Speaking to three victims of the UK's detention system.
A UKBA officer on a raid of illegally rented properties in Newham. (Photo by Natalie Olah)
Theresa May says she wants to make Britain a “hostile environment” for illegal migrants. She wants to make it “tougher” for people living here illegally and she wants the world to know that if you’re coming to enjoy all of our sweet British freedoms (Hi, GCHQ!), you better think long and hard about whether it's really worth the hassle.
Put frankly, May’s beloved Immigration Bill is designed to be a gigantic pain in the arse. If it passes into law – a second reading is scheduled for today – it will require people to undergo immigration checks before they can get a job, rent a flat or access routine healthcare. It's no surprise, then, that it has been criticised by immigration lawyers, who say it will turn life into an unceasing bureaucratic hell for all. But mostly for immigrants, obviously.
"The Immigration Bill is another attack on families who have lived lawfully in the UK for many years," campaign group Detention Action told me. "They have already lost the right to a free lawyer when the government decides to take away their right to live here. Now, they will be deported before they even have a chance to explain that they have British children and partners and have spent years or decades in the UK. Families will be torn apart without even a day in court."
It's been a couple of months since I wrote about the Home Office’s “no hiding place” tweet, the beginning of an escalation of tough talk on immigration. Since then, I’ve spent some time with former asylum seekers and one current detainee, Laurent*, who competed for Guinea at the 2012 Olympics. After becoming embroiled in a dispute with the head of his Olympic federation, he and the rest of the Guinean team were told they'd be imprisoned if they returned to their home country. "It’s not just me, we will all be put in prison. They’re going to do something bad to me. Definitely – 100 percent… The British don’t understand this," he says.
Having previously been told he’d be fast-tracked through the system, he has found himself in detention ever since the Olympics ended last August. Now, though he says he keeps his head down, he regularly witnesses fights and suffers provocation himself because of his status as an Olympian. His situation is unlikely to change as long as the desperation and uncertainty he says he feels in detention are mirrored back home in Guinea – the country is no longer ruled by a military regime, but sectarian tensions and political turmoil remain. While Laurent says he’d love to return, he is convinced that his government will put him in prison.
The Home Office's controversial "no hiding place" tweet, utilising the power of social media to scare immigrants. (Image via)
Leaving aside the ideological problems of May's thinking, will such measures even work? Tony Smith is a global border security consultant and former director-general of the UK Border Agency. He's seen similar attempts to curb illegal immigration made before, almost always to no avail, and believes that fraud will always find a way. "Employers’ sanctions have shown that it is relatively easy to get some form of document to pass employment checks," he says. "The same will be so for landlord or medical checks."
The Home Office didn’t respond to my request for a comment. Although their policies are sure to be winning the hearts of swivel-eyed loons everywhere, they are under pressure at the moment. A recent report on the state of the UK asylum system by the Home Affairs select committee revealed that some asylum seekers have been waiting 16 years for a decision to be made on their claim, and raises concerns about the "appalling" housing conditions faced by asylum seekers, as well as the pressure placed on gay applicants to prove their sexual orientation. It shows us that while the government is pushing out vote-winning tough talk in the run up to the 2015 election, what the asylum system really needs are doses of humanity and efficiency.
A civil servant told me recently that May is known as “Darth Vader” among her colleagues, and you can see why. Her language is the language of fear. It’s the racist van’s message coming from the mouth of a politician with media training, rather than from the back of a lorry that looks like it usually carts Spearmint Rhino billboards around. Her immigration bill, published last Thursday, will become law in spring next year, assuming it's approved by MPs. That it will be passed seems inevitable. Politicians across the spectrum worry that if they take anything other than a hard line on immigration they will be branded degenerate cowards by the public, and chased from Westminster by Nigel Farage riding a bulldog.
The bill is another indication of the fact that, while British doors are slavishly opened to anyone with money – property investors, tax-dodging corporations, Chinese students – the plight of the impoverished people rotting in its detention centres is of no real concern.
The perimeter fence of Colnbrook Immigration Centre. (Photo courtesy of Detention Action)
The main problem that the detainees I spoke to identified was also picked up by the Home Affairs committee in their report. It's probably best summed up by the title of Alexis Wood’s recent documentary on the detention system: How Long is Indefinite? When you are in prison, you know roughly how long you’ll be there. In a UK detention centre, you have no idea. It could be three months, it could be 15 years.
Hafez*, an Iranian who was in detention for two years, used the analogy of a shipwreck. As we sat on the decking of an outdoor shisha café in Harrow-on-the-Hill, he told me that, "When you’re in the ocean, you don’t feel completely hopeless if you can see the island you are swimming to. That’s what prison is like. Detention is like this: you’re in the ocean, but you can’t see the island you’re swimming to."
Hafez was an activist in Iran, where, he says, "You have freedom of speech, but after speech you have no freedom." When he burnt an Iranian flag in the middle of an anti-government protest, he was tipped off by a friend with ties to the government, who were closing in on Hafez. He escaped, paying human traffickers to take him overland from Iran to Pakistan and from Pakistan to India.
When he came to Britain – on his way, or so he hoped, to Canada – he was stopped at Manchester airport. He remembers being stricken with panic as he tried to choose the most good-natured-looking immigration official. He opted for the only woman, and as soon as he got in the queue he realised he’d made a mistake because, he says, "a woman in that atmosphere will always have to be tougher than the men to prove she belongs there".
He was thrown in Strangeways prison for trying to enter the country with a fake passport (which was, of course, the only way he could get out of Iran). Talkative and unusual, he made friends in one of Britain’s most notorious prisons. After six months, he was moved to a detention centre. "I didn’t know what outside was because I hadn’t seen it," he remembered thinking about Britain.
Hafez refers to his time in detention as "two years of darkness". Roger*, who came to Britain from Cameroon, echoed that when he told me, "There’s a lot of tension and people fight with each other because of it. You get so stressed. You get so depressed." Back in West Africa, Roger was part of a group peacefully protesting against the government of President Paul Biya, who has been in power for over 30 years. He fled the country rather than face another spell in prison. While he was in detention in the UK, his wife was tortured, raped and eventually killed at home in Cameroon. The Home Office knew this but would not accept the proof he provided them with. The guards "took pleasure" in pushing him around, he says. He was twice scheduled to be deported, but eventually – with the support of Amnesty International, Medical Justice and his local MP – he was granted asylum.
Hafez talks sadly but poetically of his time in detention. When he says that, “Sometimes I wanted to be a sparrow and fly away,” he sounds like he’s in the kind of meaningful Iranian film that wins Golden Bears and Palme d’Ors. Roger is more straightforward. He talks about violence and hunger. For him, the food was particularly bad: "I managed to get work in the kitchen," he says. "When I saw the food, I said, 'Is this food really prepared by human beings for human beings?' The chefs don’t care because they don’t eat it. When the meat arrives frozen and they don’t bother to defrost it. They just throw it in a big pot and start cooking."
(Photo courtesy of Detention Action)
For all the detainees I talked to, the atmosphere in detention centres proved almost unbearable. Roger told me about a Sri Lankan man who, on the day he was deported, headbutted a wall in a desperate bid not to be sent back. "His head just opened up. He was taken to hospital. I don’t know what happened to him," Roger says. "I only saw one fight between an inmate and a guard. It ended in the inmate being sedated. I was scared all the time. I lived in fear."
The stories I heard about the asylum system in this country are subjective in that they are told more or less through the eyes of the people who told them to me. There is always the worry that – as it was claimed of some Mexican asylum seekers – the people who come to Britain seeking asylum will be trotting out lines that they’ve learnt are effective. And, of course, not everyone who comes here is going to be a model British citizen. But I trust that each one of these people told me what they believe to be the truth about their life and I trust the people and organisations that vouched for their honesty.
"When you go into the waste, you can’t come up not stinking," Hafez says of his time in detention. "Of course Britain can’t let everyone into this country, but they should really try and tell people how long they will be in detention for, because it kills you – it really does."
Hafez has left the detention centre, but it hasn’t left him. These days, when he’s at work, he often finds himself going on to Google Maps. He finds the detention centre he was kept in and hovers over it, watching.
*Names have been changed to protect identities
Follow Oscar on Twitter: @oscarrickettnow
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