By Jessica Kennedy and Penny Keza. Jessica is Development Co-ordinator at The Forum, which supports refugee and migrant communities and individuals in the UK. Penny is a former detainee.

Published at OpenDemocracy, as part of a series of articles on unlocking detention.

The countdown to the UK general election is on, and with a collective push we could yet make change for those still languishing in immigration detention centres on our shores.

Over 30,000 people were locked up in the UK last year – but not because they had committed a crime. They were trying to apply for the right to stay in this country. They had the misfortune to enter a system that uses detention in prison-like conditions, sometimes for years, as an administrative tool.

Immigration detention is meant to be a last resort, just before a person is removed from the UK. According to Home Office policy, detention can be used ‘where there is a realistic prospect of removal within a reasonable period’. Detention ‘must be used sparingly, and for the shortest possible period necessary’. But how can someone be ‘about to be removed’ for three, four or five years?

There are many reasons why people cannot be deported, as this collection of twenty stories from across the EU illustrates. People who do not have travel documents. A disputed country of origin. Statelessness. Medical issues. The courts have found several times that the UK government has illegally detained people when there was no realistic prospect of removal – yet there seems to have been no change in policy. Not only is it wasteful, detention is expensive, estimated to cost around £47,000 per person.

If you have never been to detention, or never had a phone call from someone you care about from detention, count yourself lucky. I first got a phone call from someone in detention on an afternoon in November. Hearing the desperation in my friend’s voice – he had been taken to detention and told he would be deported, despite having an ongoing case with the Home Office – I realised that I was near powerless to help. That feeling will never leave me.  I now work with the Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum (The Forum), which promotes the rights of refugees and migrants in the UK. We support a large number of people who have been in detention, often for months and years at a time.

I invited Penny, one of our members who recently won the right to stay in this country and who had spent 14 weeks in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, to share her story.

Read the article at OpenDemocracy