Mustapha is a young ambassador on the Red Cross’ Surviving to Thriving project, which supports refugees and asylum seekers aged 11 to 25 in Birmingham, Leeds and Peterborough who don’t have parents or guardians in the UK. He described how he ‘stopped feeling’ when he fled Morocco and how he regained his confidence and dignity after and during his very challenging life events, including being detained at Morton Hall immigration detention centre.
My name is Mustapha and as a young man, I lost everything to be able to follow the religion of my choice. I left my life in Morocco to seek protection in the UK, but instead, I found myself in detention. It’s been 2 years since I arrived in the UK and my asylum case has been refused several times. From my experience, I can tell you that persecution is not always physical, it can also be mental. And the second is no less dangerous than the first.
Here is my story
My struggle with mental health started the day I decided to convert from Islam to Christianity. From that moment on, I started to lose everything that has always been essential in my life. I lost Allah with whom I grew up and worshipped. I lost my country and my community, where many people now wish me dead. The most difficult to accept is that I lost my family. When my mother said, “I wish you died before telling me because for me you just died today“, I felt my heart being crushed a thousand times.
Losing my faith
When I began to question the religion I had grown up with, the religion of my family, the religion that had been the source of great comfort for me as a young man, it was like questioning my entire identity. Admitting to myself that I was losing my faith shook my foundations and I no longer knew who I was. This was a very hard period of my life.
Scared of being found out
Having lost such an important part of myself, all I wanted was the support of my family and my community, but unfortunately that wasn’t to be. I began to suffer from extreme anxiety and had to look left and right every time I left my house, expecting somebody to come with a knife and stab me. Whenever someone called my name my heart trembled.
I left my country in July 2017 to save my own life. I fled from the house. That was when I stopped feeling.
Denied and detained
When I arrived in the UK I was 23, but I felt like a child. Thankfully, I found the church. I met a priest who heard my story and told me about asylum. They adopted me and treated me like one of them. Now, when someone uses the term ‘family’, I think about my church family.
For a while, I felt like life was improving. But then my asylum claim was refused by the Home Office and I was detained. I cannot describe the feeling of being ‘denied’ by the country that you have sought protection in. Suddenly nowhere feels safe. They wanted to send me back to Morocco. I spent almost two months in detention without knowing what my crime was. My life rocked and deteriorated. Alone in my cell, I stayed awake at night and slept during the day. I was depressed, undead.
When I was transported to another detention centre, they put me in a prisoner’s vehicle with three other asylum seekers in four separate cells. The cell inside the vehicle was dark and exactly the size of the chair I was sitting on. The journey lasted three hours and I screamed for help the whole way. That day, I discovered I had claustrophobia.
In detention, my flashbacks and nightmares grew worse until I was eventually discharged. It was at this stage that I attempted to take my own life.
Finding the Red Cross
I will always consider it a blessing the day I came across the Red Cross. They have helped me beyond words. They have helped me find a solicitor who is helping me to access the legal support I need. They have also helped me to access weekly therapy sessions, so that I can start to deal with my trauma. Without the Red Cross, I would have struggled to access my rights in this country and would have had to rely on the generosity of the church.
Through the Red Cross’ Surviving to Thriving project, I have been reminded that I have a voice and can influence my destiny and future. They have even given me the opportunity to speak to policymakers about my issues! During Refugee Week, I attended a parliamentary event as a Refugee Ambassador and spoke to 58 MPs about my experience. It felt wonderful to have such important people listen to what I had to say! I am regaining my independence and confidence in who I am and I’m so grateful for that.
Hope through adversity
My asylum claim is still pending and my future is uncertain, but I am determined to challenge the feeling of uncertainty and take advantage of what I have. I gained Level 2 in Community Interpreting (Arabic – English – French) and am now studying Theology. To other young refugees and asylum seekers struggling with their mental health, I would say don’t waste time or lose hope. Never be ashamed to talk to people about how you feel and let them help you.
Now I am full of optimism and I will not let my situation or mental health issues come between me and my dreams.
Morton Hall immigration detention centre is one of the lesser known centres. This blog shares some of the impressions of this particular detention centre which are hard to capture by simply reading monitoring reports. Ali McGinely is Director of AVID, the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees, and one of the Coordination Group members of the Detention Forum. Eiri Ohtani is Project Director of the Detention Forum. Ali and Eiri have worked closely together over 10 years, initially sharing a small office room together!
By Ali McGinley and Eiri Ohtani
Access to places of detention is limited, either by their isolated location, the barbed wire that surrounds many of them, or by security rules that make visiting seem as though you’re entering a prison. By contrast, if you visit the website of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP), you will find a rich source of data on daily life in detention in the very detailed, and in some ways exacting, reports of their inspections of immigration detention centres. Photographs in the reports give us a glimpse of what it looks like inside: they are all pretty disturbing, heightened by that clash of colour schemes only found in institutional settings. Monitoring reports are also produced annually by the Independent Monitoring Boards (IMB).
It is rare for any country to have two statutory bodies which monitor immigration detention: often colleagues outside the UK, who face great difficulties obtaining detention related data, envy us for it. While HMIP and IMB’s inspection frameworks and methodologies are different, these official reports, put together, provide a degree of transparency about how Morton Hall is run and what it is like.
For many for whom immigrate detention is an abstract concept, the detention centres might appear indistinguishable from one another. But Morton Hall stands out. For one thing, it is the only remaining centre run by HM Prison Service. The fact that other detention centres are run by private security companies with profit motives rightly attracts much criticism. It is hard to know whether this direct connection to prisons makes any difference to public perceptions of the place. But there are certain differences we do notice: for example, there is more information in the public domain about the costs, and the way in which it is run.
What the reports cannot convey, however, is the sense of isolation that dominates Morton Hall. Located in Lincolnshire, the closest village is Swinderby, with 773 residents. Morton Hall very much ‘feels’ like a prison, both in its infrastructure and the regime followed inside. Of course, all detention centres feel like prisons inside – there is no doubt about that. But Morton Hall – like Dover and the Verne which have since closed down – actually look like prisons from outside too. You can see this as you approach the centre from far away, unlike the purpose-built centres beside the airports in the south. In fact, it was an RAF base, until 1985 when it became a prison, and an IRC in 2011.
The isolation is exacerbated by the limited visiting hours, often less than three hours a day. It is good to see that this isolation is recognised and attempts made to reduce it by providing a free taxi service to and from Lincoln and Newark rail stations, although you have to book it 24 hours in advance. Needless to say, individuals’ experiences of Morton Hall are also hard to capture in these reports, but we have collected vivid testimonies of Morton Hall which might help to increase people’s understanding of the place.
Inside Morton Hall, all the rooms other than the induction wing are single rooms, whereas most other centres are shared rooms. Morton Hall is the only detention centre to outsource its welfare provision, which is run by Lincolnshire Action Trust. Previously, this welfare service, along with provision for visits and the visits hall, had been delivered by a local organisation called Children’s Links.
‘Off the radar’
There is often speculation that Morton Hall is used as a ‘testing ground’ for pilot projects, because of its physical distance from the other centres, and because it is the only centre that is publicly run. These pilots have included screening for people with a learning disability, or trying out new approaches to monitoring those at risk of self-harm (ACDT).
There is also speculation, commonly discussed but with no concrete evidence that we are aware of, that people deemed ‘problematic’ in the widest sense – whether for health reasons, behaviour, or perhaps complex cases – are sent to Morton Hall.
Morton Hall’s isolation has always meant that it feels much more ‘off the radar’ in so many different ways. The sense of being ‘off the radar’ can be physically experienced when you visit. AVID, the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees, have been working to support people in Morton Hall since it opened. AVID visited Morton Hall when it was still a women’s prison, during its conversion to a detention centre. Ali McGinley, Director of AVID, says that she was shocked to see the physical security dramatically increase during that time. “…there are a lot of external grounds and garden space at Morton Hall, and this was all sectioned off with high fences so that in case of disruption, areas can be ‘sealed’ for safety. This means that more barbed wire was put up at Morton Hall when it became a detention centre, than there had ever been when it was a women’s prison.”
AVID member Morton Hall Detainee Visitors Group, based in Nottingham and with a branch in Lincoln, are a lively, dynamic group of volunteers who provide befriending, support and practical advice to people inside. AVID has been contacted by people from Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester or even further to ask about the centre and what they can do to help those locked up there.
What is the future for Morton Hall?
The visitors group members usually have to drive. Despite the free taxi service, if you are relying on public transport it is very difficult to get to. It can feel very dark as you the drive up a long path surrounded by trees. (You can see for yourself on Googlemap’s Street View of the area). There are far fewer charitable groups going in and out of Morton Hall, unlike say the centres around London, which makes the support of the visitors’ group and others such as BID, who also make the journey there, particularly important.
Unlike the south east centres and those near airports, there is far less media interest, or at least far less national media coverage. Often major events at Morton Hall go very much unnoticed, unless someone tragically dies at the centre or when serious disturbances occur. But, although it does not have a public ‘profile’ such as Yarl’s Wood or, lately, Brook House, people have not forgotten about Morton Hall. There are frequent demonstrations outside Morton Hall, such as the one organised recently by groups various groups. A local newspaper regularly reports on these demonstrations, bringing much needed public attention to the plight of men who are locked indefinitely at Morton Hall.
Morton Hall remains pretty unique within the UK’s detention system. Publicly run, geographically detached from the rest of the system, and physically isolated. Since the closures of Haslar, the Verne and Dover detention centres, it is the last detention centre to be run by the Prison Service. Which prompts the question: what is the future for Morton Hall?
#Unlocked18 marked the 5th year of Unlocking Detention, our virtual ‘tour’ of the UK’s immigration detention estate. Whether you followed the tour from the beginning or you’re just joining us now, we hope you find something to whet your appetite for learning more about detention and how to challenge it. Here’s a guide to the contributions featured in #Unlocked18, with highlights selected by our team of Detention Forum volunteers and images by @Carcazan.
To mark the 5th year of Unlocking Detention, this timeline tells the story of immigration detention reform from 2014-2018. We released one year at a time as #Unlocked18 progressed and the whole timeline is now available.
To help navigate the world of immigration detention, we created a visual glossary with key terms and acronyms used during Unlocking Detention. The images from this glossary are available to download and share.
A powerful, evocative poem written and recorded by Red (not his real name), while he was detained in Colnbrook detention centre. Red is a member of the Freed Voices,a group of experts-by-experience, people with lived experience of immigration detention who are committed to speaking out about the realities of immigration detention in the UK.
Mishka (not his real name) talks about five drawings he created based on his time in immigration detention. Like Red, Mishka is a member of the Freed Voices. Mishka writes, “when I drew these drawings, the pain and trauma blended into these drawings had already healed and turned into wisdom.”
Our first weekly roundup for #Unlocked18. Each week of the tour, we published a roundup of everything shared the previous week to make it easier to look back to find your favourite content or see what you’ve missed.
A blog from Rafiq (not his real name) who was detained in Brook House detention centre. Rafiq says, “I want to speak out about what I experienced there, and I want to talk about how we can fight for justice”.
Anna Pincus at the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group writes about her work with Refugee Tales’ ‘28 tales for 28 days’. This campaign began on 11 September and featured the release of 28 videos of tales over 28 days, to highlight the need for a 28 day time limit for immigration detention.
The Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group put us in touch with Marino (not his real name), who joined us on the phone from Brook House for our first live Twitter Q&A for #Unlocked18.
The live Q&A’s were definitely the highlight of #Unlocked18 for me. It was such a privilege to speak with DAK, Seed, Siarhei and Marino, who were generous in sharing their time, expertise and insight. The behind-the-scenes hiccups (illness, language barriers, phone numbers changing at the last minute, losing phone reception) made it more interesting but also brought home – once again – the difficulty of being heard from inside detention.
Susannah, Detention Forum Coordinator
2 November: ‘I leave you to judge’: Reflections from a visitor
Richard (not his real name), a volunteer with Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, has been visiting people detained in Brook House and Tinsley House detention centres for 13 years. He asks, “Do these stories suggest an inadequacy in the detention system of effective legal representation and of support for emotional suffering?”
In 2014, Sarah Teather MP, who was then the Chair of the APPG on Refugees started the parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention, together with APPG on Migration. In this blog, K.A., a member of Freed Voices who was recently detained and released, interviews Sarah about her experience of running the inquiry, and Sarah asked K.A. about his experience of immigration detention.
Sanctuary in Parliament is an annual event which brings local City of Sanctuary groups from around the country to Parliament to meet their MPs to demand change. In 2018, one of its focus issues was a 28-day time limit on immigration detention. Detention Forum Project Director Eiri Ohtani explained how to amplify this demand.
Lauren Cape-Davenhill, Organiser with These Walls Must Fall, writes about the reopening of a residential short term holding facility near Manchester airport amidst local resistance to immigration detention.
A. Panquang, a Detention Forum volunteer and member of the Freed Voices, explores the lasting impact of indefinite immigration detention.
The lack of time limit, the lack of knowledge about who can or might be detained, the lack of control over people’s own immigration process, lack of communication with friends, family and community, the lack of legal advice, access to legal evidence, lack of proper healthcare and the lack of basic humane treatment are instruments used by the Home Office to maximize the mental torture of people in detention.
This letter was sent to the Duncan Lewis Public Law team by Theresa (not her real name), a young mother, from Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. Theresa was one of the leaders of the high-profile hunger-strikes in 2018. She wrote this letter the same evening that she had been refused bail.
Fidelis Chebe, Project Director at Migrant Action, writes about the 2018 hunger strike in Yarl’s Wood and other forms of resistance to the use of detention as an instrument of state and corporate violence.
A blog from Gabby (not her real name), an activist campaigning against immigration detention in the UK who was detained in Yarl’s Wood twice in 2017. She is now an active member of Women for Refugee Women’s network, regularly performing her own poetry and speaking out to call for change.
Ali Brumfitt, volunteer coordinator with Yarl’s Wood Befrienders, writes about her experience as a volunteer befriender. She explains, “The journey does not end after detention. Detention changes people. It adds more trauma onto any trauma a person is already carrying.”
This blog features words and images produced at one of the weekly ‘drop in’ sessions held by Yarl’s Wood Befrienders, a space where women detained at Yarl’s Wood can come and have a conversation, share a hot drink or play a boardgame.
In the first of a two-part blog, a campaigner from Campaign to Close Campsfield looks back at its history and tries to make sense of the government’s recent announcement that Campsfield is to close in 2019.
Mishka and Red from Freed Voices (@FreedVoices) interview Lisa Matthews, Coordinator at Right to Remain, about her experience of co-running Unlocking Detention in 2015, and the collective effort involved in bringing it all together.
In this second part of a two-part blog, a campaigner from Campaign to Close Campsfieldlooks back at the local history of resistance during the 25 years that Campsfield House detention centre was in operation.
With assistance from Duncan Lewis solicitors, we spoke to Siarhei, currently detained in Campsfield House. Via interpreter, Siarhei told us about being detained in Campsfield and under immigration powers in prison.
Maddy Crowther, Co-Executive Director of Waging Peace and Article 1, co-wrote this blog with Mohammed (not his real name), who has been detained on several occasions. Mohammed talks about the contrast between his treatment in detention and on a recent visit to Parliament.
It’s a big difference to stand in front of huge beautiful doors in Parliament, rather than lay down behind awful steel doors in detention, isn’t it?
Hannah Swirsky, Campaigns Officer at René Cassin, writes about the hidden cruelty of immigration detention as news comes that the inquest into the death of Amir Siman-Tov, a Moroccan Jew who died in Colnbrook immigration detention centre in 2016, has been postponed for a third time.
Two volunteers with JRS UK reflect on what it’s like to support someone in immigration detention.
I can’t have any certainty that I will see the same person the following week, either because they are not able for different reasons to come and see me or they have been moved to another centre, released or returned to their home country.
Gabriella Bettiga, Legal Officer at UKLGIG (UK Gay and Lesbian Immigration Group), looks at the particular challenges faced by LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers in immigration detention.
It’s hard to choose, much of the content was so affecting, but this was one of two blogs that really brought home the indignity of detention for me (the other was Luke Butterly’s piece on reporting, below). It highlights how immigration detention strips people of their dignity, where LGBTQI+ people who may have left a country where they will have had to conceal their identity for fear of persecution are expected to come out to a Home Office official on arrival or fall foul of the rules and risk deportation.
DAK and Seed (not their real names), both detained in Harmondsworth detention centre, spent two hours answering questions sent in from across the UK. DAK had been detained in Harmondsworth for over a year; Seed for a few weeks – and yet both told us about the uncertainty, oppression and wastefulness of indefinite immigration detention.
Rhiannon Prideaux, a visitor with the Morton Hall Detainee Visitors Group, tells us about the experience of visiting people in detention for over three years. She concludes, “I still think of the people that are detained there every day with no idea what will happen to them and hope that some time in the near future we will see some drastic changes to how the detention system is run in the UK.”
Souleymane, a member of Freed Voices, was detained for three and a half years. He writes, “Detention is worse than prison, because in prison you count your days down and in detention you count your days up… and up… and up…”
Celia Clarke and Rudy Schulkind at BID(Bail for Immigration Detainees) write about the ‘hidden scandal’ of people detained in prisons.
This blog by BID describing the specific and additional disadvantages faced by people detained under immigration powers in prison stood out for me. It also lays out how detention relates to, and is a consequence of, other features of the hostile environment.
Mishka (Freed Voices) shares a letter written from detention to someone dear to his heart on the eve of his intended removal from the UK. He writes, “Detention is in some ways a graveyard of dreams and hopes and the ghosts of dead dreams and hopes can linger within those walls for months and years.”
This piece moved me on several levels. It’s beautiful, lyrical, intensely human, shattering, selfless and ultimately positive and very uplifting. Despite the anticipated outcome for him, Mishka renews the reader’s faith in the human spirit.
Members of the Life After Detention group (LAD) based in Glasgow reflect on the ongoing devastation caused by indefinite detention, as well as the more positive aspects of building a life after detention.
Beatrice Grasso, Detention Outreach Manager with JRS UK, writes about their report on the indefinite detention of trafficking survivors. She explains, “Despite showing clear indicators of abuse and vulnerability, they remain hidden in plain sight of those authorities who should protect them.”
Luke Butterly from Right to Remain talks about ways of showing practical solidarity for people at risk of being detained, including setting up a local signing group.
This is the second blog that really brought home for me the indignity of detention (alongside Gabriella Bettiga’s piece on LGBTQI+ people in detention). Reporting seems to be an exquisite bit of nastiness in this cruel system. As well as showing us the indignity imposed on vulnerable individuals, both of these pieces describe how immigration detention and the hostile environment affect us all. How can a good society allow such indignities to be carried out in our name?
Ruth Jacobson writes to us from the Verne Visitors Group, established in 2014 to support people detained in The Verne detention centre until its closure in December 2017. “What should be we doing now we were no longer going to be taking the coast road up to the Verne citadel with its deliberately forbidding entrance tunnel and massive walls?”
K.A., an expert-by-experience and member of Freed Voices, interviewed Baroness Sally Hamwee, a long-term advocate for detention reform in the House of Lords. She was recently named a Detention Forum Champion in reocognition of her tireless work in challenging immigration detention.
Detention Forum Project Director Eiri Ohtani concludes #Unlocked18 with a rousing piece calling on us to continue to assert the presence, humanity, rights and dignity of everyone affected by detention.
Week 7 of #Unlocked18 took us to Morton Hall IRC, near the small village of Swinderby in Lincolnshire. Surrounded by fields and villages, it is one of the UK’s most isolated and least-known detention centres. It was originally an RAF base before reopening as a prison in 1985, and became an IRC in May 2011. It is the only remaining IRC to be run by the prison service rather than a private contractor.
Morton Hall can hold up to 392 people in single occupancy rooms spread across six residential units (Fry, Windsor, Sharman, Johnson, Torr and Seacole – the induction unit) plus a care and separation unit (CSU). According to the latest statistics, 330 people were detained in Morton Hall on 30 June 2018, down from 384 from the year before.
There were six new blogs this week, as well as a twitter tour of the centre. Read on for a summary.
“I have seen that the detention system in the UK is broken”
For three and a half years, Rhiannon Prideaux visited people detained at Morton Hall with the Morton Hall Detainee Visitors Group. During that time, she visited six people:
The majority of them experienced periods of depression or more serious mental health issues. All of them were told by the Home Office that they had no right to remain in the UK but only one was removed from the UK after detention. Everyone else I visited was released back into the community after often long periods in detention which had a lasting impact on their health and wellbeing.
In the latest of a series of interviews conducted by experts-by-experience, Mishka of Freed Voices interviewed Tamsin Alger, Deputy Director at Detention Action, about her experience of the Detained Fast Track (DFT) strategic litigation and campaign.
As part of this interview, Mishka described his experience of going through the DFT. He said,
Going through DFT felt like my natural justice was breached. My liberty was taken away and I did not have proper access to quality legal advice until the very last moment; my access to justice was severely undermined… This experience of DFT therefore certainly shaped up my determination to campaign for detention reform.
…Whilst going through DFT, I comprehended that it is not only the asylum claimants facing unfairness while in immigration detention. The same set of difficulties I had to face under DFT, others also were facing… This is one of the reasons why it is important for me to focus on everyone in detention during my campaign and advocacy work and I would say my experience of DFT had an impact on my determination and decision to become Mishka from Freed Voices.
Souleymane, a member of Freed Voices, was detained in the UK for three and a half years. He wrote this blog for #Unlocked18, which was shared with us via Samphire. In this powerful blog, Souleymane writes,
The UK is the only country in Europe with no time-limit on detention. There is no end in sight. And this is where mental torture really kicks in. The stress of indefinite detention had a huge impact on my mental health. It is like you are carrying a heavy load on your head everywhere you go…
Sadly, the mental effect of detention does not stop when the gates open. When I was released, I felt like I had come out of a cave. I had been there so long I felt powerless and weak. I heard voices. I did not trust anyone. Even now, sometimes I wake in the night from flashbacks. The mental torture has not gone….
Please, join our fight for justice here, in the UK. It is time for a time limit. Toda raba, thank you.
“Once a criminal always a criminal”, especially if you don’t have a British passport
Celia Clarke and Rudy Schulkind at Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) wrote this blog about people who are detained in prisons under immigration powers. They write,
According to the latest figures, 378 people are held in prisons under immigration powers upon the completion of a custodial sentence. Many of them had indefinite leave to remain or even refugee status; many grew up in the UK and considered themselves British. Having served time and approaching their release date, individuals are shocked to find out (often on the day before their sentence expiry date) that they are going to be punished again: through revocation of their status; through deportation proceedings; through continued unlimited detention.
You can read Celia and Rudy’s blog in full here. You can also read a summary of the #Unlocked18 week on detention in prisons and short-term holding facilities here.
Your pocket Home Office phrasebook: A dialect of dehumanisation
Patrick’s ‘pocket Home Office phasebook‘ explains the jargon used by government officials involved in immigration enforcement. This jargon is cloaked in the clinical language of administration, and is so consistently used, and relatively well-disguised, that we all end up picking it up.
In his phasebook, Patrick unpicks these terms. He separates the terms into four categories:
People: how the people targeted by the hostile environment are labelled
Control: language used to describe how to control those targeted
Adjectives: how such people and their behaviour are described
Places: the naming of the places in which the Home Office attempts to control people
To prepare myself to give evidence I read some of the other evidence that had been given to the JCHR before mine. To call these people experts is not completely misleading, because they are experts in their respective fields, but none of them know what it’s like to experience detention. We from Freed Voices are experts by experience. If anyone needed to understand about the inhumane conditions in immigration removal centres (IRCs), if anyone wanted to get a clear picture of the violations of Human Rights, they should be speaking to Freed Voices – Experts by experience.
I visited people detained at Morton Hall detention centre for around three and a half years. In that time I visited 6 people. All from different countries and detained for a variety of different reasons. Many of them spent time in different detention centres or prisons before and after I visited them. The majority of them experienced periods of depression or more serious mental health issues. All of them were told by the Home Office that they had no right to remain in the UK but only one was removed from the UK after detention. Everyone else I visited was released back into the community after often long periods in detention which had a lasting impact on their health and wellbeing.
I became a visitor at Morton Hall mainly due to my job at the time working for Nottingham Arimathea Trust, an organisation in Nottingham which houses destitute asylum seekers. One of our residents was detained and I went to visit him with a colleague. He was terrified. Confused as to what was happening, worried that he couldn’t make contact with his solicitor and desperate to get back to Nottingham. He came to meet us armed with a bundle of papers he had managed to obtain to apply for bail which he didn’t understand and I couldn’t make sense of either. I remember wondering what I would do in that situation, or how I would feel if it was one of my family members detained in a foreign country with no one to talk to and no one to help them. That person was released after a few months (another detention that didn’t lead to removal) and after that I joined the visitors group to help other people in similar situations.
From my experience as a visitor I have seen that the detention system in the UK is broken. Detention is supposed to be used to facilitate removal and yet in reality less than 50% of those detained are sent back to their home country. Detention is not supposed to be used for victims of torture, or children, or those with serious mental health issues. And yet we are constantly seeing cases of unlawful detention which are resulting in the home office paying out hundreds of thousands of pounds in compensation. And then there is the human impact. Last year at Morton Hall there were four deaths, two of which were thought to be suicide. People feel increasingly hopeless and desperate the longer they spend in detention and many feel they have nowhere to turn to. As a visitor I might not be able to influence the outcome of someone’s asylum claim or free them from detention but I can show them that there is someone who cares about them as a human being, will support them when they feel angry or frustrated and will encourage them to remain positive when they feel like giving up.
Visiting has definitely been a learning experience. At first I was frustrated because I felt I didn’t know enough about immigration, criminal justice and probation to help people. The first person I visited was an EU national who had served a prison sentence over a year and was facing deportation because of this. He wanted to stay in the UK because his son was here but couldn’t afford legal fees. I didn’t know how to advise him and felt useless. Then I realised that being a visitor isn’t about giving advice. Of course, we signpost people to relevant support services including legal advice and BIDwho help people apply for bail. But the value of visiting is simply giving someone a chance to talk and a connection with the outside world. Providing them with a break from the monotony of life within a detention centre and showing them that there are people who care what happens to them. One person I was visiting sent me the following a short time after I had started seeing him:
“Hi Rhiannon, sorry I haven’t spoke to you since you visited, a lot has happened so I was a bit down but I’m ok, I hope you doing ok and again thanks for everything, I really appreciate what you have done for me not everyone will waste their time on someone like me….thank you”
I hadn’t realised at the time how much the visits meant to him. He seemed like a confident and outgoing person with many friends in the detention centre. I guess this made me see how lonely and worthless he really felt deep down. I haven’t visited any other detention centres but from what I have heard from people at Morton Hall, the worst part about detention is that no one knows how long they are going to be there for. There is no end date to count down to and absolutely no way of making plans for the future. People don’t know where they are going to be by the next month, week or day. They quickly lose their friends and support networks on the outside and have nowhere to go to for support. That is why the visitors groups are so important and play a crucial role in supporting their wellbeing.
I have recently moved abroad so I have stopped visiting at Morton Hall. However, I still think of the people that are detained there every day with no idea what will happen to them and hope that some time in the near future we will see some drastic changes to how the detention system is run in the UK.
Thank you for following Unlocking Detention in 2017! We have listed all the blogs that were published during #Unlocked on this webpage for easy reference. Did you have any particular favourite? If so, tweet at us at @DetentionForum and let us know!
17 October: ‘Do you know what immigration detention is?’ Part 2 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.
18 October: For groups wanting to support Unlocking Detention One of the themes of this year’s Unlocking Detention tour is action. We are distributing the following material for groups interested in joining the tour. Please feel free to use them, share with others and so on!
18 October: Verne closes, Shaw looms Detention Action has been running advice surgeries every month at the Verne detention centre, which is set to close at the end of this year. Jerome Phelps, Director of Detention Action, considers what our next task is.
20 October: ‘The Seamed Zones’ Where does ‘invisibility’ of immigration detention centres start? Ben du Preez, Campaigns Coordinator at Detention Action, stares into the gap between nonplace-ness of detention centres and their material human impact and finds hope in Experts-By-Experience’s power to bring the truth to light.
Week 2: Yarl’s Wood
23 October: ‘Everyday in Yarl’s Wood is a struggle’ Boatemaa* was detained in Yarl’s Wood earlier this year. She was recently released from Yarl’s Wood, to continue with her asylum case, after four months in detention. She shares her story here.
25 October: ‘A country I had called home for 13 years had imprisoned me.’ Families with children were regularly detained at Yarl’s Wood and Dungavel detention centres until the change of policy in 2010 drastically reduced the number of children detained. Now, a smaller number of families with children are detained in an unit within Tinsley detention centre. But what happened to many children who were detained at Yarl’s Wood and who are turning into adults in the UK? Ijeoma Datha-Moore, from Let Us Learn, looks back on her 15-year-old self who suddenly found her and her family detained at Yarl’s Wood. When she finished writing this piece, Ijeoma said ‘I’ve done it. I can’t tell you how odd it felt, but empowering. I am so proud of myself for being able to do this.’ A big thank you to Ijeoma for sharing her story with Unlocking Detention.
26 October: Remembering My First Time Though no official survey exists, UK is one of the few countries around the world where each detention centre has a dedicated visitor’s group, in addition to other groups who visit formally and informally multiple centres. Hundreds of people must be regularly visiting those held in detention centres, but what does visiting really do? Sonja Miley of Waging Peace write how she found an answer to this question, during her very first visit to Yarl’s Wood.
30 October: ‘I try to forget about everything that I went through at Brook House.’ Paul* was removed from Brook House to Jamaica earlier this year, after being detained for over two years. For the last six months of his detention, he had signed up to return voluntarily. Paul talked to Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, who supported him during his detention, about his attempt to ‘forget about everything’ that he went through at Brook House. (This is not his real name.)
31 October: Why political pressure needs to be ramped up now The Detention Forum which runs Unlocking Detention is a network of many groups who have been working together to challenge UK’s immigration detention policy and practice. Jon Featonby, one of its Coordination Group members, explains why now is the time for everyone to start taking action against detention.
8 November: An open letter: “My name is Nobody” For many involved in asylum and migration justice work, immigration detention was a taboo subject for a long time and, in some quarters, it still is. One of the reasons for this is the mixed nature of those incarcerated. It is not just “model” asylum seekers who find themselves in detention: people from all sorts of experiences and life trajectories get incarcerated because they do not have a right type of passport or visa. But ‘As a society, how and who do we deem worthy of our empathy?’. Isabel Lima, visual artist and researcher, shares with Unlocking Detention her open letter about Nobody, a man with ‘many qualities and faults’ who finds himself in limbo. This letter is based on a true story and Nobody was anonymised for security reasons.
9 November: If I am ever detained There is understandably huge interest in knowing what immigration detention centres look like: barbed wire and prohibition of cameras inside the centres increase people’s curiosity. But can you see the impact of immigration detention with your eyes? What does immigration detention do to us? In this blog, Eiri Ohtani (@EiriOhtani), the Project Director of the Detention Forum shares her reflection and that of her colleague, Heather Jones (@Heather_Jones5) who has been visiting Yarl’s Wood detention centre for many years. They visited Alice* who was detained at Yarl’s Wood detention centre. (This is not her real name.)
14 November: Won’t somebody please think of the children The impact of immigration detention is not confined behind the gates of the detention centres: it involves people’s children, families, friends etc. Nick Watts is a child & family practitioner and co-founder of the charity Migrant Family Action, that provides specialist social work, advocacy and youth work to families who are oppressed as a result of their immigration status. Nick explains here what types of impact immigration detention has on children whose family member is detained.
16 November: Trafficked into detention Trafficked people in detention are being denied the full protection of the Home Office’s flagship system for protecting victims of modern slavery, according to new research by Detention Action. Many victims of trafficking are taken to high-security detention centres after being picked up in raids on places of exploitation such as cannabis factories. Once in detention, they are treated as irregular migrants to be removed, and find it difficult to access support for victims of modern slavery. Susannah Wilcox of Detention Action explains how came to light through Detention Action’s casework and what their research found.
16 November: Going Behind the Walls Located on the Isle of Portland, off Weymouth in Dorset, the Verne epitomises the Government’s ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach to detention. In this blog, Ruth Jacobson of the Verne Visitors Group describes how this isolation compounds the many harms of indefinite detention, how the group seeks to challenge this, and their reaction to the announced closure of the Verne.
20 November: Walls of resistance This piece is written for Unlocking Detention by ‘Jose’ of the Freed Voices group (the author’s name has been altered to protect their identity). ‘Jose’ was detained in Campsfield detention centre.
21 November: Detained for sleeping rough Increased detention and deportation of EU citizens from the UK has been in the news for some time, especially in the context of debates surrounding Brexit. NELMA has been working with EU citizens who have been detained while sleeping rough.
23 November: “Time After Time”: music from Campsfield House detention centre In this blog, Ruth Nicholson describes a day of Music In Detention’s songwriting workshops in Campsfield House. Ruth is a musician, and a volunteer both for Music In Detention (MID) and the Detention Forum. This blog was originally published by Music in Detention in March this year here where you can also listen to the music recorded in Campsfield.
23 November: ‘Young arrivers’ caught in immigration detention Dan Godshaw (@DanGodshaw) has worked for NGOs on migrant advocacy and support for 10 years. He has visited people held at Brook House IRC as well as supporting Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group’s (@GatDetainees) research and campaigning work since 2013. Dan holds an MA in Migration Studies from The University of Sussex, and is currently an ESRC-funded doctoral researcher on immigration detention and gender at The University of Bristol.
27 November: Five guys Reflections on indefinite detention are often framed in the singular, as personal and introspective testimonies. In this special piece for Unlocking Detention, however, Mishka from Freed Voices, sketches five guys that shaped his experience of Harmondsworth detention centre and continue to dominate his thoughts today, post-release.
28 November: Ten years on: reflections on a decade working on the injustice of detention Immigration detention and the detention estate sometimes appear permanent and unchanging. However, underneath the surface, things are changing. Tamsin Alger, Casework and Policy Manager at Detention Action, looks back at a catalogue of actions people in detention, she and her organisation have taken to challenge immigration detention over the last 10 years.
29 November: Four days in Colnbrook This blog was written by Helen*, a US citizen who travelled to the UK and was detained earlier this year. She spent four days in Colnbrook detention centre, before being returned to the US. In this blog, she recounts her experience.
30 November: The Importance of Being With Beatrice Grasso is Detention Outreach Manager at Jesuit Refugee Service UK where, with volunteers, she supports many detained in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook detention centres. In this blog, she explains how their mission “Accompany, Serve and Advocate” informs and shapes their work in these detention centres, ‘places most people don’t even realise exist’.
4 December: Mapping detention In this piece, Freed Voices members are our guides to the psycho-geography of detention centres, including Morton Hall which Unlocking Detention is visiting this week. The piece was originally published on Detention Action’s webpage here in 2016, in response to Unlocking Detention. Please do visit the original webpage which contains a full piece with more visual material. *The names of some Freed Voices members in this piece have been changed.
5 December: It’s about time – a time limit on immigration detention Since the publication of Detained Lives (which Tamsin Algers refers to in her earlier blog here), a campaign to end UK’s practice of indefinite detention has been gathering pace. Rachel Robinson, Advocacy Manager for Liberty, argues why the time is now to end this practice once and for all.
7 December: Putting stock Home Office statements in the stocks New Freed Voices member, John P.*, was recently released after ten months detained in Morton Hall IRC in Lincolnshire. For this #Unlocked17 special, he sat down with Detention Action to go through his thoughts on some of the stock phrases the Home Office trot out in response to anti-detention campaigners. * John P. is not the author’s real name. This has been changed to protect his identity.
8 December: ‘A Prison For My Heart’ Coming out is often be a nervous and fearful experience – what does it feel like to that in immigration detention? Umar (not his real name) had to do that to protect his life. We are grateful to Umar who said he wanted share his story in order to raise awareness about the plight of LGBTI asylum-seekers and refugees and made this story publicly available, though was anxious to conceal his identity.
11 December: Visiting Dungavel for another year… This week, #Unlocked17 is visiting Dungavel, Scotland’s only detention centre. In this blog, Kate Alexander, Director of Scottish Detainee Visitors (SDV), reflects on another year of visiting Dungavel, and takes us on the journey that visitors make twice a week. Visitors also prepare a report after every visit, which Kate reviews. Here, she highlights the patterns she sees in these reports: of visitors’ concerns about the health of those in detention, frequently linked to the length of time people have been detained; of people’s frustration, anger and distress at their detention and the complex immigration processes they are caught up in; and of their worries about their families on the outside.
12 December: If only everyone could be welcomed as warmly as Paddington… Jawad Anjum and Steve Rolfe are activists with Global Justice Glasgow, a group of committed people who campaign to tackle the root causes of global poverty and injustice as part of Global Justice Now, a democratic movement in the UK which campaigns in solidarity with people in the global South. They write for Unlocking Detention about a lively campaign that is going on in Scotland.
13 December: Life After Detention: A Film The harm caused by detention does not end once a person is released. For many, the trauma of detention, and the struggles with uncertainty, continue. This is the subject of ‘Life After Detention’, a new film made in collaboration with the Life After Detention group from Scottish Detainee Visitors. The group filmed aspects of their life in Glasgow on their mobile phones and worked with film-maker and SDV volunteer, Alice Myers, to create the film. It was premiered at an Unlocking Detention event on Tuesday 12 December at the Glad Cafe in Glasgow.
18 December: 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.
19 December: “If more people knew what was going on, more would recoil in disgust and demand explanations.” This year’s Unlocking Detention featured over 40 blogs. Massive thank you to everyone who contributed and shone a light on the reality of immigration detention! As we conclude this year’s tour, some of the volunteers running the project share blogs that have left special impression on their minds. If there was any blog that especially resonated with you, do let us know which one and also why.
This is Morton Hall detention centre in Lincolnshire, the focus of the eighth week of the Unlocking Detention tour. Up to 392 people – all men – may be detained here at any one time. It was turned from a prison to an immigration removal centre in 2011, though, like most other centres, it still feels like a prison.
It is one of two centres still run by the Prison Service – though it will soon be the only one (the other is the Verne, set to close soon).
Morton Hall was previously a women’s prison. It reopened as a #detention centre in 2011, with enhanced security (incl. extensive razor wire), and continues to be run by the Prison Service. pic.twitter.com/2GWQy4iCdj
It is very isolated (phone signal as well as location) and has particularly limited visiting hours (under 3 hrs most days), meaning those held there cannot reach their loves ones easily #Unlocked17pic.twitter.com/OBY1pSAe2Z
The latest report of HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP), published this year, said that at least three children had been detained at Morton Hall in the previous year; and that some of these detentions “were prolonged as a result of wrangling between different local authorities over responsibility for assessing age”. One child was held for 151 days.
The report said that too many people in general were being detained in Morton Hall for prolonged periods: the average length of detention was over three months. 31 people had been held for over a year, including three who had been detained for over two years. Two men had been detained on separate occasions totalling more than three years.
The report also identified a threefold increase in self-harm since the previous inspection. In the year preceding the inspection, four people had narrowly escaped fatal or serious injuries as a result of self-harm. The report stated that “The causes of self-harm had not been sufficiently analysed and there was no strategy to reduce it.”
Kasonga, another member of Freed Voices, highlighted the recent deaths in detention and said, “Detention reform cannot wait. It has become an emergency situation.”
Last year’s inspection report, released in March this year, revealed that children were being detained in #MortonHall, while the local authorities argued over who was responsible for assessing their age.https://t.co/YdM7jfNTRF#Unlocked17
The first blog of the week explored the psycho-geography of detention centres, based on a mapping exercise conducted by Freed Voices. One of these maps was drawn by Michael, who has been based in the UK since he was 12, and who was detained in Morton Hall for two and a half years.
Also this week, we published a conversation between Detention Action and John (not his real name), who was recently released after ten months detained in Morton Hall. John de-bunks some of the Home Office’s stock phrases about detention.
For example, the Home Office say, “We do not have indefinite detention in this country.” To this, John says,
“Altogether, I have been detained 16 months, three different times. This response from the Immigration Minister just shows you how in denial they are. They are desperately trying to justify a lie. They are literally dancing around the word. It’s actually pretty embarrassing, really. I think they are maybe also just ashamed of what they are doing in detention and that is why they can’t face up to the truth of the situation.”
Of the deaths in Morton Hall this year, John said,
“I experienced two deaths in the ten months I was in Morton Hall. When the Polish guy died, all they did was put up a tiny notice. When my friend Spencer died, they tried to cover the whole thing up as quickly as possible. It was incredibly traumatic. Especially for those close to him. There were no follow-up questions, no support for the depression we all felt. It was very, very difficult – harder than the sixteen months, to be honest.”
Also this week, Umar* shared his story in order to raise awareness about the plight of LGBTI asylum-seekers and refugees.
Umar first came out in a detention centre, to an immigration officer. “He wore a suit and had a badge. I didn’t like that I had to speak to him about my sexuality. I felt scared because I didn’t know if what I said would be kept a secret. But I had no choice, I had to tell him. I was very nervous as this was the first time I had told anyone that I was gay.”
Umar is now free from detention, but feels compelled to fight the injustice he suffered for the benefit of others. Umar says,
“I do not want any refugee, especially a LGBTI refugee, to go through this. Being in detention I was always scared, it was a prison also for my brain and my heart.”
On Tuesday, we heard from Rachel Robinson, Advocacy Manager for Liberty, who argued why now is the time to end the practice of indefinite detention, once and for all. It’s a clear and powerfully-argued piece: read it here.
In Wednesday’s blog, Bill MacKeith, joint organiser of the Campaign to Close Campsfield, reported on the recent 24th anniversary demonstration at Campsfield House, attended by Oxford’s two MPs. You can also catch up on the #Unlocked17 visit to Campsfield House here.
'On 25 November 1993, two white vans arrived at Campsfield main gates, 6 miles north of Oxford. Since then some 30,000 people have been locked up here without time limit, without charge' #Unlocked17https://t.co/C03i3F5B2q
New Freed Voices member, John P.*, was recently released after ten months detained in Morton Hall IRC in Lincolnshire. For this #Unlocked17 special, he sat down with Detention Action to go through his thoughts on some of the stock phrases the Home Office trot out in response to anti-detention campaigners.
*John P. is not the author’s real name. This has been changed to protect his identity.
The UK is the only country in Europe that practices indefinite detention: from the moment someone enters detention they have no idea how long they will be there for. Immigration statistics released only last week showed one person had been detained 5 years…and counting. These figures came only a few days after the Immigration Minister, Brandon Lewis, had responded to calls for an end to indefinite detention in Parliament with some very (very) familiar lines:
“We do not have indefinite detention in this country. Our policy is that there is always a presumption of liberty. Individuals are detained for no longer than is necessary.”
“For me, the definition of ‘indefinite’ is simple: something with no end. It is infinite. It is the opposite of finite. It is not rocket science. No-one told me how long I’d be there for when I was detained because they couldn’t. They just shrugged: ‘we don’t know.’ Altogether, I have been detained 16 months, three different times. This response from the Immigration Minister just shows you how in denial they are. They are desperately trying to justify a lie. They are literally dancing around the word. It’s actually pretty embarrassing, really. I think they are maybe also just ashamed of what they are doing in detention and that is why they can’t face up to the truth of the situation.”
VULNERABILITY IN DETENTION
In January 2016, the Shaw Review found ‘incontrovertibly that detention in and of itself undermines welfare and contributes to vulnerability’. In response, the Government promised to implement a new reform programme (the Adults at Risk procedure) that would ‘safeguard the most vulnerable’. Over the last month, reports from Women for Refugee Women, Bail for Immigration Detainees, Detention Action and the British Medical Association have all outlined how and why the Adults at Risk policy is failing, identifying large numbers of vulnerable people still in detention. In response to each report the Home Office had the same stock response:
“We operate on a presumption against detention, and our adults at risk policy aims to improve our approach to identifying individuals who may be particularly vulnerable to harm in detention. When people are detained this is for the minimum time possible, and the dignity and welfare of those in our care is of the utmost importance.”
“Everyone knows this is a complete lie…There is no effective screening before or during detention. I suffer from severe depression, for example. The Home Office were well aware of this. Did it factor into their decision to detain me? Not for a second. Their interest in removing you will always outweigh your vulnerability, there is no contest there. I saw loads of vulnerable people inside Morton Hall. Lots of psychotic episodes, people self-harming because they were so depressed. I saw someone cut their throat in front of me. I met a Vietnamese boy in there who had been trafficked to the UK to make cannabis. He never should have been there. I saw physical scars on people’s bodies. You’d walk around and think ‘wow, I can’t believe he’s in here…wow, I can’t believe he’s in here…wow, I can’t believe he’s in here.’ But really, everyone is vulnerable in detention. From the moment you walk in, you’re changing. You’d see someone come in one week and they would have deteriorated into a different person by the next week.”
DEATHS IN DETENTION
The potentially lethal impact of indefinite detention is well-documented: there have been thirty-three deaths across the detention estate; ten deaths in the last calendar year; four in Morton Hall alone. In response to each (and every) one, the Home Office has had the same stock response:
“As is the case with any death in detention, the police have been informed and a full independent investigation will be conducted by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman. We will make no further comment while this is being investigated. The dignity and welfare of those in our care is of the utmost importance.”
“That’s absolutely pathetic. It’s insulting, really. I experienced two deaths in the ten months I was in Morton Hall. When the Polish guy died, all they did was put up a tiny notice. When my friend Spencer died, they tried to cover the whole thing up as quickly as possible. It was incredibly traumatic. Especially for those close to him. There were no follow-up questions, no support for the depression we all felt. It was very, very difficult – harder than the sixteen months, to be honest. It was genuinely terrifying to be somewhere where four people had died in the last year. You think that doesn’t affect the people inside? You start thinking when it will be your turn, when am I gonna go? If I have a stroke, can I trust that these guys are really gonna call an ambulance? Or are they just gonna leave me on the floor? It’s terrifying…very, very scary. You start to look at these guards as guys with blood on their hands.”
ABUSE IN DETENTION
In September this year, the BBC Panorama documentary on Brook House highlighted the culture of psychological and physical abuse that has become normalised across the detention estate as a whole. In response to this programme, and other allegations of abuse, the Home Office has provided the same stock response:
“We are clear that all detainees should be treated with dignity and respect and we expect the highest standards from detainee custody officers. We take all allegations of misconduct or mistreatment of detainees seriously.”
“People’s dignity was breached on a daily basis in detention. And the staff there know it. Two guards resigned from Morton Hall in the time I was there. I asked one of them why and he said he couldn’t do it anymore. He said he could not physically bring himself to lock me up at night for nothing. He had some integrity, to be honest, he could see what they doing was wrong. As for taking allegations seriously, you are also strongly discouraged from making any allegations in the first place. They always try and put pressure on you, they tell you your claims are ‘unsubstantiated’ and ‘this will affect your case’.
Intimidation tactics are common. I’m not fresh off the boat, so I would tell them to go do one, but many people are too scared to speak out. And I understand why. Can you imagine what would happen to a migrant if they committed the same kind of offences that we experienced every day in detention? There would immediately be criminal prosecutions. Immediately, no doubt. But in detention? People have died in detention and not one person has gone to jail, not even suspended! That tells you everything you need to know about how serious they are following up on ‘mistreatment’.”
The classic catch-all response to charges laid at the Home Office detention policy is that – despite the deaths, the crisis of harm, the culture of abuse and the failed measures to protect the vulnerable – detention is necessary, whether we like it or not…
“Detention is an important part of our immigration system, helping to ensure that those with no right to remain in the UK are returned to their home country if they will not leave voluntarily.” John P.
“What?! I’m here aren’t I, talking to you now. Last year, I gave them my passport and told them to put me on a plane. We even discussed extra luggages and flights. But it became clear there was a problem with my country and so instead, they brought me to detention…even though it was clear my removal was not going to happen. Sometimes I think it is just a business, and we are just the stock being moved around. Over half of everyone in detention gets released, not removed. So why is it even called an Immigration Removal Centre? They need to change that name. It’s false advertising. They should change the names to British Guantanamo Bay I, British Guantanamo Bay II, British Guantanamo Bay III…but not IRC.”
At Unlocking Detention, we occasionally receive emails from people, including those who say they are journalists, asking us to let them join the “tour”. These requests stem from misunderstanding: some assume we are organizing physical, guided tours of the inside of these immigration detention centres, while we are actually running a “virtual” tour unearthing facts and voices from these centres.
While their interest is welcome, it also makes us feel uneasy – what legitimizes our gaze inside these centres, when it is not for an official purpose of monitoring or supporting people inside the centres? Should these centres be open for casual inspection by anyone who happens to be curious, knowing that people who are detained there are having a truly devastating time of their lives? When does this gaze transgress into the sphere of voyeurism? What makes us think that we can fully understand immigration detention through seeing its infrastructure?
In this piece, Freed Voices members are our guides to the psycho-geography of detention centres, including Morton Hall which Unlocking Detention is visiting this week. The piece was originally published on Detention Action’s webpage here in 2016, in response to Unlocking Detention. Please do visit the original webpage which contains a full piece with more visual material.
*The names of some Freed Voices members in this piece have been changed.
A few weeks ago, during the fallow days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the Freed Voices group met to reflect on a busy twelve months of campaigning and to mark the conclusion of ‘Unlocking Detention’ – Detention Forum’s annual, virtual tour of the UK’s detention estate.
In homage to the latter – (which digitally ‘visited’ those sites of indefinite incarceration up and down the country that the Government would otherwise have you believe are ‘out of sight, out of mind’) – the group conducted their own exercise in ‘mapping detention’.
To begin with, they plotted the general outline of a detention-centre (most Freed Voices members have experienced several different IRCs so chose the detention centre which resonated most). Then they filled in ‘key landmarks’, such as their rooms, healthcare, the canteen, visiting rooms, legal services, the shop, the yard, welfare and/or induction areas.
Next, Freed Voices members detailed the different demographics that might make up any given detention centre – where were the detention centre staff based? Where did new arrivals come in? Where were their friends in relation to their own rooms? Did different national or religious groups congregate in different spaces? Who dominated the yard? What was their typical movement through the detention centre on any given day?
Lastly, they designed a post-it key, with different colours to represent different emotional states. The group then pin-dropped these across their maps in different loci they associated most with that particular feeling.
Feeding back to each other, and reflecting on their respective maps, several outstanding themes emerged.
Firstly, the group acknowledged how they had (at least initially) all interpreted the exercise’s leading direction – ‘to draw the outline of the detention centre’ – very differently. Some members experienced greater freedom of movement throughout their incarceration and could detail the wider physical perimeters of the detention centre in great detail.
Others (despite, in some cases, spending longer periods of time in detention) did not map out anything beyond their wing. As John* explained, “this is really where day-to-day detention happens – everything you need to know about detention is on your wing.”
All agreed, however, that this was equally applicable to their rooms – that the essence of detention boiled down to four brick walls, complete with one or two bunks, maybe a toilet, and more often than not a hermetically sealed window (occasionally with a birds-eye view of a nearby airport).
Boone, who was detained for 7 months in Colnbrook, adjacent to Heathrow, said that ‘every minute and a half a plane flew past the window. Each one reminded me I was going to be deported back to my country. My room was my hell.” Omid said ‘my room was hopeless(ness)…I thought I never ever go out and that’s why in my nightmares I can see this room.” Shariff described his room as ‘My Coffin’.
Second was the extent to which members described how their identities had been unmade, made and remade again whilst they had been detained. Almost all noted how their primary physical/emotional interaction with detention had been under the cloak of darkness, arriving in a blacked-out van, usually at around two or three in the morning, handcuffed, and marched through high-security gates like a criminal.
Joe, a survivor of torture from East Africa, spoke about how, when he arrived at Dover detention centre (where he spent the next two years) he had to pass through its three enormous gates. At the first one, they registered his name and country of origin. At the second, they frisked him. At the third, they gave him a ‘Prison Number’ and waved him through. “I had never committed a crime in my life, I received no trial, and yet I was given a life-sentence?”
John, who was predominately detained in Colnbrook, spoke about being stripped of the most important aspect of his identity: his humanity. He recounted how he had been spoken to like an animal, caged like an animal, and barked at by immigration officers like an animal – and not in a figurative sense, but with an actual guttural canine-growl.
Thiru, a survivor of torture from Sri Lanka, highlighted his time in segregation – or the ‘Isolated Rooms’, as he called them – as the darkest part of his detention experience (a sentiment concurred by several other members). Thiru described how here, in solitary confinement, his past and present traumas had merged into one. He said he felt; “Tortured again. Only this time I wasn’t sure why. Back home, I knew it was because of who I was. But here, it was because of who I wasn’t. It was confusing.”
Freed Voices members largely agreed that the inevitable result of these kinds of experiences – the violence of segregation, the dehumanisation encouraged by staff, the deteriorating sense of self – was an intense distrust in everything around them. On one hand, this was directed at the individuals and systems that compounded their detention: Home Office-picked solicitors, the complaints system, welfare, healthcare staff.
But it also occasionally, tragically, resulted in a self-imposed isolation, either from those going through similar experiences and/or from those with shared national, ethic or cultural backgrounds. Both Omid and Thiru marked out on their maps where people from their home country of origin, Iran and Sri Lanka respectively, tended to congregate in detention. But they also noted how, over time, they had both drifted away from these groups, and in turn, the social links/bonds to their ‘pre-detention identities’. Omid said; “I must be alone in Harmondsworth. After time, everyone the same to me. I see just faces, all the same.”
This dissolving of national identities was not the case for Michael, who has been based in the UK since he was 12, and who spent his two and a half years of detention exclusively in Morton Hall.
His English fluency, English upbringing, and English partner were all a cause of social stigma within detention, where he wasn’t enough of an Other. At the same time, his proposed deportation promised to wipe clean these cultural indicators, erasing any sense of self in one fell swoop: “I grew up in the East End on pie and mash. I supported Chelsea. I went to British school. And now I’m an illegal immigrant about to be deported? I had no idea whether to hold on to who I was in detention, or let it go.”
Michael did note however, that some sense of self was salvaged whenever his partner – someone from outside Morton Hall’s walls – came to visit. Only then was he reminded who he was and what was normal.
This was echoed by other members, who also relied on some kind of external ‘force’ (real or imagined) to help puncture the mind/identity-bending bubble of detention. Boone took great solace in the Colnbrook’s chapel, which he said brought him closer to his family, ‘even though they were thousands of miles away’. Joe’s room at Dover IRC looked out over the sea and he spoke about how, on a clear day, he could see France and that this vague outline of land became a source of calm: “It helped me focus. I remember why I came to the UK in the first place.”
Others reiterated the vitality of visitor-groups, like the Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group, Detention Action or the Verne Visitors Group, who provided practical advice and support but also treated them ‘as individuals’. “We weren’t just numbers to them,” reflected Michael.
Lastly (although perhaps unsurprisingly), was the omnipresent black cloud of indefinite detention. Fogging every other aspect of life in detention, the psychological impact of not-knowing when they would be released was the singular, outstanding theme Freed Voices members kept coming back to. ‘Torture’ was repeatedly used to express the horror of endless incarceration.
Freed Voices members were quick to point out that it was almost impossible to delineate and dissect other aspects of life in detention – whether it be the activities available to them or conditions more generally – in separation from indefinite detention. Timelessness infected everything. At one point in the exercise, Thiru covered almost his whole map in post-it notes in an attempt to explain the geographical translation of this pervasive emotional violence. Shariff said that indefinite detention meant that ‘even the smallest details in detention make you lose hope’. Joe spoke about the mental and physical fatigue that comes with bearing this psychological weight everyday: “I felt every second of my detention. I was there more than two years. It was exhausting.”
This week, Unlocking Detention visited Morton Hall in Lincolnshire. Morton Hall opened as an “immigration removal centre” in 2011, having previously been other kinds of prison for men, women and youth since 1958. There are 392 bed spaces at Morton Hall, all for men.
We had a really interesting range of blog posts and articles published this week. Melanie Griffiths, an ESRC Future Leaders Fellow at the University of Bristol, wrote on Open Democracy about the impact that detention has on families, relationships and parents.
We also published a fascinating piece by Amanda Schmid-Scott, PhD Researcher at the University of Exeter, on the every day violence and bureacratisation of life in immigration detention: what might a re-imagining of violence reveal about the lived experience of immigration detention?
On Friday, we had our weekly live interview with someone detained in the centre we’re ‘visiting’ for the week. This week we heard from Dave, who is currently detained in Morton Hall. A great range of questions (from Detention Forum members and from members of Manchester Migrant Solidarity particularly), and compelling answers. Take a look …