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Boxed Voices From UK Detention Centers

The isolation of detention forces us to forget what we sound like, and eventually to forget how to speak.

(Image: Robert Trujillo)

Most of us hear and see only cursory mentions of “immigrant detention” on the news — it’s a clinical label, scrubbed of all the visceral emotion and social tension that constricts detained migrants just as forcefully as their cell walls do. Last year, we saw flashes of the migrant detention crisis with images of kids huddled under blankets, exhausted from trekking across the continent, and of European asylum seekers thronging against metal gates and braving giant plumes of tear gas. But whether we see them from a distance or only in snatches of news sound bites, we very rarely actually hear their voices. CultureStrike has brought a few of those voices out from behind the walls with the Visions from the Inside documentation project. And other activist campaigns and organizations like Free the Children of Naaru and Detention Watch and have recorded the statements and showcased the artwork of detained immigrants, including children, allowing them to voice their frustrations and fears about whether they will find a legal pathway into the country, or ultimately be sent hom. On May 7, detainee voices across Europe rose up as well, as a coalition of pro-migrant groups based in Europe and the UK led “a coordinated transnational day of solidarity.” Activists rallied to protest simultaneously at 15 detention centers, while about 190 detainees went on hunger strike at the notorious Harmondsworth detention center. In addition to providing a platform for migrant advocates to speak out about their struggle, a media project that grew out of the anti-detention campaign, Detained Voices, broadcast devastating stories told by the migrants inside.

At Harmondsworth, which is notorious across Britain for its extraordinary rate of self-harm among detainees (more than one incident per week in 2014 on average), one of those narratives, published the day thousands demonstrated in support of detained migrants, gave a disturbingly vivid depiction of everyday life in at the facility:

Most people are suffering from medical and mental problems like depression and anxiety. I feel myself feelings of suffocation and depressions and bad dreams. A lot of us are on sleeping pill prescribed by the doctor here…..

Most detainees have family out there who are really worried about them. They have partners and kids and a few of their wives are pregnant. They are very worried about them. Most detainees that have family outside are being told by the home office and the authorities that they shouldn’t worry about their kids. But of course they still worry about them. How can someone else take care of them. Nothing is like a father….

The food is not good. The environment is shit and it is very scary. People are selling drugs on every wing. I’ve never seen drugs like this in my life and people are pushing us to have them.

This is not a way to treat normal people. A lot of us came here with a valid visa and they should release us so we can face our cases out there. I am calling you, and I am on hunger strike. Just imagine, just walk in my shoes once. You have a normal life and then they detain you. Take you away from your family and your kids. It’s not normal. If you’re going to detain you like an animal — how can you expect them to live a normal life.

Letter from a detainee for May 7 Day of Solidarity. We Should've Been Heard.Letter from a detainee for May 7 Day of Solidarity. “We Should’ve Been Heard.”Some of the most harrowing accounts indicate a serious epidemic of mental health problems, and at least some cases of detainees being left untreated as they languish in despair indefinitely, or are perhaps repatriated on an airplane back to their home country, alone, without any psychosocial support. The emotional crises are colored by an atmosphere of violence and oppression, as independent audits have shown alarming rates of self-mutilation, outbreaks of violence, substance abuse and extremely long periods of incarceration — sometimes well over a year. One detainee recalled being subjected both to relentless physical and mental trauma:

They are still trying to force people on the planes. They’re still hurting people. They cracked my knee. I’m in crutches. If you don’t want to fly you will be forced. They’ve hurt my wrist as well. I want to tell people that human rights aren’t helping no one. If anything human rights are helping immigration. They didn’t stop it.

I’ve been locked up 5 or 6 months. They sent me a ticket for earlier this month. They sent it on a Friday. I had to try contact my solicitors over the weekend. I’m trying to follow it up on Monday and then on Wednesday I’m on the plane. I’m suffering from schizophrenia and psychotic depression. I’ve been suicidal. I’ve not been very well. It’s been horrible really and I wouldn’t want anyone to go through this. The escorts they act like they’re normal but they’re there to hurt you. They are just there to get you out the country.

I thought everything was going to be all right. I was quite quiet in Heathrow. But I resisted being put on the plane and they started hurting me. I wouldn’t be surprised if people had died before. I would believe it — I saw it. That mad power that they have. I know what it’s all about.

Earlier this week, another detained person wrote shortly after the weekend’s protests began: “We all will continue this protest for 3 days, but we also hopeless either the government will do something for us because inside the Centre we can’t trust to any of the staff member, [their] behaviour is like they are kings and we are slaves.”

A few weeks ago, a detainee at the Yarls Wood detention center, pregnant and terrified, talked about bringing a child into the world in a place no one in the world wanted to be:

Since I’ve been in this place — yes I’ve had medical checks — but I’ve not been properly looked after. I got pregnancy vitimins only after a month. I’m suffering from depression and since I’ve been here they’ve stopped my medication without telling me why. When I booked in I told them I was on this medication but they didn’t give it to me and didn’t check if I needed it. They stopped it without informing me about it….

This is my first child — on the outside, I was going to get [prenatal] classes to prepare myself for my first child. I asked them for books and readings. It’s been over a month now and they haven’t got back to me. It just seems like it doesn’t matter. It feels like I’m already failing as a mum even though the baby hasn’t come yet. What if the baby gets here and I’m not ready. Not just physically but mentally prepared. It’s really frustrating.

They shouldn’t detain pregnant women. They shouldn’t detain anyone at all. I won’t just talk for myself because I’m pregnant. It’s unfair for anyone. This is mental torture, it’s physical as well. It’s like you’re stuck in someplace and people are asking for things you can’t do — [presenting] evidence, for example. If you’re on your own in here, you can’t get it. You come in when you’re healthy but it’s not good for you. I will get out of here and I’ll be more mentally ill than I was before. I’ve not had a good day since I’ve been in here. Even when you’re trying to cope, to settle yourself. There’s always something they will do to remind you that you’re not free. That you’re controlled by somebody.

The pregnant detainee was writing back in March. It’s not clear how she spent Mother’s Day, but in all likelihood she spent it in detention or was deported, and in either case, would be spiraling deeper into mental instability at this point. Wherever she and her child end up, they might never escape the sense of being “controlled by somebody.” When protesters rallied on May 7, trying to break the silence around detention across Europe and the North America, they brought their voices to an often ignored human rights issue. Yet it is even rarer to hear the people who live in the immersion of that silence every day speaking out in their own words.

This is what the isolation of detention does, forcing us to forget what we sound like, and eventually to forget how to speak.

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