‘If I don’t come back, call my lawyer’: Practical solidarity for people at risk of detention.

Luke Butterly lays out some practical steps to help people facing down the hostile environment.

December 11, 2018 · 8 min read
A protest to shut down Yarls Wood Migration Detention Centre

In communities across the UK, around 80,000 people with pending asylum and immigration claims have to ‘report’ with the Home Office. This happens at regular intervals – weekly, fortnightly, monthly – and can often be logistically complicated, expensive, and disruptive.

Earlier this month it was revealed that the Home Office is forcing hundreds of people in Stoke-on-Trent to make weekly five-hour journey to reporting sessions.

This change from reporting in the local community happened without consultation or even pre-warning to the people and support organisations there. Reports came through of the toll this was having on people, especially those with physical or mental health issues, or childcare responsibilities. Missing a reporting date has serious consequences. People can lose their financial support, and it goes on their record when they are making further applications to the Home Office.

Reporting

Reporting is often stressful, even without the additional difficulties faced by people in Stoke. Miska from Freed Voices explains that you don’t know what to expect each time you report. He says that people can travel for hours to a reporting centre just to have “a two minutes ”show your face and go’ home appointment’”. But other times, it can be more serious.

Looming over each visit is the possibility of being detained indefinitely. This is particularly the case if someone’s application has been refused, which they may not know until they go and report. Mishka says that

“The fear of detention is one of the biggest fears that always lingers in your mind. The Home Office is unpredictable and you never know whether you would come home or they would just lock you up again indefinitely for any irrational reason”.

Immigration detention is very harmful to people’s physical and mental health, it cuts people off from their families, friends, neighbours and support networks, and makes it very difficult to pursue a legal case and access justice. While people are detained from every community in the UK, there are only detention centres in a few places. Therefore, detention can often mean being moved away from your community, lawyers, and support.

There are times when you are at greater risk of detention, such as when you first enter the UK; when you claim asylum;  or if you do not have any immigration status or applications pending and you are picked up by an immigration enforcement team. Yet if you do not have the right to remain in the UK, you are liable to be detained at any time.

People are picked up from their homes (sometimes in dawn raids), during immigration raids on businesses, and stop-and-searches at train and bus stations.

But it is as it is common for someone to be detained when they go for their regular reporting event at the Home Office, and that’s why it’s so important to be prepared.

Solidarity and support

At Right to Remain, as part of our Toolkit and other resources, we produce materials and trainings to help people prepare in case of detention. One of the most important aspects of this is having a system in place so that if you are detained, people know straight away and start taking action for you.

Some people phone a friend when they are entering the reporting centre, with instructions for what to do and who to contact if they are detained. If the friend does not get a call within an hour or two to say they are safe, the friend can call their lawyer or support group if they have one.

Across the UK local support groups have set up systems to provide practical ‘signing support’. The person going to report will check-in with the group first, who keep a record of everyone’s contact details and emergency instructions of what to do if they do not come out.

The Unity Centre in Glasgow gives practical support and solidarity to all asylum seekers and other migrants in Scotland. They have a little office near the Home Office, and says that: “Anyone who is required to sign at the Home Office reporting centre on Brand Street can stop by our office on their way to sign into our signing book. This means we can act quickly if anyone gets detained by the Home Office.” Other groups, for example in Leeds No Borders, have set up an informal telephone check-in system. 

In Belfast, Ryan from Homeplus, drop-in centre for migrants, says they and the local community operates a version of signing support to combat the uncertainty that comes with reporting: “People will ring me before signing on, saying ‘if I don’t come back before a certain time, contact the solicitor’. People also have this relationship with each other – and that seems to work pretty well.”

The Bristol Signing Support Group says that as well as providing some practical help and assistance, they also emotional support. “A lot of people go there very traumatised, very nervous, very fearful of what might happen. Signing is part of a deliberately humiliating system. And, although what we can do is tiny, it’s something against that [system].”

Caring is radical

If you are involved in a community project supporting asylum seekers or other migrants, you can set up a scheme to help people to prepare for, avoid, or better deal with detention and the threat of detention. A signing support system also means that the person going to sign knows people are looking out for them, and that there is a plan in place if things go wrong and they are detained. This can reduce the psychological burden of reporting at the Home Office.

A system like this can save valuable time: friends and supporters can start finding out exactly where the person is, what has happened, and what can be done to help straight away.

Ultimately, none of us are free until we get rid of this unjust and inhumane policy all together. Standing with those at risk of detention can play a real role in both supporting people today, and building the kind of society we want for tomorrow.

Luke Butterly works for Right to Remain, a UK-based human rights organisation challenging injustice in our asylum and immigration systems

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