It's been a year since Lampedusa, a tiny Sicilian island, made headlines when the Arab Spring pushed thousands of Tunisians away from the chaos at home for the relative calm of Europe. To suggest that what happened then in Lampedusa was a unique case would be ridiculous; somewhere in the world, people are seeking asylum every day for one reason or another. But it was an unusually media-friendly instance of migration: 20,000 desperate North Africans struck out 70 miles across the Mediterranean to an idyllic sunshine isle with a population of just 6,300, which was then temporarily ruined by the sheer weight of humanity.
Needless to say, the hysterically right-wing Italian media were delirious, and the "shame" of Lampedusa was plastered all across newspaper frontpages and dominated TV news coverage in the country for days. But as so often happens, the story disappeared from the media as soon as the initial, sensational stages of the migration had passed. More often than not, this is also the case in the UK; where the highly criticized detention of children, the policy of indeterminate detention and the accompanying depression, self-harm, and suicides of detained migrants are practically ignored, leaving various charities to deal with the problem.
I used to work for one such charity, Freedom from Torture, guys who are forced to spend way too much of their time explaining to the UK Border Agency why torture victims cannot be sent home. Another interesting piece of information to note here, is that some detention centers are run by private security companies that get a fee per inmate per day. Thus making it a profitable business to keep more people in, for longer.
I decided to visit one such detention center, Colnbrook near Heathrow, to meet a guy named Jerry who fled Zimbabwe for England ten years ago, and has been locked up for almost four years.
There are 13 immigration removal centers in the UK, each next to an airport or the sea.
Immigration Removal Centers are technically not prisons.
After a long journey that involved taking two different train rides and a bus, we arrived at a place that seemed only a little different than a prison. I felt bad for the guys that designed the building; It was obvious that they had done their best to make it look like a block of flats, but the high walls covered in barbed wire, and the bars in the windows were hard to ignore.
At least the interior people had tried to liven the place up by sticking numerous posters on the walls. My favorite one read, “Peace: Partnership: Respect” and then "WELCOME" in a zillion different languages. I asked the guard if I could take a picture of it, but he ignored me and began to interrogate me about why I was here. I told him it was social, which seemed to appease him—they really don't appreciate people writing about this place—and we were on to the security measures: Fingerprints and photos, a pat down, through the metal detector, and then escorted through the huge, electric prison doors by another pair of officers, into a courtyard surrounded by high walls and decorated with yet more barbed wire just to make triple-sure no one gets out.
As soon as Jerry came into the waiting room, it was clear that those four years of detention had taken a toll upon his appearance. He was thin and looked really drained for someone who's just 29. He was still smiling, though, even if it lacked a tooth. He told me that he'd been having trouble sleeping, which is pretty lame considering that he spends most of his time in Colnbrook trying to sleep. “There isn’t much else to do here. I already completed the one course there is in prison. There is a gym and an art room where you can make cards and beads.” No wonder people are going crazy in there. “It is more calm than [Gatwick detention center] Brook House, but the guards here are more aggressive.”
Brook House was the original center in which Jerry was detained. He was subsequently transferred to Colnbrook due to issues with his roommate: “He was a convicted rapist, with five counts, everyone was mixed in Brook house, there were fights every day.”
Jerry is himself a convicted criminal, although many people in these centers have committed no crime (other than being born in the wrong place at the wrong time). Four and a half years ago, Jerry went to jail for actual bodily harm, but after serving his time (18 months) he was directly transferred to a detention center. Effectively, he has served double the time he was given. “They say they cannot send me back to my country because it is too dangerous [Zimbabwe is currently pre-election, which is pretty much when the shit hits the fan]. And they won’t let me out because they say I am a danger to society. I understand I deserve to be here, I did a bad thing but I am not a dangerous man.”
I’d heard about the psychological issues arising from the state of limbo forced upon immigrants in detention; Not knowing whether you'll be able to leave tomorrow or in ten years, not knowing if you will be let out in Britain or sent back to a place that terrifies you, but the way Jerry described the situation made it all the more tangible.
“I went three months without eating, the food would just pass through me. They don’t believe you when you are sick here; All they give you is paracetamol and water. People try to jump. Last week a man tried to drink a bottle of bleach when he found out he had to get a plane home.”
Mugabe's child soldiers.
The thing is most of these people left their homes for a very good reason, and leaving them in a perpetual state of not knowing whether they will or will not be sent back is pretty screwed up. I asked Jerry about his life in Zimbabwe, whether he would want to go back there at all. “I can’t for my life, they will kill me. The people I ran away from are still there so I cannot go back.” Jerry was brought up in a family that supported the opposition party to Mugabe’s Zanu PF, but despite the well-documented violence tactics used during Mugabe’s reign, Jerry’s case for asylum has not yet been accepted.
“They [the Zanu PF] used to go knocking door-to-door and say you have to go to the rally or the army will come to your house and beat or torture you. My mum would go to the rallies sometimes to make it seem as if we supported them, but my sister was very involved with the MDC [the opposition party] from the beginning, so we were targeted. I was kidnapped by the Green Bombers when I was 14.”
The Green Bombers are Zimbabwe’s government-controlled youth militia and they are responsible for a lot more than Jerry’s missing tooth. “I couldn’t do the things they wanted me to do. I saw some things that were not pretty. I've seen people get tortured, hurt, killed. I saw girls being raped. They would pick up any girl they wanted and they would make the boys do it. If you couldn’t do what they wanted, they would punish you. I tried to run away with some friends. They tortured me. They would also starve us and then separate us from each other. They wouldn’t let us go, in case we revealed the location of the camp. They would do very bad things. I couldn’t take it. I have a soft heart.”
In light of this information—and more that, for the sake of Jerry's case, I'm unable to disclose—you would think the only reasonable solution would be to let Jerry stay in Britain. “I have been to bail more than ten times but the system is a mess. I see men who are much more violent and have done worse crimes than I have leave every day. I always have hope. Each time, I have a feeling that this time will be the one.”