Image courtesy of Michael Collins

This article by H was published as part of Unlocking Detention series on Open Democracy.

One man tells of his experience of being incarcerated in the UK for three years for being a migrant, and why the memories of violence and conflict in Brook House – where he attempted suicide – will never leave him.

Brook House is a migrant detention centre next to Gatwick airport. It is one of eleven detention centres across the UK where migrants can be detained indefinitely.

When I arrived I had never heard the name ‘Brook House’ before and I didn’t know where it was. I didn’t know what county I was in or which part of the UK I was in. I had been trafficked here and I had committed no crime.

When we stopped at the gates waiting for them to open I heard the sound of planes. I was in a van and it was intimidating and appalling because I was locked in with no window for fresh air.

When I saw it, it looked like a prison. And hearing the planes meant I was always reminded of the fear of being put on a plane by force and returned to persecution in my country. I’d been locked up in the past in my own country as a child, again, for committing no crime. Going back into a building of that nature again made me feel sick. It really wasn’t so different, except that in the UK I wasn’t beaten.

During the three year period I spent locked up in the UK for being a migrant, I experienced life in several of the UK’s eleven detention centres. The face of the building is always the same. But being locked up at night was different at Brook House. In some of the other centres there was a ‘risk assessment’ and only the detainees who posed a risk were locked up. But at night in Brook House the officers shouted that everyone should get behind their door and they went round locking everyone in their room. The doors banged and crashed shut and the noise was amplified because everything echoed in Brook House. Some detainees banged the doors and shouted. Eventually it went quiet unless the officers came to force someone to leave the centre to catch a plane. To be woken up by that noise was to feel choked, petrified, scared.

In Brook House you were in a small cell. No-one could have called it a room. There was no air through the windows because the glass couldn’t be opened. When you are in detention, you think about the air a lot. In the detention centre in Dover the windows opened a slit and they had bars but in Brook House the window was closed like a wall. If I could speak to the architect who designed Brook House, I would ask the architect to make the windows with a slit to let the air in.

The toilet was in the room and I would also ask the architect to make that separate. There should also be a door for privacy. Privacy makes you feel like a human being. I just sat on my bed and read my Bible and waited for the next day to come. I tried to focus on the word of God to survive. People watched TV in their cells and I sometimes watched football and tennis but I didn’t like to watch adventure or suspense movies because they made me feel bad.

In Brook House I spent most of my time in the Chapel. It was calm in the Chapel whereas in other places people had arguments and there was trouble. The Chapel looked small in size but it was inviting. It helped me to be able to get through my time in Brook House. I remember the scent of incense and the smell of candles. We sang in the Chapel and at those times I felt I could cope for a moment until I was back on my wing with TVs blaring.

The noisiest place in Brook House was the shop. It was so expensive! There were fights about queuing which seemed petty given that we were all together in detention. When there was a fight, officers would run to the place where it was happening and Brook House would get ‘locked down’. I had the feeling people should be worrying about their case and their lives and their future rather than about a shop queue. But the queue was a magnet for people to air their frustrations. There’s no way in Brook House to release your tension and people have many different cultures and outlooks and that makes them find it difficult to get on. If I needed to buy things from the shop I would run there ten minutes before it closed to avoid a busy time with conflict.

There’s a yard in Brook House. It’s very small and people go there to sit and smoke. The visits room in Brook House provided a rare glimpse of the outside world where you could express yourself for the first time.

When you talked to someone in the visits room you could forget where you were for a moment, until you went back in. The visits room was welcoming and you felt happy when someone was sitting there waiting for you. The end of a visit was hard. I used to wish the end of a visit would never come. At the end of a visit I remembered where I was again and that I had no freedom, and the reality of Brook House came flooding back. You were searched when you left the visits room and you passed through three doors. When you got back to your room it felt very cold.

Some people didn’t have a single visit the whole time they were there.
Being in Brook House for a long time affects your mental health. I tried to kill myself twice in Brook House because it was just too much. They put my name in a special book and then officers came to check on me every thirty minutes. I never liked it at all because I didn’t want to see their faces. When I saw them, I felt angry. Once I was taken to ‘the Block’ in Brook House. The cell in the Block has only a mattress and no bedding. People go there before they go on a flight and so you hear people crying.

Now I’ve been out of detention for 10 months and I’m living with a friend, reporting weekly and trying to turn my life around. But the rest of my story remains to be told. I am young, but I have had a hard life and I am still suffering. I think the reason my trauma stays with me is because of the three years I spent in detention. I’m outside detention now but I still feel as if I am in detention. I still feel controlled.

Brook House was built for people to be there for short periods of time. It doesn’t have what people need if they are there for months. If it was understood that people were coming for a long time there could at least be more education. In the three years I was in detention – in Brook House and other centres – I could have taken a degree! Human resources are being wasted. My life has been wasted. If I could speak to the people who run the Centre, I would ask them to respond to people as human beings because we were treated like animals or slaves. What your master says is what you have to do.

I still have nightmares. I dream about Brook House. I can’t escape from the memories.