Progress made and challenges ahead: reflections in advance of our annual gathering



Our national gathering is just around the corner.  These annual events are a chance for asylum/migrant support groups we work with across the UK to meet, for activists to hear from and share with other campaigners, to reflect on the progress or disappointments of the past year, and to gear up for the challenges ahead.

Previous gatherings have been described as “inspiring”, “invigorating”, “practical” and having had an air of “determination”.

Read about our previous gatherings here

At the start of this year’s gathering, we will hear from a member of the brilliant Freed Voices group, and their take on the past twelve months and what lays ahead.  We will also hear from everyone else attending, what they think the priorities and opportunities for progress are.

To kick off this conversation, and so that the views of those who can’t be there in person are represented, we asked people for some idea via social media.

Progress made

  • A popular choice for a victory in the last twelve months was the final legal defeat of the Detained Fast Track system (and the frustration of government attempts to introduce a new version)
  • The biggest ever Yarl’s Wood demonstration – 2000 people protested in March 2016, organised by Movement for Justice
  • Victories by people resisting deportation, including the Yarl’s Wood resistance of November 2015 which meant many women were not put on a charter flight removal
  • Although an outright ban on the detention of pregnant women proved elusive, a significant step was brought in by the Immigration Act amendment – lobbied for by Women for Refugee Women among others –  limiting it to 72 hours (or up to 7 days with ministerial approval)
  • Automatic judicial oversight of detention brought in for the first time – although this only kicks in after 4 months of detention and excludes certain groups of people, it is another important step in the right direction

Challenges ahead

  • lack of legal aid
  • increased powers of search, seizure and arrest brought in by the 2016 Immigration Act
  • the post-Brexit vote environment

A typically poetic and thoughtful contribution came from a member of our management committee:

“The wild geese still fly the skies, north then south, and have not yet been refused entry to our skies, despite years of culling and killing and ringing and clipping, and their call is, as the poet says, harsh and exciting, cutting to the quick and carrying us on. Such is hope”.

And one colleague went so far as to write a blog post in response to our question!  Her five reasons to be hopeful were:

1) We changed immigration detention law, for better.  A combined impact of evidence-based policy arguments, communities and individuals speaking directly to politicians about their experience of detention, damning reports by the Parliamentary inquiry panel and Stephen Shaw and growing anti-detention mobilisation is that now everyone knows detention must change.  Immigration Act 2016 introduces for the first time automatic judicial oversight of detention for some categories of people and a detention time limit for pregnant women.  They are not good enough, of course, but it’s a start.  Will we achieve a time limit on detention as a next step, for example?  If so, what else do we need to strengthen our argument so that the government has no excuse but to stop detaining people indefinitely?

2) Nothing cheers me up more than the (permanent?) suspension of the Detained Fast Track which used to condemn asylum seekers into the worst possible situation to pursue their asylum claims; in detention, with breakneck speed, with a 99% refusal rate.  Thanks to the tenacious strategic litigation by Detention Action and their legal team which stretched over years, this battle has been won.  Again evidence and campaigning played a key role in this success.  However, I don’t think litigation is always the answer – and we need another blog by someone better qualified to explore pros and cons of strategic litigation, as well as when one should or should not consider going down that route.

3) I was encouraged by a growing community of people who want to welcome people seeking asylum – finally, refugee protection is a mainstream concern.  And I say this as someone who’s been doing this over 15 years now. I was surprised that so many people and self-organised groups headed towards Calais when established NGOs were nowhere to be seen.  Similar scenes of citizen-led welcome were repeated many times over in other parts of Europe, particularly along the now-shut Welt Balkan route, Greece and Italy, when governments, EU and other institutions failed to act.  I would be curious to know how this culture of welcome survives and grows beyond the questions of family reunification for some children stuck in Calais, ‘Dubs amendment’ resettlement for lone children who are currently stranded in other European countries and also the 20,000 Syrian resettlement plan.  Forced migration is not going to stop tomorrow – how are we going to sustain and build on this?  And will #RefugeesWelcome coexist with #MigrantsWelcome?

4) A series of rapid, visible responses to violent border control activities show a growing culture of non acceptance; that people, regardless of immigration status, shouldn’t be treated in a way that they currently are – humiliated, hunted, detained and deported.  There are many examples there; mobilisation against immigration raids in the community, that high-profile protest against Byron, the earning threshold of £35k that can make thousands of settled migrants who earn less ‘deportable’ overnight and I am sure there are many local mobilisations that continue but do not get much press coverage.  I was personally really excited to see #BlackLivesMatterUK highlights the race element of border control; I still remember the day that Jimmy Mubenga died, who doesn’t?  As border control increasingly encroaches onto our communities and daily lives, we need to actively stand in solidarity with migrants whose existence and sense of security are threatened.  I do believe that there is something about solidarity that only bodily co-presence can express.

5) And lastly, I hope you all agree that growing support for dynamic organisations like Right to Remain is a sign of progress. Why?  I think it reflects a growing recognition that providing services to individuals, important as it is, is not enough.  The whole system must change and, rather than waiting patiently for someone to come and change it for us, we must change it ourselves and we can be in control of that change process.  If there was one thing that recent migration ‘crisis’ demonstrated, established institutions, however respected they are, are finding it difficult to push back politically-charged anti-migration, anti-human rights measures issued by the governments keen to stop the flow of migration.  And like my fellow migrants at Freed Voices, I hope that those of us who are affected by border control and other forms of oppression can step up.  We need to get involved in the process of setting the change agenda with supporters.  We need to grow in power and we can.

What do you think?  Add you suggestions of progress made and challenges ahead by commenting below.


One comment on “Progress made and challenges ahead: reflections in advance of our annual gathering

  1. Eleri Williams on

    I’ve pondered long and hard over the question posed- what progress has been made in the last year and what challenges remain. [Disclaimer: I work on a much broader remit than immigration detention, so my response may seem more general.]

    As a relative newbie to working (in a paid capacity) in this field, it’s been a whirlwind of a year! The biggest thing which sticks out for me is the change in attitudes and the will of the general public experienced overnight following the publication of photos of Aylan Kurdi’s body, last September. I remember it well, I work in a small team of three: one colleague was on holiday at the time and I was suffering with vertigo. The phones literally did not stop ringing (which is difficult to handle when your head is spinning) with offers of help, donations of clothing and people wanting to volunteer. It was great to see it happen, and the fact I’m still talking about it a year later, seems to suggest some legacy exists.

    It has been brilliant to see the number of willing supporters increase- on a professional note we were able to recruit over 100 volunteers in the first year of our project. Likewise, the number of registered City of Sanctuary groups has more than doubled, and in Wales it has increased four-fold! It is wonderful to feel you are part of a growing movement, which is slowly making a difference. However, this growth has also brought challenges- more training sessions to prep for, more people to explain the asylum process to, more volunteers to manage, so many more people and organisations wanting your time. Meanwhile, there are more people seeking sanctuary to support, more languages to cover and more crises to support people through. Everything has increased, apart from the number of hours in a day, and the budgets you work with!

    I’ve worked so many evenings and so many weekends in the past year- and I know I’m far from alone in this. I have a spiel about how as an organisation we were used to begging for support, and suddenly there were all these offers of help, and we didn’t know how to react. I know this is something experienced by others. I frequently see people doing similar jobs for different organisations and everyone seems to be permanently exhausted, and running on empty.

    It’s been a crazy year, with some real wins, but the whirlwind isn’t going to slow down anytime soon. Now more than ever, is when we need to work together to drive changes which are so badly needed.


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