The silencing of race in NGO and charity campaigning against detention

The silencing of race | Unlocked19

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.


Reflections on Unlocking Detention

What i didn't know about Unlocking Detention | Unlocked19

Illustrations by @carcazan

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.

Governments have always shown more willingness to improve conditions in detention than on altering the terms on which people are detained and we must stay focused on the latter. For example, the ‘dignity in detention’ drive announced by the previous Home Secretary  in response to the progress report on the Shaw Review which itself was limited to the welfare of vulnerable people.

A virtual tour

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.

Criminalising migration

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.


Visiting people held in Dungavel immigration detention centre

Abigail, SDV | Unlocked19

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.


British Justice?

British Justice | Unlocked19

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.

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.

British Justice? | Unlocked19


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. 

Further reading:

  • 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 interviews with students affected and Stephen Timms
  • May 2019: Amelia Gentleman interview with Raja Noman 
  • May 2019: Independent article on 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 article on 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 article about the report by the Public Accounts Committee, which described the Govt’s handling of the matter as “shameful”

An ingredient for successful parliamentary lobbying? A lack of ego

Parliamentary Lobbying | Unlocked19

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.  

Who am I again?

Who Am I Again? | Unlocked19

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”! 

Emotional Implications

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. 

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

Yarl's Wood | Unlocked19

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

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

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

Symbol of protest

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

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

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

Hostile Environment

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

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

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

Urge to Take Action

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

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

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

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

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


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

Imagine Better by @carcazan | Unlocked19

Illustrations by @carcazan

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

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

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

The Better Imagined

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Nothing Stands Still for Long

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

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

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

When hope is in short supply

The Friendship Project | Unlocked19

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

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

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

Seeking change through different routes

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

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

The Friendship Project | Unlocked19

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

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

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

Communicating around hope?

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘So we were not abandoned.’

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

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

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

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


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

‘Dear Eiri,

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

 Best wishes,



Further reading

About craftivism:

About the butterfly and migration justice:

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

Thinking about how positive change can happen:

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


‘I lost my religion, my family and my country, but I found hope’.

Mustapha's hope | Unlocked19

Mustapha is a young ambassador on the Red Cross’ Surviving to Thriving project, which supports refugees and asylum seekers aged 11 to 25 in Birmingham, Leeds and Peterborough who don’t have parents or guardians in the UK. He described how he ‘stopped feeling’ when he fled Morocco and how he regained his confidence and dignity after and during his very challenging life events, including being detained at Morton Hall immigration detention centre. 

My name is Mustapha and as a young man, I lost everything to be able to follow the religion of my choice. I left my life in Morocco to seek protection in the UK, but instead, I found myself in detention. It’s been 2 years since I arrived in the UK and my asylum case has been refused several times. From my experience, I can tell you that persecution is not always physical, it can also be mental. And the second is no less dangerous than the first. 

Here is my story

My struggle with mental health started the day I decided to convert from Islam to Christianity. From that moment on, I started to lose everything that has always been essential in my life. I lost Allah with whom I grew up and worshipped. I lost my country and my community, where many people now wish me dead. The most difficult to accept is that I lost my family. When my mother said, “I wish you died before telling me because for me you just died today“, I felt my heart being crushed a thousand times.

Losing my faith

When I began to question the religion I had grown up with, the religion of my family, the religion that had been the source of great comfort for me as a young man, it was like questioning my entire identity. Admitting to myself that I was losing my faith shook my foundations and I no longer knew who I was. This was a very hard period of my life.

Scared of being found out

Having lost such an important part of myself, all I wanted was the support of my family and my community, but unfortunately that wasn’t to be. I began to suffer from extreme anxiety and had to look left and right every time I left my house, expecting somebody to come with a knife and stab me. Whenever someone called my name my heart trembled.

I left my country in July 2017 to save my own life. I fled from the house. That was when I stopped feeling.

Denied and detained

When I arrived in the UK I was 23, but I felt like a child. Thankfully, I found the church. I met a priest who heard my story and told me about asylum. They adopted me and treated me like one of them. Now, when someone uses the term ‘family’, I think about my church family.

For a while, I felt like life was improving. But then my asylum claim was refused by the Home Office and I was detained. I cannot describe the feeling of being ‘denied’ by the country that you have sought protection in. Suddenly nowhere feels safe. They wanted to send me back to Morocco. I spent almost two months in detention without knowing what my crime was. My life rocked and deteriorated. Alone in my cell, I stayed awake at night and slept during the day. I was depressed, undead.  

When I was transported to another detention centre, they put me in a prisoner’s vehicle with three other asylum seekers in four separate cells. The cell inside the vehicle was dark and exactly the size of the chair I was sitting on. The journey lasted three hours and I screamed for help the whole way. That day, I discovered I had claustrophobia. 

In detention, my flashbacks and nightmares grew worse until I was eventually discharged. It was at this stage that I attempted to take my own life. 

Finding the Red Cross

I will always consider it a blessing the day I came across the Red Cross. They have helped me beyond words. They have helped me find a solicitor who is helping me to access the legal support I need. They have also helped me to access weekly therapy sessions, so that I can start to deal with my trauma. Without the Red Cross, I would have struggled to access my rights in this country and would have had to rely on the generosity of the church. 

Through the Red Cross’ Surviving to Thriving project, I have been reminded that I have a voice and can influence my destiny and future. They have even given me the opportunity to speak to policymakers about my issues! During Refugee Week, I attended a parliamentary event as a Refugee Ambassador and spoke to 58 MPs about my experience. It felt wonderful to have such important people listen to what I had to say! I am regaining my independence and confidence in who I am and I’m so grateful for that. 

Hope through adversity

My asylum claim is still pending and my future is uncertain, but I am determined to challenge the feeling of uncertainty and take advantage of what I have. I gained Level 2 in Community Interpreting (Arabic – English – French) and am now studying Theology. To other young refugees and asylum seekers struggling with their mental health, I would say don’t waste time or lose hope. Never be ashamed to talk to people about how you feel and let them help you. 

Now I am full of optimism and I will not let my situation or mental health issues come between me and my dreams.