I’ve been working with people detained at Tinsley House and Brook House for over eight years now. In that time I’ve answered our phone to people who speak many different languages, so I have become something of an expert in recognising where a particular accent comes from when I am spoken to in English by someone from another land.
But more and more I’ve been picking the phone up to men who sound very much like me.
A British accent, often from London, sometimes Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester. Without exception they tell me how they don’t understand why they are there, how they didn’t know places like this existed, how they are now facing removal back to countries they left when they were children, and to which they now feel little or no connection, leaving everyone and everything they know behind.
They are almost as British as me. But not quite.
I remember clearly one of the first people I met who greeted me in a strong London accent. John was from Democratic Republic of Congo, came to the UK more than 20 years previously when he was nine years old, and had been granted indefinite leave to remain as a refugee here along with his family. He had two young daughters he clearly adored, but for a period of his life his addiction to crack cocaine held him firmly in its grasp and led him down a treacherous path. He told me of his life as a qualified chef, then of the chaos of his addiction as it took grip – about how he’d ‘died’ for ten minutes when he was stabbed, later to be resuscitated, and about how he’d committed a series of petty shoplifting and fraud offences to fund his habit.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was a sentence of six weeks for stealing a steak. That pushed him over the 12 month threshold, and a deportation order followed soon after. John was a writer, both before and after his addiction, and he sent me numerous writings, all with a spiritual outlook that was hard to define but went to the very heart of who he was.
I visited John for almost six months, then suddenly he was gone. I never did find out where he went, whether he was back to the country he had fled from with his parents decades earlier, and where he knew nobody, but I can only assume that this was his fate. We had grown close and were he to be released he had promised me he would let me know. Before he went he talked a lot about how he was trying hard to find acceptance about what had happened in his life, to find some peace within himself, even during this difficult time when he was locked up away from everyone he loved.
John’s accent was most definitely from the Isle of Dogs, where he had lived until his detention.
Since then I have heard many more British accents. Frequently they have been from men who have come to the UK during their early years, some even as babies, endured difficult childhoods which commonly included periods in care, entered the criminal justice system, then found themselves facing a triple punishment of prison, detention and deportation.
These men then usually went on to spend long periods in detention, away from partners, children and wider family, watching as those ties were put under immense strain, and sometimes snapped entirely. They would often be the first to admit that they have made mistakes, that they deserved to be punished for their offences, but then fail to understand why that punishment hadn’t ended when it would have, had they had the same passport as all of their friends they had grown up with.
I remember Charles, who had been doing some volunteering with a charity that works with young people at risk of being recruited into gangs, as he had been himself a decade earlier, when he was picked up, three years after his last prison sentence had ended.
He was informed that he was to be deported back to his home country, despite not having been there since he was nine years old and knowing no one back there who could give him any kind of help. He was told he was a risk to the public, yet he talked to me at length about how he had not been involved with any gangs for almost five years and had turned his life around in the intervening period, going back to college and getting engaged to his long-term partner, whose two children had treated him as though he were their father.
I read a report from a forensic psychologist who said his risk of reoffending was low, yet this has been dismissed by the Home Office. He asked me if I thought the Home Office actually believed it when they said they were removing him to make the UK a safer place when he had been working with young people to urge them to avoid the gang life and instead to engage in education. I couldn’t answer him.
Then there was Ali, who was facing the prospect of being sent back to a country he had never actually been to. He’d lived in the UK since he was three months old and had never left, after being born on a UK Army base in Europe, but was facing removal back to the Asian country where his father had been born. He had a history of mental health problems that saw him switch from cheerful and charismatic to frustrated and angry in quick succession. He saw his deportation as an effective death sentence. It was hard to see how he would be able to survive, dumped in a foreign land with nothing and no one.
There have been plenty of others.
Nobody says that these cases are easy. We do of course have laws that we all must abide by or face the consequences, and many of the people I’ve visited have indeed been punished for their actions via the criminal justice system. Some would say that those who break the rules should not be allowed to stay here, but my own experience is that when you actually meet and talk to the people behind the labels, the stories you hear are much more complex than can be summarised in one simple rule.
To deprive a father of his family, and to deprive children of their father and a wife of her husband, forever, there has to be overwhelmingly compelling reason to do so. A drug addict stealing a steak surely cannot be a reason to split a family and permanently deport a man back to a failing country with no means to survive.
Before he left Tinsley House, John sent me some of his writings. He wrote of mixed feelings, from fear and dread to hope and strength. He tried to remain positive, drawing on the resilience that had helped him survive war, poverty, feelings of isolation, and a drug dependency that nearly killed him. In his last note he wrote me this:
I love life and hopefully life agrees with me. Nobody likes the feeling of being trapped, yet we all are somehow. One way or another we’re all trapped in a situation and do not completely feel free. My name is John, a detainee at Tinsley House. I’m not trapped in here. I’m here to expand my mind and meet people of different cultures and backgrounds. I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to pass through here, for I’m no longer naïve to certain people’s ways, or ignorant towards their religions and beliefs. I’ve learnt to live away from my loved ones until I see them again. And I’ll have a lot to tell them about my journey.