This piece was originally written by Kasonga, a member of the Freed Voices group, for our new report, ‘Without Detention: Opportunities for Alternatives’ and latterly published as part of Unlocking Detention.
I was detained in prison under immigration powers, and then in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook IRCs, for over two years altogether. The ‘IRC’ stands for ‘Immigration Removal Centre’. Removal is the key word here. From the very first day I was detained pending deportation I knew I could not be returned because of Home Office Country Guidance. I asked my solicitor, the courts, and the Home Office the same question: “why are you locking me up when you yourself acknowledge you cannot deport me?” The answer was always the same: “you cannot be released because of the risk that you re-offend.”
Immigration is immigration. Asylum is asylum. A criminal court is a criminal court. They are three separate things. In this country, however, the Government is very happy to confuse them all. Once you’ve served your sentence, you’ve paid your debt to society, you should be freed. Instead, migrants with convictions to their name serve double sentences. Although, this is detention and this is the UK. And that means no time-limit and actually, more of a life-sentence.
The sense of injustice swells inside of me when I think about it. I felt like the specifics of my case were completely ignored – my long-term detention came down to the fact I was a foreigner, little else. My experience inside broke the trust I had in the Government, and the country I have lived in for the last twenty years.
The first time I heard about alternatives to detention was in a Freed Voices session after I’d been released. I was shocked. I could not believe it. ‘You are telling me there is another way to control immigration that is cheaper, more humane, and more efficient for the government, and they aren’t using it?’ I was very angry, and confused. Detention clearly doesn’t work and the way-out is sitting in a drawer at No.10! Alternatives can be a win-win, for everybody – for the government, for the taxpayer, for the individuals, families, communities otherwise broken by detention.
So what is stopping them?
In 1994, there were 300 or so people in detention. Last year, nearly 33,000 people were detained. This feels like the biggest obstacle going forward in the push for alternatives. The routine must become the rare. In 1994, it was exceptional to put someone in detention. In 2016, it exceptional as a migrant in this country to not experience detention, in one way or another, directly or indirectly.
But alternatives are a way for the Government to meet their immigration controls without criminalising migrants or depriving them of their liberty. They are cost effective and efficient. They offer the Home Office a way to actually practice the policy they preach: to use detention as a last resort, not as a first, because that’s ‘what they’ve always done’. Alternatives are a way of addressing the inhumanity of the UK’s current approach.
The Government need to ask themselves whether they are more interested in doing a good job or winning votes. Civil society need to push alternatives and hold the government accountable for not introducing them when they said they are committed to reform. Just as importantly, people with experience of detention need to speak out about the reality of detention and shape what alternatives should look like in light of those experiences. We understand the real problems at the root of the detention system in a way others cannot; we must be part of the solution.