Let’s talk about Tinsley House

Tinsley House | Unlocked19

While Brook House immigration detention centre has achieved a certain level of notoriety after an investigative BBC Panorama documentary hit the news in 2017, a nearby centre, Tinsley House, is hardly talked about. Mishka, one of the Detention Forum volunteers, spoke to people who know both centres as visitors, to find out what differences lie between them.

Both Brook House and Tinsley House detention centres sit next to Gatwick Airport, about 200m from the main runway. Established in 1999, Tinsley House was the UK’s first purpose built detention centre. 

I was curious to know more about Tinsley House but there is not much information about it even on the Internet: it is one of the lesser known detention centres that rarely appears in the media. I was privileged to speak to a couple of people who visit both Tinsley House and Brook House for this blog in my attempt to describe what Tinsley House is like to people like me who have never been there. Sadly, I could not speak to anyone with first-hand experience of Tinsley House. This was disappointing, as they might have shared with me details that could not be found in any report. 

Overall, Tinsley House appears to be a more ‘relaxed’ detention centre when compared with its neighbour, Brook House. The people I spoke to said they find the experience of visiting Tinsley House better than visiting Brook House. Many of the  people they have visited in Tinsley say that officers at Tinsley are known for relatively respectful treatment of people held in there. The 2018 HM Prison Inspector’s report (P.7) stated, “In our survey, 78% of detainees said most staff were respectful”.

It was interesting to discover more about the Tinsley House visiting hall and visiting procedures. I was told that it offers free tea and coffee and often background music is playing. There is only one security search, which feels quite casual. One of the very experienced visitors said, “The staff at the reception at Tinsley are really pleasant people. I have heard them interacting with relatives and they also treat them well – you just feel much better visiting Tinsley”. 

Brook House is a much more high-security environment, with visitors having to undergo several security searches – apparently looking for drugs. Even some of the staff members have confided that they find shifts at Brook House unpleasant and they much prefer working at Tinsley House. Another worrying tale I heard from one visitor is that segregation, which is the practice of separating people in detention from the rest and locking them up in isolated rooms happens frequently in Brook House: they have come across many people to whom this happened.  

Threats and fear

Even though Tinsley House may appear to the visitors be a more relaxed detention centre and those held there may find the experience less traumatising in Tinsley, the people held there often talk to their visitors about the fear of being removed to another country at any given time, being separated from their family and friends and the trauma of indefinite detention. People who are transferred from Tinsley House to Brook House consider it a punishment. This is corroborated by the 2018 HM Prison Inspectors report (p.5): “many detainees told us staff had threatened to have them transferred to the neighbouring Brook House IRC and it was a concern that detainees and staff regarded being moved to another IRC as a punishment”.

Why do these two centres create different environments even though the same private contractor, G4S, runs both these centres? There might be a number of reasons for this. Brook House is a larger detention centre with a higher capacity of 443 compared to Tinsley House’s operational capacity of 162.  One visitor told me that “Brook House seems to have a lot more drugs, it is a ‘rough centre’ and it feels a lot more on edge”. The different atmospheres might explain why staff and security measures are so different in the two centres: the staff and the security measures inevitably have to be strict according to the environment. 

The fact that you do not hear much about Tinsley House in the news is perhaps harder to explain. Some speculate that it is because there are few bad things to report about Tinsley House. But I am not sure if that is true, since conditions in Tinsley for those detained are as bad as in other more scandal-ridden centres. For example, one of the visitors I spoke to said that people find healthcare in Tinsley as inadequate as in other detention centres. The latest Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) report  (p.10)on Tinsley published in June this year highlighted concerns about the detention of vulnerable people in Tinsley: “During the year there were 98 Rule 35 (people assessed as vulnerable) reports on the basis of which only 20 detainees were released, with detention being maintained in the remaining 78 cases

The IMB report also reveals there were 24 suicide attempts in 2018 and 31 people held there in 2018 were put on 24-hour suicide watch due to imminent self-harm concerns. The lack of media and public scrutiny at Tinsley means that any issues with this centre may remain invisible. Brook House is a scandal hit detention centre, like many others, and it is regularly in the news. But if immigration detention itself is a scandal, Tinsley House should be considered equally as a place of scandal. 

Tinsley House | Unlocked19

I visit for the injustice

I asked the visitors why they decided to start visiting in the first place, and the answers I received made me feel quite encouraged. One of them said that they initially heard about detention centres through another experienced visitor. She said hearing about the injustice that dwells inside those walls and what people held in those places go through “boiled my heart and I decided to become a volunteer visitor”. 

Another visitor said, “I feel quite passionate about trying to help people with past convictions, as not many are on their side. A lot of the focus is around ‘classic refugees’. Yes, they have made mistakes, they have served their sentence and justice has been done. I really dislike the way as a society we have an awful way of saying this person has committed a crime and that person is disregarded for life”. This was refreshing to hear since many people fall into the pitfall of a ‘deserving vs non- deserving approach’ when they talk about the rights of people in immigration detention. 

When we talk about detention, it is important to talk on behalf of everyone in detention, irrespective of their circumstances, their background and why they are in immigration detention in the first place. What detention could do to people, how it makes people shattered, and how it pushes people over the edge are applicable and relevant to all people in immigration detention. Let’s consider immigration detention as a human rights and civil liberties issue – applicable to anyone incarcerated in those places.

 

Your guide to #Unlocked18

#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.

Week 1: Welcome to Unlocking Detention 2018

22 October: Welcome to #Unlocked18!

Detention Forum Project Director Eiri Ohtani welcomes you to the 5th year of Unlocking Detention.

22 October: Unlocking Detention timeline

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.

22 October: Immigration detention: The glossary

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

23 October: ‘When I become untamed’: Reflections on life in detention

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. 

25 October: Depicting wisdom: Drawings from detention

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.”

29 October: Week 1: Launching #Unlocked18

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.

Week 2: Brook House and Tinsley House

29 October: We can make this world like heaven, or we can make it like hell

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”.

30 October: #28for28: Working for ‘the better imagined

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. 

31 October: How to help end indefinite detention

Zehrah Hasan, Policy and Campaigns Assistant at human rights campaigning group Liberty, writes about Liberty’s campaign to ‘End Indefinite Detention’.

1 November: Live Q&A with Marino in Brook House

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?”

5 November: Week 2: #Unlocked18 visits Brook House and Tinsley House

Week 3: Prisons and short term holding facilities

5 November: No one left behind: Including people detained in prisons in immigration detention reform

Benny Hunter, from AVID (the Association for Visitors to Immigration Detainees), reminds us that people detained under immigration powers in in prison are often left forgotten in demands for reform. 

5 November: ‘Your voice can make a difference’: Expert-by-Experience interviews a former minister about the parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention

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. 

6 November: Welcome and hospitality as a force of resistance and change: Sanctuary in Parliament 2018

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.

6 November: Immigration detention centres have no place in Manchester or the UK

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.

7 November: Immigration detention: Mental torture

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.

A. Panquang, Freed Voices

8 November: Detention happens closer than you might think

Katherine Maxwell-Rose, Digital Communications Manager at IMiX, highlights the uncomfortable fact that inhumane detention practices do not just happen elsewhere but also right here in the UK.

9 November: “Immigrants emigrate, hopeful anticipate

Ralph, detained for a total of 14 months in two prisons and a detention centre, wrote these lyrics reflecting on the impact of the UK’s immigration system on his life and family.

13 November: Week 3: #Unlocked18 visits short term holding facilities and prisons

Week 4: Yarl’s Wood

12 November: Theresa: letter from a hunger striker

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. 

13 November: Resisting state violence: The Yarl’s Wood hunger strike

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.

14 November: “For me, Yarl’s Wood was another torture

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.

15 November: Snow: Visiting in Yarl’s Wood

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.”

16 November: “Every day, they used to walk in and pick somebody”: Living with the uncertainty of detention and removal

Bristol Free Voice, a citizen journalism project, contributed this audio recording of a woman previously detained in Yarl’s Wood reflecting on her experience of detention.

17 November: Eight times in detention: Why?

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. 

22 November: Week 4: #Unlocked18 visits Yarl’s Wood

Week 5: Campsfield House

19 November: Campsfield closing: How did we get here, and what next?

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.

20 November: Looking back at #Unlocked15: “The involvement of experts-by-experience has always been one of the most meaningful parts of the project

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.

21 November: Campsfield closing: A history of resistance

In this second part of a two-part blog, a campaigner from Campaign to Close Campsfield looks back at the local history of resistance during the 25 years that Campsfield House detention centre was in operation.

22 November: Q&A with Siarhei in Campsfield House IRC

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.

23 November: The voiceless place

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?

Mohammed

27 November: Week 5: #Unlocked18 visits Campsfield House

Week 6: Harmondsworth and Colnbrook

26 November: “We both hoped there wouldn’t be a next visit”: The paradox of visiting detention

In the first of a two-part series from Detention Action, volunteer Anthony talks about his time visiting people detained in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook detention centres.

26 November: “I regularly speak to people who are in absolute despair

In a second blog from Detention Action, volunteer Mary-Ann talks about the eye-opening experience of providing casework support to people detained in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook.

27 November: Three years after Moroccan Jew’s death in detention, why no inquest?

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.

28 November: “Allowing people to see what might be possible”: Volunteering in detention

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.

Cashel Riordan, JRS UK volunteer

29 November: “I cannot do anything from here”: LGBTQI+ asylum seekers in detention

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.

Catherine, Detention Forum volunteer

29 November: Double-header Q&A: DAK and Seed answer your questions from Harmondsworth IRC

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.

30 November: “We are not outsiders, we are one of your own”: Hearing Voices peer support groups in detention

Mishka and Red (Freed Voices) and Akiko Hart (Hearing Voices Project Manager at Mind in Camden) discuss the role of peer-facilitated support groups for people who hear voices in immigration detention.

6 December: Week 6: #Unlocked18 visits Harmondsworth and Colnbrook

Week 7: Morton Hall

3 December: “I have seen that the detention system in the UK is broken

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.”

4 December: “There was a chance justice would be done

Mishka at Freed Voices (@FreedVoices) interviews Tamsin Alger, Deputy Director at Detention Action about her experience of the Detained Fast Track (DFT) strategic litigation and campaign. The DFT litigation was one of the key highlights of the 2015 Unlocking Detention timeline.

6 December: Immigration detention is mental torture

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…”

6 December: “Once a criminal always a criminal”, especially if you don’t have a British passport

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. 

Charlotte, Detention Forum volunteer

7 December: Your pocket Home Office phrasebook: A dialect of dehumanisation

Patrick Page, senior caseworker at Duncan Lewis Solicitors (@DLPublicLaw) and founder and editor of No Walls, contributed this widely-read blog on the insidious language used to dehumanise people in detention.

8 December: “The stain of detention will haunt us for the rest of our lives, but I don’t want it to define us”: Experts-by-experience give evidence to the JCHR inquiry

A. Panquang, a member of Freed Voices and Detention Forum volunteer, talks about giving evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ inquiry into immigration detentionalongside Michael, another member of Freed Voices.

13 December: Week 7: #Unlocked18 visits Morton Hall

Week 8: Dungavel

10 December: For many autumns to come

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.

Gareth, Detention Forum volunteer

11 December: Separation and abandonment as a result of detention

A. Panquang, a member of Freed Voices and Detention Forum volunteer, examines the lasting impact of the separation of families when a parent is detained.  

11 December: Because of detention | In spite of detention

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. 

12 December: When a ‘good’ inspection report is bad news

Kate Alexander, Director of Scottish Detainee Visitors, dissects the latest HMIP report on Dungavel detention centre.

13 December: Hidden in plain sight: Working with trafficked people in 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.”

13 December: “If I don’t come back, call my lawyer”: Practical solidarity for people at risk of detention

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?  

Catherine, Detention Forum volunteer

14 December: Rebuilding a life after detention

Indre Lechtimiakyte, who coordinates the Ex-Detainee Project for Samphire, tells us about the hopes, fears and challenges faced by people released from detention across the UK. 

14 December: Life after closure: The experiences of the Verne Visitors Group

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?”

18 February (better late than never!): Week 8: #Unlocked18 visits Dungavel IRC

Week 9: International Migrants Day

17 December: “It is only an accident of fate that I was born in the UK.” Interview with Baroness Hamwee about her detention reform work

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.

18 December: On International Migrants Day – reasserting humanity and dignity of people in 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 2: #Unlocked18 visits Brook House and Tinsley House

This is the first week that #Unlocked18 has focused on specific detention centres. From the 29th October to the 4th November, we ‘visited’ Brook House and Tinsley House, two detention centres next to the runway at Gatwick airport. Over 600 people can be detained across these two sites, both of which are privately run by G4S.

Here’s a recap of the week.

Rafiq’s story: “We can make this world like heaven, or we can make it like hell”

The week began with a blog by Rafiq about his experiences of being detained in Brook House. Rafiq successfully challenged the Home Office in court over the conditions in Brook House – the judge said that the Home Office had failed to look at the rights of Muslim in detention properly, and had discriminated against them.

Rafiq says:

My advice to anyone fighting the Home Office darkness is this: stay strong. You need to be very strong. You should try to understand the rules and the regulations, fight for justice, go to the court. If we fight, one day it will be right and fair for everyone.

The blog was accompanied by an illustration by @Carcazan.

#28for28

The second blog of the week came from Anna Pincus of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, focusing on the #28for28 campaign. The #28for28 campaign featured 28 videos of the stories of those who have experienced detention, released over 28 days to highlight the need for a 28 day time limit. Anna’s blog tells the story of the campaign: from idea to crowdfunding to realisation, how it was received, and what comes next. Anna reflects:

We realise we measured time in story. Opening out the 28 days has given us a new sense of the time. It felt a long time. An age. It felt too long to be incarcerated and not a lot to ask.

How to: Help end indefinite detention

Zehrah Hasan, Policy and Campaigns Assistant at Liberty, wrote a blog about their campaign to end indefinite detention. Zehrah’s blog clearly sets out the actions you can take to help end indefinite detention: from signing their petition, to writing to your MP, to organising your own campaign event.

Live Q&A with Marino in Brook House IRC

On the 1st November, we held the first live Twitter Q&A of #Unlocked18. We spoke to Marino (not his real name), who has been detained in Brook House since May. If you missed it, you can find a full recap here.

A huge thank you to Marino, and to everyone who sent us questions.

‘I leave you to judge’: Reflections from a visitor

The final blog of the week came from Richard (not his real name), a volunteer with Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group who has been visiting people detained in Brook House and Tinsley House for 13 years. He reflects on the stories of two of the people he visited during that time, and on the responses of some of the people he talks to about detention, asking:

Would these people change their minds if they were able to meet and listen to the stories of people who are detained? I believe they would. That is why the more the plight of people in detention is publicised, the better the chance they will be treated fairly.

Get involved!

Finally, a huge thank you to everyone who has been participating in the tour this week, and who has sent us selfies! On our website, you can read more about how to get involved and take action.

“I leave you to judge”: Reflections from a visitor

Image by @Carcazan

This piece comes from Richard (not his real name), a volunteer with Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group who has been visiting people detained in Brook House and Tinsley House detention centres for 13 years.  

In 2005 I heard about the work of Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group and got in touch with them to satisfy my curiosity. Since then I have been one of their many volunteers visiting people detained in Tinsley House and Brook House.

When I talk to people about what I do their eyes typically glaze over and the subject gets changed, maybe with a: “they shouldn’t be here anyway” or “they should be sent back to their countries, where they belong”. Would these people change their minds if they were able to meet and listen to the stories of people who are detained?  I believe they would. That is why the more the plight of people in detention is publicised, the better the chance they will be treated fairly.

It’s possibly true that not all those detained have a legal basis to remain in the UK, but so many have been through such awful experiences that it beggars belief that we choose to lock them up indefinitely, isolated from the support they deserve.

One of the first people I visited was originally from West Africa, but had been brought up since the age of 11 in Europe. Then, some 25 years later, he found himself threatened with removal to a country of which he barely had any recollection. Despite there being no proof that he was from that country, he was removed without appropriate travel documentation and consequently denied entry on arrival. The escorts who had accompanied him on the plane from the UK found a way of changing the minds of the immigration officials and he was allowed in. That marked the beginning of a struggle to start a life without his wife and two sons who he had been forced to leave in the UK, and not knowing any local language or customs. To this day, 11 years later, he is still struggling and cries down the phone to me in desperation.

Another young man was from a war-torn African country, where he had been captured and tortured. He escaped to the UK and was detained while his asylum claim was being processed. When I met him he was in an advanced post-trauma state, suffering from flashbacks and nightmares, plus a good deal of anxiety. He spoke only basic English but conversation did not seem important to him. Each week he met me and sat quietly, often with tears running down his face as he faced his internal demons. Each week I felt my attempts at reassurance and comfort were far too inadequate and doubted he would show up to meet me again next week. But he did.

Do these stories suggest an inadequacy in the detention system of effective legal representation and of support for emotional suffering? I leave you to judge.

Image by @Carcazan

The guide to #Unlocked17 blogs is here!

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!

16 October: Welcome to #Unlocked17

16 October: ‘Do you know what immigration detention is?’ Part 1 Told by Mrs A, expert-by-experience

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.

17 October: #Unlocked17 – a beginners’ level quiz

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.  

18 October: “We need it now. People are dying.” Freed Voices lobbying for #Time4aTimeLimit
The theme of this year’s Unlocking Detention is ‘action’ so who better to hear from than the Freed Voices group. Earlier this week, Mishka from Freed Voices joined campaigners Fred Ashmore and Timothy Gee from the Quakers to lobby the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable. We sat down with Mishka to ask him a few questions about the experience.

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.  

24 October: Photo essay ‘To Yarl’s Wood detention centre’
Yarl’s Wood detention centre is perhaps the most high-profile centres in the UK.  This photo essay is for those of you who have never been to this detention centre.

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.

Week 2 summary blog: #Unlocked17 visits Yarls Wood

Week 3: Brook House and Tinsley House

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. 

Week 3 summary blog: #Unlocked17 visits Brook House and Tinsley House

Week 4: Prisons and Short Term Holding Facilities

6 November: ‘There are no real seasons in detention. It’s just a grey blur. White noise.’
Immigration detention is sometimes described as ‘administrative detention in prison-like conditions’.  And the Home Office can detain people under immigration powers in prisons. In fact, as at 26 June 2017, there were 360 people held in prison establishments in England and Wales as “immigration detainees”. But what are the differences between being held in prisons and being held in detention centres?  Sam, from the Freed Voices, contemplates on this question. This piece was originally published in May 2017 by Detention Action.   

7 November: ‘No one has even thought of me or visited me’ – immigration detention in prisons
When we talk about immigration detention, of course we think of immigration detention centres.  But hundreds of people are also detained as “immigration detainees” in many ordinary prisons.  Ali McGinley of AVID shines light on this forgotten group of people and their daily struggles to be heard.

7 November: Parliamentary meeting on immigration detention on 16 November – is your MP attending?

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.)

Week 4 summary blog: Week 4: Prisons and Short Term Holding Facilities

Week 5: The Verne

13 November: ‘The Verne is closing but for those of us who experienced it, it will always be open’
We are told that the Verne detention centre will be closed at the end of 2017.  But is it really closing in the minds of those who were detained there? ‘Juan’ from Freed Voices responds to this news with this poem.

13 November: “When you see injustice – speak out!”: These Walls Must Fall in Manchester
Without people taking action, change won’t happen.  Luke Butterly of Right to Remain reports back on a recent campaign event of These Walls Must Fall which took place in Manchester.  This blog was originally published on Right to Remain’s website here.  

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.

15 November: The Verne IRC: on either side of the razor wire
Maddie Biddlecombe is a member of Verne Visitors Group in Portland and sent us this reflection.  The Verne detention centre is set to close at the end of 2017.   

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.     

19 November: #Unlocked17 Parliamentary Meeting on Immigration Detention

Week 5 summary blog: Week 5: #Unlocked17 Visits The Verne

Week 6: Campsfield House

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.   

21 November: WORKSHOP 11 DEC, GLASGOW – Oral histories of immigration detention: ethical approaches in research and activism

22 November: Slave Wages: How Our Clients Shone a Light on Detention Centre Exploitation
Toufique Hossain, Director of Public Law at Duncan Lewis Solicitors, specialises in challenging Government policy and practice in asylum and immigration law, with a particular focus on unlawful detention policies. He tells Unlocking Detention about the strategic litigation case of “slave wage” in detention centres he has been involved with and what it is like to represent people who are caught up in this never-ending nightmare of immigration detention.  

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. 

24 November: ‘When I first visited someone in immigration detention I knew I must speak out.’
Immigration detention is an important issue for many Friends (Quakers). Bridget Walker, who is part of the Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network, details the conditions she witnessed and those endured by detained peoples.  This blog was originally published by Quakers in Britain 

Week 6 summary blog: Week 6: #Unlocked17 visits Campsfield House

Week 7: Harmondsworth and Colnbrook                                       

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’.

1 December: From British playgrounds to Immigration Removal Centres
Authors: Candice Morgan-Glendinning and Dr Melanie Griffiths (University of Bristol) The following post is informed by an ESRC-funded project running at the University of Bristol. The research examines the intersection of family life and immigration policy for families consisting of British or EEA nationals and men with precarious or irregular immigration status. Further project information, including a report and policy briefings can be found here: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/ethnicity/projects/deportability-and-the-family/

Week 7 summary blog: Week 7: #Unlocked17 visits Harmondsworth and Colnbrook

Week 8: Morton Hall

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.  

6 December: Over 150 people demonstrate to mark 24 years since Campsfield ‘House’ opened
This blog was written by Bill MacKeith, joint organiser of the Campaign to Close Campsfield, for Unlocking Detention. Photos: Campaign to Close Campsfield

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.  

Week 8 summary blog: Week 8: #Unlocked17 visits Morton Hall 

Week 9: Dungavel

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.

Week 9 Summary: #Unlocked visits Dungavel

Week 3: #Unlocked17 visits Brook House and Tinsley House

Between 30 October and 5 November, #Unlocked17 visited Brook House and Tinsley House, near Gatwick airport. Brook House has 448 beds, and Tinsley 119. When Tinsley House was established in 1996, it was the UK’s first purpose-built detention centre. Since then, the UK’s detention estate has expanded substantially: there are now nine immigration removal centres (people are also detained in short-term holding facilities and prisons).
We’ve also seen a lot of action taken this week, with people speaking out against immigration detention and calling for change. This includes a #TheseWallsMustFall workshop in Manchester, a new report from Women for Refugee Women, and lots more selfies! Scroll down for a round-up.

Inside Brook and Tinsley

The average length of detention in Brook House, according to the 2017 Prison Inspector’s report, was three months. The inspection team found 23 individuals who had been detained for over a year. The report states, “The length of detention had increased substantially and no work had been undertaken to understand this“.

Two years in Brook House

This week we heard from Paul, who was detained in Brook House for over two years. Paul recalls, “After a year and a half in detention, I reached a point where I had simply had enough. I thought: release me back to my life in the UK, or remove me to Jamaica, if you must, but please let me get out of Brook. I just didn’t want to be stuck in a prison next to the runway at Gatwick anymore…. 
When I signed up to return, I thought that at least then I would get out of Brook quickly. But it took nearly 6 months still.”

Paul’s story is yet another reminder of why it is #Time4aTimeLimit.

We also revisited some powerful blogs written by experts-by-experience about Brook and Tinsley in previous years.
In 2016, we heard from Ajay, who wrote a letter to his former self – the one he knew before he was detained in Brook House. He writes, “I had to collect ALL my strength to write this letter. I am writing it in difficult circumstances. … I think detention changed me a lot to be honest. I wonder if you’d even recognise me now if we saw each other.”

In 2015, we heard from Yann. He was detained for four months in Brook House. He was then moved to Morton Hall, then Colnbrook, and finally Harmondsworth. Altogether he was detained for a year and a half before being released back into the community.

Thank you to all those who share their experience – and to those who have sent messages of support and encouragement! 

Time to write to your MP

On the blog this week, Jon Featonby explained why now is the time for everyone to start taking action against detention, to ramp up political pressure for change: “The next six months are crucial in terms of opportunities to push for reform of a system which, as Unlocked will show, is broken…
Whether it’s writing to your MP, asking to meet them in their constituency surgery, or simply tweeting at them, we can all do something.
You can ask your MP to write to the Home Secretary asking her to introduce a time limit on detention, ask a question in parliament, or sign up to this Early Day Motion calling for reform.”

Speaking out against immigration detention

This week, Jose of #FreedVoices spoke at Amnesty’s #WriteforRights event:

Manchester says #TheseWallsMustFall

Also this week, a full house for the #TheseWallsMustFall workshop in Manchester. There’s a whole Storify for the event here.

https://twitter.com/lukejbutterly/status/926189518813876224?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fstorify.com%2FDetentionForum%2Fthesewallmustfall-manchester-2-nov-2017

We are still here: new report from Women for Refugee Women

This week Women for Refugee Women launched a new report assessing the government’s Adults at Risk policy. It finds that the approach “is not working to safeguard and protect women who are vulnerable, and prevent them from being detained.” 

Selfies!

The selfies keep on coming! It’s brilliant to see so many people challenging immigration detention and saying it’s #Time4aTimeLimit. Here are just a few of them…

Week 3 of #Unlocked16: Brook House and Tinsley House

Week 3 of Unlocking Detention was all about Brook and Tinsley Houses. Together they make up the Gatwick site of detention, situated roughly 200 metres from the main runway at Gatwick Airport.
Brook House was opened in 2009 and is built to the standards of a Category B prison.  One year after opening,  the independent inspectorate that reports on the treatment and conditions for those in prison and other types of custody in England and Wales (HMIP) branded it “unsafe”and said, “Brook House was significantly compounded by poor design, which built in boredom”.
Tinsley House was opened in May 1996, the first ever purpose-built detention centre in the UK.  It’s the smallest detention centre in the UK, although there is sizeable expansion of an extra 100 bed spaces planned at Brook/Tinsley Houses.

We held another live Q and A this week – this week the interview was with Jon detained in Brook House.  Jon has been detained there for 18 months and counting. 
As Scottish Detainee Visitors said, these interviews offer “vivid insights into life in detention. They’re invaluable.”
Read the interview here

Blog posts and articles

It’s been a bumper week of Unlocked blog posts and articles!
First up, we had an incredible piece by Ajay.  This year, Unlocking Detention is particularly focusing on the impact of detention on an individual’s immediate social circle – their friends and family.  This piece by Ajay is the first of several on this theme from members of the Freed Voices group.
When he was asked how detention had impacted those around him Ajay said that ‘there was no one around me. There was only me…or who I used to be, anyway.’ And so, for this article, Ajay penned a letter to his former self – the one he knew before he was detained in Brook House detention centre.
Read Ajay’s letter here

Next up was a personal and engaging piece by James Wilson, director of  Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, who wrote about the hidden, human reality of indefinite detention.

Read James’ blog post here
We also heard from Lisa from Right to Remain, on the reaction of incredulity, anger and bewilderment when the public find out about immigration detention at the Unlocking Detention awareness-raising sessions she’s been running across the country.
Read Lisa’s blog here
Ravi Naik, Public and International Law Solicitor and Head of Public Law at ITN Solicitors, wrote as part of Unlocking Detention for our friends at Justice Gap – on the Home Office’s unlawful use of immigration curfews after release from detention.  Read “Released but not yet free” here.
Ravi also wrote a short piece explaining the legal situation and what people should do if they are given an immigration curfew on the Unlocked blog here. The post highlights how communicating immigration detention is not solely about abstract policy issues, but can also raise awareness of legal rights that those affected might otherwise be unaware of.

Also this week, Detention Forum members UKLGIG released the report they have co-written with  Stonewall, on the treatement of LGBT asylum-seekers in detention.  Read “No Safe Refuge” here.

The hidden, human reality of indefinite detention

Image courtesy of Michael Collins

By James Wilson,  director of Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group

Imagine being in prison but not held for a crime, counting up the days since you were detained but never able to count down to release, probably entitled only to 30 minutes of free legal advice which will conclude with the solicitor telling you that there is nothing they can do.  In the UK. In 2016.

Coming home

I started work at Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG) four months ago and in some ways it felt like coming home.  I’d worked in London for the past ten years – and still live there – but I grew up in a village in the lush Mid Sussex countryside about eight miles from Gatwick.  Many of my and my wife’s families live across Sussex.  I’ve worked with refugees and asylum seekers throughout my career, but working in Crawley has opened up conversations about my work with extended family and friends locally. They may not have been necessarily greatly sympathetic to detainees, but more commonly still haven’t known the detention centres at Gatwick were even there – why would you?  My dad retired after 40 years running his own freight business at Gatwick at the same time I was starting work across town; he knows the airport like the back of his hand but didn’t know about the centres.

There’s nothing I’d rather be doing than this, but I’d much prefer that we didn’t have to do it at all.

Incongruously, a few days before I was interviewed by GDWG, I went on an escape-from-a-locked-room experience organised for my brother’s birthday.  For those who have not heard of these yet, stay tuned…I believe they are proliferating around the UK at a rate of knots; any premises not already a branch of a coffee chain will be considered for a locked room experience.  The basic idea is straightforward: you and your group are trapped in a room and have to work together to escape from it.  Each room comes with its own scenario (a scientist has been kidnapped, a treasure map has been hidden) and a series of clues leads round the room until you eventually uncover some keys or another means of escape.  Reassuringly there is  always access to escape if you wish and a clock counting down until the time of eventual release if your ingenuity and team work has failed you.

Not all locked rooms have these soothing features.

A hidden reality

The UK is the only country in Europe that detains people indefinitely for immigration purposes. The detention centres are called ‘immigration removal centres (IRCs)’ but only 50% of those detained leave the UK on eventual ‘release’; the other half are released back to the UK, surely raising questions about the purpose of the IRCs regardless of one’s politics.  While the average stay in IRCs may be relatively short, detainees being held for months is common, and being held for years not rare enough.  I have met someone held for over five years; the team at GDWG once met a detainee who had been held for nine years.

It seems unlikely that we as a country would tolerate the indefinite detention of any other group of people.  Yet the human reality of indefinite detention seems to be hidden. As it isn’t a new development it doesn’t automatically announce itself as newsworthy.  Detention is little-known about and even less  understood amongst the public, and anyone trying to publicise the issue faces well-known challenges in terms of perceived public views of asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants.

On the doorstep of the airport

Two of the UK’s current nine IRCs are at Gatwick Airport, and Brook House and Tinsley House are ‘at the airport’ in a very literal way.  I had visited other detention centres before, but the first thing that struck me about Brook and Tinsley was their sheer proximity to the runway. Detainees calling our office for assistance sometimes can’t hear us because of the noise of a plane taking off.

At a deeper level the near-constant sound of aircraft must be a reminder of the looming threat of removal to a country where the detainee may face torture, persecution, poverty, and/or alienation.  From another perspective, Gatwick handled over 40 million passengers in 2015, which means an average of over 100,000 people sweep a few hundred yards past the centres every day, the vast majority unaware of the IRCs’ existence.

Tinsley House opened in 1996 as the first purpose-built IRC; Brook House, built to category B prison specifications, opened in 2009. 100 additional beds are currently being added to Tinsley and Brook, meaning the detainee population across the two centres will likely be approaching 700 by the start of 2017.  With the imminent closure of the Cedars pre-departure removal centre, Tinsley House will soon also see families sometimes detained there in the days before their removal from the UK.
Indefinite detention challenges us to decide what actions to take.

GDWG’s response

At GDWG we respond in several main ways. Firstly – the starting point and the heart of our work – we visit individual detainees.  We aim to be able to offer a volunteer visitor to every Gatwick detainee who asks for one.  The volunteer will visit the detainee once a week, offering a connection with the outside world, a listening ear, some practical support, and emotional support.

Secondly, we provide practical support – phone cards, second-hand clothing – and some casework, referring detainees on to solicitors and other agencies for specialist help where this is possible.
Thirdly, we stand (and walk) with detainees and try to make their voices heard.  For the past two years, our Refugee Tales project has walked across Kent, Sussex and London for a week during the summer, inviting ex-detainees to join us and pairing people with first-hand experience of the asylum and detention systems with established writers so that untold stories can be told.  Fourthly, we work through Detention Forum and with other organisations to campaign for a 28-day limit to immigration detention and for fewer people to be detained in the first place.  This work includes recognising the need to make practical suggestions to the government on alternatives to detention, hence supporting Detention Action’s work around this.  We also work to raise awareness of and challenge myths around detainees, refugees and asylum seekers, including running sessions in schools.

Common humanity

Cutting across all work on indefinite detention and the conditions within IRCs, I think, is the urgent need to re-humanize individuals who’ve had their individuality taken away, feeling lost and forgotten within our detention system.   Detainees are not just numbers, or ‘migrants’, or ‘refugees and asylum seekers’.

The detainee about to be removed to the country he left as a child and that he cannot remember; the detainee who would die rather than return to the horrors of their country of origin; the detainee who can’t afford to call their family or is (as with somebody I spoke to the other day) too ashamed of their current situation to have UK-based family visit them in detention.

It can be too easy to be divided by politics and labels, but by befriending our detainees and telling their stories we can recognise, and hope to help others to recognise, our common humanity.

Unlocking Detention ‘visits’ Tinsley House

Last week, Unlocking Detention visited Tinsley House, possibly one of the least well-known detention centres.

We heard powerful stories of the men that Nic Eadie, director of Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group, has met over eight years of visiting and supporting people detained in Tinsley.  Many of them speak with strong London accents, or Glasgow accents, or Manchester accents: “Almost as British as me”

Before he left Tinsley House John sent me some of his writings. In them he mixed his feelings of fear and dread with those of hope and strength. He tried to remain positive, drawing on the resilience that had helped him survive war, poverty, feelings of isolation, and a drug dependency that nearly killed him. In his last note he wrote me this:

‘I love life and hopefully life agrees with me. Nobody likes the feeling of being trapped, yet we all are somehow. One way or another we’re all trapped in a situation and do not completely feel free. My name is John, a detainee at Tinsley House. I’m not trapped in here. I’m here to expand my mind and meet people of different cultures and backgrounds. I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to pass through here, for I’m no longer naïve to certain people’s ways, or ignorant towards their religions and beliefs. I’ve learnt to live away from my loved ones until I see them again. And I’ll have a lot to tell them about my journey.’

We also heard from Colleen Molloy, City of Sanctuary National Development Officer, on the damage of indefinite detention.  City of Sanctuary supports the Detention Forum in calling for a time-limit on detention, and are holding their Sanctuary in Parliament event this week!

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

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

The week’s live Q and A was quite a special one.  It was with Isa, who had been detained TWICE in Tinsley but has recently been released.

Isa described the “ticking, ticking, ticking” of the clock with no time-limit on immigration detention (yet):

Sadly, Isa is not able to enjoy his new-found freedom, because of the constant threat of being re-detained. “This is no life”

Read the full Q and A here.

Almost as British as me

This blog post was written by Nic Eadie, director of Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (@GatDetainees). It was originally published by our #Unlocked15 partners, Justice Gap.

I’ve been working with people detained at Tinsley House and Brook House for over eight years now. In that time I’ve answered our phone to people who speak many different languages, so I have become something of an expert in recognising where a particular accent comes from when I am spoken to in English by someone from another land. But more and more I’ve been picking the phone up to men who sound very much like me. A British accent, often from London, sometimes Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester. Without exception they tell me how they don’t understand why they are there, how they didn’t know places like this existed, how they are now facing removal back to countries they left when they were children, and to which they now feel little or no connection, leaving everyone and everything they know behind. They are almost as British as me. But not quite.

I remember clearly one of the first people I met who greeted me in a strong London accent. John was from DRC, came to the UK more than 20 years previously when he was 9 years old, and had been granted indefinite leave to remain as a refugee here along with his family. He had two young daughters he clearly adored, but for a period of his life his addiction to crack cocaine held him firmly in its grasp and led him down a treacherous path. He told me of his life as a qualified chef, then of the chaos of his addiction as it took grip – about how he’d ‘died’ for ten minutes when he was stabbed, later to be resuscitated, and about how he’d committed a series of petty shoplifting and fraud offences to fund his habit. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a sentence of 6 weeks for stealing a steak. That pushed him over the 12 month threshold, and a deportation order followed soon after. John was a writer, both before and after his addiction, and he sent me numerous writings, all based in a spiritual outlook that was hard to define but went to the very heart of who he was. I visited John for almost six months, then suddenly he was gone. I never did find out where he went, whether it was back to the country he had fled from with his parents decades earlier, and where he knew nobody, but I can only assume that this was his fate. We had grown close and were he released he had promised me he would let me know. Before he went he talked a lot about how he was trying hard to find acceptance about what had happened in his life, to find some peace within himself, even during this difficult time when he was locked up away from everyone he loved.

John’s accent was most definitely from the Isle of Dogs, where he had lived until his detention. Since then I have heard many more British accents. Frequently they have been from men who have come to the UK during their early years, some even as babies, endured difficult childhoods which commonly included periods in care, entered the criminal justice system, then found themselves facing a triple punishment of prison, detention and deportation. These men then usually went on to spend long periods in detention, away from partners, children and wider family, watching as those ties were put under immense strain, and sometimes snapped entirely. They would often be the first to admit that they have made mistakes, that they deserved to be punished for their offences, but then fail to understand why that punishment hadn’t ended when it would have, had they had the same passport as all of their friends they had grown up with.

I remember Charles, who had been doing some volunteering with a charity that works with young people at risk of being recruited into gangs, as he had been himself a decade earlier, when he was picked up, three years after his last prison sentence had ended. He was informed that he was to be deported back to his home country, despite not having been there since he was 9 years old and knowing no one back there who could give him any kind of help. He was told he was a risk to the public, yet he talked to me at length about how he had not been involved with any gangs for almost five years and had turned his life around in the intervening period, going back to college and getting engaged to his long-term partner, whose two children had treated him as though he were their father. I read a report from a forensic psychologist who said his risk of reoffending was low, yet this has been dismissed by the Home Office. He asked me if I thought the Home Office actually believed it when they said they were removing him to make the UK a safer place when he had been working with young people to urge them to avoid the gang life and instead to engage in education and I couldn’t answer him.

Then there was Ali, who was facing the prospect of being sent back to a country he had never actually been to. He’d lived in the UK since he was three months old and had never left, after being born on a UK Army base in Europe, but was facing removal back to the Asian country where his father had been born. He had a history of mental health problems that saw him switch from cheerful and charismatic to frustrated and angry in quick succession. He saw his deportation as an effective death sentence. It was hard to see how he would be able to survive, dumped in a foreign land with nothing and no one.
There have been plenty of others.

Nobody says that these cases are easy. We do of course have laws that we all must abide by or face the consequences, and many of the people I’ve visited have indeed been punished for their actions via the criminal justice system. Some would say that those who break the rules should not be allowed to stay here, but my own experience is that when you actually meet and talk to the people behind the labels the stories you hear are much more complex than can be summarised in one simple rule. To deprive a father of his family, and to deprive children of their father and a wife of her husband, forever, there has to be overwhelmingly compelling reasons to do so. A drug addict stealing a steak surely cannot be a reason to split a family, and permanently deport a man back to a failing country with no means to survive.

Before he left Tinsley House John sent me some of his writings. In them he mixed his feelings of fear and dread with those of hope and strength. He tried to remain positive, drawing on the resilience that had helped him survive war, poverty, feelings of isolation, and a drug dependency that nearly killed him. In his last note he wrote me this:

‘I love life and hopefully life agrees with me. Nobody likes the feeling of being trapped, yet we all are somehow. One way or another we’re all trapped in a situation and do not completely feel free. My name is John, a detainee at Tinsley House. I’m not trapped in here. I’m here to expand my mind and meet people of different cultures and backgrounds. I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to pass through here, for I’m no longer naïve to certain people’s ways, or ignorant towards their religions and beliefs. I’ve learnt to live away from my loved ones until I see them again. And I’ll have a lot to tell them about my journey.’