My 7 highlights of 2019 – and what they mean for 2020

January 23, 2020

by Bella Sankey, Director of Detention Action

It’s a testament to the essential injustice of inhumane migrant detention that during 2019, one of the most turbulent and divisive years Britain has ever seen, that people from across the political spectrum came together to oppose it.

That means in 2020 we are stronger, and we have witnessed the beginning of the end for what has become one of the most pressing human rights issues facing the UK. We still have much work to do, but the momentum, the support and the evidence is on our side.

This human rights scandal will end – and we’re going to make it happen, together.


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Here are my highlights of the year that was 2019:

1. The beginning of the end for inhumane indefinite detention

For the first time in the UK’s history we came within touching distance of ending inhumane indefinite migrant detention with a 28 day safeguard in law.

A detailed amendment to the Immigration Bill was put forward and co-signed by over 90 MPs from all the main political parties. It would have put in place, for the first time, proper judicial safeguards and legal tests to ensure that those detained were brought before a judge within days and released promptly.

The amendment attracted support from all Opposition frontbenches (Labour, SNP, Liberal Democrat, Plaid Cymru, Greens, Change UK) as well as many Conservative and DUP MPs.

The General Election put a stop to that Immigration Bill, and the 2020 Parliament is a very different place – so we have more work to do. But we are confident that this marks the beginning of the end of indefinite detention in the UK.

2. Evidence, evidence, evidence

The influential Home Affairs Select Committee and Joint Committee on Human Rights both conducted official inquiries into immigration detention and published highly critical reports calling for a maximum 28 day time limit.

“Over the course of our inquiry, we have found serious problems with almost every element of the immigration detention system. People are being wrongfully detained, held in immigration detention when they are vulnerable and detained for too long.”
– Home Affairs Select Committee, March 2019

We go into 2020 armed with even more clear, independent evidence of both the harm caused by inhumane detention and of just how broken our system is.

3.  There is another way

Working with people to regularise their immigration status using a social work model – and avoiding the need for immigration detention – is the future. This means people living successfully in the community and being supported to engage with the immigration system. It’s more effective, more humane and less costly.

Our ground-breaking Alternative to Detention Project saw unprecedented growth over 2019 and is now at full capacity. We’ve started receiving new referrals and demand for the service outstripped capacity for the first time.

In 2020, we’re now working on ways to expand the project and work with more people.

4. Those affected by inhumane detention at the heart the campaign to end it

Freed Voices is a group of experts-by-experience – people who have experienced immigration detention and are now committed to speaking out. Coordinated and supported by Detention Action, it is the only group of its kind campaigning on immigration detention in the UK.

“It’s hard to explain the impact of indefinite detention. Every day it feels like you’re carrying a huge load on your mind. The uncertainty and fear of indefinite detention brought me right back to the trauma I came here to escape.”
William, Freed Voices

The group has gone from strength to strength. 2019 saw it break new ground with media, lobbying and campaigning success and an expanding membership. Much more to come from this incredible group of campaigners in 2020.

5. Our staff team does difficult work – this is how we support them

Detention Action staff started receiving clinical group supervision by a trained psychotherapist. These fortnightly sessions support staff with the challenges and pressures of our work and we are now expanding this service to Freed Voices members.

6. More funds, more work

We raised more funds than we ever have before in 2019! That means we can support more people held in the UKs immigration detention centres and continue to challenge the inhumane policies that put them there.

All our work is funded by those who support our cause and believe in human rights for all. It’s been so encouraging to see so many people joining Detention Action – campaigning, talking action and donating when they can.

There are always more people who need us, so every bit of support really does help.

7. Expert casework

Our expert casework service supported 714 clients held in Colnbrook, Harmondsworth and Morton Hall detention centres in 2019.

Our clients are trafficking victims and torture survivors, people with serious mental health difficulties and those separated from their families. They are people who don’t know why they’ve been detained, LGBTQI+ people terrified they well be sent back to countries where their lives are in danger, and people who just need someone to talk to during some of the most difficult times of their lives.

What we do for them is as varied as the clients themselves. We work with lawyers, doctors and translators. We work with staff at the detention centres, families, and many other organisations. We help with everything from clothing to accessing proper legal advice and getting people who should not be in detention released.

The important thing is that we’re always here. On any given day our specialist caseworkers could work with someone who has no shoes, someone considering suicide and someone who is about to be sent back to a country where they face torture – and everything in between.

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