In a community space in Manchester, local people are meeting, and they all have one thing in common; they understand the excruciating feeling of waiting for the result of an asylum claim. Aderonke Apata, the founder of the group, describes the waiting as ‘killing’.
This is Manchester Migrant Solidarity (MiSol), a self-help group that not only offers support and empowerment to its members, but is also standing up against the mistreatment of migrants in the UK. One of those battles is against immigration detention centres.
Last week [21/03/19], a parliamentary report on immigration detention in the UK found there are ‘serious problems with almost every element of the immigration detention system’. It highlighted that people are being wrongfully detained, detained for too long, and held even when they are vulnerable.
The report says: “It is clear from the evidence we heard that the Home Office has utterly failed in its responsibilities to oversee and monitor the safe and humane detention of individuals in the UK.”
The report also makes a number of recommendations, including bringing an end to indefinite detention by implementing a maximum 28-day time limit, and having more judicial oversight. It says that detention should only ever be a last resort.
MiSol goes even further, and is now campaigning to shut down detention centres completely.
A call to shut down detention centres
After a 13 year wait, MiSol founder Aderonke’s asylum claim was finally granted in 2017. But she didn’t wait to be protected by the safety of a granted asylum claim before she started campaigning for a fairer and more humane system - she has been campaigning since 2012, starting from inside the notorious Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre where she was held for over a year. She then started her campaigning work with MiSol in 2014.
Shutting down Immigration Removal Centres - which used to be called Detention Centres - is one major focus of MiSol’s campaigning work, and Aderonke says she and her fellow MiSol members will not rest until they have succeeded.
“Yarl’s Wood is like a prison. It is a place where if you’re ill, your illness is not treated; instead your immigration is treated. Instead of attending to human beings, they are attending to immigration history,” Aderonke says.
The UK is the only country in Europe where there is no legal time limit on how long someone can be held in an immigration detention centre, which means people end up being held for months or even years - an issue which the recent parliamentary report highlights. Human rights organisation Liberty is campaigning for a 28-day detention limit, when the UK sets out its post-Brexit immigration legislation, and its petition calling for that limit has now reached over 70,000 signatures.
Members of MiSol have campaigned to shut down detention centres, demonstrating in both Manchester city centre and outside Yarl’s Wood, which has become the main centre where women are held.
Some members of the group, who wish to remain anonymous, say they have spoken to the women inside Yarl’s Wood on mobile phones. They say they are isolated, lacking good sanitation, and are often malnourished.
“If they deport them, they do it in the middle of the night so they can’t contact anyone,” one campaigner claims.
Alongside campaigning to shut down immigration removal centres, MiSol runs regular group sessions to support individuals who are going through, or who have previously been through, asylum claims.
“MiSol is very important, because we are all people who are seeking asylum, or we are migrants who are members of the group. Because we go through the system, we understand what the system’s about, and we are able to support each other in the right way,” Aderonke explains.
“We are affected by the system, we know what the solutions are, and we are giving the solutions out. We do it through peer support.”
Members of the group help each other by sharing their own experiences and, as well as offering each other emotional support, they often accompany each other to immigration related appointments. If someone in the group has an asylum claim refused, then with that person’s consent, a member of MiSol will talk to their solicitor, and highlight any mistakes they believe were made in the decision. They call themselves ‘experts by experience’.
Alongside the direct experience that Aderonke and her peers have, MiSol brings in trained professionals who can provide immigration advice. Solicitors join the sessions to give talks about different immigration-related topics, take questions, and offer one-to-one sessions with the members. An amnesty group made up of MiSol members also meets fortnightly, and talks to people like local councillors.
Aderonke says that no member of MiSol has ever been deported.
“If anybody was detained, all of us would rise up, and find a way of getting the person out of detention. And if somebody was facing deportation, we’d all stand up and fight for that person. We’ve done that several times,” she says.
Living in a hostile environment
The Hostile Environment policy, introduced by Prime Minister Theresa May when she was Home Secretary, is a policy designed to tackle illegal immigration, restricting access to services for those who have not been granted the right to stay in the UK. It means that employers are required to check immigration statuses, as are NHS staff and landlords.
MiSol members state categorically that they are not here for the money or benefits.
“People aren’t here because they want to be scroungers. They came because they were fearful of something,” Aderonke says.
“If the Home Secretary is listening, I want him to put himself in our positions; really see how this affects us, have a change of mind, and change this hostile environment.”
While the government’s Hostile Environment policy is now referred to as the Compliant Environment policy, Aderonke says this is a change of name only, and not a change of policy.
“We want the Home Secretary to change the policies,” she says. “Stop detaining people. Make good decisions and give people time to get on with their lives.”
Aderonke wants to see human rights upheld for everyone in the UK, and that includes people seeking asylum. She asks for allies across the UK to stand alongside MiSol campaigners, and suggests that anyone who wants to take action should consult people with experience of the asylum process to learn the best way of helping.
Whatever the members of MiSol are experiencing, they know that standing right next to them is someone who’s been through the same thing, and can offer them meaningful support. Rather than facing the asylum process alone, they have chosen to not only come together and support each other, but also to fight for fairness for others.
Hear more from MiSol (which has received Charity Pot funding) in this Soapbox Voices podcast.