Proof magazine: ‘No one can hear you cry. And the Home Office knows it’
Mishka and Abi – not their real names – are both members of Detention Action’s Freed Voices group. Freed Voices are a group of ‘experts-by-experience’ committed to speaking out about the realities of immigration detention in the UK. Between them, they have lost over 20 years to detention in this country. This article features in Proof magazine, issue 3 (Life in the Justice Gap: Why legal aid matters).
Mishka and Abi were asked to write about their experiences of immigration detention and access to justice.
Mishka’s story: No one can hear you cry. And the Home Office knows it
The UK government has always been ready to intervene on human rights violations around the world. This country works hard to sell the image of ‘best practice’ liberty, democracy and justice abroad. Experience immigration detention however, and you will soon find out how commonplace human rights violations are in the UK. Hidden behind their prison facade, detention centres are a perfect example of British hypocrisy in action.
I was detained in Harmondsworth immigration removal centre for five months and I see myself as a lucky survivor of the restricted access to justice and legal malpractices that shape life – and death – in detention.
A full version of this article appear in the latest issue of Proof Life in the Justice Gap: Why legal aid matters.
Proof is the print magazine of the Justice Gap. The latest issue features contributions from Helena Kennedy QC, Martha Spurrier, Lord Tony Gifford QC as well as journalists including the Guardian’s David Conn and Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi who has written an extended article reporting from the frontline of the legal aid cuts. The cover and Rebecca’s article is illustrated by the award-winning artist Simon Pemberton.
Of course, justice should not be about luck. It should be about having a fair trial, in an independent setting, with access to resources to support your claim. But the second you are detained in the UK, the Home Office has an excruciating degree of control over you and your ability to ‘access justice’.
And they will do everything to make sure you don’t succeed.
The Home Office has legal guidelines and regulations to protect ‘justice’ in detention, that’s for sure. But it’s one thing having regulations and another thing being able to access them in reality.
People in detention are dependent on solicitors to help them navigate the asylum and immigration system from behind bars. They are essential for a fair trial.
And yet, last year, only half of those detained in the UK had legal representation. This is because solicitors cost money and many of those people in detention can’t afford private counsel, but mainly it’s because of the cuts to legal aid.
This means many people in detention are left to represent themselves, often in a language they don’t understand. I was one of those forced into this situation in detention. I helplessly lodged two judicial reviews without any guidance in how to fill them out and they were ruled unsuccessful. I was told this was because they did not follow the right protocol – unsurprisingly, I am not a legal expert and English is not my first language.
From the Home Office’s point of view, however, this is just further evidence of a weak case.
The isolated environment of detention can also be another obstacle to justice inside. Many immigration removal centres are very isolated and sometimes, at the worst possible moment, you can find your mobile-phone service disappears and you can- not ring your solicitor or your friend to bring your documents.
If you are in one of the detention centres outside of London it can be difficult even to find a solicitor prepared to come out and see you. On any given day, you might find the computer room closed due to a shortage of staff or that certain websites that are vital for your case have been shut down.
What can you do in these situations? Your case – your life – may depend on getting certain evidence but you are cut off from the external world in detention.
No one can hear you cry. And the Home Office knows it.
And what happens if you do speak out about this injustice whilst you are detained? I have seen those people highlighted by the authorities and cast as ‘trouble-makers’ and ‘non-com- pliers’. These kinds of accusations will make it on to your bail summary and the judge will use it as an excuse to continue your detention.
Or worse, you’ll be put in segregation – ‘Room 40’ in Harmondsworth – and treated like some kind of dangerous animal.
Try navigating all of these barriers when – like many people in detention – you are vulnerable, or have experienced past
‘People do crazy things in detention because the pressure is so great. My brother tried to commit suicide twice. There have been nearly 20,000 people on suicide watch in detention since 2007. I saw people who forgot how to write their names in detention because their minds had melted. I started medication for severe depression when I was detained – I felt tired, I couldn’t concentrate, I shut down mentally. How can you have a serious conversation about accessing justice in this kind of environment?
No, looking out from inside the torture halls of detention, justice is a mirage.
Abi’s story: ‘The message is clear: you are public enemy number one’
Abi talks about being detained in prison and being trapped in a game of ‘politics & hate’
The first time I was called a migrant – or a ‘foreign national’ to be precise – was by the Home Office at the end of my prison sentence. Up until then, I had just assumed I was British.
It hadn’t even crossed my mind I was anything else. I grew up in this country, in Hackney – London Fields, Clapton, Mare Street – all over the borough. I lived here since I was six. I’m part of the community. Everyone else in my family has citizenship. Turns out, I’m the only one without the red passport.
When they gave me this deportation order I remember thinking, ‘But I’ve been in this team from day one. So all this time when I was working here, supporting England, cheering for the UK, what was that? You’re telling me I’m not who I think I am?’
They told me they I would be detained in prison under immigration powers. They didn’t give me any information. I’d spent the whole of my sentence counting down the days but they didn’t tell me how long
I’d be locked up beyond that. There was no guidance on what rights I had. Nothing.
There was one immigration officer in my prison for every 45 people. Her hands were full. If you wanted to send a fax you had to beg the guards. I was in prison and you don’t have access to the same things you might do in detention. You are alone in a desert. There are no legal surgeries, no information pamphlets, no advice lines, no access to the internet, no mobiles. Prison phones are on a time-lock allowing for five minutes a day only.
You can’t deal with an immigration issue in five minutes. The inevitable happens: you get frustrated and anger is reflected everywhere you look in that place. I was lucky I knew people inside so I was able to get hold of a mobile phone and call a solicitor. You have to be streetwise or there is no way out. I managed to call a legal aid solicitor.
If you’re not clued up yourself, though, it can be like staring at a blank wall. You have no idea if they are doing right by you or if they’re cheating you. You’re defenceless. And the longer it kept going on, the more I started to doubt my solicitor and the more I ended up doubting myself. Did I deserve to be here? Was I ever going to leave? Would I see my mum again?
The whole time you are held in prison under immigration powers you are treated as a prisoner. I would say to the ‘Guvnor’, I have finished my sentence but they’re not trained in immigration matters. They don’t know what to do. As far as they’re concerned, prison rules apply to everybody.
And so, despite the fact I’d served my punishment and done my time, I was still seen as a convict. This was my first real example of the criminalisation of migrants in this country. Your hands are tied. You are forced to comply. If you don’t, you just fall deeper into the well.
It completely changed the way I see this country, my country. I realised that everything I’d been led to believe, everything I’d grown up with, meant nothing. I came to realise that I was being used in a game of politics and hate.
You are made to feel like an alien when you are detained in prison under immigration powers. The message is clear: the whole of Britain is against you; you are public enemy number one; you are ‘the problem’.
Nine months after finishing my sentence I was released on bail. When I look back, it is disgusting how I was treated. It was a clear violation of my rights and civil liberties. It is a disgrace that immigration detention in prison continues in this country. For the sake of all those who find themselves in this situation now, we need an end to this flagrant abuse of power.
Order Proof magazine, issue 3 Life in the Justice Gap: Why legal aid matters.