This blog post was written for Unlocking Detention by Lisa Matthews, coordinator of Right to Remain. Right to Remain are a coordinating group of the Detention Forum, leading on communications and campaigns, and run Unlocking Detention on behalf of the Detention Forum.
As we draw into the final weeks of this year’s Unlocking Detention project, I’ve been thinking about two distinct themes that have come up during our virtual tour of the UK’s immigration detention estate.
On the one hand, I’ve noticed that despite having campaigned on this issue for years, I’ve heard and learnt so many new things about the experience of detention, most notably from people who have been detained or those vital visitors to people in detention. When you speak to someone who has had direct experience of detention, or read their testimony, you are hit by astonishing turns of phrase that stay with you for a long time. For example, during the live Q and As that Ben from Detention Action has done a brilliant job on throughout the tour, speaking to people detained right now in the detention centre we’re shining a spotlight on that week. There was this, the way that Yaw who is being held in Harmondsworth, describes the time lost to detention:
— TheDetentionForum (@DetentionForum) October 30, 2015
Or the way that Joe, who was detained in Dover detention centre for three years, described his location:
You felt you were on the edge of a nation, sitting on the border. Sometimes you would get French signal on your phone or French stations on the radio.
And on the other hand, the same persistent problem keeps knocking on the door. The damage done by indefinite detention; the specific harm of not knowing how long the unjust and inhumane policy of immigration detention will be inflicted on you. The UK is the only country in the EU with no time-limit on detention. Despite the Immigration Minister’s protestations which are based on him not understanding (or choosing not to understand) the word ‘indefinite’, indefinite detention is a daily reality for the 30,000 people detained each year and the tens of thousands more threatened with this injustice.
The corrosive effect of indefinite detention on people’s minds, bodies and spirit comes across so clearly in the pieces we’ve published by visitors to detention.
A long-term visitor to Campsfield House detention centre near Oxford noted:
immigration detention itself, with its extraordinarily uncertain length and outcome, is highly damaging to people’s mental health and is a source of vulnerability in itself. People who are detained with existing issues may well have these worsened by being detained.
Another visitor to Campsfield described the distressing deterioration of Adam over the months he was detained there, and of the suicide attempt of Mahmoud, a torture survivor who should never have been detained in the first place.
The indefinite nature of detention has been a cause for concern to visitors to The Verne, a relatively new detention centre (in an old building). These visitors are largely new to the issue of detention, and so their first impressions are particularly striking:
One of them asked me about his rights and I had to explain to him that under our law he could be detained indefinitely. I think the “indefinitely” is the hardest part for them, as there appears to be no end in sight to the uncertainty.
Indefinite detention: toxic effects
You do not have to dig deep to discover the harm that indefinite detention does to people. This harm stays with people, and affects people’s relationships, families, and the community more widely. The damage of indefinite detention does not end when someone is released (and most people are released into the community and are not removed from the UK, begging the question of the point of detention in the first place). People who have experienced the lack of a time-limit are quick to remark on its impact on others.
Last week, Unlocking Detention ‘visited’ Yarl’s Wood, and heard from Gloria who is currently detained there. When asked about the impact of there being no time-limit on detention, she said:
Gloria: Yarl's Wood is charged up with people who are lost.They have the desperate look.They don't know what's next. Bewildered. #Unlocked15
— TheDetentionForum (@DetentionForum) November 20, 2015
In advance of parliament’s debate on immigration detention in September, we asked people to share what they would say if they could speak in the debate.
“It’s time for a time-limit” was an oft-repeated demand. Michael was detained for several years, and describes how detention didn’t just affect him:
This gentleman from Sudan was himself detained for nine months, and comments on the how people detained without a time-limit are “suffering so much”:
28 day time-limit
The parliamentary debate in September was in response to the first-ever cross-party parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention. The inquiry panel produced an excellent report with strong recommendations, central to which was the introduction of a 28 day time-limit. It was encouraging to hear so many MPs back this time-limit in the detention debate, and indeed to hear so many recognise that this is an essential first step to ending detention altogether.
2015 Immigration Bill
The 2015 Immigration Bill is currently making its way through parliament. It is at the stage where amendments can be proposed, debated and voted on by MPs, and this is a clear opportunity for the UK to make great progress for human rights and liberty by introducing a 28 day time-limit on immigration detention.
On Tuesday 1 December, MPs will debate some of the proposed amendments. This is your chance to make change happen! Ask your MP to support Amendment 32, which calls for a 28 day time-limit on immigration detention.
It is time to listen to the experts – those who have experienced this injustice first-hand, those who have supported and cared for those detained and who have born witness to this cruel and harmful policy. These people are the experts, but this is not a complicated issue. It’s a simple message, simply put by someone who experienced years of this unfairness:
“In prison, you count the days down until you are released. In immigration detention, you count the days up. It’s time for a time-limit”.