Week 8: #Unlocked18 visits Dungavel

During week 8, the final full week of Unlocking Detention 2018, we visited Dungavel IRC, in Scotland.

Dungavel is very isolated: more than 30 miles from Glasgow, 14 miles from the nearest train station, 6 miles from the closest town (Strathaven) and no local bus route. It was originally a 19th century hunting lodge and summer retreat for the Duke of Hamilton. Since then it has been used as a prison, hospital and training college, before being converted into an IRC in 2001, with capacity to hold 249 (mostly men, with space for 14 women).

Dungavel is the UK’s only long-term detention facility outside of England. This means that people who are transferred between Dungavel and other IRCs in England have to find a new solicitor each time they cross the English-Scottish border, because of the different legal systems. This can wreak havoc with someone’s bail and immigration case.

In 2016, the government announced that Dungavel would close by the end of 2017. However, this was dependent on opening a new 51-bed short term holding facility at Glasgow airport, and when planning permission was refused, the government abandoned its plans to close Dungavel.

It was a jam-packed week, with 8 blogs published alongside a twitter tour of Dungavel IRC. Read on for a summary of the week.


Among other announcements this week came the news that Campsfield House, slated to close in May 2019, closed ahead of schedule as the last people being held there were transferred or released.

For many autumns to come

Mishka, a member of Freed Voices, shared a letter he wrote to someone very close to him from detention on the eve of his impending removal from the UK. Mishka explained his motivation in publishing this very heartfelt, intimate letter.

One of the reasons I decided to share this piece is to convey the message that detention not only affects the individuals being detained; it affects relationships as well. I also want to convey the message that in detention you have humans, who like many others, have/had their own stories, own reasons, own dreams and hopes; who love/loved other humans and also are being loved/were loved by other humans. Detention is in some ways a graveyard of dreams and hopes and the ghosts of dead dreams and hopes can linger within those walls for months and years.

Separation and abandonment as a result of detention

A. Panquang, a member of Freed Voices (@FreedVoices) and Detention Forum volunteer, wrote a blog reflecting on the long-term impact of indefinite detention on the families and communities of people who have been detained.

The Home Office has said many times that taking one parent away is not separating a family. That is not true. The family remains broken with one parent away. The trauma of separation affects all members of the family, including children, parents and pregnant mothers. I often say that I wouldn’t wish for my worst enemy to experience life in a UK immigration detention centre. The impact on one’s mental health is overwhelming and long-lasting. It is to the UK’s shame that this happens on our shores. 

Because of detention | In spite of detention

Life After Detention (LAD), a group of people with experience of immigration detention based in Glasgow, contributed a collective poem paying tribute to the ways in which detention has shaped their lives. The first part, ‘Because of Detention’, reflects on the ongoing devastation caused by indefinite detention. The second, ‘In spite of detention’, highlights the more positive aspects of building a life after detention, though still in the shadow of it. 

In spite of detention I volunteer with three charities

I go for walks in the park

I meet new people in Glasgow

I am going to make a new life for myself

I have plans to be successful

In spite of detention, my friends have regained their smile

They have managed to start a life in Glasgow

They found hope again

They fell in love with Scotland

Detention made me stronger than before. I now have confidence to deal with people; to deal with everything

When a “good” inspection report is bad news

Kate Alexander, Director of Scottish Detainee Visitors, provided a critical overview of the latest HMIP inspection report on Dungavel IRC.

I found reading the report profoundly frustrating. Staff at the centre will no doubt be satisfied with the inspectors’ overall assessment of their work. The Home Office will be relieved that the headline findings are not of a centre dominated by violence, abuse and self-harm.

But the fact that an inspection that finds that nearly half of the people detained feel unsafe might be considered a win is a scandal.

We know what needs to happen. The UK Government has said that it wishes to reduce both the scale and length of detention. It is clear what they need to do to achieve that. They must immediately introduce a 28 day time limit on detention, end the detention of vulnerable people and support the development of a range of community based alternatives to detention.

Hidden in plain sight: Working with trafficked people in detention

Beatrice Grasso writes about a recent report from JRS UK on the indefinite detention of trafficking survivors. While JRS’s research draws on case studies from Harmondsworth and Colnbrook immigration removal centres (IRCs), this issue affects people detained across the UK. The campaign #DucMakesGlasgow highlighted the plight of Duc, a trafficking survivor detained in Dungavel and Colnbrook IRCs earlier this year.

The negative impact that continued detention has on these men can hardly be underestimated. All of them tell us that detention reminds them of their previous captivity at the hands of their traffickers, and that this leads them to having flashbacks, nightmares and re-experiencing the abuse. Most of them carry physical marks of the torture, scars as visible reminders of what has happened to them, and other health problems resulting from a long history of abuse. And yet, they are often not officially recognised as victims, and even when their accounts are accepted, they are kept in detention because of their “unacceptable behaviour” or the “danger to the public” because of their convictions, a direct result of their exploitation. Despite showing clear indicators of abuse and vulnerability, they remain hidden in plain sight of those authorities who should protect them.

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

Luke Butterly from Right to Remain, a UK-based human rights organisation challenging injustice in our asylum and immigration systems, wrote about ways of supporting people at risk of being detained while reporting.

If you are involved in a community project supporting asylum seekers or other migrants, you can set up a scheme to help people to prepare for, avoid, or better deal with detention and the threat of detention.

A signing support system also means that the person going to sign knows people are looking out for them, and that there is a plan in place if things go wrong and they are detained. This can reduce the psychological burden of reporting at the Home Office.

A system like this can save valuable time: friends and supporters can start finding out exactly where the person is, what has happened, and what can be done to help straight away.

Ultimately, none of us are free until we get rid of this unjust and inhumane policy altogether. Standing with those at risk of detention can play a real role in both supporting people today, and building the kind of society we want for tomorrow.


Rebuilding a life after detention

Indre Lechtimiakyte, caseworker and coordinator of the Ex-Detainee Project for Samphire, reflects on her work assisting people who have been released from immigration detention.

In the beginning it was exceptionally difficult. What do you say to a fellow human being who is overcome with emotion when talking to you on the end of the telephone, because, after living in this country for 15 years, they find themselves separated from their family? He wants you to buy him bus tickets to go to see his family and to say goodbye for the last time. How do you explain to a homeless individual that homeless charities will not help him, because he has no recourse to public funds? Or that the charity has run out of emergency money that month so can’t give him cash to wash his clothes?

Life after closure: The experiences of the Verne Visitors Group

In a timely blog given the recent closure of Campsfield IRC, Ruth Jacobson from the Verne Visitors Group explains what has happened to the group since the Verne’s closure a year earlier.

Looking back on the year since closure, we are cautiously optimistic for the future. At the broader level, it does seem that attention is finally being paid to the injustices of the current system. Within our local area of operation, we know that the experiences of visiting will stay with our members for far longer than the lifetime of the Verne IRC and will help them to take on the challenges we all encounter from biased and/or misinformed conversations in our local communities.

Unlocking Detention timeline 2014-2018

To mark the end of #Unlocked18 and five years of Unlocking Detention, we completed our Unlocking Detention timeline, which highlights campaigning and advocacy achievements over five years of detention reform.

#Unlocked18 draws to a close

As this was the last full week of #Unlocked18, with the tour finishing on International Migrants Day on 18 December 2018, we shared some highlights from what has been a vivid and thought-provoking couple of months.

Your guide to #Unlocked18

#Unlocked18 marked the 5th year of Unlocking Detention, our virtual ‘tour’ of the UK’s immigration detention estate. Whether you followed the tour from the beginning or you’re just joining us now, we hope you find something to whet your appetite for learning more about detention and how to challenge it. Here’s a guide to the contributions featured in #Unlocked18, with highlights selected by our team of Detention Forum volunteers and images by @Carcazan.

Week 1: Welcome to Unlocking Detention 2018

22 October: Welcome to #Unlocked18!

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

22 October: Unlocking Detention timeline

To mark the 5th year of Unlocking Detention, this timeline tells the story of immigration detention reform from 2014-2018. We released one year at a time as #Unlocked18 progressed and the whole timeline is now available.

22 October: Immigration detention: The glossary

To help navigate the world of immigration detention, we created a visual glossary with key terms and acronyms used during Unlocking Detention. The images from this glossary are available to download and share

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

A powerful, evocative poem written and recorded by Red (not his real name), while he was detained in Colnbrook detention centre. Red is a member of the Freed Voices, a group of experts-by-experience, people with lived experience of immigration detention who are committed to speaking out about the realities of immigration detention in the UK. 

25 October: Depicting wisdom: Drawings from detention

Mishka (not his real name) talks about five drawings he created based on his time in immigration detention. Like Red, Mishka is a member of the Freed Voices. Mishka writes, “when I drew these drawings, the pain and trauma blended into these drawings had already healed and turned into wisdom.”

29 October: Week 1: Launching #Unlocked18

Our first weekly roundup for #Unlocked18. Each week of the tour, we published a roundup of everything shared the previous week to make it easier to look back to find your favourite content or see what you’ve missed.

Week 2: Brook House and Tinsley House

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

A blog from Rafiq (not his real name) who was detained in Brook House detention centre. Rafiq says, “I want to speak out about what I experienced there, and I want to talk about how we can fight for justice”.

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

Anna Pincus at the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group writes about her work with Refugee Tales’ ‘28 tales for 28 days’. This campaign began on 11 September and featured the release of 28 videos of tales over 28 days, to highlight the need for a 28 day time limit for immigration detention. 

31 October: How to help end indefinite detention

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

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

The Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group put us in touch with Marino (not his real name), who joined us on the phone from Brook House for our first live Twitter Q&A for #Unlocked18.

The live Q&A’s were definitely the highlight of #Unlocked18 for me. It was such a privilege to speak with DAK, Seed, Siarhei and Marino, who were generous in sharing their time, expertise and insight. The behind-the-scenes hiccups (illness, language barriers, phone numbers changing at the last minute, losing phone reception) made it more interesting but also brought home – once again – the difficulty of being heard from inside detention.

Susannah, Detention Forum Coordinator

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

Richard (not his real name), a volunteer with Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, has been visiting people detained in Brook House and Tinsley House detention centres for 13 years. He asks, “Do these stories suggest an inadequacy in the detention system of effective legal representation and of support for emotional suffering?”

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

Week 3: Prisons and short term holding facilities

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

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

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

In 2014, Sarah Teather MP, who was then the Chair of the APPG on Refugees started the parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention, together with APPG on Migration. In this blog, K.A., a member of Freed Voices who was recently detained and released, interviews Sarah about her experience of running the inquiry, and Sarah asked K.A. about his experience of immigration detention. 

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

Sanctuary in Parliament is an annual event which brings local City of Sanctuary groups from around the country to Parliament to meet their MPs to demand change. In 2018, one of its focus issues was a 28-day time limit on immigration detention. Detention Forum Project Director Eiri Ohtani explained how to amplify this demand.

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

Lauren Cape-Davenhill, Organiser with These Walls Must Fall, writes about the reopening of a residential short term holding facility near Manchester airport amidst local resistance to immigration detention.

7 November: Immigration detention: Mental torture

A. Panquang, a Detention Forum volunteer and member of the Freed Voices, explores the lasting impact of indefinite immigration detention.

The lack of time limit, the lack of knowledge about who can or might be detained, the lack of control over people’s own immigration process, lack of communication with friends, family and community, the lack of legal advice, access to legal evidence, lack of proper healthcare and the lack of basic humane treatment are instruments used by the Home Office to maximize the mental torture of people in detention.

A. Panquang, Freed Voices

8 November: Detention happens closer than you might think

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

9 November: “Immigrants emigrate, hopeful anticipate

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

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

Week 4: Yarl’s Wood

12 November: Theresa: letter from a hunger striker

This letter was sent to the Duncan Lewis Public Law team by Theresa (not her real name), a young mother, from Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. Theresa was one of the leaders of the high-profile hunger-strikes in 2018. She wrote this letter the same evening that she had been refused bail. 

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

Fidelis Chebe, Project Director at Migrant Action, writes about the 2018 hunger strike in Yarl’s Wood and other forms of resistance to the use of detention as an instrument of state and corporate violence.

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

A blog from Gabby (not her real name), an activist campaigning against immigration detention in the UK who was detained in Yarl’s Wood twice in 2017. She is now an active member of Women for Refugee Women’s network, regularly performing her own poetry and speaking out to call for change.

15 November: Snow: Visiting in Yarl’s Wood

Ali Brumfitt, volunteer coordinator with Yarl’s Wood Befrienders, writes about her experience as a volunteer befriender. She explains, “The journey does not end after detention. Detention changes people. It adds more trauma onto any trauma a person is already carrying.”

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

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

17 November: Eight times in detention: Why?

This blog features words and images produced at one of the weekly ‘drop in’ sessions held by Yarl’s Wood Befrienders, a space where women detained at Yarl’s Wood can come and have a conversation, share a hot drink or play a boardgame. 

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

Week 5: Campsfield House

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

In the first of a two-part blog, a campaigner from Campaign to Close Campsfield looks back at its history and tries to make sense of the government’s recent announcement that Campsfield is to close in 2019.

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

Mishka and Red from Freed Voices (@FreedVoices) interview Lisa Matthews, Coordinator at Right to Remain, about her experience of co-running Unlocking Detention in 2015, and the collective effort involved in bringing it all together.

21 November: Campsfield closing: A history of resistance

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

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

With assistance from Duncan Lewis solicitors, we spoke to Siarhei, currently detained in Campsfield House. Via interpreter, Siarhei told us about being detained in Campsfield and under immigration powers in prison.

23 November: The voiceless place

Maddy Crowther, Co-Executive Director of Waging Peace and Article 1, co-wrote this blog with Mohammed (not his real name), who has been detained on several occasions. Mohammed talks about the contrast between his treatment in detention and on a recent visit to Parliament.

It’s a big difference to stand in front of huge beautiful doors in Parliament, rather than lay down behind awful steel doors in detention, isn’t it?

Mohammed

27 November: Week 5: #Unlocked18 visits Campsfield House

Week 6: Harmondsworth and Colnbrook

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

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

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

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

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

Hannah Swirsky, Campaigns Officer at René Cassin, writes about the hidden cruelty of immigration detention as news comes that the inquest into the death of Amir Siman-Tov, a Moroccan Jew who died in Colnbrook immigration detention centre in 2016, has been postponed for a third time.

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

Two volunteers with JRS UK reflect on what it’s like to support someone in immigration detention. 

I can’t have any certainty that I will see the same person the following week, either because they are not able for different reasons to come and see me or they have been moved to another centre, released or returned to their home country.

Cashel Riordan, JRS UK volunteer

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

Gabriella Bettiga, Legal Officer at UKLGIG (UK Gay and Lesbian Immigration Group), looks at the particular challenges faced by LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers in immigration detention.

It’s hard to choose, much of the content was so affecting, but this was one of two blogs that really brought home the indignity of detention for me (the other was Luke Butterly’s piece on reporting, below). It highlights how immigration detention strips people of their dignity, where LGBTQI+ people who may have left a country where they will have had to conceal their identity for fear of persecution are expected to come out to a Home Office official on arrival or fall foul of the rules and risk deportation.

Catherine, Detention Forum volunteer

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

DAK and Seed (not their real names), both detained in Harmondsworth detention centre, spent two hours answering questions sent in from across the UK. DAK had been detained in Harmondsworth for over a year; Seed for a few weeks – and yet both told us about the uncertainty, oppression and wastefulness of indefinite immigration detention.

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

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

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

Week 7: Morton Hall

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

Rhiannon Prideaux, a visitor with the Morton Hall Detainee Visitors Group, tells us about the experience of visiting people in detention for over three years. She concludes, “I still think of the people that are detained there every day with no idea what will happen to them and hope that some time in the near future we will see some drastic changes to how the detention system is run in the UK.”

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

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

6 December: Immigration detention is mental torture

Souleymane, a member of Freed Voices, was detained for three and a half years. He writes, “Detention is worse than prison, because in prison you count your days down and in detention you count your days up… and up… and up…”

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

Celia Clarke and Rudy Schulkind at BID (Bail for Immigration Detainees) write about the ‘hidden scandal’ of people detained in prisons.

This blog by BID describing the specific and additional disadvantages faced by people detained under immigration powers in prison stood out for me. It also lays out how detention relates to, and is a consequence of, other features of the hostile environment. 

Charlotte, Detention Forum volunteer

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

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

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

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

13 December: Week 7: #Unlocked18 visits Morton Hall

Week 8: Dungavel

10 December: For many autumns to come

Mishka (Freed Voices) shares a letter written from detention to someone dear to his heart on the eve of his intended removal from the UK. He writes, “Detention is in some ways a graveyard of dreams and hopes and the ghosts of dead dreams and hopes can linger within those walls for months and years.”

This piece moved me on several levels. It’s beautiful, lyrical, intensely human, shattering, selfless and ultimately positive and very uplifting. Despite the anticipated outcome for him, Mishka renews the reader’s faith in the human spirit.

Gareth, Detention Forum volunteer

11 December: Separation and abandonment as a result of detention

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

11 December: Because of detention | In spite of detention

Members of the Life After Detention group (LAD) based in Glasgow reflect on the ongoing devastation caused by indefinite detention, as well as the more positive aspects of building a life after detention. 

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

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

13 December: Hidden in plain sight: Working with trafficked people in detention

Beatrice Grasso, Detention Outreach Manager with JRS UK, writes about their report on the indefinite detention of trafficking survivors. She explains, “Despite showing clear indicators of abuse and vulnerability, they remain hidden in plain sight of those authorities who should protect them.”

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

Luke Butterly from Right to Remain talks about ways of showing practical solidarity for people at risk of being detained, including setting up a local signing group.

This is the second blog that really brought home for me the indignity of detention (alongside Gabriella Bettiga’s piece on LGBTQI+ people in detention). Reporting seems to be an exquisite bit of nastiness in this cruel system. As well as showing us the indignity imposed on vulnerable individuals, both of these pieces describe how immigration detention and the hostile environment affect us all. How can a good society allow such indignities to be carried out in our name?  

Catherine, Detention Forum volunteer

14 December: Rebuilding a life after detention

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

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

Ruth Jacobson writes to us from the Verne Visitors Group, established in 2014 to support people detained in The Verne detention centre until its closure in December 2017. “What should be we doing now we were no longer going to be taking the coast road up to the Verne citadel with its deliberately forbidding entrance tunnel and massive walls?”

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

Week 9: International Migrants Day

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

K.A., an expert-by-experience and member of Freed Voices, interviewed Baroness Sally Hamwee, a long-term advocate for detention reform in the House of Lords. She was recently named a Detention Forum Champion in reocognition of her tireless work in challenging immigration detention.

18 December: On International Migrants Day – reasserting humanity and dignity of people in immigration detention

Detention Forum Project Director Eiri Ohtani concludes #Unlocked18 with a rousing piece calling on us to continue to assert the presence, humanity, rights and dignity of everyone affected by detention.

On International Migrants Day – reasserting the humanity and dignity of people in immigration detention

Image by@Carcazan

After weeks of our virtual ‘tour’ of detention centres which began in October, Unlocking Detention ends today, on International Migrants Day. People who are in immigration detention generally do not feature on International Migrants Day – the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ policy of locking people up is a powerful tool for erasure. And that is precisely the reason why we insist on ending our ‘tour’ on this particular day, in order to reassert their presence, humanity, rights and dignity in the world.   

While 2018 was characterized by the news of breathtakingly cruel damage to human lives caused by the ‘Hostile Environment’ and the scandal of gross mistreatment of the Windrush generation caught by it, when we look at the Unlocking Detention timeline, we see that 2018 is also crowded with small yet critical gains in our collective fight against immigration detention.

This year, The Detention Forum published a briefing paper on why we need a 28 day time limit. Another paper we released dealt with frequently asked questions on alternatives to detention, a theme that is gathering an unprecedented level of attention globally. These briefing papers should be useful resources not just for our colleagues but also for the Home Secretary, who, in July 2018, announced a series of ‘innovative reforms’ to the detention system in response to the second Shaw Review. The reform programme includes a community-based alternatives to detention pilot and an internal review of time limits: their exact details are still unknown, but we hope they will result in positive impact for people affected by immigration detention and lead to a fair and humane system for all.

At the same time, the ongoing inquiries into immigration detention by the Home Affairs Select Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights intensify public scrutiny over the Home Office’s detention policy and practice. At the latter’s evidence session recently, the Immigration Minister was pressed, once again, to seriously consider introducing a time limit. This was prompted by the Ten Minute Rule Bill led by Tulip Siddiq MP calling for a 28 day time limit on detention, which had astonishingly strong and wide cross-party support. It is a sign that local mobilization against immigration detention, led by campaigns such as These Walls Must Fall, Refugee Tales and many others, have opened many politicians’ eyes to the realities of immigration detention. Experts-by-experience, such as Freed Voices, of course, continue to play the most important, central role in this area, leading the way for the rest of us. We were honoured that they made a huge contribution to this year’s Unlocking Detention yet again in so many blogs. Many of their messages reiterated the urgency for change, their determination to continue speaking out and their growing hope that change will come. 

If there is going to be an Unlocking Detention tour next year, happily, there will be one less centre to visit. We welcomed the news that Campsfield detention centre will be closed by May 2019 – many of us still have a vivid memory of galvanizing our efforts opposing its expansion plan a few years ago. Other happy moments came from the celebration of Detention Forum Champions. Paul Blomfield MP, Stuart McDonald MP, Dame Caroline Spelman MP and Baroness Hamwee received the awards, which recognize their tireless work, stretching over years, standing up for the rights and dignity of people in immigration detention.

But the harsh reality is that the brutal regime of mass, routine and indefinite immigration detention continues and whatever the change process we may be witnessing, its pace is far too slow. A 51-year old Algerian man tragically lost his life in Harmondsworth detention centre on 2 December. And thousands of people spend International Migrants Day today locked up in immigration detention, not knowing when they will be released. Worldwide, there are thousands and thousands more who are also behind barbed wires, separated from their loved ones, experiencing immense stress, anxiety and harm – because they do not have the right passport. So our work continues.

Unlocking Detention is always a collective endeavour. We would like to thank everyone who contributed their blogs, people in detention who agreed to take part in our live Q&A sessions and all of you who followed this year’s ‘tour’, and shared and retweeted #Unlocked18 material. The ‘tour’ was only possible because of a team of very dedicated Detention Forum volunteers, who tweeted, who created gifs, who made visual material, who did illustrations for blogs, who wrote weekly summaries and who promoted Unlocking Detention in all sorts of ways. 

One of the volunteers this year was Carcazan. She sent us this to share:

Illustrating the many blogs, articles and aspects of #Unlocked18 has been a soul-searching and beautiful experience – initially one wonders how much difference can a drawing make, and then one sees the artwork of those who have been detained, or people formerly detained who want images to illustrate their stories, and it’s very humbling. It has been a rare privilege to work with such a dedicated, talented team, and to contribute in any way to this vivid campaign, both with the exciting team of volunteers and in terms of my own creative development. Like any rainbow, we each have a different colour which comprises the whole; I’m really excited to already see an ask of Detention Forum #TIme4aTimeLimit actually being proposed as a 10 Minute Bill to end indefinite detention. I’m definitely looking forward to continuing to support Detention Forum!

This year’s Unlocking Detention was coordinated by my colleague, Susannah Willcox, who had this to say:

After working with people held in immigration detention centres and prisons across the UK for years, I thought I was beyond shock. However, coordinating Unlocking Detention this year has opened my eyes – even further – to just how hard it is for the voices of people in detention to reach beyond those bricks and barbed wire. Their physical marginalisation is compounded by all the other ways in which detention stifles people’s agency and voice – lack of phone signal or credit (and, in prisons, lack of mobile phones altogether); lack of interpreters; lack of dedicated and appropriate mental health support; lack of psychological space to see beyond the next decision letter or bail hearing; lack of trust; lack of ears to listen. While Unlocking Detention can’t directly make up for many of these failings, at least it offers us the chance to stop, listen, reflect – and act.

And A. Panquang, one of Freed Voices members with direct experience of immigration detention, told us:

We don’t want what we went through to be a story to tell friends, family and community just for the sake of telling a story. We want our experiences to help people make changes, to better the immigration process and system for people who are experiencing it now and in the future.

If Unlocking Detention has inspired you to act to challenge this system, that will be a fitting end to this ‘tour’ and a beginning of new chapter in our collective fight against immigration detention. 

Eiri Ohtani @EiriOhtani

Project Director, The Detention Forum

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

Image by @Carcazan

K.A., an expert-by-experience, interviewed Baroness Hamwee, a long-term advocate for detention reform in the House of Lords. She was recently named as a Detention Forum Champions, recognising her tireless work on challenging immigration detention.

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Hello Sally,

My name is K.A. I spent 5 months in immigration detention between September 2017 and February2018. The effect it has had on me both mentally and physically is unimaginable. This is the very reason I am speaking out against the government’s unbridled use of detention. 

In the long term I would like to see an end the use of arbitrary detention where detainees are held in maximum security as prisoners. Detention should be used in exceptional cases and a reasonably short period of time. There also needs be an independent body outside of government to monitor any policy reforms made by the government department responsible for this.

Since I arrived in the UK, local people in the community have been very helpful. During my recent detention I relied a lot on charities such as Detention Action, Medical Justiceand Samphire. Right now I am looking for the right to live, work and contribute meaningfully to my community. At the moment I feel like I am under ‘house arrest’. But I just see all these as one of the adversities of life that I hope to overcome. 

It is very satisfying to know that there are some politicians who will look beyond political expediency and do what is right.

So my first question to you is, what is your main motivation for speaking against something which is very unpopular to talk about among politicians?

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Hi, K

Thank you for your questions.

What is your main motivation for speaking against something which is very unpopular to talk about among politicians?

I think it is the whole subject of immigration that politicians find difficult to discuss, rather than immigration detention, because it is a subject that is often regarded as one where people have fixed ideas that immigration is a bad thing, and where it is very easy to lose votes – so it’s best just avoided. I have hardly given any thought over the years to my own motivation; it simply seems to me that a system which has such an impact on detainees, when they are in detention and following it, must be challenged; it is not what I want my country to be doing, in my name, and I am ashamed of it being applied so widely.  What is the point of being in politics if you don’t try to challenge what you think is wrong.

At a personal level, from time to time when someone tells me about an immigration problem, I catch myself thinking: Yeah, yeah, that’s what happens. I hate it that sometimes I have to remind myself to be shocked

Ironically, what has become known about how the Windrush Generation were treated has had a positive aspect. People who have not known much about the detail of restrictions on immigration, and detention and deportation, have thought about individuals caught up in this as individuals.  Once you see someone as an individual, not as a faceless threat, you feel quite differently. 

I am by no means unusual in this, but my thinking on immigration is affected by the fact that my family has not beenin the UK for all that long, though they were not refugees. My mother’s grandparents came from “somewhere near the Baltic” (I’ve not been able to get closer than that). My father’s parents were both born in Aleppo; my grandfather ended up in Manchester (the cotton trade was the link) and my grandmother came (an arranged marriage) to be married here. It is only an accident of fate that I was born in the UK.

What do you hope to achieve? In other words, what are your end goals and how are you going to achieve this amidst the mounting opposition to immigration detention?

The Parliamentary committee of which I am a member (the Committee on Human Rights) is looking at detention at the moment, and I can see that the evidence we are hearing is affecting everyone.  We haven’t yet formulated our report (and we cannot do more than make recommendations and generally get issues aired in public), but I hope we will make real progress in getting much wider acceptance that detention does damage (I don’t know how anyone can spend more than a day or two in detention without becoming “vulnerable”); that it must be limited, and known to be limited, to a short period at the outside (people seem to gather round 28 days); and that conditions in detention centres must be hugely improved.  I also hope that, in what should be only the few cases in which detention is justified, people can be picked up in a much more humane way than so often seems to be the case.

We have to go on talking about it.  As an opposition politician, that is what I have to do.

What in your view is the biggest obstacle to advocating for reform?

That too many people don’t want to hear.  Either their own problems are overwhelming; or they just don’t want to think about it; or the whole topic of immigration is “too difficult”, as you yourself suggest.  And after all, I suppose we all have our own causes and our different priorities. There is also a tendency in government to conflate immigration and security, and to suggest that if immigrants are not dealt with rigorously, then the UK’s security is put at risk.

Before you became a politician, did you know anything about immigration detention? How did you come across it for the first time?

No, it was not a subject that I was aware of.  In 2009 just after I had become the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on Home Affairs in the Lords (I had previously focused on Local Government), I asked if I could accompany a colleague on a visit to Yarl’s Wood. I was refused (I did visit fairly recently) – I never got a satisfactory reason (I was told it was a political issue, and we were too near a general election – at the time we didn’t know when there might be an election).  It did, however, lead to two diary pieces in The Guardian, both with cartoons (me in peer’s robes – which of course are not daily wear – concealing a knife in a chocolate cake, to make the tongue in cheek point that I am really dangerous). Naturally this sparked my interest.

What do you find most rewarding about your job? 

Leaving aside the very occasional times when we persuade the Government to change its view, or to acknowledge it has done so (they are not the same thing) in this context so often being inspired by the people I meet who are so resilient and optimistic.  It really is humbling to be told how grateful they are to be in the UK, when I am so aware of how much better we could treat them.

Life after closure: The experiences of the Verne Visitors Group

This blog comes from Ruth Jacobson, a committee member of the Verne Visitors Group (VVG). VVG was established in 2014 to support people detained in The Verne immigration removal centre (IRC) until its closure in December 2017. Here, Ruth is writing in a personal capacity.

At the time of Unlocking Detention 2017 (#Unlocked17), our group was confronting the implications of the closure of the Verne IRC. What should be we doing now we were no longer going to be taking the coast road up to the Verne citadel with its deliberately forbidding entrance tunnel and massive walls? As our banner in our ‘selfie’ affirmed, we were all too aware that unjust detention would be continuing all over the UK.

We were fortunate in that the our principal sources of funding – Lush Charity Pot and the Esme Fairbairn Foundation Small Grants programme – were prepared to continue support for the campaigning aspect of our work and we would like to formally record our appreciation of this here.

After consultations with our membership, the priorities for 2018 were, first, to establish the feasibility of maintaining one to one support remotely and secondly, to continue our programme of spreading public awareness of the realities of immigration detention across Dorset. The first object has raised significant technical as well as ethical issues, and is currently still under review. The second has been more straightforward. Despite the apparently conservative nature of Dorset, we consistently find that once they learn more about detention – and particularly about the lack of a time limit – people are both astonished and outraged.

We have also been fortunate in that one of the few ‘bright spots’ in the experiences of the men detained in the Verne was their chance to take part in producing art work. We have had these converted into colourful leaflets, which help affirm the humanity of those living ‘behind the walls’. These have been distributed at events at the historic Shire Hall in Dorchester, where the sentences of deportation were handed out to the Tolpuddle Martyrs; and at the Tolpuddle Festival, where they attracted the attention of Maxine Peake.

It was noticeable that at that event, many people attending were not aware of the lack of a time limit on detention. As ever, their response was ‘Surely, that cannot be right – what can I do?’ Now we have a response – we can provide them with a pre-paid postcard to their local MPs.

Looking back on the year since closure, we are cautiously optimistic for the future. At the broader level, it does seem that attention is finally being paid to the injustices of the current system. Within our local area of operation, we know that the experiences of visiting will stay with our members for far longer than the lifetime of the Verne IRC and will help them to take on the challenges we all encounter from biased and/or misinformed conversations in our local communities.

Finally, in case you were wondering – we have avoided making any change in our name, as we feel it has resonance for us in terms of our visiting experiences, as well as for all those people who have visited the beautiful site.

The VVG asks that its materials are not reproduced in print by anyone else but will be happy to post a FREE bundle of postcards and leaflets to any organisation involved with Unlocking Detention. Contact Caz Dennet at de-net[at]hotmail.co.uk

You can also find VVG on facebook.

Rebuilding a life after detention

This blog comes from Indre Lechtimiakyte. Indre is originally from Lithuania and has been working as a caseworker and coordinator of the Ex-Detainee Project for Samphire since 2016. Prior to joining Samphire, she worked on the return migration project at IOM Vilnius, human rights education and awareness raising projects in Bulgaria and in a private law practice in Lithuania. You can follow Samphire on Twitter at @samphire

Over three years ago, whilst working at the IOM Lithuania, I first encountered the impact that immigration detention has on people’s lives. Back then I had no idea that the UK doesn’t have a time limit on immigration detention, and that one day I would be working in this field.

That day, a Lithuanian migrant, just removed from the UK, came to my office for advice straight from the airport. He had lived in the UK since childhood and the only thing that connected him with Lithuania was his passport. Being ethnic Russian, he didn’t speak the language, so we talked in English. I was shocked. Locked up? Without a criminal conviction? Without a time limit? In a country known for its advancement? That surely didn’t sound right.

Six months on I found myself working on the Ex-Detainee Project at Samphire – a charity based in Dover, Kent. The charity supports people who have been released from immigration detention, assisting with their practical and emotional needs through a telephone helpline, which is currently used by 613 people across the UK.

In the beginning it was exceptionally difficult. What do you say to a fellow human being who is overcome with emotion when talking to you on the end of the telephone, because, after living in this country for 15 years, they find themselves separated from their family? He wants you to buy him bus tickets to go to see his family and to say goodbye for the last time. How do you explain to a homeless individual that homeless charities will not help him, because he has no recourse to public funds? Or that the charity has run out of emergency money that month so can’t give him cash to wash his clothes?

Some “lucky ones” are placed in the Home Office accommodation to avoid destitution. However, the Home Office support has strict conditions attached. When given Home Office accommodation, a person can be sent anywhere in the country, regardless of their family or social ties. A number of clients, with our support, travel across the country on night coaches, once a month, so they can spend a day with their child. The conditions in the Home office provided accommodation are often undesirable. On a daily basis I help people to understand their entitlements, help them to communicate with their housing managers, and assist to ensure their living conditions can be more humane and appropriate to their needs. No one would like to let their child sleep on a mattress that is infested with bed bugs or to be subjected to constant abuse as a transgender person in men’s-only accommodation.

One of our clients is a father of two. He lives with his wife and two children, yet the family struggles. Since 2005 he has been fighting for his right to stay in the UK – the country where his children were born. He doesn’t have a right to work in the UK to support his family, and also cannot fully support his family with joint parenting roles such as taking and collecting the children from school as he is restricted by being fitted with an electronic monitoring tag. He was released from detention in 2008 and his situation hasn’t changed.  

Last week I spoke to a client who fights depression because of the abuse he suffered in detention. On average, one in three of our service users suffer from PTSD. Unfortunately, this is not only due to traumatic experiences in their country of origin but also due to the impact of detention in the UK. Mental health can still be stigmatised in western societies. For a lot of people coming from different cultural backgrounds it can be even more of a challenge – not being able to discuss it with their families, or not wanting to admit it, pushes them into a never ending circle of isolation and depression.

Each time the phone rings I am prepared to listen and help in whatever way I can. Emotional support and understanding is what a lot of our service users need. Sometimes it can be very challenging, but over time I am learning to accept the disappointment with this country’s immigration system and simply do my best to provide positive support to those who need it most.

Week 7: #Unlocked18 visits Morton Hall

irc-mortonhall | Unlocked19

Week 7 of #Unlocked18 took us to Morton Hall IRC, near the small village of Swinderby in Lincolnshire. Surrounded by fields and villages, it is one of the UK’s most isolated and least-known detention centres. It was originally an RAF base before reopening as a prison in 1985, and became an IRC in May 2011.  It is the only remaining IRC to be run by the prison service rather than a private contractor. 

Morton Hall can hold up to 392 people in single occupancy rooms spread across six residential units (Fry, Windsor, Sharman, Johnson, Torr and Seacole – the induction unit) plus a care and separation unit (CSU). According to the latest statistics, 330 people were detained in Morton Hall on 30 June 2018, down from 384 from the year before.

Morton Hall Detainee Visitors Group was established when the IRC opened in 2011, and Detention Action also supports people in Morton Hall over the phone.

There were six new blogs this week, as well as a twitter tour of the centre. Read on for a summary.

“I have seen that the detention system in the UK is broken”

For three and a half years, Rhiannon Prideaux visited people detained at Morton Hall with the Morton Hall Detainee Visitors Group. During that time, she visited six people:

The majority of them experienced periods of depression or more serious mental health issues.  All of them were told by the Home Office that they had no right to remain in the UK but only one was removed from the UK after detention.  Everyone else I visited was released back into the community after often long periods in detention which had a lasting impact on their health and wellbeing.


Read Rhiannon’s blog in full here

“There was a chance justice would be done.”

In the latest of a series of interviews conducted by experts-by-experience,  Mishka of Freed Voices interviewed Tamsin Alger, Deputy Director at Detention Action, about her experience of the Detained Fast Track (DFT) strategic litigation and campaign. 

As part of this interview, Mishka described his experience of going through the DFT. He said,

Going through DFT felt like my natural justice was breached. My liberty was taken away and I did not have proper access to quality legal advice until the very last moment; my access to justice was severely undermined… This experience of DFT therefore certainly shaped up my determination to campaign for detention reform. 

…Whilst going through DFT, I comprehended that it is not only the asylum claimants facing unfairness while in immigration detention. The same set of difficulties I had to face under DFT, others also were facing… This is one of the reasons why it is important for me to focus on everyone in detention during my campaign and advocacy work and I would say my experience of DFT had an impact on my determination and decision to become Mishka from Freed Voices.


Read the full interview here

Immigration detention is mental torture

Souleymane, a member of Freed Voices, was detained in the UK for three and a half years. He wrote this blog for #Unlocked18, which was shared with us via Samphire. In this powerful blog, Souleymane writes,

The UK is the only country in Europe with no time-limit on detention. There is no end in sight. And this is where mental torture really kicks in. The stress of indefinite detention had a huge impact on my mental health. It is like you are carrying a heavy load on your head everywhere you go… 

Sadly, the mental effect of detention does not stop when the gates open. When I was released, I felt like I had come out of a cave. I had been there so long I felt powerless and weak. I heard voices. I did not trust anyone. Even now, sometimes I wake in the night from flashbacks. The mental torture has not gone…. 

Please, join our fight for justice here, in the UK. It is time for a time limit. Toda raba, thank you.

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

Celia Clarke and Rudy Schulkind at Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) wrote this blog about people who are detained in prisons under immigration powers. They write,

According to the latest figures, 378 people are held in prisons under immigration powers upon the completion of a custodial sentence. Many of them had indefinite leave to remain or even refugee status; many grew up in the UK and considered themselves British. Having served time and approaching their release date, individuals are shocked to find out (often on the day before their sentence expiry date) that they are going to be punished again: through revocation of their status; through deportation proceedings; through continued unlimited detention.

You can read Celia and Rudy’s blog in full here. You can also read a summary of the #Unlocked18 week on detention in prisons and short-term holding facilities here

Your pocket Home Office phrasebook: A dialect of dehumanisation

A popular blog this week came from Patrick Page, a senior caseworker in public law at Duncan Lewis Solicitors and founder and editor of No Walls.

Patrick’s ‘pocket Home Office phasebook‘ explains the jargon used by government officials involved in immigration enforcement. This jargon is cloaked in the clinical language of administration, and is so consistently used, and relatively well-disguised, that we all end up picking it up.

In his phasebook, Patrick unpicks these terms. He separates the terms into four categories:

  1. People: how the people targeted by the hostile environment are labelled
  2. Control: language used to describe how to control those targeted
  3. Adjectives: how such people and their behaviour are described
  4. Places: the naming of the places in which the Home Office attempts to control people

Read the full piece here

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

The final blog of the week came from A. Panquang, a member of Freed Voices and Detention Forum volunteer. He wrote about giving evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ inquiry into immigration detention. He writes,

To prepare myself to give evidence I read some of the other evidence that had been given to the JCHR before mine. To call these people experts is not completely misleading, because they are experts in their respective fields, but none of them know what it’s like to experience detention. We from Freed Voices are experts by experience. If anyone needed to understand about the inhumane conditions in immigration removal centres (IRCs), if anyone wanted to get a clear picture of the violations of Human Rights, they should be speaking to Freed Voices – Experts by experience.

You can read the blog in full here

Take action

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

Luke Butterly works for Right to Remain, a UK-based human rights organisation challenging injustice in our asylum and immigration systems. This blog has been reposted with kind permission from Red Pepper.

In communities across the UK, around 80,000 people with pending asylum and immigration claims have to ‘report’ with the Home Office. This happens at regular intervals – weekly, fortnightly, monthly – and can often be logistically complicated, expensive, and disruptive.

Earlier this month it was revealed that the Home Office is forcing hundreds of people in Stoke-on-Trent to make a weekly five-hour journey to reporting sessions.

This change from reporting in the local community happened without consultation or even pre-warning to the people and support organisations there. Reports came through of the toll this was having on people, especially those with physical or mental health issues, or childcare responsibilities. Missing a reporting date has serious consequences. People can lose their financial support, and it goes on their record when they are making further applications to the Home Office.

Reporting

Reporting is often stressful, even without the additional difficulties faced by people in Stoke.

Mishka from Freed Voices explains that you don’t know what to expect each time you report. He says that people can travel for hours to a reporting centre just to have “a two minutes ‘show your face and go home’ appointment”. But other times, it can be more serious.

Looming over each visit is the possibility of being detained indefinitely. This is particularly the case if someone’s application has been refused, which they may not know until they go and report. Mishka says that,

“The fear of detention is one of the biggest fears that always lingers in your mind. The Home Office is unpredictable and you never know whether you would come home or they would just lock you up again indefinitely for any irrational reason”.

Immigration detention is very harmful to people’s physical and mental health, it cuts people off from their families, friends, neighbours and support networks, and makes it very difficult to pursue a legal case and access justice. While people are detained from every community in the UK, there are only detention centres in a few places. Therefore, detention can often mean being moved away from your community, lawyers, and support.

There are times when you are at greater risk of detention, such as when you first enter the UK; when you claim asylum;  or if you do not have any immigration status or applications pending and you are picked up by an immigration enforcement team. Yet if you do not have the right to remain in the UK, you are liable to be detained at any time.

People are picked up from their homes (sometimes in dawn raids), during immigration raids on businesses, and stop-and-searches at train and bus stations.

But it is common for someone to be detained when they go for their regular reporting event at the Home Office, and that’s why it’s so important to be prepared.

Solidarity and support

At Right to Remain, as part of our Toolkit and other resources, we produce materials and trainings to help people prepare in case of detention. One of the most important aspects of this is having a system in place so that if you are detained, people know straight away and start taking action for you.

Some people phone a friend when they are entering the reporting centre, with instructions for what to do and who to contact if they are detained. If the friend does not get a call within an hour or two to say they are safe, the friend can call their lawyer or support group if they have one.

Across the UK local support groups have set up systems to provide practical ‘signing support’. The person going to report will check-in with the group first, who keep a record of everyone’s contact details and emergency instructions of what to do if they do not come out.

The Unity Centre in Glasgow gives practical support and solidarity to all asylum seekers and other migrants in Scotland. They have a little office near the Home Office, and say that: “Anyone who is required to sign at the Home Office reporting centre on Brand Street can stop by our office on their way to sign into our signing book. This means we can act quickly if anyone gets detained by the Home Office.” Other groups, for example Leeds No Borders, have set up an informal telephone check-in system.

In Belfast, Ryan from Homeplus, a drop-in centre for migrants, says they and the local community operate a version of signing support to combat the uncertainty that comes with reporting: “People will ring me before signing on, saying ‘if I don’t come back before a certain time, contact the solicitor’. People also have this relationship with each other – and that seems to work pretty well.”

The Bristol Signing Support Group says that as well as providing some practical help and assistance, they also provide emotional support. “A lot of people go there very traumatised, very nervous, very fearful of what might happen. Signing is part of a very humiliating…deliberately humiliating system. And, although what we can do is tiny, it’s something against that [system].”

Setting up a signing support system

If you are involved in a community project supporting asylum seekers or other migrants, you can set up a scheme to help people to prepare for, avoid, or better deal with detention and the threat of detention.

A signing support system also means that the person going to sign knows people are looking out for them, and that there is a plan in place if things go wrong and they are detained. This can reduce the psychological burden of reporting at the Home Office.

A system like this can save valuable time: friends and supporters can start finding out exactly where the person is, what has happened, and what can be done to help straight away.

Ultimately, none of us are free until we get rid of this unjust and inhumane policy altogether. Standing with those at risk of detention can play a real role in both supporting people today, and building the kind of society we want for tomorrow.

Hidden in plain sight: Working with trafficked people in detention

Content warning: torture. Image by @Carcazan

This blog comes from Beatrice Grasso, Detention Outreach Manager with JRS UK, who recently published a report on the indefinite detention of trafficking survivors. While JRS’s research draws on case studies from Harmondsworth and Colnbrook immigration removal centres (IRCs), this issue affects people detained across the UK. The campaign #DucMakesGlasgow highlighted the plight of Duc, a trafficking survivor detained in Dungavel and Colnbrook IRCs earlier this year.

Sitting in the bustling Welfare Office in Harmondsworth as one of our regular outreach drop-ins is about to start, I find myself looking at the faces of those waiting. Some are there to see us, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), where they already know they can come to for a listening ear and a friendly face; others are waiting to see a solicitor or the Home Office. Some look defiant, ready to fight their case and make their voices heard; others already look defeated, depleted of all energy. All of them hold on to the hope that when they leave the office they will be slightly better off than when they entered. In a system built on uncertainty, their greatest achievement would be to receive some answers: “What will happen to me?”, “When will I be allowed to leave this place?”, “Why am I here?”. The same questions are repeated over and over again, in the hopes that one time, this time, they will finally have an answer.

And that’s when I notice them, sitting together in a corner, talking quietly amongst themselves. They look young, though their faces betray a difficult past, lost childhoods and immeasurable suffering showing clearly without the need for words. One breaks off from the group, tentatively making his way to our table, encouraged by his friends and our smiles, a rare sight in that place. The volunteer who accompanies me is a Vietnamese religious sister, and it is to her that the initial conversation is directed, as he apologises profusely for not being able to speak any English. In a place that generates isolation by its very nature, cutting people off from wider society, some people end up being trapped in their own language too.

Once the young man (whom we’ll call Xuan) starts talking, it becomes very quickly apparent that he has a lot to say. And soon, comforted by the reassuring presence of my companion on the day, he starts sharing a truly harrowing account of exploitation and abuse, starting from a childhood on the streets of Vietnam and culminating in being trafficked to the UK as a minor, forced to work in a cannabis farm and ultimately made to pay by being disbelieved and imprisoned. One by one, the rest of the group all make their way to us. The details of their stories vary, but the broad elements are very similar: most of them were forced to work in cannabis farms in the UK and brutally tortured if they tried to refuse or to escape; they were arrested during police raids, convicted and subsequently transferred to detention on completion of their prison sentence.

Over the last year and a half, we have worked with 13 Vietnamese men who, like Xuan, displayed clear indicators of trafficking and were being held in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook. They came to us looking for comfort, someone to acknowledge their experiences and, in some ways, their very existence in a system where they go largely unseen, trapped in a web woven by their abusers. Fear, shame, threats to family are ever-present shadows hanging over them, making it almost impossible to know who to trust. Dealing with an immigration system that routinely challenges disclosures and tends to not believe individuals is also taxing: one man told us he had never believed his traffickers when they told him that he should not approach authorities because they would only deport him, but he now thought they had been right all along.

The negative impact that continued detention has on these men can hardly be underestimated. All of them tell us that detention reminds them of their previous captivity at the hands of their traffickers, and that this leads them to having flashbacks, nightmares and re-experiencing the abuse. Most of them carry physical marks of the torture, scars as visible reminders of what has happened to them, and other health problems resulting from a long history of abuse. And yet, they are often not officially recognised as victims, and even when their accounts are accepted, they are kept in detention because of their “unacceptable behaviour” or the “danger to the public” because of their convictions, a direct result of their exploitation. Despite showing clear indicators of abuse and vulnerability, they remain hidden in plain sight of those authorities who should protect them.

After 7 long months in detention, Xuan was finally released with appropriate care thanks to the support and involvement of many different individuals. Many others were, sadly, not so lucky and disappeared soon after being released without adequate support arrangements in place. Others yet are still fighting to make their voices heard, knowing that we at JRS and many others will be standing beside them, giving a voice to the voiceless and restoring hope to those who have lost it, and ensuring that what was hidden is brought to light.

When a ‘good’ inspection report is bad news

This blog comes from Kate Alexander, Director of Scottish Detainee Visitors, who support people detained in Dungavel immigration removal centre (IRC) and tweet at @SDVisitors

The latest inspection report on Dungavel IRC, published on 16 November, makes interesting reading. Dungavel usually receives positive reports from inspectors, in stark contrast to other detention centres and this one follows that pattern to a great extent, though there has been a deterioration since the last inspection. The inspectors praise the staff working at the centre and the relationships they try to build with people detained there.

As visitors to people in Dungavel, we meet many people who have been detained elsewhere in the detention estate and they agree that being detained there is better than being detained in Harmondsworth, Morton Hall, Brook House or any of the other places they have experienced.

And yet, the inspection report also shows that 41% of people detained in Dungavel at the time of the inspection felt unsafe. These feelings of insecurity and lack of safety came from being detained indefinitely, with no time limit, and were exacerbated by being surrounded by others who were stressed and sometimes angry at their circumstances.

As visitors to people detained there, we know this also to be true.

The inevitable conclusion is that no matter how well a detention centre is managed, it is impossible to detain people indefinitely without causing harm.

At the time of the inspection, 38% of people in the centre had been detained for more than 28 days, four people had been there for 6-12 months and two people had been in Dungavel for over a year. The longest someone had been detained there was 440 days. And remember, these figures are only for the time people had spent at Dungavel. A quarter of the people detained there at the time of the inspection had been transferred from another detention centre or short term holding facility, so had been detained for longer. And none of them knew when their detention would end.

Unlike other recent inspections, the report doesn’t explicitly call for a time limit on detention but does raise significant concerns about Home Office practice. The issues highlighted include:

  • Many people (39%) were transported to the centre at night for reasons of operational convenience rather than necessity, and over half of the people in detention had spent over four hours in escort journeys to get to Dungavel. Half had problems on arrival and a third felt depressed or suicidal.
  • Poor Home Office casework planning led to the inappropriate detention of an elderly disabled couple. Staff at the centre immediately assessed them as inappropriate for detention but it took five days for them to be released.
  • In most of the rule 35 reports examined in detail by inspectors, the Home Office accepted evidence of torture but did not consider this to be sufficient to release people from detention.
  • Dental care was significantly worse than at the previous inspection. This was no longer provided on site and waiting times had doubled. Appointments were frequently cancelled due to lack of escorting. This was described as ‘unacceptable’.

Again, these issues are familiar to us as visitors to Dungavel. In the last year we have been particularly aware of people experiencing severe dental pain and not being appropriately cared for or treated. In one case, the dental pain was related to previous experience of torture.

The report does not let the management of the centre off the hook entirely. It makes a number of recommendations for improvement. Importantly, inspectors repeat the concerns they raised at the last inspection about the inherent risks involved in detaining women in a predominantly male centre and note that specific policies to address this are underdeveloped.

This is a concern we share. Our experience is that women can feel isolated and frightened in Dungavel. This is exacerbated by the accommodation provided for them which, if full, can be cramped and feel over crowded. This is particularly the case as women are less likely to take advantage of the relative freedom of movement around the centre and grounds that is available at Dungavel, due to the fact that public space is dominated by men. We try prioritise visiting women who are detained but are concerned that some may even feel reluctant to come to the visits room because it is also dominated by men.

I found reading the report profoundly frustrating. Staff at the centre will no doubt be satisfied with the inspectors’ overall assessment of their work. The Home Office will be relieved that the headline findings are not of a centre dominated by violence, abuse and self-harm.

But the fact that an inspection that finds that nearly half of the people detained feel unsafe might be considered a win is a scandal.

We know what needs to happen. The UK Government has said that it wishes to reduce both the scale and length of detention. It is clear what they need to do to achieve that. They must immediately introduce a 28 day time limit on detention, end the detention of vulnerable people and support the development of a range of community based alternatives to detention.