“How can this be legal?” Incredulity and anger when Unlocking Detention


By Lisa Matthews, Coordinator at Right to Remain

Over the last few months, I’ve run several workshops across the UK, engaging communities on the issue of immigration detention and, specifically, the Unlocking Detention project which we (Right to Remain) co-run with Detention Action for the Detention Forum.


Photo: Anna Sellen

A lot of our outreach work is with people currently navigating the UK asylum and immigration system, and the communities supporting them to do so. Many of these people are at risk of detention, though this does not necessarily mean they know a lot about it – detention truly is a concealed injustice. As Justice of the Freed Voices group said, “The first time I found out about detention was when the key turned in the cell door.” 

These recent workshops, however, have been more about galvanising people who – though not at risk of detention themselves – can be powerful agents in demanding an end to detention. By saying ‘Not in my name’, ‘detention damages us all’, and ‘detention is dividing our communities’.

The participants of these workshops are of course a self-selecting demographic, to an extent. To attend an event run by us, on immigration detention, the participant is likely to have a pre-existing curiosity about or commitment to social justice and human rights.

Which makes the unfamiliarity with detention even more striking. Immigration detention is the deprivation of liberty for the ‘administrative convenience’ of the state – locking people up just because they come from a different country. A grave civil rights issue, a human rights ‘stain’ on the UK.

It’s not a small issue, either.  Around 32,000 people are detained each year.  Up to 4000 people can be detained at one time.  And tens of thousands more live with the constant threat of detention, and/or with the long-term damage that previous detention has caused. 

It’s happening to communities across the UK. The harm of detention is not limited to the (often very lengthy, always indefinite) period of imprisonment. A refugee in my workshop this week said of the legacy of his detention, “I will never be the same again”.

At our workshop in Swansea, a social worker came up to us afterwards (clutching one of our These Walls Must Fall posters, to go up in her office the next day) and said:  

“I’m a social worker, and I knew nothing about this. I didn’t know about detention”. 

At the most recent workshop, people were simply incredulous that such a thing could be happening here, now. To people who have been forced to flee their countries due to war and persecution, or economic insecurity, or those who have come to be with family, or to study or work in the UK.

People were bewildered. When I explained the facts of detention, they were confused, and angry. They were saying “But … but … if these people haven’t done anything wrong, why are they being locked up?” “But if it’s meant to be just to remove people from the UK, why are people detained for months and years?” “But if it doesn’t work, if most people are being released into the community, why is it happening?” “But if it costs so much money, it’s not good for the government, it’s not good for the person detained??” “But, how can this be legal?”

All very good questions.

This incredulity is important. It’s important because we shouldn’t live in a world, in a country, in a community, where detention makes sense. Harming people, denying people their freedom, should not make sense.

The incredulity reveals how appalling the policy of detention is, and how we believe we can and should do better than this.

And it’s important because it reveals just how much we have to do, how many more conversations we need to have about detention, how many eyes must be opened. That such a violation of rights, morals, humanity can continue every day for so many years, to so many people, shows how successfully detention has been hidden away.

Unlocking Detention wants to, and is, changing that. Three years in of this annual event, and we’re still reaching new audiences. The experiences of those who have experienced detention are moving people – new people, more people – and inspiring them to speak out and take action.

The virtual actions we ask people to take – last year, taking a photo of what they would miss if they were detained; this year, a drawing of what ‘detention’ means to them – creates a creative, meaningful connection between those at risk of or experiencing this injustice, with those protected from it by virtue of their immigration status or British citizenship.
The live Q and As, a weekly feature of Unlocking Detention done brilliantly by Ben from Detention Action, with people currently detained are a direct, immediate way of doing this. The questions to the person detained are crowdsourced from the public. The answers are invariably enlightening, powerful and sometimes devastating.

As well as the pattern of incredulity and bewilderment at these workshops, they share something else in common. They were all in areas without a detention centre on the doorstep. Detention centres are deliberately difficult to get to, so that’s not a surprise. But this is a crucial connection – detention does not just happen at detention centres. People are taken from somewhere first – detention happens in our communities.

I know there’s not a detention centre here in Cambridge…” I started to say to one participant, when he was asking what he could do. He interrupted me, saying what I was wanting to say, only better. “But people are being lifted from our streets”.

Exactly. Our streets, our communities, our people. Our problem, then. And we are also the solution.


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