Content warning: torture, trafficking.
In the second of a two-part series from Detention Action, volunteer Mary-Ann talks about what she’s learnt from supporting people detained in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs).
Volunteering for Detention Action has very much opened my eyes to the UK’s hostile immigration environment and its immigration detention centres. I came to Detention Action with some knowledge of international refugee policy and support, having previously worked with UN member states and humanitarian agencies such as UNHCR. At the time, I was conscious of the UK lobbying other member states to honour their refugee and human rights commitments, and to increase their refugee intake with increasing global irregular migration due to natural disasters, conflict and failing states. Ironically however, the UK’s own intake of refugees is very low by comparison: in 2017 the UK was hosting just 122,000 of the world’s 25.4 million refugeeswhile Turkey, for example, was home to nearly 3.5 million
My time at Detention Action has given me an insight into the harsh reality for people seeking asylum in this country, and in particular those who find themselves in immigration detention. I discovered that, at great cost to tax payers, the UK’s detention estate is one of the largest in Europe. There has been between 2,500 to 3,500 migrants in detention at any given time over the past decade.
In order to provide practical and emotional support to people in detention, I spend my time developing an understanding of people’s personal stories and immigration history by talking to them by phone, and reviewing any Home Office, legal and health records that they wish to share. I am struck again and again by the often incredibly difficult circumstances that people have endured, and survived, only to find themselves locked up in prison-like conditions indefinitely. Indefinite detention is a psychological torture for any human being. Even people in the criminal justice system know the length of their sentence. I regularly speak to people who are in absolute despair, as many of them fall between the cracks of a very complex, inefficient and harsh immigration system.
I have got to know people in detention who have been tortured and are suffering from PTSD, have chronic insomnia due to anxiety over being detained, and a range of physical and mental health issues which are poorly addressed by the detention centre and the Home Office. While these people are understandably feeling utterly miserable, I’ve been close to tears when they’ve asked me how I’m going and ask if I’m okay.
I have been supporting a Vietnamese man who is detained in Colnbrook IRC whom I’ll refer to as Tran. Tran is a victim of trafficking. He was taken from his country and forced into slave labour in various countries, badly beaten, and when brought to the UK made to work on a cannabis farm. He ended up with a criminal conviction following a police raid, despite obvious indicators that he is a victim of trafficking. After serving a prison sentence, Tran was taken directly to Colnbrook detention centre. Tran does not speak English which makes him particularly vulnerable. At one point, Tran was able to access legal aid to support a trafficking claim. However, out of genuine fear that his traffickers would kill him and or his family in Vietnam, like many victims of trafficking, Tran kept his story somewhat vague, which resulted in his claim being rejected. Having been imprisoned and then detained, Tran in absolute despair told me, via a volunteer interpreter, that he had built-up the courage to speak in more detail about his traffickers. We are now trying to see if legal aid is possible to appeal Tran’s negative trafficking decision, although we have been told by immigration lawyers that he is likely to be unsuccessful ‘because he has changed his story’. I feel very sad for Tran as he is an extremely polite young man who, despite his difficult situation, doesn’t want to inconvenience anyone. Detention Action continues to try and fight his corner as they do for many other vulnerable people like Tran.