Interview with a former child detainee at Yarl’s Wood

Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre is a detention centre in Bedford, UK which mainly houses women and families awaiting immigration. Many detainees are taken to Yarl’s Wood after dawn raids on their homes, and the centre has a history of hunger strikes by detainees protesting negligence.

Last week I met with a former child detainee at Yarl’s Wood. She and her family came to the UK as asylum seekers in 2004, and in 2005 their application was refused and they were detained and threatened with deportation. She was 12 years old. By resisting and screaming on the plane, she was able to delay and ultimately avoid being deported, giving her mother time to appeal their case.

She talked to me about her experience in Yarl’s Wood as a child, seeking asylum in the UK, and living in London now as a black Asian woman. This interview was given on the condition of anonymity.

Morgan Potts: Thank you so much for taking the time to share this with me. Can you tell me about your family’s decision to seek asylum in the UK?

XX: I was born in UAE [United Arab Emirates]. Because my dad owned a shipping business, we moved around quite a bit. We lived in different parts of the Middle East, stayed in Saudi Arabia briefly, and then my dad wanted to focus on developing his business from his home town, Assab in Eritrea. I was really young when we went there.

In Assab we went through some issues with local government. My dad got taken away. I think he went through a few different prisons. We don’t really talk about it. But he got taken away and my mum decided the best thing to do was to come to the UK, to flee here as asylum seekers.

In Eritrea, the government arbitrarily incarcerates whoever they want. Because of the tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea during times of war, if they suspect that you’re doing anything treasonous they’ll incarcerate you. My dad was taken on the accusations of him being some sort of spy, or conspiring something, because of the fact that he had the cargo business and communicated with a lot of people in different regions.

Officers came into our house one night, messed some shit up and threw stuff around, took a bunch of papers and took my dad away. I wasn’t sure where he went; when we try to speak to him about it now he doesn’t like to talk about it very much. They took him away and I remember my relatives and family friends saying, “You can’t stay here, what are you going to do here, they’ve taken your dad, what are they going to do to the kids, who’s going to support you?” It was basically not safe. We had to leave.

Some family friends put my mum into contact with this man in the UK who is known for processing and flying people to the UK. During the raid they took all the documents in my dad’s house, which included all the business papers, birth certificates, passports, everything, but the guy managed to set up fake passports to fly us into the UK. When we got to the UK we applied for asylum.

MP: What’s it like to come to the UK as an asylum seeker?

XX: We came here in 2004. It was me, my older brother, and my mum. When you come in as asylum seekers what they do first is take your interview in Croyden, and then they ship you to different hotels or accommodation while you wait to get your actual accommodation. Our temporary accommodation was in Margate; we spent about three months there. It was all a strange experience because you had no money on you so you had to eat whatever was provided to you, and sometimes the food wasn’t good or if you came in too late to get the food you’d miss out. From there we got taken to Swansea.

But a year after we moved to Wales everyone went through this panic. The asylum seeker community was essentially worried because they heard rumors—not rumors, but they’ve actually known people to have gotten a visit from the law enforcement, taking them away to detention centres for deportation.

A lot of people would send their kids to sleep at their friends’ houses or someone else they know from the community out of fear of getting a visit in the middle of the night from these police officers that essentially would just take you away from your community and your home, to send you back to a country that you didn’t want to go back to.

MP: What was it like when you were taken into police custody?

XX: We’d been living in Swansea for about a year and a half, and I’d settled into school and the community. When we came here and applied for asylum, our case included my mum, my brother, and me. Because my mum is Filipino, regardless of where we were born and what nationality my dad is, they just gave us whatever nationality our mum has because we’re her dependents. So we were assigned Filipino nationality, and had we been deported we would have been deported to the Philippines.

There was that fear, that panic in the air, and everyone was hyper-aware that they might get this visit. One night when I was in Year 8—just going about my daily routine, coming back from school, going to sleep, preparing for the next day—at 3am we got like this really loud knock on the door: “Police, open up! Police, open up! Police open up!” I remember being so scared. It was I think seven police officers, and they came in and they sat my mum down in the living room and said, “We’ve been sent here to deport you because your papers have been refused.”

My mum was crying for a good while but once she got herself together she said, “Okay guys, pack your stuff, we have to go”. So we go through the whole house, packing everything into suitcases. The police officers were following around the house to make sure we didn’t run away or anything. I remember having to leave so many things, things that I really loved and cared about but couldn’t take because they wouldn’t fit in the suitcases.

They escorted us into this one big van that had cages all around the inside, so you couldn’t see the driver. There were two or three rows of seats, and you’d sit down and police officers would sit right next to you on either side. There was also a police car which accompanied the van. And being a child I remember being so afraid. We haven’t really committed a crime, so why are we getting this sort of treatment?

MP: Why was your application for asylum refused?

XX: Our case failed because they reasoned that we can’t go back to Eritrea but we could go back to the Philippines. My mum was trying to express that we had no one in the Philippines, and we hadn’t been there in ages. But because we were seeking asylum on grounds that were not political, they didn’t see it as a priority. So the case failed.

My mum appealed that case, and it just continued to fail, but we had a bad solicitor at the time. When we came here we had no idea who to contact for legal advice and could barely afford a solicitor, so we just went through hearsay, but we had no idea what was going on. We had a really bad solicitor who would deliberately hold on to information so that the case failed and we would have to pay to have them try to reopen the case. Instead of submitting your appeal on time, they would rather prolong it and try to make it more difficult to try to get as much money out of you as possible. And this is at a time when you have no money anyway. We didn’t have clear communication with our solicitors, so we didn’t know whether our appeal was successful or not; it was unexpected when the police officers came to us and said, “Your asylum application has been declined and we have to deport you.” We got taken to this detention centre in Bedford, Yarl’s Wood.

MP: Tell me about your first impression of Yarl’s Wood.

XX: After the four hour drive we get to Yarl’s Wood, and all I see are cages. As soon as you drive up to it, you see these massive steel gates all around the compound. It was a long drive and we were quite exhausted, but I finally accepted that I’m not going back home and I’m leaving my friends. I don’t remember if I had a mobile phone or not, and they may have taken our phones away from us, but essentially you can’t even say goodbye to your friends and people around you, or your neighbors that you play with every day. It was just awful.

Being 12 and knowing that there was this panic about having this visit, when it finally happened to us it felt like “It’s over, I’m leaving the UK and I’m leaving all my friends and I don’t know where I’m going. The worst has happened.”

First they process you, they ask you to give in your mobile phones which were already turned off, take off all your jewelry, and deposit your valuables. There was a lot of waiting around; you’d have to wait for hours in this small room with a TV. I don’t even know why we were waiting, but you sit there and wait for ages. I remember having the worst minestrone soup.

It definitely felt like prison. Every door you’d pass through was unlocked to let you in, then locked behind you.

Once you get processed they show you a room. I had to share a room with my brother which was essentially two single beds, and my mum was in the room right next door, and there was a door that connected them. Even the windows had bars. When you’d look out you could see barbed wire all around the outskirts and even more gated fences. It was just awful being there.

MP: How long were you in detention?

XX: I stayed there for about three or four weeks leading up to Christmas. We got out the week before Christmas.

MP: What was it like being detained as a child?

XX: It was horrible. In our case, the flight to the Philippines was once a week, and they would try to send us back every weekend. They would take you to the airport and they would try and put you on a plane and send you back home.

But I knew that in order for me to stay here I’d have to resist, I’d have to fight. I felt like our case wasn’t heard properly, and they were trying to send us away and oppress us from speaking out against it. I had to resist. I was the youngest—my brother’s two years older than me—and here I am this 12 year old girl that was fighting three police officers just to not be on a plane, I’d shout and scream and kick and fight and they’d have to actually carry me up to a plane because I didn’t want to leave—I didn’t want to leave a place where I finally felt like I’d found home. It was awful, it was awful.

But aside from the difficult part of “oh shit” every weekend when we were threatened with deportation, there were awful things in there. At that point within the ward there was this one week where a certain part of the ward was closed off, and we all wondered why is it closed off, and it turns out that the woman that was staying there killed herself. For us young children to hear that someone in the same position as ourselves had just killed themselves, it was so much to stomach. It was awful. Being a child and feeling like, they had a playground that you could play at, being a child and going out to play in a place where you can’t actually leave and go farther than you wanted to. It was awful, the whole experience.

The last point of contact that we had with my father then, at that point was—my dad knew that if he needed to reach us that we’d be in the UK, and after we spoke to our solicitors they said that my dad was on the way to the UK—through some kind of communication channel between my dad and a few people, the Eritrean community is quite close—they had spoken to my dad and said they were trying to get him to come to the UK. So we knew that if we left the UK to the Philippines we wouldn’t be sure how to get in touch with our dad.

MP: Can you tell me more about what it was like inside Yarl’s Wood?

XX: They had different wards. It was a really big place, it actually looked like something of a palace or a mansion. The walls at Yarl’s Wood were blueish, and the bedsheets were blue. It was like a hospital with black bars. In our ward, you’d have a long lobby, and there’d be rooms on both sides. From what I remember there were a few floors. The facilities were okay. They’d have a laundry room, the commissary place, the canteen, religious rooms, and a playground.

When you first get there they give you a toothbrush and toothpaste, and a little bit of shampoo, stuff like that, and you could request more as you needed it. The rooms were okay. They had single beds, and a small TV in each room. The TV was weird because it was pre-recorded so certain programs would just loop over and over again. There was one music video by Kanye West and the guy from Maroon 5, what is that song called? Anyway the video is this black and white cartoon child that gets into this taxi which flies away, and I remember watching this on loop in a fucking caged room. So every time I watch it now I remember back to when I was in prison. It’s so intense being a child in there. Now when I see certain videos that they played on that TV I think, “I fucking hate this video.”

They had one room that was made up to be like a school. There was one teacher that would teach for a few hours, I think it was every week day. You’d sit there and she’d do English, and bit of maths, and a little bit of science. There were a lot of kids, but I made friends with about ten. Some of them were 14 or 15 from Angola, some of them were my age and they were Jamaican but they lived in Scotland. It was a mix girls and boys, a lot of siblings. In “class” it was a big deal that we finish our homework but they were about to throw us out of the country so what’s the point.

Then there were little babies. I remember this one little kid, probably under a year old, his name was Michael. He had really bad eczema, and it was to do with what he ate, I think he couldn’t eat breaded chicken; if he had any of that he would just get a really bad allergic reaction all over his body. I remember his mum complaining about wanting something, I think it was bottled milk, or any sort of food that she could give to her child so he wouldn’t get that reaction, and she couldn’t get it for weeks. She’d have to keep going down to the main office and arguing with the people there, and there was no way of getting what she needed for her child. You’d see the boy and he’d be sick, and he’d cry because his skin was just massively dotted and itchy and red. You’d see mothers that would have little children that can’t get things like milk because they don’t have any commissary money. They can’t get certain things that they need for their children and they have to apply and wait for days or weeks to get it, and their child just has to go without until that gets processed.

MP: Can you elaborate on the commissary?

XX: I think you could use your money that was deposited when you’re first processed to buy commissary money for yourself. Then you get access to things like, sweets and stuff, but most importantly phone cards which my mum used to talk to solicitors with. You’d buy basic things like a toothbrush, but mainly a lot of the money would go on phone cards which you’d use to call your solicitor. Which begs the question of what happens if you don’t have money to contact your solicitors?

I remember just being a child and really wanting sweets every now and then because they wouldn’t give you sweets, the food that they would give you was quite plain, so yeah when you get the chance you go and get sweets.

MP: What else stands out in your memories of Yarl’s Wood?

XX: The person that killed themselves was this woman, I think she was in her late 20s. I’m not sure if we knew her or not but I remember when I found out I was shocked because I felt like I knew her. I felt like there was some sort of connection, maybe because she was new and I spoke to her when she came? But I remember when I heard the news it hit a really strong chord in me.

A lot of times you’d have people fighting with officers there and you’d see people get restrained. Sometimes officers would have to break into certain rooms. I remember there was a lot of force between people that worked there and people that stayed there, maybe because some people would be trying to commit suicide, or people fighting for just other reasons but I just remember a lot of that, I’m not sure, it’s quite hazy for me. There had been quite a few attempts where people tried to kill themselves, and the officers had to break in or use force to stop them.

I think, aside from the fact that you saw how it affected your family, the most difficult part of it was knowing that there wasn’t much you can do. This is the government against you; it’s like the law is against you. You’re the criminal at this point, so whatever it is that you do, you know they’ll bring six or seven police officers if it has to come to that, essentially it’s this young child against all these people.

MP: Can you tell me about resisting at the airport?

XX: The security that would come with us to the airport were different to the security in house. In house the people were generally okay: they would try and just do their job, be as plain as possible. Some of them were quite friendly, others were a bit mean. The security guards, the escorts that took us to the airports, they tried to be as cold as possible. We were cuffed in the van and on the plane, and uncuffed to use the toilet. We were generally cuffed while being transported.

Before being taken on to the plane, I met a Nigerian man in the immigration holding room at the airport who saw me crying and told me, “If you really want to stay then fight for it”.

I think it was three or four men and two women, in suits. In terms of the physical act of restraining, it was quite tough. They actually carried me, one holding me on each sides and one person who just grabbed my legs, walking up the steps to the plane. Then when I was on the plane seat they tried and put my seatbelt on and I’d have to fight and push and shove and get the seatbelt off and scream and shout just to the point where the air hostess was just like, “We can’t have this on the plane, if she’s not gonna calm down we can’t have it”.

I remember one of the comments when I was resisting, “Oh great, she ruined my holiday”. I’m out here trying to not get taken to some country that I haven’t been to in so long, and your biggest worry is that I ruined your little trip to the Philippines. There was no empathy. You could really feel that they were frustrated with the fact that we ruined their holiday. Our suffering is very small to them. It’s really weird because you’d go through all of that, resisting and fighting these people, and you’d get put back in the same caged van and have to sit with them for two hours to the detention centre again.

I remember thinking that it was the worst thing because the only sense of freedom or being outside is that commute from the detention centre to the airport. That’s the only time I get to step outside and sense some sort of freedom. Walking around in one of the small rooms in immigration at the airport I was like, this is freest I’ve felt since being taken to the detention centre. You feel the open air of the airport and the plane, and although I am fighting, it felt weird because I remember feeling like I’m finally outside. You go through that, get put on a plane, resist, fight, get taken right back to the car, and it’s back to prison again, it’s back to being entrapped.

MP: You were able to put off, and ultimately totally avoid, being flown to the Philippines because you made a big scene on the plane essentially?

XX: Yeah, essentially. Knowing that is what I have to do in order to avoid it, I was just like fuck it, I’m not going on this plane I don’t want to go, I felt like that was the thing that I had to do, and I did it and it worked. They were like we can’t have this on the plane, she can’t be screaming for the whole of the journey. Yeah that worked.

I think back and it’s like three guards—three big, really tall men—and they’d have to restrain me, here I’m this 12 year old girl that’s fighting to stay here.

MP: Were you scared?

XX: The fear came when the van pulled up to the plane, because what they would do is put us on first, and then they let the rest of the passengers come on. That fear when you stop next to the plane, you’re like, fuck, this is it. That’s as far as the fear gets. Then after that it’s like no, this is what you have to do to survive, this is what you have to do to fight. At that point, I think, courage and that anger and that power just comes to you naturally.

MP: Did your mother or your brother also resist?

XX: No, it was just me. I think my mum was very tired at the time. The whole experience took everything out of her. A lot of the mothers didn’t really eat because of the stress. We’d have lunch and I could see my mum not eating and I could see that there was so much on her chest and on her soul.

I really didn’t want to go back to the Philippines because essentially we really had nothing there for us. The last time I was in the Philippines I was really young, maybe six? There was tension between my uncles and my mum, especially because my mum married an Eritrean man. Her attitude was like, “If they can’t accept my kids and my husband then I don’t need to be there.”

I think that’s what gives you that power to fight because if you don’t, what’s going to happen when we get to the other end where we know no one? They’re not going to set you up in a house, or into an apartment or accommodation, they’re pretty much going to drop you in the airport probably and say “Okay, go make your way”. And for me it was just like, I can’t have that. If we were deported there, we’d get to the Philippines and struggle just to find a way to survive. We already didn’t have much money, and in the Philippines you pay for everything: rent, school, transportation, everything gets paid for. To go from being an asylum seeker with not much in the UK to the Philippines where you have nothing… At that time I couldn’t understand what was worrying my mum so much, but now that I’m older I can see that that’s a daunting thing to be sent back to a country that you haven’t been to for ages, with no money, and essentially no one to call. I can see why she didn’t eat, I can see why she couldn’t sleep.

MP: How did you find the strength to fight?

XX: I think back and I don’t even know how I resisted or what came over me to do that. A lot of the kids there felt a certain way, there was some sort of “we’ve got to fight” in them. But it sucks because some of the people that you meet there go and never come back. And then you’re just like, “Man that could be me”. I was there for 2 weeks before there was actual fighting. The first flight that they take you on, if you resist they say fine. The next time, they bring guards. You resist another time, they bring more guards, and it goes on like that. I remember thinking that I have to fight because there are people that I want to see—there are friends that I have made in the detention centre, I want them to know that I’m okay and that I’ve made it back. I want to be one of the ones that comes back. It was so much as a child to make friends and just have them go away; it was so much for me.

MP: Why were you eventually released from detention?

XX: That went on for three weeks, just constantly dreading the next time they try and send you away. During the third week my mum’s solicitor managed to communicate that my dad is in the country and about to process an application. They decided that since the cases are linked and my dad was in the UK, it didn’t make sense to send us away anymore.

They released us and dropped us off at the nearest station. We had nine suitcases between the three of us. They helped with our stuff and paid for our tickets but then we were left to make our own way home.

It was just so awful because after experiencing that you realise that these people really don’t care; you have no country that you belong to, and even the place where you think you’ve found safety treats you like shit. It was a really bad experience. How does this kind of thing happen to people, how do we get treated this way? There was no consideration for the fact that you’re already afraid, having fled a very difficult situation; getting treated like that is just horrible, but then they don’t think about the social element of being a child, your friends and the connection that you’ve made with people, being uprooted and taken to a place that looks like prison. I watch Orange Is The New Black and I think, “This prison looks a little bit better than what we’d been going through.”

Then there was the issue of getting into contact with my dad. We knew he was here, but you can’t just phone up the Home Office and be like “Hey, give me my dad’s number”, so it was a whole issue of trying to find people who knew where he was. When you come in as an asylum seeker they can send you to anywhere in the UK.

MP: What’s your immigration status now?

XX: Ultimately our application was successful. My dad really went through a bunch of shit, he really doesn’t want to speak to us about it, but I think after applying for asylum he was approved quite quickly because of the extent of the evidence. He had a lot of scars and stuff showing the things that he went through, and a bunch of health checks. Eritrea is known for that kind of treatment.

After we got into contact with him, we weren’t automatically granted refugee status as a family; we had to reapply to get it extended to us as well, and to prove that we’re all related, that he is indeed our father. They interviewed us separately and then referenced our stories against all the files they had previously, and it was a whole complex process. But our case was approved. We all got refugee status around 2008 and now I’ve applied for British citizenship.

MP: What was it like when you returned to Swansea?

XX: Going back to Swansea was in itself a weird experience, because if you imagine just disappearing somewhere for three weeks, then having to explain to people where you’ve been, but it’s such a sensitive subject that you’re almost ashamed to talk about it. It was embarrassing to have been detained. I didn’t know what to tell people when they asked so I said there was a family emergency back home. People knew, teachers knew, and I felt different and weird. There was no one I could talk to about it; I told one classmate because she implied that she’d be detained too, but she immediately said she was kidding and made fun of me. I missed a lot of stuff at school and it was difficult to catch up. Our house had been cleaned out like they were getting it ready for the next asylum seeking family. But it was almost Christmas and I was so happy to be back home.

In Swansea, there is this joke where they keep making fun of you for being an asylum seeker or being an immigrant. The town was a bit racist in general, but you’d get made fun of by Bengali kids that immigrated there too; there was a hierarchy and they’d make fun of you for being an asylum seeker. People bullied me and said things like, “You came here in a banana boat”.

MP: How do you identify, and what has been your experience of racism and xenophobia in the UK?

XX: I identify as black and Asian, and I’m very passionate about black women’s issues and social justice. I’m one of a few black girls at a large finance firm; an Italian guy coworker wrongly assumed that I work in reception. There’s no black culture at my firm. I feel like my natural hair isn’t appropriate and I’m ashamed to wear it natural because it’s deemed ‘untidy’ by company standards.

I saw lots of Caribbean and Pakistani people detained; generally a lot of black people. Seeing the same disproportionate treatment of black people on the streets does a lot to your mentality. The black mindset is that the police are always ready to get us. When we first got to the UK I saw a black man shoved to the ground getting cuffed in Highbury. But London is better than anywhere else I’ve been; in Swansea even within the minority communities you’re excluded as an asylum seeker. London is the only place where you can blend in.

My family tries to be as British as possible. I feel like we’ve done our bit to integrate.

MP: What does it mean to be British?

XX: To be British is to go out and work and make your own money, to pay your taxes, handling your responsibilities and contributing to society. My mum is always expressing how grateful she is to the country; there are opportunities here to make money, get an education, and get a good finance job. No one wants to be sitting around on benefits; they would work if they felt comfortable with the language, if given the chance. They want to contribute. No one wants to be a slug all day.

MP: Tell me how you feel looking back on your experience.

XX: Looking back at the experience I feel angry. We get told that the police are your friends and here to protect you, but that’s a fallacy. I have a mistrust of authority; I don’t have much respect for police officers or the law.

I have no allegiance to any state or nation. It’s not the country that’s your home, it’s the people and community. I place my value in people now as opposed to countries.

Generally migrants could be treated a lot better. That coldness makes you feel like a criminal even if you haven’t committed a crime. They should treat children with more sensitivity. Children don’t belong in detention centres; it’s not okay for children to be exposed to conditions where people are committing suicide. There needs to be more humanity in the way these people are treated when it comes to being deported.

Though I feel stronger for it, it saddens me that someone would have to go through that. It’s empowering in a sense, but it leaves you a bit damaged. Childhood is supposed to be sweet.

In 2010, the Children’s Commissioner for England reported that children at Yarl’s Wood faced “extremely distressing” conditions and treatment. In 2011 the High Court ruled that the detention of the children of failed asylum seekers at Yarl’s Wood is unlawful.

The Movement For Justice is led 1,500 protesters to demand the closure of Yarl’s Wood on November 7, organising for justice and fighting racism, and contesting the morality of detention centres.

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