The poor treatment of refugees and immigrants in the UK is no secret – Syrian refugee children are being brutally bullied at school, while anti-immigrant sentiment has become normalised in the wake of the Brexit vote. Another way they're failed is by the immigration system, with innocent and often vulnerable people being detained in prison-like centres around the country while they wait for their immigration status to be sorted out.
The UK has one of Europe's largest immigration detention systems – with more than 27,000 people detained in 2017 – and is the only country in the region with no statutory time limit on how long people can be detained. Immigrants are detained for weeks, months and even years in Immigration Removal Centres, with no guaranteed release date. Understandably, the uncertainty of your life being put on hold and having little access to the outside world causes many detainees to develop mental health problems, self-harm and even attempt to end their own lives.
A new campaign, #Time4ATimeLimit, and parliamentary bill spearheaded by Labour MPs Tulip Siddiq and Paul Blomfield is pressing for change. The pair are calling for a 28-day detention limit as being detained indefinitely, they argue, amounts to torture. The charity Women for Refugee Women is also calling for an end to indefinite detention, including for women seeking asylum, through its Set Her Free campaign.
A report by the charity last year on the detention of asylum-seeking women at Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire, the country's only women-only centre, pointed to the particular risks of detaining pregnant women and survivors of sexual and other gender-based violence. "The majority of asylum-seeking women who are detained are survivors of sexual or gender-based violence," the charity argued. "Locking them up in detention re-traumatises them."
Voke (not her real name), 38, was detained in Yarl's Wood for eight months in 2017, despite having fled sexual and other physical violence in her west African home and experiencing a severe decline in her mental health while inside – she twice attempted suicide. Voke had been in the UK for a year when her visa ran out and she was detained by the authorities, despite her attempts to renew it by proper means. She relived her experience of detention with Refinery29.
"I'd never heard of Yarl's Wood before I got there. I never knew places like that existed. Physically, it's built like a prison so I was shocked. My room was like a student's room – I had to share with someone I didn't know before, and get changed and do everything in front of them. You're restricted in everything you do and your day is planned for you, like a prison. I was never told how long I might have to be there. I was thinking it was just going to be about a week and I'll be out but hours, days and months went by; I ended up spending eight months there.
A typical day starts at 7.30am when the guards walk around and unlock all the doors. Some of them knock, others don't. So if you're naked, that's your fault. Some of them don't apologise, while some will. There's a time to eat and if you don't eat lunch then you've missed it for the day and won't eat until dinnertime. I don't even think dogs would eat the food, it's that bad. It got to the point where I didn't eat for two months because I couldn't eat it anymore.
During the day you can do either arts and crafts, go to church – because most people turn to god while inside – counselling if you're really depressed, or to healthcare if you're sick. Your movement is also restricted within the small building. At 9pm you're locked inside your room, but where are you going to? Nowhere. There's a sad atmosphere. Everybody is walking around with their own problems so no one really talks to you.
I struggled a lot with my mental health. So many things happened to me in Africa that I had never talked about. Growing up, we don't really talk about our problems in Africa. So when I got to Yarl's Wood and was told to talk to someone, I just stared at her. It was hard. I stared at her for about 20 minutes and burst into tears. She told me to just say something: 'Just tell me how you are feeling.' Talking to someone about my struggles was hard because all my life I've never talked about my issues, my past, or anything I've been through.
After my first suicide attempt was when people started paying attention
Being in Yarl's Wood triggered my bad mental health. When I got there I was depressed but not that much. The system failed me – when I got to Yarl's Wood, no one asked me if I had been tortured before, or locked up before. Those are the key questions that need to be asked when they bring new people to Yarl's Wood. I was crying when I arrived and they kept asking why I was crying. They would say, 'You're an adult, why are you crying?' And I said, 'You wouldn't understand because I hate to be locked up'. They didn't go into details or ask why I hated being locked up.
Getting to Yarl's Wood was like reliving my history in Africa – being locked up, being restricted and having my life planned for me. It triggered so many things. It got to a point where I was really sick and I started talking to myself. I gave up on life and started to see myself as damaged goods. My lowest moment was the first time I tried to take my own life. I'd started hearing voices and went to the office and I said to one of the staff, 'I think something is wrong with me, because I keep thinking about killing myself'. They laughed about it and didn't pay attention. After my first suicide attempt was when people started paying attention. I was referred to counselling to talk about my stress and anxiety. Even now it's really difficult and hard for me to even explain how I was feeling then.
Every time I have a flashback it breaks my heart, because this wasn't the picture I had of the UK
Since leaving I've been taking counselling for about a year and am making progress. I'm just trying to take it one day at a time. It was a horrible experience and every time I talk about it, it makes me feel bad and break down. They should have paid attention to so many signs and warnings. When I wasn't eating, I collapsed. I was bullied by the staff. Every time I have a flashback, it breaks my heart because this wasn't the picture I had of the UK. I thought they would be nice, kind people."