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Detention is a way to destroy people – detained migrants speak out

This article is over 9 years, 2 months old
As protests spread inside the brutal centres where refugees are locked up, current and former detainees tell Ken Olende the hell needs to end.
Issue 2446
Protesters gathered outside the Dungavel detention centre in Scotland last week to support hunger strikers inside (Pic: Josh Brown)
Protesters gathered outside the Dungavel detention centre in Scotland last week to support hunger strikers inside (Pic: Josh Brown)

Anger and protests over the treatment of people detained in immigration detention centres are rising.Hunger strikes and protests have spread to many of the ten detention centres, including Dungavel near Glasgow.

One detainee in Dungavel told Socialist Worker, “People here are angry because they’ve been here so long. I was one of those refusing to eat. 

“I’ve been up for bail eight times. The last time I went to court the judge said, ‘If I see this man again I’m just going to release him’.

“That was a year and a half ago. Before I was detained I was in prison for three years. I got asylum in 2002. 

“I was living with my family, but we had problems and I ended up homeless. I started shoplifting. That was my crime. I stole £5 or £10 here and there. I didn’t kill anybody.

“And now I have been held here for three years. 

“I’m slowly going mad. I’m talking to myself. I’m pulling my hair out. 

“I’m from Iran. The home office can’t get travel papers to deport me. My mum passed away before I was detained. If I could go to Iran don’t you think I would have gone back for her funeral?

“I feel nobody cares about me or any of us. That’s why we protest.”

Haile, who is being held in the Verne in Dorset, told Socialist Worker that protests have continued there. “The heating has been off here for the past three or four days,” he said. “It may be spring, but it’s freezing in these old stone rooms.

“We held a protest about it and they punished us by putting our privileges back to basic.”

A report by a cross-party panel of MPs published earlier this month criticised the current detention system as “expensive, ineffective and unjust”. 

Detainees are rightly calling for all centres to be closed. But the report’s key recommendation is to introduce “a time limit of 28 days on the length of time anyone can be held in immigration detention”.


Currently people who cannot be deported can be held indefinitely. 

Former detainee Souleymane, told the inquiry, “The difference between prison and detention—in prison, you count your days down, but in detention you count your days up.”

One detainee wrote in evidence, “Detention is a way to destroy people: they do not kill you directly, but instead you kill yourself.”

The report criticised the fast track system that often deports people before they can get legal advice. It said this is “focused on utilising detention for administrative convenience” rather than justice.

It noted that many detainees are stopped from looking freely at the internet. In some centres banned sites “include the websites of Amnesty International, the BBC, IRC visitors groups, foreign language newspapers and other NGOs”.

The inquiry’s own site was banned in some centres. And many don’t allow social networking sites such as Facebook, which allow people to maintain contact with friends and relatives.

Witness statements quoted in the report show that people who have been trafficked are often treated as criminals rather than victims.

One witness to the inquiry, “C”, is a woman who had been trafficked from West Africa and had been in detention for three years. She was brought to Britain on a false passport, and was arrested and imprisoned for that. When her sentence finished she was detained.

Other detainees complain of offensive treatment. Alice said male guards watch women while they wash and change, “They are laughing and they are saying ‘she have big boobs’.”

Cornelius Katona is the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ lead on asylum mental health. He told the inquiry, “Even people who have illnesses so serious that they need to be hospitalised very often don’t get into hospital or their hospitalisation, even though it’s recommended, is postponed for long periods.”

It is anger at such treatment that has caused the current protests.

The Report of the Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention in the United Kingdom

‘We got taken in a dawn raid when we were children’

Pinar Aksu

Pinar Aksu

Pinar Aksu’s family fled Turkey when she was a small child.

“My family was detained twice in 2007 after we had been here six years. My sister was born here. The first time we got taken in a dawn raid.

The second time we went to sign in at the court and we were all held. I remember the day because it was my sister’s fourth birthday. I was 15 and my brother was ten.

“When we got to Yarl’s Wood there were even younger people there. It was terrible. They had just started detaining a lot of people and the family centre had just opened. 

“We were one of the first families in Yarl’s Wood. It’s a massive place, like a two-floor prison. Another family said they’d been there two months. We never believed we’d be held that long. But the first week passes. The second week passes. After the third week we were still there. The lawyers were sorting it—our hands were tied.”

“Sometimes people waited six or seven years. The process has changed since then. People can become destitute or be detained indefinitely. People don’t flee their countries for fun—they’re coming from war and persecution. 

“They think Britain welcomes people who are suffering but it does not. They are then trapped in a place where their human rights aren’t respected.

“If we hadn’t been detained I would have chosen another path in life. But because of my experience and the help I received from other people I couldn’t stay silent. I get so angry that this continues. 

“The hunger strike shows how people have had enough. That is all they can do inside. The alternative is suicide. 

“I hope the Home Office listens. If they don’t win guards will feed them forcibly. There could be deaths.”

‘You hear them screaming’

Bamidele (Pic: Marco Mignone)

Bamidele (Pic: Marco Mignone)

Bamidele was detained for ten months.

“I was held in a lot of centres. There was no difference between them.

“They moved me around to frustrate me. The purpose was to make me give up and go back to my country, Nigeria.

 “They wanted to dump me on a plane but I wasn’t fit to fly. My blood pressure went up, I couldn’t eat or sleep. I started hearing voices. 

“Many detainees are ill. They don’t get proper treatment. They are suffering. They have mental illness. They can be violent. They don’t sleep. You hear them screaming. They get a lot of medication just to suppress them. Their voices have been suppressed.

“The way we were treated will stay with us for the rest of our lives. I still feel the pressure even three years after being released.

“When I hear about people protesting in detention today I remember that when I was held almost everyone wanted to attempt hunger strikes. It is the last resort to attract attention. It is the last hope. 

“I came as a refugee. They said my story was fabricated, that I was lying. They don’t believe you, but they don’t look into it.

“Since I’ve been released I’ve been going around to mobilise people with Freed Voices. A lot of people in Britain don’t even know there are detention centres. You tell them and they think you are fabricating stories. 

“This is supposed to be a civilised society. It’s appalling. If people know what is happening they should campaign to close these inhuman centres. 

“If the authorities can’t close them all down there should be a time limit. No human being should be detained more than two or three weeks. You wouldn’t keep an animal in a cage for six months. It is horrible.”

Freed Voices can be contacted through Detention Action

‘A guy in solitary banged on the wall for 23 hours’

Farhad Vahidi

Farhad Vahidi

Farhad Vahidi’s family fled Iran. The British government spent years trying to deport them before they won refugee status. 

“I was 13 when I came to Britain. I was at school then college here. 

“I went to sleep one night and then woke up with the border agency in my bedroom saying I had to leave.

“They took us to the family centre at Yarl’s Wood a week after my 18th birthday. This was in 2011. 

“I didn’t have my own immigration case. But when I made my own application I had to be in adult detention on my own.

“So after a month and a half in Yarl’s Wood I was taken from my family and moved to Harmondsworth.

“You’re supposed to see immigration officials within 72 hours, but I didn’t see anyone for ten days. Straight away they said, ‘You’re going back to Yarl’s Wood’. 

“I think it was a mind game to try and find our breaking point. But we had no option but to leave—my father would have been executed in Iran.

“They had been quite nice to us in Yarl’s Wood, but Harmondsworth was different. I had to share a cell, which was locked from 8pm. 

“There was a toilet with no door, just a curtain. The chairs were screwed to the floor. 

“People protested any way they could. My cell was next to the solitary wing.

“One day I saw a man climb up the fence and sit on top. On one side was barbed wire and on the other a three storey drop. 

“Another guy banged his feet against the wall for the whole of the 23 hours he was in solitary.

“I’m not saying deportation is right or wrong, but putting people in a situation where they feel like criminals isn’t right.”

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