Detention on trial

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What happens when indefinite detention goes on trial in the court of public opinion?

Last week, Detention Action and Michael from Freed Voices facilitated a mock trial for Let Us Learn, the youth-led movement who campaign for access to higher education for all young people living in the UK.

In question was the following statement: “The UK Government’s policy of indefinite detention is inhumane, inefficient and expensive.” We split into prosecution and defence, with two witnesses, the new immigration minister Brandon Lewis (a.k.a. Ben) and pillar of the community (yours truly), and expert-by-experience, Michael.

“It was fun in the beginning….”

At first it felt like a game. Similar to pantomime scenes, the two sides jeered and cheered when the other put forward their arguments. The Home Office lawyers were masters of deflection and refused to be drawn on specifics. In contrast, the human rights lawyers pointed to the injustice, expense and lack of humanity inherent in the UK’s policy of indefinite detention.

Zino, a campaigner for Let us Learn explained how it felt arguing the Home Office position: “It made me question more and more how anyone could make the arguments we did and justify it. Whether it’s to themselves or someone else. It was just unbelievable. At the end of the day the one thing I kept thinking was, ‘what’s the point?’ If it doesn’t help or better anyone in anyway, especially the country as a whole, what’s the point?”

The mood changed when Michael took to the stand. He spoke of the uncertainty of indefinite detention and the mental toll it takes on everyone detained. By that point, it was clear the game was up. One of the participants, Agnes, said: “When Michael shared his experiences, it immediately changed the tone of the activity. Most people who go through that kind of ordeal aren’t willing to talk about it, so the fact that he was able to share that with us was, I think, incredibly brave. Also, it was fascinating and harrowing to hear about what he and others in detention centres had gone through.”

For Sharon, the exercise revealed the systemic problem of how migrants are constructed as ‘other’.

“It exposed how heavily invested the government is in anti-migrant rhetoric and when amplified by the right-wing media it’s clear that people really believe it. Michael had to keep explaining that crime and terrorism were separate to detention. It’s shocking that this single story has emerged and as migrants we must first accept it and then attack it.”

On a more positive note, the exercise confirmed the power of storytelling. As experts-by-experience Freed Voices and Let Us Learn speak up and speak out for themselves and for others. Michael’s direct account of detention moved everyone in the room. According to Sarah: “Migrants being held indefinitely in immigration detention centres in the UK is not an issue that is highlighted often in the news and it seems as if it is a system that is kept in the dark. With the work done by campaigners such as Freed Voices, and with more migrants who have experienced being detained in an immigration centre speaking out and sharing their story, we will hopefully see a rise in awareness of immigration detention in the UK as more light is shed upon the issue.”