Testimony is a powerful way of helping those of us lucky enough not to have experienced the blunt end of immigration detention to understand a little bit of what it must be like. It can inspire us to action. But at what cost to those who have to continuously revisit the experience; who become known to us only as one of the many de-humanising labels we use like ‘detainee’, ‘asylum seeker’. Mishka who volunteers for the Detention Forum, has agreed to share his ‘expertise-by-experience’ of life in and after detention.
I cannot visit any detention centres because I do not have the required identification to pass the security. How strange: I was held in three detention centres for five months when I did not want to be there and now I am not allowed to visit them even if I wanted to. This issue came up when I was preparing for the blog I wrote for Unlocking Detention a few months ago. Instead of visiting Tinsley and Brook House detention centres myself, I talked to others who have that privilege of being able to pass the security and visit people there.
My passport is with the Home Office while they assess my asylum claim and I do not have any other form of ID. An ID is one of the many basic things people navigating the immigration system could lose. Naturally, I cannot travel outside the UK. The Biometric Residence Permit (BRP) is another form of ID migrants use or a driving license. As I have none of these, I do not have anything to verify my status in the UK at all.
When I tell people that I do not have any ID they are surprised. On occasions when I was asked to provide ID, it was hard to explain why I do not have any. I recently wanted to check in to a hotel that a campaign organiser booked for me and the reception asked for my ID. Initially, I could not convince him that I don’t have an ID. I showed him the booking confirmation and text messages verifying the booking. He looked at me for a few seconds and said it is because he wants to know my age! When I said I am over 30 years old, he said: “Dear me, you look much younger”!
Of course this causes practical inconveniences. Far more importantly though, there are emotional implications. Not being able to prove who I am is a constant reminder that I am an asylum claimant and my future in this country is uncertain. This uncertainty also makes it difficult for me to plan important things in life.
Who am I then? I decided to be an ‘expert-by-experience’, with the name of ‘Mishka’ to campaign against immigration detention and make a change. The reality of this experience is that overall, for me, it has not always been good. I constantly have to introduce myself as someone who has been in detention, or an ‘ex-detainee’ as some call it. On top of this, I still have an ongoing asylum claim and this makes me ‘an asylum seeker’. Another is ‘client’: when I meet people from NGOs and organisations, there is a tendency for them to see me as their client, even if I have never been their client.
Though I end up wearing many labels, ‘expert-by-experience’, ‘Mishka’, ‘asylum seeker’, ‘ex-detainee’, not being seen and treated as an ordinary person feels similar to not having any ID: you are unsure about who you are and others who meet me as Mishka’, ex-detainee’ or ‘asylum seeker’ are only seeing a small part of who I really am.
Even though my first hand experience of detention is one of the reasons why I decided to become ‘Mishka’, I find it frustrating when I am expected to talk about it all the time. A few times, for example, when I was writing newspaper articles, I was asked to add more about my personal story to ‘make it more emotional and punchy’. To be honest, I have already spoken about my experience of detention during campaign work many times and sometimes I want to choose to focus on something else. Whether to share my personal experience or not has to be my own choice. It takes time for me to open up to strangers. When I was in detention, I knew about visitors’ groups but I never wanted to have a visitor. I could not imagine myself speaking to a stranger I have never met about my personal circumstances.
In this case, when I was asked to write about my detention experience for this blog, the decision to talk once again about my story came easily to me. I have been volunteering with Detention Forum for a long time now and I believe strongly in their campaigns. I know other volunteers and Detention Forum staff, and many of its member organisations put a lot of thought into how to communicate with respect about and with people in immigration detention. I knew that the decision about what to share of my story and how to share it would be mine.
I was in Harmondsworth, Colnbrook and Haslar (which closed down) for a total of five months a few years ago. There are of course many reports about these detention centres but they can’t tell you everything about them, or what it is really like inside.
Waiting and Waiting Some More
For example, most days, things could get heated in Harmondsworth while people waited for the thick metal door to open to access the shops, barber and computer room. I was in the ‘Dove’ wing and we had specific times to access these on each day. Hundreds of people desperately waiting in line behind this door. There were often arguments about people trying to jump the line, people pushing each other and running like they were running for their lives when the door opened to secure a place in the computer room, the barbers and the shop. People were also impatiently waiting for vacant washing machines, table tennis tables and pool tables. There was generally a lot of waiting.
My favourite place in Harmondsworth was the computer room. That is the place I could find evidence to support my ongoing case, I communicated with my solicitor and I could listen to some music once in a while. I felt I was in control of my own situation.
The worst place for me was the healthcare in Harmondsworth where I had to go often during my time there. I had been referred to undergo surgery before I went into detention, but the appointment was cancelled and my condition became worse. I thought it would be a simple matter of rearranging an appointment, but I was surprised to experience the conflict of interest between their duty to impartially assess your medical condition and their willingness to facilitate removals. They repeatedly told me that I had no medical condition even though I had already been referred for surgery. I also disliked what they called ‘legal visits’, which were meetings in a separate building with Home Office staff where you were informed about refusals and removal directions: most of the time it was bad news after bad news.
I was initially taken to Colnbrook with my brother. Then we were taken to Haslar detention centre in Portsmouth for two weeks and finally to Harmondsworth. I have no idea on what basis they decided to take us all the way to Haslar in Portsmouth from Colnbrook and brought us back all the way to Harmondsworth. I didn’t know that Colnbrook and Harmondsworth were close to each other. I was surprised when I got to know that these two centres are just walking distance from each other.
I am not surprised, though, when I read critical findings in monitoring reports, such as suicide attempts. I have seen this more than enough during my detention there. On the one hand, I am sad to know that these are still happening even after five years. But on the other hand, I also feel a little bit positive when I read about some improvements, such as numbers are reducing and new alternatives to detention pilot initiative.
During my last few days at Harmondsworth, I spent a lot of time staring at the small pond in the garden. The water was green because of the summer sun and a couple of small fish used to appear from that green water occasionally. Pigeons used to wander in this garden and people were told not to feed them. But I know some people secretly threw pieces of bread while there was no detention centre staff present. I am not sure if that pond is still there or not.
Laptop Bag and Two Black Garbage Bags
I was released from Harmondsworth on immigration bail. That is one day I will remember forever. I was given a travel ticket and I had to find my way to Section 4 accommodation myself. Amid all the uncertainty about how I was going to find the place, when I got that train ticket, one side of my heart felt excited like a child getting a ticket to Disney Land. I had my laptop bag and two black garbage bags: one with a massive bundle of documents and another with some clothes and shoes. It felt so strange after being held under that much security for five months when they just opened those 20-foot tall gates and let me walk out.
I still remember getting on a train and then a bus, carrying my two black garbage bags. My beard was way overgrown, as I did not trim it for five months while in detention. It was difficult to find the place, I got lost a few times and finally got there around 11pm.
Five months in detention is not that long compared to many others who have been in detention centres for years. But the experience was intense. My brother was removed from the UK. Then I was informed of the news of my dad’s passing. I could not even attend my dad’s funeral. All I had was a picture of him lying in his coffin that was emailed to me a couple of weeks after. I printed out the picture from the Harmondsworth printer and I still have that printout with me.
All these things I have endured – they have made me wiser, but also a bit delicate. If I rewind back the time by ten years or so, I was a very different person. I used to be very energetic and fierce with a ‘warrior mindset’– that’s gone now. But in a way, I like it. Now I am wise and feel mature: mature not only in age, but inside my head.
For a few years, I contributed to Unlocking Detention as a guest blogger, but this year I am contributing as a volunteer. My identity in relationship to Unlocking Detention has also changed. If there is Unlocking Detention 2020, I would still be very happy to contribute. But, I hope that by that time, I will have my ID back and I will be my own person.