She talks nervously and rapidly about her life at Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire where she has been since December 2010.
With bulging blood shot eyes due to lack of sleep she describes her experiences of years of abuse in Nigeria, her difficulties in seeking asylum and her incarceration in the UK.
Poppy Mills is 38 years old, born in Ghana but brought up in Nigeria.
Having led a tragic life being beaten and raped for 32 years until she fled Nigeria for England in 2005, it is difficult to find any periods of peace within her life story.
Taken by her mother from Ghana to Nigeria at 5 years old, Poppy was abandoned to a man and his son. Her mother disappeared never to be seen again. Poppy believed that the man she was left with was her father until she was 18 years old.
The “father” was a politician in the PDP (People’s Democratic Party) and he regularly exercised his power by raping and beating her. His son would also rape her and she was once involved in a gang rape involving the son’s group of friends.
A deeply disturbing life story was conveyed speedily, her narrative tempo accentuating her numbness.
She gave birth to a son, but was not sure who the father of the child was. The man she believed to be her father took her at 18 years old to get circumcised, after which she discovered he was not her father all along.
Poppy fled to the local church and was assisted by the priest there who arranged for her documents to leave the country for a safer place. She left for England and stayed with a friend of the priest in Woolwich.
Poppy explains that she was unaware that she had to apply for asylum upon arrival at the airport in the UK. She explains that she arrived disorientated and traumatized. She was only informed of these processes when she did actually apply for asylum in 2007 after being arrested for applying for a job with a forged German passport.
The Home Office later declared that they could not find her claim. Such administrative negligence appears to be occurring regularly, arbitrarily and at the discretion of those in positions of power. She has had to reapply for asylum and endure the entire process three times up to now.
In December 2010 Poppy was transferred directly from prison to the Yarl’s Wood detention centre for overstaying her visa. She was deeply shocked when officers entered her cell prior to her release and informed her of her transferral.
Upon entering Yarl’s Wood all electronic devices were confiscated, including my tape recorder. The staff appeared polite and cheerful when dealing with the visitors that were being ushered through the security rooms one by one before entering the visiting area.
The large open space for visitors was scattered with detainees seated on chairs awaiting their visitors. I witnessed prolonged hugs, even towards myself, a first time visitor.
Since she arrived at Yarl’s Wood Poppy has witnessed a friend of hers being beaten up when refusing to be deported due to fear for her life. Her friend from Zimbabwe was beaten up by 4 officers while in King Fisher, the isolation unit.
She was vomiting blood upon her return to the main unit and the officers told everyone that she had tuberculosis. But Poppy confirms “it was a result of the beating.” She then goes on to say that “no one says anything to the managers…. the staff are always right according to the authorities.” A statement from the Home Office explained that “We do not routinely separate detainees prior to their return. However, if they seek to become violent, we will hold them away from other detainees in order to minimise the level of disruption to the centre and for the safety of other detainees.”
“To make matters worse, I also suffer from panic attacks,” she says. Recently Poppy informed her fellow inmates not to tell the officers if she has a panic attack. Previously she was taken to an isolation unit during one of her attacks where it had a detrimental effect on her. The loneliness exacerbated her condition. She believes that the staff has little sympathy towards her.
An officer at Yarl’s Wood has impregnated one of the detainees. “She is 7 or 8 months pregnant now. The other officers are hiding it,” she mentions quietly “…the officer was suspended but he is still getting paid.” A spokesperson from Serco did state that
“We can confirm that a member of staff at Yarl’s Wood has been suspended pending the outcome of an internal disciplinary investigation.”
“The food is bad and the mental torture is hard in here,” but when Poppy describes her prayer groups her face lights up, she is fuelled with energy. She says “so many people here survive with prayer, it gives me strength.” She describes with frustration how the officers enter her room without knocking and often disturb her peaceful prayer meetings. “Darkness cannot stand the light” Poppy concludes. A Serco spokesperson stated that “We respect the faith needs of all our residents. At Yarl’s Wood, residents have full access to multiple prayer rooms and are able to host meetings in their rooms if this does not disturb others.” But she feels the centre’s staff members are intolerant of her religion and tend to tell her prayer group to “keep the noise down” while they do not interrupt them when they are chatting at other times or playing music.
Her asylum case has not been looked in to yet. There is a deportation order upon her but she has no documentation to prove where she is from at the moment. She has been refused asylum twice and is dismayed with the incompetency of the lawyers that the Home Office has supplied her with. She says that the refusal of her case was due to the lawyers and that they “don’t really care too much for the people they are supposed to be protecting.”
The boundaries of conduct in Yarl’s Wood are blurred and need greater limits. The human rights and accountability issues at play are questionable and alarming. A careless attitude needs to be replaced with more empathy of the individual. The government may create the conceptual language of migrants and asylum seekers as negative groups of similar people that we need to create barriers towards, using words such as “floods and waves” of people, but it is important to remember that they are all individuals with their own stories in dire need of empathy.
On Thursday June 2nd Poppy Mills was deported from the UK to Nigeria after documentation proving her identity was produced. Despite the fear she felt for her life and there being multiple threats upon her life from the “father’s” Political Leader’s network in Nigeria.
She did manage to leave the airport at Lagos which is where she was more likely to be threatened. A telephone call was made to her friend at Yarl’s Wood upon her arrival and exit from Lagos airport. This was a relief.