This blog post was written by Eiri Ohtani, Coordinator of the Detention Forum for the PICUM (Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants) blog, published on 10 October 2016. 

How do you explain immigration detention to people who have never been to any detention centres?  This was the starting point of Detention Forum’s social media project, Unlocking Detention.

Our network, the Detention Forum, brings together many groups and organisations who are challenging the use of immigration detention in the UK.  To increase effectiveness of our advocacy and campaign work, we need to engage more people and invite them to take action with us.  But there is a problem: not many people know what immigration detention is or how the impact of detention is felt by communities across the UK.  Many of the UK’s detention centres are geographically remote and difficult to get to and the injustice of immigration detention often remained invisible.

In 2014, we developed Unlocking Detention to counter this invisibility, and since then, we have been running this social media project every year between October and December, ending on International Migrants Day.

How it works

Unlocking Detention is a ‘virtual tour’ of the UK’s immigration detention estate, and we use social media as the main vehicle.  In addition to regular ‘tour’ tweets broadcast from our Twitter account, @DetentionForum, Unlocking Detention has a dedicated website which publishes regular blogs. We also partner with other publishing platforms to make sure that the blogs reach a wider audience. Blogs are written by our members and friends: they are original, moving and insightful.  Twitter makes the ‘tour’ interactive, encouraging people to show their support – you can retweet, reply and take part in the conversation easily.  

This year, for the first time, we will also be using Facebook and Instagram and hope to reach even more people.

During the ‘tour’, we ‘visit’ each of the UK’s detention centres to hear different perspectives and experiences of immigration detention.  Immigration detention is an issue that desperately needs to be heard.  Crucially, Unlocking Detention acts as a platform for people who have been detained, people who are still locked up, volunteer visitors to that centre and groups and campaigners who are involved.  It also disseminates voices of families, friends, neighbours and communities who are affected by immigration detention.

Sharing unheard stories

Each week, Unlocking Detention runs a live Q&A session with someone who is currently detained in the particular detention centre and shares their experience.

Powerful blogs are also a popular feature of Unlocking Detention. William wrote a piece about his experience being detained at Campsfield Detention Centre.

Another example is a letter to the detention centre by Sharif, who was detained at Harmondsworth Detention Centre.

Unlocking Detention also is a powerful tool for mobilisation.

The immigration detention system in the UK on the brink of reform

The UK is the only country in the EU with no time limits on immigration detention (the UK did not sign the EU Return Directive) – as a result, migrants with irregular status can be detained indefinitely.  Over 30,000 people disappear into the ten detention centres, several short-term holding facilities and one centre for detaining families with children every year.  Many migrants are also detained in regular prisons under immigration powers.  All centres exercise a rigorous security check and regime: they are basically indistinguishable from regular prisons.  As of 30 June 2016, 3,418 migrants were detained in detention centres and prisons and a total of 137 people were detained longer than a year.

Immigration detention is harmful and expensive. It is deprivation of liberty of migrants for administrative convenience of the state.  It robs them of their dignity, spirit and their lives.  Many people who are detained in the UK often find themselves suddenly snatched away from their families and communities and locked away somewhere very far.  They are also regularly moved from one detention centre to another, making it very difficult to maintain contact with their lawyers and supporters.

It’s only recently that immigration detention has come under a sustained political scrutiny and has become the topic of fierce public debate in the UK.  Last year, the country’s first ever parliamentary inquiry into the use of immigration detention concluded that the UK detains far too many people for far too long.  Since then, the government has been forced to initiate its detention reform programme and some legislative changes have been introduced as a result of significant political pressure, including automatic judicial oversight of detention for some categories of migrants and a 72-hour detention time of pregnant women.  Several detention centres have been shut down over the last two years, and we hope more closures will follow.

We still have a long way to go to end this serious human rights violation altogether.  As in many other countries across the world, unfortunately detention has become an integral part of the immigration control system in the UK.  But through Unlocking Detention, we can see that there is a growing movement of people who are against immigration detention, who are saying enough is enough and who are demanding change.

The ‘tour’ runs from 10 October to 18 December 2016. Join us!

For more information about Unlocking Detention, follow us @DetentionForum, visit the website at

To join the conversation on Twitter, use the hashtag #unlocked16 or follow @DetentionForum.

If you want to run a similar project in your country, please get in touch at detentionforum(at)