Introduction by Photographer Simon Way
It was on a trip to Copenhagen in April 2019 that I saw a press photo exhibition showcasing the lives of people in detention. The state didn’t know what to do with them and they were stuck in an endless cycle of bureaucracy. What also really stuck with me was some children had been almost entirely brought up in detention.
On returning to the UK I was compelled to learn more about what the situation was like here. You see headlines, but behind the headlines the people are all individuals, all with a story and none just a statistic. Even less known about are the selfless people working tirelessly with these individuals to help them through this dire situation; a voice for those whose voices are not heard.
So I ended up meeting Anna and her inspiring staff at the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group and began shooting portraits and hearing the stories they have had working with people in detention.
The stories varied enormously but the underlying theme was human kindness, a willingness to try and do good in an environment where it is far from easy and really seeing the person they are trying to help. I take my hat off to all of them, I am inspired by the level of determination, guts and belief that their work will act as a tool for change. I hope you enjoy the series and thank you for your continued support.
I was in detention twice. The first time I had no knowledge of the asylum system and I could barely speak English. I attended English classes in the Centre and I had a weekly visitor from the visitor group. We got to know each other. I told her why I came to the UK. She became an important person in my life with her listening and teaching me English. She got a special sense of me and helped me. When I was released she showed me the UK. And when my appeal hearing was turned down, she came with me when I had to report. They took me from the reporting Centre. I was frightened and she encouraged me. Being detained a second time was harder than the first. I was heartbroken. It was mental breaking you down. You don’t know how long you will be in detention. I met someone who had been detained for four years. Not knowing is the hardest thing.
I came to this country first as a refugee. So my children were very upset to leave their country. For the first two years it was very hard for everyone in the family to leave your home, your job, the children’s schools, clubs, their friends. When my friend told me about people being in detention in the UK, I thought I would visit and tell people: I went through this experience and it gets better. I thought that would give people some hope. I’m Christian, and I love the part when Jesus said, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat ,I was in prison and you came to visit me.” I understand what people go through from my own experience.
One man I visited had no-one to talk to. He had no one on a human level to share his case with. Literally no one. All he had to talk to was the guards in the Centre, his solicitor who would often ignore his calls, the guys in the office at GDWG, and me. So on the day he’s going to be deported he has his ticket in his hand and no one to tell and share his feelings about the ticket. The solicitor will be dealing with the fundamentals of it. I thought I’m not really adding anything – he’s going and I haven’t changed anything. But on that day I realised that me being there for him meant he had someone to tell and someone who cared. I remember someone else I visited who was a victim of his circumstances. His parents had left him when he was young and he’d been in boarding school and foster homes in Lithuania. Visiting him completely changed my opinions. He had effectively been to prison and was a criminal. I never thought I could have sympathy with someone who had broken the law. He was detained indefinitely after he had served his time in prison. And it just completely changed my opinion on a lot of things I thought I held predetermined views about. He was genuinely a really nice guy. I went to visit someone in detention and I didn’t know I could empathise with someone who had been in prison but it changed my opinions.
I remember one man. His case seemed black and white. He was clearly a victim of torture, and was from a minority ethnic group and we knew there was an issue there and his life would be in danger but still his case was refused. He was in lots of debt because of the fees from his private solicitor. We do hear of firms who aren’t doing their best work but are charging a lot of money. We’ve found that a lot. When we met him he had removal directions. His first directions were cancelled and he didn’t know why. He wasn’t told why. Two weeks later he had removal directions again. Each time he was taken to the airport in a van not knowing what would happen but expecting to die if he was taken back to his country. The second time he was so relieved but again no idea why. You can’t imagine the emotion and exhaustion and terror the third time. It was awful to watch and awful for him. Thankfully, the third time his flight was cancelled and he was released from detention after a judicial review was submitted – but his experience showed the way people are relentlessly and constantly ground down until they just give up. For them it feels like a constant fight.
I got involved in volunteering and helping people because I experienced being detained myself. I had assistance from Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group. I went through lots of challenges in detention and I was encouraged by the work of the group. My wife visited and I had phone calls from her and friends and I had support from GDWG and was involved in the Christian Fellowship group in the Centre and that all helped. You have to find what works for you. I was detained three times. When I got out I decided I would like an input because I saw the work GDWG do. In detention it was not easy. It was strange. It was a shock. It was the fact I didn’t know the length of time I would be there. If you serve a prison sentence you count down the days to the end of the sentence. If it’s six months, you count down six months. But in detention there is no stipulated time. Not knowing is really hard for people. When I arrived in detention I met someone who had been detained for one year, someone who had been detained for three years and I thought I don’t want to be detained for so long. It plays on your mind. It was difficult.
Generally speaking visiting means giving people hope. Giving people encouragement to feel wanted and accepted as everything is taken away from them. I visit like a family member and give people the chance to talk. I always wanted to do this except circumstances weren’t available. After my husband died and I was on my own, I thought this is a good way to use my time; for giving. My Arabic is helpful with Sudanese, Egyptians, people from Iraq. And when I started visiting it was the time when people starting fleeing from Syria. Some people don’t speak English. Many people can’t go back to their home and family. Being like a family member is important. Many want to talk and want me to listen. That’s what it means. Being in a visit is being with patience.
The way families suffer is awful. A lot of criticism is labelled at Trump’s America for how they are perpetrating the separation of families. And while of course that criticism is valid, I also find it frustrating that people aren’t levelling the same criticism at our government given that separation is also happening here. There’s certainly a lot of awful injustice here which people aren’t generally aware of. In my time working for GDWG, I’ve met political activists fighting totalitarian governments to try and achieve greater freedom who have had to flee after terrible retribution even the death to their family or torture, things like that. I’ve met people who have proudly held themselves out as LGBT despite oppression and physical attacks in their own country, and have been tortured either by the state or by discriminatory neighbours. I’ve met people with so much courage and determination to change the world for the better, it’s actually fantastic in that regard.
I’ve met people who have been slaves. Some have got a full life in Britain and others have just arrived. I do get loads out of it myself. I’ve met such interesting people. I spent most of my career in a university and it was very remote from a lot of people’s everyday lives. My research interest at the university was life stories. Now I’m hearing different life stories. I think we in the West tend to have a very linear view of the life course. Some people don’t know when they were born. There are things we take for granted. I remember one particular man whose grandmother paid for him to get a business degree in the UK. His college went bankrupt. He was left high and dry and started working doing washing up in a restaurant and then he heard his grandmother was very ill and dying. His visa had run out. He decided he would go back and visit her. He was very close to her. He tried to come back again to the UK and he was picked up. There’s a kind of innocence. I asked myself ‘Why did you go, and why did you come back?’ But I could see it was important for him to see his grandmother and that he wanted to live through her wishes for him. In the end he was sent back to his country. He sent me a text message saying I made him feel human again.
It’s difficult when you go to visit someone and they’re not there and you can’t find out if they’re okay or if they’ve been deported. Sometimes they’re on bail and you call the number you have but they were given a SIM card in the Centre and the number doesn’t work. Some people I have kept in contact with, especially if I’ve visited them for a longer period of time. If I’m being honest, it’s actually harder once people have left. When you visit people sometimes they are just aiming for bail all the time. They think getting out of detention is the end of all their problems but when they are released the end of detention doesn’t mean all their problems are solved.
As a Buddhist, I try to live by the principle of creating value, which is what drew me to the charity. My first volunteer job was sorting clothes, followed by visiting people in detention and helping out in the office, where I now work. When I first started visiting, I saw someone from Jamaica for a year and a half. We got on really well, as I’ve lived in Jamaica myself and we talked about the culture there, reggae music and his family. He had an eye problem and he couldn’t seem to get an eye appointment while he was in detention, so I called up the hospital and found he had missed two appointments while he’d been detained, and had wrongly been taken off the waiting list. Luckily I managed to get him the appointment he needed and he had a successful operation. It took him six months and three cancelled flights to return to Jamaica, even though he was going willingly, after being beaten down by the detention system here. Once he had finally returned to Jamaica, he did a course in upholstering, and he seems to be very happy now. Our friendship has led to a lifelong bond, and we still correspond.
The stories that stick in my mind are where help comes from unexpected places. Sometimes you find help and empathy in the most unlikely places and that always gives me hope. So there are stories like that. But I also think about the PTSD people are living with and how long it will take them to recover from indefinite detention. I know people are extremely resilient. I mean, you know, I grew up in Kashmir which has had 30 years of civil unrest. People learn to live with their circumstances- my Uncle, my Grandma, my cousins, all the people of Kashmir, who are now under the illegal occupation of the Indian government- they all just learn to deal with it. They laugh and joke about it, in order to avoid constant despair and grief. They shouldn’t have to. When I see people being deported for no other reason than the colour of their skin, the fact that they are poor and without influence or agency, I ache for what is happening to them, but I also hate what we are allowing ourselves to become when we allow it to happen as we watch.We need to do better, as humans, as society; in our neighbourhoods, in our nation, in our world.
John and Mary
There was a man who was sent back with three escorts. They put him in what was, in effect, a strait jacket and took him to the airport. When he got there he called his solicitor who told him that the flight was stopped but no one would take any notice. The escorts got him onto the plane. When I visited him later he drew a picture of the restraining belt. It’s two shackled sleeves and tied up around you. Before he was on the plane, he needed to go to the loo but they wouldn’t undo it for him to do that. They did it up so tightly they injured him. Soon after the aircraft landed they said ‘Oh no, we’ve only got to take you back but we’ve done our hours’. So he had to wait for more escorts to come. In the meantime he had to have medical attention as he was so unwell. His solicitor had stopped the flight. Someone being removed isn’t seen as a human being – they’re just seen as a number. One of the reasons I visit is to say you matter, you’re a human being. You breathe in and out the same as I do. I’m reminded of the Shakespeare quote “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” I want people in detention to know someone outside actually cares about them. I’ve visited people who have been detained for months and no-one has been anywhere near them.
Through visiting, I’ve learned that all things are possible. You go there to the visits room and you have no idea what you’re going to say or do; if you’re going to need to direct conversation, if you need to be quiet, or anything. So each time you go in you sit down with a good heart. That’s actually the biggest lesson. And of course you learn so much.