#RefugeeWeek: surviving indefinite detention


One of the central themes of #RefugeeWeek this year is a focus on the impacts of separation caused by the government’s practice of indefinite detention. Far-removed from the general public and cut off from family, friends and communities, the psychological and emotional violence of this separation serves to dehumanise, stripping individuals of their own self-identifiable markers, reducing people to numbers. 

Speaking to this, Jose from Freed Voices reflected on the different cultural mementos, memories and expressions he carried throughout his detention (for better and worse), which subsequently checked and framed his experience of indefinite incarceration in the UK.

The Song: Clandestino by Manu Chao 

This song was part of the soundtrack of my whole journey through detention. Right from when the van took me from the police station to Campsfield IRC, this song came to my mind. And it kept coming back to me throughout my four months in detention. Even when I was released, finally free, on the train home to London, the song came back to me again. I think that song is me. It is many South Americans. It is many migrants in this country.

I should say, it is not a song that gave me hope. It is actually a very depressing song. It would come to me in the dark moments in detention. It could be when I was queuing for food, or asking for seventh time for my pills for my knees, or asking to be moved rooms because the guy next to me is aggressive. Basically, every time they made me feel less than a human, that song came to me. It talks about the struggle you have in life when you are hidden, like when you are a secret under the table. It talks about detention, basically.

The copy of the book I had in detention.

The Book: The Fear of Freedom by Erich Fromm

I only got hold of ‘The Fear of Freedom’ by Erich Fromm towards the end of my detention. It is a brilliant analysis of the concept of freedom in the modern world. I remember reading many important lines whilst I was detained but especially one that said something like; ‘if you just obey you are a slave. But if you just disobey, you are a rebel, not a revolutionary.’ This was incredibly important for me in detention. You’d watch people kicking off, going mad because of their situation, and of course, the Home Office would then use this against them. It taught me that it is important to know your rights but just as important is to know how to express and exercise them. It gave me the direction to properly research and fight my case.

The book also shows that a whole country can follow, or accept, an initiative or a programme through an absconding of their own responsibility. Indefinite detention is the perfect example of this – a policy that has become accepted but that benefits no-one. The book really shows us how scared many of us are to be free. In this sense, Fromm was crucial to getting me to where I am now – I don’t have to be afraid to be free; I have rights; I have a voice. It persuaded me I had to use it and speak out about detention.

My father’s poem.

The Poem: ‘The Quietest Day’ by Jesus

For my birthday in detention I received a letter from my mother, together with a poem my father wrote a few months before he died. The poem was on a kind of ceremonial bookmark and alongside it was a photo of him in his garden. I had never read the poem before. I took it very literally – as if he was speaking directly to me. It is really just about an old man telling a young person that life is not about the amount of money you have, or materials you’ve gathered…It is about the importance of creating good memories. Reading that from within detention, when you feel like you’re just rotting away, was sometimes very, very hard. All the feelings in that place are magnified, so it was very emotional for me. But sometimes I would read it and it gave me a lot of strength. I prefer to turn the experience – the memories I have of detention – into something stronger. And that is why I identify as an expert on the issue and not a victim of it.

The Film: ‘The Experimenter’ 

I watched this film in my room in detention with Adam, my cell-mate. It’s about Milgram, the psychologist, who wanted to explore why the Nazis were prepared to kill innocent human beings. Neither me nor Adam had heard of Milgram or knew about this film. Milgram’s experiment showed that many Nazis were prepared to commit these horrible acts because they were just ‘following orders’. When the film finished, me and Adam started a debate. He said the Nazis were brainwashed and that’s why they did what they did. I said, but the experiment was with people that weren’t brainwashed, the issue was that they were just responding to authority. And that felt like the answer to how the detention guards slept well at the end of the day, while we were still here being mentally tortured: they were just following orders. It also made me think the issue is not so much with the people carrying out the policy – it is the policy itself.


The chessboard me and Adam used in detention.

The Activity: Chess

I used to play chess in my cell with Adam every night. When you are surrounded by such uncertainty and insecurity, chess has some direction to it. Usually when you play chess you want to win. But when we played it was more about control – of your pieces, of your life. The chess board gave us a bit of structure when we didn’t have any. No time-limit, no direction.

It was very difficult for me when Adam left. I played a few times afterwards with other people but it was different. We supported eachother a lot when we were inside. He called me every day after he was released. And we still speak a lot now since I am out. I went to his wedding. I met his wife and boy. I still have the chessboard we used play on. It’s a big part of our relationship. It is a big part of how I survived indefinite detention.

Find out how you can get involved in the fight to end indefinite detention in the UK, here.