In September 2015 three-year-old Alan Kurdi was photographed lying face down on a beach wearing a bright red t-shirt and blue shorts. The young Syrian boy had been washed ashore close to the fashionable Turkish resort town of Bodrum after his family attempted to reach the Greek island of Kos.
The picture was seen by 20 million people in the space of 12 hours, placing the Syrian refugee issue firmly in the spotlight. Pictures like this helped people understand the nature of what it is like to be a refugee, says Anna Pincus who has supported those held in immigration detention centres for ten years:
People understood it very viscerally from those images. The image of Alan Kurdi brought a huge public outpouring of awareness and understanding in a way that we haven’t really seen for many years in the UK.
Around that time a less positive narrative was also being circulated by the press. Then British Prime Minister David Cameron referred to refugees as a “swarm”, recalls Pincus; this, along with the rising numbers of deaths in the Mediterranean made it hard for people to relate to the real people behind the figures.
To counter this reality Pincus and others who work for the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group helped found the outreach project Refugee Tales which organises walks across the UK in solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers.
It also paired well-known writers such as Mariana Warner and Kamila Shamsie with refugees who wanted to share their experiences but didn’t necessarily have the means to do so themselves.
Their stories have been published in “Refugee Tales II” an anthology published by Comma Press that features an epidemiologist who is accused of apostasy, a 12-year-old boy who is arrested by army officers and never seen again, a student from Daraa, Syria, who is active in the protest movement and Salim, an asylum seeker from Eritrea who is sold into slavery in Libya.
Salim makes it to the UK where he questions the ethics behind the Home Office’s decision to send him back to Italy: “I cannot see the difference between Eritrea and Europe,” he says. “I’m not free in any of those places.”
His frustration with the UK system is shared later in the book when Father Damian tells the story of a man who has worked at a health food shop in Kentish Town, north London, for 14 years. After 30 years in the UK, having fled violence and civil unrest in former Yugoslavia, he is taken away in the middle of the night and told he will be sent back home.
These two stories go to the core of what is essentially the purpose of “Refugee Tales II” – drawing attention to what happens to asylum seekers once they arrive in the UK, an issue that has been lost amidst a whirlwind of stories which tend to focus on the perilous boat journey across the Mediterranean.
People may perceive that once people arrive in the UK that they seek sanctuary but actually the reality of what happens is that it can take decades for people’s claims to be processed
says Pincus, “and that one of the terrible realities of that processing is that people can find themselves experiencing indefinite immigration detention.”
The UK is the only country in Europe that indefinitely detains people seeking asylum. In 2015, 32,446 people entered detention in the UK – according to the Home Office it costs £637 a week to detain an individual which means that if they are detained for one year this figure tops £33,000.
As it is the system doesn’t screen out asylum seekers who are too vulnerable to cope with detention which means people with a history of trauma – sexual violence, human trafficking and torture for example – are also held. For all of these being kept in the dark, this time is excruciating.
“Being kept in those circumstances with the uncertainty of the length of time that they’re going to be held for, that alone has terrible mental consequences and we see people deteriorating and experiencing post-traumatic stress,” explains Pincus.
As immigration removal centres are not built to hold people for long periods of time, she adds, there aren’t the same opportunities for work and education that exist in prisons across the UK.
Individuals in immigration detention haven’t committed a crime, haven’t been brought before a court and yet are held in prison-like circumstances.
As a result there is a huge stigma around immigration detention and many people don’t want their communities or families to know where they are and what happened to them so they often make up a story about why they are absent.
An all-party parliamentary group who have researched immigration detention concluded that it was “expensive, inefficient and a waste of human life”. In fact all parties have indicated in their manifesto that they would like to see an end to indefinite detention, says Pincus – apart from the Conservatives.
In 2012 then Home Secretary Theresa May put forward her vision for immigration in the UK: “The aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal immigration.”
In May 2016 she implemented this vision with the release of the government’s new Immigration Bill that curtails the right to appeal, makes it difficult for asylum seekers to find accommodation and gives immigration officers the power to seize documents.
The political climate in the US is just as unsavoury. Donald Trump’s recent travel ban restricts people from certain Muslim-majority countries entering the US; in the aftermath of this bill the number of people being arbitrarily detained has risen.
Pincus says that whilst there isn’t necessarily a direct link between arbitrary detention in the US and in the UK, if indefinite detention is accepted “it is a negative indicator of the health of the society with regard to human rights”.
“It’s a matter of concern that detention is increasing in the USA and the fact that the criteria are so illogical and xenophobic is not acceptable,” she adds. “The outrage against the Muslim ban expressed by mass demonstrations in the USA should have been a wakeup call to those in the UK who accept indefinite detention to look at what is happening in the UK and call for change here.”
“Refugee Tales II” provides a space in which the people affected by such policies can share their stories and in turn helps readers to have more of a connection with them. As for the people assisting all of this, it can be tough but ultimately there is hope.
“There’s very little you can do to change their situation,” says Pincus, commenting on how she personally processes the hundreds of heart-rending stories she has heard over the years. “You’re walking alongside, you’re bearing witness, but you aren’t ultimately able to change the situation for the person who will be deported or who may be suffering psychologically.”
“There are definitely times when the work we do is overwhelming on a personal level,” she continues. “But visiting people in detention it’s actually incredible to witness how people deal with the most difficult times in their life. And that is something quite inspiring to witness.”