Image by@Carcazan

After weeks of our virtual ‘tour’ of detention centres which began in October, Unlocking Detention ends today, on International Migrants Day. People who are in immigration detention generally do not feature on International Migrants Day – the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ policy of locking people up is a powerful tool for erasure. And that is precisely the reason why we insist on ending our ‘tour’ on this particular day, in order to reassert their presence, humanity, rights and dignity in the world.   

While 2018 was characterized by the news of breathtakingly cruel damage to human lives caused by the ‘Hostile Environment’ and the scandal of gross mistreatment of the Windrush generation caught by it, when we look at the Unlocking Detention timeline, we see that 2018 is also crowded with small yet critical gains in our collective fight against immigration detention.

This year, The Detention Forum published a briefing paper on why we need a 28 day time limit. Another paper we released dealt with frequently asked questions on alternatives to detention, a theme that is gathering an unprecedented level of attention globally. These briefing papers should be useful resources not just for our colleagues but also for the Home Secretary, who, in July 2018, announced a series of ‘innovative reforms’ to the detention system in response to the second Shaw Review. The reform programme includes a community-based alternatives to detention pilot and an internal review of time limits: their exact details are still unknown, but we hope they will result in positive impact for people affected by immigration detention and lead to a fair and humane system for all.

At the same time, the ongoing inquiries into immigration detention by the Home Affairs Select Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights intensify public scrutiny over the Home Office’s detention policy and practice. At the latter’s evidence session recently, the Immigration Minister was pressed, once again, to seriously consider introducing a time limit. This was prompted by the Ten Minute Rule Bill led by Tulip Siddiq MP calling for a 28 day time limit on detention, which had astonishingly strong and wide cross-party support. It is a sign that local mobilization against immigration detention, led by campaigns such as These Walls Must Fall, Refugee Tales and many others, have opened many politicians’ eyes to the realities of immigration detention. Experts-by-experience, such as Freed Voices, of course, continue to play the most important, central role in this area, leading the way for the rest of us. We were honoured that they made a huge contribution to this year’s Unlocking Detention yet again in so many blogs. Many of their messages reiterated the urgency for change, their determination to continue speaking out and their growing hope that change will come. 

If there is going to be an Unlocking Detention tour next year, happily, there will be one less centre to visit. We welcomed the news that Campsfield detention centre will be closed by May 2019 – many of us still have a vivid memory of galvanizing our efforts opposing its expansion plan a few years ago. Other happy moments came from the celebration of Detention Forum Champions. Paul Blomfield MP, Stuart McDonald MP, Dame Caroline Spelman MP and Baroness Hamwee received the awards, which recognize their tireless work, stretching over years, standing up for the rights and dignity of people in immigration detention.

But the harsh reality is that the brutal regime of mass, routine and indefinite immigration detention continues and whatever the change process we may be witnessing, its pace is far too slow. A 51-year old Algerian man tragically lost his life in Harmondsworth detention centre on 2 December. And thousands of people spend International Migrants Day today locked up in immigration detention, not knowing when they will be released. Worldwide, there are thousands and thousands more who are also behind barbed wires, separated from their loved ones, experiencing immense stress, anxiety and harm – because they do not have the right passport. So our work continues.

Unlocking Detention is always a collective endeavour. We would like to thank everyone who contributed their blogs, people in detention who agreed to take part in our live Q&A sessions and all of you who followed this year’s ‘tour’, and shared and retweeted #Unlocked18 material. The ‘tour’ was only possible because of a team of very dedicated Detention Forum volunteers, who tweeted, who created gifs, who made visual material, who did illustrations for blogs, who wrote weekly summaries and who promoted Unlocking Detention in all sorts of ways. 

One of the volunteers this year was Carcazan. She sent us this to share:

Illustrating the many blogs, articles and aspects of #Unlocked18 has been a soul-searching and beautiful experience – initially one wonders how much difference can a drawing make, and then one sees the artwork of those who have been detained, or people formerly detained who want images to illustrate their stories, and it’s very humbling. It has been a rare privilege to work with such a dedicated, talented team, and to contribute in any way to this vivid campaign, both with the exciting team of volunteers and in terms of my own creative development. Like any rainbow, we each have a different colour which comprises the whole; I’m really excited to already see an ask of Detention Forum #TIme4aTimeLimit actually being proposed as a 10 Minute Bill to end indefinite detention. I’m definitely looking forward to continuing to support Detention Forum!

This year’s Unlocking Detention was coordinated by my colleague, Susannah Willcox, who had this to say:

After working with people held in immigration detention centres and prisons across the UK for years, I thought I was beyond shock. However, coordinating Unlocking Detention this year has opened my eyes – even further – to just how hard it is for the voices of people in detention to reach beyond those bricks and barbed wire. Their physical marginalisation is compounded by all the other ways in which detention stifles people’s agency and voice – lack of phone signal or credit (and, in prisons, lack of mobile phones altogether); lack of interpreters; lack of dedicated and appropriate mental health support; lack of psychological space to see beyond the next decision letter or bail hearing; lack of trust; lack of ears to listen. While Unlocking Detention can’t directly make up for many of these failings, at least it offers us the chance to stop, listen, reflect – and act.

And A. Panquang, one of Freed Voices members with direct experience of immigration detention, told us:

We don’t want what we went through to be a story to tell friends, family and community just for the sake of telling a story. We want our experiences to help people make changes, to better the immigration process and system for people who are experiencing it now and in the future.

If Unlocking Detention has inspired you to act to challenge this system, that will be a fitting end to this ‘tour’ and a beginning of new chapter in our collective fight against immigration detention. 

Eiri Ohtani @EiriOhtani

Project Director, The Detention Forum