By Ben Gelblum
Mar 5, 2015
Imagine, tucked away in business parks not far from you, suburban Guantanamo Bays. Immigrant detention centres where faceless civil servants can, with no need of a judge, incarcerate people indefinitely.
A UK parliamentary inquiry into the detention of people on immigration grounds this week lifts the lid on a cruel, secretive regime under which 30,000 people a year are locked up indefinitely – not for committing a crime, but to facilitate deporting them.
The cross-party group of MPs and Peers found that the UK is alone in the EU in locking people up with no time limit, and recommend the next government introduce a maximum time limit of 28 days on the length of time anyone can be detained in immigration detention. The inquiry found that detention is used "disproportionately frequently," and heard all too often disabled people, pregnant women, the elderly, victims of abuse, torture and trafficking are held with no time limit, often with little or no access to legal representation, and often breaking the Home Office's own rules. The inquiry also heard that HM Prisons Inspectorate found around a quarter of cases of prolonged immigration detention were down to nothing more than bureaucratic inefficiency.
The detention regime is brutal, it seems, for all asylum seekers – but it gets worse the more vulnerable you are, and the more things a prejudiced detention centre guard or government lawyer could hold against you.
The Bedfordshire detention centre for women was rocked by accusations of sexual abuse and intrusive behaviour by male staff last year after which 11 staff were sacked. Yet somehow multinational Serco, who run it, managed to renew their contract. Yarl's Wood is again at the centre of a Channel 4 News undercover investigation this week, which filmed sexist, racist male guards describing detainees as "black bitch" and "evil", and scoffing "they are all slashing their wrists, apparently. Let them slash their wrists... It's attention seeking." Serco has now suspended two staff.
Last night, I caught up with former Yarl's Wood detainee Aderonke Apata at a High Court judicial review of her asylum case. Aderonke's testimony on the lack of access to legal representation and the daily homophobic attacks she faced as a Nigerian lesbian in detention was some of the most distressing the inquiry heard.
"I welcome the recommendations of the Detention Inquiry, it couldn't have come at a better time," she said. "It is unacceptable to detain anybody in the first instance because most people that flee for their lives had been through one torture or the other. Detaining LGBT asylum seekers is the most horrendous injustice given that they are locked up with people from their homophobic countries. It is like they are sent back to their countries of origin where they then constantly get persecuted and are unable to report it because of fear of adverse effects on their claims."
Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre
Aderonke told the Inquiry that the financial cost of detention to the taxpayer is pointless but added that the cost to human life was immeasurable – it could never be totted-up. The lack of a time limit, she said, is "mental torture, designed to break you".
She described a distressing regime at Yarl's Wood Removal Centre where she was held with many vulnerable women, who had fled "torture, been trafficked or subjected to forced marriage."
As many detainees in the Bedfordshire centre were from Nigeria, Aderonke said she was locked up for ten months with the same prejudice and cruelty she had escaped. "Every day people abused me physically or verbally," recalled Aderonke, "but it wasn't in the interests of Serco who run Yarl's Wood to tell the Home Office about what was going on." She described the experience as "miserable, depressing, fearful – full of agony and pain."
Aderonke spent over a year in Yarl's Wood after being caught working in the mental health sector without a work permit. "To support myself and my daughter I had to get a job," she explained.
Yet in Yarl's Wood she worked for £1 an hour for the Home Office, and even won an "employee of the month" award. The irony wasn't lost on Aderonke and she described the use of detainees to help run detention centres on a fraction of minimum wage as "modern day slavery".
The LGBT activist told me that back in Nigeria she was outed by neighbours and locked up by the police and tortured for being a lesbian. She managed to bribe her way out and fled Nigeria in 2004, but lost her three-year-old son and brother to related vigilante murders, as well as her girlfriend of 20 years. Aderonke was sentenced to death by stoning in a Sharia court for being gay.
Seeking refuge in the UK, she faced the humiliating challenge of proving her sexual orientation by answering degrading questions about her personal experiences. Despite being a LGBT campaigner, winning UK LGBT Positive Role Model National Diversity Award, producing love letters from partners and being engaged to her current partner Happiness Agboro, the UK Home Office doesn't buy that she's a lesbian.
Aderonke met Happiness in Yarl's Wood Immigration, and Happiness has helped Aderonke fight her corner ever since, telling her it would be worth it because "nothing good comes easy".
Yet the ever-present threat of detention, being torn from her wife-to-be, daughter and community of friends, as well as deportation to a country where she has been sentenced to death has left Aderonke with post-traumatic stress disorder, which caused her to be hospitalised recently.
Yesterday, Aderonke took her fight for asylum in the UK to the High Court, packed with 100 well-wishers and gay activists including Peter Tatchell.
In court, The Home Office argued Aderonke can't be a lesbian as she has a daughter. Their barrister Andrew Bird said, "You can't be a heterosexual one day and a lesbian the next day. Just as you can't change your race." The lawyer representing the British state suggested Aderonke "has deliberately altered her appearance...to a lesbian stereotype". Doubting that Aderonke could undertake LGBT activism when suffering from depression, the Home Office barrister went on, "if she is suicidal and depressed she is making a jolly good show of it".
Aderonke's barrister Abid Mahmood, called the comments "highly offensive". The judge reserved his decision for three weeks.
If the Home Secretary Theresa May refuses to acknowledge that Aderonke is a lesbian, what chance do others facing deportation to countries where same sex sex is criminalised have? Lisa Matthews of Right To Remain who have been campaigning for Aderonke told me of others who have even felt pressured into handing the Home Office videos of their love life. "We know of one case," said Lisa, "where someone was told they can't be gay as they did not look aroused enough in the video. This situation is horrific."
This week's Parliamentary Inquiry expressed extreme concern that LGBT detainees like Aderonke face bullying, harassment and abuse inside detention centres. And it was damning on the cost to detainees mental health of the UK's over-zealous use of detention, as well as its financial cost. The Home Office recently admitted that in 2013/14 the total cost of running immigration detention was £164.4 million. The inquiry heard how it is 80 percent cheaper for immigration dispute to be resolved in the community. The Home Office paid out a staggering £4.8 million in compensation for unlawful detention last year. And a time limit of 28 days could save £87 million per year.
Despite all this, over the last 12 months, UK immigration detention centre capacity has increased by 25 percent, and the government has just announced a plan to double the size of Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre in Oxfordshire.