There is understandably huge interest in knowing what immigration detention centres look like: barbed wire and prohibition of cameras inside the centres increase people’s curiosity. But can you see the impact of immigration detention with your eyes? What does immigration detention do to us? In this blog, Eiri Ohtani (@EiriOhtani), the Project Director of the Detention Forum shares her reflection and that of her colleague, Heather Jones (@Heather_Jones5) who has been visiting Yarl’s Wood detention centre for many years. They visited Alice* who was detained at Yarl’s Wood detention centre. (This is not her real name.) The photo essay of this visit is available here.
Purple faux-leather armchairs. A children’s TV blaring in the play area. A wall of vending machines in one corner of the room, surrounded by a row of breakfast high-chairs. Large windows. And hamburgers on sale from the security guards. In my league table of detention centres, this one, Yarl’s Wood, had by far the cleanest looking visit hall I had ever seen.
Not that this mattered to Alice, who was sitting across a small table from me. Neither to Heather, who was visiting Alice. Alice had been detained there for a number of months, after a short spell at another detention centre. Heather’s transparent wallet was on the table, full of loose coins. More than a decade ago, I used to collect certain coins for my weekly visits to Harmondsworth. Temperamental drinks machines there selectively accepted only some coins, hence the need for many spares. Shamefully, I forgot to bring any coins with me today – I was out of practice.
In a matter-of-fact manner, Alice was telling us about her life, up to the point of her detention when her world disintegrated. She had spent well over a decade working professionally, working for the same employer throughout. Being suddenly wrenched away from a tight-knit community, Alice was being supported by her ex-colleagues and neighbours who visit her at the detention centre regularly. Much of our conversation revolved around her aging and frail mother, a British citizen. When she asked for bail to be with her mother, it was denied because of “absconding risks”. Alice said ‘My mother is the only person I have in this world. Where else would I go?’
I could see about six other groups in the visitors’ hall. In one group, a sleeping baby was passed around amongst a group of women, each of them cooing into the baby’s face. In another, two people are in a deep conversation with their foreheads almost touching. Ordinary human interactions, but in an extraordinary setting of administrative incarceration.
A certain amount of patience was required to get to Alice physically. In the first building visitors must report to, the machine that stores visitors’ fingerprints refused to register mine. Again and again, I pressed my thumbs, my index fingers and then my middle fingers but nothing seemed to satisfy the machine. While the receptionists negotiated with the computer, I stared at four identical clocks on the wall, showing four different time zones – a reminder of the detention centre’s liminality, oddly located in the middle of an industrial estate in Bedfordshire. One of them showed the time zone my aging parents live in and of the country I was born. With my prints finally registered, we went to the second building. Here, you go through a small room to be searched, one by one, before being allowed into a visitors’ hall.
For many years, Heather has been visiting women detained at Yarl’s Wood detention centre, and I’ve known her for years too. If I am ever detained, I want Heather to visit me. I still think about this regularly when I think about immigration detention, even though I now have British citizenship through naturalisation and am “safe”, for now. Heather is my insurance against perhaps illogical but mounting fear: who could be certain where the line will be drawn in the future between the wanted and the unwanted?
Alice was a softly spoken and unfailingly dignified woman. While listening to Alice, I wondered whether all the security was there to protect Alice from me or me from Alice: on top of having to have your finger print recognized twice, we also had to go through security checks and three doors. If there was one word to describe Alice, it was ‘care’. In addition to her mother, Alice was worried about well-being of other women at Yarl’s Wood and those who were released. She was also worried about those who were supporting the detained women and about various staff working in the centre.
When the charter flights were going ahead, Alice said, the sound of women crying was unbearable. ‘I cried hearing that noise, even though they were not coming for me. Everyone cried. Who is hearing our cry? Nobody is listening.’ Alice also talked about how prisons would be better than being stuck in detention centres: ‘At least, in prisons, you know how long you will be there. You can plan.’
Alice was adamant that she would not “work” in detention centres, at the rate of £1 for an hour. It was clear that she found the arrangement offensive (‘like a slave’ she said) and she was not going to comply with this demeaning system.
Alice originally comes from a country that was once under the colonial rule of a Western European state. Her family seems to have survived through this historical violence by seeking opportunities to survive elsewhere. All her relatives have either died or left the country and settled in various parts of the world – and she was now being sent back to a country where she knew no one. In the eyes of the Home Office, she had the wrong passport to live and work in the UK. But she didn’t choose that passport. Her community didn’t care about her passport and welcomed her as one of their members: to be very frank, I think she has more community ties than I do.
It was after a pause in our conversation – we were discussing her legal situation, difficulties getting advice and her failed attempts to get bail, and all the while, I was aware of Alice’s voice becoming weaker and weaker – when Heather said ‘We are not giving up.’ On hearing her voice, I exited my muddled survivor-guilt feeling and I was back to work. I explained my job to Alice and asked her if there was anything she wanted me to convey to the government, politicians and people who don’t know anything about immigration detention.
Alice thought about this for a while. I saw her push her carefully braided hair back behind her ears. ‘I have one question for them,’ she said. I inched towards her not to miss her words. Alice said quietly: ‘Do you think this is fair?’.
Of all the actions one could be taking against immigration detention, I believe visiting is one of the toughest. Whenever I visit to talk to someone detained, my mind is racing: I am searching for words, phrases and something, from somewhere, from anywhere, that can make it better, make it disappear. Of course, such words don’t exist. Every conversation we have is inconclusive. How do you respond to this?
After saying goodbye to Alice, we stood just outside the security door to the exit, waiting for it to open. I looked back in the direction of Alice: she was waiting for her door on the opposite side of the room to open, the door that leads into the centre. Suddenly, across the room, Alice looked much smaller, vulnerable and fragile. She was looking at her feet, and occasionally looking nervously around the hall. I waved at her to bid farewell. I don’t know if she registered it. If she did, I hope she could not see my facial expression: even after all these years of working in immigration detention, I never know what to do with myself when I have to say goodbye like this. Besides, perhaps Alice chose not to lock eyes with me: perhaps she didn’t want me to see her looking so broken.
Outside the centre, Heather and I sat in her car in the parking area, in silence. At the station, we hugged each other and I travelled back to London.
Heather shared her reflection afterwards, over email.
‘I have lived my life in a bit of a bubble, I am so much more aware of what is going on in the rest of the world now, particularly for women and I am far more cynical about how this country is run. I think my family were initially rather surprised but they now understand why I feel so strongly about what I do and they are proud of me. Some of my friends and neighbours certainly think I’m a bit odd but I think I have given them something to think about.’.
I have indeed been visiting for many years. I started visiting because I was rather astonished that women were being locked up simply because of their immigration status. I didn’t have a time period in mind but I didn’t expect to be so affected by what I saw and heard there. I will not give up because I have seen how devastating the effect of detention on the women I visit is. Yarl’s Wood is just five miles from my front door, I can neither forget it is there or ignore it.
Apart from having children, I don’t think anything else has had such a lasting effect on me.’
Not so long after this, Alice left the UK, shattered by her experience of detention. Heather will soon be starting yet another new year of visiting Yarl’s Wood. Tonight, thousands of people will be spending anxious night in the vast detention estate in this country, hidden from the public view, away from their families and separated from their friends. Alice’s single message to all of us was ‘Do you think this is fair?’.
We are not giving up. Join us.