Estelle Worthington is Regional Activism Co-ordinator, North West. She writes about how local organisations came together to collect evidence for the ongoing parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention.  

Over the last month, I’ve had the opportunity to hear many tales about people’s experiences in detention. Some will stay with me for a long, long time.

As an Activism Co-ordinator, I get people involved in campaigns to defend the rights of people seeking asylum in the UK. Our main focus is on improving decision making so more people get the protection they need; raising asylum support rates so people can afford the basics and aren’t forced to live in poverty; permission to work so people seeking asylum can support themselves and live in dignity; and ensuring everybody gets equal access to healthcare in the UK. Poor decision making at the Home Office coupled with limited access to good legal advice means many people who seek asylum reach the end of the process without their protection needs being recognised. At this point they are forced into destitution. Many of these individuals are also at risk of being detained. Indeed, at the end of December 2013, 2,796 people were being held in immigration detention centres across the UK and 48% of all immigration detainees were people seeking asylum. That’s an astounding proportion.

When I heard about the Parliamentary Inquiry on Detention I felt it was a huge opportunity to bring these injustices to light. So, throughout September, I helped local groups host evidence-gathering events in Manchester and Liverpool. A staggering 80 people got involved in sharing their experiences in the hope it will change things for the better. Some had themselves been in detention for many months. Others were friends, family and supporters who’d visited their loved ones in detention.

Teaming up with WAST, United for Change, Manchester Migrant Solidarity and the Boaz Trust in Manchester helped us reach a huge range of people, many of whom have been campaigning on detention matters much longer than I have. Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST), for example, have been at the forefront of calls for an independent inquiry into the abuse of female detainees in Yarl’s Wood. In fact, just a few days after our evidence-gathering event, they were out petitioning Labour Party Conference go-ers for support.

In Liverpool, our event took place at Asylum Link – a drop-in centre that provides advice and friendship to asylum seekers and refugees and is a real life-line in Liverpool. We just about managed to squeeze everybody into the packed room and this connection with Asylum Link helped us ensure new arrivals to the city – some of whom had been held in the detained fast track system – could come and share their experiences.

There was such a sense of solidarity at these events, of people bearing witness to each others experiences, and there were a surprising number of people willing to speak up and share their stories. So much so that in the weeks following the events it was quite a daunting task for myself and a gang of dedicated volunteers to pull together everything we’d heard. This was also when we went out and met people one-to-one to record their full testimonies. I’d like to say a special thank you, here, to all those who so bravely came forward to share their story. This is far from easy. And, while the inquiry’s recommendations and the response of the government are ultimately beyond our control, we assure you that we will be doing everything we can to make sure your voices are heard.

So, what did people tell us?

Well, firstly, without exception, they expressed the feeling that at a fundamental level, detaining asylum seekers is simply wrong. They told us that the idea of depriving a person of their liberty – a person who has come to the UK for safety and has committed no crime – is incomprehensible. The Home Office does not set a time limit on how long a person should stay in detention, meaning some can be left to languish there for years. There were many things that former detainees and their supporters said damaged the mental health of people in detention, but aside from the lasting fear that being seized without warning can cause, it was the indefinite length of time in detention that they felt had the most impact. Not knowing when you’ll get out or whether the Home Office is making moves to deport you was described by several people as mental torture. Others spoke about the unbearable strain this put on their relationships with family and friends.

I have friends who’ve been detained, and I’ve witnessed the panic and sense of powerlessness that hits their family and friends when they hear the news. Staying in touch with someone in detention is hard. Your phone is taken away if it has a camera, and there can be a long wait before you can get credit to make calls. There are long waiting lists for legal aid funded solicitors or, failing that, there’s often a mad scramble while your supporters scrape together enough money to pay for a private adviser.

Many people enter detention with health problems. Yet many of those who shared their evidence with us spoke about being separated from essential prescription medication like asthma inhalers. Others said that detention centre medical staff often acted with indifference towards their requests for help. People experiencing mental ill health often said the response of staff made things worse rather than better. Those put on ‘suicide watch’ spoke about being followed and watched 24/7 – including when using the toilet – leading to loss of dignity and sometimes a sense of paranoia.

The detention of vulnerable people seems commonplace in UK detention centres. We heard many examples of pregnant women, elderly people and survivors of torture in detention. Some participants also told us they feel that being detained in itself makes people vulnerable. This is because people experience a decline in their general mental wellbeing in detention, and because detainees can be vulnerable to sexual exploitation and physical abuse. Amongst the most shocking evidence we heard was about the sexual abuse of female detainees at Yarl’s Wood.

There were also accounts of excessive force used by officers when they are deporting people, and several people also spoke about the dangers posed to vulnerable asylum seekers by being forced to share rooms with convicted criminals who are due to be deported.

There are a huge number of things that need to change about the detention system. But more broadly, while detention clearly undermines human rights, it also makes no economic sense. I’ve heard that keeping one person in detention costs the taxpayer as much as £50,000 a year. Imagine how else that could be spent. Imagine what it would be like if that kind of investment was put into ensuring everybody gets to see a good legal adviser when they first make a claim for asylum… Imagine what people’s experience of seeking protection in the UK would be like if decision making were improved… Imagine what it would be like if people seeking asylum were allowed to work to support themselves.

It was heartening to hear about the court ruling in July that deemed the Detained Fast Track procedure  unlawful. But there is much much more yet to be done.