Emma Olsson: how detention affects you, listening to first hand experiences

GMT 14:34 Wednesday ,20 August 2014

 Migrant Voice - Emma Olsson: how detention affects you, listening to first hand experiences

Emma Olsson

Imagine leaving your home behind. Fleeing persecution or looking for a better life. You bring your history, your hopes and dreams. You travel far searching for freedom and when you arrive you get locked up in a detention centre. Just sitting there, finding a way to get through the day. And you don’t know when you will get out. It could be tomorrow, it could be in 3 years. And you have not even committed a crime. How do you cope with that? How can you expect anyone to cope with that? I have been volunteering for Migrant Voice for a bit over two months now. Previously I have worked with refugees and migrants in Sweden and mainly by visiting detention centres. Therefore it was very interesing for me to be able to come to the London Churches Refugee Network meeting on July 16th. They hosted a workshop on ”Understanding experience of detention and visiting people in detention”. The workshop was delivered jointly by the Detention Forum and Migrant Voice.  Participants from different organisations took part in order to gain knowledge and get tools and reinforcement to keep working or start working with the issue. The meeting was introduced and Eiri Ohtani from the Detention Forum held a small presentation with a few basic facts on detention, After this, two movies were shown. One of them was a movie made by Mohamed B where he reflects on freedom and detention. The movie can be watched here: Mohamed B. The other movie shown was called “Dear Jane” and can be watched here; Dear Jane. For me it was very interesting to get to hear directly from people visiting detention centres in the UK and to hear from people who have been deteined themselves to compare to the situation that I work with in Sweden. The movie ”Dear Jane” is a video letter from William Kpato who used to get visits from Jane in detention. After the movie, Jane was there to talk about her experience of visiting detention centres and how it has influenced her life. Today Jane has been visiting detention centres for 9 years. During the workshop Jane gave witness to the complexity of problems that surface in detention centres. Usually the detainees have both physical and psychological difficulties of various sorts. Many have been through war and torture. As if it was not enough what the detainees have already gone through in their country of origin or en route to the UK, they meet even more stressors in detention. Jane talked about a few of the stress factors that makes the detention yet another trauma for many people. Among these are the problems with language and communication. There is also a lot of moving around between different detention centres and changing of roommates which can cause stress. Another difficulty is the more administrative bit where paper work just keeps growing and how papers sometimes disappear. Jane said that there are also recurring problems with caseworkers and lawyers and that this situationis not going to improve with the coming cuts in legal aid.  But, she points out with conviction, the worst stress is the fact that you don’t know when you are going to be released. Jane said that she has learnt a lot during her visits and that it has influenced her as a human being. She has got to know people from all over the world. She went on to saying that the detainees often say that they come here for freedom and justice and urged the participants of the workshop to work for this. Souleyman, a former detainee, took the floor after Jane to talk about his experiences.  He said that when he came to the UK in 2003 he did not know the procedures of seeking asylum. After having worked in the UK for a while without a work permit he was sent to prison. He then got transferred to a detention center. Souleyman said that he asked the staff every day how long he was going to be locked up, and every time he got the same answer; that they were waiting for his travel documents. He explained how it made him feel powerless and weak. This further supported Jane’s, and many other’s, point on how stressful the insecurity in detention is for people. Souleyman talked about how he constantly needed to try to stay strong to survive. He did not have any friends or family. The only support he got was from Detention Action who, he says, became his family. Souleyman explains that he did not understand where he was. He did not understand that there was a difference between the two places he was in (the prison and the detention centre) and that he thought he was in prison the whole time. He said that the only difference was the insecurity of not knowing when you will get out from the detention,  that ”In prison you count the days down, but in detention you count the days up..” When Souleyman was asked by one of the participants of the workshop to describe a normal day in detention he did this in detail and with an undertone of frustration in his voice: ”Everyone gets woken up at 7am. During the day you can chose to do different activities and if you work you will earn £1 a day. ” Souleyman said that he tried to do something everyday. He saw many of his fellow detainees harm themselves and it was very hard. The solution for him was to stay busy. He used to work in the kitchen and describes the food as one of the big problems in detention. When he worked in the kitchen, he saw the lack in hygiene controls and how there was an inadequate preparation of a lot of the food. ”At 9pm it is time to go to bed and you are locked into your room.” One of the participants of the workshop asked where you get money from if you don’t work. Souleyman explained that you simply don’t get any and how that influences your life in detention a lot as almost everything in detention costs money. When asked if he studied English in detention he said that there are language classes but that there is a long waiting list to start. He added that most people don’t even try to get in to the classes as they are too depressed and many spend their days staring at the ceiling in their rooms. Souleyman said that when he finally came out from detention it felt like he came out from a cave. For a long time after he could not sleep. He couldn’t trust people. He was weak. He tried to forget the mental torture he experienced in detention. Mental health is a big issue in detention. At the first parliamentary inquiry on detention, that I attended on the 17th of July, the day after this meeting, representatives from the Helen Bamber foundation emphasised the effect detention has on mental health.. When one of the participants asked Souleyman if he had any problems with the GP when he was a detainee, Souleyman explaied that he had problem with his teeth and did not get any help in 6 weeks and was in pain for a long time. One of the participants, who has worked with Asylum Welcome, told the participants about a case where the person had a serious form of diabetes. Upon the arrival to the detention center they had to hand in all the medications to the staff. When the man had his first meal he had still not gotten his medication and when he asked for it the answer he got from the staff member that he would give it to him when he felt like it. Totally respectless, said the participant, backed by sad headshakes and sighs from the rest of the room. Many of the participants who are familiar with the situation in detention agrees that lack of health care is a major problem. A recurring situation is that everyone gets treated for everything with paracetamol. Eiri pointed out that frequent transfers between centres might cause a problem when medication needs to be taken regularly with medical records lost somewhere in the process and the fact that people sometimes rapidly get sent out of the country means that providing them with enough medical supply to support them during the period of adjustment back in their country is not always possible. The meeting continued with small group discussions where we were asked different questions related to the themes of freedom and separation. A few of the questions asked were: - What do you think people miss most when they are detained? - How would you / do you support people in detention? - What would you miss if you were detained? - Which freedom / what kind of freedom do you miss most if you were detained? - If you could take one thing with you in detention, what would you take? To round up the workshop, Anne Stoltenberg from Migrant Voice went through a few things that we can all do work together on the issue. One of the participants asked what our actual goal is. While discussing this it became clear that everyone has different opinions on how to approach the issue. Some of the participants wanted to fight for closing all detention centers, some thought is was more realistic and constructive to fight for a time limit. Some pointed out the importance of being realistic and mainly focus on improving the conditions. But what became clear was the view that unlimited detention is simply cruel and inhuman. Anne went through three practical things we all can do to continue the struggle. - Detention Inquiry - Ask your MP to attend oral evidence sessions or find out if there are groups hosting events to raise awareness of detention. You can also support groups supporting people in detention. - Unlocking Detention - Twitter tour of the UK detention estate – Follow @DetentionForum on Twitter and join our guided-tour of detention centres in the UK. Starts in September and ends in December. Calls to actions to be issued during the tour. - Spread the word – Invite detention groups to come and speak to your churches. Share the links to the videos. At the closing of the workshop a painting was shown and a poem based on it called ”The Whisper” was read. The poem was written by a detainee, and its message left no one untouched.        


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