‘All my dreams are gone,” says Walumba, who came to Britain from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). “At least in prison you know you’ll come out on a certain day, but here you have no hope. I have been in detention for four years and four months. Will I be here another four years? Or ten?”
The UK Border Agency wants to deport Walumba—but cannot because the DRC is a war zone. So he is left in limbo, in Colnbrook detention centre near London’s Heathrow Airport.
“I came here in the 1990s. My father was a politician who was murdered for opposing the Mobutu regime. I was tortured,” he says. “After I arrived in Britain I was granted exceptional leave to remain.
“I suffered from depression. I was on medication, but I mixed it with alcohol. That made me violent. I got into a fight with a guy who insulted my family and I injured him. I was sentenced to four years in prison in 2003 and have been detained ever since.”
Mohammed is also in the Colnbroook detention centre, and has been since February 2008. “I escaped from the war in Somalia,” he says. “I saw bad things—people getting killed and dead bodies everywhere. All of that stayed with me.
“I’ve been in Britain since December 1999. A year later I was given four years leave to remain. I was very stressed when I arrived in this country. I wasn’t allowed to work or do anything constructive.
“I ended up on drugs. I robbed someone on the street and was sent to prison. I finished my sentence and was released.
“Unfortunately, I drifted back to drugs and alcohol. After that I was in and out of prison for minor things. But that mugging was the worst thing I’ve ever done.
“In 2005 I applied to have my leave to remain extended, but it was refused because of my conviction. I felt depressed, like I was invisible or I didn’t exist.”
Jerome Phelps, the director of the London Detainee Support Group (LDSG), says the way that foreign detainees are treated reflects double standards. “The criminal justice system believes these people pose no threat, and if they were British they would be released. Yet the Home Office arbitrarily asserts that they have to be locked up indefinitely.
“It is also enormously expensive. It costs more than £68,000 a year to detain someone in a high security detention centre.”
In exceptional circumstances the government has long been allowed to hold foreign nationals in indefinite detention pending deportation. It was particularly used for people who had been imprisoned for serious offences.
The policy was massively expanded after media scare stories in 2006 about foreign ex-offenders being released into the community. Home secretary Charles Clarke resigned and the Home Office introduced a new policy, which prioritised detaining ex-offenders even where deportation was impossible.
The LDSG exposed what this has meant in its report Detained Lives.
Detainees from four countries predominated—Iraq, Somalia, Algeria and Iran. The first two are war zones, and the others will not provide travel documents, leaving the prisoners effectively stateless.
Yet all that concerns our government is how to deport people like Mohammed. Last year he was given a ticket to Kenya, which borders on Somalia. “They hoped the government there would drop me over the border,” he says. Mohammed successfully challenged the government’s attempts to get around its own rules.
Jerome says, “Indefinite detention is the end of a long chain of exclusions that force irregular migrants into ever more difficult situations—including working illegally—and increasingly criminalise them. This then justifies their indefinite detention.”
This process takes no account of the pressure people are under, says Mohammed. “I escaped the war in Somalia and had a real chance when I came here. Unfortunately I’m only human.
“I’ve done what I’ve done with drugs and alcohol, but now I’m a changed person. I’m remorseful for the way I behaved, but the Home Office never looks at that side of me.
“Since I’ve been in detention I’ve done diplomas in computing, English and maths. I’m always helping people here and I’ve been working as a cleaner for eight or nine months now.
“But I don’t think they even know what I’ve been doing.
“Every month I get a report on me from my caseworker, but nothing in it ever changes. And I’ve never seen her or spoken to her. She must just take details from the computer.”
Walumba says, “I’m 41 years old. When I came to Britain I was young and I’ve lived here for two decades.
“This is my home and I don’t feel Congolese any more. When I left the country was called Zaire. Now I don’t recognise the flag or know the national anthem.”
Unlike Mohammed, Walumba’s status allowed him to get a job. “I worked in a kitchen, as a cleaner and a security guard. In 2004 I was granted indefinite leave to remain. But by then I was in prison.
“I was married and have a son. My wife is now living with another man and good luck to her. But she is not always pleased for me to talk to my son and won’t bring him here.
“I miss my son, but at least I can talk to him on the phone and he knows my voice. He was only months old when I was sent to prison. When I call he says, ‘Dad, when are you going to come?’
“I know my past was not good, but I have changed my life totally. If I got out now I would go back to working in the kitchen. I love to cook.”
Mohammed too talks about his desire to be with his family and to work. “I lived in Leicester. My father is here and my brothers and sisters.
“I have a son. My family come and see me. Visitors are allowed every day 2pm to 9pm. But my son is a teenager and my father is 80. I’m 33 now. If they release me I’ll be a father to my son and a son to my father.
“I wish I could get papers to work so I could help the youth. I’d make them understand that using drugs and alcohol won’t help you escape from your background.
“I got onto the wrong side of the law, but that can’t mean that my life should be destroyed. In here I feel all my dreams are fading.
“I used to like this country so much. Having human rights and the freedom to speak your mind. Now I wonder if this is the same place.”
Jerome says, “The people who are released find themselves in a different form of limbo. They have temporary admission or bail into the community, but they’re still not allowed to work.
“We arrange for them to get asylum support, £35 a week on a supermarket card to live on. And there they stay until their case can be progressed.”
The cases of Sakchai Makao and Ernesto Leal show that community and trade union campaigns can challenge the UK Border Agency’s obsession with deporting people.
Sakchai Makao lived in the Shetland Islands. He was detained and threatened with deportation to Thailand after 13 years living in Britain, because he had earlier been jailed. A campaign among the islanders secured his release.
Ernesto Leal, who had fled the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, was to be deported after 30 years, for the same reason. Once more, an active campaign by friends and supporters reversed the decision.