I had arranged to interview a woman, a refugee being held in a detention centre, earlier this month. But on the day that we were to speak, she was deported. This seemed unjust purely on legal grounds, since her solicitor was still attempting to continue through judicial review her claim for asylum. And it was particularly unjust since this woman - let’s call her Jeanne - said that on a previous attempt at deportation on July 10, nine officials had restrained her physically by pinning her by her arms, twisting her neck and sitting on her back. Her 15-month-old child had seen the attack, and when he became distressed, she asked officials to take him to his father - the child is a British citizen because he has a British father. But the child was put into foster care, and the woman said it was some time before her partner was able to take him home.
To shore up New Labour’s unspoken image as a party of British racial purity, the thugs in Immigration Control are focussing on the vulnerable victims first.
I don’t know how Jeanne felt when she was sitting in Yarl’s Wood detention centre for three weeks without her son, or when she was deported to Ivory Coast without him 10 days ago. How would you feel? It seems almost cheap to try to give words to experiences like this. Pain, sorrow, anger, fear; nothing seems quite big enough.
The experiences of refugees in detention centres flared briefly into the public consciousness a couple of weeks ago in the aftermath of a riot at Harmondsworth. Interest seems to have faded already, but it is necessary to try to keep a light shining on these experiences - because individuals working in this field say there is an increase in allegations of serious ill-treatment of refugees in detention centres or during deportation attempts.
“In this office we have only recently received allegations that people are being physically abused by officials in Britain,” said Liz Norman, a caseworker at the solicitors Punatar and Co, in north London. “I am certainly hearing more stories of abuse than in the past,” said Nicola Rogers, a barrister who specialises in immigration law. “I am seeing increasing numbers of cases of ill-treatment,” Harriet Wistrich, a solicitor with Birnberg Peirce, told me.
The government and its agencies are acting on a continuum with a hostile public attitude that has been developed by the rightwing press. But however inured you are to the nasty rhetoric, what is shocking is that harsh treatment seems to be increasingly targeted at women and children. Nicola Rogers says that she believes the children are no longer seen as children, but simply as an extension of the adult, the scum, the leech. And some people working in the field also say they believe that, given the pressure on immigration officers to meet quotas for removals, women with young children are being increasingly targeted for detention and deportation because it is assumed that they will go quietly. So although women make up only a small minority of those in detention, stories of ill-treatment and injustice involving women and children are becoming more frequent.
I spoke to one woman, Sumaiya Kizza, who was visiting a friend on Sunday July 18 when she heard a banging on the door at 7.30am. She opened it to find several police and immigration officers. Even though they had actually come for her friend, Sumaiya and her 10-month-old baby were also forced into the van, without a chance to pack or even to dress properly. Sumaiya’s papers were, in fact, in order, her asylum claim was still pending, and she had never failed to turn up to an appointment. But she and her baby were taken to the immigration centre at Croydon and then, in a boiling hot van, to Oakington detention centre, her baby sobbing itself hoarse; even when they got there, she was given no suitable food for the baby.
Sumaiya was released the following Thursday, but only after pressure from Women Against Rape, a campaigning organisation that supports many women in detention and at risk of deportation. The friend detained with her (who is too nervous to give her real name - we’ll call her Hannah) was taken twice to Heathrow for deportation with her two-year-old daughter, who is a British citizen and cannot therefore legally be forced into deportation. As with Jeanne, Hannah found herself facing the impossible choice of leaving her child or taking the child with her into a country where she believed their lives would be in danger.
“This officer shouted and grabbed me and pulled me up and down. Then they pointed to this group of men in suits and said, if you’re not going they will handle you physically and you will see who is the winner. Then they grabbed my daughter off me and held her. I said, let me hold her. She started crying. He was holding her so I had to follow them to the aeroplane.” This attempted deportation on July 19 and another on July 22 were halted at the last moment; legal proceedings concerning Hannah and her daughter are continuing.
Although decent campaigning organisations and lawyers carry on, stopping an unfair deportation here or springing a distressed detainee there, most people in detention are incredibly isolated, unable to access any support, and their stories are not heard. It is quite glamorous for journalists to find tales of rape and torture in darkest Africa, but much less intriguing to hear how some of the survivors may end up crying in the back of a van on the way to Heathrow.
One woman who is currently pursuing a claim for compensation against the Home Office had sought asylum on the basis that she had been tortured, raped and beaten in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but was held for five months in various detention centres in the UK. Her solicitor, Harriet Wistrich, told me that one night - without a removal notice being served on her, which is legally required before any attempt at deportation is made - officials burst into her room at 3am. According to the woman, they pushed her to her knees while she was naked, twisted her arm behind her back and struck her back. A witness to her ordeal said that she saw and heard the woman shouting: “They’re killing me, they’re beating me!” She was left in another room and attempted suicide by tying a torn sheet around her neck, but she was then handcuffed, given a dress and nothing else, and taken to Heathrow. The pilot refused to allow her on board because of her excessive distress and lack of proper clothing.
Although liberals tend to say that they are on the side of genuine refugees, a terrible fatalism infects this debate. Perhaps we have begun to believe that widespread use of detention and forced deportation is essential for a workable immigration system; but too many stories that you hear are at variance with even government guidelines - like the detention of refugees who are at no risk of absconding, or the forced deportation of refugees who have not exhausted their legal options - and characterise a piecemeal, callous system in which the right hand deliberately fails to know what the left hand is doing.
Many people working in the field told me that they believed the public would not accept these abuses if they knew more about what was happening. Certainly, if you have once heard one of these stories first hand it sticks like a burr in your mind. I wish I could play to you the painful sobs of Sumaiya and Hannah, as they told me about their children’s distress and their own fear that it might all happen again tomorrow. And all this is being done in the pretence that our society needs protecting from these women.