Since 2010, when M landed in England after a long and life-threatening journey from Palestine, he has been passed around in the legal arena. The responsibility for his situation has been passed from one authority to another with no resolution, leaving him in the limbo of statelessness, unable to return without identity papers, lost in the process, and unwelcome in the country which, historically, facilitated the removal of his people’s land and statehood.
“It’s like you’re just a ball being passed along,” M told me. He left Palestine after a bomb went off and took his family away. He managed to get to Amman with only his green identity card on him. Despite having a strong case for asylum, M has spent more than three years in four different detention centres across Britain.
He spent more than a month in the Dover “prison-like” detention centre, a converted citadel on an island off the coast. This high-security centre treats its inmates — victims of war and displacement — as dangerous prisoners. Between 8:30 pm and 8 am, they had to be inside their cells with no access to food, in groups of four. The rooms were arranged like Foucault’s panopticon, in a circle with all the doors facing the centre, which triggering a psychological disciplining effect based on mutual surveillance. Each room has four beds and a toilet and is equipped with a camera, stripping those inside of their right to privacy, vis-a-vis other inmates and the guards, who would follow their movements via the camera. Ironically, M told me, detainees were not allowed to have camera phones, for “security reasons”, to prevent them recording anything within the detention centres.
M ended up in the Dover facility due to a protest in which he participated in his previous detention centre in Cambridge. Here the conditions were also horrendous. In each room there was up to ten people, the food was bad and they were each given a plastic cup to last their whole time in detention, which could be months, to use for all drinks. In 2010, M saw a Kenyan detainee who was seriously ill and was refused medical help or the chance to see a doctor. “He was sweating and you could really see that he was ill,” M recalled. After several weeks, the young man passed away in the centre. As the other detainees had all witnessed this, a spark of resistance broke out amongst them; the kitchen and other facilities were destroyed, although M said that he and some others protested peacefully by gathering outside the detention buildings to chant slogans. The riot police entered wearing full body armour and, along with the G4S private security company personnel running the detention facilities, took photographs of each of the protesters before taking them to the police station. Here, M and the others were sent either to prison or the much-feared Dover detention facility. It all depended on what their protest had involved in response to the treatment of the young Kenyan, which they believe was unjust and inhuman.
He explained how there was an obvious difference between facilities. The judgement of detainees, exclusively of their cases, as either “deserving” or “qualifying” for certain facilities or “upgraded rooms” within facilities, for having minor jobs within them, or for rebellious attitudes, is very controversial. In Oxford, the curfew is half the time of the Dover facilities; the staff in Oxford are “nice” and in Dover they treat the detainees like lethal criminals. The system is inhumane in its basis, isolating people from society, and discriminates against certain detainees.
M would earn a pound a day for doing work at the facility and, in Oxford, his final location, he started working as a mentor for newcomers. This is a great approach to integrate and make new asylum-seekers feel at ease. He told me how they had a 14 year-old Egyptian newcomer who was put in isolation unlawfully after his resistance to the system and so he vandalised it. Putting a 14 year-old boy in detention is illegal and the boy was within his rights to resist. After having received some consolation with his mentor, M, he was calmed down and met with two social workers. He now lives in a young persons’ home.
Due to the lengthy process for asylum claims and the fact that Britain’s detention facilities do not allow any interaction between detainees and the local community, unlike almost all other European asylum procedures, the isolation is the hardest punishment of all. MEMO spoke to Detention Action earlier this year and, as its focus group leader Ben Du Preez reported, people feel worse than prisoners as they count their days up, rather than down.
Now M is living precariously, after being released on bail, showing up for weekly, bi-weekly, monthly registrations without absconding. His claim for asylum has not been dealt with due to “confusion” about his identity; the British think he is Syrian but also Palestinian. The authorities in his first detention facility lost his identity card and he has not been able to get it back or replaced, so he is unable to prove his identity. After going to Dublin for a couple of months to re-claim asylum there without any luck, he returned and had his case dropped because, in the view of the authorities, he “absconded”. He was able to stay in the “NASS” (Home Office accommodation) until 2013, but lost his case, despite having both the Red Cross and Refugee Action backing him. He received a deportation order even though, without any identity card, he cannot be sent anywhere, but the British government is unwilling to grant him asylum or even a work permit. M has appealed against this order twice, but it is very hard to pursue such a case, let alone pay legal fees, when you have no work permit; the government’s austerity measures don’t help. Now he is depending on the kindness of a friend, in one room; he feels that there is little possibility of him being able to pursue his claim, despite it being a very strong case, to obtain the citizenship which was withdrawn decades ago by this very country.
The authorities and various aid and social workers cannot help him, and his papers have been lost in the system. The British government’s abandonment of the people of Palestine continues to this day, even on its own doorstep.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.