This blog comes from A. Panquang, a member of Freed Voices (@FreedVoices) and Detention Forum volunteer. 

Detaining anybody simply means separating them from their familiar surroundings; away from friends, family and community. Everyone has a family and being in detention usually means being separated from them. The UK immigration system doesn’t take into account whether one has a young family or other dependents. Immigration enforcers don’t care where they arrest somebody, who is present, when it happens; (in the middle of the night, during the day or early morning), nor do they care how. They have their orders and they will use any means possible, including inflicting humiliation and eternal scars (mental and physical) on everyone present.

If nine months in detention told me one thing, it is that no one is ever warned before being dragged to a detention centre. People are detained while trying to comply with their Immigration Bail conditions – for example, when signing or reporting. Some are arrested on the streets, while at work, in hospital, at their place of residence and almost everywhere else. Immigration enforcers enter the house at 2 a.m. to arrest a father in his boxers; who has been woken up from bed with his wife. The kids are woken up by multiple loud immigration officers. Their seven month old daughter starts crying in her baby cot, mum tries to go and comfort her daughter and she is stopped, because the Immigration Enforcers think she is trying to abscond.

I remember a kid in a detention visitors’ room asking, “Mum, who is the man?”, to which mum said “Your dad”. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how long he had been in detention for. There was a teenager, who hadn’t seen her dad since she was a baby. The dad had been in prison for 10 years and the rest of the time in detention. I knew a guy in detention. While he was detained, his British-born children were sent to live with his sister in his country of birth. How would these kids survive in a country that is not their own, with a language they don’t understand and without the friends they have left behind? How can they cope after such a feeling of abandonment, separation anxiety and loss of attachment? Separating a family should be the very, very last resort. Everything should be done to avoid separating a family.

For those left behind, that is the friends and family of someone detained, they first feel the absence. This absence – especially for young kids who do not understand why the parent is not there anymore – will lead to more problems in the future. They start blaming themselves. Abandonment as a result of the detention of one or both of the parents can lead to child abandonment syndrome; and this abandonment can manifest itself both as physical and emotional abandonment. The absence can also result to resentment. Mum can be blamed for dad not being there or the other way round. The child can also blame themselves for not being good enough. If the parent is arrested in front of the kids, that parent – the hero, the protector and provider – becomes a bad person in the kids’ eyes, because only bad people are arrested and taken away. It affects their social cycle and general well-being. Educational bodies (teachers, school psychologist) have complained about kids performance (school work and among their friends).

If you keep families separated, anyone at the borderline of depression will flip over. This trauma will be relived years after, whenever any form of stress surfaces. This affects the family especially the kids, including unborn babies. Research on proprioception and trauma has proven that the stress hormones from a pregnant woman are passed to the unborn baby, thus increasing the probability of the child suffering from depression in the future. Separating parents from kids leaves a void (detachment ,abandonment), that can have a domino effect on future generations, a void thatis transferrable to the kids of kids and so on. The works of Dr. Aletha Solter (attachment-Style parenting), K. L. Rosenblum and C. J. Dayton (Communicating feelings) have proven that this void can affect the parents and their children’s parenting and so on and so forth.

While in detention, it became evident that most of my conversations were with other parents. I advised friends to encourage their kids to talk to the school psychologist about how they are feeling; especially after many of them also confirmed that the estrangement between them and their mothers made it difficult for their kids to tell their mums how they felt. Another thing we had in common was our kids demonstrated one or more of the following: mood swings, too much anger, decreasing self-esteem, losing their ability to trust, low self-worthiness and all of us mentioned about the kids obsessing about what would happen if we are deported (obsessive and intrusive thoughts about being left behind).

When I came out of detention it became obvious to be I had to rebuild the relationship with my daughter from scratch. I spoke with my daughter every day, for the nine months I was in detention. When a child is born, all the 5 senses are used to knowing the child and developing a relationship with the child. While in detention one cannot use those senses; at best one has the sense of hearing. I have heard others saying their kids initially felt uncomfortable around them when their got out. It took me everything to rebuild a relationship with my daughter. The same applies to friends, relationships and other family member; one’s community as well.

The Home Office has said many times that taking one parent away is not separating a family. That is not true. The family remains broken with one parent away. The trauma of separation affects all members of the family, including children, parents and pregnant mothers. I often say that I wouldn’t wish for my worst enemy to experience life in a UK immigration detention centre. The impact on one’s mental health is overwhelming and long-lasting. It is to the UK’s shame that this happens on our shores. The Home office should offer its staff, including immigration caseworkers, some of Dr Marion Rose’s courses on understanding children’s feelings. When parents separate, the NHS would recommend treatment for stress and depression as a result, including attending a course to learn how to cope as a single parent. But when the Home office forces families to separate, there is no such recommendation or support. 

In my nine months in detention I met many men whose families broke down because of their detention. The trauma, legal insecurity and financial instability can cause permanent damage to children’s lives. The UK banned the detention of children back in 2011. It’s time to stop forcibly separating them from their families too.