Poor healthcare, detainees abused by the guards and a system that “breaks your heart” are part of the things this Cameroonian woman lived while being detained in the UK. “It’s people who have been tortured, who are gang raped in their countries”, she explains.
Marcos Ortiz F.
“The staff at the health centres are not trained. There was one time when a lady confronted the health centre nurses and they told her openly that they were not trained.”
Becky, a 37-year-old Cameroonian woman detained twice in 2013 and 2014 in Yarl’s Wood during a period of one year, has the worst impression of healthcare inside detention centres.
She argues, for example, on the effect some of the generic drugs have on some of the detainees. “There was a woman who started bleeding continuously, collapsed and the officers ignored her, said she was pretending she had trouble to walk to the health centre. Half way she fell on a chair and collapsed. We went to help her, but she couldn’t respond to any of us. We told the officers what was going on. We said we couldn’t leave somebody to die again.”
“We rang the ambulance, the ambulance people drove and came, but the guards turned it away. They told them that the situation was under control, but nobody cared”.
“They discovered that people had rung the ambulance and were interested to know who had done that. Once you speak out, once you are active, they have a method of silencing you down. Either they drag you in the prison (Kinfisher) in the detention centre or they bring guards to warn you, so the next day they assigned two guards to come to each of our rooms and they warned us. They said calling the ambulance was criminal offense.”
“So you face in that atmosphere where there is bullying allowed, where there is racism, where there is sexism. There were detention officers who took advantage of the women who were desperate.”
“In 2013 there were mostly male officers. They would go into women’s rooms without knocking and some of those women were dressing or were having a bath or a shower. These officers were so excited to describe how their breasts were.”
During that time a lot of women were abused sexually, because there were also in the detention centre corners where there were no cameras. So officers took advantage to take these women around those corners to abuse them. We had cases where officers came to us to talk, they had their girlfriends who were detainees. During that time one officer was sacked because he was trying to also expose those officers who were trying to abuse women.”
“You discover that half of the women or men in detention are people running away from wars from their countries, people who have been tortured, gang raped, who have faced prison or rejection from their society and just to feel that at last they are safe in the UK.”
Did you work while you were detained?
In the detention centre they employ a lot of women to work in the kitchen and other areas. They are paid £1 an hour. That means that they were not employing people from outside, so the detainees were doing their job.
I used to do something called the welcoming. My aim was not the money but to be able to speak out in the meetings. They’d call you to the table to speak to the head of Serco and some of the leaders. So I thought that was an opportunity for me to speak out what was happening.
The first time you spent 5 months inside. How did you manage to get out?
I got out when I succeeded in my appeal. As long as I tried to put in anything they would come with a ticket. Some of the times I used the MP to stop the flights, some of the times because I had the domestic violence case where I reported rape so the police had to do the investigations, so I had to stop some of the flights insisting that I had an interview with the police following the rape case. But when I put in the case that’s when I asked for bail application and I was able to be released during that time.
How long did you stay outside?
I stayed for almost 2 to 3 months. Then I was re-detained. I had to start signing-on. The second time I went to sign-on they told me in the police centre that the Home Office had asked them to detain me. It was a shock to me. They took me to Yarl’s Wood, again. But before that I spent almost three days in the police cell.
Did you meet people who had been detained for long periods of time?
Yes. I think that is what broke my heart. I was really sad because I saw a lot of women that I had met the first time I was detained, they still hadn’t been out. I met a woman who was there for more than two years.
It was so difficult the second time, because I knew how wicked, evil and cruel the system was. Their aim is not to allow people to stay in the UK, to deliberately get them out as quick as they can.
Did you see any families with children in Yarl’s Wood?
No, I didn’t see children, but I saw a family with young people, in their twenties. One thing that shocked me was women who were pregnant. I was worried why pregnant women were inside.
I think those are things that made you feel their policy is just trying to make sure that families are divided. There were women who were deported and their children were kept in the UK. They actually deliberately took the ladies into detention centres, took their children into care and then deported these women. There were cases where they would deport the husband and allow the wife to be in the UK. There were mostly Africans, Asians and women from the Caribbean in Yarl’s Wood.
Can you live a normal life after your final release?
It depends on what a normal life is. It’s so hard when you get released, because everybody expects that you should be happy and you should get on with your normal life, but that is when it becomes worse.
Half of the time is like you are pretending to catch up with a lot of things, but you can’t because when I was released that is when I found out that I was mentally really affected.
I couldn’t really follow the same pace everybody was going through. I had to stay in silence, because I don’t want people to identify the way I’m behaving, the way I look at things. You go anywhere you can’t speak up because you feel people are going to look down on you and nobody will respect you.
Have you met other women who have been in detention who feel something similar?
Yes. I think there is depression. Women are often worst off and are struggling. You want to express your emotions, sometimes you are caught up in the flashbacks of the detention centre, the dreams of them coming to get you with handcuffs. My idea of somebody being handcuffed was someone’s who has stolen something, a criminal. To be detained at the airport and handcuffed after working and paying taxes and the next day I’m treated like somebody who is an outcast really has killed my spirit.
It has made me see they don’t really appreciate immigrants. That is really destroying because you don’t really want to change as a human being, but the system breaks your heart. It makes you tend to something else that you don’t want to. Again, thank God there is All African Women Group (AAWG) at Crossroads, which is a group of asylum seekers, refugees and women with immigration issues living in the UK, who come together once every two weeks and they collectively work on their cases using the Self-help guide book. They also campaign for their rights.
Yes, of course. I am. I’m proud of myself because I wish everybody could fight like this. I’ve been able to connect with a lot of women that have also put a lot of effort and power to fight like me at the AAWG with the help of WAR.
I’ve met women who cannot fight, who we’ve been able to say come on, get up, let’s go. That’s where you see the energy, and that’s when you see that there is still hope. We can’t accept everything that is done to us. We cannot accept that we are cockroaches, as they describe us. Because we have contributed to this economy, we have brought our skills to this place, we have done things.
What gets me excited is when a case is won it helps other cases.