The need for transformation in UK detention centres

Seeking asylum in the UK is like falling from the frying pan into the fire. The first in Transformation's series on prison abolition.

Abbey Kiwanuka
3 December 2014
 Demotix/Ruth Whitworth.

Out and Proud Diamond Group demonstrate against the deportation of Aidah Asaba. Credit: Demotix/Ruth Whitworth.

I escaped persecution in Uganda bearing cigarette burns on my palms and legs, and scars on my face, as a result of constant beating. When I came to England, I thought that I had come to the Promised Land - the country where I was going to be treated as a human being.

The United Nations Charter on Human Rights defines an asylum seeker as someone who is seeking life-saving sanctuary, having fled persecution for reasons such as sexual orientation, politics, religion, ethnicity or racism. Such a person is not supposed to be extradited or deported. We are entitled to free legal aid and medication.

Since being awarded asylum with the help of groups like Medical Justice, I have visited over 30 detainees to offer support. Each time it is the same story. Nothing seems to change.

Shortly after I applied for asylum I was taken to Oakington Detention Centre in Cambridge. The living conditions in detention centres are terrible. The rooms have no windows, no form of sanitation whatsoever, no ventilation. Each small room has a toilet, bathroom and a bedroom, all separated just with curtains. It's obvious why detainees are not allowed to have mobile phones with cameras.

The major problem starts when the administration lock room doors at 5pm and at night. That means nobody should use the toilets as the rooms have no ventilation. The smell stays in the room, breathing becomes difficult. In the evening, however hungry you may be, you have to eat sparingly as you have no chance of visiting the toilets.

There is nothing more disturbing and distressing, tormenting and traumatising, than being an asylum seeker. Being an asylum seeker transforms you into an object without value, a vessel without honours: you feel demeaned, stigmatised, isolated, and rejected. You are disowned not only by your community and country of origin, but by your potential host. They look at you and through you and decide you are unreal, a fake and a liar and that all you deserve is deportation.

Twiith, a 23-year-old lesbian from Uganda, has scars all over her body inflicted by those who performed an exorcism on her. After being detained, it took her nearly two weeks to see a doctor. The doctor stated clearly that her scars were consistent with her story. However the Home Office dismissed her claim and kept her there, against detention rule 35, which states that torture victims should not be detained.

Twiith is not the only person struggling with help in the Detention Centre. She told me: “As I was there struggling with my illness, my room-mate took a medicine overdose to take her life. They rushed her to hospital. I tried to ask the officers where she was and how she was doing, but they all couldn't tell me, this worsened my sickness, my stress, I felt death was the only option at this time, and no one from the authorities came to talk to me or ask me how the situation of my roommate trying to kill herself while watching her was affecting me. No one cares. You can die of depression when they think you are just acting".

Lacking medical attention is a serious problem in detention centres. Detainees fall sick and need medical attention; doctors are booked slowly, or doctors are booked but offer no treatment.

Henry Lutaya, a former Harmondsworth detainee states: “I had problems of ill health myself, I told the nurses about it and they promised to book a doctor for me. However, each time I went to them, they told me the doctor was busy. Finally, after about two weeks, I saw the doctor and the doctor was blaming me for failing to see him that Wednesday he had told me to see him. When I told him that the nurses told me that he was busy, he said it was a lie, he had been free all the time. I was very shocked and I didn’t know why the nurses did that”.

The detention centre doctor who was supposed to help me instead created more anger and stress. Despite his apparent wisdom, before him I felt desperate, heartbroken and finished. I left his office crestfallen, moving like the living dead. I looked death straight into its face, I saw it burning and blazing in the eyes of the guards and in the eyes of my fellow detainees.

Being locked up again behind bars brought fresh memories of what I had gone through in my country. I saw death in every aspect of life: in my mind, in my thinking and my dreams. Death to me seemed to be the only way to escape the challenges that I faced. My parents and grandparents are all dead. I had only one sister who was 10 years old. It is this sister who kept me going and, without her, I would be dead by now.

Given the terms and conditions enshrined in the United Nations Charter on Human Rights, what is the Home Office supposed to do? If the Home Office were to in a consistent way, asylum seekers would be given due respect, treated with dignity and regarded as human beings.

Except in reality, we are treated worse than prisoners. We are not respected, our freedom is strictly limited and non-existent, we are denied access to legal consultation; we don't have access to public media such as the internet, as vital information is always blocked, we are given no privacy, we are kept in inhabitable rooms without ventilation.

The Home Office either has to shut down detention centres or make the changes necessary to improve the situation and the condition in these centres. Among other areas, they have to make sure that rooms are ventilated, that meals are balanced, that medical care is provided, that social interaction and freedom of contact between various wings inside detention centres is allowed and that detainees have the freedom of accessing or enjoying direct contact with their legal representatives and other ordinary visitors.

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