The UK Home Office has just officially banned access to social media and instant messaging to people in immigration detention centres

The Detention Services Order 04/2016 Detainee Access to the Internet requires all detention centres to offer monitored internet terminals for 7 hours a day, including access to web-based e-mail and material on the internet that may be relevant to their immigration case, but prohibits social networks and instant messaging.

There are no previous Detention Services Orders on Internet Access. Therefore access to the Internet has varied between detention centres, with many in detention reporting finding relevant information blocked

“Internet — many websites are blocked, not just social media but websites with information about your country of origin. This makes it difficult to get evidence to support your case, as you cannot access this information online” 
Amara Korama 09/2014 in submission to Detention Inquiry
“the internet was so low. You could not open any social network — Twitter, Facebook. Sometimes they even blocked the emails. How are you meant to send information to your solicitor? How can you check your email and see a message coming from you solicitor or your family? People need to access email — we were not terrorists there, we were just migrants. Another man had been there for 10 years, he told me. He said that immigration officers and security guards were so scared that someone could shared information about what was happening in detention, which was why they filtered it.”
Anonymous submission to Detention Inquiry #7
“We can access the computers but they shut us out of a lot things. They block so many websites even shopping sites like Boots, Debenhams, New Look and John Lewis. And Facebook, Ms B. really misses Facebook, it would be something to do.
If we want to print personal papers we can’t do it ourselves. The library staff print things for us and it’s not private. The staff can ask questions and read our documents. They don’t print everything, sometimes they decide we can’t have something printed.”
Ms A and Ms B submission to Detention Inquiry 09/14

The Detention Services Order is the first overall Internet Access Policy and will apply to all detention centres. Whilst this is better than each centre having differing restrictions and does highlight the right of detainees to access the internet 7 days a week, especially to websites related to their case; it also enshrines in policy the banning of access to social networks and instant messaging, filtered access, no downloads and constant supervision.

Since many webmail services such as hotmail and google integrate instant messaging in their webmail pages, it also seems arbitrary and difficult to implement to allow e-mail, but not instant messaging. The policy also does not permit downloads or uploads of any files, which will continue to cause problems for people needing to access documents or PDFs related to their case or ongoing studies.

“Detainees also tell us that they are often unable to download information documents sent in PDF format, for example from the websites of legal practitioners or other support groups such as Freedom From Torture.”
Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (AVID) 09/2014

Limiting access to social media goes against recommendations about how it helps detainees maintain connections, which were made by the Shaw Review this year, the All-Party Parliamentary Group Detention Inquiry published last year and recommendations by the then HM Chief Inspector of Prisons in 2014.

“Access to internet, social media and skype should be facilitated so that detainees can easily and cheaply communicate with friends, supporters and family in the UK and overseas and access support organisations and lawyers freely.”
Nick Hardwick HM Chief Inspector of Prisons 10/2014
“The Home Office’s blanket ban on the use of social media appears to be counter-productive and unjustified, particularly for those who will subsequently be returned to their home country and who want to make connections in order to prepare for return. We recommend that detainees are allowed to access social media and filtering should be akin to the parental controls that are used in households across the country.”
The APPG Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention in the United Kingdom 03/2015
Recommendation 30: The internet access policy should be reviewed with a view to increasing access to sites that enable detainees to pursue and support their immigration claim, to prepare for their return home, and which enable them to maximise contact with their families. This should include access to Skype and to social media sites like Facebook.
The Shaw Review into the Welfare in Detention of Vulnerable Persons 01/2016

People in immigration removal centres (although the majority of detainees are not removed) can currently be detained at various points in their immigration process or asylum claim and they may or may not have removal directions. Unlike in other European countries, in the UK people can be kept in immigration detention indefinitely, some remaining there for years.

Despite the terrible impacts of detention; key recommendations for a 28 day time-limit, ending detention of pregnant women and victims of torture, trafficking and rape, and the principle that detention ‘should only be for shortest possible time and only to effect removal’ from the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Detention in Sept. 2015 and the recommendations to end the detention of pregnant women, transexual people, those with learning disabilities or PTSD and the introduction of an age limit made in the Shaw Review in Jan. 2016, have not been implemented in the recently passed Immigration Act.

‘Immigration detainees tend to be particularly isolated from the outside world. Research has shown that approximately 80% of asylum seekers do not receive any personal contact from family and friends’ 
Mind Submission to Detention Inquiry 2014

Given the indefinite nature of immigration detention and the isolation experienced, access to social media like Facebook, instant messaging such as FB Messenger and Whatsapp and VOIP services such as Skype seem important in helping those in detention maintain and rebuild relationships with friends and family and supporters.

Access to the internet is important for refugees

~50% of those who have been in detention 2010–2014 are are asylum detainees based on Home Office immigration statistics 2010–2014.

A research study released last week by the OU mapping the importance of the internet and mobile phones to refugees fleeing from their countries to their arrival Europe found that ‘Staying connected with family en route is important’ and that news is shared more ‘through WhatsApp and Viber, because these apps are not subject to surveillance.’ They found refugees used social media to access news they trusted from their home country as it was shared on social media by ‘by respected friends, family and individuals’.

Can’t just use their mobile phone

The mobile phone situation in detention centres is also pretty terrible. On arrival smartphones are confiscated and replaced with basic phones (without cameras). For many people entering a detention centre their phone will be the main way they communicate with friends, family and supporters and therefore contain all their contact details. The Mapping Refugee Media Journeys Open University Research report also states

“If mobile phones are lost or damaged, Facebook accounts enable a permanent if intermittent perpetual presence.”

They may also struggle to access webmail and other services they automatically use on their phone if they don’t remember their password. They may also need to use a different SIM card in the provided phone, which has additional costs and a different number.

Detainees are allowed to have a mobile phone in their possession if it is without: — recording facilities, i.e. the ability to take photographs, video, livestreaming or audio recording; and — facilities to connect to the internet… If a detainee’s personal mobile phone does not comply with the restrictions, or if the detainee does not own a mobile phone, the centre must provide the detainee with a mobile phone handset which is compatible with this DSO… The centre is not required to provide a SIM card to the detainee. The centre is required to provide each detainee with five minutes worth of calls upon first reception. Detainees should be able to retain their own SIM card if it is compatible with their new centre-issued mobile phone. If they do not have a SIM card, or their SIM card is not compatible, detainees must be able to choose their mobile phone provider. To enable this, a variety of SIM cards and pre-pay/top-up cards should be sold in the centre shop. It is the detainee’s decision which mobile phone operator they choose. Detainees should be made aware of any signal coverage issues which might affect their choice. 
Detention Services Order 08/2012 Mobile Phones and Cameras in Centres
If your phone has been taken away and your SIM still has credit on it you can’t take it out and put it in the phone they give you. It stops you calling your lawyer.
Aderonke Apata Submission to Detention Inquiry
We were not able to speak to her by telephone as her phone had been removed from her, and her sim card (on which were the remaining details of her family back home) had been lost. This latter point is still a cause for great anger in our family due to the distress it has caused. It is regularly referred to by our daughter. It meant that for 3 years she was unable to gain any news of the plight of her family and especially her father.
Alison Phipps and Robert Swinfen Submission to Detention Inquiry
My phone was taken off me. I had to wait as they do not have enough phones for everybody then was given a basic one with no camera after a few days. It was 02 network which is very expensive.
Anonymous Submission to Detention Inquiry #20
When I got to the detention centre, they took my medicine, my sim card and mobile (everything). I was unable to contact anyone. Later they gave me a mobile, but as I had no sim card I was unable to contact anyone.
Bahram Submission to Detention Inquiry

A lack of access to smartphones also means communication methods most commonly used by refugees and migrants outside detention such as WhatsApp, are no longer accessible. Texts messages which many pay for per message can be too expensive on both sides to maintain regular communications. Detainees get 71p a day in detention centres and even if the work they earn just £1 an hour. This means that unless they are able to contact someone outside to send them money or phone credit they are extremely limited.

If Detention Centres truly aren’t prisons then these limitations should not exist.

The goal of detention in Immigration Removal Centres is supposed to prevent absconding, not to punish. It isn’t possible to upload oneself to the internet in order to escape, so there is really no justification for the limitations that exist. If they are worried about what people outside detention centres will think then that is the problem of the system and not a reason to isolate vunerable people even further.

Additionally security concerns don’t seem to justify the limitations, especially in the arbitrary split between the prohibited social media and instant messaging and the permitted e-mail. Stephen Shaw concludes in section 6.129 of the Shaw Review 01/16

“I fully appreciate the need for appropriate security measures, but I do not believe there is any rational case for continuing the blanket ban on Skype and Facebook and like services, or for preventing access to websites that support detainees in their immigration claims, help prepare them for return, or facilitate contact with their families and friends. Indeed, from that point of view the current restrictions are actually counter productive.”

Limited access to the internet keeps those in detention dependent on intermediaries to share what is happening to them, keeping them in the role of ‘helpless victim’ and isolating them from their existing networks and the outside world.

The banning of social media, camera phones and monitoring of the internet shows that they know that what is happening in detention centres is wrong and they don’t want us to hear about it and it is also way of isolating detainees further.

“We also would recommend that detainees should be allowed access to the media. At the moment the media do not appear to be allowed to access the detention centres. Also, detainees are not permitted camera-phones and cannot take their pictures or share them with anyone outside. There is no justification for this and it frustrates any attempt by detainees to get their cases picked up by the media”
Extract from Inside Harmondsworth filmed undercover by a detainee

Yet despite the limitations it is happening anyway

This policy is clearly yet another unjustifiable policy in the immigration detention regime.

What action can we take?

Before this Detention Services Order was introduced Refugee Radio advised people concerned to fax or email their MP to ask why the UK is banning Facebook, which I think is still worth doing now, but I think we need to do more. Please share your suggestions.

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