This blog comes from Lauren Cape-Davenhill, Organiser with These Walls Must FallAn earlier version of this piece was published in The Meteor.

As an organiser in the northwest of England with These Walls Must Fall, a grassroots campaign to challenge immigration detention, I was glad to see local media coverage of the re-opening of a facility by Manchester Airport called the Manchester Residential Short Term Holding Facility (formerly Pennine House) in June this year.  The facility is operated by troubled outsourcing company Mitie, under a £25 million, ten year contract. It is important that the local community knows that people are being held under immigration powers within our city.

I recently visited the newly re-opened Manchester ‘short term holding facility’ to see someone who had been detained there after reporting with the Home Office. Leaving the hustle and bustle of Manchester Airport train station, full of holiday makers excited about their upcoming trips, you go out past car parks and small airport roads until you’re in the airport freight terminal. This part of the airport is quiet – there are no people or houses around, just low buildings full of cargo. And yet tucked away amongst the freight – discrete and difficult to find – is a building where people are held against their will for immigration purposes. The person I visited, an asylum seeker, was frightened, isolated, and had no idea what was going to happen next. We spoke for around 20 minutes, and then they returned to their wing with an officer – doors locked behind them. I signed out, and was free to leave. Going back through the airport, the contrast between the comings-and-going of people heading off on holiday and the site of administrative incarceration just down the road could not have been more stark.

In the publicity around the holding facility near Manchester Airport those detained under immigration powers at the centre have been described as “failed asylum seekers, visa over-stayers, sham husbands and brides, and people caught clinging to lorries”. But anyone without a British passport, or extensive documentation to prove they are UK citizens, are potentially liable to be detained.

As we have heard so clearly through the Windrush scandal, the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’ has led to the detention of many long-term British residents. There has also been a sixfold increase in the detention of European nationals since 2010 when the Conservatives gained power. These are not just ‘foreign offenders’, but many people from the European Economic Area who are targeted and detained for being homeless, a Home Office policy only ruled unlawful by the High Court last year.  Asylum seekers, too, may find themselves detained at any stage of the asylum process – and for those fleeing persecution, being locked up in prison-like facilities often triggers and exacerbates mental health issues such as PTSD. Staff are poorly equipped and under resourced to deal with these health issues, resulting in obscenely high suicide rates amongst detainees.

At Immigration Removal Centres, people can be held without time limit, and this may be for days, weeks, months or even years. A report by the HM Inspectorate of Prisons on Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre, near Heathrow Airport, found that from the 552 detained during the time of the report, 23 had been held for more than a year and one man had been held for four years.  The UK is the only country in Europe with no time limit on immigration detention. People are often transferred from short-term holding facilities such as the Manchester Airport centre to long-term centres such as Yarl’s Wood, where they may be held indefinitely.

The government-commissioned Shaw Report, ‘Review into the welfare in detention of vulnerable persons’ was published in 2016, and concluded:

“There is too much detention; detention is not a particularly effective means of ensuring that those with no right to remain do in fact leave the UK; and many practices and processes associated with detention are in urgent need of reform”

The following year, 2017, was the deadliest on record in UK immigration detention, with six deaths in detention including at least three suicides. In 2017 we also saw the Panorama documentary revealing appalling abuse by officers at Brook House detention centre. Welfare provision in detention remains a shambles – and locking people up in prison-like conditions without time limit produces vulnerability. As one female asylum seeking Manchester resident with experience of detention said to me, “Everyone in detention is vulnerable.”

The Manchester Airport detention facility that opened this June comes at a time when many people in Manchester and the North West are saying, loudly and clearly, that we’ve had enough of people being taken from our communities and locked up in prison-like conditions, just because of their immigration status. Councillors, union activists, refugee and migrant groups and community organisations have been uniting to say ‘no’ to detention. Last November, Manchester City Council became the first local authority in the UK to pass a These Walls Must Fall motion condemning indefinite detention – and has swiftly been followed by Liverpool, Cambridge and Brighton and Hove councils.

Local groups coordinated protests and rallies in solidarity with the Yarl’s Wood hunger strikers in March. Earlier this month, students and academics at the University of Manchester organised an event attended by over 200 people to kickstart action to challenge detention both on and off university campuses. Politicians including Afzal Khan MP and Julie Ward MEP have stood up and said that indefinite detention must end. Whether it’s short term holding facilities or immigration removal centres, they have no place in our city or our country.

We’re encouraging people to take local action wherever they live in the UK to challenge detention. Because when local communities, trade unions, faith groups, activists and local councils stand together to say ‘no’ to detention, that adds up to some serious people power – and the politicians will have to listen. You know best what action might work in your community – but some ideas from the North West include:

– Ask your local council to pass a motion pledging to challenge immigration detention

 Contact your MP

– Get a motion passed in your trade union branch

– Organise a presentation to raise awareness of detention in your student society or faith group

– Coordinate solidarity and support for people going to report in your local area

If you want some ideas for local action, see:

Together, we can challenge the injustice and inhumanity of immigration detention. These Walls Must Fall!