Yarl’s Wood and the anti-detention movement: challenging perceptions at the grassroots

Yarl's Wood | Unlocked19

When we think of immigration detention, we tend to focus on immigration detention centres, what happens inside them and groups working directly and exclusively on immigration detention. But perhaps, this is changing. More people are waking up to the connection between immigration detention and the shadow of the Hostile Environment they see in their communities. Catherine Hurley (@hurleycat38) reports on a growing, loose, network of community groups in Cambridge who are taking action, to help others imagine an end to immigration detention.

“The taxi driver who picks us up for the 20-minute drive back to Bedford station knows where we’ve been, ‘I don’t know what I think about it’ he says, ‘I mean I suppose we need places like that today.”

This quote comes from a 2016 article in Grazia magazine,  one of many accounts of visits to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre that have been collected over the years in Unlocking Detention. Most refer to its bleakness on an industrial estate in the middle of nowhere and, looking back over previous Unlocking tours, I am struck by the similarity of the accounts of real-life visits to women detained there,  and how they focus on their perceived loss of hope.  

Symbol of protest

One of the more controversial of the country’s detention centres  Yarl’s Wood has come to be a potent symbol and site of protest and opposition to what was described in the launch blog for Unlocking Detention in 2014 as this ‘national practice of incarceration’. Located as it is about 40 miles from my home in Cambridge, Yarl’s Wood is to me the most visible local manifestation of the hostile environment: a vivid reminder of the continuing urgent need to challenge the inhumane practice of immigration detention. 

Yarl’s Wood was opened in 2001 under a Labour government. Not long after opening a fire destroyed the centre and the report of the inquiry into the ‘disturbance’ and fire which followed reveals much about both the changing attitudes to migration and  the political and policy context in which Yarl’s Wood was created. At the time, the government was forecasting huge upsurges in the number of people coming to the country to seek asylum – remember the appalling expression ‘bogus asylum seekers’? Increasing the number of detention places was a priority for the government, not least to make it look as though it had immigration under control. 

The roots of the hostile environment are clearly visible from Yarl’s Wood’s beginning, yet in the report’s investigations into early discussions about the design of the centre, we can detect a certain ambivalence about the role of detention in immigration policy. Developers were encouraged to build a centre as unlike a prison as possible in terms of its security and accommodation. There was an acknowledgement that the residents of the Centre would be people who hadn’t actually done anything wrong but who were being detained for administrative convenience. The planners thought that this might make for a more ‘compliant’ population. 

Hostile Environment

By the time the hostile environment had been codified in Immigration Acts 2014 and 2016, any governmental squeamishness about immigration detention had evaporated.  Much has been written about conditions in Yarl’s Wood and about immigration detention in general, giving us vivid testimony about the harm indefinite detention does to the thousands who experience it annually in the UK.  Government-commissioned reports and the annual reports of the Independent Monitoring Boards have made detailed and important recommendations including the need for a time limit on detention. Despite the growing clamour for an end to indefinite immigration detention it neveretheless feels as though change comes too slowly.  If too many people think along the same lines as that taxi driver it will always be hard to imagine a world without immigration detention centres.

Where I live a loose coalition of local groups has emerged, in part as a legacy of opposition to Oakington, the notorious detention centre that operated in Cambridgeshire between 1990 till its closure in 2010.  Some of the groups are refugee support groups and others have formed to challenge the policies of the hostile environment which expose many migrants, not just refugees, to the risk of detention.   

While there is no formal connection between these groups, they meet regularly under the umbrella of the Cambridge chapter of City of Sanctuary,  keeping each other informed about what each is doing.  Frontline groups such as Cambridge ethnic community forum have developed a refugee service that provides practical advice and support to asylum seekers and refugees. The Cambridge Convoy Refugee Action group (Camcrag) works with volunteers to bring relief to migrants in Calais.  Besides playing an important co-ordination role, Cambridge City of Sanctuary sponsors Schools of Sanctuary and Techfugees, both examples of where local people bring their local connections to bear and helping embed welcome and hospitality. Like a spiderweb, the connections radiate outwards, expanding the community of welcome.  New student groups emerge and new groups with specific focuses develop, such as Cambridge Welcome whose key aim is to work alongside and in solidarity with migrant groups.

Urge to Take Action

People find out about the groups in many different ways, whether it’s via a faith group, through university channels (Cambridge has two universities), through trade unions, or local politics.  We learn from each other, supporting where we can our various initiatives, and try always to keep the people who are most harmed by the hostile environment to the fore. A founder member of Cambridge Welcome spoke of what is common to all our local groups:

I suppose the greatest challenge is to take initiatives that  build trust with vulnerable migrants & refugees so that their own voices are heard clearly – especially by those who are in positions of influence & responsibility.

The thread that links these groups is an urge to take action. The connections can be a powerful means of combating the hostile environment, helping to change the conversation around migration so that more and more people can imagine an end to immigration detention. 

My original idea for this blog was to look at the impact of Yarl’s Wood on the local community. But it soon became clear that Yarl’s Wood and detention are but one aspect (maybe one of the worst) of a larger story of how we treat migrants who live among us.  Cambridge is often dismissed as a sheltered bubble, but even here the insidious effects of the hostile environment can be felt. There is thankfully a fluid and changing network of individuals and groups who share a collective revulsion at the treatment of people who want to make our community and country their home. 

They – we – are a kind of subversive inversion of the hostile environment, which has tried insidiously to turn the providers of essential public services (the NHS, schools), and employers and landlords into border guards. This patchwork collective of opposition embeds welcome and hospitality into our community instead. I like to think that this energy will one day be turned towards more humane ways of supporting and empowering refugees and all vulnerable migrants within our local communities.  


Who gets to ‘imagine better’? – Breaking hierarchies and shifting power on our way to end indefinite immigration detention.

Imagine Better by @carcazan | Unlocked19

Illustrations by @carcazan

Is there an implicit hierarchy of power, even in work and activities intended to create social justice? How do we make that visible? What do we about it? Who ‘gets to’ lead parliamentary advocacy work and why? Why are we afraid of asking such a question? The Refugee Tales have recently made a decision that its parliamentary activities will be, from now on, led by people with lived experience of immigration detention. We asked Anna Pincus (@TreesAnna), Director of Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group, who runs the Refugee Tales, to tell us why and how they reached their conclusion. PS – If you are not familiar with the Refugee Tales, we strongly recommend you visit their website and find out more.

We celebrate our small charity where change can be created without us having to recast a weighty infrastructure. We can adapt and develop and respond to the external environment and our own learning swiftly. 

It’s a flexibility that enabled Refugee Tales to grow from a small idea from our ‘outreach’ team planning the Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group response to Refugee Week, through three books and five walks, to the platform that it has now and the international connections it is developing.

The Better Imagined

The conversations emanating from Refugee Tales are all about ‘the better imagined’ in the words of Ali Smith. The books are used as tools to amplify our calls for an end to the discriminatory practice of indefinite detention. As an organisation, we have developed three ‘lenses’ that we apply to our work: is it ethical, is it creative, and is it the best possible way. When applying these to the way we were using the books as tools to have conversations with parliamentarians, we felt that we needed to break down hierarchies in our own organisation. 

Our community included people who had experienced detention and we discussed their leading our parliamentary work. It wasn’t always an easy conversation. We were even advised that it would never work and that experts by experience would be inconvenienced if MPs cancelled meetings at the last minute. I raised this with Mishka from Freed Voices. How do you feel if a meeting is cancelled at the last minute? ‘I think, great’, he said… ‘I can go away and use that time to prepare for the next meeting!’

 When we started Refugee Tales we thought walking was a way of getting from A to B. We never realised that the walking and the sharing on the walk would create community in the way that it has. We never realised how empowering the community would become. There is a strength in walking together having left our everyday lives behind. 


Starting afresh together on a common journey gives us all an equal strength. The July walking journey has given us confidence as a group and that powers many other journeys – whether it be the personal confidence to learn a new skill or a collective confidence to speak out and call for our rights in a more direct way. It is our footsteps across the North Downs Way, from Runnymede where we felt at the heart of the Magna Carta, along the coast looking out at the border, that have led us to embark on self-advocacy as the way we call for an end to indefinite detention. It is the peer support in our walking community that extends our capacity and makes new things possible. 

The storytelling that Refugee Tales has embodied over five years helps shift xenophobic narratives about migrants and a way of working with people who have lived experience to create their own conversations about our shared futures is our next step. Sana Mustafa of the Network for Refugee Voices writes ‘Nothing about us without us’.

 The way Refugee Tales opens up the landscape, opens conversations and hopefully opens hearts has changed the way we work on many levels. Other than breaking down internal hierarchies, other openings have been our many collaborations. Starting with the University of Kent as a key partner, we wondered at first how discussing ideas in an academic environment could really create change on the ground. It has! Processing, understanding and learning has filtered through to who we are, what we do and how we do it.  

Collaboration has enabled us to identify issues and solutions we may not have considered and to place learning at the heart of practice. This is a long way from developing a policy and that being the passed down wisdom that we adhere to – it’s a process of collective learning, testing, changing, learning and more learning again. 

Nothing Stands Still for Long

It’s not always easy. ‘Nothing stands still for long’ is a grumble we’ve heard more than once. But we’re working in a volatile external environment and we can’t afford to stagnate. Our new partner is Lauren from Right to Remain who has introduced us to Sherry Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation. She’s exploring with us who has the power in our organisation when important decisions are made. We aspire to citizen control through delegation and partnership. 

We’ve long been inspired by the work of Freed Voices but developing such a project as an add on was never the way forward. Our similar path has grown out of our developing community of walkers in a gradual journey. In the sector, we all bring different ways of working as we live and breathe our call for an end to indefinite detention and the combined tapestry of approaches amplifies our voices. It’s a privilege to work with every group creating change.

 Our first newsletter written by those with lived experience of detention launches in December and the first workshop for our self-advocacy team takes place with Lauren in November. I was invited to write this blog for Unlocking Detention and to describe the new direction of our self-advocacy project. Thank you. Next year I wish you to hear silence from me and hope those with lived experience of detention will write for us as they jointly occupy the space of our imagining better.

When hope is in short supply

The Friendship Project | Unlocked19

Collaboration is all the rage, particularly among groups and charitable foundations who are looking for the magic solution that can achieve social justice – but what does it mean? How do we recognise and address cultural differences which exist between different groups, their priorities and approaches to change making? This blog is based on the debates and conversations that some of the Unlocking Detention team had while preparing for #Unlocked19. Eiri Ohtani is the Project Director of The Detention Forum. She tweets at @EiriOhtani

Before summer, a group I had never heard about got in touch with the Detention Forum over Twitter. They said they would like to run workshops with people to create handmade butterflies for people in immigration detention, to raise awareness, to show they care and build solidarity. Would the Detention Forum like to collaborate? 

I was sceptical, to say the least. I famously delegated my home economics assignment of making a skirt to my grandmother (“I will make sure that the stitches are uneven, so your teacher won’t notice that I did this”, she helpfully said) – I had no interest in sewing. And generally, my lexicon doesn’t include fluffy stuff like butterflies. Why on earth make pretty butterflies to challenge immigration detention, which should be won by the sheer strength of our rational and moral arguments?  

Seeking change through different routes

But our rationality demands that we keep an eye open for any new avenues that can trigger the change we desire. Our morality forces us not to turn away from the fact that immigration detention continues to exist, as a practice and as a structural reality. There is, of course, a growing momentum for change, but there is also a sense that whatever we as advocates, campaigners or activists have been doing hasn’t been enough. It is our responsibility to put our personal feelings aside and stay open-minded. Personal attachment to activities that feel comfortable can distort and limit what really needs to be done. So, with that spirit of adventure, I set out to stare deeply into my prejudices, and begin to unpack how I am culturally conditioned to approach my own work. 

This action planned by The Friend Ship combines quietly ruminative craftivism and an invocation of an image of hope. Quietness, contemplation and the butterfly are probably the polar opposite of a set of emotions and approaches of our textbook anti-immigration detention activities. What can craftivism and the butterfly do for anti-immigration detention campaigns? 

The Friendship Project | Unlocked19

First port of call was a podcast by Sarah Corbett of Craftivist Collective. Corbett describes craftivism as a considerate, compassionate and emphatic act of protest. It is built on the philosophy that if we want the world to be beautiful, kind and just, our activism has to mirror that. In that physical act of making craft, which by necessity calls for carefulness and bodily engagement with material, activists meaningfully and holistically engage with the problem at stake and try to advance solutions. 

Corbett says something provocative about our propensity to name and shame the perpetrators and angrily demand that they do what we want them toShe calls out the violence that sometimes creeps into the language of activism and questions whether such a polarising approach is the best way for transformation in the long-run. Do we believe that change happens by force or by desire (i.e. desire to change)?  We often discuss this in my circle of close colleagues but opinions remain divided.  

As Corbett herself acknowledges, other forms of activism such as protests, petitions, ‘email your MP’ actions for example, do have roles to play in bringing about change. They can draw attention to the issue quickly, can bring people together to build on their common concern and articulate their demand. But she also patiently, and in my view rightfully, points out that thoughtfulness is also absolutely necessary if we take ethics seriously. There is an argument that craftivism can foster an inquiring mind that critically investigates how collectively we can be part of the world we desire and hope for.  

Communicating around hope?

However, hope gets a bad press in some quarters within our circle too. Our mode operandi and prevailing wisdom is that unless we continue to fuel righteous anger by reinforcing and reiterating  how terrible everything is and how it’s only getting worse, people will stop paying attention to the problem. Even when there is a glimmer of hope or something is improving, it can be hard to vocalise it due to a fear that it will look out of alignment from the rest of the community. (If you are interested in hope-based communications, have a look at this webpage by Thomas Coombs.) 

In that context, the image of a butterfly is also jarring – or is it? In the USA, where its unique and well-organised migrant justice movement led by undocumented migrants has long been an inspiration for many in the UK, the butterfly came to defiantly symbolise migrants’ hope for the future under the banner of “Migration Is Beautiful” in 2012. 

The idea was conceived by Favianna Rodriguez, an artist-activist, who is also CultureStrike’s Executive Director. The butterfly image and tagline quickly emerged as an approachable way to reimagine borders as permeable rather than militarized, reinvigorating a metaphor that many migrants have looked to for generations.’

In the film ‘Migration Is Beautiful’ produced by Pharrell Williams, Rodriguez shows how the butterfly, symbolising freedom, hope, possibilities and beauty, became a focal point for rallies and protests by communities that were being torn apart by ever increasing immigration enforcement and threats of deportation. The butterfly image was used on flyers, posters and even as an eye-catching protest costume that drew in people in a way that words and speeches alone cannot. 

Roberto Lavato, writer and strategist, interviewed in the film explains why symbols are important: “We are not machines. We can’t just be programmed to do things. We have to have meanings and understanding that leads to action.” And perhaps butterflies stir us to act in a way that no briefing paper, policy document, meeting, statement or conference can do. 

The Friend Ship’s choice of the image of the butterfly perhaps follows the logic of the US strand of migration justice movement. Its quiet symbolism of hope offers a potent counter-narrative to immigration detention, where, one expert-by-experience said ‘Hope goes to die’. Reading through feedback from the Butterfly Effect workshops at Latitude Festival in July 2019 where these butterflies were made, it’s clear this burst of craftivism left a profound impression on people who made them and touched the way they see the world. 

‘So we were not abandoned.’

Returning to my original question, is this the right way to approach immigration detention? My honest answer is, I still don’t know. It probably depends on the context, people involved and what happens next. What I do know is that that the world we want to see, where migration justice does exist, is yet to be born and we just don’t know how we can make it happen – and we should be prepared to try whatever the means available that can ease that process of transformation. 

Just as I was about to finish writing this blog, I received an email from Emma Skeet, who runs The Friend Ship. She said: ‘I posted 200 butterflies to Brook House today (they had 160 detainees when I last enquired but I sent more in case more had arrived. We had contributions from people aged 5-75 years old through workshops at Latitude, schools, University of East Anglia student STAR action group, and community groups.’

We don’t know whether these butterflies will in fact reach people in the detention centre, or what their response might be. Will they know that strangers paused, reflected on the human cost of immigration detention and wished to send hope that change is possible? Will they dismiss these butterflies, as I might have done, as a gesture of superficial sympathy, when what people in detention really want is tangible freedom? 

Here, I take strength from a little tale someone I had never met generously told me some time ago. I don’t even know the person’s gender, let alone name or nationality but they said that they had been detained in a detention centre in the middle of quiet woodlands somewhere, but not in the UK. Only after release, they found out that there was a group of people standing on the other side of the wall, every month, to protest against detention. They said, in closing this little tale, ‘So we were not abandoned.’


And here’s Emma’s initial response to the blog. What’s your response?

‘Dear Eiri,

Your article is great – really interesting. The only thing I would change is it puts forward artivism and political action as opposing options. I think an important point is not to ask ‘is this the right way to tackle detention reform’ but to emphasise the importance of different ways of raising awareness working alongside each other – not as alternatives or a choice of which is the best way. Surely all activity which raises awareness of, and support for, the issue is welcome? One important point to make, which shows how any activity which helps is needed, is that the majority of the general public (festival goers from teenagers to adults), parents at Norwich Schools of Sanctuary workshops and University students, who helped make the butterflies did not know that the UK had indefinite detention or how to act on this injustice. Many people feel overwhelmed by the huge array of social, environmental and political injustices in the world and do not feel able to help make a difference. Artivism provides a way in. A way to take time to talk and learn about an issue while creating something to raise awareness and potentially share with those who we do not feel sorry for, pity or see as victims but rather send symbols of solidarity and hope as, in another life it could be you or it could be me. And I know I would want both, activists fighting for change on the political agenda to establish a new way of handling immigration with dignity and respect, but also to know ordinary people were thinking of me.

 Best wishes,



Further reading

About craftivism:

About the butterfly and migration justice:

  • CultureStrike’s webpage on ‘Migration is Beautiful’
  • ‘What do butterflies have to do with open borders? Migration is Beautiful’ by John Lee Read.
  • ‘Monarch butterflies a lesson in sustainability, social justice’ by UIC Today Read.

Thinking about how positive change can happen:

  • Becoming Unstuck With Relational Activism’ by Becca Dove & Tim Fisher Read.
  • ‘From slacktivism to ‘feel-good’ protests, activism is broken: Here’s how to fix it’ By Antony Funnell for Future Tense Read.
  • ‘Brain research suggests emphasizing human rights abuses may perpetuate them’ By: Laura Ligouri Read.
  • ‘A Guide to Hope-based Communications’ by OpenGlobalRights Read.


Impressions of Morton Hall 

Morton Hall | Unlocked19

Morton Hall immigration detention centre is one of the lesser known centres. This blog shares some of the impressions of this particular detention centre which are hard to capture by simply reading monitoring reports.  Ali McGinely is Director of AVID, the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees, and one of the Coordination Group members of the Detention Forum. Eiri Ohtani is Project Director of the Detention Forum. Ali and Eiri have worked closely together over 10 years, initially sharing a small office room together! 

By Ali McGinley and Eiri Ohtani 

Access to places of detention is limited, either by their isolated location, the barbed wire that surrounds many of them, or by security rules that make visiting seem as though you’re entering a prison.  By contrast, if you visit the website of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP), you will find a rich source of data on daily life in detention in the very detailed, and in some ways exacting, reports of their inspections of immigration detention centres.  Photographs in the reports give us a glimpse of what it looks like inside: they are all pretty disturbing, heightened by that clash of colour schemes only found in institutional settings.  Monitoring reports are also produced annually by the Independent Monitoring Boards (IMB).

It is rare for any country to have two statutory bodies which monitor immigration detention: often colleagues outside the UK, who face great difficulties obtaining detention related data, envy us for it. While HMIP and IMB’s inspection frameworks and methodologies are different, these official reports, put together, provide a degree of transparency about how Morton Hall is run and what it is like. 

For many for whom immigrate detention is an abstract concept, the detention centres might appear indistinguishable from one another.  But Morton Hall stands out. For one thing, it is the only remaining centre run by HM Prison Service. The fact that other detention centres are run by private security companies with profit motives rightly attracts much criticism. It is hard to know whether this direct connection to prisons makes any difference to public perceptions of the place. But there are certain differences we do notice: for example, there is more information in the public domain about the costs, and the way in which it is run. 


What the reports cannot convey, however, is the sense of isolation that dominates Morton Hall. Located in Lincolnshire, the closest village is Swinderby, with 773 residents. Morton Hall very much ‘feels’ like a prison, both in its infrastructure and the regime followed inside. Of course, all detention centres feel like prisons inside – there is no doubt about that. But Morton Hall – like Dover and the Verne which have since closed down – actually look like prisons from outside too.  You can see this as you approach the centre from far away, unlike the purpose-built centres beside the airports in the south. In fact, it was an RAF base, until 1985 when it became a prison, and an IRC in 2011. 

The isolation is exacerbated by the limited visiting hours, often less than three hours a day. It is good to see that this isolation is recognised and attempts made to reduce it by providing a free taxi service to and from Lincoln and Newark rail stations, although you have to book it 24 hours in advance. Needless to say, individuals’ experiences of Morton Hall are also hard to capture in these reports, but we have collected vivid testimonies of Morton Hall which might help to increase people’s understanding of the place. 


Morton Hall | Unlocked19
Voices from Morton Hall (Unlocked14) – In this blog post, two people currently detained in Morton Hall detention centre tell Leeds No Borders about their experiences. Click on the image to read.


Morton Hall | Unlocked19
“This is mental torture after prison and no respect for humanity” (Unlocked14) – This post was written by the Morton Hall Detainee Visitor Group (MHDVG). 

Inside Morton Hall, all the rooms other than the induction wing are single rooms, whereas most other centres are shared rooms. Morton Hall is the only detention centre to outsource its welfare provision, which is run by Lincolnshire Action Trust. Previously, this welfare service, along with provision for visits and the visits hall, had been delivered by a local organisation called Children’s Links. 

‘Off the radar’

There is often speculation that Morton Hall is used as a ‘testing ground’ for pilot projects, because of its physical distance from the other centres, and because it is the only centre that is publicly run. These pilots have included screening for people with a learning disability, or trying out new approaches to monitoring those at risk of self-harm (ACDT). 

There is also speculation, commonly discussed but with no concrete evidence that we are aware of,  that people deemed ‘problematic’ in the widest sense – whether for health reasons, behaviour, or perhaps complex cases – are sent to Morton Hall. 

Morton Hall’s isolation has always meant that it feels much more ‘off the radar’ in so many different ways.  The sense of being ‘off the radar’ can be physically experienced when you visit. AVID, the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees, have been working to support people in Morton Hall since it opened.  AVID visited Morton Hall when it was still a women’s prison, during its conversion to a detention centre. Ali McGinley, Director of AVID, says that she was shocked to see the physical security dramatically increase during that time. “…there are a lot of external grounds and garden space at Morton Hall, and this was all sectioned off with high fences so that in case of disruption, areas can be ‘sealed’ for safety. This means that more barbed wire was put up at Morton Hall when it became a detention centre, than there had ever been when it was a women’s prison.” 

AVID member Morton Hall Detainee Visitors Group, based in Nottingham and with a branch in Lincoln, are a lively, dynamic group of volunteers who provide befriending, support and practical advice to people inside.  AVID has been contacted by people from Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester or even further to ask about the centre and what they can do to help those locked up there. 

What is the future for Morton Hall?

The visitors group members usually have to drive. Despite the free taxi service, if you are relying on public transport it is very difficult to get to. It can feel very dark as you the drive up a long path surrounded by trees. (You can see for yourself on Googlemap’s Street View of the area).  There are far fewer charitable groups going in and out of Morton Hall, unlike say the centres around London, which makes the support of the visitors’ group and others such as BID, who also make the journey there, particularly important. 

Unlike the south east centres and those near airports, there is far less media interest, or at least far less national media coverage.  Often major events at Morton Hall go very much unnoticed, unless someone tragically dies at the centre or when serious disturbances occur. But, although it does not have a public ‘profile’ such as Yarl’s Wood or, lately, Brook House, people have not forgotten about Morton Hall.  There are frequent demonstrations outside Morton Hall, such as the one organised recently by groups various groups. A local newspaper regularly reports on these demonstrations, bringing much needed public attention to the plight of men who are locked indefinitely at Morton Hall. 

Morton Hall remains pretty unique within the UK’s detention system. Publicly run, geographically detached from the rest of the system, and physically isolated. Since the closures of Haslar, the Verne and Dover detention centres, it is the last detention centre to be run by the Prison Service. Which prompts the question: what is the future for Morton Hall?      


My detention clothes

My Detention Clothes | Unlocked19

Safiyyah (not her real name) has lived in the UK with her family over ten years. She explains how she was suddenly detained with her sister at a reporting centre, then taken to Sahara Unit in Harmondsworth detention centre and later to Yarls Wood detention centre.

My orange dress with a black cardigan are my detention clothes – I was wearing them when I was
detained on one Thursday. Even today when I wear them, I call them “my detention clothes”. That is
the day which I can never forget.

My family need to report every four weeks. When we arrived there around 9:30am on that
Thursday, my sister and I were told by an immigration officer at the counter that we had a short
interview booked and we had to wait.

We were separated from our mother and made to wait in a locked interview room where even the
windows were locked. It was airless. About an hour later, someone came to give us another security
check. They left and locked us from outside again.

Short Interview

Hours passed and by mid-afternoon, my sister and I were started to feel hungry and also desperately
needed to go to the toilet. The chairs we were sitting were uncomfortable. Another officer was
passing by, so we knocked the door from inside and told him that it has been a very long time for a
‘short interview’.

The officer then came in and told us that our case has been refused and the refusal letter had been
sent. I was surprised, because we did not receive it and told him that. He was adamant that we did
receive it, either us or our solicitor, but we calmly assured him that we had not received any such
letter. He then said that he was going to go back to his office and bring proof of the recorded
delivery and that it had been received by us. He came back around an hour later, and said he was
not able to find any tracking number for the post but it did not matter, as he can serve it to us in
person now. He wrote down the date on the top of the refusal letter, gave it to us and said we had
now been detained.

My sister and I started panicking. He said that he had already informed our mother about our
detention and she had gone to the solicitor to apply for bail. We were then moved from the
interview room to a holding room: all the people there were crying, knowing that they were in a
serious situation. We were being taken to Harmondsworth detention centre.
The immigration officer then came to the holding room and gave us our mother’s phone, it wasn’t a
smart phone, so we were allowed to have it. Then the phone rang after a few minutes – it was our
mother. We started screaming into the phone “Please get us out of here.” and we could hear our
mother also crying hysterically on the other end of the line.

“That night was torture for us”

We then waited there for hours for the immigration van. All the men were taken first, and we waited
for the van to come back. It was around 10pm by this time. I saw they were putting handcuffs on
everyone to take them from the building to the vans outside. They put the handcuffs on my sister
first and when I saw this, it felt as if everything had finished for me. I must have cried all the way
from the reporting centre to the detention centre.

When we reached there, they took our pictures and had a nurse look at us where I told the nurse
that I take anti-depressants and he gave me some. Then they provided us with some food but by
that time, we were not hungry at all. Afterwards, they took us to the Sahara Unit which is the female
only unit in Harmondsworth with 13 rooms. The rooms face each other and each room contains
three beds but only two people are allocated to each room. My sister and I were given one room
together. That night was a torture for us.

Next day, an immigration officer came to see us and handed us a letter. It said our removal was
imminent and our deportation flight was booked in four days. After hearing this, I could feel that my
mental condition was deteriorating. I felt hopeless and helpless. My sister was sleeping and I could
not discuss with her but I felt as if I had to tell someone about my condition. I went to the welfare
team in our unit and they then filled out a Rule 35 form for me that night. And the next morning, I
was placed on a constant watch for my own safety.

The deportation date was approaching. I knew my mother and an MP were doing everything they
can to get us out of this situation and I was feeling worse. I was sitting waiting for my turn to see a
nurse, when the welfare officer walked in and told me that our flight had been deferred. I fainted as
soon as I heard the news and I was treated by the nurse. But, later on, we also received the bad
news that we were going to be moved to Yarl’s Wood detention centre the next afternoon.

Unsupervised and not in handcuffs

At Yarl’s Wood, we were then called to attend another interview. It began again with the
immigration officer asking us that if we knew why we were brought to the detention centre, when
another officer came into the room and asked the immigration officer to go with him somewhere. As
soon as he left, a chilling sensation went through me that maybe another flight has been booked for
us. My sister and I were just crying. The immigration officer then came back into the interview room
and gave us the best news that we had been released on bail. The officers then gave us a train ticket
from Bedford to our place. When we walked outside unsupervised and not in handcuffs, we felt like
we got our freedom and life back.

After the detention, our family have become more protective of each other and more close-knit.
Before when we used to go to reporting, it would just be normal but now when we go, it feels as if
we are walking into a prison. All three of us shiver with fear as soon as we walk into the reporting
centre building. I feel as if my heart will burst out of my chest and this horrible feeling is there every
time we report now.

I am actually confused as to what the ending to this blog could be. Obviously, my main purpose for
writing this piece was so that the people see our situation and the Home Office gives us visa that we
need. But my hope for the future is also that no one goes through what we and what thousands or
millions of others go through each second in immigration detention. That humiliation and the
betrayal by the Home office where they use the “detain first and ask questions later” tactic. We just
want to live in the UK and integrate and contribute to the society in a positive way.

Let’s talk about Tinsley House

Tinsley House | Unlocked19

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

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

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

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

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

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

Threats and fear

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

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

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

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

Tinsley House | Unlocked19

I visit for the injustice

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

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

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


Welcome to this year’s Unlocking Detention!

Unlocking Detention | Unlocked 19

In this, our sixth year, many of you will already be familiar with Unlocking Detention. But by way of introduction for newcomers, Unlocking Detention is a ‘virtual tour’ of the UK’s vast immigration detention estate. Using Twitter, Facebook and a website to ‘unlock’ the gates of immigration detention centres, it shines a spotlight on the hidden world of immigration detention.  

Before each ‘tour’ however, there is an internal discussion of the same question: can we stop the ‘tour’ now? Ideally, we would prefer not to continue. And in fact, since our launch, we have stopped visiting Haslar, Dover, The Verne and Campsfield detention centres – because they have been closed down. They are gone forever. Far more people than when we started in 2014 are now aware of immigration detention and are demanding change. 

While the number of people being detained has been steadily decreasing and there are some promising indications that it might fall even further with time, we are not there yet. We still have no time limit on immigration detention, vulnerable people are routinely detained, there is no automatic judicial oversight on detention decision-making and community-based alternative to detention pilots – which have been finally introduced – are still in their infancy. Things might get worse as well, if demonization of migrants and people seeking refugee protection doesn’t get stopped. 

What's next? | Unlocked19

What’s next then?

Our team agreed to think about the following while preparing for this year’s Unlocking Detention. 

  • Why do we value collaboration between different actors? What does collaboration actually look and feel like?
  • What do we look forward to when we think about the future of anti-detention campaign and advocacy?
  • Where should our energy be next? What do we think we need to do differently? What should we do more or less of? 

By the time Unlocking Detention tour ends this year, we will know the result of the General Election. Whatever happens, regrettably, immigration detention is going to continue and we need to keep on fighting for a different kind of world. We hope you take some inspiration from Unlocking Detention and take action to challenge immigration detention.

Follow #Unlocked19

Unlocking Detention team – Catherine, Charlotte, Eiri, Gala, Jun, Mishka, Shadia and Sylvia

In Three Words

Three Words | Unlocking Detention 2019

Can you describe immigration detention in three words?

As part of Unlocking Detention 2019, #Unlocked19, we are asking people to take part in ‘In Three Words’ action to unlock the gates of immigration detention centres.

This is an opportunity to describe, in your own words, your personal experience of immigration detention or your thoughts on immigration detention. It might be that immigration detention is something you worry about – can you share how it makes you feel? By sharing, we build our collective understanding of what immigration detention is and also build solidarity.

At its simplest, your three words can be tweeted with a hashtag of #Unlocked19 after 11 November when Unlocking Detention starts. The hashtag allows us to find your tweets on Twitter and share them widely. From our experience, tweets get more exposure and interest if they come with visual material or even with video element. So feel free to be as creative as you can.


Taking action is always about connecting with people. We are pleased to hear that some groups are already planning to do this action when as part of their meetings with people affected by detention, with their volunteers and directly with people who are currently in detention they are visiting. We hope it will be a great discussion opener with people who are currently unfamiliar with immigration detention too.

Writing testimonies and blogs is a powerful way to convey what immigration detention is like: but can be a barrier to participation for people who do not have time, confidence or support to write long text. We hope this will be a simple and accessible way for people to challenge immigration detention and be part of the change.

At the same time, we know that there is a risk that these words can become decontextualised: so if you want to add to your tweets further information about why you are doing this action (for example, which detention centre were you detained and for how long, how long have you lived in the UK, which group you are affiliated with etc), please feel free to do so.

If you have questions, please do contact detentionforum@gmail.com