End the Abuse of Immigration Detention

There are no human rights here… They treat animals better in this country… I think about killing myself… I am a prisoner… I will be killed if they send me back…

People detained in immigration removal centers (IRCs) have consistently conveyed these messages to me over the past year. As a volunteer, I have spoken to scores of people in IRCs. Although the migration narrative of each person is unique, there are striking and alarming similarities in how people experience detention. Many do not understand why the UK government has placed them in high-security, prison-like facilities. Others point out the contradiction between the government’s stated commitment to human rights and the draconian policies towards people seeking protection. Nearly everyone has lost faith in immigration officials to handle their immigration claims fairly. Everyone expresses some combination of fear, frustration, isolation, and confusion.

Although I am limited in what I can practically do for people in detention, the simple act of validating someone’s experience by agreeing that detention is wrong and inhumane can provide comfort to a person in a desperate and dark place. Showing solidarity and empathy can counteract some of the dehumanizing effects of detention. That is why I am participating in a demonstration organized by Movement for Justice on March 12th outside of Yarl’s Wood IRC: to help send a message to the 2,000-3,500 men and women currently detained in IRCs throughout the UK that they are not forgotten.


(Colnbrook Immigration Removal Center, March 2016)

The evidence base confirms what we already know: detention harms people in ways beyond the obvious deprivation of liberty. After a recent inspection, Chief Prisons Inspector Nick Hardwick stated that Yarl’s Wood is “a place of national concern” and is “failing to meet the needs of the most vulnerable women held.” The inspection report discusses the deterioration of healthcare services within the center, the detention of pregnant women, poor care planning for women with complex needs, and long periods of detention without clear reason. Hardwick concludes that detention should be an exceptional step, subject to strict time limits. There are currently no time limits on detention.

An independent review commissioned by the Home Office into the welfare of people in immigration removal centers reaches similarly dark conclusions. The report by Stephen Shaw, former prisons and probation ombudsman, finds that detention exacerbates existing mental health problems and can itself cause serious mental health problems. Shaw argues for a presumption against detaining victims of rape and sexual assault and for a complete ban on detaining pregnant women.

While reports provide necessary evidence to advocate for change, the words of people who have experienced detention better convey the urgency of the situation:

Detention kills your mind, it kills your soul…and sometimes it just kills.”
(Response of Freed Voices member to news of a person’s death in Colnbrook IRC)

Tortured again. Only this time I wasn’t sure why. Back home, I knew it was because of who I was. But here, it was because of who I wasn’t. It was confusing.”
(Description from Freed Voices member and torture survivor on his time in solitary confinement)

There was one guy in Campsfield I will never forget…He said he had been detained for 11 months. He said he was thinking of withdrawing his case. He looked completely devastated. He looked hopeless. He had uncontrollable hair. His face was very, very tired and very pale. He looked like someone in mourning, grieving over something. He showed me his leg. It had a huge scar across it. He told me he had lost his son in the same war he had got the scar. He said that since he had been in detention he had lost touch with the rest of his family. He felt desperate. His speech was angry and broken. He said he trusted no-one, nothing. And then it hit me. Am I going to spend the same amount of time here? Am I going to turn into something like this?” (Freed Voices member)

Community-based alternatives to detention exist. People do not need to suffer in detention. The Shaw report found that most people in detention do not pose any risk, let alone serious risk, to the public. Moreover, the risk of non-compliance with immigration orders for people released from detention is very low due to the strong links people have with UK.  Yet the government spends £75 million per year on the long-term detention of migrants who are ultimately released.  Detaining one person for one year costs £70,000.

Maintaining such an immigration detention scheme is a callous act of political theater, employed by the government to demonstrate its hardline stance on immigration.  Prime Minister David Cameron has made multiple commitments to cut net migration to the UK. Detention centers provide visible evidence that the government is acting to curb migration and send back those “undeserving” of status.  A powerful message, indeed – except detention does not deter people from migrating. “Unwanted” immigration will continue as long as people face persecution, conflict, or gross inequality in their countries of origin.

It is time to end the routine use and abuse of immigration detention.  It is time to shut down Yarl’s Wood and other IRCs in the UK.




Repatriation and ‘Home’ for Refugees

Repatriation is often portrayed as the end of the refugee journey—the natural outcome for those who have longed to return home. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), for example, describes voluntary repatriation as the ‘strongest hope’ for refugees searching for ‘an end to exile’ and as the ‘durable solution of choice for the largest number of refugees’. We assume that refugees want to return to their pre-flight homes, communities, and lives. Yet a refugee’s conception of home and belonging may change with time, and is influenced by her experiences in new physical, social, and political settings.[1] Individual and collective identities often evolve as refugees learn skills in other countries and build new communities.[2]

The language we use to describe refugee return obscures our understanding of what happens after return. Terms like ‘exile’, ‘homecoming’ and ‘restoring roots’ suggest that refugees have natural or organic ties to their birthplace—bonds that are restored upon repatriation when the refugee reenters her community of origin.[3] Our emphasis on ‘home’ also assumes that life post-repatriation in a person’s country of origin is preferable to a life abroad.

Returning refugees often face a host of problems when reintegrating into their countries and communities of origin. The traumatizing events that led to a refugee’s flight may have changed her relationship with her country or community of origin, especially in conflicts where psychological warfare and terror are used to demoralize populations.[4] The alienation from a previous community or country often begins even before the refugee ever took flight. In fact, alienation is often the cause of flight.[5]

Returning refugees may struggle to negotiate reentry into a community that has undergone major political, economic, or other transformations. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the ethnic makeup of entire territories was completely transformed by the war, many returning refugees found that their properties had been destroyed, meaning ‘home’ no longer existed.[6]

For others, return may lead to a loss of social and political capital gained while abroad. While living in refugee camps in southern Mexico through the 1980s and 1990s, indigenous Guatemalan refugee women founded a feminist organization, Mamá Maquín, which ran internationally funded programs on women’s health, literacy, and women’s rights.   Women participated in decision making around camp governance, but they were ultimately excluded from the commissions that negotiated with the Guatemalan government on the terms of refugee repatriation. Many men assumed that women would return to their traditional roles within communities and retreat from the political sphere upon repatriation. For many Guatemalan women, repatriation led to a loss of the political and social gains they made while in Mexico.[7]

On numerous occasions refugees have protested against or expressed concern about so-called voluntary repatriation schemes. In the Buduburam Camp in Ghana, a group of refugee women initiated a five-month protest in 2008 to demand that UNHCR reopen its resettlement program and offer greater assistance to those refugees repatriating to Liberia. The protests ended when Ghanaian police arrested over 600 women and children and placed them in a detention camp. The Liberian Foreign Minister intervened only to negotiate an even more unfavorable repatriation agreement between Ghana, Liberia, and UNHCR.[8]

Sudanese refugees in Chad recently expressed their concerns about the repatriation scheme that UNHCR is discussing with the governments of Chad and Sudan. The refugees claim that the situation in Darfur is more dangerous than when they left.[9] Similarly, Rwandan refugees in Uganda criticized the High Commissioner’s 2012 recommendation that countries hosting Rwandan refugees begin repatriation programs. Refugees argued that they remain at risk of persecution by the autocratic Rwandan government.[10]

Yet the international community and UNHCR continue to place almost singular focus on refugee repatriation as the solution for the world’s refugees. Why? Put plainly, local integration and resettlement to a third country are not viable options for most of the world’s refugees due the restrictive immigration policies of many countries. Less than 1% of the world’s refugees resettle abroad. UNHCR cannot meet refugees’ demands to resettle.

Idealized conceptions of life after repatriation help to justify repatriation as the preferred solution for refugees. Repatriation becomes the way for fulfilling refugees’ desires to return ‘home’. Fully admitting that reintegration is not a natural outcome of repatriation and that many refugees want the option to resettle would also require the admission that repatriation is not always the best option for refugees.


[1] Tania Ghanem, ‘When Forced Migrants Return “Home”: The Psychosocial Difficulties Returnees Encounter in the Reintegration Process’ (2003) Working Paper No. 16, Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford University.

[2] Laura Hammond, ‘Examining the Discourse of Repatriation: Towards a More Proactive Theory of Return Migration’ in Khalid Koser and Richard Black (eds) The End of the Refugee Cycle?: Refugee Repatriation and Reconstruction (Berghahn Books 1999) 228-229.

[3] ibid.

[4] Ghanem (n 1) 22-23.

[5] ibid.

[6] Huma Haider, ‘The Politicisation of Humanitarian Assistance: Refugee and IDP Policy in Bosnia and Herzegovina’ (6 April 2010) J of Humanitarian Assistance < http://sites.tufts.edu/jha/archives/700&gt;.

[7] Patricia Pessar, ‘Women’s Political Consciousness and Empowerment in Local, National, and Transnational Contexts: Guatemalan Refugees and Returnees’ (2001) 7(4) Identities 461.

[8] Elizabeth Holzer, ‘What Happens to Law in a Refugee Camp’ (2013) Law & Society Review 837.

[9] AllAfrica, ‘Sudan Refugees in Chad Refuse Voluntary Return’ (22 May 2015) <http://allafrica.com/stories/201505250349.html&gt;.

[10] IRIN, ‘Uganda: Rwandan Refugees Still Reluctant to Repatriate’ (14 March 2012) <http://www.irinnews.org/report/95072/uganda-rwandan-refugees-still-reluctant-to- repatriate>


Tracing the Refugee Resettlement Process in the U.S.

In 2015, President Obama called for the resettlement of 10,000 Syrian refugees to the United States within a year. He further called for the resettlement of 100,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2017. With over 3 million recognized Syrian refugees, how does the government select refugees for resettlement and what happens when refugees reach the United States?

Each year, the President consults with Congress to establish a limit on the number of refugees admitted to the United States. The U.S. Refugee Admission Program manages the referral system that determines which refugees gain admission. The entire process can take between 12-33 months, and it involves multiple domestic and international organizations and agencies.

1. Referrals to the Refugee Admission Program

Only U.S. embassies, authorized non-governmental organizations, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) may make referrals to the U.S. Refugee Admission Program. In practice, UNHCR makes most referrals. UNHCR first conducts what is called “refugee status determination” to establish whether a person meets the international law definition of refugee.

UNHCR then seeks solutions for recognized refugees, which include integration into the country currently hosting the refugee, voluntary repatriation to the refugee’s country of origin, or resettlement in a different country. Due to restrictive immigration policies around the world, resettlement is very rare. Only one percent of the world’s refugees resettle abroad.

UNHCR applies its own criteria to determine whether a refugee should be referred to a resettlement program. The agency will not recommend a refugee for resettlement if she falls into a “category of concern.” For instance, UNHCR resettlement officers will not refer Syrians who previously worked for government ministries. The screening process for resettlement is unforgiving, and the agency will not recommend a refugee if questions exist about her background or affiliations.

2.  Processing at a Resettlement Support Center

Following a referral to the U.S. Refugee Admission Program, the refugee’s case progresses to one of the nine Resettlement Support Centers around the world. The center prepares the refugee’s case for presentation to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This often involves taking photographs, checking facts within the refugee’s file, and collecting information for the security clearance process. The center would also prepare the cases of the spouse and children of the refugee, if applicable.

An officer of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, a component of DHS, then interviews the refugee to determine whether she is admissible to the United States under domestic immigration laws.   Non-citizens seeking admission, including refugees, may be refused for a variety of reasons, including criminal, health, or security-related grounds.  DHS also consults its own law enforcement and terrorism databases to screen applicants. Refugees who are granted admission may receive a loan from the International Organization of Migration to cover the costs of travel, repayable after the refugee has resettled to the United States.

3. Arrival in the U.S.

Upon entry into the United States, each refugee is sponsored by one of nine agencies that participate in the Reception & Placement Program. Sponsorship typically lasts between 30-90 days, during which the agency and its affiliated offices provide housing, food, clothing, and other necessities to the recently arrived refugee. The agencies also help refugees access social, medical, and employment services. Refugee status lasts for twelve months, after which the person may apply to become a legal permanent resident. After five years as a permanent resident she may then apply for U.S. citizenship.

To date, UNHCR has referred over 15,000 Syrian refugees to the U.S. Refugee Admission Program, yet less than 2,000 have successfully resettled. The lengthy application and screening process, often justified on national security grounds, has delayed the resettlement of the relatively few refugees that the United States has agreed to accept. Many claim that accepting Syrian refugees poses a security risk, yet the resettlement process already involves multiple checks into a refugee’s history and affiliations. These include UNHCR’s initial refugee status determination, UNHCR’s resettlement referral process, and the interviews and investigations conducted by the DHS. Fears and prejudices that lack evidentiary support should not drive U.S. policy towards Syrian refugee resettlement. Instead, we should work to speed up and expand resettlement for those in desperate need of protection and assistance.