This piece was written by members of the Freed Voices group and is based on shared experiences of immigration detention in the UK rather than any one person’s story. Freed Voices speak out about the realities of detention because we want to see the walls of detention fall.
1. The human cost is immeasurable
Detention is designed to dehumanize. Centres are built to mentally and physically suffocate. On one hand, you live in a constant state of anxiety that you could be bundled onto a plane at any moment. On the other, no-one knows how long they will be there for. Some remain for two, three years and counting. After a while your brain begins to melt. You start to doubt yourself. You want to numb the pain. That’s why the rate of self-harm in immigration detention is so high. More than 20,000 people in detention have been put on suicide watch since 2007. There’s now more than one suicide attempt a day in detention. Suicide, self-harm, depression are all normalised – life in detention feels like a permanent state of emergency.
2. The financial cost is unjustifiable
It costs around £32,000 to detain someone for a year. Just recently, it was reported the Home Office had paid out £21 million in compensation for unlawful detention. The cost of the whole detention estate over the last four years was about half a billion pounds. All this while the Government is cutting vital services under austerity. This is money that could have been spent on the NHS; on homeless shelters; on resources for countries the British colonised and stole from; on re-building the legal aid system; on improving a broken education system. And who do you think picks up the tab for all this? The taxpayer. The whole of British society is complicit in this moral disgrace and most of them don’t even know it.
3. Detention doesn’t work, whatever your politics
The Government has three key arguments for detention: it is a deterrent against people coming in to the UK in the first place; it is necessary to facilitate people’s removals, to get them on planes and it is used to make sure people don’t abscond or re-offend.
Firstly, as the ‘Windrush scandal’ highlighted, there are lots of people in detention who have lived in the UK for a long, long time. Most detainees had never heard of detention until they were actually detained. Others came to the UK as asylum seekers, trying to escape some kind of torture or persecution. Detention is not going to stop them trying to reach safety.
Secondly, the Home Office may have changed the name of detention centres to Immigration Removal Centres a few years ago – with a specific focus on the ‘Removal’ part – but the majority of people in detention are not removed at all. The last Immigration Statistics show that only 45% of everyone detained in 2017 were removed or deported. The rest were released back into the community. We often see guys in the street that we recognise from detention. ‘What are you doing here?’ is the first question. ‘Why the **** were we even detained?’ is the second one. The Amber Rudd leak this week showed that many are detained even though they can’t be removed. Detention doesn’t even do what it says on the tin.
Thirdly, detention is all about the destruction of trust. It is difficult to believe in the same system that just locked you up for its own administrative convenience, without trial, without time-limit. When you are released from detention they usually make you sign at a Reporting Centre once a week or so. The fear of being re-detained makes you think twice about going just in case they handcuff you again. The real message detention sends out is: go underground, you can’t trust these people, they are never going to treat your case fairly, don’t engage with the system. And isn’t stopping absconding one of the justifications for detention in the first place?
4. The lack of accountability encourages abuse
The lack of transparency around detention – no access for independent monitors and journalists, forbidden use of cameras, limited access to external communications platforms – should all be obvious indicators the Home Office want to keep detention centres ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for a reason. This invisibility encourages a culture of abuse inside detention because staff know they have free pass to do what they want. The independent bodies that do have access to detention – like the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) – have been calling for reform for decades but don’t actually have any legal authority to challenge these abuses. One of our members remembers watching the BBC Panorama documentary on abuse in Brook House last year and seeing a guy who used to work at Colnbrook when he was detained there. This guard was well known for being physically and emotionally abusive. Everyone thought he must have been sacked but it seems he was just moved on to another centre. What message does this sends? Over thirty people have died in detention and not even one person has gone to jail.
5. Detention feeds the Government’s narrative on migrants, and vice versa
Migrants have become leverage in the Government’s bid for votes. We are regularly cast as ‘illegals’, ‘criminals’ and ‘bogus’ depending on what suits those in power. The message is clear: we’re not worthy of the same kind of access to rights, liberties and protection given to British citizens (even though, as the ‘Windrush scandal’ has shown, many of us have the right to remain in the UK). These xenophobic narratives, which have long become institutionalised, make it easier to justify the decision to detain people in the first place, and to continue holding people like dangerous animals once they’re locked up. In this sense, the act of detention is criminalising in of itself. People hear that you were in detention and they immediately think ‘there’s no smoke without fire – you must have done something wrong’. This compounds the narrative of criminality, which means more people can be justifiably detained, and round we go. It’s like a snake feeding off its own tail.