Inside Theresa May's "hostile environment"

The British government feels obliged to make life hell for immigrants arriving in the UK. Another example of how in “Fortress Europe”, cruelty now appears routine.

Daniel Trilling
20 December 2013

While the British government wants to welcome “the brightest and best” immigrants, it is also determined to make the country a “hostile environment” for those who are unwanted. Theresa May’s Immigration Bill proposed a series of measures, such as compelling landlords to check prospective tenants’ immigration status, to achieve this.

But for those people who enter Britain and want to claim asylum, the system has long felt like a “hostile environment”. I recently wrote a piece for the New Statesman about the system of “fast track” detention, and why it is now being challenged in court. Many people believe this system to be unfair, and that the odds are deliberately stacked against the claimant. 

Below is the story of one man I interviewed earlier this year who passed through the system. “John” asked me to change his name. This is his testimony, and I present it at face value. You can read more about the “fast track” system here.

Inside the British corner of “Fortress Europe”

John left Cameroon in 2011, wanted by the police on account of his political activities. He applied for and received a six-month UK visa. After arriving in London, John heard that his wife, who had remained at home, had been arrested, tortured and raped. She later died of her injuries. 

John contacted the Home Office to claim asylum. He was invited for a screening interview at the UK Border Agency offices in Croydon, and told to bring his belongings. At the interview, he was told he would be placed in “fast track” detention. This was the first time John had heard of such a procedure. He was taken straight from the Croydon office to Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre, a privately-operated detention centre outside Heathrow airport that holds just over 600 men.

At the reception John was given a leaflet, which informed him he would be in detention for no more than 9 days. In fact, he would end up spending four months in there. The detention centre is divided into different wings, with different levels of security. On arrival you are placed in a wing with security comparable to a Category B prison, where the doors to the rooms are locked from 10pm until 7am. In there, John discovered bedbugs in his bed. After your “induction” you are moved to a lower, more open security wing, with larger rooms, an outdoor space and football pitches. The high security wing is also used for punishment. If you get into a fight, you are sent back to the high security wing. John says people were also sent back there if they complained about the food.

You are expected to work to earn money while in the detention centre. If you take a general cleaning job, you get paid £17 a week for 12 hours work. That’s £1.42 per hour. If you clean toilets, you get £21 a week, or £1.75 per hour. John took a job in the kitchen, where he got £8 for every 5-hour shift. Some of the guards were friendly but others shouted at him for not doing his job to their liking.

After one week in the detention centre, John was given a case hearing. He was introduced to his Legal Aid solicitor ten minutes before the interview. The Home Office-appointed interviewer accused him of withholding information about his asylum claim. During the interview, John had been under the impression he was not supposed to offer information unless asked for it. He found the interview very stressful as it seemed to happen so quickly and because the tone of the interviewer was so hostile. The pressure made him unable to think straight.

John was still waiting for documents with supporting evidence to arrive from his home country, but his claim was rejected within 24 hours, before the documents arrived. (One document that had arrived was not accepted because it was in the language of his home country. There were no translation services inside the detention centre.) The rejection letter told him his “credibility” had been undermined by his failure to offer information unless asked. 

He was granted the right to appeal and managed to contact a range of charities to help him build his case. As his case was being prepared, John was suddenly told that he would be moved from the detention centre to a regular prison. In the prison he was made to switch mobile service providers, which meant the charities found it difficult to contact him. He was given a new email address and lost access to his archive of correspondence. During his stay in the prison, an official spoke to him and said “this place is no good, why don’t you voluntarily return to your home country?”

After 5 days, he was released without explanation. John is now living in London. While he is waiting for a final decision on his case, he has been issued with an identity card that has FORBIDDEN FROM TAKING EMPLOYMENT written on it.

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