Pamela* had just had a shower and was still in her underwear, having applied moisturiser, when the immigration officers came into her room to remove her from the UK. She refused to be taken to the airport, as she still had an outstanding application for leave to remain in the UK, so the officers tried to remove her by force.
One female officer grabbed her head and neck, Pamela told us, pushing these down towards her chest, blocking her windpipe. ‘I was filled with fear and tried to get out of her grip,’ Pamela told us, ‘I kept telling her “I cannot breathe” but she continued to push my head towards my chest. Eventually I stopped trying to get out of her grip and fell to the floor’. Pamela was then handcuffed ‘as tightly as they possibly could’, so tight in fact that she lost the feeling in her hands and fingers.
The officers decided not to remove Pamela that day, escorting her instead to the Kingfisher Isolation Unit. It was deemed appropriate for 10 officers to corral her there. Pamela weighs about 7 stone and is about 5 foot tall. Despite its name, the Kingfisher Isolation Unit is no bucolic haven. It is where, at Yarl’s Wood IRC, the notorious women-only detention centre in Bedfordshire, detainees are locked in a prison within a prison, separated from friends, left alone with their demons.
Pamela is an asylum-seeker; she fears persecution in her home country in East Africa as a result of being a lesbian. Where she comes from, homosexuality is a crime and gay men and lesbians are subjected to discrimination, intimidation and acts of violence. Pamela is also a victim of abuse. She went as a teenager to an all-girls boarding school. There, she was ‘buddied’ up with three mentors, older girls who were supposed to help her settle into school. Instead, these girls would come into her dormitory in the middle of the night and sexually abuse her. ‘Whenever I tried to get them to stop, they would punish me by taking me outside and making me kneel on the gravel with my arms in the air. This caused long-lasting scarring to my knees and caused much pain.’
So why was Pamela being locked up in a small, dark, and cold cell, furnished only with a rusty toilet adjoining the bed? For ‘non-compliance’, she was told, vaguely.
Three months later Pamela found herself back in the isolation unit. Again, this segregation was completely unprovoked, and was apparently in ‘preparation for imminent removal directions…due to previous non-compliance’. The previous non-compliance was ‘removing her clothing and covering herself with oil’. This is otherwise known as moisturising after a shower.
The damaging effects of such isolation, described by Dickens as a ‘secret punishment’, are well established. The NGO Medical Justice found that segregation leads to ‘increased rates of anxiety, social withdrawal, perceptual disorders, hallucinations and suicidal thoughts after relatively short periods’. Incarcerated on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela was subjected to hard labour and daily humiliation, but he found his solitary confinement to be the ‘most forbidding’ aspect of prison life. ‘There is no end and no beginning’, Mandela wrote, ‘there is only one’s mind, which can begin to play tricks. Was that a dream or did it really happen? One begins to question everything.’ (The Long Walk to Freedom).
Pamela is challenging the legality of the Home Office policy and practice relating to segregation in detention in the High Court, arguing that a lack of guidance has resulted in the Home Office and detention centre staff using segregation in a draconian and arbitrary way. The first to make this challenge, Pamela was not going to simply stand back and let others go through the same ordeal. As she puts it:
‘Detention breaks one’s spirit, amplifies vulnerability and it takes insurmountable courage to have the hope and strength to keep going in a system that appears purposely designed to subjugate and keep one detained at all costs. Detention is a very isolating experience and staff appear to assume that if a detainee walks around the centre and talks to other people, they will be ok. However, nothing is ok about being held against your will and being treated like a criminal when you have committed no crime.’
Pamela was finally released from detention but she is still waiting to be granted asylum.
*This is not her real name. She wanted to share her story but to remain anonymous.
Patrick Page, the author, joined Duncan Lewis as a caseworker in the Public Law department at Duncan Lewis' Harrow office. He specialises in immigration and asylum law and has been accredited as Level 2 Accredited Immigration caseworker.
Duncan Lewis Immigration Department
Duncan Lewis' Immigration team holds exclusive legal aid contracts to represent vulnerable clients/ victim of torture or trafficking in immigration detention related matters; detained asylum casework and unaccompanied asylum seeking children. The department holds a niche practice representing judicial review immigration claimant cases before the High Court with a significant practice in Upper Tribunal and Court of Appeal appellant cases, unlawful immigration detention cases with high net claims for damages and challenging immigration removal cases; in particular, Dublin II third country removal cases. Duncan Lewis has lodged more immigration judicial review proceedings in 2016 than any other immigration legal team in the UK.