In this guest post Detention Forum Coordinator, Eiri Ohtani, blogs about her work with the Forum, its challenges and the possibility of change
Almost 15 years have passed since I first learned of immigration detention. I have written about this elsewhere before. I spent many years as ‘a person subject to immigration control’, so I already had some first-hand experience of facing the Home Office. Still, two things shocked me.
The first was the blatant inhumanity of locking up people who had, for whatever the reason, decided that they were better off living in the UK than other places. Simply put, it could have been me inside the detention centre.
The second was the pervasive sense of resignation among people who were watching this inhumanity unfolding in front of their eyes, that ‘there’s nothing we can do for them’ was an acceptable and accepted stance on immigration detention.
The biggest obstacle to my work at the Detention Forum has been the distance that separates those who have officially recognised power – the power to vote, the power to make decisions, the power to change policies, the power to influence the government - and those who are directly affected by immigration detention.
I remember vividly one of my first visits to Parliament to discuss detention with an MP. It was not long after the Coalition Government came into power. The researcher who was taking me to the MP’s office looked at me quizzically and said ‘We ended the detention of children. So is there really anything else that we need to change about immigration detention?’. With a forced smile, I said to him ‘Yes, there are still thousands of people locked up indefinitely in detention centres today. This hasn’t finished yet.’
The nearest detention centres to Westminster are Harmondsworth and Colnbrook, right next to the runways of Heathrow Airport. It takes at most 1.5 hours to get there from Westminster, the heart of British politics. But mentally, at least for those who have power, these centres could literally be on another planet: out of sight, out of mind.
While this distance has remained the biggest challenge, I am daily encouraged by an increasing number of groups who do not take no for an answer and who believe that change is possible, if we all speak out and act.
Scottish Detainee Visitors is one such group. During our Unlocking Detention tour, SDV showed us how they overcome that distance – by long-distance driving to Dungavel and speaking out against detention based on their interaction with people inside the detention centre. We need more groups and individuals to follow this example, so that we can show that change is indeed possible.
Find out more about the work of Detention Forum at www.detentionforum.org.uk. And follow @DetentionForum and @EiriOhtani on Twitter.