Maddy Crowther is Co-Executive Director of Waging Peace and Article 1, which support Sudanese asylum-seekers and refugees to build meaningful lives in the UK. They run a Sudanese Visitors’ Group supporting their clients held in detention. Maddy has co-written this blog with Mohammed (not his real name), who has been detained on several occasions. Maddy is on Twitter at @CrowtherMaddy, and tweets for Waging Peace @WagingPeaceUK.
Often the first thing that strikes me when I visit an immigration removal centre is that this is a voiceless place. Which isn’t to say that they are quiet. Often the sounds of a centre are loud and jarring, and eerily similar to those you might expect in a prison – heavy doors clanging open, keys jangling from a guard’s belt.
No, by voiceless I mean that those inside seem to be treated as if they lack agency. In at least some sense the drive to detain, rather than let people fight their cases in the community, is an attempt to contain and silence those within. I have always felt it was particularly cruel that centres may remove an individual’s phone on arrival, replacing it with a new and more basic mobile, and so robbing them of the contacts and connections they have outside those four walls. On a practical side, it means volunteers associated with visitors’ groups like our own, are often at a loss of how to stay in touch with people; we may lose contact with someone precisely when they need us the most.
Even when we have been able to visit someone, and fight for them to be released, that person can emerge subdued and less able to advocate for themselves. We think an important part of our work is to offer them the chance to use their voices to heal. This is exactly what we have focused on in recent years, providing training to around 164 individuals on how to enlist the help of our democracy, including via trips to Parliament which were timed to coincide with City of Sanctuary’s ‘Sanctuary in Parliament’ initiative.
There are a mix of backgrounds in these groups. Not all will have experienced detention, but many will have, as most of the asylum-seekers we support do at one time. This is the case even though in the past 4 years, and out of our thousands of clients, only onehas been forcibly deported back to Sudan, and only a handful of others to a third country. All others were either granted status, or are still awaiting a decision. This calls into question the value of their detention in the first place – it cannot always have been to effect removal.
Across these 164 people who have directly benefited from our training, one man stands out to me, Mohammed (name changed). We first came into contact with Mohammed in 2015, during a period of detention at Morton Hall, despite the fact that we, as well as both his lawyers and medical staff, knew about his experience of severe torture in Sudan. We encountered him again in 2017, when he was detained first at Morton Hall, and then at Brook House. In short order he was given removal directions to Italy, where he was first fingerprinted in Europe. Of this time, he told us, “They will come back and take me by force, hearing the sounds of their keys (the guards) sends me into panic. All organs inside me feel panic.”
The manner of Mohammed’s removal attempts was shocking. In an attempt to avoid deportation Mohammed decided to start a hunger strike, and also stripped naked. Because of this, detention staff refused access to a volunteer visitor that we had arranged. But, hypocritically, Mohammed’s state did not prevent them taking him to the airport on a chilly late autumn day, and forcing him to board the plane with just a sheet wrapped around himself. It was only because the entire flight was cancelled that Mohammed was allowed to go back to the centre. Eventually he was released.
Having worked with Mohammed so intensely, we offered him the chance to come to our next lobbying training, just weeks after the attempted removal in late 2017. It was Mohammed’s first time entering Parliament. The difference in how he was treated that day – by MPs and Lords, Parliamentary staff, even the servers in the canteen – to how he had been treated in detention, was stark. Simply by the fact of his being in the Palace of Westminster, he was assumed to be a human being deserving of respect, dignity, and with a voice. I think if the same could be assumed of all those in immigration removal centres, then a lot would be improved with the detention estate in the UK. I’ll never forget leaving Parliament with Mohammed after the training, and him saying, “This is one of the best days of my life. I will never forget this day for as long as I live”.
But that’s enough from me. I’ll let Mohammed tell his story in his own words below. I know that this platform is even more meaningful to Mohammed, as there was a time he felt voiceless.
I’m one of those people who has suffered a lot and been detained for a variety of periods in different detention centres, two times in Morton Hall, two times in Brook House, once in Oxford, between 2014 and 2017. I’ve never ever forgotten those places. It seems as if I’d committed a crime, but I had not. Do you think I am guilty just being an asylum seeker? Do you think I deserve punishment for that?
Can you imagine what a tough life I had? I bet you can’t.
There were a few people from different organisations I knew, such as Karag charity in Coventry lead by lovely ladies Beth and Joan. I also remember two kind ladies Theresa and Helen who fought just to visit me, from Coventry Women’s Community. They did the best to do so. I don’t know how to thank them. Also Waging Peace did a lot of efforts to help me with all the procedures.
In this space I would like to share my experience with the readers, then I will leave you to make your judgment.
There was a gloomy atmosphere in the hell (detention). Sad faces everywhere, hopeless people, every day. The agony starts at night, no good sleep at all. Why? Because the guards come many times during the night, making fear in the atmosphere. You can hear loud key sounds. That means they want to take someone to deport them or perform a routine check. We called that moment execution. It felt like you would be beheaded.
It’s really tough to be behind steel doors. I’m doing the best to eliminate these kinds of memories. I despised my life, but this feeling has faded.
A few weeks after my last period of detention, I was invited to attend a course in Parliament organised by Waging Peace. It’s a completely contradictory feeling. It was an unforgettable day. I met some MPs, and such a lovely Lord, the Earl of Sandwich, with great hospitality. They were very generous people. We discussed a variety of issues relevant to Sudan. We focused particularly on human rights, discrimination, and inequalities against the Darfuri people. We were grateful to every single person we met there.
It’s a big difference to stand in front of huge beautiful doors in Parliament, rather than lay down behind awful steel doors in detention, isn’t it?
There was one feeling I had, among the group I was with. There is a place in Parliament where Nelson Mandela stood. When I put my feet where the great man Nelson Mandela had stood, and when I read the words written telling me that this is where he put his feet – at that moment tears came down. I compared myself with him. Both us of were looking for freedom. Everybody has his own battle. He has to fight until he gets victory.
When I was in detention I consoled myself by listening to some songs to give me hope, like ‘Another Day in Paradise’ by Phil Collins, and ‘Tears in Heaven’ by Eric Clapton. These songs are like a gift from me to everybody still suffering in detention.
I hope to change these systems to stop the detention of asylum seekers. They deserve good treatment and to save their dignity.
Thank you for reading my story.
Waging Peace and Article 1 run lobbying training with various Sudanese community groups in the UK, and held a repeat of the training Mohammed attended just last week. The photo above is from last week’s training and does not feature Mohammed.