Detained for sleeping rough

Increased detention and deportation of EU citizens from the UK has been in the news for some time, especially in the context of debates surrounding Brexit.  NELMA has been working with EU citizens who have been detained while sleeping rough.   
North East London Migrant Action (NELMA) and The Public Interest Law Unit at Lambeth Law Centre have been granted permission for a judicial review of the Home Office’s policy of detaining and deporting homeless EU citizens—just for sleeping rough.
From 9am-12 noon on Tuesday November 21st—the first day of the judicial review hearing—NELMA and other groups opposed to the policy will be holding a demonstration outside the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand. The aim of the demonstration is to show the government—and the judge—the extent of public opposition to this most inhumane of ‘hostile environment’ policies.
Over the past year NELMA has been interviewing EU citizens affected by the policy. Here we present Mihal and Teodora’s story.
Mihal and Teodora*
We’re from Bulgaria, but before we came to the UK we lived in Greece for a long time. We did seasonal work in the fields, mostly picking olives. For four months of the year we could earn well—€30 a day—but the rest of the year was hard.
We came to the UK because we had heard it was the country with the most work. We thought it would be good here, and at first it was. Mihal got a job as a handyman. He was earning decent money. Then we found a place to live in Ealing.
Mihal doesn’t speak much English, so he worked with a friend. When his friend left, it became much more difficult for him to get jobs. The house in Ealing also turned out badly. The guy we were living with was drinking heavily and was impossible to live with. So we left.
We slept rough outside Victoria station for three nights because we had nowhere else to go. During the day we looked for work and for a place, and at night we slept out. We found a place to live in the first couple of days—we were just waiting for two people to move out.
But then immigration came. It was about one in the morning. They came to our sleeping site—there were lots of us sleeping there, mainly Romanians. We were sleeping on cardboard, and on top of us we had the blankets from our house in Ealing.
There were about five of them, maybe more. They were polite but they didn’t explain anything. They took our details and gave us papers saying we had to report to Becket House. That was all. We weren’t upset or worried at first. We had all our papers in order, so we would be fine.
But when we went to sign—this was three days later—they were rude to us. They told us we had been served papers because we were sleeping on the streets. We asked for an interpreter but didn’t get one. One immigration officer said: ‘Shut up! Fuck you! Go back to Bulgaria.’ We signed something else but I don’t know what it was. Then they took our passports away and detained us.
They put us in Yarl’s Wood. They took Teodora’s medication away and kept it at reception. She’s not well. She can’t do anything without it. We were in there for three months and fifteen days. It was time of fear and stress. Teodora was crying. Her pulse was fast. She couldn’t breathe. She was always in the hospital wing.
It felt like a prison. Knock on wood, we’ll never go back. We saw lots of people try to kill themselves. It happened every day. They took away our mobile phones. I would die before going back. I’m not a criminal.
Our solicitor got us out. We don’t know how or why. We could have been there forever. Whoever works in immigration needs to know it’s not a good job. They’re like criminals. I want the big boss to know what happened to us.
We want to leave the UK. We want to go back to our family. If they had just deported us straightaway, it would have been OK. But they kept us there for three months. And then they kept our passports after we got out. So we can’t get an address, or a National Insurance number, or anything. Teodora has been offered a good job as a cleaner in a hotel. But she can’t do it.
Lots of people have helped us. We wouldn’t have survived without them. Now we’re waiting for our day in court.
*Not their real names.

If I am ever detained

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.


‘A country I had called home for 13 years had imprisoned me.’

Families with children were regularly detained at Yarl’s Wood and Dungavel detention centres until the change of policy in 2010 drastically reduced the number of children detained.  Now, a smaller number of families with children are detained in an unit within Tinsley detention centre.  But what happened to many children who were detained at Yarl’s Wood and who are turning into adults in the UK?  Ijeoma Datha-Moore, from Let Us Learn, looks back on her 15-year-old self who suddenly found her and her family detained at Yarl’s Wood.  When she finished writing this piece, Ijeoma said I’ve done it. I can’t tell you how odd it felt, but empowering. I am so proud of myself for being able to do this.’ A big thank you to Ijeoma for sharing her story with Unlocking Detention. 
I was detained in October 2009, at the age of 15, my brother was about 11.  It was in fact two days after I had turned 15. I was never informed of where I was being kept, but I firmly believe it was Yarl’s Wood.
I had no idea such things (as immigration detention) even existed before I was detained.  It was so peculiar to me, I felt like a prisoner in a country I called home.  My first impression was that it looked nice, it most definitely didn’t look like a place you’d be terrified of being in from the outside and the inside was decent. It was clean, I could still smell cleaning chemicals. In places it was bright, I believe this was for the benefit of the children.
I remember the smell of food – I think it was lunch time when we arrived. I remember the first meal we had was some chicken and rice. That was the only good thing about the place, the food. It felt very clinical in some areas, a little too white, which made me feel uneasy, but the spaces dedicated to children were bright and beautiful.  You could always hear people talking.  The only real dull moment you had was when everyone went to sleep.
I remember when I walked in with my little brother and my father; there was a room they kept you in before you were called.  It was so bright; it made me feel at ease, as if I’d have a good time or that it was a place filled with laughter.
In the detention centre we were kept in, as there were kids there, they had a make-shift school. Honestly, the first couple of days I was up for going to ‘school’, but after the first three days or so, I hated it.  I wanted out.  They mixed kids from 11 to 17 in one class.  I was missing my actual school for what I considered, and what was clearly, a bullcrap ‘school’.  Aside from so-called school, I spent time with other kids in the game room along with my brother and that was pretty much it…
I was angry at the system for keeping me in such a place at such a young age. I know 15 may not seem young, but in the eyes of the law I am not an adult, so why treat me like one?!  My heart broke for my brother, he had no clue what was happening!  I basically had to be mum and dad for him and try to keep us both strong. We were estranged from our father, so it was the worst possible situation. He was only detained with us because he had come to visit me for my birthday and stayed for the weekend celebrations. It was horrendous. A country I had called home for 13 years had imprisoned me.
My mum had to run away from the flat we had as she didn’t want them (the Home Office) to get her too.  She had been working hard on regularizing our immigration status and had been doing so for a number of years to the best of my knowledge. She was never one to burden me with such information.
After we were released, my brother and I were sent to live with a family my father knew, while he was detained and then later deported.
When I got back to school I told my friends I had just been away due to it being my birthday…  I didn’t care if they believed me or not, I just didn’t want to re-live the trauma.  I never spoke about my experience to friends until I was 17…  Even then I only told about two people.  They were so shocked, but what could I do.

My mum was affected the most; she spent almost two years apart from her children. That had never happened before; the most she’d spend away from us was a few days, or at the longest, a week. Those around her made her more frightful and on the off chance she came to see us, she would be terrified when police went by in case they would snatch her.  She would shake!  Imagine being so scared about being taken away that you shake at the sound of sirens or when a police officer walks by.  She didn’t even look like she was getting enough sleep.
I don’t recall getting any one to one support inside the detention centre. The only people that were nice were other kids!  I mean it made sense seeing as we were all going through the same travesty. There was a room for worship, no matter the religion. You could set it up how you wanted. This was beneficial to those of faith, a way of helping them cope. It was a place I went to for quiet time and to pray. Even after I got out, I never received professional support. It was needed, especially for my younger brother.
I didn’t really witness anything in the centre because I stayed in my room.  It was my coping mechanism.  I didn’t want to be around other people, I was very reclusive.  However, after coming out of there and as I got older, I wanted to know more. I read about people who had died in detention.  I was shocked!!  I also heard about a guy that tried escaping a couple years back and when trying to scale the fence, he impaled himself. It is a TRAGIC place.
This experience of detention changed me.  I wasn’t as open as I was before.  I was very distrustful of lawyers or those working with the law in general.  I hate G4S to this day.  Before I went inside, I loved to cook and be around family.  Now I’ve lost my zeal for cooking, I’d much rather be on my own.  It’s made me a more inward person.  Although I’m glad to say that I’m coming out of this now…  it’s only taken almost 10 years.  Detention is very damaging, to both children and adults alike. I now work at Just For Kids Law, which is the best place for me after all my experiences.
To people who are reading this and feeling angry about immigration detention, I would say challenge it!  Many people in detention will be like me, awaiting a Home Office decision or putting their papers in.  The government doesn’t care.  I mean I saw a four-year-old in detention.  4?!
You should petition, you should protest.  Just get out there and do what you can. I most definitely think we should find a different way of dealing with immigration detention, it shouldn’t even exist. The Home Office is terrible at response times which is why many families are in the situation.  What you should really do is challenge people’s way of thinking.  If people have connections with MP’s, use them…  Something needs to be done about how much we pay to get our official documents and how much we pay to renew them. Many families cannot afford the cost and they only keep increasing every April.
I am now involved in Let us Learn, which is a youth led movement campaigning for higher education for all.  We develop young leaders through the work we do for a better and brighter future.  We wanted to change the way the system looked at those with limited leave or discretionary leave to remain.  If we wanted to go to university, we would be charged international fees, going upwards of £15,000 even though a lot of us had been here from around 6 or 7 years old.  We were young, gifted and blocked.  If we wanted to wait to be able to access home fees, we needed to wait 10 years with legal leave in the country.  By then most would be almost 30.  In 2015, we changed the law, with the help of the lawyers at Just for Kids Law and now we only have to wait 3 years!  You can read more about our story here.
I have been the only one detained within Let Us Learn, which I am happy about. I wouldn’t want anyone else to experience the sort of trauma I was put through.  As there are so many groups that deal with issues about detention, it is not a primary focus for us at the moment.  Possibly in the future we will focus a little more, but for now, we will help other organisations in their plight.

Ijeoma Datha-Moore at Let Us Learn

'Everyday in Yarl’s Wood is a struggle'

This week, Unlocking Detention tour is ‘visiting’ Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedford.  Boatemaa* was detained in Yarl’s Wood earlier this year.  She was recently released from Yarl’s Wood, to continue with her asylum case, after four months in detention.  She shares her story here.  (This is not her real name.)
I never knew my real parents. I was handed over to a family friend at the age of six, and then to an uncle a few years later. He raped me from the age of 10 onwards.
In 2011, I came to the UK to escape him. A man I knew did the immigration paperwork for me, and he brought me to the UK, but I was detained at the airport and taken to Yarl’s Wood. That first time I was detained, it was for two weeks.
When I was released the man who brought me to the UK took me to a house. At first the family who lived in the house treated me ok, but then less so. At first I had to sleep in with the children, but later on the floor of the living room. I wouldn’t sleep well and then they would shout at me if I fell asleep during the day. I did all the household chores on my own, and sometimes I would be left in the house to look after the children. I was never paid at all.
In the end I managed to run away. I went to live with some friends, but when they were arrested and detained I was in the house, and so I ended up back in Yarl’s Wood. I fell when enforcement came to the house and hurt my leg badly. I am still limping today.
First they took me to a police station. Whilst I was there I felt this horrible pain go through my whole body. I couldn’t stand up but I was told that it wasn’t an emergency. They put me in a wheelchair and after four hours they took me to hospital.
The nurse at the hospital said there was nothing wrong with me, and laughed at me. “You think this is funny?” I asked her. I never speak up for myself usually. That was honestly the first time I opened my mouth to someone.
I was told to walk back to the police car. I explained that I couldn’t walk. The nurse brought a wheelchair but wouldn’t bring it close enough for me to get into it. She just said to me “you can walk.”
From the police station I went to Colnbrook. I felt so bad. I was scared of saying anything.
When we arrived at Colnbrook I asked for help getting out of the van. They said no. I was in so much pain but nobody helped me. They said “why are there no reports from the hospital?” It was like I was lying. After a day at Colnbrook I was transferred to Yarl’s Wood.
I claimed asylum in Yarl’s Wood. I talked about the abuse my uncle put me through for the first time. I never dared mention it before because he had made me swear never to mention it. Even now I wonder what the consequences might be of mentioning it. I am in constant fear. I am sure he will find a way of punishing me.
But then the Home Office rejected my asylum claim. They said I didn’t have enough evidence, so they didn’t believe me.

Photo credit: Aliya Mirza

After a while, my solicitor told me about Rule 35 assessments, and I was given one, but it went very badly. I told the doctor about the torture and abuse my uncle had subjected me to, but she summarised it in a way that wasn’t right. She didn’t write down anything about all my scars. And she didn’t ask me anything about my experiences when I first arrived in the UK, so I didn’t mention it. She even got my country of origin wrong.
I got in touch with the charity Medical Justice. They tried to get me another Rule 35 assessment, and one was booked for me. However, when I went to the appointment, Healthcare said there was no record of it, and no assessment was carried out.
I have been so ill in detention, with pains in my leg, back and stomach. I have fibroids and it is like I have a big stone inside me, moving around. It is very painful. I was taken for a hospital appointment but I need an operation.
Sometimes I think about ending it. I went and spoke to Wellbeing. I told them everything and they wrote it all down. Unlike Healthcare, they were helpful. They listened to me. They took me seriously. They were kind. They tried to help me with the doctor at Healthcare.
But everyday in Yarl’s Wood is a struggle. Because of my injured leg I can’t use the stairs. Some guards let me use the lift, others refuse. One said to me “you are not on a care plan, so you can’t use the lift.” When I pressed the alarm bell in my room because I needed help, a guard came in and said “I am not your carer. Don’t press the alarm again.”
I see other people being treated so badly. There were seven of them, all around a woman, restraining her, her hands behind her back. They dragged her off to segregation.
I don’t understand why I am being treated like this. I buried what happened to me for so long – and then when I spoke about it, and asked for help, this is what happened to me.
Boatemaa spoke to Sarah Cope, Campaigns and Research Officer at Women for Refugee Women, about her experience, who prepared this piece.

Week 7: #Unlocked16 visits Yarl's Wood

Week 7 of Unlocking Detention saw us virtually visit Yarl’s Wood detention centre, perhaps the best known of all the UK’s sites of detention.  Opened in 2001 at a cost of £100 million, with an original capacity of 900 bed spaces, the centre was burnt down three months later in a fire. It reopened in 2003 on a smaller scale – it now holds up to 304 women & 68 families.   Did you know it can also hold men too? There are 38 beds for what guards have called ‘lorry-drop’ cases.


Jess Anslow, coordinator of Yarl’s Wood Befrienders, wrote for the Unlocking Detention blog about the inspiration, friendship and challenges that befriending women in Yarl’s wood poses.

When I sing, I sing for them. When I speak, I speak of them. When I shout, I am shouting about them.

Read Jess’ blog post here
This week we also had a bit of a Latin American theme.  In a special Spanish recording for Unlocking Detention, Julio from the Freed Voices group speaks to four close friends about the impact his detention had on them. In doing so, together – Julio, Luz, Maria, Isabel and Jair – provide a devastating insight into the wider affects of indefinite detention, how it shapes the Latin American experience of the UK, and the vitality of community organising in response to this extreme deprivation of civil liberties.
Listen and read transcript here

Carolina of the Latin American Women’s Rights Service then wrote an article in response to hearing this interview for The Prisma newspaper, which has a big Spanish speaking readership.

Read the Prisma article in English here
Read the Prisma article en espagnol here
On Friday of “Yarl’s Wood week” of Unlocking Detention fell the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.  René Cassin intern Hannah wrote this piece on the detention of women.

This week’s Q and A was with Mayalex, who has been detained in Yarl’s Wood for two and a half years.

Mayalex had some important messages to share from inside Yarl’s Wood.
When asked what was the one thing she missed:

And what one thing did she want to change?

Read the Q and A with Mayalex here
A sobering reminder of the constrictions of detention: we promised to send Mayalex the blog post of her Q and A.  We did, but of course the page is blocked in detention.  Yet another way of cutting people off from the outside world and the support from those outside.
This week we also published a brilliant short video made by Sarah Cope, a volunteer visitor to Yarl’s Wood.  Join her on a journey to Yarl’s Wood here.

On 3 December, thousands will gather at Yarl’s Wood to protest its existence, and to call an end to all detention.  Find out more about Movement for Justice’s demonstration here.

Q & A with Mayalex, currently detained in Yarl's Wood

This week Unlocking Detention has been ‘visiting’ Yarl’s Wood detention centre – perhaps the best known of all the UK’s sites of detention, and which will once again be the site of protest on 3 December
Earlier this week, Ben from Detention Action conducted a Q&A with’Mayalex’ who is currently detained in Yarl’s Wood.  We tweeted the interview live this afternoon (Friday).
Here’s the whole interview, and the thoughts of others joining in the conversation:


When I sing, I sing for them. When I speak, I speak of them. When I shout, I am shouting about them.

By Jess Anslow, Coordinator of Yarl’s Wood Befrienders.
Visiting women who are being indefinitely detained in Yarl’s Wood IRC is challenging.
It is challenging because you witness injustice. Injustice coming from a country that is known and admired across the world for its justice. There is justice in the criminal courts, and justice for victims of violence and justice for the wrongly accused being set free. Yet when it comes to Immigration detention, there is no justice…well not that I can find anyway.
“You there! Yes you, foreigner! You are guilty until you can prove to me otherwise. You are guilty of lying about the murder of your son; about your sexuality; about your rape.”
Sounds absurd doesn’t it. But this is the reality for immigration detainees, for thousands of men and women who come to this country hoping for safety and respect. Unfortunately, rather than respect and safety, they get labelled a liar and are detained.
Our natural instinct when we meet someone in need is to try and help, try to solve their problem. But, for many of us who visit IRCs do not have the answers and may not be able to help in the way the detainee wants. This I find challenging. Being a befriender is about recognising your limitations and being comfortable and committed to the simple task of listening.
Visiting women who are being indefinitely detained at Yarl’s Wood IRC is emotional.
It is emotional because you sit with her, hold her hand and wipe away her tears. You listen to her past experiences, and share her pain. You hear her voice breaking as she talks about her children that have been taken from her by social services due to her detention, and about children left behind.
‘Befriending’ creates a really special relationship. You visit someone for the duration of their detention and may therefore be seeing that same person every week for a very long time. They may see each other more than the befriender see’s their own family. My role is different, as I generally only meet a detainee a couple of times before passing them on to a befriender. But, there are those women that I have met where real and long-lasting friendships have formed.
One of the things I find hardest is seeing the deterioration of your friend’s mental health and wellbeing. It never gets easier.
Many of the women have experienced rape, domestic violence and torture, yet it seems that being detained is the thing that is slowly destroying them. After all that they have been through, it is the cruelness of indefinite detention that they find the hardest to cope with.
I remind myself that although her story is not my story and her experiences are uniquely her own, that it is OK to cry.
It is OK to feel frustrated to the point of bursting. It is OK to get emotional.
Visiting women who are being indefinitely detained at Yarl’s Wood IRC is inspiring.
Every day I am inspired by their bravery. They inspire me to live a life of kindness and to continue to walk the path of peace and justice. I try to put myself in their shoes, and to imagine living the life they have lived, and I wonder how I would cope. Not half as well as they have done I am sure.
I imagine myself as a woman the same age as me, but having not been afforded the privilege of being born in a quiet English town, to a good family and given access to free education. Instead, I was born and raised in abject poverty; kidnapped; sold into sexual slavery; forced to take hard drugs and contracted HIV. I somehow find the courage to run away from my abusers, and come to the UK for safety. This in itself is hard enough to bear, and then I find myself detained, under lock and key, with absolutely no idea as to when I will be allowed to return to the place I call home – if ever.
No, I wouldn’t cope at all.
We are aware that long term detention causes a plethora of mental health issues, notably depression and anxiety, and yet, even through the darkness that engulfs them, the detainees that I meet are managing to cope; sometimes it is easy, but more often than not, it takes guts and the strong will to survive.
Inside Yarl’s Wood IRC, there is such a strong sense of community, of sisterhood. Women from all countries are living together, supporting one another, and encouraging each other. This inspires me.
Knowing that the women sitting across from me with her hair done up, her make-up on and a smile across her face, is actually feeling like a shadow of her former self; inside she is wailing, she is struggling to breathe, she is vulnerable. Yet, she manages to show me the strength that brought her here and to hold her head up high. This inspires me… She inspires me.
And on the next table, a woman that is speaking so openly and is physically showing her pain, crying out to be touched. She has been stripped of those social barriers that teach us to be strong. She too inspires me.
When I sing, I sing for them.
When I speak, I speak of them.
When I shout, I am shouting about them.
Befriending is challenging, emotional work and we do it for them.

Taking detention drama straight to the heart of Parliament

This blog post was written for Unlocking Detention by John Tomlinson of Strawberry Blond Curls Theatre Company, (@SBC_Theatre) who performed their play ‘Tanja’ at this week’s Sanctuary in Parliament event.


We, Strawberry Blonde Curls Theatre Company, are John Tomlinson (that’s me) and Rosie MacPherson. We’ve been working together for about five years now. I’m a producer and Rosie is a brilliant writer and award-winning actor. We’re a company that are always going to make important political work that comes from real stories and take them around the country to raise awareness and start conversations.

We had a once in a lifetime opportunity to take our political drama straight to the heart of Parliament this week…we performed ‘Tanja,’ our play about immigration detention for ‘Sanctuary in Parliament’, an event organised by the City of Sanctuary movement to tell MPs about their work in welcoming asylum seekers and refugees.  This year it coincided with the Report Stage of the 2015 Immigration Bill, so MPs were able to go straight from seeing our play to the debate on the floor of the House…

We couldn’t quite believe it either but, for a short time, we had the undivided (we hope) attention of the room, which was full of MPs and key figures explaining to them what the refugee crisis really looks like and how they can change hundreds of people’s lives. It’s the most important thing we’ve ever been involved in, so we did everything we could  to make sure we engaged, enlightened and educate people through theatre and storytelling.

How did we get to this? Well, we’ve always created political theatre. The work we make has always been in response to what we see in the world and how we can put it right, together, little by little. Opening up conversations is why we make theatre and they’re mostly hard-hitting dramas. We’ve been lucky to have lots of companies, venues, partners and funders who support what we do. This one is much the same, but it’s never been so real.

‘Tanja’ is a drama about a woman. She’s an individual and she stands for and represents a whole load of women who have, and continue to, suffer.

Set in her room at Yarl’s Wood detention centre, this is her story, her life, her love of culture and music, her (despite everything) love of England and its quirky eccentricities, and the abuse she has suffered in her quest for refuge.

When we, including the brilliant Hannah Butterfield who we’re making the show with, took to that committee room on Tuesday, we did it because we think we can make a difference, no matter how small. We hope you tell someone about what’s going on at Yarl’s Wood and we hope you research more about the women in there and tell your MP why it’s so important.

Theatre is reactive in its nature. This one has a good chance to actually make a change. We’ve got a massive opportunity and we’re grateful, but we won’t rest until this is settled. We’ll make, rehearse, tour, talk and shout about it for a long time. We work in an industry of make believe, but not this – this is now, this is real. Let’s challenge the injustices experienced by women who seek asylum in the UK.

Tuesday was the most important day of my life. I’ve never felt such compassion and a connection with amazing people who are fighting for justice. We all feel empowered and were overwhelmed with the response to our piece. It feels like we have the blessing of those people, many of which have suffered first hand, to go and tell the stories to everyone, whether it be in a theatre or in the street. We’re part of this movement, whole heartedly.

Thanks for reading, now over to you to tell someone else.


#Unlocked15 'visits' Yarl's Wood

Last week, Unlocking Detention paid a virtual visit to perhaps the UK’s best known detention centre, Yarl’s Wood – known for all the wrong reasons.   Yarl’s Wood is one of the detention centres where women can be detained, and has become notorious as the site of widespread allegations of abuse.  It has also become the site of widespread protest, with huge demonstrations being organised by Movement for Justice.

It was another week of moving and thought-provoking pieces on our blog, including this article by Heather Jones who has been visiting Yarl’s Wood for eleven years – “Pregnancy ought to be a happy time”

Music in Detention also work with women in Yarl’s Wood, and shared some of the music created there:

This week’s Justice Gap article was by Britte van Tiem, on how refugees and other migrants are being detained as they make there way across Europe, and if they make it to the UK, face indefinite detention here too.  Refugees Welcome?

Continuing our community perspective theme, this week we featured an intriguing perspective from Belfast, in a piece written by someone who both visits people in detention (at Larne House short-term holding facility) while also being at risk of detention him/herself:

And we heard directly from women detained in Yarl’s Wood.  We heard from June, a fiery, inspiring woman who shared her voice via Women for Refugee Women – “It’s like an apartheid that’s gone underground”

We once again had a unique insight into life for those detained, thanks to Gloria who is currently detained at Yarl’s Wood.

We rarely get to hear about these details of the day-to-day routine:

You can read the full Q and A in this Storify round-up.