One of the most feared elements of the asylum process has always been the possibility of detention, which can extend to months in what amounts to a prison...
At different times different rules have applied, and in theory now victims of torture, as well as pregnant women, those suffering from mental health issues and the elderly should not be detained. In practice there is great latitude in interpretation, and many members of Write to Life have at different times experienced immigration detention.
This is one account.
I got out of the van and went into the building. There was a long corridor, with beige walls and a shiny blue floor with a tiny dotted pattern. It all looked very clean and very solid. In the reception, some women were waiting for me. They said, ’Welcome to Yarlswood Detention Centre’ and one of them added ‘You are going to stay with us for some time.’ She asked if I wanted some sandwiches. It was nearly eight in the evening and I hadn’t eaten since I left home before lunch. But when I’m upset, I punish myself, I lose my appetite. Even if I eat it, it has no taste, no life in my mouth. So I said, ‘No’.
Then she continued, ‘Now we need to search you.’ That was the third time I’d been searched that day. Two women came and took me to a small room. They told me to take off all my clothes, and my shoes. I told them, ‘I’ve been searched only a few hours ago.’ They replied, ’Yes, we know that. This is different.’
I did what they told me to do. I took off everything except my pants. They checked every single thing. The only place they didn’t go was into my pants. After a couple of minutes a man came. He said in a very harsh voice, ‘I am going to take you to your room. Follow me!’.
I did what they told me to do. I took off everything except my pants. They checked every single thing. The only place they didn’t go was into my pants.
We went along a very long corridor with a lot of doors. He was carrying a big bunch of keys. He didn’t say anything; the only sound was his keys in the endless doors.
We carried on down the corridor, and reached a staircase. My room was a little way up. He asked if I needed any help on the stairs. ‘You look very tired’, he said. I answered,. ‘No’. I opened the door and entered the room. It was small and square, with two beds and a toilet and shower by the door. One table, two chairs, one cupboard, white walls. Like a hospital.
I saw a girl lying down on one of the two beds. I asked her if she came from Ethiopia. She said, ‘No, I’m from Eritrea, my name is Azebe.’ We started talking. She said she’d been here in the country for five years. ‘I came when I was under age, and when I became eighteen they wanted to deport me. I’ve been taken to the airport three times, but each time I shouted and screamed when they tried to put me on the plane, so they brought me back’. Her story scared me. I felt shocked, all over again. She added, ‘Next week I have another flight. I don’t want to go back.’ I didn’t ask her why not. What she said made me think about myself.
She started talking about her life but I didn’t hear her. My feelings were confused; it was nice to have somebody to talk to, but what she said was very upsetting.
I didn’t answer her, and went to bed.
A week later, six guards came to the room. It was nearly midnight. Azebe was expecting them, we were awake. She said, ‘I’m not going, I’m going to die here! I’m going to die here, Hana, I‘m not going to go!’ Then they opened the door; four men and two women. She said to them, ‘I want to use the toilet’. They waited, sitting on the bed, watching the locked door.
Five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes passed. They knocked on the door. She didn’t answer. They called somebody to open the door. A security guard came. He had a master key and opened it. She’d drunk the shampoo. She tried to stop them touching her. They pulled all her stuff from the cupboard, put it in a black bin bag, then they started dragging her out of the room. I was sitting there stunned, watching her flailing arms as she tried to stop them. I didn’t know what to do. I just watched.
I was afraid of the security guards. The white shirts and the black trousers reminded me of violence. I felt nobody was safe in that place.
After a few minutes I started to vomit, and then my bowels went. I was terrified this would happen to me. It was like watching the future.
The next day, about ten o’clock, Azebe came back. Her face was bruised. I was happy to see her, but I couldn’t talk to her. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t face the dining room, didn’t want breakfast, lunch or dinner, even a cup of tea. I was afraid of the security guards. The white shirts and the black trousers reminded me of violence. I felt nobody was safe in that place.
Despite evidence of the harm it causes, the UK Home Office is still detaining survivors of torture for immigration purposes.
Survivors’ descriptions of their experiences in detention can be hard to tell apart from their descriptions of torture back home.
Can you tell the difference?
I didn’t eat for five days. During this time they took Azebe away again, and brought a Ugandan girl, her name was Maureen. She said, ‘Hana, you must eat something, you can’t last like this. You need energy to fight for yourself.’ But I couldn’t see why I should fight, because I had no power to help myself. I preferred to die there rather than fight; they had all the power. Maureen asked a doctor to come and see me, but security refused to bring a doctor. They said I had to go to the clinic. She said, ‘She’s too weak, she hasn’t eaten for five days.’
I didn’t eat for five days...Maureen asked a doctor to come and see me, but security refused to bring a doctor.
She called her friend, I don’t remember her name. ‘Let’s at least help Hana to take a shower’. Her friend and Azebe came, took off my clothes and put me in the shower.
At lunch time the three girls made me go to the dining room. Maureen asked the security to let me go to the head of the queue, as I was too weak to wait in it. He said it wasn’t fair on the others. Then all the girls queuing up shouted out, ‘Let her go in, let her go in!’ They led me in and I sat in the corner, near the door. Maureen brought me soup, and Azebe and the other girls forced me to drink it. I started, but I couldn’t keep it in. I couldn’t stand, but I crawled out to the corridor, and managed get a little way from the dining room, in order not to disturb the others. Then I started to vomit.
Security called the nurse to clean it up. The nurse was a short man, he looked Indian. He had to take me to my room. He grabbed my wrist and asked, ‘Why are you vomiting here? You should vomit in your room!’ I looked back at him. I didn’t answer. I tried to pull my hand away. Maureen was supporting me on the other side. I tried to tell him to take his hand off me, but I couldn’t speak, so I gestured instead, with my other hand.
The nurse was a short man...He grabbed my wrist and asked, ‘Why are you vomiting here? You should vomit in your room!’
On the way to the room, we passed a woman security guard – the woman who’d seen me the first day. She said, ‘You have to see a doctor’. She told the nurse to arrange to send the doctor to me. In the afternoon a doctor came to my room, an old man. He asked what had happened. He looked shocked. He said,’ She must go to hospital, she’s dehydrated.’ An hour later the ambulance came and they took me to hospital. I was so weak I couldn’t stand, but they still sent two security guards with me. They x-rayed me and checked everything, then the hospital doctor asked me what had happened. But the security guards were sitting right by me. I couldn’t tell him anything. He kept asking, again and again, but I just kept my mouth shut. Everything I did or said, they would write down. So I was too afraid.
Day and night they stayed by my bed, two of them. Watching me...after five days the security guards left. After eleven days, the Home Office wrote to the hospital and to me, and told me that if I had an address to go to, I could be released.
Day and night they stayed by my bed, two of them. Watching me. Even when I used the toilet they came with me, and told me to leave the door open. I asked the doctor to help me, and after five days the security guards left. After eleven days, the Home Office wrote to the hospital and to me, and told me that if I had an address to go to, I could be released. But if not, I had to go back to Yarlswood. I rang my friend in London and asked her to get me an address, any address, so they could release me. After two days she gave me an address. I don’t know where it was, I didn’t go there. Two days later, they released me.