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.


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.” 


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

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.’

The real cost of detaining migrants

This piece by Nic Eadie was first published by openDemocracy on 24 November 2014.  Nic is Director of Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group.
Several years after being rushed out of Tinsley House immigration removal centre near London Gatwick airport, one man still lies hospitalised, unable to move, reliant on the staff to keep him alive. 
A few years ago I visited an extremely vulnerable man in Tinsley House. Weeks later I received a phone call saying that he had thrown himself against a wall and broken his own neck. When I read that sentence back again it still shocks me and brings back memories that I wish I did not have. The next time I saw this man, who I will call John, it was in East Surrey Hospital, a few miles from Gatwick Airport, where I found him lying paralysed in a hospital bed. Today he still lies paralysed, requiring 24 hour care, and he will of course never recover. While this is an extreme example of what can happen to people when they are locked up indefinitely, it shows what is possible in these circumstances, and shines a light on how the system of immigration detention in the UK is failing those who are most vulnerable to its effects.
Tinsley House is often considered to be one of the better immigration removal centres in the UK. Successive reports by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons are largely positive, there have been no deaths at the centre, unlike at many others, nor have there been any major disturbances. Many of those we work with who have experienced life in more than one centre tell us Tinsley is better than most, and certainly far better than its bigger sister at Gatwick,Brook House. My experience of visiting there on many occasions over the last seven years is that many of the staff who work there are caring and compassionate, and see their job very much as making the stays of those held there are bearable as possible. And yet incidents like the one that happened with John still occur. The underlying problem, therefore, lies not in the conditions, nor the quality of the staff, nor the regime, though all of these are important and affect how many people deal with their detention. The problem is with a system which says it is OK to lock people up for the convenience of the state, while they make what is often very slow progress in resolving each person’s case, often with seemingly scant regard for the risks that this may pose to each individual, nor any effective way of ensuring that each person is not damaged to the extent that suicide seems like the only way out.
John was quite clearly struggling in detention when I saw him, and I was very concerned that he was seriously mentally unwell. He had been in Tinsley House for a few weeks, and in another immigration removal centre before that. I remember him telling me how desperate he was to return back to his home country where his wife and children had returned a few months earlier. He told me all he wanted was to go back home, but that there was a conspiracy by the Home Office to keep him locked up forever. He was paranoid, angry and desperate. I found out later that John had suffered from mental health problems since childhood. I had never seen anyone in such a condition before, and was so worried about his mental state that I informed the centre’s medical staff about my concerns, which is something I have only done on a handful of occasions before or since. While some action was taken by the staff at the centre, unfortunately they were unable to prevent the tragedy that unfolded a few days later. At a hearing many years later, the Judge found that negligence on behalf of both individuals at the centre and by the security firm who ran the centre were contributing factors; but he also found that John was so highly disturbed by that stage that nothing they could have done within the centre could have stopped him from doing what he did.
What does this say about our system of detention? Does it say that it is OK to lock up a man who did not even want to stay in the UK for months on end, simply for bureaucratic convenience, and even while his mental health deteriorated so severely and so clearly that when I got the call to say that he had broken his own neck it did not come as a great surprise to me?
My own experience of visiting and supporting hundreds of people in immigration detention over the years is that many, particularly the most vulnerable, of which John was undoubtedly one, are kept locked up for reasons that are very hard to fathom. The usual arguments of risk of absconding and risk of reoffending frequently make little sense when put under the spotlight; people who have committed documents offences or who have been caught working illegally being regarded as a potential risk to the public, men who have never failed to miss a ‘reporting date’ being considered a high risk of absconding. The people who make these decisions have often never met those whose immediate fate they hold in their hands, have little information to go on when making decisions about whether to detain or release, and when it comes to vulnerabilities and the ongoing harm being caused by detention there is often no information at all. The futility of detaining people for no discernible reason, for periods of time that often stretch into months and sometimes into years and on the basis of information that is incomplete at best, is clear to anyone who works with detainees. But not, it seems, to the Home Office, who continue to detain more and more people each year, and this year for the first time broke the 5,000 bed spaces mark, across IRCs, short-term holding facilities and prisons.
There has to be a better way. To treat vulnerable people with seemingly little regard for the damage that is being inflicted upon them is at best immoral, at worst inhuman. I have witnessed torture survivors being seriously re-traumatised by their detention, people so mentally ill that they had little idea of where they were and no idea of what was happening to them, and I have lost count of the number of people who tell me they could see no way out other than suicide.
While of course this is not the fate of the vast majority, that does not mean that we can just assume that they will probably be OK in the end. Assessing someone’s mental health is extremely difficult, and I am by no means a clinician, but you do not have to be a psychiatrist to know if a person sitting opposite you in the visits room is suffering beyond what is reasonable. Our immigration control system cannot be based on compassion alone, but it can be more understanding of those who are most vulnerable, and it can be much better at identifying those who are being unreasonably harmed by being locked up. Better decisions are possible.
The Vulnerable People Working Group of the Detention Forum, a network of 30 NGOs seeking to reform immigration detention in the UK, are calling for the development of a vulnerability assessment tool. This is based on other systems that are currently in use by the Scottish Refugee Council among others, albeit in a non-detention setting. This not only gives a much more rounded approach to vulnerability, bringing in a range of factors not currently considered, but is also able to track how this changes over time. We are calling on the government to investigate this as a matter of urgency. The right tool will benefit everyone. The Home Office will waste far less money detaining those who are most vulnerable, who often end up being released, and who often end up successfully taking them to court for unlawful detention. The benefits for those whose lives risk being shattered by detention need no explanation. Ample evidence is given on the pages of this Unlocking Detention series on openDemocracy.
Today John once again lies in a bed in a care home. Another day passes him by, unable to move, reliant on the staff to keep him alive. This is the real cost of detention.