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Detainee speaks out: How Britain deports vulnerable victims

This article is over 10 years, 6 months old
The British government is detaining hundreds of vulnerable people and threatening to deport them to places where they will be at risk of violence. Some of the most vulnerable have been trafficked. Now the Tories are set on making life even harder for them. Ken Olende spoke to some detainees about their experience at the hands of the British state
Issue 2278

Roseanne is being held at the Yarl’s Wood detention centre near Bedford. After coming to Britain from Kenya in 1991, she was forced to work in a brothel for nearly ten years.

Now the British government has taken her freedom away and is threatening to deport her. Roseanne is terrified that, yet again, her safety will be put at risk.

She spoke to Socialist Worker about her case and what life is like for detainees in Yarl’s Wood, which holds more than 400 people.

“I grew up in Nairobi in Kenya,” she said. “My parents were shot dead in a robbery when I was 17. At the funeral an uncle told me I should stay with an aunt I didn’t know in London until I had got over it. We flew over together in September 1991.

“But instead of helping me to recover, this supposed aunt made me work in a brothel. I was moved to various different addresses round London and never allowed out without an escort.

“I didn’t manage to escape until January 2001.”

The British government claims it supports victims of abuse and trafficking. In reality it locks them up and deports them—putting them in more danger.

Disgracefully, the government is making it harder for victims to escape.

Domestic workers who come to Britain with a specific employer will soon face deportation if they change employers.


And with every slippery comment from home secretary Theresa May about how “lax” immigration laws are, it is people like Roseanne who suffer.

Roseanne contacted Socialist Worker because she was shocked at the treatment of victims held in detention.

She said, “Many women were held in isolation by the people who trafficked them and never learned English. Often people are so relieved to have got away and think this place is some kind of hostel. They don’t realise that they are about to be deported.

“I want people to know what it is like here. I think people who have been trafficked should be given asylum.

“After all, if they are deported it is often just back into the hands of the people who sent them.

“People need medical help. A paracetamol is not enough to deal with depression. They need a chance to explain how they were treated.

“Being locked in here can start bringing back the bad experiences people had. There are counsellors who will talk about the problem of being detained. But there are many people here who are trying to cope with far worse things that happened to them before.”

Roseanne’s case is far from unique. Another detainee who spoke to Socialist Worker was 24 when she married an older British man in Kenya two years ago.

When she came to Britain she said her husband effectively imprisoned her and beat her. Eventually she escaped and went to the police—but her husband argued her visa should be withdrawn. She was held at Yarl’s Wood and has since been deported.

Mima Monanga, who is working on Roseanne’s case for the human rights organisation Rapar, told Socialist Worker, “In every way the system says, ‘You are not welcome in Britain’. The current attack on legal aid undermines the democratic right of migrants and asylum seekers to equal treatment.”


The government insists on seeing trafficking as largely a criminal problem. That means that the first thing a vulnerable victim will face from the authorities is a charge of illegal immigration.

Traffickers take advantage of this. They know that people they exploit are terrified of immigration authorities that are likely to criminalise them rather than treating them as victims.

It helps keep victims trapped in horrendous situations for years.

The Poppy Project is the main independent organisation in Britain offering support and accommodation to female victims of trafficking.

Its national coordinator, Abigail Stepnitz, told Socialist Worker, “Approximately 13 percent of our referrals come from immigration removal centres and 11 percent come from prisons.

Of those in prison over 95 percent are charged with document offences such as possessing a false passport.

“If a victim is identified they are often not released—because no mechanism exists to trigger a review of the decision to detain. Victims are often not given the legal advice or support that they are entitled to and therefore simply do not know their rights.”

Sarah was detained with her baby daughter. She told the project, “They brought you here without any document and they brought you in to prostitute. And at the end of this the authority took you to detention centre.

“Does that make any sense? With some few weeks old baby, just in detention centre and they can stay there forever if there’s no one to help them.”

Another detainee, Elizabeth, said, “You want somebody to listen to you but they just don’t care. Someone should listen to you when you have a complaint, and not just think that because you say you were trafficked from Nigeria that you are a liar and try to deport you.

“I was in the bathroom and they just grabbed me and dragged me out with any clothes on. Nothing. How can they treat a person like that?”

Roseanne went back to Kenya voluntarily after she escaped from her captors. “The British authorities asked me to come back and give evidence against the brothel madam,” she said. “At first I had a six month visa, but this was extended as the case went on and on.”

Roseanne explained how her life improved during this time, “While I was waiting for the madam’s trial I got accommodation with various families.

“I got medical help for internal injuries I had suffered working in the brothel. I started to improve my education.

“I am now qualified as a social worker. After the help I got since I escaped. I wanted to give something back to the community. On my placement I worked with autistic children, and that is what I would like to do.”

But a bureaucratic mix up over the renewal of her passport, which the Home Office was holding, meant Roseanne found herself with no current passport. She was classified as overstaying her visa.

She fell in love with a British man in 2006. The couple went to Kenya and got married in 2008.

They stayed in the coastal city of Mombasa. Roseanne was afraid of returning to the capital, where she had lived before.

She said, “I am terrified of going back to Nairobi. After 20 years away I don’t know anyone there except the people responsible for sending me to the brothel in the first place.”


Roseanne applied for a visa to return to Britain but it was denied because of her previous overstay. Many detainees at Yarl’s Wood have broken the law through sheer desperation.

Roseanne’s real crime is wanting to be with her family. She said, “In the end I was so desperate to see my family and friends that I bought a false passport and returned here. I know that was wrong.”

In June Roseanne was arrested and imprisoned for four months for using the false passport. After serving that sentence she has been held at Yarl’s Wood waiting for deportation.

She has applied for bail to leave the centre—but missed her last hearing because no transport arrived to take her to court.

She will now have to wait another four to six weeks for another hearing. Roseanne commented, “There never seems to be a problem with transport when people are being taken to the airport.”

Send messages of support for Roseanne to Socialist Worker and we will forward them to her

How the law fails migrants

In theory British law came in line with European Union directives in 2009. This means the government should identify victims of trafficking and support them with food, medical treatment and free legal advice as they await asylum claims.

A National Referral Mechanism (NRM) has been introduced to protect victims by rapidly identifying possible cases of trafficking to the UK Borders Agency (UKBA).

But, it is staffed entirely by Home Office officials. Not a single trafficking or child protection specialist has input into it. Since the new rules were adopted, campaigners have discovered nearly 200 women held in immigration detention centres awaiting deportation.

A recent Home Office report, Human Trafficking: The Government’s Strategy, explains part of the reason for the authorities’ lack of sympathy. Its approach is simple—blame the victims.

The report claims that because a lot of victims travel on false papers, “many begin their journey believing they are being smuggled.”

If they hoped to come to Britain illegally to work, UKBA will tend to dismiss them as criminals themselves.

The report also quotes NRM figures of 1,254 confirmed cases of trafficking in the year 2009 to 2010.

It records just 116 prosecutions. And the case figures will be a vast underestimate because many people are not recorded as trafficked.

For instance elsewhere it notes, “79 young people in Hillingdon went missing from care shortly after arriving in the country”.

This is not typical—but the idea that this can happen to vulnerable children anywhere is shocking.

Government’s easy scapegoats

Tory home secretary Theresa May is under attack from the media for being too lax on immigration controls. The Labour front bench has joined in the assault. In fact May oversees a draconian system that she wants to make even harsher.

At last month’s Tory party conference, May talked of increasing fast track deportations. She attacked the European Court of Human Rights for defending immigrant rights.

In fact migrants are not a burden on the economy or ordinary people in Britain. The contempt with which “economic migrants” are treated contrasts with the experience of the world’s rich.

They take for granted that they can travel wherever they wish while the middle classes assume economic migration is a right.

The media doesn’t attack British doctors who travel to the US or engineers who go to Dubai.

No migrant should be deported, but the treatment of the most vulnerable is shocking. Yet it is the logical outcome of the government’s position.

The government is obsessed with deporting economic migrants. This makes it much easier for traffickers to control their victims.

And migrants are a valuable scapegoat for the government’s economic woes. That is more important to it than protecting people.

Tories slash what help there is

Government claims to protect victims of trafficking are a sick joke. This year it removed funding from the Poppy Project, the main organisation in Britain supporting trafficked women.

Coordinator Alison Stebnitz said, “Organisations like the Poppy Project are crucial to identifying and helping victims. Our funding comes to an end in June 2012 so we are asking the public to support us so that we can continue to help women who need us.”

It has launched a campaign to demand the government commits to training staff in detention centres to properly identify victims of trafficking.

It is also calling for the immediate release of any victims.

The Poppy Project is trying to collect 100,000 signatures on an e-petition to get MPs to debate the issue. Sign it at
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