This periodic blog series creates a space for advocates to reflect on strategies that get results. If you would like to contribute, contact [email protected]

The first in this series is from the new IDC Director, Jerome Phelps


I am delighted to be taking over as Director of IDC.  Only a special opportunity could have prised me away from Detention Action, the UK organisation that I ran for fifteen years.  For much of that time, IDC was my key reference point for how radical detention reform can be achieved, beyond the confines of the UK.


IDC is unique in this field in being able to set the agenda and discourse at the global level on immigration detention, alternatives to detention and the pressing need to end the detention of children, whilst also having the direct connection to the national level, through our close working relationships with member organisations throughout the world.  The national level being, of course, where real change must ultimately happen – where governments respond to civil society pressure and reform their detention practices.


I worked at the national level for fifteen years, building Detention Action up from a point where I was the only staff member.  I’ve seen how that change can happen, and how long it can take.  For many years, large-scale and indefinite detention was seen as an inevitable part of the UK immigration system.  The evidence was always there of its ineffectiveness and the appalling human cost, but political traction was absent.

Network building

It took ten years of patient network, coalition-building and campaigning to change that.  Ten years of establishing effective working relationships within a few key organisations in the Detention Forum network, alongside strong trusting relationships within a much broader movement.  We sought to influence politicians of left and right, faith leaders, citizens organising groups and other social justice movements.  Crucially, migrants themselves with experience of detention, played increasing leadership roles – the point where real change started to happen was the point where my media

and public-speaking opportunities dried up, because they were going instead to the Freed Voices group of experts-by-experience who have lost years of their life to immigration detention.

It made me realise that change required many different voices and organisations playing different roles, because the problem is complex.  At Detention Action, we played multiple roles, from ending the systematic detention of asylum-seekers in the Detained Fast Track process, to spearheading public-facing campaigning to end indefinite detention, to building close working relationships with the Home Office in the UK around our alternative to detention pilot for young ex-offender migrants. And throughout that time, our focus remained the people who are locked up in detention centres, supporting them through their time in detention.


I’ve seen the political pressure reach tipping point, and change come.  The UK has reduced its detention estate by 40% and has recently promised to consider the introduction of a time limit.  The Home Office is working with civil society to develop and expand more alternative to detention pilots. It’s no longer a question of whether detention is to be reformed, but how far and how fast.


Sharing insights


It will be crucial for IDC to gather and disseminate the learning on how detention reform is possible, to remain open to new possibilities and work with others to strategise for change.  We are seeing unprecedented anti-immigration hysteria, fanned by populist movements that have swept to power around the world.  The threat of mass detention has never been greater in many countries.  Appeals to long-established norms increasingly fall on deaf ears, even in the States that were responsible for drafting and promoting the international legal framework.  At the same time, in response to the brutal treatment of refugees and other migrants in detention, more people are waking up to the need to protect their rights and dignity.


In this context, IDC has a crucial role to play.  The language of alternatives to detention has traction with governments, even where a sense of panic has swept away concern for observing human rights norms.  Indeed, alongside the ever-growing pressure to detain in many parts of the world, we are seeing the growth of an important counter-trend of commitments to alternatives, most recently in the Global Compact on Migration negotiated by the vast majority of governments.


There is always the risk that talk about alternatives can become a smokescreen behind which governments continue to expand abusive detention practices.  So it will be vital that the talk about alternatives becomes action.  This will need to involve civil society, which has the expertise and relationships with migrants to implement alternatives that are not alternative forms of coercion, but genuinely enable migrants to engage with immigration systems.  IDC will need to work closely to support our member organisations to take on this role, sharing the learning from the pilots and networks already taking shape in several regions.


Highlighting immigration detention as a problem


Alongside providing solutions to governments, we also need to work on making sure that detention is a problem politically and socially.  The crudeness of much discussion of migration is a huge challenge – it appears that some governments no longer prioritise actually managing migration, but favour symbolic gestures of cruelty towards migrants, in the name of deterrence.  We need to work with members to ensure that migrants’ experiences of detention are heard and influence policy making, so that populists no longer see detention as an easy rhetorical win.  The detention of children can be a crucial entry point here, since voters and politicians across the political spectrum generally feel uncomfortable about locking up children.


Ultimately, immigration detention is one of the major human rights issues of our times because of the devastating impact it has on people.  It is increasingly becoming normalised in many societies, but until a few decades ago it was almost unheard of.


The raw sense of the injustice of immigration detention is what migrants speak of when they describe their experiences.  It is a powerful driver for migrants and civil society to work together to achieve change.  Our role as advocates is to harness this sense of injustice and turn it into strategies and policy solutions that respect the experiences of migrants themselves and, crucially, their human rights.  I am looking forward to spending my first few months visiting our regional offices and member organisations and learning about those experiences, in order to strategise for how we can make detention once again the exception.