Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland
By Eleanor Staniforth†
I originally wrote this post in October 2010, shortly after the deportation of a good friend of mine, B. I had known B for over three years when he was deported, having met him at the Swansea Bay Asylum Seekers’ Support Group where I volunteered regularly. I taught him English on and off throughout that time, and we became good friends. He was picked up by police during a routine signing in Swansea and transported to Colnbrook IRC where I was able to visit him before he was deported several days later.
This post is intended to show the human side of the asylum and deportation process, and the impact which it has on the lives of asylum seekers and their friends alike. Fortunately, B was able to escape his persecutors in the Democratic Republic of Congo and flee to another African country after a year in hiding. He was clearly still in danger when he was returned to Kinshasa, yet UKBA chose to overlook this fact and deliver him to the hands of his enemies for the sake of claiming one more deportation. The inhumanity inherent in the system will become more than apparent as you read on…
Monday 11th October: sitting on my bed, procrastinating from putting the finishing touches to my dissertation. I go downstairs to get a glass of water, and when I come back up the phone’s ringing. It’s Jeni, who volunteers with me on Saturdays at Asylum Justice. Alarm bells start to ring faintly in the back of my head – B went to the police station to sign this morning, why would Jeni be phoning me mid-morning on a weekday? She starts to say the words, and the bottom of the world falls out. “B’s been picked up”. I can’t speak, I just start crying uncontrollably. I don’t stop for a good four hours, the time to run up the hill to her house, to pack as many of his possessions as possible into a bag to take to him at the police station, to turn my room upside down looking for that piece of paper which will give me a chance of getting in to see him before he is taken away. But I can’t find it, and when we get to the police station, we are told that for health and safety reasons, I won’t be able to see him. Health and safety, in that he is being held with criminals, and it’s not safe for a member of the public to be in the same room (which beggars the question – why is it safe for him?). I scribble a note in messy French to tell him we’ll do all we can to get him out of there, that we’re all thinking about him and that he should try and stay strong. He is allowed to phone me half an hour later, when we’re back at Jeni’s house. I grab the phone and ask, “Ça va??”. “Ça va”, he replies, as he always does. His voice betrays little of the fear he must feel, that I’m feeling too. We talk practicalities, but I’m in shock, I can’t stop thinking how wrong it all feels. Just three days before, we’d had our usual meeting at the drop-in, chatting, about how he was feeling, what he’d been doing that week, how I was getting on with my dissertation. Two days earlier, and he’d popped his head round the door at Asylum Justice to say hello on his way back from the charity shop. And now he was locked up, trapped in a system which would channel him through detention centres and airport waiting rooms and aeroplanes and all the way back to Kinshasa. I stayed up most of the night drafting the grounds for a judicial review which we hoped would result in the flight being postponed, buying us enough time to find him a lawyer willing to look again at his case.
Tuesday 12th October: on four hours sleep and no food, I met B’s good friend F, also from the Congo, and our chauffeur, a crazy Congolese pastor who quickly revealed himself to have eschewed most of the values one would usually associate with his profession. A stressful trip to the petrol station, an awkward prayer by the side of the road and we were en route for Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre, where B had been sent at 11pm the night before. As the euphemistically-named ‘centre’ came into sight, my stomach turned over. Beige and non-descript, with few windows, high walls and loops of razor wire. We were directed to the car park of the Sheraton hotel next door, and the contrast couldn’t have been starker. Businesspeople from all over the world arrived to check into their £100 per night hotel, while next door, those fleeing the miseries of conflict, persecution and economic misery were shut into small, windowless cells, allowed out into the courtyard for only 30 minutes morning and afternoon. We entered the visitors’ reception, and waited for half an hour before we were attended. First, we were required to provide proof of residence in the UK, then our passports. After that, it was photos and fingerprints, “right, left…and right again”. We had to leave all of our belongings in the waiting room, I was only just allowed to take in an important piece of paper B needed to sign. Anything else we wanted to give to him had to go through the internal mail system of the detention centre, and be vetted and distributed at the convenience of the administration. He did not receive the photos I had sent to give him some comfort until the morning he was deported. We were escorted into the main building (my stomach remained somewhere around my ankles throughout this time), through numerous heavy, electronically-commanded doors, by a security guard. We were searched thoroughly, one-by-one, behind a screen. Not a search like at the airport when you inadvertently set off the metal detector, but a proper rub-down, hands-in-your-waistband-shoes-off-I’m-going-to-look-in-the-arches-of-your-feet intrusive search. Then we were led through more doors, and corridors, and across the ‘courtyard’, walls stretching up to the sky and topped off with razor wire, no green to be seen. Outside the visiting room, we pressed our fingertips onto the reader and were let in. When I saw him, I was just devastated. He looked so lost and small, and like he shouldn’t be there at all. We hugged each other for a long time, both of us crying. Then we sat down to talk. For a good five minutes, nobody spoke. None of us knew what to say. We were all trapped, he didn’t want to be in this prison, nor did we, but we were up against something more powerful than any of us. When we spoke, it was to discuss the steps we were taking to obtain his release. We stayed with him for around an hour. At one point, I went out of the room to go to the toilet, and when I went to go back in, I was told I had to wait to be searched. I was still crying uncontrollably at this point, and the guard searching me told me not to be like that, that she didn’t like seeing people upset. To which I suggested that she should perhaps find another job – she replied with the typical “everybody’s got to earn a living somehow”. F and the crazy pastor left to collect the car, and I stayed on my own with B for a little while. I’ll always cherish those last moments with him, I just will never be able to forget his face telling me not to be upset, that everything would be ok, when it was him I should have been comforting. When it was time to leave, we hugged for ages, and then we waved to each other from opposite sides of the room as we were led away. And that was the last time I saw him. Probably the last time I will ever see him. As I left, I stopped by at the reception to ask where I would be able to send a fax. I was met with a smirk and a refusal to answer my very reasonable question. I went for an easier question: “where is there a town or some shops around here?”. The response: “I’m afraid I can’t give you that information”. That to me epitomises the spiteful, obstructive nature of this institution, that that man would react that way to such a simple, non-provocative question just illustrates that none of this is about human beings, but about numbers. They didn’t care if they were deporting the wrong people, only clocking up another few tens of asylum seekers deported mattered to them.
Wednesday 13th and Thursday 14th October: a blur. Trying to force down food that my throat pushed back up, trying to sleep but waking up in the middle of the night crying, rushing around trying desperately every last possible way of stopping the inevitable from happening. Phoning B constantly to check that he was still ok, until he called me one last time to tell me he was getting onto the plane. I said good bye, and that I loved him and would miss him, and that I just hoped that he would be alright. That whole evening, my thoughts followed him as he flew over Africa to Nairobi, then on to Kinshasa. My worries were intensified by the news on the front page of the Guardian that evening of the death of Jimmy Mubenga as he was being forcibly deported to Angola, and by the knowledge of B’s enduring conviction that were he to be returned to the Congo, he would be killed upon arrival at the airport. As it was, F sent money to B’s family in Kinshasa so that they would be able to bribe the immigration officials and get him to a place of relative safety. He is now in hiding, with little idea of what to do or where to go. He knows the security forces are looking for him, and that he is not safe. But how to escape, where to go, how to start a new life again from zero after living for over three years in Swansea?
One thing is certain, and that is that my life will never be the same after this experience. To have someone so dear to you ripped away with no warning, to have the constant worry of whether they are dead or alive…it’s grief, but with no perceptible endpoint. I have so many regrets, I tried to help him, but I know I could have done more. I knew he was having such a hard time, I could have invited him round for dinner more often, let him sleep here, so many things. He brought so much to my life, stories of growing up in the Congo, diamond-mining in Angola, crocodiles with numbers tattooed on their heads, assassinations of good leaders ordered by Western governments, persecution, imprisonment, torture…but also laughs, the eternal debate around why attractive, intelligent asylum-seekers end up with ignorant, fat and ugly local girls, total acceptance of our different ways of seeing the world (“I know you don’t believe in God, but he’ll make everything better for you”), lessons in Lingala, and friendship. I’ll never forget him, and I hope he will be able to find somewhere in the world where he can be happy and at peace, because our country certainly did a lot to make his life harder than it had to be.
* This post was originally published on the 3rd February 2015, on Eleanor’s blog.
This article is part of GRAMNet’s personal reflections blog series, where contributors offer short reflections on their personal, day-to-day interactions with migration issues. If you would like to contribute to this series, please get in touch using the contact form below. We welcome all contributions, whether sharing positive or negative experiences.