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A footnote on Harmondsworth

As told by ‘K’.  Footnotes by Ciara Bottomley of Detention Action.

mcharmondsworthillustration

The first time I was detained was in 2010. (See below: 1)

I was in Harmondsworth then too. The centre was the same then as it is now. Nothing much has changed. This time round I’ve been in detention for 5 months. (2)

First at Dungavel in Scotland, then Colnbrook, and now Harmondsworth. In Dungavel it was more open, you could go to other rooms in the wing. Colnbrook and Harmondsworth are the same, it’s like high security in here, you’re very restricted. They moved me back to Harmondsworth in August. (3)

Before I was detained I was living in Liverpool. I lived there for 7 years. I feel like I grew up there, you know, my family’s there. I been to other cities like Birmingham, London and Manchester but Liverpool feels like home. (4)  The best things about Liverpool are its history and football. In Liverpool the only racism I seen was about which team you support – Liverpool or Everton. When I first came I wasn’t understanding football at all– cricket was my sport. Those days I was working in a take-away and when the supporters came in they explained it to me. Then I started watching highlights and now I’m a full Liverpool supporter. Even though my Mrs supports Everton!

These days my wife is my only visitor. It’s a long old journey from Liverpool but she comes down every week. (5)

Inside Harmondsworth there’s all these sorts of tensions. Everyone has their own situation they are trying to deal with. The staff don’t offer any emotional support, so people do what they can – share information, ciggies – they are friendly but everyone has their own case, their own problems. It’s difficult to really get to know people.

I don’t sleep well in here. They lock the cell doors at 8.45. I usually lie down at 10/10.30 when I take my medication and I start thinking and thinking. (6)  I worry about what will happen to me, will I be deported? Will I find my family? When I leave the airport where will I go? What will my village look like now? Most of my friends and family have left because of the war – they’ve gone to other countries. Sometimes I dream about them, waking up and realising it’s just a dream breaks my heart.

Recently I’ve started to have panic attacks. I have nightmares, sometimes I remember them, sometimes I don’t. Usually it’s something coming after me, something scary – always related to my life. I’ve had this problem since I 12 years old – I went to hospital with my father and they gave tablets for 6 months and afterwards I was ok. But they don’t give me the right medication here. (7)

I wake up and I’m so stressed my heart is beating and beating and my head aches. I pray to Allah. I just feel like I want to go out and walk around. But the doors are locked. I can’t go out. Because the dream, it’s like a hole in my mind. It feels like I’m dying.

My roommates complain to security when I have these attacks. I’ve been moved a lot because of this, I’m on my 3rd room. I ask security for medicine, but they can’t do anything. When I say I want to call for an ambulance they threaten to put me in the black – like as if I been fighting. Once they put me in for 48 hours. (8)

I heard they did a kitchen inspection recently and they scored badly.I seen some people coming to check the kitchen. They came at night time. I didn’t see any rats but I seen them setting traps. (9)

In the day, we spend time outside in the yard. Some people play football, some people just walk around. There’s no grass, just concrete. We are surrounded by the centre walls. You can’t see anything apart from sky and the planes – taking off and landing at Heathrow. (10)

The other day they came for me and took me to the airport. They handcuffed me and were bending my fingers and hands – I had bruises all over. My wife came to the airport as well. She was crying, saying ‘you can’t send him back.

Then they changed their minds and took me back to the centre. My neck was all bruised. I went to healthcare but they don’t take you seriously.

I don’t really think about what needs to change in detention. A lot of people in here have problems that mean every day is a bad day. They are suffering from torture that comes from inside. It’s hard for them to be in here. People need human rights, they want freedom.


(1) The majority of those detained (around 52% last year) end up being released back into the community – their detention serving no purpose. Many of these individuals are then re-detained at later dates despite, once again, there being no clear removal plan in place.

(2) The UK remains the only country in the EU with no time-limit on detention. Thousands of people are locked up in prison-like conditions every year. For some this could be a matter of days or weeks, or months like K. For others it could be years. This uncertainty can have a profound psychological impact on people in detention.

(3) Transfers between detention centres are as common as they are inexplicable and can have devastating effects on an individual’s ability to fight their detention. On one hand, a transfer (especially from Dungavel in Scotland to a detention centre in England) can mean losing a local legal representative and having to start building your case again. On the other, transfers can lead to extreme geographical and social isolation, cutting you off from family, friends, community and support networks.

(4) Detention doesn’t just destroy the lives of individuals detained; it also destroys families, communities, whole swathes of the UK. Many of those detained indefinitely have been snatched from cities they have developed roots in, and in some cases,  in for some cases, lived most of their lives.

(5) The train journey from Liverpool to Harmondsworth costs around £90 return and takes about 4 hours. For many families either dependent on asylum support or with no recourse to public funds at all, this is an impossibility.

(6) Research into mental health issues have repeatedly highlighted the dangers of re-traumatisation in immigration detention in the UK. The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ position paper on mental health in detention found that for many individuals detention was likely to be ‘painful reminder of past traumatic experiences’ and to ‘aggravate fears of potentially imminent return’.

(7) The latest HMIP inspection of Harmondsworth found that people in detention were very negative about health services provided. Significant problems in relation to medicine management, with reports of long waiting times to obtain medicine and inadequate storage and record keeping were reported.

(8) In their report, ‘A Secret Punishment’, Medical Justice found that segregation and solitary confinement were consistently misused as a form of punishment in detention and as a way to manage detainees with mental health issues. They concluded: ‘The over-reliance on, and misuse of, segregation in immigration detention reflects the abdication of the state and its private contractors of their moral and legal obligation to treat those in their custody humanely.’ 

(9) A telling insight into the way this government sees those it detains, the kitchen at Harmondsworth IRC recently received a food hygiene rating of ‘0’ by the Food Standard’s Agency.  

(10) For many in Harmondsworth, the sight and sound of planes offer a chilling reminder of their potential return to places of torture, persecution and estrangement. This quote comes from Freed Voices member, Boone: ‘Every minute and a half a plane flew past my cell window. Each one reminded me I was going to be deported back to my country. I came to learn every different kind of plane in the skies. I can distinguish different models from their sounds. They trace my nightmares.”

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