Life in immigration detention

Two women in an immigration detention centre hold a sign out of their window that says "HELP"

Picture: Women inside Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire.

Indefinite detention separates families and devastates people’s mental health. Read the stories of three people who have been through the UK's detention regime.

Miriam, held in Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre (IRC)

In the country I come from, in East Africa, I was forced to marry. My husband abused me physically and sexually, and he let his friends do the same to me.

I knew my life was in danger. I had to get away somehow.

I travelled to the UK as part of a group. The people who arranged our travel told us to keep quiet when we went through immigration, and not to say anything.

After arriving, I was taken to a warehouse in London and locked in a room with two men. They raped me. Then I was told that I needed to pay for being brought to the UK with my body.

After that I was working as a carer for an agency. When they asked for ID I showed them the passport the people who had brought me here had given me. I didn’t know it was fake.

I was sentenced to six months in prison. When my sentence finished, I expected to be released.

But instead I was then transferred to Yarl’s Wood. In the end, I was there for nearly five months.

Yarl’s Wood is a secret, torturing place. They take you there in a van with no windows. You don’t know where you are going, and when you get there, you cannot get out.

If you ask me what’s worse, prison or Yarl’s Wood, I say Yarl’s Wood. You don’t know what you’re doing. You wonder if you are safe.

In Yarl’s Wood, my physical and mental health got worse day by day. When I went to healthcare, they saw that my blood pressure was getting higher and higher, but they just told me I should try to relax. They asked me “why are you worrying?”. I felt depressed all the time, and I wasn’t sleeping.

If you ask me what’s worse, prison or Yarl’s Wood, I say Yarl’s Wood. You don’t know what you’re doing. You wonder if you are safe.

The way the Home Office treated me was awful. They didn’t believe me when I first told them what had happened to me. It just felt like there was no respect for me, as a human, at all.

 

Kasonga, held in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook IRCs

I was detained in prison under immigration powers, and then in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook IRCs, for over two years altogether.

The “IRC” stands for “Immigration Removal Centre”. “Removal” is the key word here. From the very first day I was detained pending deportation, I knew I could not be returned because of Home Office Country Guidance.

My experience in detention broke the trust I had in the Government, and the country I have lived in for the last twenty years.

Once you’ve served your sentence, you’ve paid your debt to society. You should be freed. But migrants with convictions to their name serve double sentences. Although this is detention and this is the UK, so no time limit means it is actually more of a life sentence.

The sense of injustice swells inside of me when I think about it. I felt like the specifics of my case were completely ignored – my long-term detention came down to the fact I was a foreigner, little else.

My experience in detention broke the trust I had in the Government, and the country I have lived in for the last twenty years.

The routine must become the rare. In 1994, it was exceptional to put someone in detention. In 2016, it is exceptional as a migrant in this country to not experience detention, in one way or another, directly or indirectly.

People with experience of detention need to speak out about the reality of detention and shape what alternatives look like in light of their experiences. We understand the real problems at the root of the detention system in a way others cannot and we must be part of the solution.

 

Reverend Nathan Ward, former duty director at Brook House IRC

I was a duty director at Brook House for three-and-a-half years before resigning in 2014.

I could no longer cope with a management culture that had a devastating impact on staff and detainees. On multiple occasions, I raised complaints about staff behaviour however the culture continued.

Among the issues I raised were inappropriate behaviour and language towards detainees. I presented managers with clear evidence to back up my allegations of abuse and neglect at Brook House.

This practice, usually described as internment, is normally only encountered during wartime to manage a threat posed by enemy aliens to national security.

Those incarcerated in immigration detention do not know how long they will be there. It is the equivalent of an indeterminate sentence.

This practice, usually described as internment, is normally only encountered during wartime to manage a threat posed by enemy aliens to national security.

And we have adopted the language of wartime to the issue of immigration: we name the agency responsible for securing our frontiers the Border Force and dress them in militaristic uniforms.

One immediate and achievable change to improve conditions in these institutions would be for the government to bring an end to indefinite immigration detention – by capping it at 28 days, for instance – with a requirement for the judiciary to authorise any detention over 72 hours.

This, plus periodic reviews, would be a step in the right direction, as would a willingness to seek a framework for immigration policy that recognises detention in places such as Brook House is costly, callous and largely unnecessary given that fewer than half of those detained are eventually deported.