Freed Voices meet the UN High Commissioner for Refugees

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Last month, Freed Voices members William and Kasonga met with the UN High Commissioner, Filippo Grandi, and Gonzalo Vargas Llosa, UNHCR’s UK Representative. In this short interview, we ask William for his reflections.

Kasonga, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and William.

How did the meeting come about?

This was the second meeting we [Freed Voices] had with UN officials in the last month. They both happened because the UK is one of the focus countries for the UN’s Global Detention Strategy. The High Commissioner said the UN are trying to take a more active role in pushing the UK government to introduce the reforms to detention they promised to make last year. So, this meeting was a chance for him to hear from experts-by-experience, people who had gone through detention in the UK first-hand. Guys who know what it does to people. He said he had a general image of detention in the UK based on conversations he’d had with policy-makers and public officials, and that he had also seen bits about detention in the UK in the news. But he said he hadn’t spoken to guys like us, who knew the difference between Home Office policy and Home Office practice. Basically, he hadn’t heard the truth.

What did you want to leave the meeting with? (Did you get it?)

Because we have met with other UN officials before we understood the possibilities and limitations of this kind of meeting. For us, the most important thing was that the High Commissioner looked us in the eyes. We wanted to make sure he fully understood what we were saying – that indefinite detention destroys lives. We wanted to make sure he took note of the recommendations we gave – that there should be an end to detention and alternatives should be introduced. And we wanted to make sure he would carry our thoughts directly to the decision-makers in this country. We knew that he was visiting the Home Secretary straight after he met us, so we wanted to leave him with our words ringing in his ears. That was our main aim.

It was also very important for us that he left the meeting understanding why our voices need to be in the middle of any debate on detention. We migrants must be involved in shaping policy that affects us. Like my colleague Michael said in the last UN meeting, there have been many times we’ve been in the same room as MPs or decision-makers and it becomes clear they really don’t know about the nuts and bolts of detention. We are the experts on this issue, whether we like it or not. As Michael said, “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.” I like that line!

What did you talk about?

I spoke about how we [the Freed Voices group] have lost 20 years of our lives to detention and why we speak out – because we want to see the walls of detention fall.

I also spoke about the uniqueness of detention in the UK, highlighting the fact it is the only country in EU with no time-limit on detention. I asked the High Commissioner to ask the Home Secretary if she knew what the UN Human Rights Committee, the Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, the UN Committee Against Torture, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the cross-party Parliamentary Inquiry Panel on Detention, the Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, the Independent Monitoring Board, the Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green and SNP political parties, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, leaders of religious communities, hundreds of national and international NGOs and policy experts all have in common? They have all called for an end to indefinite detention in this country.

I spoke about how I was detained for three months, then released and then given refugee status. I’m really very grateful for this but the fact they locked me up ready to deport me and then gave me leave to remain just shows how broken the system is.

I also spoke about wider impact of having such an inhumane policy. Lots of people say the Brexit vote ‘made racism ok’. But this is not new. Detention has been a way of legitimising xenophobia for a long-time. If you lock up 32,000 people up a year, in cages, and treat them like animals…and paint them in the press as dangerous monsters…is it surprising to find anti-migrant feeling on the streets? I don’t think so.

 What was the High Commissioner’s response?

He was quite moved. I think he was surprised to hear about the rate of suicide in detention [up to more than one attempt a day] and the culture of disbelief in healthcare. He was shocked to hear that Kasonga had been released over a year ago but was still signing on a weekly basis. He assumed it would only be a month or two.

He was very thankful though. He said that our words would be the ‘weapons’ he would take to the Home Secretary.

What do you think he wanted from the meeting? (Did he get it?)

I think he wanted to hear from experts-by-experience and was interested to know more about our approach. I think he got the idea that we could offer genuine insights in a way no-one else could. He was asking us about the potential for alternatives to detention in the UK. We spoke about why the current ones are rubbish, they don’t work, they just push people further away from the Home Office. You can’t lock someone up indefinitely then release them with an electronic tag for example, and expect them to be smiling. Like Michael from the group says, when he finished his prison sentence he thought he’d be free. Instead, he was detained 2.5 years. When he was released from detention he thought he’d be free. Instead, he was put on tag and curfew. He says that at every stage they treated him like an animal to be caged.

I think he wanted to go to the Home Secretary with some concrete examples of what might work and we spoke a lot about alternatives based on case-management in the community. Where there is transparency, quality and justice right the way through. And migrants have time and support to present their cases.

Did you leave the meeting feeling hopeful?

You know…these kind of meetings are always welcome. And we appreciate what the UN is trying to do. We welcome anyone who will join us in putting pressure on the government to bring about change to this inhumane and racist policy. We support them 100%. And I think it is good to show why it is important migrants shape policy that affects them to lots of different kinds of audiences. We will always be ready to speak out about detention, whether it is at the highest level of power or down at the local school. Both are vital. But meetings and discussions will never be enough on their own. The fact we had to have this meeting shows how much work there is to do. We need action.