By Eiri Ohtani from the Detention Forum.
Yesterday morning, I joined colleagues from Right to Remain, Detention Action and JRS UK who nervously gathered at JRS UK’s headquarters in east London. We had a reason to be nervous.
Last month, the Co-ordination Group of the Detention Forum produced guides for individuals and groups to encourage others to take part in the parliamentary detention inquiry. Because the inquiry panel is keen to hear directly from people with experience of detention and because we knew how rare it is for these people to be given an opportunity to speak up for themselves, we hastily put together these guides on how to collect evidence from individuals. Having suggested others what to do without trying it ourselves first felt rather irresponsible. So we were going to figure out whether our guides actually work in practice. We have already heard from groups who have used the guides and said they were helpful. Now, were they just being polite or do they really work?
We were also joined by The Forum based in west London, some of whose users have experienced detention. They are not a member of the Detention Forum, and this was particularly welcomed. We don’t “own” detention issues – no one does. So, from our point of view, the more groups and individuals raise their voice against detention, the better.
A total of six people with experience of detention attended the session. We divided ourselves into two small groups, each supported by a facilitator and a scribe. I was tasked to take photos and compose live tweets.
Before the session started, I got talking to A over coffee, who was in detention for years. The first thing he asked me was if I knew what actually happened at Morton Hall over the weekend. After hearing my summary of several media articles I read, he shook his head saying ‘Nothing changes. Nothing changes.’ He then explained to me how he was in detention when someone sadly passed away. I asked him how he found that out. ‘Everyone started banging the door like this.’ He gestured the banging motion with his fist. ‘We knew straight away something terrible happened. It was crazy.’ He then told me about how the police in riot gear came and the frightening atmosphere that ensured.
B, at this point, joined in the conversation. I know he has been slightly sceptical about the inquiry, and probably for a good reason. Catching the end of A’s sentence, he said ‘We tell them what’s wrong and they do nothing.’ We discussed how so much evidence that shows harm of detention is already out there. We talked about the need to make recommendations and be clear about what we want to see changed.
As the session started, the facilitator asked everyone to introduce themselves. A was the first to go. ‘My name is A. I am an ex-detainee’. This was already painful to hear, that A decided to define himself by his experience of detention. Whenever possible, I personally refuse to use the words ‘detainees’ and ‘ex-detainees’ to describe people with experience of detention. Why should they be defined by the forms and practices of domination meted out by the state?
But before I had time to regain composure, the next person, very hesitantly said in a small voice, ‘My name is C. I am … also an ex-detainee’. Asking people to share their personal experiences often raises ethical and moral issues. I felt complicit in making C identify with something that she might not rather not think about if she had a choice. I also wished that the parliamentary panel could hear that gap in C’s sentence and the way her voice diminished as she finished her sentence.
In the following two hours or so, I was busy tweeting in between fetching water for the participants and looking out for later comers. I wished I was able to convey not just the words people used, but how they were said – 140 character-limit of tweets made it impossible to do other than just picking some phrases. These words were not always angry. They were more often than not dignified, even when people were sharing their inner most pains, stigma and shame. It was clear that these people all in their own way resisted and ‘fought’ detention, the system which constantly tried to dehumanise them. They refused to be degraded. They did not make themselves into ‘heroes’ and ‘heroines’ when sharing these details: they plainly explained that it was just how they survived.
I was also struck by how respectful they were of each other, giving each other space to talk. Unlike many meetings that I have attended in my life, no one talked over the others. No one dominated the conversation. There was no ‘competition’ to see who had the loudest voice. They actually listened to each other.
After saying goodbyes, I sat down with my colleagues. We were all completely drained after such intense hours. It made me reflect on the constant demand we make on people with experience of detention to talk, in a bid to change people’s minds about immigration detention. We were now in possession of their words. And the responsibility to relay them to the outside world felt heavy. I hope people actually listen to their words – because if you really listened to what they said, you would never be able to believe that status quo is an option.