Friday, 24 April 2009

Gatwick detainees group

Nic Eadie, the Coordinator of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, tells us what it is like to visit asylum seekers in detention.

The Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group aims to provide emotional and practical support to anyone who is held in immigration detention at Gatwick. We have been doing this work for the past fourteen years, and during that time have assisted many thousands of detainees. For most of that time there was just one detention centre, Tinsley House, with a capacity of around 140, including space for women and children. However, in March 2009 the Home Office opened an additional detention centre at Gatwick, Brook House, with a capacity of 426 single males. This will clearly have enormous repercussions on the work we do.

Our experiences have demonstrated to us that immigration detainees are some of the most vulnerable and powerless people in society, in many ways divorced from the country in which they are living, and existing in a sort of limbo which has no time limits and an uncertain conclusion. Many detainees pass through detention in a relatively short period of time, perhaps a few weeks at most. However, there is also a significant minority who spend extended periods locked up for ‘administrative purposes’, and the effects on the individual can be catastrophic. Most of our clients have claimed asylum, and many have spent years in the legal process. By the time they reach detention, they may have had their case refused at many different levels, and are now facing the prospect that Immigration will attempt to remove them back to their country of origin. For most, this is a terrifying prospect, for while they may not have won their asylum case, the stories they tell us are often of poverty, persecution, torture and fear. It is difficult for us to even envisage what it may be like to be sent back to a place that you felt you had to escape from, essentially after having been told that you do not deserve to be protected from this fate.

Our work largely revolves around our volunteers, who visit one-to-one any detainee who asks for someone to talk to. While this work can be difficult and emotionally draining, it can also be fascinating, and can sometimes result in a friendship that can exist beyond the barbed wire gates. Some of those we visit are released back into the UK, sometimes after months or even years of detention. This of course raises all sorts of questions over the effectiveness and value of locking these people up, although the most important cost is that which is paid by the detainees themselves, whose mental health inevitably suffers from the experience.

Brook House is a new and seemingly darker chapter in our history. Already we are hearing much discontent amongst detainees about the centre. It is built on a prison model, with very limited activities, cell accommodation, lock-downs for extended periods, and inexperienced staff. We fear that this will impact even more greatly on the vulnerable people held there. We will however continue with our work to try and make the detention experience as bearable as possible for those held at Gatwick.

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