This blog was written by Helen*, a US citizen who travelled to the UK and was detained earlier this year. She spent four days in Colnbrook detention centre, before being returned to the US. In this blog, she recounts her experience.
*This is not her real name.
I arrived at Gatwick Airport, from the US, at 10.15am. I spoke to a UK Border Control agent, who questioned me about my plans in the UK.
I told him that my friend, a British Citizen, was already at the airport waiting for me and that we had planned to meet in the UK, so that we could travel around Europe then make our way back to the US to see my family. I was requesting up to 30 days in the UK for us to be able to make appropriate plans together.
The officer escorted me to a small waiting area and told me that I had to wait until they found my friend. I waited for two hours, at which time they told me I was being detained for questioning. I asked why and they said they needed more information, which was fine – I had nearly everything they could ever want with me: my birth certificate, paycheck stubs, disability papers, health insurance information, cash, cards… everything.
They immediately confiscated all my baggage, my cellphone, my laptop and my journal. They brought me to a room in the back, with seven other people in it. Everyone was distraught and crying and there were people of all nations there, male and female, husbands and wives who were refused to see each other or where only one spouse was let through while the other was detained.
They said I could make a call but when I said I needed to call my mother in the US they told me I was not permitted to make international calls. I asked them where my friend was and if they found him yet, and they said they were not permitted to tell me.
It was freezing cold, because the air conditioner was on full blast. I was really upset and scared because no one was telling me anything or letting me talk to anyone. I couldn’t stop crying and I was freezing cold and tired and I could barely even think properly.
I was in that room for four hours before they took me to an interview room and questioned me. I answered the best I could and informed them I have diagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and I was not feeling mentally well enough for any of the current experiences. I kept asking them if they found my friend yet, and they said they did and that they were going to question him and then make a decision to grant or deny entry. I knew that my friend was going to tell them what I had told them.
They put me back in the cold room for another four hours. My mind was slowly being put in a very dark place and I was not thinking clearly. They finally informed my friend they were refusing entry at 7pm and told him not to tell anybody.
They came to me at 9pm, and told me that I was going to be sent to a removal center, which is a nice way of saying prison, for four days and then they were sending me back to Pittsburgh. I asked them why – they said they were not permitted to tell me and I would have to wait for them to issue a report that they would give me a copy of.
At this point I had already been crying for many hours, I had not slept or eaten, and for what seemed like no good reason I was being treated like a criminal.
They took me into a room where they took photos and fingerprints then sent me back to the cold room. I asked where I was going and was told I would be taken “someplace” five minutes down the road in an hour. They couldn’t tell me the name of the place. I lay on the ice-cold metal bench until 11pm.
Three hours later, at 2am, I was escorted into a dark tinted van and taken “someplace” an hour away. The only clue I had was when I was able to see one road sign that said, “Heathrow Airport”.
When I got to the destination I had to be let through many levels of security fences with barbed wire at the top and bars on all the windows. I knew this was a prison as soon as I saw the fences. I couldn’t believe I was being taken to such a place simply because I’d booked a flight to London to see my friend.
They took me inside where I was fingerprinted again and photographed. They told me to wait in another room. I told them I was not feeling okay and that I thought I was going to collapse. They told me to lay down on the bench in the room and wait. They never once offered medical treatment or a medical examination during this entire process, even when I told them that I have a serious diagnosed disability, and was not feeling well enough to receive the treatment I was given.
Finally, at 5am, I was escorted into yet another freezing cold room with a bed with two other women. They allowed me to call my mom. I told her everything that had just happened and went straight to sleep.
I woke up and was offered breakfast but I was still unable to eat. I had been given a towel and bedsheets the previous night, but I had no access to my clothing or toiletries. I couldn’t change my clothes. I noticed other women with some personal belongings and asked how they got them and they told me I had to put in a request so I did. They said it may take a few hours so I looked around the unit I was in.
There were ten bedrooms with three beds in each room, and a main room with a couch, a TV, a Nintendo Wii, four computers with internet access, a multi-religious prayer room, a laundry room, a small kitchen, a shower room, and two separate toilet rooms.
It actually didn’t seem so bad other than the fact that it was freezing cold outside and yet inside they had vents in the ceilings of every room, blowing out freezing cold air. There had been many complaints by everyone about how cold it was. My roommates had taken pieces of paper and taped them over the vents in our bedroom hoping that would lessen the icy room temperature but it did not seem to help much.
I was given a cell phone without a camera. They provided a sim card for me to be allowed calls from my family. I was able to make calls to the UK for free but in order to contact my family I had to buy top up cards from the store. I wasn’t able to buy anything, despite having cash being held for me, because it was US currency. They said I would have to put in a separate request to allow them to exchange my money which would allow me to purchase what I needed. I asked them to do that but they never did.
I was allowed access to the internet but every website was blocked except for my email. I used my email to contact my family and my friend.
I mostly used this time to begin to heal myself and talk to the other women for support. There were women there from mostly Asian countries, a few from African countries, a woman from one European country, a woman from Russia, and one other American. The American and the Russian woman stayed in the same room as me. We were all able to communicate pretty well despite some language barriers. Most of the women came to me asking to help them translate things into English or communicate their needs to the guards, as I was able to understand what they were trying to communicate despite not knowing their languages – mostly through hand motions and body language.
At least I could feel as if I was helping – even though I was in need of help myself, at least I knew what was going on by that point. I could only imagine being locked up in one of their countries where I didn’t know what anyone was saying to me. To take focus off my own struggle I spent a lot of time listening to other women talk about their experiences and why they were in there and the despair they felt being taken from their loved ones in such an inhumane fashion only to be treated like criminals.
They were all mothers and lovers and survivors and strong beautiful women in the same situation regardless of race, color, creed, class. There were students, women with all the right paperwork, visas, return tickets, a lot of money, no money. There were women who had been detained multiple times and went back to get the right paperwork and tried to re-enter after doing everything properly and still it didn’t seem to matter.
I kept reading all the paperwork they gave me as to why they refused me and realized that they had not even listened to anything my friend or I told them in the interviews. They just basically twisted all my words to conform to whatever mold they chose no matter how incorrect it was. They had ALL of my information, legitimate and official US documents, way more than most people travel with – yet they claimed I didn’t have anything reliable or sufficient.
I still hadn’t received any of my clothes or toiletries. I was offered breakfast, lunch and dinner and tried to eat but was still unable to hold down any solid food. I was given no medical treatment or an examination. I was told my requests for money exchange and clothing had still not gone through. The whole place is highly disorganized.
I asked when I would be released because I needed to let my family know when to pick me up at the airport. They told me they didn’t have this information and I would have to wait until I am picked up for my flight on Friday afternoon.
Instead of being picked up in the afternoon as I was told, I was woken up at midnight, only one hour after I fell asleep, to be driven back to the airport. I still had no idea when my flight would be. I arrived at Gatwick Airport at 2am where they took me back into the cold room.
I asked them if there was any information about my flight and they told me they were neither permitted to tell me when I would leave nor would I be given any of my information, paperwork, passport or possessions until I left the UK, and was at my connecting flight in another country.
The officer told me that I would be there until one hour before my flight, then I would be escorted to the airplane. I waited with five other people for seven hours with no food or drink, until 9am when I was escorted to the airplane and boarded in a separate door before any other passengers were seated.
I was given all my possessions when I was transferred to a connecting flight, including a folder with all the paperwork from the entire experience inside. As I read through it I could not believe all the lies and misinformation that was included in the reports.
They claimed I was offered medical examinations and refused them all, which was absolutely untrue.
They claimed “I declined to be health screened saying she did not know why she was here” when in fact I had told them I was suffering symptoms of my disability and did want to be screened.
The entire experience has left me distraught. As I am starting to gain back strength and clarity, from my understanding, they decided I was an immigrant trying to come into the country and never leave, or overstay my welcome. Even though there was overwhelming evidence to prove that wrong, it did not matter.
I understand that the law played a huge role in this. No matter how right or wrong the law is, they were doing all the things the law required them to do for the situation they thought was happening. What bothers me more than the incredibly extreme laws was the way I was being treated and the total lack of understanding. After answering everything honestly and providing all the evidence they required to prove I was not an asylum seeker or trying to immigrate, they still treated me like I was an object that they could just put in the refrigerator and forget about. I was not given proper treatment or care whatsoever.
Now I am in their system for “the end of a period of ten years beginning with the day on which the fingerprints were taken.” So even if I wanted to visit the UK again, which I don’t, they would just keep detaining me continuously for the next 10 years.
After I got home, I did some research about immigration detention in the UK. After reading all the facts and statistics about this, I find no comfort in knowing I am one of these statistics. I only hope that in the future more people will come forward and keep sharing their stories so that one day these laws can be exposed – they are in desperate need of reform.