This interview was conducted with our Advocacy Co-ordinator, Danae Psilla, for ‘Unlocking Detention‘, as part of their week visiting Colnbrook.
Can you remember the first time you visited Colnbrook? What were your hopes/fears/assumptions?
I first visited Colnbrook 5 years ago, when I was volunteering at one of Detention Action’s workshops. What struck me most back then, was the number of high security doors we came across; the electric gates, the weird-shaped keys, the big fat locks on every door, and the dense barbed wire that sat on the thick tall walls surrounding Colnbrook. I could not understand why these men were deemed so dangerous so as to justify the level of security.
I returned to Colnbrook as a Detention Action staff member 5 months ago. This time it was the interior spaces that drew my attention. When entering Colnbrook, I was greeted by jolly photographs on the walls of healthy looking men engaging in numerous activities; lifting weights at the gym, cooking in the kitchen, reading in the library. In the visiting area, paintings of the animal kingdom are decorating the walls, and gentle announcements on billboards remind both visitors and detainees how to behave themselves. I was confused by these evident efforts to normalise what is essentially still quite a violent space, and I wondered if the men detained here have ever notice them. When your right to liberty is so abruptly taken away, can you see colours, smell, taste, understand the space that indefinitely confines you in the same way that we who visit these spaces do?
What was the first thing that struck you about Colnbrook – ie. something maybe you were not expecting?
What struck me was what strikes most detainees too, I think.
Detainees often bring it up when I talk to them – that the majority of the detention centre staff are of immigrant background. There is a level of tragic irony for people in detention. You’re picked out from a community because do not satisfy the requirements that would allow you to continue being its member, confined in a centre while someone decides on your fate, and ‘guarded’ by people who are just like you.
Was is it like having to collaborate with the staff members in Colnbrook?
We tend to have positive working relationships with staff members in Colnbrook. It can really make a huge difference when you come across someone working there who is genuinely nice and who does not want to set yet another wall between us, as well as between staff members and people in detention.
We recently visited the healthcare unit in Colnbrook where there are about 6 rooms for detainees with physical as well as mental health problems. A female staff member greeted us with a smile on her face, despite the evident fatigue hiding behind that smile at 6 o’clock in the evening. We ended up chatting for a long time to one middle-aged man who had been held in healthcare for several months. He described how his days and nights in detention are long, at times never ending, and that most days there is no reason for him to get out of bed. Yet, when he hears the voice of this particular staff member – trying to get people out of bed for breakfast – he knows his day will be a good one, or at least that it will not be a terrible one. He could not understand why all the other staff members couldn’t be like her: kind, calm, polite and caring towards all the people held there.
From your perspective, what do you think is the main thing that gets people through places like Colnbrook – what enables them to survive? What kind of coping mechanisms have you seen different people employ?
Knowing that others have made it through, and knowing that there organisations, like Detention Action, who are aware of what people in immigration detention are going through and are fighting for them. A sense of solidarity is very important.
You often see people in detention gain that extra strength when they realise there is someone else that is struggling alongside them, and that this person could do with a bit of support, or direction, or company. It’s amazing to see the number of people who act as interpreters, they listen to each other’s stories, they act as each other’s mediator. There’s a whole underground workforce of counsellors in places like Colnbrook, just made up of the people detained there. Of course it shouldn’t be like this but they give one another a purpose, a sense of agency, that was in part snatched away from them when they were put in detention in the first place.
What do you think are the long-term impacts on those individuals you’ve working with who have been detained in Colnbrook?
I have seen immigration detention scar people. I know people who chose to return to a country they had never known before, where their life would potentially be in danger rather than to remain indefinitely confined in a detention centre in the UK. Unlike serving a sentence in prison, the punitive character of detention is very hard justify and to rationalise to those that experience it. I have seen spirits being broken, slowly and tacitly. And I have seen men go numb, and men who pause growing.
As someone with a background in working with migrants across Europe, but specifically in Cyprus, are there any outstanding differences in our respective countries’ approach to detention as a means of immigration control?
Unfortunately, there are no great differences in the way Cyprus and the UK use detention as a means of immigration control. In a country of the size of Cyprus however, small tweaks to the way policies and regulations are implemented can actually bring about positive change in a short amount of time. Currently in Cyprus, there are very few asylum seekers left in immigration detention centres after a decision was taken in late 2014 that stated that people who had come to the country with an intention to apply for asylum, should not be detained even if they had entered illegally or been arrested for irregular stay. It is still the case however, that people who cannot be returned to their country of origin, may spend months in Cypriot immigration detention centres before the lawfulness of their detention can be challenged – after 18 months. If their challenge is successful, they are released only to be re-detained some months later as the law currently in place makes it extremely difficult for migrants to regularize their stay in the country. Just like the UK, there is no automatic review of the lawfulness of detention in Cyprus.
One would hope that a small country like Cyprus, where the current number of people in immigration detention facilities does not exceed more than a couple of hundred, could have been pioneers of alternatives to detention, whose advantages for both the state and the individual have already been well-proved by other EU states that have been implementing them for several years now.
Does working with people in detention make you feel differently about your own status as a migrant in the UK? Do you find people respond to your differently as a migrant yourself?
My work with people in detention definitely reinforces the way I come to understand the numerous injustices that characterize the current global immigration system – a system set in place to satisfy the very needs and wants of the countries that have set it up. I was born only 70 nautical miles away from Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. The fact that I have been able to travel freely to the UK, study here, get a job here and make this country my home simply because I happened to be born in a country which is on the ‘right’ place on the map, can at times be baffling and frustrating. People in detention would not usually ask most of us working at Detention Action with a non-British accent where we are from, either because there are many of us here, or simply because to them this is ok. A few people ask however, out of genuine human curiosity, and no matter how many times this question was posed to me, I always find myself feeling awkwardly strange and not knowing for a few seconds how to justify – where there is no need to – the fact that my experiences as a migrant in the UK are utterly different to theirs. Should I be feeling ‘lucky’ to be allowed to stay here while not even belonging to any of the ‘great’ nations that have created the rules of the game? Still, the rules of this game seem to changing pretty quickly it seems, so I might not be one of the lucky ones for too long anyway.