For many involved in asylum and migration justice work (not for us!), immigration detention was a taboo subject for a long time and, in some quarters, it still is. One of the reasons for this is the mixed nature of those incarcerated. It is not just “model” asylum seekers who find themselves in detention: people from all sorts of experiences and life trajectories get incarcerated because they do not have a right type of passport or visa. But ‘As a society, how and who do we deem worthy of our empathy?’. Isabel Lima, visual artist and researcher, shares with Unlocking Detention her open letter about Nobody, a man with ‘many qualities and faults’ who finds himself in limbo. This letter is based on a true story and Nobody was anonymised for security reasons. 
I met Nobody in April, 2016 when I was making a film in Middlesbrough with and about asylum seekers and refugees regarding their accommodation and lived experiences in the town. The work was commissioned by Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art for their display, If All Relationships Were To Reach Equilibrium, Then This Building Would Dissolve, a project which explored the tension between free circulation and border control as well as the experience of exile and displacement, focusing on human rights, governmental policies, xenophobia, identity, and trauma, among other themes.
In the wake of allegations made public in The Times by Andrew Norfolk on 20 January 2016, that a Middlesbrough private housing sub-contractor for the Home Office, Jomast, had the properties’ doors painted in red, akin to the Yellow Stars that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany, I set off to research what lied behind this story. It was then that I was introduced to Nobody.
I’m using the name Nobody in reference to Homer’s Odyssey. In the advent of the largest surge of migration in Europe since the end of WWII, we are assaulted by a constellation of cause-effect phenomena, which is too overwhelming to discern, apprehend or even process. The Odyssey is a story of survival against all odds and its major themes: the power of cunning over strength; the pitfalls of temptation; the tension between goals and obstacles; the misery of separation; and maturation as a journey, can help us make sense of current political and social landscapes in an intertwined and globalised world.
It also becomes a useful analogy through which to think about Nobody’s story.
Nobody arrived in the country as a 14-year-old, unaccompanied minor. He is originally from Eritrea and he left the country when he was just 12 years old. It took him 2 years to travel between Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya until he finally reached Europe. In 1997, he arrived in the UK, where he applied for refugee status. He was put into the care of Social Services, he was welcomed, and everything was looking promising.
Even though at that moment in time everything pointed to a fresh new start, Nobody’s mental health and life started to deteriorate. He was a teenager, who had fled his country, he was alone, with no family or friends, in a different culture, a different country and he remembers not having much support from the social services in the provision of opportunities to integrate within British life.
His behaviour started to become erratic, he started smoking, experimenting with drugs, and in 1998 he was arrested. He was released in 2000, got assigned a probation officer and everything looked like it was on the mend. Now he was going to be back on track, he started working and he kept working until 2009.
In 2009, the Home Office decided to take away his papers and permit to work, and Nobody was left wondering to what had he done in order to elicit such action… He was once again lost and confused, he could simply not understand what had changed. He was working for so many years, he had his refugee status and all of a sudden, he had nothing again. He was then told that his asylum claim had never been accepted, he was never given a work permit, his papers and ID were taken away and he just couldn’t fathom why. Were just the last 9 years a dream?
At that time, Nobody had already established a family with a partner and children, and these news prompted yet again another cycle of misfortune and uncertainty. Consequently, he separated from his partner, found himself homeless, and his circumstances kept deteriorating. By 2012 he got arrested for burglary of an office block and was given a sentence of 12 months.
As with any prison sentence, inmates are aware of their release date, therefore Nobody bid his time knowing that after 1 year he would be free to start again, or so he thought. On his release date, Immigration Officers were waiting for him and took him into custody in a detention centre. To the original 12 months another 18 months were added on top to Nobody’s punishment. Unlike the British prison system, detention in the UK doesn’t have a time limit. As stated by Dr Mary Bosworth, criminologist, the UK didn’t sign the European Returns Directive which means that there isn’t a statutory upper limit for immigration detention.
In theory people in the UK can be held in Immigration detention forever. Imagine, being incarcerated for no reason with no idea if you ever are going to be released, if you are going to be deported, even to which country you are going to be removed to? When finally, Nobody got released from detention, he was still not free, as new demands and impositions by Immigration were made. He was to be sent to Middlesbrough, on bail (which he never applied for or sought), to live in shared accommodation belonging to Jomast.
On top of this, Nobody was put on tag which meant that he was living with an imposed curfew whereby he could not leave the property between 8pm to 7am every day. This was also on an indefinite basis, as the Immigration services gave no timeline as to when the tag would be removed. Nobody was faced again with being alone, away from his children who were living in London, with no opportunity to see them, with no right to work and with an allowance of £35.00 a week…
These are only a few episodes from Nobody’s life but they are sufficient to bring forth the question of Empathy. As a society, how and who do we deem worthy of our empathy? When addressing the plight of asylum seekers and in order to draw empathic responses we are usually confronted with images and examples of law abiding families, composed of father, mother and children, with professional qualifications, that most of us in our privileged comfy seats, can somehow relate to.
I come to ask, what of those who act against our moral reasoning, those who as is the case of Nobody, commit crimes, those who are vilified by being single and male and therefore threatening. The account of Nobody’s story given above is in no way to excuse his choices, as we keep repeating to ourselves in moments of anguish or distress we always have a choice, but somehow is difficult to see it as such when you started the game already losing.
Nobody has many qualities and faults. He is a loyal friend, funny, caring and generous and it is true, I’m writing this story from a biased position, as we became and are friends. I worry about Nobody, he goes through cycles of resistance and trying his best in the navigation of life with no status in this ‘first world civilised country’; and moments of surrender where despair and anguish settle only to be relieved momentarily upon the intake of psychotropic substances. As highlighted by Ailsa Adamson, project manager of the Methodist Asylum Project in Middlesbrough, one of the biggest problems is simply retaining resilience in what it seems to be a completely arbitrary and endless process.
I worry and empathise with Nobody, because I keep asking myself what if I hadn’t been born with a European nationality, what if Nobody was me, wouldn’t have I taken the same choices as he did? If suddenly all my rights had been removed with no previous warning and I was facing myself homeless wouldn’t I succumb to moments of weakness and commit crimes and perhaps relish in escapist behaviour?
Nobody has lived in the UK for 20 years now, he still has no status, permission to stay, permission to live, and there is no foreseen resolution to his asylum claim. The UK government cannot deport people in the same situation as Nobody back to Eritrea, as firstly it is deemed an unsafe country that persistently infringes Human Rights, and secondly because he left the country illegally which is deemed a crime for which he would be persecuted for upon his return. Furthermore, the Home Office refuses to grant him the refugee status because he is deemed a criminal.
What is to become of Nobody in this impasse? Is he to live his life with no rights and consigned to bare existence? Is it ethical, legal, moral to suspend him indefinitely in this limbo? Why shouldn’t he have the right to be able to get up in the morning and go to work; to take a bus and go visit his children; to buy food at a whim; to let the sun soak his skin and feel at peace? As described by Nobody he’s living in perpetual torture. What does that say about our society when instead of protecting the most vulnerable we are the perpetrators of sustained crimes?