What to Expect in UK Detention Centers

(If You Are Almost From Europe… And Not)

In a talk with representatives of Detention Action initiative I tried to find out how British migration system differ from continental Europe, why crowds of asylum seekers crossed their fingers expecting changes after June elections and how Brexit changes ethnic ratio in detention camps.

With a permit to enter UK for a year-long work-restricted visa I received a supporting letter that basically said ‘final decision on whether you “shall or shall not pass”, i.e. actually enter UK is made by a migration officer at the airport’. It was like being nominated for Oscars but at the same time thinking “what if they La La Land” me out of the country before I even get the chance to see Big Ben? Fortunately the officer looked at my “cool Ukrainian passport” with a relaxed smile and generously decided to not look through the 2 kilo-folder of papers and “good behavior” certificates I brought all the way from my stellar childhood.

Of course even in the worst case scenario I had a “return where you came from” option. Not everyone who comes to Britain do. But unlike Continental Europe, in UK the problem of “detention” doesn’t jump you in the eye on every corner. Getting to London I was surprised to actually not see nomadic families of refugees you get used to in Rome or Copenhagen. I haven’t seen any signs of refugee center banners like you do in Vienna. And even homeless people on the streets were as pale as Brits can be.

Surely there is a lot of diversity on the streets. Even in a small city of Cardiff in the City Road, famous for its Indian restaurants and Polish Skleps (shops), I saw people of all nationalities and heard foreign languages almost every day. I got the feeling that it’s not exactly impossible to move to UK. In the city where with zero Ukrainians in 10 months (which is my absolute European record), there are whole districts where you discover national identities by the smell of exotic food from street stalls. Mostly in the center. Rich people with rooted pedigree still prefer to be separated from the newcomers by living in the green zones outside of the city. Streets like City Road might still seem dangerous to their taste.

But as a kid from a rough Ukrainian factory district, I don’t feel a single whiff of danger walking these streets in the middle of the night. It’s flooded with small local businessmen, not crowds of hungry refugees you might’ve seen in the camps around Vienna or Idomeni. That is why it came as a surprise when I learned that in sheer numbers of refugees UK is on 2nd place after Greece.

So if not on the streets, where are all these people and what kind of black holes can hide them on such a small island? British Home Office gives these black holes an equally mysterious name — Immigration Removal Centers. UK, a country you can drive through from top to bottom in 16 hours (less than a summer’s light day) has 11 such centers. You could see one almost every hour of a cross-UK drive. Every year 30 000 people are taken to these centers. After a while 55% of them… get out with a permission to enter UK, while the other 45% are shipped out of the country. A descendant of harsh Soviet era I didn’t see anything over the top in such attention to foreigners from the side of state agency. The only thing that came as a surprise was detention time-limit. Or rather — its absence. In theory if you happen to get into a UK detention center, you could stay there forever. The dates have never been written in any law.

And this is where it gets interesting. Case in point — William from Detention Action Activist group. In December, 2016 a former detainee of Campsfield House Center William approached migration services window at Heathrow Airport and asked for asylum. Because he had no family ties in the country, William was offered a fast track 14-days program in immigration removal center where he will be able to prepare all the needed paperwork to present his case in the court. William spent the night in a police room at the airport in the company of a Sudanese grandma in a wheelchair, who didn’t seem to have found any family ties with Anglo-Saxons either. Two weeks turned out to be not enough to collect all the papers. It took 2,5 months, and camp-mates told William he’s one very lucky man to get out so fast. Same procedure took William’s roommate 5 years. William got a lucky lawyer chosen by sheer accident (“they give you a catalog of names, so usually you just put your finger on the first surname in the line”). This accidental lawyer showed real character when hearing was transferred to another city two days before the date. She took a car a drove two hundred miles. Such changes is a usual routine, but she still cared enough to get her client out.

The biggest trick of these hearings is to prove your innocence, because there is no criminal charges that apply to asylum seekers. The legal dilemma of how to sentence a person who is not a criminal puts a lot of pressure on migration officers.

It’s ultimately up to them to decide, who to accept to the country and who to deport. The notice I got with my entry permit didn’t say that officers have to explain their decision. I imagine that this is a big responsibility, and it is easier to let the court decide the destiny of a potential migrant or refugee. This is why, says William, the centers are mostly filled with representatives of Africa and Middle East. In 2.5 months William met only several Europeans, two of whom were drug dealers from Romania and (well, what can you say) Ukraine. But even in detention center and being of not the most privileged European background, these two were lucky ones. Like all actual criminals they got an actual sentence with a strict deadline— 2 months — something others could only dream of. A group called Freedom Voices calls such policy “institutionalization of xenophobia”.

Although William spent only a bit more time in the center than Eastern Europeans, unlike them he had no idea how much more it could take.

It is the waiting and the unknown that was driving him mad. The risk group for such a timeless detention includes top-5 migrant nationalities: Afganistan, Sudan, Nigeria, Jamaica and Bangladesh. However , Europeans’ favorite topic of Brexit might change the situation. Detention Action activist Ben notes, that his group has come across more European detainees who turned to them for help in the past year. With European doors closing, migration officers might get extra pressure when checking passports from the continent.

In any case psychological pressure continues to lie on the detainees who are still falling “between the chairs” in the abyss of time.

The rules, not exactly prison-like, are still questionable. Say you can have three visitors maximum three times a week. But who do you see from the range of “ties rooted in UK” you don’t have in the first place. You can write an e-mail on one of the two or three working computers with 50 people waiting in line. Mostly you get the right to watch TV, sit and feel the endlessness of time. A teacher in the past, William was trying to read books. But if at home he could wolf down a book in one night, here in the atmosphere of wait he succeeded to make two pages in two months. Surrounded by cameras, he didn’t feel like doing anything but watch TV. Once he saw debates of conservative party outraged by the fact that Belgium detained a tiger who was meant to be shipped to UK. The tiger was promised immediate help. Residents of Campsfield couldn’t count on such generosity. Conservatives were the only party who refused to put “deadlines” on detention in their election program.

Now Detention Action activists are waiting if June election could possibly reflect on the issue. William who has finally been given asylum is now exploring other bizarre features of his legal condition. For instance he has a check for adaptation, but can’t cash it without a valid bank account. Banks surely aren’t rushing to open an account for a refugee. But at least now his destiny is in his own hands.

Detention Action — http://detentionaction.org.uk/

On Indefinite Detention http://detentionaction.org.uk/campaigns/indefinite-detention-in-detail

Statistics Report — https://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/stats

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