Image courtesy of Michael Collins
Reflections on indefinite detention are often framed in the singular, as personal and introspective testimonies. In this special piece for Unlocking Detention, however, Mishka from Freed Voices, sketches five guys that shaped his experience of Harmondsworth detention centre and continue to dominate his thoughts today, post-release.
I first saw this guy in healthcare in May. He was on hunger strike. I think he had just started. He was thin but still a bit toned and muscular. To be honest, I thought he would give up after some time because…well, otherwise he would die. Two and a half months later I saw him when I returned to healthcare to pick up my depression medication. This time…wow…he was a skeleton. Really, skin and bones. I did not recognise him at first. He had a friend pushing him in a wheelchair and I had to ask if it was the same guy. His body was nothing now, it had left him. In that moment, I felt ‘this guy will die’. I didn’t know why he was on hunger strike but I understood the desperation. When you see there is no way out, or if you are an asylum seeker with a genuine reason to be scared of return, this kind of thing becomes the only option. For the Home Office, it is completely the opposite, the other way round. For them, these people are just frustrating a removal. To them it is further evidence of non-compliance, not of real human desperation. I don’t know what happened to him. I never saw him again.
We had probably been detained for a month or so at this point. Me and my brother would always try and go to the canteen at the end of the hour, when there were less people. This time we sat at a vacant table and after a while a man came and joined us. I am not sure if he was a befriender or not but I recognised him as someone who was always helping people fill out forms. He was an Asian man, in his 50s or so. He started the conversation with us. He asked us how long we’ve been here, how we are doing etc. We asked him how long he had been detained and he said ‘over two years’. Both me and my brother were completely stunned. I could not believe it. I had never known someone detained this long. I genuinely didn’t think it was possible. But you could also see that after so long inside the detention centre had become his home in a sad way. Everyone knew who he was in our wing. Officers would talk to him in a different way to other detainees. He had become part of the furniture at Harmondsworth. There is research that shows that the longer you are detained the more likely you are to be released at the end, and I hope this was the case for this guy. On the other hand, he had become so used to this environment I think re-integration would have been hard. I don’t know what happened to him. I remember seeing him again when I was being escorted out for my release.
I went to the washroom at around ten o’clock in the night. They keep the florescent lights on 24-7 and I saw the blood straight away. There was blood everywhere…on the sink, by the entrance, by the toilet. Big drops. The floor is a dark blue colour but you could still see the outline of the blood very clearly. It was thick. I was not particularly shocked to be honest. I had seen blood like this before in detention. You get used to seeing this kind of colouring in detention. Images of pain become normalised. I could hear some big fusses when I came out the toilet. Someone said there had been an attempted suicide. I heard someone was crying very loud. A few hours later, I saw the guy on his bed. I had not spoken to him before but I recognised he was from my wing, on the same corridor. He was a very young Asian man, around twenty. He had plasters on his wrists. There were a few other suicide attempts that week. I had a hernia around this time and was waiting to go to hospital but they said they could not take me because all of the detention officers were busy watching people on suicide watch. That has to tell you something. I never saw that guy again.
My brother entered and left detention as two different people. He was a very positive man before. Very strong, both physically and mentally. He was 90 minutes older than me and played a big brother role very well. Whenever I would get emotional he would set me straight. He would always return me to the logic. He was a bit more mature than me…he was stable.
I never, ever, expected he would try and kill himself. So when someone that strong comes to that crossroads, when they turn to death, you get a very clear insight into what the environment of detention does to people.
After the second attempt, they took him to segregation. I asked to see him one last time before he would be removed. The F Wing manager said ‘ok, I will give you an exception’. His flight was at 6.30pm. They let me see him at 5pm but they said there would be a table between us and I could not touch him. We spoke for ten minutes with one officer standing right there next to us, on the edge of the table. At the end, we shook hands and in that moment I realised he was not the same person any more. He had been changed. That handshake was the hardest moment in my life. I haven’t seen him again since.
After my brother was removed, I did not talk to too many people. I kept myself to myself. I would go out and sit out on a bench in the garden and just think and think and think. From the bench I could see the table tennis table. There was this guy called Michael, from Nigeria. He was brilliant at table tennis. Really, he was a remarkably talented guy. He was also a pool table expert. He was seriously multi-talented. His case was refused after he could not find a solicitor. He prepared all his documents for his own Judicial Review. The bundle was around 100 pages. I know how hard he worked without any guidance. He had removal directions and he had only ten days to fight it. I got to know him over this period very well. Eventually, his JR was refused. He spoke to me about the charter flights. He was expecting to be put on one and was very scared. I just remember feeling so sad about this man. He was clearly such a brilliant individual – so well mannered, so organised, great English, great work ethic, very skilled, always trying to be positive. His life was being wasted in detention. I remember feeling that if this guy isn’t considered a credit to the country, then what chance do the rest of us have? I don’t know what happened to him. I never saw him again after I left detention.