Reflecting on visiting immigration detention centres

Visiting | Unlocked19

How has visiting people in immigration detention changed over the last 10 years? Ali McGinley, Director of the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detention (AVID), looks back at the lasting significance of face-to-face support detention visitors offer and considers what the future might hold for detention visiting. Ali tweets at @McGinleyAM.

One of the many distressing aspects of detention is having your phone taken away. While a few years ago this may not have had the same significance, we now rely on our phones for much more than talking. They are a means for us to connect, to share, to feel part of a group. We are all so used to having our friends and family in our lives at the touch of a screen. When something happens, we post on social media or tell our friends on Whats App and we get a response, and validation, instantly. In detention, phones are removed and replaced with a standard issue mobile phone (usually one of the old Nokia “bricks”). Phones with cameras or internet access are banned inside. Most of us would struggle to be without our phones or offline for a few hours. In detention, you are stripped of all your freedoms in a matter of hours, and this includes the freedom to communicate easily with loved ones. 

In this context, face-to-face visits take on a whole new significance. In the words of one man detained at Dover ‘it means everything, it means everything in the world. Because behind there…you just don’t know what’s going to happen’. Another woman who was held in Yarl’s Wood away from her children on two occasions describes visits as her way of surviving ‘it helped, to know that someone out there was thinking about me and concerned about me and appalled at what was going on’. These comments are not referring to visits from friends or family members, but from people that prior to detention were total strangers: volunteers from local organisations commonly known as ‘visitors groups’, although this term no longer does justice to the depth and breadth of activities they carry out. While some are registered charities with a solid infrastructure (such as Detention Action or Jesuit Refugee Service UK) others, like Morton Hall Detainee Visitors Group, may only have one part time staff member. Others still, like Lewes Prison Visiting Group or Manchester Immigration Detainee Support team, are run solely by volunteers. What they all have in common is the coordination of volunteer visitor support – in its widest sense – for people in detention.  

10 years of conversations with people in detention and the volunteers who visit them 

For the people held in detention, visits are a chance for connection, for conversation, and importantly, to offload. It is a welcome break from the routine inside. But for many, the physical location of the detention centre and the restricted visiting hours means they often don’t get visits, because family and friends are so far away. Or they may not know anyone to come and visit. AVID – the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees – has been working with volunteer visitors and visitors groups to try to alleviate this since 1994. We mark our 25th anniversary this year. With members who visit in every single detention centre, residential short term holding facility, and some prisons, there are over 520 volunteer visitors registered in groups across the UK. Primarily set up to provide emotional support and practical advice to people on a one-to-one basis in the visits hall, AVID member groups now provide a whole range of support and services including workshops, drop-in sessions, support after detention, policy and advocacy, campaigning, education and training.  AVID brings this network together, ensuring information is shared, volunteers are trained and supported, collective advocacy approaches are pursued, and making sure that information on the day-to-day realities of detention reach the wider public. 

One of the reasons there is so much speculation about immigration detention is that very few people – other than a handful of groups or organisations – have been inside. AVID members are one of only a few non-statutory bodies with access to all detention centres. As such, the volunteers within our network are undertaking a critical role. 

It is hard to describe a typical volunteer. Motivations vary massively, but largely they fall into two groups. Perhaps they are people who live locally to a detention centre and feel that they have time to give –most groups tend to have a number of retired individuals. Others are motivated by the injustice of detention and a concern to support those who are subject to what has been described as one of the UK’s greatest human rights concerns. Of course these are generalisations. Motivations overlap, change and adapt over time.  But you have to be committed. The journeys are long; security procedures are onerous and restrictive. Cancelling a visit when someone has – literally – waited a week or ten days to see you can be heart-breaking for that individual.  During the visit, volunteers are often faced with a barrage of concerns, worries and complaints, many of which they can’t do anything about. They might be meeting people with very complex immigration cases, perhaps someone who is clearly struggling with their situation, perhaps someone who has additional needs and shouldn’t be in detention. Volunteers need resilience, but they also need good quality training and ongoing support to know how to face these challenges. It is not a volunteer role that is for everyone. Some find it far too difficult. Volunteers must have access to a support network and many times need to ‘take a break’ to avoid their own mental health and wellbeing suffering. That said, AVID members have some volunteers who have been visiting for many years. That in itself speaks volumes about how needed they are, how rewarding it can be, and that they feel that they are making a difference. 

“The thing that I will take with me, all my life, from visiting, is the experience of meeting people with such courage, such bravery, and sometimes a serenity of coping with so many difficulties”.

How visiting creates change

I’ve been involved with AVID for ten years. In that time, I’ve spoken to many hundreds of volunteers who visit in detention and I’ve seen their work first hand in every detention centre. The one-to-one relationship – being there for the individual – remains at the heart of the work of our members. But the volunteer role has definitely changed over time. 

As numbers in detention sky rocketed in the early 2010s, people were held for increasingly long periods, sometimes several months or years, particularly those who had served time in prison. Visitors were coming across more and more complex cases, requiring substantive knowledge of immigration and asylum law, just as legal aid was all but decimated. Visitors had always been a bridge between people in detention and legal support, but this became much more critical.  Now, the difference between befriending and casework is much more fluid. Volunteer visitors and visitors groups now regularly take a casework approach: signposting, referring and ensuring support reaches those who need it, bringing in specialist help such as lawyers, or thematic NGOs with specialisms in working with survivors of trauma or torture, or in working with people who have been trafficked, or who can help with age assessments. 

Now, visitors groups are often described as having an informal ‘human rights monitor’ role. Visitors are often the first to raise alarms when things go wrong – for example, in potential cases of unlawful detention, or in highlighting cases that exemplify some of the more high-profile failings of the Home Office such as breaches of Human Rights law. We work collectively to monitor detention, to identify inconsistencies, patterns and gaps, and to ensure information on the realities of detention reach beyond the walls. And this is vital, as without volunteer visitors we’d know very little about life and regime as experienced by those detained. 

“Visiting detainees I think does have an effect on the system. Because it is then quite…known….that we are there, we are hearing things, we are seeing things…we don’t see everybody obviously, we are not aware of everything that goes on but we do hear, we are eyes and ears on the outside, and I think that can only be a positive thing”

Being there, on a daily or weekly basis, hearing and seeing what is going on, is a powerful tool for change. Visitors are face-to-face with the immediacy of the uncertainty, they see first-hand the anxiety this causes. They hear in intimate detail how it feels to have your freedoms taken away, how it feels to be told when and what to eat, when and where to sleep, when to wash, to exercise, to feel fresh air on your face. They hear what it is like trying to sleep at night, how hard it is to miss your children or your friends. And they hear things a lot worse than that.

Along with first-hand testimony from experts by experience, it is this very human act of listening and hearing that contributed so richly to the volume of evidence that formed the basis of various reports, inquiries and investigations over the years. Without visitors, it is unlikely that we would know as much as we do about daily life as experienced by people in detention. Their contribution to the detention reform movement cannot be underestimated. 

The future of visiting 

When AVID began, in 1994, there were around 720 people held in detention in the UK at any one time. By 2002, this figure had nearly doubled to 1370, with a commitment made by the Home Office to expanding to 4,000 detention spaces. When I joined AVID as Director in 2009, we had 21 member organisations, and there were around 29,000 people detained annually, including around 1,000 children. Five years later in 2014, detention numbers had swollen to just under 30,000 a year, reaching a high of 32,500 in 2015. At that point we had 20 member organisations, but volunteer numbers were growing, with around 600 visitors nationally, supporting around 2,000 people in detention over the course of a year. Now, in 2019, our member numbers have reduced to 16. This is mainly due to centres closing and the numbers in detention reducing. Last year 24,748 people entered detention, 10% less than the year before. The lengths of time people are spending in detention is also reducing, and four centres have closed in the last three years. Interestingly, volunteer numbers haven’t reduced proportionally. There are still 520 registered in these 16 groups. 

We work with groups when centres close, to help them either divert their energies into similar work like community support or visiting in prison. And in the centres that are still operating, there are far fewer people in detention, and for shorter periods. While this is to be celebrated, we are working with our members to adapt to these shifts, too. It of course means that the nature of visiting is changing once again. If, as we hope, a time limit is introduced and there are further closures, it may be that visiting will move more towards one-off support sessions than long term visiting relationships. Visiting someone once or twice requires a very different skill set and is an entirely different volunteer role to that based on visiting every week and developing a friendship over time. Without the time often required for trust to develop, visitors may have to become much more able to impart vital information concisely, quickly and easily. It may become much more about crisis management than casework. They may have to respond much faster in the here and now, identifying issues and responding immediately. Other activities may supplement visiting. Groups have already started to provide support for people on leaving detention and this may become much more integral to the work of our network. 

Volunteer visiting is part of the day-to-day fabric of detention in the UK; it has played a pivotal role in helping alleviate the worst injustices of this inhumane system over the last 25 years. Whatever form visiting takes in the future, it will remain an integral part of the civil society response to detention, until hopefully one day it is no longer needed.  

AVID is marking 25 years of supporting people in detention. You can find out more about our work and make a donation here

You can find out more about the history of visiting and the impact it has had, via our Hidden Stories project.


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.  


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.

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?


27 November: Week 5: #Unlocked18 visits Campsfield House

Week 6: Harmondsworth and Colnbrook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cashel Riordan, JRS UK volunteer

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

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

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

Catherine, Detention Forum volunteer

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

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

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

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

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

Week 7: Morton Hall

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

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

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

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

6 December: Immigration detention is mental torture

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

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

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

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

Charlotte, Detention Forum volunteer

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

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

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

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

13 December: Week 7: #Unlocked18 visits Morton Hall

Week 8: Dungavel

10 December: For many autumns to come

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

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

Gareth, Detention Forum volunteer

11 December: Separation and abandonment as a result of detention

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

11 December: Because of detention | In spite of detention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catherine, Detention Forum volunteer

14 December: Rebuilding a life after detention

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

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

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

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

Week 9: International Migrants Day

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

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

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

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

Week 4: #Unlocked18 visits Yarl’s Wood

From the 12th – 18th November, #Unlocked18 visited Yarl’s Wood IRC in Bedford. It was a packed week, with new content every day alongside new graphics and illustrations.

Also this week, Sanctuary in Parliament took place, JRS and the Detention Forum presented Dame Caroline Spelman MP with a Detention Forum Champion Award, the #TheseWallsMustFall campaign launched in Bristol, and we released another segment of our Unlocking Detention timeline.

Read on for a full round-up!

Yarl’s Wood

Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire was the focus of this week. Here, up to 410 people can be detained indefinitely, most of them women. It has been the location of six hunger strikes since 2001; the most recent was in February of this year. Yarl’s Wood Befrienders (@YWBefrienders) offer vital support to those held there.

Theresa: Letter from a hunger striker

The first post of the week was a letter sent from Yarl’s Wood by Theresa (not her real name), a young mother and one of the leaders of the hunger-strikes earlier this year. On the evening she was refused bail, Theresa wrote:

What can I say right now, I feel terrible, frustrated, angry, bitter, I just want to scream so loud maybe I’ll feel better.

I am hanging onto a thread of hope, if it was not for God today, I could choose to die, end my life and know that life is indeed meaningless.

I wish I can explain the exact pain pounding inside my heart. Why do people have to suffer like this? When can I be wholly happy and successful in life.

Watch the graphic below for more, and read the rest of Theresa’s letter here.

Resisting state violence: The Yarl’s Wood hunger strike

Tuesday’s blog came from Fidelis Chebe, Project Director at Migrant Action. It focused on the hunger strike at Yarl’s Wood in February of this year, which lasted over a month and involved 120 women. Read it here.

“For me, Yarl’s Wood was another torture”

On Wednesday we heard from Gabby, who was detained twice in Yarl’s Wood in 2017. Gabby said,

Stephen Shaw… recommended that reducing the number of women locked up in detention centres needs to be a priority. I couldn’t agree more. Detention is killing us, it’s wrong. I was abused, but instead of getting help and support I was locked up. I deserve to be free and safe.

It’s time the Home Office stopped detaining vulnerable women so that other women don’t have to live through the trauma that I am living with. Yarl’s Wood will haunt me forever.

Read the full blog here.

Snow: Visiting in Yarl’s Wood

Ali Brumfitt, a volunteer befriender and now volunteer coordinator for Yarl’s Wood Befrienders (YWB), wrote about visiting a friend in Yarl’s Wood. Ali writes,

I can’t imagine having worries the size my friend has to carry. I don’t think I would be strong enough. I can’t get my head around how I would cope if I were locked up, with no idea when I might be released. How would I feel if the weight of the legal system was pushing on me to try and force me out of the country?

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

On Friday, we had a recording from Bristol Free Voice, a citizen journalism project. In the recording, a woman speaks of her experience of being detained in Yarl’s Wood and being an asylum seeker in the ‘hostile environment’. You can listen to it here.

Eight times in detention: Why?

The final piece of the week was a collaboration between women detained in Yarl’s Wood detention centre and the YWB. It drew on words and images produced at one of the weekly ‘drop in’ sessions held by YWB. Read it here.

Also this week…

JRS UK presented Rt Hon Dame Caroline Spelman MP with The Detention Forum Champion Award. This was in recognition of her sustained efforts to seek detention reform. Read more here.

On Monday, Sanctuary in Parliament took place, bringing together MPs, experts-by-experience, and many others. You can see photos from the event here and read tweets at #SanctuaryinParliament. And there is still time to take action to influence the next Immigration Bill by writing to your MP – all the information you need is here!

Finally, Saturday saw the launch of #TheseWallsMustFall in Bristol! Find out more about the campaign here.


Eight times in detention: Why?

This contribution is a collaboration between women detained in Yarl’s Wood detention centre and the Yarl’s Wood Befrienders.

These words and images were produced at one of the weekly ‘drop in’ sessions held by Yarl’s Wood Befrienders. Drop in is a space where women detained at Yarl’s Wood can come and hang out with befrienders. We have tea, coffee and biscuits and there is colouring, jigsaws and games for people to play.

One of the notes says ” 8 x in detention Why?” The woman who wrote this told us that she had been detained for the second time and that her mother had been detained eight times before being given status.

The themes of things feeling more difficult as time goes on and not knowing how long they will be there come up all the time. It is particularly noticeable at the moment. I think as seasons change, it marks time and people who arrive in the summer are shocked and disheartened to find that they are still there as it turns to autumn. For those people who celebrate Christmas, it is particularly difficult to think that they might still be detained come Christmas.

We spoke to one woman last week who is detained for the second time.  The previous time she had also been detained over Christmas, so the thought of repeating the experience is terrifying her.

If this piece has moved you to take action, please get in touch with the Yarl’s Wood Befrienders or visit our take action page for more ideas.

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

Content warning: suicide and self-harm. Image by @Carcazan

This contribution comes from Bristol Free Voice, a citizen journalism project facilitating a safe platform for media for refugees and asylum seekers, to challenge the dehumanising narrative often seen in the mainstream media.

In one of our recordings, a woman speaks of her experience of detention. We follow her from reporting at the police station for three years – an often compulsory part of being an asylum seeker – to being detained in a police centre for three days, before moving to Yarl’s Wood detention centre.

She takes us through her experience of being detained. The level of fear and anxiety induced through being threatened with deportation left her feeling ‘spiritless’. She felt a completely different person when she was released.

This is just one women’s experience of being detained in Yarl’s Wood and being an asylum seeker in the ‘hostile environment’ with a constant fear of detention and deportation against her will. As she illustrates, there are families, children, disabled people and those with mental health issues detained, many without a time limit.

As the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on Refugees and Migration found in their 2014-15 Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention, ‘the lack of basic respect for privacy is unacceptable, made even more traumatic given the prior experiences of many women prior to detention’. Indeed, in the woman’s account, she met a lady with her baby who were taken from their home at 6am in a ‘dawn raid’.

Reforming detention to allow dignity is vital, and this means putting a time limit on detention. Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Green Party have all committed to introducing a time limit in their manifestos. In Bristol, the These Walls Must Fall campaign is trying to create a cross-party council motion backing the end of indefinite detention. We hope this will get passed through our local government. As this is being passed in other parts of the country, we hope that we send a clear message to the national government that it is not in our name.

Please listen to the woman’s experience here

Snow: Visiting in Yarl’s Wood

Image by Vee Travers, a volunteer with the Yarl’s Wood Befrienders

This piece is written by Ali Brumfitt about their experience visiting as a volunteer befriender for Yarl’s Wood Befrienders (YWB). Ali now works part time as volunteer coordinator for YWB.

In February I woke up one morning to find it had snowed heavily overnight. The wind had blown the snow drifts about in garden and made pretty patterns. I grabbed my phone to take a snap and message it to a friend who had told me earlier that week she had never seen snow. As soon as I had the phone in my hand I remembered ‘of course I can’t send her a message, her phone can’t receive pictures.’

My friend was in Immigration Detention at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. People in detention are not allowed smart phones. She had an old phone which makes it hard to even send and receive text messages. I decided I would call her later to ask if she had seen the snow out of her window.  I hoped there would be a hint of a smile in her voice. I would have called straight away but she would not be up. She had not been sleeping well. Nobody sleeps well at Yarl’s Wood. In the day, there are distractions, people to talk to. At night people are locked on their wing, so can’t visit friends in other areas of the Centre.

Everyone who has ever had a problem knows the night is when they stalk. I remember the darkest times of my life, when I have laid awake at night with worries. I can’t imagine having worries the size my friend has to carry. I don’t think I would be strong enough. I can’t get my head around how I would cope if I were locked up, with no idea when I might be released. How would I feel if the weight of the legal system was pushing on me to try and force me out of the country? How would it feel to tell a story of tragedy and abuse over and over and over, only to be disbelieved over and over and over?

The next day I was worried the snow would prevent me from visiting. Thankfully the roads were passable. I am glad my friend is well enough for a visit, recently she has had to cancel because she has not been well enough. I had been visiting for several months. Every week a little bit more hope seemed to be squeezed out of her. I was scratching around for places to find hope. We talked about an impending bail hearing. I would make some calls to check people are coming. I would talk to the lawyer and make sure everything was in place. It seemed so little.

We talked more about the snow. My friend told me that the winter here is like summer where she is from, except a different colour. In the UK in winter there are no leaves on the trees, not much growing and the weather is too harsh to go out. Where she is from it is like that in the summer, but it is dust that covers everything and not snow. It was one of only the few times we talked about where she is from.  She often said reading the news about where she had fled from made her afraid. She fled here to save her life. To save her life and build a new life. And the Home Office locked her up.

So we talk about snow. I mean, I am British. When conversation is difficult, you can rely on the British to talk about the weather. She told me some people went into the yard to try and make a snowman, but the yard is small and there wasn’t enough snow. She is glad of the coat that the Befrienders provided for her. People often arrive at detention without enough clothes. People have told us of managing with broken bra straps and having to rinse out the same pair of knickers and wear them every day.  Befrienders are able to provide people with basic items: socks, knickers, tracksuits, trainers. It can help people feel a bit more comfortable and a bit more human.

The next day my friend calls. She is checking in on me. I had mentioned my pipes were frozen and she wants to make sure I am okay in the snow. I am always astounded how often she asks after other people’s wellbeing, despite the weight of her own situation. I am so often inspired by the way that women I meet in detention keep hold of their compassion and care for others, despite so little having been shown to them.  

My friend was released from detention earlier this year. The journey does not end after detention. Detention changes people. It adds more trauma onto any trauma a person is already carrying. And then there is the stress of any ongoing legal process.

The Home Office have now granted my friend leave to remain.

If it snows this year perhaps we will go for a walk in the snow with my dog, Colin, together? My friend knows Colin and often asks after him. Things are very different now. Although, I suspect I will still receive a phone call to ask how I am managing in the cold and whether my pipes are frozen.


“For me, Yarl’s Wood was another torture”

Image by @Carcazan. Content warning: rape, self-harm, suicide

This piece comes from Gabby (not her real name), an activist campaigning against immigration detention in the UK. She was detained in Yarl’s Wood twice in 2017 before being released to continue her asylum claim within the community. 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.

A version of this piece was originally published by The Independent.

Being locked up in Yarl’s Wood twice has turned my world upside down. I came here to escape abuse, but for me Yarl’s Wood was just another torture.

The first time I was locked up in Yarl’s Wood I was in there for three months. My room was like a prison cell. When I walked in, my new roommate was taking a shower in the corner. The mattress on the bed is plastic, thin and hard. The floor too, is like plastic over concrete. Under our beds there is a drain that we tried to cover with sanitary towels because it stinks like a sewer. I think this is for washing the floor when women cut themselves or are sick. It’s like living in a bathroom, a bathroom that you share with a stranger.

One of the hardest parts was not knowing when I’d be released or what would happen to me if I got sent back home. I was treated like a target for deportation, not a person. If I had been sent back I would be dead by now, or being exploited by men who raped me before. I do think that there should be a time limit on how long the Home Office can keep people locked up because the not-knowing is destroying people’s minds. I saw women in there starving themselves, cutting themselves, jumping off staircases – it was so traumatising to see those things.

I am out now but I have not recovered. My hair started falling out in there because of the stress. It doesn’t grow back, so my hair is gone. I still don’t sleep properly and I’m lucky if I get an hour each night. I suffer from high anxiety. Every time I get a letter from the Home Office the world closes in on me and I can’t breathe. This anxiety is taking over my whole life. I had to move out of my family’s home because they were worried I would try to kill myself and my sister didn’t want to find me dead.

All of that is because of detention and reliving my past. I keep having to tell the Home Office what happened to me when I was 10 years old. It’s not right. I’m not the same person, I’m in a very dark place. If I lie down it hits me so I have to keep busy – drawing, cleaning, writing – anything I can do to keep my mind from going back to Yarl’s Wood.

Earlier this year, Stephen Shaw published his follow-up review into the welfare of vulnerable people in detention. He found that the government’s new ‘Adults at Risk’ policy has not worked to reduce the number of vulnerable people in detention. This doesn’t surprise me. I met with Stephen Shaw in December last year with a group of women who’d also been in Yarl’s Wood for a long time. Every single one of us should not have been detained under that policy.

The Home Office just doesn’t make any effort to find out what has happened to people before they lock them up. There needs to be people in the system working to identify vulnerable people. They should be trained to make people feel comfortable and ask them questions about their lives, to actively find out what happened.

Both times I was detained I was only asked very general questions about my health. It took a lot of support from Women for Refugee Women, for me to be able to speak out about what had happened to me back home and why I couldn’t go back there. I didn’t know that what I had been through was trafficking.

With the Home Office it’s like the left hand is not talking to the right hand. There’s such poor coordination and communication. When they accepted that I was a survivor of trafficking and forced prostitution they said they were going to release me the next day. But then, that evening, they gave me a plane ticket. I just crumbled with terror and that nearly finished me.

Stephen Shaw also recommended that reducing the number of women locked up in detention centres needs to be a priority. I couldn’t agree more. Detention is killing us, it’s wrong. I was abused, but instead of getting help and support I was locked up. I deserve to be free and safe.

It’s time the Home Office stopped detaining vulnerable women so that other women don’t have to live through the trauma that I am living with. Yarl’s Wood will haunt me forever.

You can follow Women for Refugee Women on twitter: @4refugeewomen #SetHerFree

Resisting state violence: The Yarl’s Wood hunger strike

Image by @Carcazan

This blog comes from Fidelis Chebe, Project Director at Migrant Action. Migrant Action is a small organisation based in Leeds providing information, guidance, advocacy support and direct practical assistance to migrants who do not fit into ‘neat’ categories of migration, including those who have been detained or are at risk of detention.

In February 2018, 120 people detained at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre (IRC) in Bedfordshire embarked on a hunger strike that lasted over a month. There was a staggering lack of interest by mainstream media in covering the strike and exposing the inhumane treatment of people detained at Yarl’s Wood. As one woman in Yarl’s Wood puts it rather poignantly,

My life is just in limbo, it’s the uncertainty as well. You don’t how long you’ll be locked up, you don’t when you’re getting out, you don’t know where you’re going, I can’t describe that feeling. I feel like I have been kidnapped basically, I don’t know where I am going, I don’t know what’s going on.

Detention: An instrument of state and corporate violence             

The Yarl’s Wood hunger strike is a desperate cry for help within a detention estate where people are treated not as humans but as ‘merchandise’ by the private security companies who run the majority of the UK’s detention centres. (In the case of Yarl’s Wood, this is Serco.) Human and civil rights hardly find accommodation within a detention estate underpinned by profit-driven corporate governance. Such profit-led detention provision embeds structural violence and dehumanisation which finds expression in hunger strikes and other forms of resistance. In the words of a Migrant Action client who had previously been detained, ‘detention is very good business, these guys [private security companies] don’t care about human lives’.

Immigration detention centres are state institutions and, increasingly, detention has become a weapon for policing and managing migration by the state. The weaponisation of detention is integral to the government’s policies designed to create a ‘hostile environment’ mainly, but not exclusively, for ‘irregular’ migrants. These policy instruments are designed to act as a deterrent to more migration to the UK. In 2014, former immigration minister James Brokenshire summed up the rationale of the policy, saying ‘I want to send out a very clear message today to people on both sides of the Channel – Britain is no soft touch when it comes to illegal immigration’.

Detention reinforces the government’s mind-set and policy with regard to migration and its determination to communicate its key message to current and prospective migrants. This collusion between state and corporate hostility creates an environment in which rights, dignity, justice are undermined and the voices of people in detention are silenced whilst structural violence is routinely embedded. Viewed in this context, the Yarl’s Wood hunger strike is symptomatic of deliberate collusion to create a hostile environment, and epitomises migrant resistance to such violence. The women’s strike captures a deep yearning for a culture change in Yarl’s Wood and across the detention estate that recognises and prioritises dignity, rights, humanity, equality and justice for people in detention. The strike is a desperate appeal for a more human rights-led migration policy.

Social action and system Change

The Yarl’s Wood hunger strike is a ‘protest’ against State and corporate violence. The strike represents the ‘voice’ of people in immigration detention and their advocacy for system change. Although locked up in detention centres, they have not lost their agency to challenge injustice and bring about change. However, the sustainability of their ‘voice’ is inextricably linked to the mobilisation of public conscience and social consciousness towards building a movement against the government’s ‘hostile environment’ led-migration policies. The urgency and relevance of social action and movement building is compelling for the protection of rights, justice and dignity of vulnerable migrants.  It is in this context that more collaboration and coordination across human and civil rights, social justice, advocacy and grassroots organisations is vital in order to stem the tide of state hostility whilst nurturing solidarity and increasing integration.

Migrant Action’s work and vision is rooted in social justice, advocacy, migrant rights, solidarity, integration and system change. As such we will continue to advocate for a non-hostile environment whereby migrant rights, justice and dignity are safeguarded and solidarity, human rights and justice and shared humanity constitute core values of social policy and social discourse.

Migrant Action recently gave evidence at the People’s Permanent Tribunal hearing on the ‘hostile environment‘, held in London in October 2018. You can read their evidence here.