story of an Eritrean Immigrant

Written by Human Rghts concern-Eritrea
Monday, 18 December 2006

An inexplicable experience of an Eritrean Immigration Detainee in the UK
It is painful and traumatic to be forced to leave one’s home and seek refuge and protection in a foreign country. I fled my country for fear of political persecution and here to the United Kingdom believing that I would be given protection until the political and human rights situations in my country gets better.

I came to the UK for I believed in the long-standing traditions of the country’s encouragement and promotion of human rights. I still believe in the country’s tradition of respecting human rights.

I have to admit though that I did not imagine I could also be put in such a disturbing and distressing immigration detention centre such as Harmondsworth for such a long-time. I came to seek protection and I did not commit any crime for me to be locked up and psychologically tortured.

It has already been more than three months since I was detained in Harmondsworth and I cannot tell enough of the psychological and emotional torture that I have been going through right from the first day in the centre.

Life in detention is really harsh and terrifying. You live under constant fear and uncertainty not knowing what would happen to you next. You are under the mercy of others and that makes you feel hopeless. In addition to the psychological pressure you face regarding your immigration case, coping in a strange and unfriendly detention environment such as in Harmondsworth is another additional burden you have to deal with.

The experience shows one clearly how unfair and unjust life is for some human beings. The same experience does also make one realize how hypocrite institutions and governments are despite their profess advocacy to human rights issues. You have to experience it to believe it. I have so far seen enough of their hypocrisies. They really don’t practice what they preach.

I would have said a lot about detainees’ life in Harmondsworth, but my focus this time is to highlight what I experienced on the 28th of November and the two days after.

Tuesday 28th of November was similar to the gloomy days before until some thing different started to happen right after the evening roll count, i.e at around 11:40p.m.

I never thought that, despite the mental and emotional suffering that detainees go through, and the injustices that they face in their immigration cases, that they could dare to protest to the extent of driving the detention centre’s officers out of the centre. I will have to admit thus I was taken aback by what had to experience in that fateful evening. It is really difficult to predict actions of intimidated minds. But some of the detainees must have felt that it was about time the injustices that they were facing must be known to the outside world.

Whoever started the protest must have started it by damaging the facilities around him. I honestly didn’t and still don’t know who started the protest and I also don’t think it was pre-meditated or planned. Even though the ultimate reason for protesting could be the mistreatment of the detainees by the detention centres officers and the whole immigration system, the immediate cause however, as it seems to me, is the critical report that was broadcasted on BBC that very day regarding the mistreatment of detainees in Harmondsworth.

The centre is divided into four sections, i.e. the A, B, C and D wings. As far as I know, the protest didn’t start from the wing I was in. But whoever started it and from wherever it was started, it spread to all of the four wings, and the main action of the protest was just on damaging the property of facilities in the centre. Except the damage on the property and facilities, I did not witness any attempt by the detainees to hurt the detention officers on duty that night.

My roommate and I were really disturbed by the terrifying sound of the fire alarm. We were not part of what was going on. We were like civilians caught in a middle of a fierce fighting. We were so uneasy and terrified that we did not dare to leave our room until an officer advised us to leave the room and go to the courtyard. We were told that there was fire in parts of the building. When we left the room we were with our pyjamas.

It was a biting cold there at the courtyard. We were shivering out there at the open area. Even though most of the inmates who made it to the courtyard brought their belongings with them, it was different for my roommate and I.

There was no way that we could go back to our room and get our staff as we did not have a key to our room. Though we asked two officers, who were still around by then to help us open our door, they were unwilling to extend their support. Despite of our innocence and disapproval of what was going on, we felt we became the first victims of the situation. We had no clothes to wear in order to protect ourselves from the terrible cold, and no room to go to, and there was no one around to help us.

After a while the officers were forced to leave the area and as a result all of the four wings fell under the full control of the detainees.

A lot of damage was caused on the detention centre’s property. Most of the service rooms were broken in and vandalized. As a result of the damage on the water pipes, water was flowing down from the 2nd floor to the 1st and ground floors. Consequently, the corridors and rooms were full of water. I was also told that there was fire in parts of the kitchen. Had the kitchen exploded as a result of the fire, then the human casualty would really and truly have been catastrophic.

As the protesters forced the officers to leave the area, some of them seemed to really enjoy the occasion. They could not believe what they were witnessing. They seemed as if they got back the very freedom that they were denied or lost to them in anyway long time ago. You could see some of them bothering not about the consequences of their actions. The fact that they have been living under huge psychological and emotional pressure for such a pretty long time must have pushed them to take their frustrations on the facilities and property of the very system that kept them in that situation.

My roommate and I were just at the courtyard totally shocked not only by the very situation that we found ourselves in, but we were also concerned by the trouble that the overall situation would get us into afterwards.

As I mentioned earlier, I was not part of the protest and I also didn’t see any of my interests served by what was done that night. I was therefore concerned about the consequences of that night’s action as much as I was concern about the very situation I was in.

After staying at the courtyard until around 3:30a.m, my roommate’s friend invited us to go to his room. We went to that mate’s room which was flooded with water and stayed there until Wednesday 8:00a.m.

Then we left the room to the courtyard again as it was very difficult to stay in that room. It was then that I knew that the detention centre was surrounded by hundreds of metropolitan police, equipped with riot shields and dogs.

We stayed at the courtyard until midday, until the Police finally could manage to get into the building and forced us to get into the rooms in a group up to 8 mates in one room. The Police then locked us in the rooms where we were kept for 18 hours without food, water and no access to the toilets.

It was a truly disturbing and distressing experience. From the outside world one never thinks that such things happen in a country such as the United Kingdom, a nation very much known for its human rights respect.

I think the reason that the police put us in such a horrible situation was to make us pay the price of what the protesters did the previous night. We were practically denied of any human rights we can think of even the very nature right of using the toilets (to relive ourselves).

On Thursday 30th of November at around 6:00a.m., the police came in and picked us from the rooms one by one, searched us there at the corridor, and gathered us at the courtyard, and then put us in queue which led us to the next wing where we had to wait in the queue for more than five hours. We were hungry, as it was on Tuesday that we had our last dinner, some of us wanted to go to the toilet, and worse of all the whether was terrible and we were shivering in the biting cold of the morning.

I thought that our misery would end once we get in the building where we were queuing to get into, but there was where we had to face the most humiliating and degrading experience of our lives.

I was only thinking that the officers in that building were doing some paper work to get us transferred to other detention centres, but they also had a wicked design of humiliating us there. They forced us to take off all of our clothes – we stripped naked!

The reason? well, I don’t see any reason why they opted to search as that way. It was more of humiliating and degrading us than getting/saving things stolen by the in- mates.

For me, it was the most degrading and lowest point in my life. I felt miserable, hopeless and helpless. I could not believe what I was experiencing. I was totally overwhelmed by the overall situation. I surrendered to the situation and lost my human dignity and made me feel worthless. I am not exaggerating, that is what I really felt then. After taking my picture and DNA samples, the officers finally handcuffed me and got me into a van and drove me to the detention centre where I am staying now.

Even though the detention centre I am in now is relatively friendly and a bit relaxing, the psychological scars of the terrible experience in Harmondsworth may not be healed easily.

My only prayer and hope is that whatever I have experienced, so far be the price for the freedom and liberty that I have been aspiring for some time now.

Presented by:
Elsa Chyrum
17 December 2006