This piece comes from Richard (not his real name), a volunteer with Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group who has been visiting people detained in Brook House and Tinsley House detention centres for 13 years.
In 2005 I heard about the work of Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group and got in touch with them to satisfy my curiosity. Since then I have been one of their many volunteers visiting people detained in Tinsley House and Brook House.
When I talk to people about what I do their eyes typically glaze over and the subject gets changed, maybe with a: “they shouldn’t be here anyway” or “they should be sent back to their countries, where they belong”. Would these people change their minds if they were able to meet and listen to the stories of people who are detained? I believe they would. That is why the more the plight of people in detention is publicised, the better the chance they will be treated fairly.
It’s possibly true that not all those detained have a legal basis to remain in the UK, but so many have been through such awful experiences that it beggars belief that we choose to lock them up indefinitely, isolated from the support they deserve.
One of the first people I visited was originally from West Africa, but had been brought up since the age of 11 in Europe. Then, some 25 years later, he found himself threatened with removal to a country of which he barely had any recollection. Despite there being no proof that he was from that country, he was removed without appropriate travel documentation and consequently denied entry on arrival. The escorts who had accompanied him on the plane from the UK found a way of changing the minds of the immigration officials and he was allowed in. That marked the beginning of a struggle to start a life without his wife and two sons who he had been forced to leave in the UK, and not knowing any local language or customs. To this day, 11 years later, he is still struggling and cries down the phone to me in desperation.
Another young man was from a war-torn African country, where he had been captured and tortured. He escaped to the UK and was detained while his asylum claim was being processed. When I met him he was in an advanced post-trauma state, suffering from flashbacks and nightmares, plus a good deal of anxiety. He spoke only basic English but conversation did not seem important to him. Each week he met me and sat quietly, often with tears running down his face as he faced his internal demons. Each week I felt my attempts at reassurance and comfort were far too inadequate and doubted he would show up to meet me again next week. But he did.
Do these stories suggest an inadequacy in the detention system of effective legal representation and of support for emotional suffering? I leave you to judge.
Image by @Carcazan