This article by Shauna Leven and Sam Grant was published as part of Unlocking Detention series on Open Democracy.  

London’s synagogues have set up drop-in centres for destitute asylum seekers and are campaigning to end immigration detention. Shauna Leven and Sam Grant explore how the British Jewish community uses its particular history to motivate its work with migrants in 2014.

Photo credit – Regional Refugee Forum North East

‘You don’t have to delve back more than two generations in the Jewish community to find first-hand experience of seeking asylum due to persecution.’  This was the common answer from volunteers at the New North London Synagogue and West London Synagogue Drop-In-Centres when we asked them about the monthly drop-in centres which they have set up to assist local refugees. The centres provide resources and advice to people from over fifty countries every month.

‘No one should live like this.’  This was the answer given by a man at one such drop-in centre when asked why he was willing to give testimony to a UK parliamentary inquiry about his traumatic experiences in detention. This man, like thousands of others, was locked up in the UK, simply for being a migrant, as part of the UK’s increasingly harsh immigration control system.

The answers to the two questions are innately connected. Personal and particular experiences inform universal outlooks. The individuals willing to give testimony did so because they did not want anybody else to go through what they had. The responses of the volunteers at these two synagogue drop-in centres were also rooted in personal family stories of fleeing countries and arriving in a strange place.

Although the media tends to be dominated by polling about the UK’s increasingly harsh attitudes towards refugees and migrants, an important but overlooked dimension is to examine the motives of those who have a sympathetic response. We need to ask ourselves, how can we encourage others to look to their own experience for motivation to support the rights of others?

Defending the dignity of asylum

The Jewish community uses its particular history to motivate its work on asylum and detention issues. This is why René Cassin, the UK Jewish human rights organisation, is committed to working with the Detention Forum and other NGOs featured in this series to bring an end to indefinite detention.

‘Indefinite detention’ according to the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT), should be used ‘only as a last resort’. Yet, the UK is the only country in Europe where the policy of indefinite detention is common place. As documented by H in an article last week, this means that any individual arriving in the UK can end up staying in prison-like detention facilities with no certainty as to when they might be released even though they have broken no laws. There is an important difference between administrative and immigration detention and criminal detention. Asylum seekers and immigrants are detained under immigration rules, rather than criminal law.

The power of testimony

For the past few months members of the René Cassin team have collected testimonies from people who have been through the UK detention system to be submitted as evidence for the UK’s first parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention. The stories they told were hard to hear and certainly harder to tell. All the testimonies contain unique suffering and harm but the unifying element of the experience was the dehumanising nature of the whole process, or as one man we interviewed described: ‘I was just carried like an object in the back of a van, from one place to another because l am a detainee and have no right or reason to know where l am taken.’

The West London Synagogue Drop-In-Centre and the New North London Synagogue Drop-In-Centre for Destitute Asylum Seekers are tangible illustrations of the British Jewish community’s commitment to turn a particular Jewish experience into a universal outlook of ensuring equal opportunities, freedoms and rights for everyone. Both Drop-In-Centres help support people who have been through the detention system, those living in fear of the detention system and those who are still dealing and being affected by the numerable negative economic and psychological effects – the ‘crisis of harm’as Jerome Phelps has called it – caused by our current detention system.

Every month these venues provide hot meals, vouchers for groceries, clothes, legal signposting, counselling, medical treatment, clothes and, perhaps most importantly, a safe place for people who are often shunned by the wider community. The atmosphere of the centres stand in stark contrast to the previous experiences of those who were in detention where the conditions were so bad one man stated that ‘It is so terrible that I would not wish even my enemy to be detained.’

The Drop-In-Centres are completely manned by volunteers, the majority hailing from the Jewish community. The people who attend these drop-in centres have often fled life-threatening circumstances, experienced rape and/or torture and have chosen destitution over deportation because they fear for their lives if they are returned home.

Our visits to the drop-in centres and the conversations we had with people who made use of them demonstrated the amazing and invaluable work done by both of these institutions. However, despite the incredibly important service that these centres and others just like them provide every month, it is important that we simultaneously attempt to tackle the root causes that create dependency upon them. History teaches us that the end goal is not charity, but common justice.

An unfair and unjust system

In an ideal world these centres wouldn’t need to exist. Many of the people we spoke to, even though no longer physically in detention, were shackled economically by not being legally entitled to work. These economic constraints supplement the psychological damages that were caused or exacerbated by their treatment whilst in detention. As one woman who testified revealed ‘I still have mental health problems and suicidal thoughts and I’m still not free because I still have to report every week and I don’t have the right to work or study here.’ The Drop-In-Centres provide a lifeline for many, but the necessity of this lifeline is created by the restrictive and punitive structures of the immigration detention system in Britain.

These centres provide crucial help to individuals affected by an unfair and unjust system. It is an inefficient system in which the dramatic increase in the numbers of migrants detained has led to no increase in the numbers of removals from the UK. It is a system in which 76 million pounds of UK taxpayers money is spent on detaining people who are ultimately released. It is a system in which children are damaged, women are sexually abused and the mentally ill are disregarded. Ultimately, it is a system in which, as of May 2014, 26 people had lost their lives. What does it say about us if we stand by and watch as others are dehumanised?

The power of empathy

There are alternatives to this system, alternatives that save money and save lives. The UK is the only country in Europe that enforces a policy of indefinite administrative detention. States that have tried working with migrants in the community have found that most comply voluntarily with immigration requirements and one only has to look at the examples of Australia or Sweden to see the benefits of this system over ours. These countries have introduced systems that achieve their desired goals, avoid substantial financial layouts and respect the rights of individuals to a far greater extent than indefinite detention.

It is currently unknown what the parliamentary inquiry will conclude, although any decision that takes into account human rights obligations must call for the end of indefinite detention. We would like to see the introduction in Britain of the best recent practice in Europe, following guidance from the Joint Committee on Human Rights of a limitation to detention of 28 days.

The Jewish community’s response to the effects of detention is laudable, as is the personal reaction of those who having gone through detention are committed to bringing about its end. The end goal is to ensure that no-one should have to go through this particular experience. We all have experiences that we can mobilise to place ourselves in the shoes of others, whether personal or second hand. Empathy may just be a radical tool in the struggle to secure justice for migrants and refugees in Britain.