“You shall not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9), is a clear principle which offers an opportunity for René Cassin to look at a Jewish perspective to ending indefinite immigration detention.
Surrounded by mass immigration and rising cultural division, secure borders and immigration is high on Britain’s agenda. However, whilst security measures in regards to migrants and asylum seekers are required, these must be lawful and encompass basic human values, of equality and justice, we all hold deer. We must keep to ideals that brought many Jewish ancestors to the UK in pursuit of a safe, prosperous life. After all, welcoming the stranger is a core principle of Judaism.
Currently, the UK is the only country in Europe that does not have a maximum time limit on the length of time a person can be detained. Indefinite detention is one of the biggest human rights challenges in the UK today, causing irreversible damage to those detained. Some are detained for months, and even years. René Cassin, a long-time member of The Detention Forum, is writing this blog in support of the annual ‘Unlocking Detention’ project.
Water, bread, milk, flour and shade
This mitzvah of welcoming the stranger is prevalent in the Torah, marking multiple instances where Abraham, whom Jews hold to be the first Jew, welcomes strangers into his midst. We read in ParshatVayera (Genesis 18:1) that Abraham sits in his tent on the plains of Mamre. The Midrash teaches us that Abraham and Sarah’s tent was four-doored; from whichever direction a visitor approached, it would appear open to them. Even after his recent circumcision, and in the context of the families’ difficulty conceiving a child, Abraham runs to welcome the strangers in the heat of the day. The hospitality is extensive; water, bread, milk, flour and shade. Thus, as descendants of Abraham, we carry his legacy to welcome strangers into our midst, even (and especially) when inconvenient.
Rashi also teaches us that God initially brought the heat of the day to deter visitors but summoned the angels when he saw how aggrieved Abraham was when unable to extend any hospitality. Abraham and Sarah are ultimately rewarded, the angel brings news that Sarah will bear a son. Mitzvot of hospitality appear in the Torah 36 times, more than any other, creating a foundation to fight against hostile environments such as indefinite immigration detention. In fact, welcoming guests is one of the few mitzvot described in the Talmud for which rewards are received in both the present life and beyond, reflected in the story through the gift of life Abraham and Sarah receive.
Fundamental morality principle
It is clear, that for the Jewish community, the UK’s immigration policies must recognise the value of welcoming those arriving in the UK seeking a safer life, as a matter of fundamental morality and with a solid basis in the Torah. As Rabbi Sacks has previously stated:
“I used to think that the most important line in the Bible was “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Then I realised that it is easy to love your neighbour because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is hard is to love the stranger, one whose colour, culture or creed is different from yours. That is why the command, “Love the stranger because you were once strangers”, resonates so often throughout the Bible. It is summoning us now.”
The importance of community action and hospitality is a virtuous responsibility that the UK must take on. Indefinite immigration detention could not be further from such values. We urge all readers to read more about René Cassin’s work on a 28-day limit for immigration detention here, and to get involved with the #Unlocked19 project. #Time4aTimeLimit
“There are no mass graves in Britain, but there are other ways people can vanish.” – Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg for The Guardian, in an article presenting the tales of a previous asylum seeker regarding indefinite detention.
There are certain norms in terms of how immigration detention can be described. ‘Inhumane’, ‘unjust’, ‘unfair’, ‘harmful’ – but ‘racist’? Gemma Lousley (@gemmalousley) at Women for Refugee Women unpicks why and how NGOs and charity organisations avoid talking about ‘race’ and what its consequences are for anti-detention campaigns.
In July this year, Women for Refugee Women published a report on the use of immigration detention for survivors of trafficking and modern slavery. During a Westminster Hall debate on the report on the day of its launch, the Labour MP Kate Osamor made the following statement:
‘For Members to truly understand and appreciate the reality of immigration detention, it is necessary for all of us to critically examine the ethnicity and race of those impacted by the process. Immigration detention is a racist practice, and the policies used are racist and discriminate against certain groups. There is nothing controversial or novel about my statement. Just ask the many women and men who have been detained.’
Osamor is, of course, entirely correct. One of the most glaringly obvious features of immigration detention is that it is a racist practice. The Home Office’s own statistics show that, across 2018, 16,179 of the 24,773 people detained were originally from countries in Africa, the Middle East, Central, South and South East Asia, and Central and South America. Clearly, then, it is people who are racialised as non-white who constitute the vast majority of those locked up in UK detention centres.
And yet, although there was nothing controversial about Osamor’s statement, it certainly was novel. Since the publication of the APPG detention inquiry report in March 2015, there have been a number of Parliamentary debates on detention – but the debate in July was the first time that an MP had spoken about immigration detention, in itself, as a racist system.
Systematic anomaly ignored
A similar pattern plays out across the numerous reports that have been published on detention since 2015. In Stephen Shaw’s two reviews of detention, for instance, as well as the recent Home Affairs Committee and Joint Committee on Human Rights’ inquiry reports, racism is referred to at points – but only ever in terms of racist behaviour towards people in detention by individual members of detention centre staff. Immigration detention, itself, has been described by these reports in a number of ways: the Joint Committee on Human Rights, for example, damned it as ‘slow, unfair and expensive to run’. Yet none of the reports identify detention as a racist system.
The way that these reports treat racism in the detention system might be understood as characteristic of the ‘postraciality’ of the contemporary era. In his 2015 book Are we all postracial yet?, the critical race theorist David Goldberg explains:
“The claim that we today inhabit – or have come close(r) to inhabiting – a postracial society embeds the insistence that key conditions of social life are less and less predicated now on racial preferences, choices, and resources … It insists that the legacy of racial discrimination and disadvantage has been waning over time, reaching a point today where, if existing at all, such discrimination is anomalous and individually expressed. It is not structural or socially mandated.”
By reducing the racism of immigration detention to simply a matter of individual staff behaviour, these reports ignore and deny the racism that underpins and organises the detention system itself – meaning that the racist oppression and exclusion it enacts remains unquestioned and firmly in place.
NGOs and charities campaigning against immigration detention, including Women for Refugee Women, need to examine our own role in minimising and even ignoring the racism of the system. Over the past decade, the voluntary sector has built a wealth of evidence on the harms and injustices of detention – and this evidence, and the campaigning that has gone alongside it, has been crucial to significantly reducing the number people held in detention centres in the UK. In NGO reports, detention has been repeatedly condemned, using terms such as ‘cruel’, ‘inhumane’, ‘punitive’ and ‘barbaric’. Rarely, however, have we criticised it as a racist system.
Silence of race
Writing about the ‘silence of race’ in much of the academic literature on borders and migration, the criminologist Alpa Parmar has explained: ‘Silences are not simply absences but also need to be understood as constitutive features of discourse and practice. As race disappears from public discourse, the naming of racism also becomes difficult and unfashionable.’ Over the years, I have been struck by the number of women who have prefaced their accounts of being locked up indefinitely by telling me, ‘I don’t want to say detention is racist, but … ’. Their hesitation about naming the racism of the detention system must, I think, be seen in terms of the silencing of race that has characterised much NGO advocacy, as well as the ‘postracial’ era more broadly. By not being clear that detention is a racist practice, therefore, NGOs and charities put limits on what it is possible for people who have experienced detention to say.
It has sometimes been suggested within the voluntary sector that by talking about immigration detention as a racist system we will lose support from, for instance, Parliamentary allies – because MPs will find such a characterisation unpalatable and off-putting. In fact, by ignoring its racism NGOs actually hamper anti-detention advocacy efforts and make it easier for the government to maintain this system. Despite the well-documented harms and injustices of detention, the government has justified its ongoing use by insisting on it as an appropriate and reasonable response to the ‘problem’ of mass migration – and by emphasising that safeguards are now in place to ensure that anyone who is detained is treated with dignity and respect. Yet, against the identification of detention as an inherently racist system, the presentation of it as ‘appropriate’ and ‘reasonable’ collapses, and promises of ‘dignity and respect’ look obviously absurd. As the criminologist Sarah Turnbull has argued, then, by naming detention as racist we are better able to ‘challenge and denaturalize’ government justifications for its continuing existence. To abolish immigration detention, we need to talk about its racism.
Image courtesy of Scottish Detainee Visitors and illustration by @carcazan
With a declining occupancy in Dungavel, the only Scottish detention centre, Kate Alexander, director of the Scottish Detainee Visitors (SDV) is imagining what Scotland would look like post-detention and what it would mean for the visitors who have a well established and effective strategy.
At a recent visit to Dungavel, my colleague and I were told that as part of a programme of refurbishment, prompted by criticisms in the second Shaw Review and the latest inspection report, capacity at the centre had been reduced from 249 to 125. No announcement, no fanfare, just quietly halving the capacity of Scotland’s only detention centre.
It is not an entirely surprising decision. Government statistics show that the last time more than 200 people were detained there was in 2015 and since early 2018, the number of people detained has been under 100. As visitors to the centre, we have been aware of low occupancy at Dungavel for some time. It is one of a number of changes in the landscape of detention that SDV will need to think about as we embark on our strategic planning process for the next three years.
Not only are fewer people being detained, they are being detained for shorter periods. In previous years, our visitors visited people who were held in Dungavel for many months and sometimes years. One man I visited in my early days in SDV was detained there for over four years. Currently, the longest anyone has been detained in the UK is two and a half years. Being detained for this length of time is clearly unacceptable and unjust but compared to the situation at the end of 2011 when one person had been detained for over six years, it is progress.
How does change impact on visitors’ work?
These developments are the result of successful campaigning by people with experience of detention and the organisations that work with them such as Detention Forum and its members. The Government is under sustained pressure to detain fewer people and to do so for shorter periods. There has already had an impact on the experience of visitors. We know that one of the most positive experiences people gain from visiting, is building long term supportive relationships and friendships with people they meet in detention, and these relationships are now shorter and less frequent. It’s an odd position to be in. We are obviously pleased that change is happening, but for our visitors, that change comes at the cost of a changing visiting dynamic.
In her blog for Unlocking Detention a couple of weeks ago, Ali McGinley of the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (AVID), considered the impact that a time limit on detention might have on visiting groups. She argued that with a 28 day time limit, visiting would change to one-off support sessions rather than long term supportive relationships. This is something we have already had to give some thought to. In 2016, when the Government announced its plans to close Dungavel and replace it with a short term holding facility at Glasgow Airport, we faced the prospect of redesigning our services to work with people who would be detained in the new centre for a week or less before removal, or more likely a move to another centre in England. That did not happen and Dungavel remains open, but we are again thinking about how to respond to change. Our thoughts now are more positive. I have never been more hopeful that a time limit will be introduced in the short to medium term. This will be a major step forward for people in detention and those at risk of detention, but we will have to think about what that means for us and our visitors and how we work with people who are no longer held indefinitely.
Alternatives to detention
Discussions of a time limit have always gone hand in hand with discussions of alternatives to detention. Campaigning on detention reform has argued that it is possible for the Government to manage immigration without the use of detention. The Home Office is now committed to a series of pilots of community based alternatives to detention. We have consistently argued that Scotland is the ideal place to introduce alternatives. It has a devolved Government with wide powers and a more positive approach to immigration than at Westminster, a strong and vibrant voluntary sector working on migration, and now it only has capacity to detain 125 people. Furthermore, the Scottish Government has made no secret of its desire to hold another independence referendum. Like last time, any such move is likely to come with a pledge to close Dungavel in an independent Scotland, which means any new administration would have to consider alternatives.
But something SDV, and other organisations like us, will have to ponder as we continue to make the case for alternatives is that they are not about detention at all. They are about moving to a system with no detention. And so, as we look toward the next three years, we might be looking to a time when detention will no longer exists in Scotland and will need to think about whether there will be a role for SDV at all in a post-detention Scotland.
As we near the end of Unlocking Detention, Charlotte (@CCionnfhaolaidh) one of the Detention Forum volunteers who was responsible for running the ‘tour’ of Harmondsworth and Colnbrook detention centres, explains what she has learned from her #Unlocked19 experience.
Every year, Unlocking Detention takes a different format of delivery. For this year’s ‘tour’, rather than all members of the team taking it turns to tweet throughout the whole tour tweeting about every centre, one or two members would create and prepare in advance material for each week of the ‘tour’. Everyone was given two months to prepare for it. This approach would allow us to take a more in-depth look at each centre.
Having joined Detention Forum as a social media volunteer just before the start of #Unlocked18 last year, I was unaware of how much time and organisation is involved in getting ready for Unlocking Detention. Preparations were already under way by June with team members regularly liaising via Zoom/Skype. Now that the Unlocked tour is in its sixth year we are fortunate to have a ‘back catalogue’ of material from previous years; compiled lists of relevant reports and coverage of each centre already exist in our archive. However researching the centres, deciding upon information to share and creating tweets and accompanying images still took time and thought.
What is the purpose of Unlocking Detention?
As I researched and prepared material, a series of doubts and questions had hovered in my mind. Until another volunteer, writing his own blog about being held in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook (the centres ‘visited’ in my week) asked the rest of the team to send in questions about his experience in those detention centres that we want him to answer, these thoughts existed as separate strands. But, in considering what I should ask him to answer, they came together as the following questions:
‘What are the benefits and risks of approaching immigration detention in the UK through looking at its physical infrastructure and specifically through focusing on particular centres and their conditions?’
‘What is the purpose of Unlocking Detention? What guides my selection of material/information? What are its limits in terms of communicating why immigration detention in the UK must, at the very least, undergo radical reform while looking at each centre?’
One prompt was this blog from Unlocked17, questioning the motives and legitimacy of looking inside detention centres and exploring how experts by experience perceived the centres they had been held in. The blog shares maps that experts-by-experience created for each centre, accompanied by their memory and emotional association with different sections of the centre. This made me interrogate the choices I made in selecting material to tweet. What could and should I convey about detention? It seemed important to attempt to communicate how people who were detained in the centres experienced them but at the same time it was clear that taking a closer look through reports and available data in the public domain is entirely different to the actual experience of detention.
From the perspective of someone who has not experienced the UK’s immigration detention system but trying their best to understand it by reading people’s direct experience of detention, what would seem to be the most unjust and harmful aspects of detention is not the centres themselves but its indefinite nature and the psychological damage of uncertainty and fear, alongside the sense of injustice. These feelings are certainly compounded the physical environment of detention, but do not seem to be just about the physical infrastructure. A lens which exclusively focuses on the infrastructure of immigration detention and conditions within particular centres cannot precisely capture this, although they provide the back drop against which these are experienced.
Beyond physical detention infrastructure
When reading through accounts of Harmondsworth and Colnbrook from both experts by experience and inspectors from either Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) or Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons (HMIP), certain details grab you. It is clear that, even by the standards of the detention estate, their environments are particularly forbidding and the conditions especially poor in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook. ‘Endemic’ bed bugs leading to ‘intolerable conditions’ in Harmondsworth and mice infestations, poor ventilation and ‘inadequately screen, filthy cell toilets in the ‘prison like’ environment of Colnbrook.
If, as a communicator running Unlocking Detention our intention is to generate shock, interest and engagement of likes and retweets, it is tempting to concentrate on the most sensational aspects. However, in terms of building and cementing understanding of the reasons we are challenging immigration detention, there is a risk that highlighting conditions only distracts from the core human rights based arguments and can lead to campaigns calls for improvements in detention conditions rather than fundamental changes.
So what are the benefits of doing the Unlocking Detention tour and ‘visiting’ various centres? Thanks to initiatives like Unlocking Detention and the wider work of anti-detention campaigners, awareness of and opposition to immigration has grown. But there are still too many people unaware of immigration detention, including migrant communities themselves. Awareness raising therefore needs to be sustained and new audiences still need to be reached. In order to achieve the changes we want to see, more people need to understand immigration detention, it must be kept on the agenda and political pressure for change maintained.
A virtual ‘tour’ of the UK’s detention centres over several weeks helps to do this in various ways. Detention centres are located away from the public gaze and awareness of the detention estate as a whole remains patchy. Some centres have higher profiles than others, eclipsing lesser known centres and the use of prisons to detain people under immigration powers is often forgotten. As a relatively short burst of activity with a clear end point, Unlocking Detention allows an intensity of focus and opportunity for engagement which could not be constantly sustained all year round. Although there is year round collaboration between many of the organisations and groups involved in campaigning against detention, this can be behind the scenes.
Unlocking Detention can bring us together in an online capacity in a visible way. Contributions from visitors groups attached to particular centres can give a feel for the particular places and some sense of what it is like to visit or be held there. For many people held in detention, the journey to the centre is disorientating – particularly if they arrived during the night. Therefore even for them, the outside appearance of the centre and its location in relation to other places may be unknown. Importantly, it also provides a way for people who have been in detention or who are at risk of detention to contribute when other forms of involvement in campaigns around immigration detention may be risky, impractical or inaccessible.
Whilst working on Unlocking Detention I realised that paying attention to the detention estate and the physical infrastructure of detention centres lets us think about what they actually symbolise. With their high levels of security, austere cells and razor wire fences, the internal and external architecture of detention centres makes them frequently indistinguishable from prisons. This design communicates that people held in detention are people who need to be confined, potentially dangerous individuals from whom the rest of us require protection. It simultaneously reinforces the notion that certain categories of migrant or people who have been identified as migrants pose a threat and governments can use detention as a public facing messaging to say they are protecting ‘us’ from ‘them’. Similarly this literally hostile environment can affect, and arguably intends to affect, how people held in detention see themselves. Whilst there are various reasons for the squalid conditions and poor repairs found in some detention centres, the failure to address this conveys the message that people held in detention are not worthy of respect or deserving of a decent environment. Detention centres are, quite literally, concrete examples of the criminalisation of migration.
Our fundamental argument is not that detention centres are horrible places. Of course they are. Our argument is that it is unacceptable to lock people up indefinitely as an administrative measure, on the basis of an administrative decision and by doing so intentionally frustrating their access to justice and frequently separating them from their family and friends.
Asking myself these questions has prompted me to think in different directions and challenge my own arguments. Focusing on the physical infrastructure of detention in terms of the centres and the conditions cannot be a standalone exercise, and Unlocking Detention does go beyond that and poses questions that may offer insights into what we need to do to effectively to challenge detention.
Not an acceptable way to treat another human being
Whilst I campaign against immigration detention because I believe it to be wrong in principle, that principle in and of itself was not the reason why I decided to write this blog. I wanted to write about the journey which has led me to be in the position of writing this blog. My sustained awareness of immigration detention was initiated by reading an account of someone’s treatment whilst being taken to, and in detention. The account horrified me; it was not an acceptable way to treat another human being. I could not stay silent and started writing to my MP and via him, to the Home Office.
I read more about detention and encountered Unlocking Detention on Twitter, finding the format really engaging. I could not say that working on Unlocking Detention and being a social media volunteer for Detention Forum is a great experience, simply because it shouldn’t be something that we need to do! I do however appreciate the insights I have gained, the privilege of being entrusted with sharing accounts from experts by experience, the ways in which I have been challenged to think more deeply and carefully and the involvement with people who are dedicated to achieving a fair and humane immigration system. I didn’t know this when I started writing this blog, but now I know that that is the purpose of Unlocking Detention for me.
To close this year’s Unlocking Detention by a ‘visit’ to Dungavel and reflect on what’s next, we have asked volunteer visitors of Scottish Detainee Visitors, ordinary people doing extraordinary job of witnessing what’s happening to people locked up in Dungavel, to share their experiences.
Carol (not her real name)
I had heard about Scottish Detainee Visitors from my daughter (who used to be a visitor) but did not think there were visitors from Edinburgh. Have considered volunteering with Freedom from torture but couldn’t find a way to do it. Eventually went on a course with Scottish Refugee Council, which lead to joining SDV.
I was quite unsure about what I would be doing and how I would speak to the people I visited when my visiting started. I am not quite sure what my expectations were, but found it difficult knowing what to talk about, and aware the people we visited were wanting us to help them get out which we could not do so rather frustrating. Having to talk to a person through a glass window, as she was not allowed into the visiting room, was a bit of a surprise.
Another surprise was that the UK detains and often deports Europeans who have committed a crime and served their sentence, rather than releasing them after their sentence.
Before each visit, I make sure I have identification, English money* in case needed, enough paperwork, and pens. If organising visit, I decide who to visit, and phone and text them.
(*Scottish Detainee Visitors give a small cash gift to people who are being removed. They have learned that if the give them Scottish notes, they can be difficult to exchange, so visitors go to a bank that will issue bank of England notes.)
On the way there, we often discuss who we are to visit, and the political injustice that leads to people being detained. On the way back, we are usually talking about the problems and injustices we have just encountered. It worries me there is very little we can do. Nothing encourages me.
Since I started visiting, my view of the UK has changed. I did not realise what an unwelcoming country we are. I did know there were problems for asylum seekers, but never realised the extent of the desire of the government to get rid of people who have families here, and have worked here for many years.
I saw Kate Alexander at Scottish Refugee Council whilst i was volunteering there and got interested in visiting after hearing about how much of a difference it makes to people in detention. My son was once in detention so I identified with the need.
I had visited my son in detention once and so I had an idea of what detention was like- prison like. I expected Dungavel to be just like Morton Hall or worse but I found it to be better although the fence outside was not what I expected. The fence made it look like a maximum prison.
The most memorable positive experience was when a person I was visiting gave me a playing card case that he made at one of the handcraft sessions with a flag of Zimbabwe and a statement “Abigail Thank you” painted on it as well.
Being a visitor has taught me to have unregarded positive response, that is accepting everyone who comes down to see us when we visit as they are and not being judgemental towards those who would have come having served prison sentences. I just see them all as people who need to be valued and supported the best way we can.
I am sure people who have never visited Dungavel do not know that you cannot take certain things like food, old CDs or DVDs, books, toiletries that have an alcohol ingredient in them etc. You cannot hand over directly whatever you take for people in detention. Just like visiting a prison, visitors are subject to security checks. Whilst visitors are seated with people they are visiting, there is always an officer watching their every move. People visited cannot use visit room’s toilets. There is however refreshment kiosk machines that visitors and the people visited can obtain snacks from. The provision of dining tables in the visitors’ room is good although I may not know how frequently they are used.
Before visiting, I check the rota days before to see who is visiting with me and also to see if I am driving. I need to make sure I have my ID so I am not stopped from visiting. If I am organising a visit, I print out previous visit reports and people’s list. I collect all the necessary paperwork to give to people in detention. If I have read on the visit report of individuals confirmed for removal, I take £30 for each person so when they get to their destination they have a bit of cash with them. I make sure I have used the convenience room before I head off to avoid being desperate whilst waiting outside the gate. I have found it helpful to phone the people on the visit list so they can expect us and be waiting near the visit room.
It feels good on the way to Dungavel as I think about the good cause of visiting people in detention but can be very stressful on the way back at the realisation that there is not much we can do as visitors to get people out of detention. It is not a good feeling when during the visit you learn that a person has been given a ticket to be removed to their home country where they will face danger or even death on arrival.
But when we are informed about the release and grant of bail for people we had visited, that is encouraging.
My view of the UK has changed since visiting people in detention in the sense that I thought the UK observed human rights but I have found the Home Office to be a law in themselves especially regarding the indefinite length of stay for people In detention.
If I had the chance to meet the Home Secretary, I would say, stop the inhumane system of putting people in immigration detention centres. And close all detention centres and find an alternative way of managing people’s immigration statuses.
I applied to become a volunteer visitor after volunteering in Calais because I wanted to do something to support people affected by the UK’s “Hostile Environment“.
I was nervous about how to speak with people in detention as somebody who’s in a privileged position by comparison. However, I found it much easier to chat with people in Dungavel than I’d feared.
It’s hard to say what my most memorable experience has been but I was really moved when, during our last visit before Christmas, we were given a beautiful card for Scottish Detainee Visitors signed by all the people we’d been seeing and who were still in Dungavel at that time.
Surprisingly, it has been uplifting to meet people in detention – some of them having been detained for many months and who are very scared of the possibility of being removed – who provide wonderful emotional support to others in Dungavel and look out for new and particularly vulnerable people there.
Following the Panorama expose of staff brutality against people detained in Brook House and evidence of very abusive, inhumane actions in other detention centres, it can be easy to imagine that many or most people working in detention centres have a racist attitude and engage in abusive behaviour. That doesn’t seem to be the situation in Dungavel, where people routinely say that “the staff are fine – it’s the Home Office whose fault it is we’re here”.
Instead, at Dungavel, we’re seeing an inherently oppressive and abusive system (abusive in terms of detaining people indefinitely simply because of their immigration status) being implemented by people who’re perfectly ordinary and friendly and who may think they’re helping the people they help keep locked up. That in itself seems very depressive – although, of course, it would be far worse if there were staff behaving in such an appalling way as happened at Brook House.
I think people who don’t know about immigration detention need to know this.
Firstly, people are forced to waste months if not more of their lives, locked up with nothing to do and no control over their lives and future. Secondly, people’s spirit and mental health are being eroded as the weeks and months pass by in immigration detention. And thirdly, it is an oppressive system that is entirely arbitrary and Kafkaesque.
When I organise a visit, I spend time looking through the last visit report and people’s list and writing out two lists of who I’ll ask for – a minimalist one to hand to the staff and one with more info for the visitors. I try to phone as many of the people to see as possible and leave messages – and make sure we have money for anyone getting removed and enough paperwork between us. During the journey, if somebody missed the last Edinburgh visit, we update him/her and share anything important to know. But otherwise, we have nice chats about family, holidays, etc.
When I started visiting, I was really worried about my future status as an EU-27 citizen because of Brexit and had a great deal of stress involved in getting Permanent Residency (before the easier Settled Status applications were announced). Although my situation couldn’t be compared to that of people in immigration detention, it felt as if the Home Office cast a shadow over a lot of my life. Even more so because we were hosting an asylum seeker at the time who’d been in Dungavel before and was at high risk of being detained again.
I wouldn’t want to meet Priti Patel (who was the Home Secretary before the General Election). How could I speak with somebody who basically doesn’t believe in the common humanity of people wherever they come from and for whatever reasons they are here – and who displays no empathy in her speeches and decision-making.
I had started reading about immigration in the UK and found out about detention, which before that I didn’t even know existed as I think many people still don’t. I found that lots of detention centres have visiting groups and I had a look to see if there was one in Scotland and then found out about Dungavel and Scottish Detainee Visitors.
I was nervous about visiting for the first time and really didn’t know what to expect but when you reach the gates and barbed wire fences it does still shock you at how intimidating a place it is. Then I felt guilty about that because at least I got to leave.
Lots of the stories about how many people are treated by the Home Office are very memorable for the wrong reasons. But the great positive memories are meeting friends who I made in Dungavel in Glasgow for coffee or lunch after being released and especially when one friend got his leave to remain and we chatted about how great it was to spend time just like normal friends and most people get to do daily and completely take for granted.
I think most people even if they have heard about immigration detention don’t know where Dungavel is. It is completely isolated and in the middle of nowhere so for people that do have families it’s very difficult for them to visit, especially if they don’t live in Scotland.
On the way to a visit I try to keep and open and positive mindset but I worry about it if I’ve had a bad day at work before setting off or I’m feeling tired but knowing how lucky I am to even be able to work and not have to worry about deportation, immigration policy or many other issues that people in Dungavel have to deal with motivates me.
I worry a lot more about the UK and the way the immigration system currently works but also feel so lucky and so guilty that I benefit from so many privileges that come with simply being born in the UK.
If I met the Home Secretary, I would tell her to speak to actual people affected by policies but using compassion and humanity instead of treating everyone as if they are lying.
As more detention centres are closed, visitors’ groups shift their focus to what’s next. Clara Della Croce, from Asylum Welcome, explains to Unlocking Detention what Asylum Welcome did after the closure of Campsfield immigration detention in Oxfordshire.
On Friday, 9th November 2018, Asylum Welcome was informed that the Home Office had decided to close Campsfield House in May 2019. Throughout 25 years Asylum Welcome visitors had been in Campsfield House, Immigration Removal Centre, near Oxford, sometimes every day of the week.
These detainees were incarcerated under an unfair and hostile detention system and many of us had been campaigning for the end of immigration detention. We were elated but, also somewhat confused. The Home Office statement read that this closure was part of an ongoing strategy to reduce detention numbers by 40%. Questions began to dawn upon us: where were Campsfield detainees going to go? Many were so vulnerable; we knew some of their stories. Is this the only detention centre to be closed? We asked. Asylum Welcome staff, and volunteers to Campsfield House, all had similar feelings of incredulity and joy accompanied by a strong concern for the welfare of the detainees.
The wider Oxford community, who had campaigned for the closure of Campsfield and the end of all immigration detention, saw this as a moment for celebration. In contrast, the detainees themselves were saying that whilst being in Campsfield was depressing and stressful, their experience of other detention centres, where the regime was much stricter, was even worse. By mid-December 2018, Campsfield was empty and the remaining few detainees were transferred to Brook House or Harmsworth Immigration Removal Centres.
Asylum Welcome’s staff and volunteers are very keen to build upon their long experience supporting detainees in Campsfield: overstayers, refused asylum seekers, and those with past convictions who had finished their criminal sentence and had been transferred to immigration detention. We are united in the view that our work in this field should not end with the closure of Campsfield – there are ongoing humanitarian needs that we are well-placed to address.
Asylum Welcome contacted HMP Huntercombe, and our offer to provide a visiting service to prisoners was warmly welcomed. Huntercombe is a category C prison in Oxfordshire, populated solely by 480 foreign nationals; not a single inmate there is British. After several months setting up the project structures, we are now taking our first steps as visitors within the prison. In offering a service to Huntercombe prisoners there are four concerns that we believe we can help to address: isolation, communication, wellbeing and advocacy.
Whilst some prisoners had built their lives in the UK prior to offending and therefore have family in the country, others, including many with an asylum background, have no one to talk to or support them from beyond the walls of the prison. A regular volunteer visitor can make an enormous difference.
Foreign national prisoners at Huntercombe are from a multitude of backgrounds. Language barriers are a common problem as many prisoners lack good spoken English. Asylum Welcome’s multi-cultural, multi-lingual visitors can act as a bridge.
Huntercombe is a calmer, more orderly environment than Campsfield. This is possibly because inmates know why they are there and when their sentences will finish, whereas in Campsfield, like all immigration removal centres, people had to cope with the uncertainty of being held indefinitely, provoking feelings of depression and anxiety surrounding their future. Nevertheless, foreign prisoners suffer the anxiety of an uncertain future because they do not know what will happen when they have completed their sentence: whether they will be released, kept in prison under immigration powers, transferred to immigration removal centres or if they will be put straight into a plane back ‘home’. Our visiting service is still in its early stages, but we anticipate that we will be an important source of support for those wanting to talk about the impact of this uncertainty on their wellbeing.
From our experience at Campsfield we anticipate that foreign national prisoners, similar to detainees, will sometimes struggle to understand the systems and procedures affecting their situation, their legal rights and access to representation. We expect that our visiting team will draw to the attention of legal representatives and the prison authorities any instances where prisoners need help to understand and exercise their rights. Asylum Welcome also intends to share its learning from this project with other U.K. organisations to support improvements in policy and practice concerning detainees and foreign national prisoners.
In the current uncertain political times, we firmly believe that it is important to ensure the welfare of this largely politically unpopular yet vulnerable migrant group, and support them while they complete their sentences. By so doing we hope to give them a better chance of reintegration into the society they return to.
You come here to study and find yourself in immigration detention – that’s what has happened to some of the so-called TOEIC students, international students wrongly accused of cheating in 2014. They are being supported by Migrant Voice to campaign to clear their names. As part of Unlocking Detention, they shared with us their experiences of immigration detention and views of British justice. The blog was written by Eiri Ohtani, @EiriOhtani.
It’s midway through the discussion about the benefits of a solidarity group, when A suddenly says:
‘Well, if there was any positive thing about this campaign, I got my mum’s trust back because of it. Because the campaign exists, she now believes that this was really happening to me and I wasn’t lying to her.’
Another member of the group, B, adds by way of clarification: ‘Many people in our countries absolutely believe in British justice, and never imagine that there could be injustice under the British system. When we tell them we are being wrongly accused (by the Home Office), they think we must be lying.’
I am meeting a group of international students who have been accused of cheating on their English tests by the Home Office and have had their student visas annulled. They are fighting to clear their names and get their lives back on track.
‘The Home Office failed to ensure innocent people were not wrongly deported in an operation which saw more than 2,400 students removed from the country as a result of cheating allegations in English language tests, a major report has found.
The National Audit Office (NAO) launched an investigation earlier this year after it emerged almost 34,000 international students had been accused of cheating in English language tests, and with no proper right to challenge the decision, told they had no right to stay in the UK.
They were targeted after an investigation by the BBC’s Panorama in 2014 exposed systematic cheating at some colleges where candidates sat the Test of English for International Communication (Toeic), one of several that overseas students can sit to prove their English language proficiency, a visa requirement.’
Home Office failed to ensure innocent students were not wrongly detained in cheating scandal, report finds | The Independent, 24/05/2019
Migrant Voice, ‘a migrant-led organisation empowering migrants to speak out, challenge perceptions and change public debate’, supports the group. With guidance from its tenacious director, Nazek Ramadan, and her colleagues, the student group managed to draw media attention to their struggle and secured some limited traction from the Home Office and the Home Secretary. (See the list of further reading at the end of the blog for more information.)
The consequences of the Home Office accusations have been severe. Some of the students in the group have found themselves locked up in immigration detention, after heavy-handed raids at home. Some have already been removed or simply given up. Legal fees for appeals are expensive and, of course, not everyone can afford it. These are some of the costs of seeking justice, and a somewhat familiar tale for people who have been wronged by the Home Office.
‘Preparing for immigration detention’
People willing to ‘do something’ about immigration detention often want to do something in detention centres. But there is a huge unmet need that is not often talked about: preparing people for immigration detention. That’s what I have come to do at Migrant Voice’s office. When I arrive at their campaign meeting on the hottest day in late July, there is frustration in the room. Although a recent APPG report recommended a moratorium on enforcement for students who are in the appeal process, the students are still at risk of detention and removal. Many must regularly report to the Home Office, each time not knowing whether they will be able to return home or be detained.
Explaining immigration detention to a group of anxious people is emotionally taxing. Reading from a script that says ‘27,000 people are detained every year’ makes you feel as though you are playing a part in the government’s deliberate plot to paralyse people with fear. Unlike immigration detention centres, this fear is invisible and renders invisible the vast numbers of individuals, families or groups dispersed across the UK who live in fear of immigration detention. It takes a huge psychological toll on everyone.
Luckily, I have Right to Remain’s zine with me, a vital resource and the last line of defence for communities threatened with detention. Written with ‘experts-by-experience’ who were themselves detained, the zine goes beyond equipping people with practical advice: it guides them into developing a mutual support system that can be relied upon as a safeguard. Though even talking about the threat of detention in a safe space is hard, it gives a little boost to their sense of solidarity and togetherness.
Having migrants’ variety of voices heard and listened to
In an otherwise bleak space, Migrant Voice and others’ facilitating role in this recent shift towards the emergence of grassroot solidarity groups gives me some small hope. As a migrant myself, it’s a relief to see increasing numbers of fellow migrants taking the lead in the fight against the UK government’s Hostile Environment policy. It is powerful, and also disruptive in a good way, when the people who are directly affected, rather than professional NGO staff, take centre stage.
Nazek says “When the students first came to us, we found it hard to believe that this kind of injustice could be happening in the UK today. We felt so strongly about it that we had to do what we could. A big part of that has been providing a space for them to come and speak and be listened to, and to be valued and respected for the people who they are – then working with them to tell their stories in a way anyone can understand. We’ve been calling for a very simple solution – for all these students to have the chance to sit a new test. If they pass, they should get their visa back and be allowed to restart their lives.”
At a follow-up meeting, we have more time for in-depth discussions about the solidarity and shared experiences of the group in the face of the threat of immigration detention. The students are frustrated by the lack of attention given to their plight by the general public. At one point, someone points out ‘Imagine this was happening to Americans, Europeans, white migrants…’. His voice trails off and we become silent. The group members are composed of Commonwealth nationals, from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, previously colonised by Britain. It is a thought that has crossed my mind too – immigration laws and rules, after all, stem from the society which is underpinned by often unacknowledged racial hierarchy.
Thank you @DetentionForum for giving us a great information how to avoid detention. And thank you to @MigrantVoiceUK for facilities this useful session. @EiriOhtani was a great speaker and gave lot of great information.
I suspect there are probably additional explanations for this relative lack of attention. The students are no doubt victims of injustice but they do not fit the accepted stereotype of the victim: rather than appearing vulnerable, powerless, voiceless, the students are vocal and articulate. Some of them come from relatively well-off families, well-off enough to be able to pay for education in the UK. I wonder if that unspoken class element makes it hard for the general public to ‘place’ them in their imaginary of migrants.
Another possible complication is that while they are here in the UK and are migrants (though some might object that international students are not migrants – I have been told that before), they wanted to be here only temporarily, usually to get qualifications, and many can’t wait to go back home or somewhere else. But they are stuck, in limbo, because without the qualifications they have set out to obtain here, they cannot move onto their next stage of their life plan. How we understand, interact and build relationships with people who are temporarily here as migrants on their own volition but who wish to see their lives unfolding somewhere else is not something we’ve often talked about or dealt with in migration space. We don’t have a wide enough range of vocabularies to describe changing patterns of human mobility and vastly different motives that drive people to move – yet.
Image of Britain – before and after immigration detention
We talked about how the students had felt when they first arrived in the UK and their overwhelmingly positive feelings. Perhaps their words might strike some as naïve or even banal, but they still reminded me of a sense of hope many people have when they move, something I have completely forgotten about. Having worked in this area far too long, I accept I am too jaded. However, I, too, did have some sense of hope when I first arrived in Germany, and then when, after a few years, moved to London, almost 30 years ago. We must be careful though to recognise that every person’s hope is unique and, more importantly, human mobility does not always come with hope. Mine was a result of a myriad of privileges and opportunities that I was born into. Others have no choice but to hope when they move, because staying where they are is not an option.
Of course, these ideas were shattered when they were accused of fraud and found themselves fighting to clear their names or thrown into immigration detention.
One of the most profound impacts of their experience is strained family relationships. Many were caught off guard by their families’ utter refusals to believe their stories, because of their unshakeable trust in the British system.
‘When they said we’d take you to detention, I thought it would be like a house. But it was a prison.’
B says he initially wanted to go to the US or Canada to study. It was his father, who has high regard for the UK’s democracy and parliament, who insisted on the UK as his son’s educational destination. After their initial disbelief at what had happened to his son, B’s parents are now supportive of the campaign. His father says ‘If you believe that you didn’t do anything wrong, you must finish this battle before coming back. It is about your future – otherwise you need to carry this blame the rest of your life.’ His mother however has no knowledge of the fact that he was in detention: she has been shielded from it, B says.
‘I thought in Britain, detention should be something different. It’s not something that should be happening here.’
C confesses that when he was initially detained, he felt a tinge of excitement because nobody in his family had ever been to prison. It was when he phoned his brother and he started crying as he told him what had happened that the reality dawned on him. Eventually the rest of the family found out and their response was not exactly encouraging: ‘If this is happening, you are not coming back to our house’. C adds ‘My family lives in a small village, I don’t come from an urban area. People there don’t understand what English language test is or what the Home Office does, but they do understand the word ‘fraud’’.
‘They said ‘This is the room’, I thought where is the bed? It was just a mattress. The toilet was in the same cell, with no privacy.’
It turns out that they are the lucky ones. Some have been completely disowned by their families, who say, ‘They have brought shame on us and used all the family’s fortune.’ I am told of one of their members, who has returned to his home country, is street homeless as his family has completely rejected him.
I ask about their huge diaspora communities in the UK? Experiences have been mixed and complicated. ‘I was disappointed when Imam said to me, why are you staying here? With your children? His attitude was negative.’ ‘I was told ‘You are a burden on my country.’ They didn’t believe what happened to us at first’.
Is your solidarity borderless?
Their struggle continues and the campaign has provided a platform to advocate for themselves. Pooling their knowledge and experience has helped the campaign to find direction and given strength to the members of the group to carry on.
D talks about how she met the others for the first time at the parliamentary event:
‘I saw them at the event and was surprised. There were these people who seemed to know what they are talking about and they knew each other. I introduced myself and joined the group. Before, I was just alone and had no family or friends to speak to share the worry. After meeting them, now I have a hope.’
C adds ‘The second time I was in detention, as a team you got me out, you got me released after a few days. The first time I was in detention, I was there over 100 days.’
Hearing this, D points at another member with a smile. ‘I now text you, when I go signing (to the reporting centre). We support each other.’
Looking back on parliamentary lobbying they have done, B says, ‘The fact that we have been able to apply pressure to the government is giving us hope. Lots of people say Parliamentarians can’t do anything, but we created this opportunity now. We can do this.’
The group is aware that their India-Bangladesh-Pakistan solidarity group doesn’t necessarily mirror the countries’ not so straightforward diplomatic relationships with each other. Someone says with a laugh, ‘If not for our experience here in the UK, you probably wouldn’t have seen some of us working together like this.’ This comment leads to other interesting topics that I wish I had more time to delve into. What do they think of the members of their diaspora community working for immigration enforcement, locking you up, assessing your cases and working at the reporting centres? What’s their views of Sajid Javid and Priti Patel, whose families have immigrant background?
I leave the room wondering what stories they will be telling others about British justice and immigration detention when they win their battles and return home. Another question that lingers in my mind was whether these groups’ newly found solidarity will be extended to other groups of migrants and communities also experiencing injustice, regardless of their immigration status or other circumstances. Truly borderless solidarity is the only tool we might have for a truly just and humane world – but it still feels elusive.
You can order Right to Remain’s immigration detention zine from their webpage. Highly recommended!
Jan 2019: Financial Times long read about the issue and campaign
Mar 2019: ITV News interviewswith students affected and Stephen Timms
May 2019: Amelia Gentleman interviewwith Raja Noman
May 2019: Independent articleon the damning National Audit Office report on the issue (the video at the top is a clip from “Inquisition”, the film about the TOEIC students)
July 2019: Independent articleon the report by the APPG on TOEIC, which exposed some very concerning information about the Home Office actions on this matter in 2014
September 2019: Mirror articleabout the report by the Public Accounts Committee, which described the Govt’s handling of the matter as “shameful”
Since the Detention Forum was founded 10 years ago, parliamentary lobbying on immigration detention reform has evolved dramatically. First of all, there is a lot more of it. Secondly, it is done more meticulously. And thirdly and most importantly, it is having an impact.
However, with it developed an unspoken hierarchy of perceived importance which sees parliamentary lobbying as the most important and ‘high value’ tool in change making. Is it an exclusive activity that only elites should be concerned about? Or should it be open to everyone who wants to be heard by politicians? We asked Sam Grant (@Sammy_G1988) Policy and Campaign Manager at Liberty and one of the Coordination Group members of the Detention Forum, to tell us if parliamentary lobbying is as glamourous as it is sometimes assumed to be.
Parliament can sometimes appear an impenetrable place of jeering and grandstanding. But if you are a campaigner you’ll likely have to engage with MPs and the parliamentary machinery at some point.
I didn’t plan to work in political campaigning. But I always wanted to be involved in campaigning against the injustices I saw and felt around me – and that led me to think a lot about how to build relationships with the people who have the power to create change. I started my career at a small charity before joining Liberty – and have learned that whatever size the organisation, the principles of political campaigning remain the same.
Visiting Parliament to meet an influential MP is exciting. It’s an opportunity to bring someone on side, move campaigns forward and build a relationship for the future.
Make every second count
However, the reality isn’t always as glamorous as it sounds.
You are rarely the MPs’ most important meeting that day – in fact you might not even be in the top three. I’ve had MPs introduce themselves to me as if we’ve never met despite the fact its our third or fourth meeting. MPs might cancel as you wait to meet them – or send out an advisor instead of taking the time to meet with you themselves. I’ve learned it’s important not to take this personally – and to remember what I’m trying to achieve. And when I get time with an MP – however short –to make every second count.
I haven’t always got it right. I’ve had bad meetings with MPs that may have taken me months of emailing to arrange. Or left a meeting and realised I didn’t manage to get the MP to commit to anything. MPs are skilled at dodging topics they don’t want to discuss and not every meeting is going to be a home run. With all that in mind, below are a few things I’ve learnt from the mistakes I’ve made.
Before reaching out to an MP, do your research and build a list of target MPs. On immigration detention – and many other issues – there are many MPs I won’t try to convince because I know there is little chance of changing their mind. Focus on the MPs who are persuadable. For our parliamentary work on detention we split meetings with MPs across a range of different organisations. This doesn’t just help share the load. Different MPs might respond to established NGOs like Liberty differently than faith-based or frontline organisations, or experts by experience. Or vice versa.
Meetings with MPs are mostly targeted and pre-arranged. Securing a sit down often involves working with an MP’s advisor and can sometimes take months of cajoling. Think about the best way of making that happen. That might involve asking other MPs to make introductions – or working out exactly how to phrase an email or letter. For example, one MP finally agreed to a meeting after Liberty commissioned a report looking at the cost savings a 28-day time limit would make – so I made sure that was central in my communication with that MP going forward.
Once you’ve secured a meeting it’s important to ask yourself what success looks like – and what your key ‘ask’ for the MP is. Remember MPs are not experts on everything. Break things down so they know why your issue is important for them and understand the fundamental concepts, then point to a reason why they might support the campaign. If you’ve done your research you should know whether to push on the moral, political, or even financial reasons – or the right mix of all three. All MPs have different motivations, background and experiences. Find out about their political interests, opinions, parliamentary friends, what have they said on the issue, and any relevant local issues for them. For example, have they got a detention centre in their constituency? Have they been outspoken on modern slavery?
Best way to learn is by doing
Building relationships with MPs is an art – not a science. And relationships you build today can pay off in unexpected ways in the future. When it goes well it can bring almost 100 MPs of all parties together – as we saw with the campaign for a 28-day time limit on immigration detention in the latest Immigration Bill. That political backing will be central to the next stage of the time limit campaign and work to end indefinite detention once and for all.
Of course, political campaigning shouldn’t happen in a vacuum. The public and the media can influence MPs or make them more inclined to take a meeting or accept an ask. An MP is more likely to meet an NGO if they have received correspondence from their constituents or heard an issue on the radio. All these campaign methods connect – so when pushing for legislative change you need people and organisations working on the inside as well as from the outside.
It takes patience, forward planning and sometimes a lack of ego to be an effective political campaigner. The best way to learn is by doing. Be ready to learn from others– and be assured you will get better with every meeting. The best coalition work makes the most of all the campaigning tools available. That’s how we have built parliamentary consensus around a time limit. But until that is written into law, we must keep working to turn that consensus into the end of indefinite detention in the UK.
Testimony is a powerful way of helping those of us lucky enough not to have experienced the blunt end of immigration detention to understand a little bit of what it must be like. It can inspire us to action. But at what cost to those who have to continuously revisit the experience; who become known to us only as one of the many de-humanising labels we use like ‘detainee’, ‘asylum seeker’. Mishka who volunteers for the Detention Forum, has agreed to share his ‘expertise-by-experience’ of life in and after detention.
I cannot visit any detention centres because I do not have the required identification to pass the security. How strange: I was held in three detention centres for five months when I did not want to be there and now I am not allowed to visit them even if I wanted to. This issue came up when I was preparing for the blog I wrote for Unlocking Detention a few months ago. Instead of visiting Tinsley and Brook House detention centres myself, I talked to others who have that privilege of being able to pass the security and visit people there.
My passport is with the Home Office while they assess my asylum claim and I do not have any other form of ID. An ID is one of the many basic things people navigating the immigration system could lose. Naturally, I cannot travel outside the UK. The Biometric Residence Permit (BRP) is another form of ID migrants use or a driving license. As I have none of these, I do not have anything to verify my status in the UK at all.
When I tell people that I do not have any ID they are surprised. On occasions when I was asked to provide ID, it was hard to explain why I do not have any. I recently wanted to check in to a hotel that a campaign organiser booked for me and the reception asked for my ID. Initially, I could not convince him that I don’t have an ID. I showed him the booking confirmation and text messages verifying the booking. He looked at me for a few seconds and said it is because he wants to know my age! When I said I am over 30 years old, he said: “Dear me, you look much younger”!
Of course this causes practical inconveniences. Far more importantly though, there are emotional implications. Not being able to prove who I am is a constant reminder that I am an asylum claimant and my future in this country is uncertain. This uncertainty also makes it difficult for me to plan important things in life.
Who am I then? I decided to be an ‘expert-by-experience’, with the name of ‘Mishka’ to campaign against immigration detention and make a change. The reality of this experience is that overall, for me, it has not always been good. I constantly have to introduce myself as someone who has been in detention, or an ‘ex-detainee’ as some call it. On top of this, I still have an ongoing asylum claim and this makes me ‘an asylum seeker’. Another is ‘client’: when I meet people from NGOs and organisations, there is a tendency for them to see me as their client, even if I have never been their client.
Though I end up wearing many labels, ‘expert-by-experience’, ‘Mishka’, ‘asylum seeker’, ‘ex-detainee’, not being seen and treated as an ordinary person feels similar to not having any ID: you are unsure about who you are and others who meet me as Mishka’, ex-detainee’ or ‘asylum seeker’ are only seeing a small part of who I really am.
Even though my first hand experience of detention is one of the reasons why I decided to become ‘Mishka’, I find it frustrating when I am expected to talk about it all the time. A few times, for example, when I was writing newspaper articles, I was asked to add more about my personal story to ‘make it more emotional and punchy’. To be honest, I have already spoken about my experience of detention during campaign work many times and sometimes I want to choose to focus on something else. Whether to share my personal experience or not has to be my own choice. It takes time for me to open up to strangers. When I was in detention, I knew about visitors’ groups but I never wanted to have a visitor. I could not imagine myself speaking to a stranger I have never met about my personal circumstances.
In this case, when I was asked to write about my detention experience for this blog, the decision to talk once again about my story came easily to me.I have been volunteering with Detention Forum for a long time now and I believe strongly in their campaigns. I know other volunteers and Detention Forum staff, and many of its member organisations put a lot of thought into how to communicate with respect about and with people in immigration detention. I knew that the decision about what to share of my story and how to share it would be mine.
I was in Harmondsworth, Colnbrook and Haslar (which closed down) for a total of five months a few years ago. There are of course many reports about these detention centres but they can’t tell you everything about them, or what it is really like inside.
Waiting and Waiting Some More
For example, most days, things could get heated in Harmondsworth while people waited for the thick metal door to open to access the shops, barber and computer room. I was in the ‘Dove’ wing and we had specific times to access these on each day. Hundreds of people desperately waiting in line behind this door. There were often arguments about people trying to jump the line, people pushing each other and running like they were running for their lives when the door opened to secure a place in the computer room, the barbers and the shop. People were also impatiently waiting for vacant washing machines, table tennis tables and pool tables. There was generally a lot of waiting.
My favourite place in Harmondsworth was the computer room. That is the place I could find evidence to support my ongoing case, I communicated with my solicitor and I could listen to some music once in a while. I felt I was in control of my own situation.
The worst place for me was the healthcare in Harmondsworth where I had to go often during my time there. I had been referred to undergo surgery before I went into detention, but the appointment was cancelled and my condition became worse. I thought it would be a simple matter of rearranging an appointment, but I was surprised to experience the conflict of interest between their duty to impartially assess your medical condition and their willingness to facilitate removals. They repeatedly told me that I had no medical condition even though I had already been referred for surgery. I also disliked what they called ‘legal visits’, which were meetings in a separate building with Home Office staff where you were informed about refusals and removal directions: most of the time it was bad news after bad news.
I was initially taken to Colnbrook with my brother. Then we were taken to Haslar detention centre in Portsmouth for two weeks and finally to Harmondsworth. I have no idea on what basis they decided to take us all the way to Haslar in Portsmouth from Colnbrook and brought us back all the way to Harmondsworth. I didn’t know that Colnbrook and Harmondsworth were close to each other. I was surprised when I got to know that these two centres are just walking distance from each other.
I am not surprised, though, when I read critical findings in monitoring reports, such as suicide attempts. I have seen this more than enough during my detention there. On the one hand, I am sad to know that these are still happening even after five years. But on the other hand, I also feel a little bit positive when I read about some improvements, such as numbers are reducing and new alternatives to detention pilot initiative.
During my last few days at Harmondsworth, I spent a lot of time staring at the small pond in the garden. The water was green because of the summer sun and a couple of small fish used to appear from that green water occasionally. Pigeons used to wander in this garden and people were told not to feed them. But I know some people secretly threw pieces of bread while there was no detention centre staff present. I am not sure if that pond is still there or not.
Laptop Bag and Two Black Garbage Bags
I was released from Harmondsworth on immigration bail. That is one day I will remember forever. I was given a travel ticket and I had to find my way to Section 4 accommodation myself. Amid all the uncertainty about how I was going to find the place, when I got that train ticket, one side of my heart felt excited like a child getting a ticket to Disney Land. I had my laptop bag and two black garbage bags: one with a massive bundle of documents and another with some clothes and shoes. It felt so strange after being held under that much security for five months when they just opened those 20-foot tall gates and let me walk out.
I still remember getting on a train and then a bus, carrying my two black garbage bags. My beard was way overgrown, as I did not trim it for five months while in detention. It was difficult to find the place, I got lost a few times and finally got there around 11pm.
Five months in detention is not that long compared to many others who have been in detention centres for years. But the experience was intense. My brother was removed from the UK. Then I was informed of the news of my dad’s passing. I could not even attend my dad’s funeral. All I had was a picture of him lying in his coffin that was emailed to me a couple of weeks after. I printed out the picture from the Harmondsworth printer and I still have that printout with me.
All these things I have endured – they have made me wiser, but also a bit delicate. If I rewind back the time by ten years or so, I was a very different person. I used to be very energetic and fierce with a ‘warrior mindset’– that’s gone now. But in a way, I like it. Now I am wise and feel mature: mature not only in age, but inside my head.
For a few years, I contributed to Unlocking Detention as a guest blogger, but this year I am contributing as a volunteer. My identity in relationship to Unlocking Detention has also changed. If there is Unlocking Detention 2020, I would still be very happy to contribute. But, I hope that by that time, I will have my ID back and I will be my own person.
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.