Welcome back to the Unlocking Detention tour. This year’s hashtag is #unlocked15, and we look forward to making new friends and opening more people’s eyes to the reality of immigration detention in the UK.

For those who are unfamiliar to Unlocking Detention – it is a virtual tour of the UK’s immigration detention centres over Twitter. A team of the Detention Forum members, volunteers and associates act as ‘tour guides’ and take you around each detention centre for a week.

We started Unlocking Detention last year in 2014. Its popularity took us by surprise (and also the huge amount of that had to go into it…) that we never had a chance to explain how this wacky idea came up in the first place. We also never had a chance to thank the organisation whose work became the inspiration for Unlocking Detention.

Enter the Zimbabwe Association!

Many people know about the work of the Zimbabwe Association and its long history of fighting for the rights of Zimbabwean people who are seeking asylum in the UK. However, not many people know about their ‘tongue-in-cheek’ one-off magazine called ‘Serco’.

Have you ever seen it? It looks like this.

Serco Magazine

Two years ago, I was hanging around the Refugee Week event in London when I bumped into Sarah Harland, the Co-ordinator of Zimbabwe Association. Sarah gave me a copy of ‘Serco’ with her usual smile and just said ‘Read it!’.

Superficially, the magazine looks like a lifestyle magazine with features such as fashion, travel, cuisine and art – but as you turn the page, you realise that it is not what it appears to be.

One section is called ‘how to spend it’ – and instead of being about spending fortunes on luxury items, it’s about the harsh reality of how asylum seekers could spend their weekly subsistence money of £35.

There were three challenges. The first challenge is that £35 is all you get for a week, and that’s not just food but also toiletries and anything else you might need. The second challenge is that the Azure cards are only accepted in certain supermarkets and not street markets where items are cheaper. The third challenge is, at the time of the publication, you were not able to carry any amount of credit that you did not use on the card to the following week. So you had to do mental arithmetic to make sure that you use up all the money, down to the last penny.

But what really captivated me was the magazine’s ‘travel’ section.

‘Want to visit different parts of the UK? One option is to enter the detention centre system, which is easier than you think!’

With the three-tier rating system of ‘undignified’, ‘harrowing’ and ‘worse’, some of the detention centres are given ‘reviews’, presumably those who have been held there.

For example, the review of Pennine House, a short-term holding facility at Manchester Airport says:

‘The food was actually edible, often quite good, and the internet actually worked! It didn’t have a lot of limits you sometimes find – you know, where sites you need to fight your case have been blocked, that sort of thing. Some people even had single rooms, and there was a vending machine that gave out free Pringles. So unusual that we weren’t sure if it was a fault, but don’t ask questions – free crisps!’

The one for Colnbrook detention centre near Heathrow Airport says;

‘There were some educational courses on offer, including things like basic computer skills and art. You’ve got to be careful though – a few places specialise in activities that distract from fighting your case, so go easy on the finger painting! On the downside, walls in the rooms were smeared with graffiti written in blood and excrement. The priest was felt to be particularly unkind, but then his chapel was a bare room with windows painted on, so you probably would be too! This place was felt to be the worst stay by far: all centres are scary, but Colnbrook was genuinely terrifying…’

It is indeed true that many people have never been to any of the detention centres, but for some communities, immigration detention was almost a shared experience, a secret travel destination. Much information about immigration detention is also available in the UK – yet few people actually read these numerous reports about immigration detention that are published year after year.

Like my colleagues, I have always been of the opinion that if only people knew what immigration detention was like in the UK they would want to take action against it.

And after some detours, the idea of travel around detention centre estate turned into a ‘tour’ and Unlocking Detention was born.

While many people who have been supported by Zimbabwe Association are now settled in the UK, other remain caught in the asylum and immigration system. Their research ‘Legacies of Detention’ shows that experience of detention affected their community members’ attitudes towards Britain and the law.

As thousands of people continue to be detained every year – and equally thousands of people released from detention every year – we can’t help but wonder what the impact of immigration detention is on the whole of the UK where citizens and non-citizens alike live side-by-side, often connected by solidarity and support. And this year’s Unlocking Detention aims to hear more from these communities. So stay tuned!

If you would like to support the work of the Zimbabwe Association, you can donate here.