Thursday, 22 August 2013

Detained indefinitely

I’ve never been locked up or held against my will, but today I will be visiting people who are locked up without limit. Under the Terrorism Act the police can hold suspected terrorists without charge for up to 14 days. The people I’m visiting are also held without charge under UK/European immigration detention legislation. I’m visiting two women who have both been in detention for around 50 days but there are many people who have been detained for over a year under the same powers. A Freedom of Information request revealed that as of December 2012, 10 people had been locked up solely under the immigration act for over two and a half years each (the longest was 4.4 years and  between them they had clocked up a mind-numbing 32 years behind bars).

I’m nervous about my visit. I’ve had to send my personal details in advance and I’m expecting to be searched, photographed and fingerprinted before I’m allowed through the gates. But the people I’m visiting have not committed a crime, have not been charged with any offence, are not waiting to come to trial and pose no threat to Britain.

Under the powers of the Immigration Act, the government can detain people indefinitely (see Jonas Bochet's article about history and consequences of indefinite detention.) In theory detention should only be used to aid deportation but the experience of many asylum seekers is that detention is used arbitrarily as standard practice often without any rational explanation.

I remember the time when a friend from church was detained. Police and immigration officials arrived at her house in Leeds very early in the morning and hammered away at her door. When she answered she was swiftly bundled into a waiting van without even being allowed to change from her pyjamas.
She was released two days later, once it was pointed out to the authorities that they had made a mistake and detained her despite her ongoing asylum application. She was lucky that no one else had been assigned her room in the shared house in Leeds so she was able to return to the same place. Many people come out of detention and end up in a new town or city away from any community or support they have built up while in the UK.

My friend returned to Leeds with additional emotional scars caused not by her experiences of persecution in Africa but by her treatment here in the UK. Her room and house had now become infused with an extra layer of fear. She would wake, startled with her heart pounding every time a car pulled up and she would jerk awake at any unexplained noise in the night.

Her situation has now improved. She’s been granted refugee status and is busy working at Leeds University having just completed a degree.

I arrive at Yarl’s Wood in the company of Heather from Yarl’s Wood Befrienders. It’s striking that wherever you get asylum seekers you always get support groups and charities springing up ready to mitigate the appalling situations many people face. It clearly demonstrates how many people in Britain believe in justice and value our society for our positive Human Rights.

(c) Google street view
The Immigration Removal Centre (or Immigration Detention Centre as the signs still calls it) is on a business estate a very short marathon length from Bedford along Paula Radcliffe Way. There's not much nearby apart from Milton Ernest, a small thatch-cottaged village. It’s not an easy place to get to. Serco, the private company who hold the detention contract with the home office, do provide a bus to the station every two hours. Yarl’s Wood is sign-posted from the main roads in a rather unusual manner. The sign points to Yarl’s Wood I.D.C. and then has two brown boxes underneath highlight the facilities of Indoor Sky Diving and Indoor Surfing making it look like an I.D.C. is a place of extreme sport rather than captivity.

There are some incredibly ugly and uninviting buildings hiding behind tall fences topped with barbed wire. They're not the detention centre but the Skydiving site and the Red Bull racing team. The Immigration Removal Centre itself is much more attractive with half-brick, half yellow walls and a light grey low-pitched roof giving it the appearance of a modern office block.

Entering the buildings is not such a welcoming experience despite the staff being polite and helpful.

I meekly follow my minder who knows the system. First stop is the visitor’s reception where I am photographed, have my finger prints scanned and my ID checked. I also have to leave all my belongings apart from coins in a locker before I can proceed.

We then walk across the visitor’s centre. I’m still expecting high walls and barbed wire but that’s all hidden around away from visitor's sensibilities. We walk along a short corridor and press a button to alert the guards to our arrival. The door opens and my minder enters. I attempt to follow but am shooed back and told to wait. Moments later the door opens and I’m allowed in. The guard explains that only one person is allowed in at a time to preserve their dignity while being searched. She then searches me and my finger print is scanned again before I’m allowed through the air lock type doors.

The visitors centre itself is a light spacious room that has perhaps been consciously designed to look like a Starbuck’s cafĂ©. There are large windows on one side looking out onto a small garden with bright murals that attempt to hide the size and blankness of the walls. There are low armchairs sprinkled around coffee tables and in one corner there are vending machines where visitors can treat themselves or the detainee – which explains why I should have kept hold of my coins.

I’m meeting two women detained under the immigration act. Their cases are different but I quickly discover two things they have in common. Despite it being mid-afternoon neither woman has eaten and both of them talked about difficulties sleeping.

The first woman is a couple of months pregnant and it cannot be good for her health to be incarcerated with so little self-determination. She described in limited English how sad she was. I only saw one smile from her, which ironically was when she talked about Gujarat food, before continuing to comment on how the meals provided were not appetising. 

The befriender told me that many pregnant women have real difficulties with food and sleep. Meal times are set and don’t take account of the difficulties caused by morning sickness and don’t provide the flexibility for women to eat when they need rather than when they’re told.

The second women I met spent much of the time with her hands clenched on either side of her neck. Again the smiles were few and mostly reserved for when she talked about how much difference a visit makes to her. She described how, “In the dinner hall you see people crying - you cry. How can you eat?”

Those tears are caused by desperation and depression and previously she has been "on watch" - with someone keeping her in constant sight because of fears of self-harm. This week she is due to present her appeal before a judge but has no solicitor to represent her and no medical report to provide evidence of the physical persecution she has suffered.

I cannot imagine how hard it must be for her to be confined with so much hanging over her.  She’d spent the previous night working on paperwork to fax to the court this morning. She’d expected to sleep for a few hours in the morning but was called for a medical appointment. Having waited in the medical wing for over an hour she was finally informed that the appointment had been cancelled because the medic was off sick – which they could have told her when she first arrived.

(c) Google maps
I’d expected to be intimidated by high walls, barbed wire and a security check that is more onerous than when visiting a prison. The five-metre, razor-topped walls of Yarl’s Wood are safely hidden behind the friendly front face of the building and polite and efficient attitude of staff to me as a visitor.

What I had forgotten about was the impact of meeting people living in such devastating captivity. I met two women who had no control over their lives, who had little hope and were totally isolated with the Yarl’s Wood Befriender as their only visitor. One of them explained that during her asylum claim no one believed her and that meeting the Befriender made such a difference and gave her hope.

I’ve been working with asylum seekers for over six years and I am still astonished by had badly we treat them and how much they are vilified by the press and by politicians. My experience today has only deepened my concern about how the UK treats people who come here looking for protection. I long for the day when politicians are brave enough stand up to immigration and take a lead on promoting British values of fairness and concern for those in need.

If you live near one of the UKs twelve Immigration Removal Centres (Bedford, Gatwick, Heathrow, Strathaven, Hampshire, South Lanarkshire, Oxfordshire, Lincolnshire, Dover, Antrim, Manchester) why not consider volunteering. If you live near Leeds then come and join us at Leeds Asylum Seekers’ Support Network and perhaps you can be the person who brings hope.