Mishka: Speak to the brain, not just the heart

Mishka is a member of the Detention Action Freed Voices group. He writes under a pseudonym. 


‘We have to remember that we live in a world where a certain portion of people laugh when they hear about a sinking migrants boat in the Mediterranean, saying that ‘one more boat sank means one less boat full of filthy migrants to deal with’ 


Where it started 


I personally spent five months looking out from within the walls of detention before I was released. Now, on the other side of those walls, my focus is on how we can undo the set of detention policies that directly harm 28,000 people every year and indirectly impact many more. I write this article as a member of Freed Voices – a group of expert-by-experience activists advocating and campaigning for radical detention reform. As an activist with the first-hand experience of the issue, I believe those of us who have been in detention have a crucial role to play in the fight for change. I believe it is important that we keep our heads high, we stand up and we speak out. We must resist the Government’s degrading policies that not only seek to strike a blow to our basic human rights but also seek to create divisions among us as human beings. 


Risks in resisting 


Resisting and speaking out against any oppressive regime naturally comes with risks. This is nothing new to me. I come from a country with far harsher human rights conditions than the UK, where people who resisted the Government were tortured or assassinated for doing so. But that doesn’t mean there are no risks speaking out here in the UK. I have stood alongside others inside detention in demonstrations against the despotic injustice of the Home Office machine. We did this from within a setting where the Home Office had an excessive, almost complete, authority over us. These actions came with considerable risks: people were transferred to harsher detention centres, locked up in isolation in the dreaded ‘Room 40’ (segregation), or threatened with marks of non-compliance on their detention centre files. However, none of these stopped us from resisting that unjust system. 


Detention is not an aberration 


On paper, this country might have a better human rights record than the one I came from. But over the past four years, I have learned that even in the UK, if you don’t speak up and demand your rights, then there is a good chance you will not get them – especially if you are a migrant. In this country, everyday life as a migrant comes with the pressures of having to battle a set of hostile immigration rules and policies that are designed to make life untenable. The Home Office wants you to bow your head in defeat. 

We all know that the ‘hostile environment’ had been actively pushed by all kinds of governments over the last few decades, but it has unquestionably received several extra ‘steroid shots’ over the last two terms. During my four years involved in activism against detention, I have realised that detention itself is not an aberration – it is a natural extension of a wider set of malevolent policies. It is just the sharp end of this system. 




I think it is important to remember that indefinite detention in this country only occurs because it is culturally allowed to happen. A portion of UK’s population readily commends detention in particular and the hostile environment in general. I believe this is because of the way migrants are cast. If you take one good look at social media pages of opposite groups, you will see migrants being put into very specific boxes: ‘threat to the society’, ‘criminal’, ‘benefit leech’, ‘puny cry-baby’, ‘actor coached by liberals’. In every case, migrants are presented as people who have no opinions themselves but will be happy as long as they get their basic needs met. 


My approach 


My approach to challenging detention concentrates on breaking these stereotypes. I also believe it is important to engage with people who have different opinions, contrary to the views compatible with our own. 

We all have a natural tendency to engage with the easy crowd, our allies, and people who would readily agree with our viewpoints on migrant rights, rights of asylum seekers, and detention reform. In large part, this is because the easy, ‘warm’ crowd will readily support what we do, and as humans, we need that positive feedback for a sense of validation and ego. I think this is both normal and misguided. We end up fuming when we encounter criticisms from opposite parties or people with different opinions. The response is usually intolerance and disbelief. I am not suggesting we entertain trolls. Rather, that we need to understand the political reality we live in and appreciate and respect the arguments pushed by our rivals – primarily so that we can conquer them.   


Controlling my emotions and blending logic and rationality 


We have to remember that we live in a world where a certain portion of people laugh when they hear about a sinking migrants boat in the Mediterranean, saying that ‘one more boat sank means one less boat full of filthy migrants to deal with’. This is in part why I personally believe there is nothing to be gained by someone just holding a sign reading ‘detention is humiliating’. Many people – especially the people we need to persuade – will not be convinced by this sort of a message. Instead, I think we need statistics and logic to complement the emotional messages we use to convince people during our advocacy. 

When I speak up about detention, I want to annihilate the false narratives that have been built around detention for many years: that detention works as a deterrent, that it stops (rather than encourages) re-offending/absconding, and that it always leads to removal: none of these are true. To do this, I must arm myself with hard facts, talk about the inefficiency of detention, and the impact on the taxpayer as well as those caught up in the system. And I prefer to convey messages that not only stick in the hearts of people but also in their brains. When you do this, you also challenge the idea that migrants are vulnerable victims here to steal sympathy, or the total opposite of this – dangerous criminals. That is why we must see ourselves as experts able to destroy both of these narratives. Importantly, I want to make sure that I speak with confidence and authority. 


My final message 


It is imperative that people who are directly affected by any particular issue (detention, hostile environment, asylum or any other issue) should learn to consider themselves as advocates, become competent to fight for their rights and justice…and not see themselves as victims all the time. 

It is also equally important that any groups, such as NGOs, charities and human rights organizations that are willing to include experts-by-experience in the work they do, make sure they also include experts-by-experience during they decision-making process.  

Do not involve experts-by-experience only as case studies. Do not constantly involve them only to play the ‘vulnerable victim role’ or to add some ‘blood and drama’ to the show, or your latest public campaign. As an advocate and an activist with the first-hand experience, I am not here to perform my experiences for anyone’s consumption; I am here to talk about the bigger picture. I am here to talk about real change.   

Image via Flickr-floeschie