As we near the end of Unlocking Detention, Charlotte (@CCionnfhaolaidh) one of the Detention Forum volunteers who was responsible for running the ‘tour’ of Harmondsworth and Colnbrook detention centres, explains what she has learned from her #Unlocked19 experience.

Every year, Unlocking Detention takes a different format of delivery. For this year’s ‘tour’, rather than all members of the team taking it turns to tweet throughout the whole tour tweeting about every centre, one or two members would create and prepare in advance material for each week of the ‘tour’. Everyone was given two months to prepare for it. This approach would allow us to take a more in-depth look at each centre.

Having joined Detention Forum as a social media volunteer just before the start of #Unlocked18 last year, I was unaware of how much time and organisation is involved in getting ready for Unlocking Detention. Preparations were already under way by June with team members regularly liaising via Zoom/Skype. Now that the Unlocked tour is in its sixth year we are fortunate to have a ‘back catalogue’ of material from previous years; compiled lists of relevant reports and coverage of each centre already exist in our archive. However researching the centres, deciding upon information to share and creating tweets and accompanying images still took time and thought.

What is the purpose of Unlocking Detention?

As I researched and prepared material, a series of doubts and questions had hovered in my mind. Until another volunteer, writing his own blog about being held in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook (the centres ‘visited’ in my week) asked the rest of the team to send in questions about his experience in those detention centres that we want him to answer, these thoughts existed as separate strands.  But, in considering what I should ask him to answer, they came together as the following questions:

‘What are the benefits and risks of approaching immigration detention in the UK through looking at its physical infrastructure and specifically through focusing on particular centres and their conditions?’


‘What is the purpose of Unlocking Detention? What guides my selection of material/information? What are its limits in terms of communicating why immigration detention in the UK must, at the very least, undergo radical reform while looking at each centre?’

One prompt was this blog from Unlocked17, questioning the motives and legitimacy of looking inside detention centres and exploring how experts by experience perceived the centres they had been held in. The blog shares maps that experts-by-experience created for each centre, accompanied by their memory and emotional association with different sections of the centre. This made me interrogate the choices I made in selecting material to tweet. What could and should I convey about detention? It seemed important to attempt to communicate how people who were detained in the centres experienced them but at the same time it was clear that taking a closer look through reports and available data in the public domain is entirely different to the actual experience of detention.

From the perspective of someone who has not experienced the UK’s immigration detention system but trying their best to understand it by reading people’s direct experience of detention, what would seem to be the most unjust and harmful aspects of detention is not the centres themselves but its indefinite nature and the psychological damage of uncertainty and fear, alongside the sense of injustice. These feelings are certainly compounded the physical environment of detention, but do not seem to be just about the physical infrastructure. A lens which exclusively focuses on the infrastructure of immigration detention and conditions within particular centres cannot precisely capture this, although they provide the back drop against which these are experienced.

Beyond physical detention infrastructure

When reading through accounts of Harmondsworth and Colnbrook from both experts by experience and inspectors from either Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) or Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons (HMIP), certain details grab you. It is clear that, even by the standards of the detention estate, their environments are particularly forbidding and the conditions especially poor in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook. ‘Endemic’ bed bugs leading to ‘intolerable conditions’ in Harmondsworth and mice infestations, poor ventilation and ‘inadequately screen, filthy cell toilets in the ‘prison like’ environment of Colnbrook.

If, as a communicator running Unlocking Detention our intention is to generate shock, interest and engagement of likes and retweets, it is tempting to concentrate on the most sensational aspects. However, in terms of building and cementing understanding of the reasons we are challenging immigration detention, there is a risk that highlighting conditions only distracts from the core human rights based arguments and can lead to campaigns calls for improvements in detention conditions rather than fundamental changes.

Governments have always shown more willingness to improve conditions in detention than on altering the terms on which people are detained and we must stay focused on the latter. For example, the ‘dignity in detention’ drive announced by the previous Home Secretary  in response to the progress report on the Shaw Review which itself was limited to the welfare of vulnerable people.

A virtual tour

So what are the benefits of doing the Unlocking Detention tour and ‘visiting’ various centres? Thanks to initiatives like Unlocking Detention and the wider work of anti-detention campaigners, awareness of and opposition to immigration has grown. But there are still too many people unaware of immigration detention, including migrant communities themselves. Awareness raising therefore needs to be sustained and new audiences still need to be reached. In order to achieve the changes we want to see, more people need to understand immigration detention, it must be kept on the agenda and political pressure for change maintained.

A virtual ‘tour’ of the UK’s detention centres over several weeks helps to do this in various ways. Detention centres are located away from the public gaze and awareness of the detention estate as a whole remains patchy. Some centres have higher profiles than others, eclipsing lesser known centres and the use of prisons to detain people under immigration powers is often forgotten. As a relatively short burst of activity with a clear end point, Unlocking Detention allows an intensity of focus and opportunity for engagement which could not be constantly sustained all year round. Although there is year round collaboration between many of the organisations and groups involved in campaigning against detention, this can be behind the scenes.

Unlocking Detention can bring us together in an online capacity in a visible way. Contributions from visitors groups attached to particular centres can give a feel for the particular places and some sense of what it is like to visit or be held there. For many people held in detention, the journey to the centre is disorientating – particularly if they arrived during the night. Therefore even for them, the outside appearance of the centre and its location in relation to other places may be unknown. Importantly, it also provides a way for people who have been in detention or who are at risk of detention to contribute when other forms of involvement in campaigns around immigration detention may be risky, impractical or inaccessible.

Criminalising migration

Whilst working on Unlocking Detention I realised that paying attention to the detention estate and the physical infrastructure of detention centres lets us think about what they actually symbolise. With their high levels of security, austere cells and razor wire fences, the internal and external architecture of detention centres makes them frequently indistinguishable from prisons. This design communicates that people held in detention are people who need to be confined, potentially dangerous individuals from whom the rest of us require protection. It simultaneously reinforces the notion that certain categories of migrant or people who have been identified as migrants pose a threat and governments can use detention as a public facing messaging to say they are protecting ‘us’ from ‘them’. Similarly this literally hostile environment can affect, and arguably intends to affect, how people held in detention see themselves. Whilst there are various reasons for the squalid conditions and poor repairs found in some detention centres, the failure to address this conveys the message that people held in detention are not worthy of respect or deserving of a decent environment. Detention centres are, quite literally, concrete examples of the criminalisation of migration.

Our fundamental argument is not that detention centres are horrible places. Of course they are. Our argument is that it is unacceptable to lock people up indefinitely as an administrative measure, on the basis of an administrative decision and by doing so intentionally frustrating their access to justice and frequently separating them from their family and friends.

Asking myself these questions has prompted me to think in different directions and challenge my own arguments. Focusing on the physical infrastructure of detention in terms of the centres and the conditions cannot be a standalone exercise, and Unlocking Detention does go beyond that and poses questions that may offer insights into what we need to do to effectively to challenge detention.

Not an acceptable way to treat another human being

Whilst I campaign against immigration detention because I believe it to be wrong in principle, that principle in and of itself was not the reason why I decided to write this blog. I wanted to write about the journey which has led me to be in the position of writing this blog. My sustained awareness of immigration detention was initiated by reading an account of someone’s treatment whilst being taken to, and in detention. The account horrified me; it was not an acceptable way to treat another human being. I could not stay silent and started writing to my MP and via him, to the Home Office.

I read more about detention and encountered Unlocking Detention on Twitter, finding the format really engaging. I could not say that working on Unlocking Detention and being a social media volunteer for Detention Forum is a great experience, simply because it shouldn’t be something that we need to do! I do however appreciate the insights I have gained, the privilege of being entrusted with sharing accounts from experts by experience, the ways in which I have been challenged to think more deeply and carefully and the involvement with people who are dedicated to achieving a fair and humane immigration system. I didn’t know this when I started writing this blog, but now I know that that is the purpose of Unlocking Detention for me.