Last week, Jose from the Freed Voices group joined a panel of speakers at Amnesty International Human Rights Centre in London to help launch their #WriteForRights project for 2017. This year, among several other individual campaigns, Amnesty are focusing their calls for solidarity on those locked away indefinitely in detention centres across the UK. Jose was there to help unpack what that experience might involve and why solidarity in the fight against it is so crucial. He delivered the speech below with pictorial assistance from the artist Chris Riddell, who illustrated his words as he spoke…
“To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.”
I read that quote around a year ago.
It is from Nelson Mandela.
He wrote it when he was detained in Robben Island.
I read it when I detained in Campsfield House detention centre.
It is in Oxford, 60 miles from here.
Harmondsworth – the largest detention centre in Europe – is even nearer.
It is in Heathrow, less than an hour away by tube.
At this exact time, about 600 men in Harmondsworth will be preparing to be locked in their cells…like animals.
These are innocent men.
Their only crime is that they are migrants.
Like the other 30,000 people detained in the UK every year, they are being held without the right to a fair trial.
They are being held at the administrative convenience of the UK Government.
They are being held without an end in sight.
Because – and this is something I did not know before I came here – the UK is the only country in Europe that has a policy of indefinite detention.
People are locked away in mini-Guantanamo Bays all over your country.
It’s not just Cuba, Kabul, Kingston I’m afraid…
It’s also Dorset, and Lincoln, and Bedfordshire.
No-one in detention knows how long they will be there for.
I was held for four and half months.
The Freed Voices group as a whole has lost over twenty years of our lives to detention in the UK.
Before I came here, when I thought of the UK I thought of the best music, rock and roll,
I thought of a modern, first-world country…with a ‘strong and stable’ economy.
I thought of a country with respect for human rights and human decency.
I actually read that Nelson Mandela quote before I was in detention, back home in Venezuela, where I am from.
But it still amazes me that I had to come from a third world country to a first-world country to really understand the truth of it.
It is very difficult to explain the impact of indefinite detention to someone who hasn’t experienced it themselves.
Indefinite detention destroys your trust in everything, and everyone, around you.
It is designed to make you feel powerless.
It is designed to make you think that your imprisonment is inevitable.
And so, depression and death are part of the DNA of detention.
20,000 people have been on suicide watch in detention since 2007.
The rate of suicide attempts is now more than one a day.
31 people have died in detention – three between August and September this year, alone.
Hope is in very, very short supply inside detention – they squeeeeze it out.
And that is why I thank you for making a detention a focus of your Write for Rights project this year.
I survived detention because people from outside, came in – not physically, but emotionally…in solidarity.
I remember one of the first things I did was a live Twitter Q&A with Ben from Detention Action.
He asked me what I could see from my window.
Even this simple question made me feel a bit more human, a bit more real.
A few weeks after the Q&A there was a demonstration outside the detention centre.
The people there were not directly affected by the issue.
But they stood and shouted: ‘Set Them Free! Set Them Free!’
In that moment, I did not feel alone.
I felt like there was an army behind me, winds of justice in my sails.
It gave me the strength to fight my case…and eventually, I was released.
If your letters can do that – if they can give people the hope to fight – then they can be half the battle.
I say half because, in reality, we need more than letters of support – we need real change, real action.
Because hope calls for action, just as action is impossible without hope.
And so, I am using this opportunity to urge you all to get involved in the fight against indefinite detention.
It is one the most serious human rights and civil liberties abuses in the UK today.
The Home Office’s own report last year concluded it was ‘an affront to civilised values’.
And so…to finish…I guess the real question is: what are British values?
What are Amnesty values?
What are your values?
And do they allow for something like indefinite detention…just a tube ride away.