Shining a light on the inhumanity of the current system

This piece was written as part of the #Unlocked Twitter Tour blog series.

Last Saturday I attended Right to Remain‘s annual conference in Bethnal Green, London. Bringing together local advocacy groups, grassroots activists and self-advocates from across the UK it was a wonderful opportunity to hear about different positive, working, successful campaigns fighting against the abuses and injustices of the asylum and immigration system.

It was a raucously, refreshingly upbeat affair. Participants reflected on trials of courage, the new horrors of the Immigration Act and the vitality of emotional support when standing up against the Home Office but the focus was on ideas, solutions, networks and triumphs. Detention as a subject came up, of course, but it did not dominate. Instead, it loitered in the background whilst the room swelled with a gritted-optimism. The mood was buoyant but determined. People laughed and sang but they also spoke with a steely will.

Then, just as the day drew to an end, there was an announcement. A twenty-six year old man had died at Morton Hall immigration removal centre. The room baulked, then hushed, then very naturally slipped into a minute’s silence: in remembrance of this young man – Rubel Ahmed – but also of all those others, lost to the system.

Stunned, in this silence I thought about Rubel, even though at that point I did not know it was his him.

Rubel Ahmed

He was twenty-six. Those with him in detention say he had been suffering from severe chest-pains and had been banging his door for help for more than an hour before he died. The Home Office say he committed suicide. Rubel’s family only heard about his death after they were contacted by a friend of Rubel’s, also in detention. When the Home Office had been rung, the family were told to call the Home Office press office but the line was busy, then closed.

In the silence, I thought about Rubel and detention. I thought about Christine Chase, who died in Yarl’s Wood in March. And Tahir Mehmood and Khalid Shahzad, and the 84-year old Alois Dvorzav, who all died in detention in 2013. I thought of Brian Dalrymple, who died in 2011 and how the inquest report earlier this year had concluded that it was the ‘lamentable failure‘ of healthcare at Colnbrook IRC which had led to his death. I thought of the scores of others who had also died unnecessarily, off-stage, locked away, out-of-sight, in the morally-dank corners of the UK’s detention estate.

I thought about those who had managed to leave detention, full in the knowledge that detention and its scars, will never leave them, or their families, or their communities, or this society as a whole. I thought of those individuals still in detention – many of whom I work with here, at Detention Action – imprisoned, but innocent.

I thought about their restricted access to legal aid, of the terror one man I spoke to last week must have felt when he, a soft-spoken Sri Lankan survivor of torture, was forced to represent himself, in a foreign language, in front of a row of white middle-aged men. I thought of the mental torture of waiting indefinitely and not knowing. I thought about those people I’ve spoken to who have seen others or have themselves attempted suicide for want of a way out of detention. I thought about the six cases where the Home Office has been found to have caused inhuman or degrading treatment to mentally ill migrants in its care. I thought of individuals I know with severe mental and physical health problems, exacerbated by detention, crying out for aid and receiving paracetemol on repeat.

I thought of the families seared apart by immigration detention and how the UK is haplessly alone in Europe in routinely detaining migrants in prisons, a practice that is unlawful in the rest of the EU. I thought about the Immigration Act, and the proposed expansion of Campsfield and the state of detention to come.


Then I looked around me at the 100-strong room and I thought about change. I thought about Detention Action’songoing litigation against the Detained Fast Track. I thought about the potential impact of the Parliamentary Inquiry on Detention.

I thought about the growing civil society alliance against indefinite detention and the renewed cross-party interest and gathering political momentum around the issue. I thought about the Liberal Democrats decision to include a proposition to end indefinite detention in their party’s immigration policy and how Citizens UK had swiftly followed suit. I thought about the alternative models being developed and researched and financially-supported.

I thought about this #Unlocked twitter tour and the scores of inspirational people around me who are standing up, speaking out and shining a light on the inhumanity of the current system. I thought to myself, ‘this is a question of will’.

And then, lulling me out of my own head, a quiet chant went round the room. It started at a whisper and it grew louder with each exaltation until it was a unified roar. It was just one word: