My time in an im­mi­gra­tion de­ten­tion cen­tre nearly de­stroyed my hu­man­ity

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Kweku Adoboli

In my pre­vi­ous life I worked as a UBS trader, took re­spon­si­bil­ity for a £1.4bn trad­ing loss in 2011, and served a three-and-a-half year sen­tence in four dif­fer­ent pris­ons in­clud­ing Maid­stone, a for­eign na­tional jail.

But not even there was the at­mos­phere as dystopian as Har­mondsworth im­mi­gra­tion re­moval cen­tre where I was moved to prior to my re­lease.

In prison there is an op­por­tu­nity for pro­gres­sion, a sense of pur­pose, an end goal, a time­frame for re­lease and even a true sense of com­mu­nity. Al­though they don’t do it very well, our pris­ons fo­cus on re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing peo­ple, in­creas­ing their skills and pre­par­ing them to re­turn to so­ci­ety as pro­duc­tive cit­i­zens.

Noth­ing like that hap­pens in­side de­ten­tion cen­tres, even though the ma­jor­ity of de­tainees end up be­ing re­leased back into the com­mu­nity, as I was this week.

These peo­ple are not pris­on­ers and yet they are locked up from 9pm un­til 8am ev­ery day. Yes, un­like pris­on­ers we have mo­bile phones and can speak to our loved ones, but the stress of nav­i­gat­ing un­re­lent­ing Home Of­fice ef­forts to de­port us is so dam­ag­ing to our men­tal health that our re­la­tion­ships be­come strained. Our loved ones bear the brunt of our in­creas­ing men­tal fragility. Many re­la­tion­ships don’t sur­vive; I sus­pect this is one of the key aims of bring­ing peo­ple here. My girl­friend, friends, fam­ily and I are hav­ing to work ex­tremely hard to en­sure this process does not de­stroy our hu­man­ity.

Peo­ple in de­ten­tion cen­tres spend all their days in limbo. One week in de­ten­tion sud­denly stretches into a month or three. The men spend their days at the fax ma­chine, in the li­brary, or in the yard chain smok­ing to­bacco roll-ups. They don’t know how long they will be locked up be­cause im­mi­gra­tion de­ten­tion in the UK has no time limit. The sense of hope­less­ness is etched on ev­ery face and strains ev­ery con­ver­sa­tion.

Some men work be­hind the servery, in the laun­dry, or clean­ing the cor­ri­dors. They are paid £1 an hour. Para­dox­i­cally this is one place where slave wages are per­mit­ted, while, ac­cord­ing to Home Of­fice rules, most would not be al­lowed to work if they were re­leased. De­ten­tion feels like a be­trayal of our so­cial con­tract and the ba­sic life rule that if we pay our dues to our com­mu­nity, our place in that com­mu­nity will be pro­tected.

Pres­sure is ris­ing. In the last few days I was in­side, a few in­ci­dents took place in the din­ing hall. The food is taste­less and un­var­ied: rice, chicken, curry, sausages, chips, zero sea­son­ing. De­tainees serve the food on plates made of Sty­ro­foam so that they can’t be used as weapons. At the lat­est blow-up, the of­fi­cers formed a wall around the guy who had be­come ag­i­tated. A din­ing room of 100 hushed men looked on as,

this time, the staff struck the right bal­ance and de-es­ca­lated the sit­u­a­tion so he wouldn’t be sent to the “pun­ish­ment block”.

Many of the staff mem­bers do un­der­stand the in­hu­man­ity of what is hap­pen­ing and be­lieve their role is to help the men. The vast ma­jor­ity of them are mi­grants or from mi­nor­ity eth­nic com­mu­ni­ties them­selves. Few Cau­casians live or work in this en­vi­ron­ment. Some guards told me this place used to be so much worse. Back in 2002, be­fore emails and mo­bile phones, there were only fax ma­chines and pay­phones. Some­times ur­gent faxes from de­tainees were not sent and in­stead were shoved in a drawer. Pay­phones used to­kens but were not al­ways emp­tied, ren­der­ing the phones out of or­der and mak­ing con­tact with lawyers and loved ones im­pos­si­ble.

Much of the place is dirty. Re­cently, the out­side cleaners who are brought in to clean the toi­lets went on strike. The guards tried to re­cruit de­tainees to clean them but even the £1.25 an hour “spe­cial projects” rate wasn’t enough en­tice­ment. On my wing there are five work­ing toi­lets and show­ers shared be­tween 60 men; you can imag­ine the state they are in.

Above each yard is a net that stretches over the en­tire space to stop peo­ple us­ing drones to drop con­tra­band into the de­ten­tion cen­tre. For 10 days now, the net above yard num­ber three has cra­dled the slowly de­com­pos­ing body of a dead pi­geon. Ev­ery now and then the mice have the courage to scurry across open spa­ces. Mean­while, the walls of the yard are adorned with mu­rals of in­ter­na­tional sports icons; a cruel mock­ery to these men as they are re­minded of their loss of sta­tus as global cit­i­zens.

I have ut­ter dis­dain for this en­vi­ron­ment, an emo­tion I have not ex­pe­ri­enced be­fore; not even in prison. The pres­sure on the Home Of­fice to de­port ever more hu­mans is so great that ex­ces­sive risks are be­ing taken to de­stroy our shared hu­man­ity. Driven to achieve an im­pos­si­ble tar­get, Home Of­fice work­ers em­bed­ded in the de­ten­tion cen­tre are the de­liv­er­ers of this dis­tress. Calls to meet them – reg­u­lar and of­ten – fill ev­ery­one with dread. No one knows when their mo­ment will come.

One 28-year-old man who had lived in the UK since he was 14, and has Bri­tish par­ents and a brother in the UK, was so ter­ri­fied of be­ing re­moved that he hid. Cen­tre staff were or­dered to search for him; all of them hold­ing the same A4 photo. Like Key­stone Cops they asked us: “Have you seen this guy?” We were even­tu­ally sent back to our cells and the de­ten­tion cen­tre was placed on lock­down. Banged up alone, in my cell, my anx­i­ety mounted both for my­self, in case I was dragged out and put on the plane, and for the ter­ri­fied young man.

Even­tu­ally he emerged from his hid­ing place be­hind a loose wooden panel un­der­neath a bunk bed, be­liev­ing enough time had elapsed for him to have missed the flight. He was wrong. When he dis­cov­ered there was still time to force him on to the plane, he placed a ra­zor blade in his mouth to try to pre­vent re­moval. The guards took him to the block, re­moved the blade and took him to the plane in full shack­les. The plane waited for him. I sup­pose at a cost of £5,000 to de­port some­one on a char­ter flight, it would be a huge waste of tax­pay­ers’ money to fail to de­liver him on to that plane and across the Sa­hara.

It is time for fun­da­men­tal change. De­ten­tion cen­tres have no place in our global so­ci­ety. We must abol­ish them. They are de­stroy­ing our so­ci­ety and crush­ing our shared hu­man­ity.

I have ut­ter dis­dain for this en­vi­ron­ment, an emo­tion I have not ex­pe­ri­enced be­fore; not even in prison

Pho­to­graph: Carl de Souza/Getty

Kweku Adoboli leaves City of Lon­don mag­is­trates court, in cen­tral Lon­don, on 22 Septem­ber 2011.

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