The UK’s immigration detention system is grotesque. At any one time, over 3,000 people are detained, in prison-like conditions – near airports, or in rural outposts, far from family and friends. They are detained because the Home Office is pursuing their removal. Without a time limit for their detention, they don’t know when or if they will be released or deported. The UK can proudly claim to be one of the few countries in the world to detain non-citizens indefinitely, and remains an outlier across the European Union.
Breaking people down, forcing people ‘home’.
UK detention does not go unchallenged by those put away at her majesty’s pleasure. Detainees have gone on hunger strike, they have set fire to the rooms and corridors that imprison them, and they continue to speak out. On the outside, activists have protested, challenging the invisibility of the detention estate with colour, noise, anger, and solidarity. Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention Centre in particular has been the site of repeated protest, with people kicking and clambering on the external fences, refusing to let the state succeed in disappearing people.
The British government detains over 30,000 people a year under Immigration Act powers. But most detainees are not deported. In the year ending June 2016, only 44% of those leaving detention were removed. A similar number are released back into the community in the UK. If detention is intended to facilitate removal, then it is not working.
Those who work on issues of detention have tried to centre the voices of detainees and former detainees (see here, here, and here). ‘Freed voices’, for example, is a powerful project led by former detainees who between them have lost over twenty years of their lives to detention. They don’t just tell their stories of indefinite detention in the UK; they demand change. But for obvious practical reasons, it is harder to ‘give voice’ to former detainees who do get deported. In many ways then, deportation succeeds in disappearing people. We don’t have many accounts from people who get deported, on how they fare in forgotten homelands. And that suits the Home Office just fine.
When deportation becomes a reality, we can all feel helpless: activists, lawyers, academics – and most importantly deported persons themselves, and the friends and families they leave behind. But perhaps if we do speak to deported persons, we might learn something different about detention. What does detention do to people? What is its purpose? And how do detention and deportation work together? In Jamaica, I met a number of people who have recently been deported. They shed some much-needed light on the purposefully murky business of policing UK borders.
Detention and the fear of deportation.
Detention is cruel because of the chronic uncertainty which is its defining feature. As former detainee and Freed Voices spokesperson Souleymane notes: “in prison you count your days down, and in detention you count your days up”. Because you have no release date, there is no clear indication of when you will be released. But there is also no clear where. Will release mean deportation or re-entry into the UK?
Questions over the when and the where are knotted up with one another. The source of anxiety is not knowing when and not knowing where you will be released. It is not simply that people have no way of numbering their days in detention, it’s that they don’t know what awaits them when they are eventually released.
It is unsurprising that the fear of deportation is central to experiences of detention, given that many detainees have claimed asylum. Others don’t have family or friends to return to, and they might not remember much about the country they were born in. Deportation is the cruellest punishment for those whose only home in the world is in Britain. The finality of it is so brutal. Imagine being forcibly expelled to a far away country, when your whole life is here in the UK – your friends, your family, your children; the streets you know, and the people who know you.
For those detained, detention is always connected to the fear of deportation (or exile). This is obvious, but worth stressing. If the fear of deportation is paramount to detainees, and if these deportations are unjust, then ultimately all forms of immigration detention are indefensible. The introduction of a time-limit and the promise not to detain children are important steps forward, but detention is primarily a means of facilitating deportation, and that makes deportation the central issue.
The deportation corridor.
Detention and deportation are not distinct, but represent two different stages in the ‘deportation corridor’. In both, individuals are singled out and isolated from the places they have made a home in.
For many of the people I work with – those deportees who are defined as ‘foreign criminals’ – this isolation begins first with prison time, and continues in detention. While detained post-sentence, they are moved around the detention estate, away from their families – who are then unable to visit. They are eventually deported to Jamaica, and the disappearing act is complete. The point here is that deportation begins long before anyone gets on a plane, and detention is a sort of proto-exile. When we speak to deported persons, we realise that the violence of deportation – which includes separation from loved ones, and chronic uncertainty and insecurity – often begins in detention.
Detention and deportation are also connected through memory. The ghosts that begin to haunt people in detention, stay with them, and follow them to Jamaica (or wherever else). A poem written by former deportee Chris tells of the lasting legacy of detention:
How can I forget what I went through?
How can I move on?
3 years back now, yet it felt like yesterday.
The guards, the cell of the condemned,
The taste of the food, the routine,
Hearing the guards’ keys jingle, the still doors
How can I forget?
Chris, who I have written with here, was detained for a year after his sentence – before being deported. Detention is the painful pre-cursor to deportation, and one that is never forgotten. Rather than preparing people for deportation – if that’s even possible – detention traumatises them, and for many detention can create and/or exacerbate profound mental ill-health. Michael was deported to Jamaica about 10 weeks ago. He told me about the grinding reality of trying to stay mentally well in detention:
“If you’re not mindsharp, they will fuck your head. They will destroy you. They will ruin you. Brick by brick. Block by block.”
Detention facilitates deportation (and in twisted ways).
Legally, the Home Office is only permitted to detain someone if they can be deported within a reasonable time frame. In the case of Babbage v Secretary of State for the Home Department, the Home Office were pursuing the removal of a young Zimbabwean man. However, the Zimbabwean government do not accept the return of those without Zimbabwean travel documents, unless they agree to return voluntarily. This young man did not want to return, so there was no realistic prospect of the Home Office removing him. Regardless of his ‘unremovability’, Andre Babbage was not released, because he had a criminal history and was thus deemed at risk of reoffending.
This is not a unique case. The Home Office is always slow to release ex-offenders, and most long term detainees fall into this category: ex-offenders who are difficult to deport. For these individuals, their offences can range from the admittedly serious, to the crime of using false documents in order to reach the UK to claim asylum. Whatever the ‘crime’, the risk of re-offending is nearly always deemed ‘high’ and thus all ‘foreign criminals’ can be labelled as ‘threats to public security’. The result is that people are detained indefinitely, with very little chance of getting bail.
This indefinite detention as a form of punishment, as a means of breaking people down, seems to be an unspoken Home Office policy. They do not want to release people, fearing the political consequences should they reoffend, and so they use the lever which indefinite detention grants them, detaining people for months, even years, moving them around the detention estate, and punishing them with the temporal uncertainty that comes with counting days up.
And people do give up. Michael explains this clearly:
“That’s how they get rid of the people they can’t deport. That’s the whole purpose of it. That’s why they detain people for so long. Just to make them say fuck it, and get on the plane. They pick you up, take you from your comfort zone, take you to an environment you’re not sure about, for how many months, and then you get fed up, and you can’t take it any more, and then you just say fuck it I’ll go. There’s only a certain amount that people can take. They are already taken away from their family, and their kids.”
As Michael explains, it feels like you are taking your life back into your own hands when you agree to be deported:
“You get that little semblance of regaining something. I can now go to the shop. Or if I’m hungry I can go and get something to eat. I can walk out of the gate whenever I feel like it. But being here is not fully freedom…the freedom that I wanted would’ve been over there. That’s the freedom most people want. But then when you decide to go for the freedom over here, you think it will be the same as the freedom over there. You think it will be alright, but it’s completely different to what I thought.”
Michael captures something important here. The chronic uncertainty of detention is so unbearable, that deportation begins to look like the least bad option. And so people decide to go back ‘home’, rather than waiting any longer in detention. Michael left Jamaica as a ten-year-old boy, and he did not return until a few weeks ago, when he was deported aged 23. It was indefinite detention that made this forcible return seem like the best option available to him. The problem is that people like Michael are often ill-prepared. They don’t know what they are going back to. And deportation might look like the least bad option, in part, because it is less immediate than the walls of your cell. People just aren’t equipped to know how hard things are going to be upon return.
“Detention sent me mad.”
Indefinite detention facilitates deportation by breaking people down, and making deportation seem like a better option than just waiting. But in Omari’s case, detention was damaging for a different reason. Detention caused all sorts of problems for him that would be used against him in his deportation case.
“They said I was aggressive in detention, broke my toilet, had fights, got angry at staff. But I wasn’t aggressive before they detained me. All these problems come from the stress of being detained, taken from my family, for no reason.”
Omari had a difficult childhood; he grew up in the care system and faced constant racist police harassment in East London. He has a criminal record, but he did not receive any custodial convictions. Before detention, he was building his life, working, and preparing for fatherhood. Immigration enforcement came for him just a few days before the birth of his first child. It was detention that, in his own words, “sent him mad”:
“They were saying I’m not rehabilitated, and I wasn’t at that point, I was going fucking mad, I was losing my hair, I was losing my mind, I was losing my flat, and my life, and my family. In detention I was going mad, but I was rehabilitated before…missing the birth of my first child really affected me. I wanted to be there. And now I want to be there for all his first things, his first tooth, and first time crawling around the house. They took the most important things from me. And then they try and make it seem like I’m bad for being aggressive, and angry, and pissed off with staff.”
Omari moved to the UK when he was 7 years old, and he did not return to Jamaica – or leave the UK at any point. He has a very thin criminal record, and he now has a British partner, and a British son. Despite all this, the Home Office wanted to deport him to Jamaica – a country he left as an infant, because his father was a marked man. His legal case was fairly strong, but the Home Office used his behavior in detention against him.
The Home Office, working with the police under Operation Nexus, were successfully able to argue that he was a danger to the public. They were basing this character assessment on stress, anger and mental ill-health which they caused, through detaining him for 8 months away from his family. He missed the birth of his first son. He did not know when he would be released. He became frustrated, and his anger was met with violence and racist abuse by detention staff. In the end, his behavior in detention made him more deportable. Perhaps detention does work in the end.
Omari was deported on the 7th September 2016, on a private charter flight that carried another 41 deportees to Jamaica, against their will. When I met him in Jamaica, he was incredibly distressed. He was scared to travel anywhere in Kingston. His anxiety was visible in his body language and audible in his voice. He spoke quickly, he could not stand still, and he kept repeating his two main points: “they stitched me up from the start”, and “I just need to get back to my son”.
It is hard to process the profound damage that immigration control has done to Omari, and even harder to find hope that it might somehow be undone.
To be banished is to lose everything.
Indefinite detention can wear people down – mentally and physically – to the extent that some accept deportation. In Omari’s case, detention made him angry and mentally unwell, so much so that he became more deportable. These consequences of detention are not explicit, and the Home Office would dispute them. But the truths that detainees and deportees reveal in their accounts are more important than those of policy makers. When we follow deportees, we realise that the violence of deportation far exceeds what many people expect. To be banished is to lose everything, and the kinds of problems people face on return are often far greater than they could have anticipated.
Given the gravity of deportation, we should not merely be fighting for a better, nicer kind of detention. When we challenge indefinite detention it should be because we want to resist deportation by denying the Home Office the ability to wear people down so ceaselessly.
Detention begins the process of banishment; one of the cruelest and most final punishments imaginable. Indefinite detention works for the Home Office by breaking people down. Whether or not this is stated, explicit Home Office policy is of little consequence. Michael, Omari and thousands of others who have experienced detention see right through Home Office double-speak: detention is not simply an administrative measure to facilitate removal, it is a brutal and violent form of psychological torture, which punishes people for not complying with immigration restrictions, and works to make banishment appear the lesser of two evils.
If to be banished is to lose everything, a kind of social death, then to be indefinitely detained is to be suspended in purgatory. Purgatory or social death? This is the choice that detention and deportation grant people. Perhaps this is why so many attempt suicide in detention… when presented with this impossible choice, it seems like a natural response to reach and reach for something – anything – else.
This article is part of ‘Unlocking Detention’ – an annual ‘virtual’ tour of the UK’s detention estate, which aims to shine a spotlight on one of the gravest civil liberties issues in Britain today. To find out more about how to get involved in this year’s tour, follow #Unlocked16 on Twitter.