This post originally appeared in VICE UK
The UK locked up over 30,000 people last year—not for committing a crime, but for wanting to stay in the country. Immigration Removal Centers are used to house people who people who have been rejected for asylum. Desperate not to be forcibly returned to where they came from, be that a war zone or place of persecution over politics, sexuality or whatever else, they languish in one of these prisons by all but name until they can be removed from the country against their will. In the case of Paul Addo, things were a little different. He was locked up for incredible two years and eight months, being moved from one private detention center to another—all the while trying to leave the country.
"I was convinced I'd be gone in one week," said Paul when I met him at Heathrow, near the Colnbrook and Harmonsworth detention centers where he had spent much of his time behind bards. "One week became two, then three. It was a bad dream. I was locked up for longer than killers and rapists. And at least they have an end in sight." During this time, he didn't know when he would eventually be let out. "Being locked up with no time limit is worse than prison. It is totally degrading," he told me.
Paul says he travelled the world for years with what he thought was a UK passport, believing he had dual UK and Ghanaian citizenship. But on his return from a trip to Amsterdam in April, he was stopped by UK Border Agency officers, who found his passport to be false. After serving six months in jail he wanted to go back to Ghana. On a routine visit to the Home Office to help process the move, he was put in a removal centre.
"They held me all that time yet here was no attempt to deport me," he said Paul. "They never gave me a ticket. I just wanted to go to Ghana, I had a good life there. But the Ghanaian High Commission said that I didn't have a Ghanaian passport. My brother even flew to Ghana to help get documents for me. I was doing this with my own money. I was desperate to leave the country at all costs."
Many of Paul's fellow detainees were not able to access legal representation, but Paul was fortunate enough to be able to hire unlawful detention specialist Janet Farrell. She said, "Paul complied fully with the documentation process and with regular reporting prior to being detained. But the UK can't control the integrity of other countries' systems. There is a huge amount of variance in what's required to prove citizenship in other countries. A lot of people like Paul have been out of their country a long time and may find it hard to prove they are citizens."
In other words, Paul was being punished by a UK bureaucracy for the failures of a foreign one. He's not the only one. "Many long-term detainees are being held on the basis that the Home Office, for a variety of reasons, cannot document them," said Farrell. "Paul was willing to go home, but because the Ghanaian authorities did not issue a travel document for his return, he was detained for close to three years."
Once he was in the centers, Paul had a miserable time. "There were a lot of human rights violations in detention," me told me. "People I knew got hurt by officers, and anybody who saw anything would be let out or transferred in the middle of the night. I saw disabled people, people with crutches and wheelchairs, sick people detained, elderly people and blind people too. There were a lot of self-harmers, many people with mental difficulties—being locked up with no end in sight, and not for committing any crime takes its toll. And healthcare in most detention centers is minimal."
"I had a cell mate who had sickle cell anaemia and suffered badly. I was taking care of him, helping him find charities and a solicitor to help. They moved me to another detention center. Every time I made friends or helped people I was moved to another detention center. I was moved back and forth almost 20 times," he said.
Finally in December 2010, on his ninth attempt, Paul got bail. He sued the Home Office for unlawful detention, and they settled for about £50,000. That's just one way in which the UK tax payer is losing out. Processing asylum seekers in the community works out around 80 percent cheaper than in detention. The Home Office recently admitted that in 2013 to 2014 the total cost of running immigration detention was £164.4 million. This is largely outsourced to multinationals such as Serco and G4S—two companies which had to pay the Home Office tens of millions of pounds back after they massively overcharged them to put electronic tags on offenders.
Now back in Ghana, Paul intends to make up for lost time by working on regeneration projects. Others Paul met in detention won't fare as well when they eventually get out. Around half of ex-detainees do not leave the UK, but are kept in limbo, surviving on tokens worth £35 a week as their asylum claims are processed. If they do not qualify for that, they're in destitute because they're not allowed to work. "A lot of people I know ended up homeless," Paul said. "One man I help with money was sleeping rough in bus shelters at the age of 69. In other European countries you are allowed to work and contribute to the economy while you wait for your case to be resolved."
Janet Farrell added, "The UK is the only EU country that hasn't signed up to the EU Returns Directive which places a maximum time limit on immigration detention and requires automatic judicial oversight of prolonged detentions, save for Ireland, which has its own time limit which is shorter than the Directive in any event. The lack of these two safeguards in my view encourages a culture of poor decision making by the Home Office and the use of detention by default."
At this month's Parliamentary Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention, MPs heard that countries like Sweden that have a system of processing immigrants in the community actually end up having more voluntary returns.
Paul believes that in his case, detention was definitely a hindrance, not a help to persuading the Ghanaian authorities to allow him to eventually return. "The detention regime is run as a business with detainees as the commodity," Paul said.
Melanie Griffiths, research fellow at Bristol University, who specialises in detention, deportation and asylum agrees. "Detention is big business, outsourced to big international corporations, which reduces accountability," she said. "Interestingly, some of the companies involved have ties to Guantanamo Bay."
"As there's no time limit to detaining people in this country, there's no pressure to decide cases quickly. People are warehoused and forgotten about. Everybody I have talked to in detention is stressed, on sleeping pills. Many self-harm. This all seems only designed to appease UKIP supporters."
Over the last 12 months, UK immigration detention center capacity has increased by 25 percent, and the government has just announced a plan to double the size of Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre in Oxfordshire. Maybe Paul's story will give them pause for thought about how helpful that will really be.
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