Yesterday was a busy day for Detention Action.
Whilst one third of our team diligently manned the phones in the office, another set forth to High Court to negotiate the terms of Mr Justice Ouseley’s order following his ruling last week that the current operation of the Detained Fast Track was, as we had argued, unlawful.
Just down the road from the Royal Courts of Justice, I joined the final wing at the first evidence session of the Parliamentary Inquiry of Detention, held at Portcullis House. In an exhilarating session, one moment in particular stood out.
I was sat next to Kuka, a member of our Advisory Panel and a campaigner against detention. Together, with the rest of the room, we listened as Sarah Teather MP called a detainee being held in Colnbrook. As the man introduced himself over speaker phone and Ms Teather welcomed him to the hearing, Kuka grabbed my arm: “Oh God, it’s C.,” he whispered. “He can’t still be in there? He was in detention with me and that was three years ago.” We sat in silence as C. explained his story – how he had been trafficked as a child, how he had been tortured, how he had arrived in the UK, how he had struggled to survive, served time in prison for false documents and yes, that he had been in detention for three years now. Stunned gasps rippled across the room. C. went on to tell the cross-party panel of MPs he had been diagnosed with PTSD, that he was on a voluminous concoction of medications, that doctors had informed the Home Office he should not be kept in detention…His voice trailed off.
Kuka turned to me and just said simply: “C. is a good man. He is not guilty.”
It was a heavy, unsettling reflection which at once alluded to the criminalisation of immigration detention and the UK’s singular policy of indefinite detention. But it also hinted at the internalisation of the Home Office’s projection of migrants as criminals who need to ‘prove their innocence’ in order to be released. All would be prominent themes throughout the hearing.
The session had begun with oral evidence from Jerome, our Director, and Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty. Shami noted how terror suspects have automatic judicial scrutiny and can only be detained without charge for 14 days, in comparison to the indefinite detention of migrants who have restricted access to legal assistance. “Call them what you like”, she went on, “but we are talking about prisons.” Jerome explained the wanton human, societal and financial cost of ‘warehousing innocent people with no time limit’ and outlined other more ethical, viable, non-coercive options open to the Government. These speakers were followed much later by psychiatrists from the Helen Bamber Foundation, who confirmed that locking up survivors in prison-like conditions, in many cases not physically dissimilar to the kinds of spaces these individuals were previously held and tortured, inevitably led to a deterioration in mental health. As Dr Robjant stressed, “No matter how ‘nice’ you make detention, it is still captivity. And that will always be traumatic.”
Speaking in-between these policy and clinical experts, were experts-by-experience: individuals who had spent significant (and unnecessary) time in detention centres across the UK, who had suffered tremendously as a result, but who were determined to stand up and speak out against it. They included Ahmed, also sharing his story from Colnbrook, who said his detention (ninety-nine days and counting) had been a ‘catastrophe’ and that he had ‘never been in prison before’. (Cue an uncomfortable moment when one of the MPs was about to correct him but then thought better of it.) Ahmed was followed by Souleymane of Detention Action’s Advisory Panel, who received a hearty round of applause when he said in response to a question from Lord Lloyd of Berwick that the only real difference between prison and detention was that ‘in prison you count your days down but in detention you count your days up.” He pointed at the panel: “I counted my days up for three and a half years.” More stunned silence.
But it was the testimony of Maimuna which really brought home the terrifying depths to which the Home Office’s criminalisation of detention can, and does, psychologically impact those individuals forced into it. Speaking candidly, and with great courage, Maimuna re-traced her arrival at Yarls Wood. She recounted how she was handcuffed and bundled into a van with blackened windows. As she sped towards the IRC, guilty till proven innocent, she said that for one terrible second she thought to herself “maybe I have done something wrong…? Maybe I do deserve this..? No, I do not.”
For me, this singular moment of self-doubt is one of the most pertinent indications of the devastating effect detention can have. That this woman – a survivor of FGM, who fled to this country to save her life, and has committed no crime – should contemplate, even for a second, that her incarceration might be justified is both appalling and terrifying.
It is terrifying because it is demonstrative of how far we have come in normalising the incarceration of migrants in the UK.
The importance of yesterday – of Parliamentarians listening hard to the experiences of people like Maimuna, Souleymane, Ahmed and many others – is to start to reverse that process.
You can find out more about how to submit evidence to the inquiry, before 1st October, here.
The Detention Forum will be producing information packs for community organisations and groups who might need assistance in taking part in the inquiry and who are interested in hosting local ‘hearings’ to gather evidence for submission. Detention Action will share these resources as they become available.