Thursday, November 22, 2007

Hidden Prisons

SOAS STAR member Ben Seven describes his experiences visiting Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs).

My first visit was quite by accident- I was attending a vigil outside Harmondsworth IRC (near Heathrow) for Bereket Yohannas, the 17th person to commit suicide in detention. During the vigil there was a request for people with photo ID to go and visit some of the remaining detainees and chat with them. After a little discussion and a few butterflies I decided to give it a go.

Imagine going to visit someone in prison; you can’t take food, cameras, even your own pen inside in case you are concealing something inside them. However, claiming asylum is not a crime, despite their treatment. In this claustrophobic atmosphere I met Baba Bari, an ex-slave and torture victim from Niger with a wide smile (I found out later) and a fascinating story. Bari had travelled across the world to the UK with nothing, relying on his instinct and opportunity to get him there. The Home Office had kept him in Harmondsworth for over a year and tried to deport him twice to Niger; both times he had been sent back to the centre because, as an ex-slave, he had no Niger passport.

I went to see Bari a handful of times and the situation seemed static; he had slipped through the system and neither of us knew what to do. However, after seeking advice from the National Coalition of Anti Deportation Campaigns we, with a new solicitor, applied for bail. After a stressful bail hearing and a few complications the Judge said that they would try one more deportation and, if it didn’t work, he would be released. We waited with baited breath on the deportation day, and then YES! He got sent back to the centre again. A week later I was skipping (quite ecstatic) down Holloway road with a man I had only known in the context of detention before. We could taste the freedom between our teeth and are good friends to this day.

Of course many stories do not have the this happy ending; many detainees in much greater need of help never get a visit from the outside, so a group of us at SOAS decided to try and spiral out the work we were doing. Last year we started a Detainee Support Group. The most elemental thing we do is visiting (mainly families) in Yarl’s Wood IRC, but in our effort to help detainees our activities have grown. Many detainees just want a smiling face and open ear to provide some respite from the grinding stress and monotony of life in detention. Others need specific help to find a lawyer, a doctor that can certify they are a victim of torture, translation or reading of documents, a phone card so they can call their families or surety for a bail application. Three of our members ended yp going to Uganda and met the families of detainees they have visited.

For more information contact the [email][/email].

Useful Links:

National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns

Bail for Immigration Detainees.

London Detainee Support Group

Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees

Do you have an experience of visiting a removal centre that you would like to share with the STAR network? Send in your stories by visiting the contribute page.

Posted by Russell Brooks on 22/11/2007 at 11:50 AM