Detention knows no borders

This piece by Eiri Ohtani was first published on openDemocracy on 15 December 2014, as part of Unlocking Detention series.
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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 ?
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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. 

 

Immigration Detention and the Scottish Referendum

This post was written by Detention Forum Scotland, in response to the Detention Forum’s question of ‘what are your hopes for the detention inquiry in light of the ‘NO’ vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum.  This post originally appeared on the Detention Forum website on 29 September 2014.


 
Many organisations working within the field of migration, and the individuals whose lives are affected daily by UK immigration policy, waited with baited breath for the result of the recent Scottish Referendum. Emotions ran high, the air was tense, everywhere you turned there was talk and arguments laid out for one side or the other. A Scotland with a new and progressive immigration system seemed possible.

For the Detention Forum Scotland and the people held in Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre (Scotland’s only detention centre) the promise that, ‘In an independent Scotland, we will close Dungavel’ (Scotland’s Future, p271) was encouraging. Like every other policy change and promise the Scottish National Party (SNP) put forward in the run up to the referendum, there was scepticism and unanswered questions regarding what closing Dungavel actually meant for the people held there. What would the future hold for people whom Scotland still planned to remove? Nonetheless, it was a hugely progressive promise. A promise that moved Scotland’s potential immigration policy far from the attitude that prevails in Westminster. A promise that could show what more humane attitude towards immigration policy throughout the UK would look like.

As Scotland voted to remain part of the UK with a majority of 55%, this promise must not be left to fade away into a distant memory. The organisations and individuals who were waiting hopefully for change must keep hoping, talking, and raising awareness of immigration detention. The parliamentary inquiry has thus come at an opportune time. We see that this Inquiry is the place where these memories can be kept alive.

Detention Forum Scotland has held two meetings to discuss some of the submission of evidence from Scotland. From these meetings organisations including; Bridging the Gap (a community organisation in Glasgow), Scottish Detainee Visitors (SDV), Glasgow Refugee, Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet), Scottish Refugee Council, and the Refugee Women’s Strategy Group will be submitting written evidence. There have also been individuals who feel strongly about detention involved, including an immigration solicitor, community members and former detainees.

Some of these organisations have also supported individuals who are currently held in Dungavel to tell their stories. For SDV, supporting current detainees to get their voices heard was more problematic than was first expected. For some detainees the task of giving evidence was too emotionally draining. The detainees who wished to submit evidence faced a number of barriers in getting their voice out. Language barriers prevented them from writing submissions, poor phone reception prevented visitors from being able to talk over the phone to detainees and record their evidence. This left the detainees having to give evidence to an SDV visitor in the centre’s visit room. A room in which there is no privacy, officers are present at all times. It is deemed neither a safe space nor a confidential one in which detainees are able to give a full account of their experiences.

It is crucial to acknowledge these issues both in relation to the barriers that immigration detention creates in allowing the voices of detainees to be heard, but also as elements of immigration detainees’ daily, lived experiences. These conditions will be familiar, wherever people are detained in the UK. But for a while, we in Scotland were able to experience those conditions in the hope that they might come to an end. For some of us, this referendum was not about nationalism, but about something more hopeful and inclusive. This Inquiry now carries forward that hope.

No end to the horrors of detention

This piece by Ben du Preez was first published by openDemocracy on 1st December 2014.  Ben works at Detention Action and is a member of the Detention Forum Communications Working Group.
The invisibility of immigration detention centres and the trauma of detention has meant that the heavy psychological baggage many migrants bring back with them into UK communities following their release has also gone unseen and unaddressed.
Barbara, a young Nigerian woman, had sat in silence throughout the group-evidence session in Middlesbrough. She had listened intently as others had offered their testimonies, but had said nothing herself. Only at the end, when the discussion turned to the long-term impacts of detention, did Barbara speak: “The murder happens inside detention,” she said. “But they let you die outside.”
Barbara was giving evidence for a North-EastCommunity Submission to theParliamentary Inquiry into Immigration Detention. The inquiry has held three oral sessions so far, each one as harrowing as the last.  Former minister Sarah Teather and her cross-party panel of parliamentarians have heard from an acclaimed cast of policy experts, legal and medical practitioners, independent inspectors and migrants, like Barbara, with direct experiences of detention. Together, they have helped paint a vivid picture of the UK’s detention estate. Violent, unchecked, it is the picture of a system in crisis – one riddled with inadequacies, crippled by inefficiencies, subjugated by political priorities, almost wholly indifferent to the UK’s commitment to human rights, bloated andexpanding still.
To those of us who work with the people trapped within this system, it is both a deeply distressing and worryingly familiar portrait. And yet, this inquiry – jointly led by the All Party Parliamentary Groups on Refugees and Migration – has also shed light on some other, less well-documented (albeit equally unwelcome) realities facing migrants incarcerated in the UK. In a bid to go beyond the scope of previous parliamentary attempts to examine the use of immigration detention, the inquiry panel have sought to look at the detention system as a whole, and the journey through it from ‘beginning’ to ‘end’.
Trying to determine precisely when the end actually is the end, however, has proved illuminating in of itself. The key finding here is that one’s experience of detention does not necessarily come to a close when the gates of Colnbrook, or Campsfield, or Yarl’s Wood, finally swing open. In other words, there is no conclusive end to the horrors of detention. Or, as expert-by-experience Shariff poignantly put it in a recent piece for the Unlocking Detention tour entitled ‘A Letter to Harmondsworth‘: “Do you think that when I left Harmondsworth, Harmondsworth left me? I think about you guys every day.”
There has of course been extensive research into the brutal, sometimes lethal, psychological and emotional impact of immigration detention (see Medical Justice’s excellent ‘Second Torture‘ report, the Royal College of Psychiatrists’position paper on mental health in detention, or Jesuit Refugee Service Europe’s ‘Becoming Vulnerable in Detention‘ study, to name but a few). This has been supplemented by mounting evidence on the extent to which detention causes as well as exacerbates mental illness. Articles in this very series, have highlighted precisely how and why the safeguards in place to protect vulnerable migrants simply do not work. The truth is that the UK is generating a unique quantity of evidence on the harm done to migrants in detention and no-one can plead ignorance.
But whilst research into the emotional impact of detention has understandably focused on the deterioration of mental health in and/or during detention, much less has been done to explore what Dr. Katy Robjant and Professor Cornelius Katona of the Helen Bamber Foundation have referred to as the ‘longitudinal impact of detention on mental health, as well as the subsequent social acculturation process’ post-release. To their credit, the inquiry panel have specifically attempted to address this issue. Included in their list of prompts for those submitting evidence was the call for information about “the longer-term impacts of detention on you, your family and/or your wider community.”
The event attended by Barbara was just one of several group-evidence sessions across the UK organised by Detention Action in collaboration with other members of the Detention Forum.  It was shocking to hear participants speak about the extent to which detention continues to exert a mental toll on their everyday life. In some instances, participants were still feeling the effect of their experience of detention years after they had been released. Many felt as if they had never left.
Esther said that after five months in Yarl’s Wood (over two years ago) she still heard the sound of doors slamming and keys turning every few minutes. Gabriel, a male survivor of trafficking, noted how three years of sitting in the shadows of Colnbrook had altered his sensitivity to light and almost a year on, he only felt comfortable in dark spaces. Others reported problems with memory recall, mental disorientation and repeated flashbacks: “Even now, I am not really out of detention. It is still with me. Every night I think of Colnbrook. I have night-terrors.”
Abdal, an activist from Sudan, stressed that detention in itself was a site of extreme trauma, comparable in its lasting effect to his previous experiences of torture: “Detention is harder than physical torture. And it never ends, even when you are out.  Even now, I am now in total depression. I think about detention all the time and I am on seventeen different kinds of medication.” Such psychological suffering has subsequently made re-integration into families, friendships, and local communities extremely difficult for many people. Numerous participants spoke about how detention had affected their ability to socially interact with others post-release:  “Because you have been kept locked up for no reason, against your will, and all of the staff in detention are there to deport you, you don’t trust anyone. When I came out I realised how scared I was of other people.” In turn, those welcoming back loved-ones also, inadvertently, bare the emotional scars of detention.  A woman from Newcastle told us how detention had not just changed her husband, it had transformed him. “Now he sleeps all day. He cannot remember anything. He is not himself. This experience [detention] has ruined us.”
Underlying all of these testimonies was the sense that there simply was not enough structured support – emotional, practical, and financial – for individuals who had experienced the trauma of detention. Amadou, now based in Gateshead, said he felt like a ‘new-born baby’ when he was released, unable to care for himself: “I was there for years in detention. I am institutionalised, I know it. Now no-one helps me with that grief. I have got to process everything that was done to me on my own. It is impossible. I have lost everything. I need help.” Mohammed from Algeria expressed disbelief that, after detention had left his mental health in tatters, he was the one who had to pay for his own healthcare, not the Home Office: “The Home Office detained me for no reason, gave me mental health issues, released me, and then made me pay for my own treatment.”
This testimony-based snapshot of the ‘longitudinal’ impact of detention is rudimentary and unscientific but it issues several warnings nonetheless. First and foremost, there is clearly a need for more research into the long-term impact of detention on migrants released back into British society – on them as individuals, but also on the families and communities they are returning to.
Second is the relevance of trying to understand detention as trauma. Many of those individuals who have experienced detention in the UK clearly continue to demonstrate symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other depressive disorders – such as flashbacks, panic attacks, feelings of incapacitation, anger, and anxiety – long after leaving detention. (This, incidentally, echoes research in Australia which found that mental health effects persist for a prolonged period after detention, independent of other established predictors of psychiatric morbidity in migrants, such as past exposure to trauma.) The fear here is that, as is the case with many other kinds of trauma, proper rehabilitation following detention could take an extremely long time and even then, might only be possible if accompanied by a degree of mental, physical and financial stability. For those recently released from detention in the UK, that is highly unlikely.
Instead, after having been warehoused in prison-like conditions for an indefinite period of time – maybe four months, maybe four years – they are much more likely to find themselves unceremoniously dumped back into the community as if nothing had happened. They will be housed far away from friends and family. They will receive inadequate financial support, inappropriate or no accommodation, and will be refused the right to work. Some will be strapped with electronic tags and governed by strict curfews. All will be expected to pick themselves up even though the odds of reintegration are crudely stacked against them. Such a lack of support only serves to compound the sense of vulnerability, powerlessness and isolation that defined life in detention.
The reality is that, unless someone tragically dies in detention, the suffering that takes place there usually goes unnoticed. Detention centres have long been our immigration system’s ‘black-sites’; kept at arm’s length from the general public, out of sight, out of mind. For many years, this invisibility has meant that, following their release, the heavy psychological baggage many migrants bring back with them into the community has also gone unseen, unappreciated, unpacked.
Perhaps, until now. For just as the Parliamentary Inquiry has highlighted the ongoing ill-effects of detention on individuals long after their release into the community, so too has it provoked a response from the communities themselves. For every participant with direct experience of detention at the group-evidence sessions we helped run, there was another who had never stepped foot in an IRC. They were there because they knew someone – maybe a family member, maybe a friend, neighbour, or a member of their church or mosque – who had been deeply affected by detention and they wanted to find out why. They were there because they represented local organisations who, in the absence of any structured governmental reintegration support, were trying to identify the needs of those recently released from detention. They were there because, like so many of us, they wanted an end.

Women in detention – a troubling reality

This blog post was written by Rosa Heimer, an intern at René Cassin – a charity working to promote and protect universal human rights, drawing on Jewish experience and values, and a member of the Detention Forum.

A considerably high number of women seek asylum in the UK on the grounds of gender-based persecution. Among those cases, the specific reason to claim asylum often relates to their past experiences of rape, torture and/or other forms of sexual abuses. The physical and psychological trauma arising from such experiences often leaves them in an extremely vulnerable position, which only deteriorates further when put through the detention system.

Although the detention of women who have suffered severe gender-based harm is unacceptable, it remains a common practice in the UK. A recent study by the organisation Women for Refugee Women (WRW) with 46 women who experienced detention while seeking asylum in the UK has found that 52% of those women felt that they were persecuted because they were women, while 18% felt they were persecuted because they were lesbians. An even more disturbing figure is that 33 of those women (72%) had been detained despite having been victims of rape.

‘Worse than prison’

The experience of being locked up in a detention centre has often been compared to being worse than being in prison, largely due to the uncertainty of not knowing how long they will be in detention or when they might suddenly be deported. An ex-detainee who spent 2 years in detention and was interviewed by René Cassin said that:

Detention is exactly like in prison but I would say even worse. I can tell because I spent 6 months in prison but prison is better than detention for two reasons. In prison I felt more useful because I was repaying my debt to the society and I was also working there. In prison, I knew when my detention will end; it even ended before because of my well behaviour. But in detention, you never know when it will end, you just wait and you are put from a centre to another.  [Ex-detainee]

In the particular case of women, many of who have sought asylum due to rape and torture, being imprisoned in a detention centre is doubly distressing if they go on to receive further discrimination according to their gender. WRW’s study reported that 61% of women had suicidal thoughts, 93% were depressed, 83% were lonely and 85% felt scared while in detention.

Compelling evidence

As part of René Cassin’s work, we collected testimonies from migrants who have experienced detention to be submitted as written evidence for the Parliamentary Detention Inquiry. Those willing to retell their stories have been brave enough to denounce the inhumane conditions of detention centres. Among the recounted stories, lack of gender sensitivity in detention and the serious damage it can cause on women appeared as a recurrent issue.

The testimony given by Clair to René Cassin powerfully illustrates some of these seriously unacceptable issues. Clair had been victim of sexual abuse by close family members since the early age of 17, after her father died she received death threats from her brothers and fled to the UK to seek asylum. Here in the UK her asylum claim was denied even though she was a victim of sexual violence. She was finally receiving appropriate help from the organisation Rape Crisis, when she was detained and sent to Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre. Clair’s description of the conditions and mistreatment found in this centre and their impact on her is disturbing:

The way I was treated in detention was inhuman and degrading. I can never exactly explain how awful it was because I was physically and psychologically mistreated in detention. The conditions of detention are so awful that my health, especially my mental health, started deteriorating very quickly. I had nightmares, sleep disturbance, difficulties to eat and suicidal thoughts. [Clair, ex-detainee]

Despite being a victim of sexual violence, during her time in detention Clair never had access to counselling, even after several suicide attempts.  She describes the precarious access to health care in the centre:

In detention centres you don’t have real access to doctors, it’s just a formal access to respect the rules. When you manage to have an appointment, the doctors are there, in the room, you can see them but you cannot speak to them. You are just allowed to speak to a nurse but never directly to the doctors, the nurses always speak on your behalf and you have a limited amount of time so you can’t explain everything. […] Also even after my suicide attempts, I never had access to counselling or to psychiatric or psychological care. I was never able to speak to a psychiatrist or a psychologist to tell how I feel and I was just receiving medication despite the fact that I was in suicide watch.  [Clair, ex-detainee]

Male guards

It is clear that detention centres present a lack of appropriate health treatment for victims of sexual violence and women detainees in general. Furthermore, although the Yarl’s Wood Centre is a detention centre for women, it is predominantly staffed by male guards. The relation between detainees and guards is already intrinsically hierarchical and unequal gender relations only reinforce these dynamics.

WRW’s research found that 70% of women, guarded by male staff reported feeling uncomfortable. In addition, in Yarl’s Wood, it is common practice that male guards enter women detainees’ rooms without previous warning, clearly violating their right to privacy and often catching them while still undressed. Clair, for example, suffered a shocking humiliating attempt of deportation in which she was taken out of her room by several male guards while still being naked:

… in one attempt to remove me from the UK, I was dragged naked out of my room by several male guards. The conditions of my deportation were so shocking that it led to spontaneous protests by more than 100 woman detainees from the Yarl’s Wood detention centre. [Clair, ex-detainee]

The predominance of male guards in Yarl’s Wood Centre especially puts at risk those women who are the most psychologically vulnerable, namely, those who have attempted suicide. The centre operates a so-called ‘suicide watch’ system which is highly controversial. During the first UK Parliamentary Detention Inquiry oral evidence session, on 17th July 2014, two women previously detained in Yarl’s Wood Centre spoke about the way in which ‘suicide watch’ creates the conditions for women’s sexual harassment.

Because I’m very angry about the suicide watch so I have to say a little bit about it. Suicide watch, I think, they just made it to put you under even more mental torture. If you’re on suicide watch and your health is not good, but it’s not that bad, suicide watch can make it more bad. And I can tell you, anybody who is suicide watch has sexual harassment in Yarl’s Wood, because those male guards they sit in there watching you at night, sleeping and being naked.’  [Maimuna Jawo, ex-detainee]1

Alice who experienced first-hand sexual harassment while being in suicide watch also confirms Maimuna’s statements when giving her oral evidence in the Parliamentary Inquiry:

Yes, it’s true sometimes when you are washing, you need to remove something or, even if you need to go to the toilet, the guard will stay. After they are staying they are laughing and they are saying “she have big boobs”, “She have big breasts”. They are just laughing between themselves; they are just looking at you. [Alice, ex-detainee]2

Ongoing ordeal

Women with a history of sexual abuses and suicidal tendencies should not be kept in detention in the first place but this is even truer when the conditions in detention subject them to sexual harassment. Traumatising experiences with male guards are recurrently reported by women in detention. In WRW’s study 50% of women said they were verbally abused by male staff, three women reported being physically assaulted, and even more shockingly, one woman said she was sexually assaulted3.

It is outrageous that women asylum seekers fleeing their country due to persecution based on their gender are likely to suffer persecution based on this same aspect of their identity while in detention. In reality their persecution rarely ceases once they arrive in the UK, but is further perpetuated by the asylum system. The UK detention system is in need of urgent review.


1. APPG on Refugees and APPG on Migration Joint Parliamentary Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention. 1st Oral Evidence Session. July 17th 2014. Available here.

2. APPG on Refugees and APPG on Migration Joint Parliamentary Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention. 1st Oral Evidence Session. July 17th 2014. Available here.

3. Women for Refugee Women, ‘Detained: Women Asylum Seekers Locked Up in the UK’ by Marchu Girma, Sophie Radice, Natasha Tsangarides and Natasha Walter. Available here.

Artwork courtesy of Detention Action – created by an individual who has experienced detention first-hand.

Helping the Other: particular experiences, universal outlooks

This article by Shauna Leven and Sam Grant was published as part of Unlocking Detention series on Open Democracy.  Photo credit – Regional Refugee Forum North East
London’s synagogues have set up drop-in centres for destitute asylum seekers and are campaigning to end immigration detention. Shauna Leven and Sam Grant explore how the British Jewish community uses its particular history to motivate its work with migrants in 2014.
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‘You don’t have to delve back more than two generations in the Jewish community to find first-hand experience of seeking asylum due to persecution.’  This was the common answer from volunteers at the New North London Synagogue and West London Synagogue Drop-In-Centres when we asked them about the monthly drop-in centres which they have set up to assist local refugees. The centres provide resources and advice to people from over fifty countries every month.
‘No one should live like this.’  This was the answer given by a man at one such drop-in centre when asked why he was willing to give testimony to a UK parliamentary inquiry about his traumatic experiences in detention. This man, like thousands of others, was locked up in the UK, simply for being a migrant, as part of the UK’s increasingly harsh immigration control system.
The answers to the two questions are innately connected. Personal and particular experiences inform universal outlooks. The individuals willing to give testimony did so because they did not want anybody else to go through what they had. The responses of the volunteers at these two synagogue drop-in centres were also rooted in personal family stories of fleeing countries and arriving in a strange place.
Although the media tends to be dominated by polling about the UK’s increasingly harsh attitudes towards refugees and migrants, an important but overlooked dimension is to examine the motives of those who have a sympathetic response. We need to ask ourselves, how can we encourage others to look to their own experience for motivation to support the rights of others?
Defending the dignity of asylum
The Jewish community uses its particular history to motivate its work on asylum and detention issues. This is why René Cassin, the UK Jewish human rights organisation, is committed to working with the Detention Forum and other NGOs featured in this series to bring an end to indefinite detention.
‘Indefinite detention’ according to the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT), should be used ‘only as a last resort’. Yet, the UK is the only country in Europe where the policy of indefinite detention is common place. As documented by H in an article last week, this means that any individual arriving in the UK can end up staying in prison-like detention facilities with no certainty as to when they might be released even though they have broken no laws. There is an important difference between administrative and immigration detention and criminal detention. Asylum seekers and immigrants are detained under immigration rules, rather than criminal law.
The power of testimony
For the past few months members of the René Cassin team have collected testimonies from people who have been through the UK detention system to be submitted as evidence for the UK’s first parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention. The stories they told were hard to hear and certainly harder to tell. All the testimonies contain unique suffering and harm but the unifying element of the experience was the dehumanising nature of the whole process, or as one man we interviewed described: ‘I was just carried like an object in the back of a van, from one place to another because l am a detainee and have no right or reason to know where l am taken.’
The West London Synagogue Drop-In-Centre and the New North London Synagogue Drop-In-Centre for Destitute Asylum Seekers are tangible illustrations of the British Jewish community’s commitment to turn a particular Jewish experience into a universal outlook of ensuring equal opportunities, freedoms and rights for everyone. Both Drop-In-Centres help support people who have been through the detention system, those living in fear of the detention system and those who are still dealing and being affected by the numerable negative economic and psychological effects – the ‘crisis of harm’as Jerome Phelps has called it – caused by our current detention system.
Every month these venues provide hot meals, vouchers for groceries, clothes, legal signposting, counselling, medical treatment, clothes and, perhaps most importantly, a safe place for people who are often shunned by the wider community. The atmosphere of the centres stand in stark contrast to the previous experiences of those who were in detention where the conditions were so bad one man stated that ‘It is so terrible that I would not wish even my enemy to be detained.’
The Drop-In-Centres are completely manned by volunteers, the majority hailing from the Jewish community. The people who attend these drop-in centres have often fled life-threatening circumstances, experienced rape and/or torture and have chosen destitution over deportation because they fear for their lives if they are returned home.
Our visits to the drop-in centres and the conversations we had with people who made use of them demonstrated the amazing and invaluable work done by both of these institutions. However, despite the incredibly important service that these centres and others just like them provide every month, it is important that we simultaneously attempt to tackle the root causes that create dependency upon them. History teaches us that the end goal is not charity, but common justice.
An unfair and unjust system
In an ideal world these centres wouldn’t need to exist. Many of the people we spoke to, even though no longer physically in detention, were shackled economically by not being legally entitled to work. These economic constraints supplement the psychological damages that were caused or exacerbated by their treatment whilst in detention. As one woman who testified revealed ‘I still have mental health problems and suicidal thoughts and I’m still not free because I still have to report every week and I don’t have the right to work or study here.’ The Drop-In-Centres provide a lifeline for many, but the necessity of this lifeline is created by the restrictive and punitive structures of the immigration detention system in Britain.
These centres provide crucial help to individuals affected by an unfair and unjust system. It is an inefficient system in which the dramatic increase in the numbers of migrants detained has led to no increase in the numbers of removals from the UK. It is a system in which 76 million pounds of UK taxpayers money is spent on detaining people who are ultimately released. It is a system in which children are damaged, women are sexually abused and the mentally ill are disregarded. Ultimately, it is a system in which, as of May 2014, 26 people had lost their lives. What does it say about us if we stand by and watch as others are dehumanised?
The power of empathy
There are alternatives to this system, alternatives that save money and save lives. The UK is the only country in Europe that enforces a policy of indefinite administrative detention. States that have tried working with migrants in the community have found that most comply voluntarily with immigration requirements and one only has to look at the examples of Australia or Sweden to see the benefits of this system over ours. These countries have introduced systems that achieve their desired goals, avoid substantial financial layouts and respect the rights of individuals to a far greater extent than indefinite detention.
It is currently unknown what the parliamentary inquiry will conclude, although any decision that takes into account human rights obligations must call for the end of indefinite detention. We would like to see the introduction in Britain of the best recent practice in Europe, following guidance from the Joint Committee on Human Rights of a limitation to detention of 28 days.
The Jewish community’s response to the effects of detention is laudable, as is the personal reaction of those who having gone through detention are committed to bringing about its end. The end goal is to ensure that no-one should have to go through this particular experience. We all have experiences that we can mobilise to place ourselves in the shoes of others, whether personal or second hand. Empathy may just be a radical tool in the struggle to secure justice for migrants and refugees in Britain.

Unlocking Detention in Liverpool and Manchester

Estelle Worthington is Regional Activism Co-ordinator, North West. She writes about how local organisations came together to collect evidence for the ongoing parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention.  
Over the last month, I’ve had the opportunity to hear many tales about people’s experiences in detention. Some will stay with me for a long, long time.
As an Activism Co-ordinator, I get people involved in campaigns to defend the rights of people seeking asylum in the UK. Our main focus is on improving decision making so more people get the protection they need; raising asylum support rates so people can afford the basics and aren’t forced to live in poverty; permission to work so people seeking asylum can support themselves and live in dignity; and ensuring everybody gets equal access to healthcare in the UK. Poor decision making at the Home Office coupled with limited access to good legal advice means many people who seek asylum reach the end of the process without their protection needs being recognised. At this point they are forced into destitution. Many of these individuals are also at risk of being detained. Indeed, at the end of December 2013, 2,796 people were being held in immigration detention centres across the UK and 48% of all immigration detainees were people seeking asylum. That’s an astounding proportion.
When I heard about the Parliamentary Inquiry on Detention I felt it was a huge opportunity to bring these injustices to light. So, throughout September, I helped local groups host evidence-gathering events in Manchester and Liverpool. A staggering 80 people got involved in sharing their experiences in the hope it will change things for the better. Some had themselves been in detention for many months. Others were friends, family and supporters who’d visited their loved ones in detention.
Teaming up with WAST, United for Change, Manchester Migrant Solidarity and the Boaz Trust in Manchester helped us reach a huge range of people, many of whom have been campaigning on detention matters much longer than I have. Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST), for example, have been at the forefront of calls for an independent inquiry into the abuse of female detainees in Yarl’s Wood. In fact, just a few days after our evidence-gathering event, they were out petitioning Labour Party Conference go-ers for support.
In Liverpool, our event took place at Asylum Link – a drop-in centre that provides advice and friendship to asylum seekers and refugees and is a real life-line in Liverpool. We just about managed to squeeze everybody into the packed room and this connection with Asylum Link helped us ensure new arrivals to the city – some of whom had been held in the detained fast track system – could come and share their experiences.
There was such a sense of solidarity at these events, of people bearing witness to each others experiences, and there were a surprising number of people willing to speak up and share their stories. So much so that in the weeks following the events it was quite a daunting task for myself and a gang of dedicated volunteers to pull together everything we’d heard. This was also when we went out and met people one-to-one to record their full testimonies. I’d like to say a special thank you, here, to all those who so bravely came forward to share their story. This is far from easy. And, while the inquiry’s recommendations and the response of the government are ultimately beyond our control, we assure you that we will be doing everything we can to make sure your voices are heard.
So, what did people tell us?
Well, firstly, without exception, they expressed the feeling that at a fundamental level, detaining asylum seekers is simply wrong. They told us that the idea of depriving a person of their liberty – a person who has come to the UK for safety and has committed no crime – is incomprehensible. The Home Office does not set a time limit on how long a person should stay in detention, meaning some can be left to languish there for years. There were many things that former detainees and their supporters said damaged the mental health of people in detention, but aside from the lasting fear that being seized without warning can cause, it was the indefinite length of time in detention that they felt had the most impact. Not knowing when you’ll get out or whether the Home Office is making moves to deport you was described by several people as mental torture. Others spoke about the unbearable strain this put on their relationships with family and friends.
I have friends who’ve been detained, and I’ve witnessed the panic and sense of powerlessness that hits their family and friends when they hear the news. Staying in touch with someone in detention is hard. Your phone is taken away if it has a camera, and there can be a long wait before you can get credit to make calls. There are long waiting lists for legal aid funded solicitors or, failing that, there’s often a mad scramble while your supporters scrape together enough money to pay for a private adviser.
Many people enter detention with health problems. Yet many of those who shared their evidence with us spoke about being separated from essential prescription medication like asthma inhalers. Others said that detention centre medical staff often acted with indifference towards their requests for help. People experiencing mental ill health often said the response of staff made things worse rather than better. Those put on ‘suicide watch’ spoke about being followed and watched 24/7 – including when using the toilet – leading to loss of dignity and sometimes a sense of paranoia.
The detention of vulnerable people seems commonplace in UK detention centres. We heard many examples of pregnant women, elderly people and survivors of torture in detention. Some participants also told us they feel that being detained in itself makes people vulnerable. This is because people experience a decline in their general mental wellbeing in detention, and because detainees can be vulnerable to sexual exploitation and physical abuse. Amongst the most shocking evidence we heard was about the sexual abuse of female detainees at Yarl’s Wood. There were also accounts of excessive force used by officers when they are deporting people, and several people also spoke about the dangers posed to vulnerable asylum seekers by being forced to share rooms with convicted criminals who are due to be deported.
There are a huge number of things that need to change about the detention system. But more broadly, while detention clearly undermines human rights, it also makes no economic sense. I’ve heard that keeping one person in detention costs the taxpayer as much as £50,000 a year. Imagine how else that could be spent. Imagine what it would be like if that kind of investment was put into ensuring everybody gets to see a good legal adviser when they first make a claim for asylum… Imagine what people’s experience of seeking protection in the UK would be like if decision making were improved… Imagine what it would be like if people seeking asylum were allowed to work to support themselves.
It was heartening to hear about the court ruling in July that deemed the Detained Fast Track procedure  unlawful. But there is much much more yet to be done.

Kuka on the Parliamentary Inquiry

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


In 2008, the Independent Asylum Commission did an assessment of the UK’s asylum system. They decided it was time for a ‘root and branch review’.

I arrived in the UK in 2012 and I was put on the Detained Fast Track after I claimed asylum. My time in at Harmondsworth detention centre was hell. It was mental torture. I suffered greatly. If the conditions I experienced were after four years of progress, then the situation back in 2008 must have been unimaginably bad. It is clear the ‘root and branch review’ stayed on paper. Its recommendations were ignored. And the people who would have been affected by those recommendations – people like me – were forgotten.

And that is why I have mixed feelings about the ongoing Parliamentary Inquiry on Detention.

In many ways, the Inquiry is a great step forward. It is different to other investigations because it looks at detention as a whole – not just children in detention, or the Detained Fast Track, or legal access. This is important because detention in the UK is an industry. Everything is connected. From bad decision making to poorly trained staff. From safeguards that don’t work to rubbish healthcare. From violent removals to greedy private investors. It is a spider-web. I hope this Inquiry can show how these are all linked together.

This Inquiry has also put people like me, with experiences of detention, at the centre. It is easy to make decisions that impact people you never have to see. Or whose stories you don’t have to hear. But it is much more difficult when you must look those people in the eye and listen to the way that detention ruined their lives. I was there at the first evidence session in Parliament in July. I could see how shaken the cross-party panel of Parliamentarians were listening to people tell their stories.

It was important for the MPs to listen but it was also important for us to speak out and not be silenced by the Home Office. For this Inquiry to be a success, it needs to involve the detainee and ex-detainee’s voice at every stage. We are experts-by-experience. They need to take on our testimonies but they also need to take on our recommendations.

What scares me is the thought that this will just be another report. Like the one in 2008. And all the Independent Monitoring Board reports. And all the reports from the Independent Chief Inspectors. And all the reports from charities and NGOs. I am worried it will also just stay on paper. I am worried there will be no action. Because the truth is that we already have lots of evidence to make an informed decision.

How many more deaths in detention before we realise we need a change? How many more mental breakdowns? How many more people on hunger-strike? How many more self-harmers? How many more cases of sexual harassment? How many families broken? How many more lives ruined?

I have a friend who gave evidence in the first oral session. He is a survivor of torture and was trafficked as a child. He has been diagnosed with PTSD and doctors have told the Home Office many times he should not be in detention. He has been locked away for over three years. On no charge.

I hope that for him, and others like him still in detention, this Inquiry will end up being more than just a nice read. I hope it will bring real change.


The art of listening?

By Eiri from the Detention Forum

Yesterday morning, I joined colleagues from Right to Remain, Detention Action and JRS UK who nervously gathered at the JRS UK’s headquarter in east London.  We had a reason to be nervous.

Last month, the Co-ordination Group of the Detention Forum produced guides for individuals and groups to encourage others to take part in the parliamentary detention inquiry.  Because the inquiry panel is keen to hear directly from people with experience of detention and because we knew how rare it is for these people to be given an opportunity to speak up for themselves, we hastily put together these guides on how to collect evidence from individuals.  Having suggested others what to do without trying it ourselves first felt rather irresponsible.  So we were going to figure out whether our guides actually work in practice.  We have already heard from groups who have used the guides and said they were helpful.  Now, were they just being polite or do they really work?

We were also joined by The Forum based in west London, some of whose users have experienced detention.  They are not a member of the Detention Forum, and this was particularly welcomed.  We don’t “own” detention issues – no one does.  So, from our point of view, the more groups and individuals raise their voice against detention, the better.

A total of six people with experience of detention attended the session.  We divided ourselves into two small groups, each supported by a facilitator and a scribe.  I was tasked to take photos and compose live tweets.

Before the session started, I got talking to A over coffee, who was in detention for years.  The first thing he asked me was if I knew what actually happened at Morton Hall over the weekend.  After hearing my summary of several media articles I read, he shook his head saying ‘Nothing changes.  Nothing changes.’  He then explained to me how he was in detention when someone sadly passed away.  I asked him how he found that out. ‘Everyone started banging the door like this.’  He gestured the banging motion with his fist.  ‘We knew straight away something terrible happened. It was crazy.’  He then told me about how the police in riot gear came and the frightening atmosphere that ensured.

B, at this point, joined in the conversation.  I know he has been slightly sceptical about the inquiry, and probably for a good reason.  Catching the end of A’s sentence, he said ‘We tell them what’s wrong and they do nothing.’  We discussed how so much evidence that shows harm of detention is already out there.  We talked about the need to make recommendations and be clear about what we want to see changed.

As the session started, the facilitator asked everyone to introduce themselves.  A was the first to go.  ‘My name is A.  I am an ex-detainee’.  This was already painful to hear, that A decided to define himself by his experience of detention.  Whenever possible, I personally refuse to use the words ‘detainees’ and ‘ex-detainees’ to describe people with experience of detention.  Why should they be defined by the forms and practices of domination meted out by the state?

But before I had time to regain composure, the next person, very hesitantly said in a small voice, ‘My name is C.  I am … also an ex-detainee’.  Asking people to share their personal experiences often raises ethical and moral issues.  I felt complicit in making C identify with something that she might not rather not think about if she had a choice.  I also wished that the parliamentary panel could hear that gap in C’s sentence and the way her voice diminished as she finished her sentence.

In the following two hours or so, I was busy tweeting in between fetching water for the participants and looking out for later comers.   I wished I was able to convey not just the words people used, but how they were said – 140 character-limit of tweets made it impossible to do other than just picking some phrases.  These words were not always angry.  They were more often than not dignified, even when people were sharing their inner most pains, stigma and shame.  It was clear that these people all in their own way resisted and ‘fought’ detention, the system which constantly tried to dehumanise them.  They refused to be degraded.  They did not make themselves into ‘heroes’ and ‘heroines’ when sharing these details: they plainly explained that it was just how they survived.

I was also struck by how respectful they were of each other, giving each other space to talk.  Unlike many meetings that I have attended in my life, no one talked over the others.  No one dominated the conversation.  There was no ‘competition’ to see who had the loudest voice.  They actually listened to each other.

After saying goodbyes, I sat down with my colleagues.  We were all completely drained after such intense hours.  It made me reflect on the constant demand we make on people with experience of detention to talk, in a bid to change people’s minds about immigration detention.  We were now in possession of their words.  And the responsibility to relay them to the outside world felt heavy.  I hope people actually listen to their words – because if you really listened to what they said, you would never be able to believe that status quo is an option.