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Eiri Ohtani is a strategist and advocate in the migration and refugee justice field, and has worked with a range of international institutions, civil society groups and foundations as an advisor and consultant. Between 2009 and 2019, she was Project Director of the Detention Forum. Twitter: @EiriOhtani

In one of the 2020 Transnational Institute webinars, Andrea James, the founder and Executive Director of the US-based National Council for Incarcerated & Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, offered a useful corrective to how we think about our goals. She urged campaigners and NGOs to work towards ‘reimagining communities’ and not ‘reimagining prisons’, meaning that we must build communities that offer safety and access to resources and opportunities for everyone.

Despite the fundamental legal distinctions between immigration detention and the imprisonment of people who are convicted of crimes, James’ call for a rethink and action should resonate with all of us. Both types of incarceration are experienced as punishment. They involve dehumanisation, deprivation of liberty, and separation from family, friends and other relationships.

Normalising a community-based approach to migration governance without detention

Campaigners and lawyers have long been doing a stellar job of challenging immigration detention – but how do we start reimagining communities, instead of reimagining immigration detention? What should become our new normal in the community, where a concept and practice of immigration detention no longer exists? Where do we start?

Since 2017, I have been working with three NGOs in Bulgaria, Cyprus and Poland who run small alternatives to detention pilots in the community that grapple with these ambitious questions. The usual caveats apply: each national context is unique and what might work in one country doesn’t necessarily work in another. However, they have been useful points of comparison as I think about the UK situation.

At their operational level, the pilots work with migrants at risk of detention as they navigate the process of resolving their immigration status. The central component of the pilots is trust, born out of human relationships between case managers and migrants. Individually tailored case management connects migrants to sources of support and services, enabling them to draw strength from and find their place in the community: one case manager described this process as ‘building a community around a person’. The vast majority of the participants were previously detained and have complex vulnerabilities.

The pilots are trying to normalise the idea of a systemic shift towards a community-based approach to migration governance without detention. They have a specific focus on demonstrating to their community partners, service providers and the immigration officials the mechanics of a non-detention-based approach, in order to increase their openness to a humane way of working with migrants.

The pilot evaluation shows that this social work approach in the community, built on a logic of rights, dignity and care, can significantly boost migrants’ ability to engage with the immigration process and work towards resolving their cases. Nearly 86% of participants stayed with the pilots, despite setbacks and complications. For many, it restored their sense of control over their own lives. And one in four participants were able to complete the immigration process without detention. One person on the pilot said:

The support of the organizations like SIP [the Polish pilot implementer) helps a lot to concentrate on the procedures and to become active. When you get the proper information, when you start to understand what is going on, what you can do or what you cannot, where your limitations are – this makes you feel you have an influence on your life and you want to do it.

Considering the human at the centre of each case

It should come as no surprise, however, that case management in itself does not overhaul the immigration system that, by design, creates the irregularity that it punishes through detention and deportation. Again and again, the pilots witnessed the devastating impact of poor access to quality legal advice, healthcare, housing and means of survival, which makes it very difficult for migrants to follow the process and assert their rights. Migrants’ previous experience of detention and the hostility of immigration officials also severely discourage them from proactively exploring their immigration situation. And fundamentally, case management does not overthrow the principle of border control that welcomes some but excludes others. Not everyone on the pilots has been able to regularise their status: some made up their minds to opt for a voluntary return while a small minority of people decided to disengage.

Given these limitations, it’s easy to dismiss case management: it is not an instant solution that solves all problems. But despite their limitations, the pilots have successfully opened immigration officials’ eyes to an entirely different way of thinking about case resolution that treats migrants as human beings. The pilots have frequently shared their methodology and results with policy makers and detention centre officials and, sometimes, case managers facilitated migrants and immigration officials to identify solutions together in a safe manner. These practices opened up spaces of mutual dialogue and reflections (alongside disagreements too), and we are now seeing signs of gradual change.

In Poland, a Memorandum of Understanding has been developed for the referral of detained migrants to be released onto the pilot. In Bulgaria, an official alternative to detention programme for vulnerable migrants has just begun, led by the pilot implementer. In Cyprus, the Migration Department is currently working with the pilot to establish a way for detained migrants to be supported in the community instead. These are baby steps. Working with the authorities is also fraught with challenges of safeguarding migrants’ interests and protecting NGOs’ independence and missions, but negotiation must start somewhere if we are to refuse to accept the status quo.

Building communities of care

When I cast my eyes to the UK, I see numerous groups and lawyers already doing incredible work, under impossibly inhospitable circumstances of the Hostile Environment and endless attacks by the Home Secretary and media, to holistically support people who are going through the immigration process and challenge existing law. The UK is also home to powerful migrant and diaspora communities, a direct consequence of a long history of immigration and emigration and violent and extractive colonialism spanning centuries. We know that their informal hands-on help and fierce campaigns have been defending and sustaining our communities. These strands of solidarity work offer solid hope for an alternative community-based approach. Resources currently spent on enforcement and detention can be diverted to strengthen this solidarity work to meet the basic human needs of migrants and other community members instead. The diverted resources can also be used to fund quality legal advice in order to untangle immigration cases which have been badly served by decades of poor decision making and frequent immigration rule changes. We are also increasingly aware that communities where people are organised and mutually help each other are the ones which are most resilient, and are critically important as we tackle the climate emergency and the ravages of the pandemic.

Putting aside the ongoing deliberation about how or whether the border regime could be dismantled altogether, the immediate question is what could entice the UK government to come to the negotiating table to speak directly with migrants and their communities, to start building trust and a better society for all in the meantime? I don’t have a clear answer to that question but I know we are already way past the point of reimagining immigration detention to make it “better”. We need to be building communities which care for all, and in that vision, immigration detention is nowhere to be seen.

This article was written as part of our Human to Human Winter Appeal which you can donate to here.

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