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

Unlocking Detention has been the result of so many different people’s efforts. In this #Unlocked18 blog, Mishka and Red at Freed Voices (@FreedVoices) interview Lisa Matthews, Coordinator at Right to Remain, about her experience of co-running Unlocking Detention in 2015. While reading the blog, have a look at our timeline which shows the history of Unlocking Detention.


XX November 2018, Stoke and Liverpool

Hello Lisa,

We are Mishka and Red from the expert by experience group, Freed Voices. Our group has been involved with and contributing to Unlocking Detention for five years now. We made variety of contributions such as blogs, poems, podcasts and drawings. We believe that Unlocking Detention is a distinguished endeavour that is shining a beacon of light uncovering the hidden world of immigration detention in the UK.

We are aware that you had been involved with Unlocking Detention 2015. We would like to ask you a few questions about your experience. We look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes, Mishka and Red.


XX November 2018, London

Hello Mishka and Red,

I am a coordinator at Right to Remain, which is a coordinating member of the Detention Forum. Before joining Right to Remain in 2011 (we were then called NCADC), I worked in Cairo, providing psycho-social support to refugees. I have also worked in mental health community outreach with London’s Somali and Bangladeshi communities, in asylum and immigration legal casework, in integration case management with refugees, and in asylum advice. In the first year of Unlocking Detention, I helped with the tweeting on behalf of the Detention Forum and then went on to co-run the project in 2015.

Thanks for the questions! I’ve had to delve deep into my memory to answer these…

My answers are as below.

To Mishka’s questions:

1) What is/was the most fascinating and also meaningful element to you about Unlocking Detention 2015?

Perhaps the most memorable aspect of #Unlocked15 was its alignment with parliamentary advocacy. Unlocked was taking place as the 2015 Immigration Bill made its way through parliament.  With very little notice we found out that an amendment had been proposed to the Bill by Lord Ramsbotham, that would introduce a 28-day maximum time limit on immigration detention.

In just a few days, we managed to produce a campaign image and set up a system for people to email their MPs to vote in favour of the amendment.  We we delighted that thousands of people contacted their representatives in such a short space of time, and that Unlocking Detention provided such an accessible and positive platform for that.

Ultimately, the amendment was defeated, but the pressure on the government was such that a compromise amendment was passed which introduced automatic bail hearings after four months for some people in detention (which the Home Office is now saying they will reduce to two months as a pilot).

2) Why do you think that the involvement of experts by experience is/was important and how that changed the overall context of Unlocking Detention 2015?

My answer to this could also be my answer to question 1 – the involvement of experts-by-experience has always been one of the most meaningful parts of the project.

There were some really memorable pieces by experts-by-experience in #Unlocked15.  I still think about the Three Scenes in Campsfield piece. It’s such an affecting piece and is so poignant now we have the fantastic news of Campsfield closing next year.   And a Letter to Colnbrook, still so powerful.

Both of these pieces came from Freed Voices members, who are pioneers in the field of expert-by-experience campaigning.

And 2015 was the first year we did live Q and As with people currently detained in the detention centre that is the focus for that week.  These were conducted by my good friend Ben du Preez (ex of Detention Action), who was my partner in crime on the project, and we did some nice reminiscing about #Unlocked15 to help me answer these questions!  I still think that the Q and As are the most powerful aspect of Unlocking Detention. It’s a real chance to connect people outside of detention with those detained, get the voices of people detained out (and engage a wider variety of experts-by-experience), and hear about simple but important every day things about the reality of detention and you get a really human picture.

To Red’s questions:

1) To raise awareness in the general public about Immigration Detention is one of the goals of Unlocking Detention, which ways are being used to achieve this and how effective have they been?

I think one really effective way is the Q and As that I mentioned above – those these are not easy to do, because communication with people in detention is so (deliberately) difficult.

I also loved the way the public engaged with the visual part of the tour in 2015 – which was asking people to send pictures in of what they would miss if they were detained. It was a great creative exercise and also good for creating bonds of empathy, as people had to stop and think about what it would be like, being detained.  You also got a nice insight into people’s personalities and lives!

I also liked running Unlocked workshops in different communities and at different events, as a way of taking the project beyond just the online world.

2) What have been the main changes that you have noticed since Unlocking detention 2015, have they been positive or negative and what needs to be made with urgency?

I think Unlocked has been part of the growing anti-detention movement – there’s a lot more people now who know, care about and are taking action against immigration detention.  There’s been lots of different campaigning happening and I think we need that variety – arts and creative events like the Channel Project recently in Bristol, protests at detention centres, legal challenges, community organising in places that don’t have detention centres nearby but whose residents are affected by detention.

The UK urgently needs to reduce the use of detention – in my view, once this has happened (and it is long overdue), decision-makers will see that the world doesn’t fall apart when you don’t detain and it will be easier to make the case for ending detention altogether.

I would like to questions for you both as well, and I look forward to reading your answers.

Best wishes,



XX November 2018, Stoke and Liverpool

Hello Lisa,

Thank you for your insightful answers and for your questions as well.

Mishka’s answers:

1) What do you think are the most important barriers/obstacles to achieving radical detention reform?

I think there are many reasons: the lack of awareness around this issue among the wider public including the politicians themselves as well. Also, the current political climate; overall attitude towards migration and false narratives around immigration detention that have been difficult to break. I also see the lack of interest by the government to explore and invest on alternatives to detention as one reason. Achieving detention reform eventually means that less people are in detention and this goes hand in hand with alternatives to detention.

But I am glad to witness that this is changing. There is a cultural change within the Home Office itself and now the wider public is more aware of the realities of detention. As a result, now we are seeing a positive trend towards reform.

2) In your opinion, what makes Freed Voices such effective advocates? Is there something more than ‘just’ being experts-by-experience?

A traditional way of involving individuals with direct experience of the issue often involved activities such as turning people into case studies to play a role of victims, and solely to share their stories. Even though sharing your personal experience is important, doing ONLY this is not enough.

Freed Voices have challenged this and have managed to change this approach, when it comes to how Freed Voices are involving in the fight against detention. This has resulted in a situation where now the Freed Voices have become a group of advocates with authority and competence as well – in addition to the credibility that is innate just by being armed with first hand experience of detention. This combination is very effective.

Red’s answers:

1) Do you think being part of Freed Voices has had a positive impact on other areas of your life, outside of detention campaigning?

Yes, it certainly has. In my opinion, the impact of Freed Voices is so positive because the project not only engages with its members at a formal level. The commitment is serious and the aim is to support each other in our fight for improving not only ourselves but also others. Freed Voices is not only about the messages but also about an effective and convincing way to deliver those messages. To do this, you also have to work with the messenger, with his spirit, body, and soul. Freed Voices do all these things and more. At the end of every Freed Voices session, I don’t feel tired; instead, I always feel positive and energized. This has a positive influence in many areas of my life outside of detention campaigning as well.

2) If you were the Home Secretary, what change to detention would you make and why?

This is a tough question indeed. The Home Secretary is responsible for keeping the “House” in order but this should be done in accordance with the law. In relation to detention centres, the first step I would take is to introduce a 28 day time limit to reduce the use of detention in both time and scale. The nature and the purpose of detention centres have been badly eroded and this is something that affects not only the image of the Home Secretary but also the Government and the whole country in general. Fixing this would be one of my priorities as well.

Whilst detention still exist, I will implement a proper and fully independent mechanism of quality control, to make sure that these facilities meet the minimum standards and that everything is done in accordance with and respecting the law. Obviously, the most effective quality control body would be one that consists in undercover members that would go into the detention centres as if they were detainees. I am sure that the outcome would be quite revealing. One more thing: every immigrant should have access to support to prevent them experiencing and getting in trouble; usual prevention is better than cure.

Best wishes, Mishka and Red.

Light vs dark, humanity vs inhumanity: Unlocking Detention 2015

This piece, written by Lisa Matthews of Right to Remain, was originally published by Open Democracy 50:50.

Life in UK’s indefinite immigration detention regime evokes the ‘barbed wire disease’ experienced by ‘enemy aliens’ interned during the World Wars. We must learn from our past to end detention.

2015 was a significant year for challenging immigration detention. In March, the first-ever parliamentary inquiry into detention released its report, which called for fundamental reform of a system that looks up far too many people, for far too long. Protests outside detention centres grew and grew. After a series of legal victories, the detained fast-track system was suspended. In September, parliament debated detention, and heard cross-party voices calling for a time limit (the UK is the only EU state with no time limit on detention). Although the government is already planning its replacement to the fast-track system, the groundswell of popular opposition to detention will continue into 2016, as will litigation challenging operational aspects of the system. The Immigration Bill currently passing through the House of Lords provides a further opportunity for detention reform.

The last year ended with Unlocking Detention 2015, the second virtual tour of the UK’s immigration detention estate, the first of which was covered extensively on OpenDemocracy. Unlocking Detention is all about raising awareness of immigration detention, one of the gravest civil liberties issues in the UK today. The recent ‘Is Britain Fairer?’ report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, described indefinite immigration detention as a ‘serious challenge’ to the UK’s human rights record.

Each week from 21 September until 18 December 2015 we shone a spotlight on detention, focusing on a different detention centre each week. We first ran Unlocking Detention in 2014, to counter the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ barrier that prevents immigration detention receiving the attention it demands. Using twitter, blog posts, interviews and photos, we’ve shared fascinating and moving insights into people’s experiences of detention – from those who have been detained in the past, those detained right now, volunteers who visit people in detention, family members and communities affected by detention, and NGOs working to challenge the detention regime.

Right to Remain ran this year’s Unlocking Detention ‘tour’ on behalf of the Detention Forum – a network of over 30 NGOs challenging detention in the UK. We worked with Detention Action and a team of Twitter volunteers, with contributions from a wide variety of organisations and individuals, to start a conversation about an issue that is often seen as too ‘tricky’ to discuss, too technical or legal, or too tainted by association with the ‘immigration debate’ rather than being about human rights and human lives. We wanted to show that though there are of course technical and legal matters that underpin the practice of immigration detention, detention is not a complicated issue. The simple message is that detention is the deprivation of someone’s liberty, for the administrative convenience of the state, just because that person has sought sanctuary or security in the UK.

Highlighting the contrasts

Perhaps inevitably in a project designed to ‘shine a spotlight’ on a shadowy, murky world on injustice, this theme of light and dark has been particularly striking throughout the Unlocking Detention tour. The tension of the ugliness of detention versus the beauty of the outside world; the dignity of those in detention and those supporting people in detention versus undignified government policy; the inhumanity of the system versus the visceral humanity of those who shared their experiences during Unlocking Detention. All of this has played out throughout the three months of the virtual tour.

We asked people to share photo-answers to the question of what they would miss if they were detained without time-limit (or what they did miss, if they experienced detention already). This thought experiment seemed to inspire a eulogic response from some on the beauty of the British Isles. The darkness, the ugliness of detention (known all too well to many of the photo-answer contributors, as visitors to people in detention) prompted people to celebrate light and beauty.

The specific location of some of the detention centres we’ve ‘visited’ for Unlocking Detention provides a bleakly ironic contrast. The Verne detention centre in Dorset has an extraordinarily imposing and intimidating approach, and retains the feel of the old prison it used to be. It sits, however, looking over beautiful coastline with the sparkling blue sea tantalisingly close.

The irony of locations was noticeable, too, in Joe’s description of Dover detention centre (whose closure was announced during this year’s Unlocking Detention tour). Joe was detained in Dover for three years and describes “all you could see when you looked out of the window as the sea. You felt you were on the edge of a nation, sitting on the border. Sometimes you would get French signal on your phone or French stations on the radio.” The phone signal and French radio stations crossing borders with an ease those detained in Dover are denied.

A quiet contrast

When communicating the realities of immigration detention, we often invoke superlatives, scrabbling for the words to convey the profound impact on all those affected by detention, to those who may know nothing about it at all. We want to shout from the rooftops about this injustice, as we feel the experiences of those detained are silenced and that those with the power to change things cover their ears to our demands. But sometimes its the quieter, understated reflections that hit home the most. An anonymous article by a volunteer visitor to Campsfield House detention centre near Oxford provided a very balanced view of the conditions there, and the staff at the centre:

Some staff have explained that at least the most vulnerable are looked after well in the Centre. Certainly Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) praises staff relations with people detained at Campsfield. It may sound strange but I find all the staff likeable, concerned and thoughtful – admirable in many ways, people for whom I have a lot of respect. However, in the many conversations with staff, the very fact of being deprived of one’s liberty never seems to register as a big thing, even though it is recognised as one of the most fundamental rights the world-over… This is what is so worrying to my mind, because it shows how institutions condition our thinking and actions, and the effects on the people detained are truly disturbing. In some cases the effects are stark.

As one reader said of this piece, it is a contrast of a dignified response to such an undignified government policy.

Another duality can be found in juxtaposing how Unlocking Detention reveals new, striking ways of describing the familiar, repeated woes of immigration detention.

Many people were struck by this contribution from Yaw, currently detained in Harmondsworth: “I’ve been detained 9 months. I never thought it would take this long. You can have a baby in 9 months!” This memorable turn of phrase describes an oft-repeated problem – the limbo, the uncertainty of indefinite detention in the UK, the only EU country without a time-limit on immigration detention.

Historical echoes

The effects of the deprivation of liberty are not just familiar from the recent exposure, nor from the many years people have supported those in immigration detention. There are echoes of Britain’s past detention regime, too.

A common, devastating observation from those who visit people in detention is the deterioration of people’s physical and mental state over time.

The account of the unravelling of a human being described in a piece on Campsfield detention centre, about “Adam, a highly articulate intelligent man who spoke very good English, was humorous, friendly, chatty and participating in many of the activities at the Centre” is heartbreaking.

As is this from David, a visitor to the Verne detention centre:

The first chap I visited was educated and articulate, and had been active in his community in London. But the time he was detained broke his spirit (not permanently I hope). He became distressed and frustrated, to the extent of talking about ending it all.

On reading these accounts, I was reminded of the descriptions of ‘barbed wire disease’ experienced by the Germans, Italians and others considered ‘enemy aliens’ interned in the UK during World War I and II. The letters, diary entries and poems of those interned portray the apathy, the loss of spirit, the deep sense of waste, engendered by their detention:

My dearest Mabel … I am sorry to disappoint you as I see you expected to see me in a better state of mind. I try to smile but it seems too hard at times. It will be 12 months away from you by the time you get this. A wasted year of my life never to return. (letter from Benny Cseh, quoted in “Ally Pally Prison Camp” by Maggie Butt).

We lost all count, all sensation of time. Time stands still where there is no aim, no object, no sense … Such monotony is a state very near death (Extract from Paul Cohen Portheim’s memoir, quoted as above).

While we continue to repeat the injustices of the past, it remains essential to illuminate the lived human experience of the current practice of detention. During World War II, a public outcry about the indiscriminate internment of ‘enemy aliens’ led to a government U-turn on internment policy. If we can repeat the past’s mistakes, we can also learn from our past successes. Popular opposition to and parliamentary discussion of modern immigration detention has never been greater, and we continue to shine a spotlight to chase the shadows away.

Taking on the hostile environment

Image courtesy of Freed Voices

This blog post was written for Unlocking Detention by Anna Lindley.  Anna is a senior lecturer at SOAS, University of London, and volunteers with Asylum Welcome and Close Campsfield.

The government continues working to ensure a hostile environment for ‘unwanted’ immigration. Meanwhile, efforts by the UK public to show solidarity with people on the hard end of government measures are becoming more and more vital.

‘#Unlocked15’ has gloriously illustrated both sides of this coin. This tour has documented in detail the inhumane impacts of immigration detention. But at the same time it has illuminated the efforts of people working hard to break the isolation of those detained, and to change the system.

As a researcher and as a volunteer myself, I am interested in these efforts, by some of the UK public, to engage with immigration detention. How do we go about connecting with people held in detention, challenging how it works, and what do we learn along the way? What motivates and sustains people in this endeavour and what kinds of alternative approaches to migration are imagined? How does all this relate to wider issues and trends in contemporary social mobilisation?

I find myself exploring a few key – and often over-lapping – areas of activity. The first is connecting with people held in detention, building relationships with individuals, offering emotional and practical support. Second, there is raising public awareness about detention – in local communities, in places of learning, work and worship, in the media and online. The third area of activity involves challenging the system: monitoring detention decisions and practices, mounting strategic legal challenges, and pushing for change at political level. Finally, these various areas of activity often imply talking with each other: networking within and between the many groups and organisations across the country dedicated to detention, migration and human rights issues.

Despite the hostile political climate, as I listen to people involved in these efforts (visitors, caseworkers and campaigners; volunteers and paid workers; people with and without personal experience of detention) I am struck by a sense of momentum. On all fronts and across the country, there have been developments in 2015.

People especially point to the Parliamentary Inquiry and increased political interest, public advocacy by people who have been affected by detention, hard-hitting media exposés, the legal challenge to the Detained Fast Track, and major protests both within and outside detention centres across the country throughout the year. People also talk about quieter but significant local developments and achievements. Unsurprisingly there are some differences among in terms of goals and approaches, but there is significant shared ground and huge dedication and energy.

It will be needed: in the light of an immigration bill that looks set to worsen rather than improve the situation, 2016 holds new and grave challenges.

If you have experience of supporting people in immigration detention, and are willing to fill out a short questionnaire, please click here.

This survey is part of a research project seeking to understand how and why people engage with immigration detention issues. The questionnaire asks about your experiences, views and background. It only takes a few minutes to complete.

Unlocking Detention ‘visits’ Dungavel

Last week, Unlocking Detention visited Dungavel, Scotland’s only detention centre and the final stop of the #Unlocked15 tour.

Also last week, Human Rights Day was held, a stark reminder of the rights being denied to those detained – over 30,000 people every year, deprived of their liberty, indefintely.

Dungavel was an appropriate centre to end our tour on – one of the most distinctive centres, one of the most remote, and one of the most fiercely contested.


Throughout Unlocking Detention, we’ve been asking people what THEY would miss if they were detained, without time-limit.  Here’s one response we had last week:

Bridget Holtom, a volunteer for Scottish Detainee Visitors, wrote a very thought-provoking piece on criminality, detention and migration:

As I reflect on where I would now draw the line on immigration and crime and how the debate has changed over time online, it is evident we still have a long way to go. There is still a tendency to talk about the injustice of detaining people who’ve “committed no crime”. Furthermore there is a tendency to emphasise petty crimes and avoid any mention of more serious ones that people may commit. Therefore, there are bigger, unaddressed questions about criminality and immigration that must be unpicked in order to end immigration detention once and for all.

We heard from Alison, whose foster-daughter was detained in Dungavel in 2008 when she was just 16 years old.

I checked my phone for messages:
Received: 10:46, 08-05-2009. Message from home. click. “She’s in Dungavel. Deportation in a week unless solicitor can stop it.”

All the clichés are true. time and space slow down. There is a sudden shaking in my hands. The sound of colleagues talking about submission rates fades and I feel surround by silence. My fingers are heavy. I can’t get the phone to close. My fingers are shaking. I drop the phone. Pause. Breathe in. Turn to the colleague on my right – a gentle man – and make some stumbling apology about needing the phone home. In my feet, the blood from my face. On the stairs my partner picks up:

“It went about as badly as is possible.”
“I’m coming home.”

Read Alison’s Diary of a Dungavel Detention.

On Friday, we spoke to Matthew who is currently detained in Dungavel.  Matthew’s community is in London, so cannot come and visit him. Thankfully, he is supported by Scottish Detainee Visitors but detention is still a very isolating experience.  Read the interview with Matthew here.

Some reflections on the closure of Haslar Immigration Removal Centre

Image courtesy of Michael Collins

This blog post was written for Unlocking Detention by Charles Leddy-Owen. Charles is a Trustee of Friends Without Borders and Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Portsmouth.

Haslar Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) held between 150 and 190 male detainees at any one time from 1989 until the spring of 2015. The centre was situated in the town of Gosport, a short ferry ride across the Solent from Portsmouth. From early 2014 up until its closure I visited detainees of Haslar on behalf of Portsmouth based organisation Friends Without Borders. Through these visits I encountered an extraordinary range of individuals and stories – though it would equally be true to describe these encounters as simply ordinary given the basic everyday commonalities that we shared regardless of the detainee’s background or how they might be labelled and categorised by the media or law. It came as a significant and welcome surprise to everyone involved in visits to Haslar when the centre’s closure was announced and swiftly carried out earlier this year. The immediate reaction from campaigners and volunteers, locally and nationally, was one of elation, with a general feeling of ‘one down, thirteen (IRCs) to go!’ Any celebration was of course tempered by the knowledge that the coalition government was committed to reducing net migration, sabotaging legal aid and the appeals process, streamlining removals, and so on. One fear discussed around the time Haslar closed surrounded whether the closure of IRCs like Haslar, and more recently Dover, might merely be heralding the greater use of removal centres nearer airports to facilitate speedier deportations.

As visitors we all abhorred the role of Haslar in wrecking so many people’s lives.  However, I think it’s also fair to say that many of us who regularly visited felt a surprising sense of loss when these visits came to an end. I suspect this is largely because of the stories shared and friendships forged. One detainee’s recounting of what happened during a chilli-eating competition they had held in the centre made for a particularly enjoyable visit, and I’ll never forget the gallows humour of another detainee whilst we reflected on whether it would make more sense time-wise to fight or expedite his deportation given the impending start of the 2014 World Cup Finals which he was determined not to watch in detention. These amusing moments were of course always underlined by feelings and expressions of sadness and anxiety. Anyone who visited Haslar, particularly long-term detainees, would often leave feeling angry and/or distressed about the terrible pain that this institution was helping to inflict upon men who had done little if any actual harm to society. Most conversations during visits revolved around absent families and immensely frustrating legal cases. Sometimes visitors were able to help out in some small way – whether in terms of contacting a solicitor, bringing some reading material or topping up their phone credit – though we most commonly helped simply by providing company and a change of routine for detainees. What we as visitors perhaps also missed about our visits to Haslar was the feeling of being able to ‘do something’ tangible and meaningful on a regular basis for individuals caught up in Britain’s unjust and punishing border controls.

There were some questions asked when Haslar closed about whether Friends Without Borders could continue as an organisation. It was soon decided that the answer must be a resounding yes, because exactly the same issues faced by those we visited in Haslar remain hugely salient for residents of Portsmouth who are free but still affected by border controls. The organisation delivers, along with the Red Cross, a twice-weekly drop-in where service users can obtain advice or support at a place where they and their children can relax and socialise; and through its Access to Justice scheme Friends Without Borders provides the only free immigration legal advice in the city and surrounding area. Although, since Haslar closed, detention is happening slightly further away from Portsmouth, it very much remains on the horizon as a concern for a great many of Friends Without Borders’ service users who may be, or may have loved ones, facing the threat of detention and removal. The threat in itself is horrifying for many of those it affects – the term Kafkaesque is regularly misused today, but the anthropologist Melanie Griffiths is absolutely correct to use it when describing the seemingly endlessly delaying, routinely nonsensical and sometimes downright surreal character of the Home Office’s border control practices. Today Portsmouth might be more physically distanced from the institution of detention, but sadly it remains no less relevant to many living in the city and to the work of Friends Without Borders.

In her book Inside Immigration Detention Mary Bosworth describes IRCs as institutions that serve to estrange detainees from wider society. Our experiences of visiting detainees in Haslar suggested that IRCs can also become sites of contact and resistance to this estrangement (a pattern Bosworth finds examples of in relation to IRC staff-detainee relationships). If the present government succeeds in streamlining removal processes, and more generally if it succeeds in its goal to prevent or severely limit the numbers of asylum seekers and refugees arriving in the UK in the first place, there is perhaps a danger that the British population’s sense of contemporary connection to certain parts of the world, particularly the Global South, may be further attenuated. Although some sympathetic feeling towards refugees has been evident in recent months it has been coupled with considerable suspicion and hostility. The cynicism and opportunism threatening to emerge in relation to certain interpretations of ‘the refugee crisis’ was clearly demonstrated recently in Portsmouth where Friends Without Borders campaigned unsuccessfully against the city council’s extraordinarily cruel and mean-spirited motion to send a letter to the Home Office requesting that the city be removed as an asylum cluster area (i.e. an area to which asylum seekers are dispersed and housed). If this kind of isolationist thinking gains further traction then it may lead to reduced social contact between British citizens and those such as asylum seekers, disproportionately from the Global South, who are amongst the most negatively affected by geopolitical conflicts and inequalities. The challenge is to try to develop and politically act upon feelings and realities of connection with the people who many politicians and much of the media routinely portray as separate from ‘us’ and ‘our’ society, and to do so even when border control practices seek to deny or obscure these connections.

Is there to be a “silver lining”? Detention reform and the Immigration Bill

This article was written for Unlocking Detention by Jon Featonby.  Jon is parliamentary manager at the Refugee Council and parliamentary lead for the Detention Forum.  This article was originally published by our #Unlocked15 partners, Justice Gap.

On 1 December, I, along with over 150 other people, made my way to the Houses of Parliament to celebrate Sanctuary in Parliament II. Organised by City of Sanctuary, and hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, the event brought people together from all over the UK to call on parliamentarians to do more to welcome refugees.

As those in the committee room where Sanctuary in Parliament was being held heard from people who have been on the sharp end of the UK Government’s intransigent and inhumane immigration system — joined by a stream of MPs who dipped in-and-out in between other commitments — downstairs in the House of Commons the Immigration Bill was being debated.

I’ve written previously about how this bill is an extension of the Government’s “hostile environment” agenda. It extends the right to rent provisions introduced in the last Immigration Act that, when piloted, made landlords far more likely to discriminate against anyone who is not obviously British. The bill also removes support for families who have come to the UK to seek asylum but who have been unsuccessful, an example of the Government using enforced destitution to encourage people to leave the country.

The bill does nothing to address the many concerns created by the enforcement-led nature of Home Office policy, including the UK’s reliance on wide-scale use of immigration detention. Detention was one of the central themes of Sanctuary in Parliament this year and one of those to speak was William of Freed Voices, who had been detained for two and half months before being released and granted refugee status. William asked, quite rightly, what was his detention for?

At the same time that William was asking that question, downstairs MPs were calling on the Government to change the way detention is used. MPs from the Conservatives, the SNP and Labour all pushed for reform, as the House of Commons debated several amendments that had been tabled aiming to right some of the wrongs.

For much of the afternoon, reform of the way the UK uses immigration detention dominated debates, reflecting Labour MP Keir Starmer’s remark that detention “is a matter of increasing concern to many in this House and beyond.”  Most of the amendments sought to address the lack of a time limit on how long people can be held in detention, building on the recommendation of the Parliamentary Inquiry into Immigration Detention that no one should be detained for longer than 28 days.

Stuart McDonald, the SNP’s immigration spokesperson, said the possibility of introducing a time limit on detention would be a “piece of silver lining on the dark cloud represented by this Bill”, while the Conservative MP Richard Fuller argued for reform saying that detention “has moved from being a part of the immigration system to being the substantive and default position.”

Another Conservative MP David Burrowes, who like Fuller served on the parliamentary inquiry panel, responded to a claim by one of his party colleagues that a time limit would be arbitrary by pointing out that in fact “it is arbitrary to have an indefinite time in detention”. It is, said Burrowes, “an issue of fairness and due process.”

So how did the Immigration Minister James Brokenshire respond?

The answer would seem to be “not yet”.

In his reply, Brokenshire pointed to the review that Stephen Shaw has carried out into the welfare of people held in detention. This review has, Ministers have admitted, been submitted to the Home Office who are deciding on their response before publishing it. Brokenshire promised that it would be published in time for the House of Lords to take it into consideration when they debate the bill in detail in the New Year, but even so we know that the idea of a time limit was outside the review’s scope.

The Immigration Minister also stated that detention “has to have removal at its focus” and should be used “sparingly and for the shortest period necessary”. This is also what Home Office guidance says. Yet, as the parliamentary inquiry found, practice does not reflect policy. The majority of people who leave detention are, like William, released into the community rather than removed. The parliamentary inquiry found the longer people are detained, the less likely they are to be removed.

Brokenshire announced that as well as the Shaw Review, the Home Office are conducting an internal review “in the light of our focus on efficiency and effectiveness”. More details of what this review looks like are likely to be forthcoming, but it may be too much to hope that issues of dignity and fairness are among its central themes.

So what’s next?

The Bill now makes its way to the House of Lords, where peers will hold their Second Reading debate on 22 December. In-depth scrutiny of the Bill will then take place in the New Year. Peers could do worse than to hear William’s words when talking about his time being detained without a time limit:

“When I looked forward there was nothing”.

Diary of a Dungavel Detention

This blog post was written for Unlocking Detention by Alison Phipps.  Alison is Professor of Languages and Intercultural Studies at the University of Glasgow, and Convener of Glasgow Refugee, Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet).

Friday May 8th 2009

11am: The colleague opposite me was talking about performance indicators for postgraduate study in the arts and humanities and how we would ensure appropriate audit. Another day in the University of Glasgow and the birth of another form, with another tick box to ensure accountability. I’m a little on edge and distracted. A young girl, staying with us for protection as our foster daughter, has to report to the UK border agency in Brand Street, Govan, for the first time and my partner has gone with her. There is a slight pause at 11 am between items on the agenda for colleagues to refill their coffee. I checked my phone for messages:

Received: 10:46, 08-05-2009. Message from home. click. “She’s in Dungavel. Deportation in a week unless solicitor can stop it.”

All the clichés are true. time and space slow down. There is a sudden shaking in my hands. The sound of colleagues talking about submission rates fades and I feel surround by silence. My fingers are heavy. I can’t get the phone to close. My fingers are shaking. I drop the phone. Pause. Breathe in. Turn to the colleague on my right – a gentle man – and make some stumbling apology about needing the phone home. In my feet, the blood from my face. On the stairs my partner picks up:

“It went about as badly as is possible.”

“I’m coming home.”

At home there are what the press teaches us to call ‘emotional scenes.’ I’m trying to get practical, trying to hear the story, trying to understand, trying to concentrate, moving into rapid action. Moving into tears. “We have to take her things up to Dungavel.” His face is drawn. There is more to come later, more to be told of the questioning at Brand Street. The moment when the key turned in the locked behind her and he felt he’d betrayed her, handed her over to the authorities. The only box on the forms for what we do, as hospitality, it seems, is trafficking.

My partner is in shock at the questions he has been asked and from his experience at the Home Office. I proceed to pack her belongings into her tiny suitcase. She doesn’t have much and quite a bit of what she has she has been given in the last couple of months. Pictures drawn for her by young children at church, Easter eggs and cards. We begin initial phone calls and emails, starting with our own near friends, neighbours, family. I’m shaking as I pack. I’ve visited Dungavel for years as a befriender with Scottish Detainee Visitors and had recently ceased visiting to attend to the hospitality we were offering at home more fully. Dungavel is a prison. It is no place for a 16 year old girl.

We speak to her lawyer. I go back and teach my Friday afternoon classes and by the time I get home she is in Dungavel. We borrow a car and drive the hour south of Glasgow to Dungavel with her belongings. Much of what we have taken up – the Easter Eggs, the nail varnish and hair oil, her belt and scarves, we cannot leave for her. They are bagged up in HM prison bags for us to collect on our way home. At last we are able to enter the visits room and she meets us, sobbing. We all are. Apparently she’d been told in the UK Border Agency cell, in Brand Street, that she didn’t need to worry because ‘Dungavel is like a big cinema.’

Saturday – after a sleepless night – we began to piece together the possibilities of a campaign.

Sunday – a breathing space. A visit again.

We get used to the Dungavel road. As luck would have it I am on annual leave for the week so on Monday morning I begin contacting our MSPs, MP and her solicitor, and all those we know in the asylum campaign networks. Out goes the first request for action and support. The response is incredible. Letters and emails begin to pour in to the politicians, responses come, creative ideas – the resourcefulness of good people is alive and escaping and full of hope. Driving up the Dungavel Road every evening that week I listen again and again to the words of singer songwriter Tim Spark’s album, Nikko Fir, and these words of injunction echoing down the centuries.

Give shelter to the homeless
Feed the hungry
and you shall rise like the dawn.

What does it mean, I wonder, I still wonder, to rise like the dawn? To this day I cannot drive that road without hearing the traces of that times, and his song.

By Thursday we have an application in for a Judicial Review with release. By Friday we have an advocate. In between times we learn via the networks into the home office that she is to be moved on 19th and deported on 21st.

Friday night: Text from her in Dungavel: “22:53. Hi alisn this crazey peple talk to me to get ready on 20 min to move and I refes them. good night love u by.”

And that was the last message we received from her before her sim card was taken too and she no longer had any means of contacting us. Saturday was a crazed day of searching Scotland for a lawyer to prevent the movement south and out of the reach of the Scottish Judicial Review. We were thwarted. On Sunday she was moved to Yarl’s Wood, near Bedford, and then served her removal papers. Now, of course, we would have to pay for a lawyer, as she had moved jurisdictions.

As is typical of these cases she was eventually released, granted refugee status and given a life in the UK.

Another colossal waste of money and energy, another person with no way of trusting bureaucratic processes and officials ever again.

And another ex-detainee who would compare Dungavel to Yarl’s Wood and say in Dungavel there was at least some tiny modicum of respect shown but in Yarl’s Wood “people cry all the time.” 

Where do we draw the line on migration and crime?

Image courtesy of Scottish Detainee Visitors and the Life After Detention group.

This blog was written as a reflection on a collaborative research project recently undertaken by Scottish Detainee Visitors (SDV) with people released on bail and temporary admission from immigration detention in Scotland. This blog was written for Unlocking Detention by SDV volunteer and Masters of Research student Bridget Holtom, and the film ‘Detention Without Walls’ was co-produced by the Life After Detention group.

When I first began visiting immigration detention centres 5 years ago, like many others I naïvely thought that most people I would meet would be asylum seekers and refugees. Although the categories are not mutually exclusive, in reality around half of those administratively detained in the immigration detention ‘estate’ have served criminal convictions in prison. Furthermore, with the celebrated success of the suspension of the Detention Fast Track, more and more voices from inside detention are from those who have spent criminal convictions. This year I have read various articles that challenge individuals and organisations to consider the implications of campaigns which emphasise the good, hard-working and contributing migrant in contrast to the dangerous, undeserving detainee. Just last week, Nic Eadie’s blog ‘Almost as British as Me’ told powerful stories about people who have committed petty crimes and are awaiting deportation inside immigration detention. As I reflect on where I would now draw the line on immigration and crime and how the debate has changed over time online, it is evident we still have a long way to go. There is still a tendency to talk about the injustice of detaining people who’ve “committed no crime”. Furthermore there is a tendency to emphasise petty crimes and avoid any mention of more serious ones that people may commit. Therefore, there are bigger, unaddressed questions about criminality and immigration that must be unpicked in order to end immigration detention once and for all.

The deportation of ‘foreign criminals’ was brought to the public’s attention in 2006 when the news broke that over the previous decade 1,023 foreign national ex-offenders had not been considered for deportation. Following the resignation of then Home Secretary, MP Charles Clarke, the 2007 UK Borders Act introduced automatic deportation orders for non-EEA nationals sentenced to 12 months or more in prison or whose sentences over the past 5 years cumulatively add up to more than 12 months. Following that, the UK 2014 Immigration Act added a clause to the British Nationality Act 1981, which permits the Secretary of State “to deprive a person of a citizenship status” if the “deprivation is conducive to the public good” and if the person might be able to “become a national of another country or territory.” This means that even ‘foreign nationals’ ‘with status’ such as Leave to Remain or naturalised citizenship visas, can be stripped of their status.

With each new immigration act, another line is drawn, encircling previous residents and refugees with the right to remain and creating a new category of people, who can for the first time be legally be detained, deported or made destitute. Many of those detained in both prisons and detention face charges relating to their immigration journey itself. Although individual cases are not disclosed in the film ‘Detention Without Walls’, each tells the story of a transformation into illegality. Most people who took part in the film had entered the UK via legal routes but their status had changed over time. Some overstayed temporary visas, some breached their reporting conditions, others came to the end of their asylum appeals process and were found to be working illegally. For example, Ismail, who was recently removed to his country of origin shortly after he spoke out publicly about his case, shows how people’s cases can change over time into criminal cases:

we talk about people’s cases as if they are separate from lives. They [the Home Office] make your case illegal…but the case is your life, it makes or breaks you.

Ismail’s removal is for me an emotional example of the high human cost of a business of detention and deportation that generates profit for private security firms such as G4S, Mitie and GEO. Therefore, it is understandable that detainees and their advocates distance themselves from associations with crime in order to make their case for citizenship and avoid removal. For example, Pablo insisted that “before I came to this country I was a good boy”, shifting the responsibility from himself to the situation his family faced when they migrated to the UK. Similarly, Andy insisted “I’ve not done anything wrong…I’m not a criminal” and Juan put his crime of absconding in opposition to “real crimes…you know, I’ve never sold drugs, I’ve never stolen anybody’s money or anything, my visa expired and thats it”. Whilst these appeals to innocence may help individual cases, the logic of innocence multiplies categories of exclusion rather than removing them. As Melanie Griffith’s blog post last year reminded us, many anti-detention advocacy campaigns continue to focus on ‘vulnerable’ populations in detention. Whilst there are indeed additional safeguarding needs for certain populations, these campaigns contribute to the division between the innocent migrant-as-victim and the dangerous migrant-as-criminal.

The current process of making acts of migration illegal is an abhorrent injustice which should not be ignored. However, not every non-EEA national who has served a sentence for a criminal conviction is detained in immigration detention because an act of migration has been criminalised. There are more serious, unspeakable crimes. Drugs offences. Violent crimes. Domestic and sexual abuse. Murder. These are the crimes that populate the public imagination when people hear the term “foreign criminal” and these are the crimes circulated in the mainstream media. Therefore, it is natural to want to counter these in order to be more representative, but are we being more representative? Ask yourself, where do your own boundaries lie about migration and crime? and to whom would you extend your hospitality when faced with decisions about resources and capacity?

It is time that these difficult questions are pushed to the surface through sensitive and supportive conversations. During my visits to people inside detention, it was through conversations and unexpected friendships that the limits of my own moral boundaries shifted. I have come to believe that detention and deportation is still a double punishment, for any person who is in immigration detention regardless of their crime. Taking into consideration critical concerns about safety, I make a point of not asking people about their criminal history, nor their immigration case. During the question and answer sessions at screenings of Detention Without Walls, the question is often posed “are we preaching to the converted?”. However, everyone draws and redraws their own lines all the time and foreign national ex-offenders have limited numbers of supporters. When Home Secretary Theresa May asked “whose side are you on?” she did so to increase the divisions between the deserving and undeserving, between us and them. Take a stance, and then take action.

Unlocking Detention ‘visits’ Colnbrook

The latest stop on the #Unlocked15 tour was Colnbrook detention centre, near Heathrow airport.  The virtual visit fell during a very busy week in the fight to end indefinite detention, with both Sanctuary in Parliament (organised by City of Sanctuary) and the report stage of the Immigration Bill in the House of Commons.

Immigration detention was a key issue at both of these parliamentary events. The Sanctuary in Parliament event was raising awareness of destitution, detention, and the need to provide safe and legal routes for refugees.

Eiri Ohtani of the Detention Forum asked everyone at the Sanctuary in Parliament event to show their support for people currently held in indefinite detention, and this is what happened:


Although detention was notable in its omission from the 2015 Immigration Bill, much of the report stage debate focused on indefinite detention with key amendments calling for a time-limit on detention to be introduced which received cross-party support.

Colnbrook detention centre certainly epitomises many of the injustices of the UK’s detention regime.

Many of our tweets features photos by Nana Varveropoulou and people detained in Colnbrook themselves, part of a photo project by Varveropoulou to try and show what Colnbrook is really like, from the inside. “There are no windows, no wind”.

For the Unlocking Detention ‘visit’ to Colnbrook, John wrote a letter.  John, a member of the Freed Voices group, wrote a letter to Colnbrook, where he was detained for three and a half months.

Dear Colnbrook,

I’ve got a few questions for you in relation to the three and a half months you held me in detention.

John signed off his letter:

Goodbye Colnbrook. I hope I can clear your horror from my memory. I hope we never meet again.

Read John’s letter here.

We also heard from Danae, who works for Detention Action and supports people detained in Colnbrook.

I first visited Colnbrook 5 years ago, when I was volunteering at one of Detention Action’s workshops. What struck me most back then, was the number of high security doors we came across; the electric gates, the weird-shaped keys, the big fat locks on every door, and the dense barbed wire that sat on the thick tall walls surrounding Colnbrook. I could not understand why these men were deemed so dangerous so as to justify the level of security.

Continuing #Unlocked15’s theme of how detention affects communities across the UK, we heard from South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG), on the impact of detention on communities in Sheffield:

The Home Office South Yorkshire asylum reporting centre is now at Vulcan House in Sheffield, on the banks of the River Don. Except for temporary holding cells beneath Vulcan House there is no immigration detention centre in South Yorkshire. The nearest is Morton Hall in Lincolnshire. For people seeking asylum who are obliged to report to Vulcan House each visit carries with it the threat that they will be detained. And the Home Office are keen to reinforce this fear. ‘I’m always sick… the week before I go to sign’, Pride from Cameroon explained. Mohammed from Sudan couldn’t sleep the night before his reporting day at Vulcan House and he packs all his immigration case papers in a rucksack each time he has to go to report.

We finished up the week with a live Q and A with Sergey, currently detained in Colnbrook.

Sergey’s descriptions of the impact of detention on him and his family were tough to hear, but provided vital honesty about just how harmful detention is.  Read the full Q and A here.

Taking detention drama straight to the heart of Parliament

This blog post was written for Unlocking Detention by John Tomlinson of Strawberry Blond Curls Theatre Company, (@SBC_Theatre) who performed their play ‘Tanja’ at this week’s Sanctuary in Parliament event.

We, Strawberry Blonde Curls Theatre Company, are John Tomlinson (that’s me) and Rosie MacPherson. We’ve been working together for about five years now. I’m a producer and Rosie is a brilliant writer and award-winning actor. We’re a company that are always going to make important political work that comes from real stories and take them around the country to raise awareness and start conversations.

We had a once in a lifetime opportunity to take our political drama straight to the heart of Parliament this week…we performed ‘Tanja,’ our play about immigration detention for ‘Sanctuary in Parliament’, an event organised by the City of Sanctuary movement to tell MPs about their work in welcoming asylum seekers and refugees.  This year it coincided with the Report Stage of the 2015 Immigration Bill, so MPs were able to go straight from seeing our play to the debate on the floor of the House…

We couldn’t quite believe it either but, for a short time, we had the undivided (we hope) attention of the room, which was full of MPs and key figures explaining to them what the refugee crisis really looks like and how they can change hundreds of people’s lives. It’s the most important thing we’ve ever been involved in, so we did everything we could  to make sure we engaged, enlightened and educate people through theatre and storytelling.

How did we get to this? Well, we’ve always created political theatre. The work we make has always been in response to what we see in the world and how we can put it right, together, little by little. Opening up conversations is why we make theatre and they’re mostly hard-hitting dramas. We’ve been lucky to have lots of companies, venues, partners and funders who support what we do. This one is much the same, but it’s never been so real.

‘Tanja’ is a drama about a woman. She’s an individual and she stands for and represents a whole load of women who have, and continue to, suffer.

Set in her room at Yarl’s Wood detention centre, this is her story, her life, her love of culture and music, her (despite everything) love of England and its quirky eccentricities, and the abuse she has suffered in her quest for refuge.

When we, including the brilliant Hannah Butterfield who we’re making the show with, took to that committee room on Tuesday, we did it because we think we can make a difference, no matter how small. We hope you tell someone about what’s going on at Yarl’s Wood and we hope you research more about the women in there and tell your MP why it’s so important.

Theatre is reactive in its nature. This one has a good chance to actually make a change. We’ve got a massive opportunity and we’re grateful, but we won’t rest until this is settled. We’ll make, rehearse, tour, talk and shout about it for a long time. We work in an industry of make believe, but not this – this is now, this is real. Let’s challenge the injustices experienced by women who seek asylum in the UK.

Tuesday was the most important day of my life. I’ve never felt such compassion and a connection with amazing people who are fighting for justice. We all feel empowered and were overwhelmed with the response to our piece. It feels like we have the blessing of those people, many of which have suffered first hand, to go and tell the stories to everyone, whether it be in a theatre or in the street. We’re part of this movement, whole heartedly.

Thanks for reading, now over to you to tell someone else.