends to most of the town’s residents as well. In this part of the country the most innocuous conversations turn to the topic of immigration with bewildering speed yet there seems little interest in the 400 migrant residents that Samphire work with. In our work and personal lives we hear the same views on migration that have been entrenched and reinforced by the media despite the fact that the truth of those affected by the immigration system stands so close to the residents. It’s hard not to feel that the more striking border is not between Calais and Dover but within Dover itself.

Between two Dovers: Samphire’s work

White-Cliffs-of-Dover1Since 2002 Samphire have organised for members of the local community to visit detainees in Dover to help ease the loneliness and stress inherent in immigration detention. We’ve then brought our experience the other way and we raise awareness in the local community using the insights gained from our work at Dover detention centre. In this way we hope to bridge the gap between these two sides of Dover.

Meanwhile Samphire’s Ex-Detainee Project provide support to many of those left in poverty and unable to work after release from detention. This serves as a reminder that detainees’ problems don’t end on release from detention – at which point fences and wire are replaced by electronic tags and the restraints of poverty.

We’ve also expanded our Detention Support work as the shrinking legal aid available and the complexity of the immigration and asylum system pose extreme challenges to the residents at Dover detention centre. We provide a link to solicitors and other services and we have a small Legal Project that tries to fill the increasing gaps in legal provision.

In the midst of this the Prison Service, who run the centre, express a genuine desire to maintain good conditions for detainees. However, we see in all areas of our work the toll immigration detention has on the wellbeing of detainees and their families. The difficulty of trying to maintain decency while detaining migrants indefinitely is something that we don’t see being resolved.

If you’d like more information about Samphire you can visit their website or follow them on twitter @samphire_