#BeyondDetention: Freed Voices & UNHCR Global Detention Strategy

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“The truth is that we, the migrants, have become leverage in the bid for votes. We saw that in the last elections, at the Brexit vote, all across Europe, and now…with Trump. Detention is just the place where politicians warehouse their bargaining chips. Only we are not bargaining chips – we are people. And we need a human approach to immigration that reflects that.”

These were Kasonga’s closing words at Monday’s meeting between members of the Freed Voices group and Marie Huberlant of the UNHCR’s Global Detention Strategy. Kick-starting a wider, week-long UNHCR Geneva visit to the UK, the two parties came together to discuss the singularity of the our Government’s detention policy, the UNHCR’s ‘Beyond Detention’ report on alternatives, and UNHCR’s potential role in progressing the anti-detention movement’s efforts in this country.

First things first, Freed Voices sought to fully translate the unique impacts of indefinite detention, the outstanding feature of the UK’s detention policy. William spoke about the ‘uncertainty and fear that comes with no time-limit’ and how the experience had returned him to the same traumas that led him to seek protection in this country in the first place. Michael, detained over two and half years, pointed to the high rate of suicide attempts in detention – now up to one a day – and expressed his surprise: “I thought it would have been more, to be honest. Indefinite detention melts your brain…you start to see death as a way out. Just imagine that..? We all thought about doing it. Some of us here tried.’ Kasonga, detained over 24 months, spoke candidly about the effects indefinite detention has had on his personal life: “It ended my marriage because I could not guarantee my wife a future. It changed my relationship with my children, forever. It broke the trust I had in the immigration system and the country I have lived in for the last twenty years.”

Members were also keen to emphasise the differences in fighting your case inside detention, behind bars, and outside, in the community. “You are handcuffed inside detention when it comes to accessing your legal rights,” noted William. Reflecting on what happens when you don’t have money to pay for your own private legal representation, he sketched out a simple equation: “Poor quality solicitors + 10 minute consultation slots + restricted internet use + bad telephone network + no access to evidence = no case.” “And if you don’t speak English,” Michael added, “forget it. You’re dead.”

Kasonga led on the second section of the Freed Voices presentation: the argument for effective, working, alternatives to detention, as opposed to those ‘alternatives’ currently peddled by the Home Office (namely, reporting, electronic monitoring and bail/temporary admission). Firstly, the current mechanisms do not stop detention: “They are additions. When I was released on bail, my cell-mate called me to tell me they’d filled my bed within the hour.” Secondly, they do not offer solutions, case-resolution, dialogue or support through the process: “I have never heard from my case-worker – pre, during or post-detention – not even once.” Thirdly, these alternatives continue to alienate and traumatise migrants: “They are extensions of the suffering of detention. Every time I go to report, I head straight to my GP afterwards. Just queuing in line gives me flashbacks to my detention and I need tablets to calm me down. It is a mental torture that does not leave you.”

Ms. Huberlant flagged the official Home Office guidelines on case-management support for those going through the asylum process in order to understand the gap between Governmental words and practical reality and this, in turn, spurned a wider conversation about accountability. Freed Voices members reflected on the numerous ways that this government does not practice what it preaches  – from safeguarding against vulnerable people in detention to the very notion of using incarceration as a last resort rather than as the kneejerk ‘go-to’ it has become.

Michael concluded the session by stressing the vitality of engaging migrants in delivering the UNHCR’s Beyond Detention Global Strategy. “Effective alternatives to detention are only going to work with the building of trust. And you are not going to get the trust of migrants unless you involve them in shaping what alternatives look like. Speaking personally, I would not trust an alternatives to detention project that had not engaged with migrants first, full-stop.” Any why engage migrants? “Because we are experts-by-experience on the issue whether we like it or not. There have been many times when I’ve been in a room with decision-makers or with MPs or ‘detention policy experts’ and I am always amazed about how little they actually understand about the issue, about the reality of detention, about its impacts. It is alarming. We’ve already seen what happens when the government is left to make policy on their own…It’s like a group of old men making policies about abortion. It is a policy made in ignorance. And this means it will always be more open to the influence of institutionalised racism and politics.”

And with that, Freed Voices made their way down to Whitehall to protest Trump’s xenophobic immigration ban and his proposed State visit to the UK.