Veronica Camacho* is a woman who, like many others, was arrested in the middle of the street and taken to several detention centres in the UK. She spent more than three months in one of them and says she was mistreated. Fortunately, she managed to get out of “hell”, as she called it. This happened a long time ago but the memory is still with her.
Virginia Moreno Molina
Veronica, a 42-year-old woman from Guatemala, arrived in London alone with her ex-husband’s child in Spain. She studied business administration in her home country, but poverty and unemployment forced her to migrate in the hopes of earning a living elsewhere.
After spending some time in Spain, she decided to try her luck in the British capital. However, after three years dealing with discrimination in her cleaning job, she was approached on the street by two policemen, an event that changed her future forever.
She has a serious disease that affects most of her body, making this whole experience even more difficult than it already was. Nevertheless, thanks to her partner and a great friend who was always supportive, Veronica managed to hire a private attorney, and was “temporarily” freed, until her status was legalised.
“Trampled” at work
Like most immigrants, Veronica’s first job was as a cleaner for a company. A contact got her the job, but from the moment she started working there she experienced the abuse of her supervisor’s power.
“We so-called ‘illegal’ immigrants are discriminated against the most because we do not have papers, nor are we protected by the law,” says Veronica. She also claims to have worked for free on more than one occasion, just to keep her job.
She spent a year as a cleaner, and, much like other cleaners she knows, she often worked for minimum wage.
“I complained to the supervisor, but they are all in cahoots, like the Mafia. The manager lied and it all went against us,” she says.
When she tried discussing the issue with her boss, she was dismissed on the excuse that she did not have the proper documentation.
Based on her experience in this sector, she says “supervisors look to employ illegal immigrants so they can pay them less and exploit them more”. She adds that “the more I cleaned, the more work they gave me.”
Hell wears black
“I didn’t even notice it happening. I was walking home and suddenly two police officers dressed in black stopped me,” said Veronica. That first brush with the law happened at 10am and, after asking to see her bus ticket, she had to wait more than two hours while they inspected it, with no explanation.
Finally, they asked to see her purse. Then the questions began: “What is your name?”; “What are you doing here?”; “Where do you live?” Unfortunately, Veronica speoke almost no English, so her responses were somewhat limited, and just enough to answer the question.
Shortly afterwards, two other police officers arrived and asked her the same questions. She gave the same answers and asked to make a call, but her request was refused and her personal items were confiscated.
Escorted by an officer on either side as well as one holding her from behind, Veronica was taken to a police station. “I was treated like a thief,” she says angrily. At that time, she had no idea what was still to come.
“I didn’t say anything. They took away my bracelets, my rings, my belt and my shoes,” says Veronica.
A little later, she was taken to a cell with an iron bed and a toilet, although “there was no paper, and no blanket to cover myself.”
She could not sleep that first night, and began to feel pain throughout her body. This was because Veronica had a disease that, if left untreated, causes severe damage throughout the body, reducing mobility.
The flight back home
After two nights in the police station, she was transported on a Wednesday night to a temporary detention centre, where her first instruction was “not to cry”. She could not communicate with anyone outside the centre until the Friday, when she was able to borrow a mobile from a friend in the centre. Because of her condition, she was also given pills, although she was not told what they were exactly.
That same afternoon she was transferred back to Yarl’s Wood, in Bedfordshire, and her first stop was to see the doctor.
“I explained what happened through the help of an interpreter, and I showed her the pills I had been given. I said I didn’t know what they were,” Veronica says.
The doctor called her “a liar, and told me to explain what the drugs were. But I had no idea what they were, because the other centre hadn’t told me.”
Nevertheless, the doctor insisted she was lying and finally said, “Is this really how you want to heal yourself?”
The situation got increasingly worse and on Monday, three days after she arrived at the detention centre, she was escorted out the door and onto a plane to be deported back to Guatemala.
Abuse, the order of the day
After taking her to a hospital for a check-up, she was once again locked away in a temporary detention centre, before being moved back to the centre where she had first been taken. Once there, several days passed with no improvement to her condition. She spent the days locked in a room.
“The girls who had been helping me there told me I should get a lawyer,” says Veronica. She added, “They cried for me, and complained to the officers, but it was no use.”
Although she could not speak in English with other detainees, she communicated with them through sign. Her health was deteriorating by the day, but no one paid her the slightest bit of attention.
“Some officers told me that there was nothing wrong with me, and shouted at me to move faster, even though they knew I couldn’t,” she said resentfully.
“The doctors mistreated us, and wouldn’t let the other girls speak for me in English. And even though it was my turn to see the doctor, I was made to wait outside while everyone else in the detention centre went ahead of me.”
A number and freedom
She said that many detainees in these detention centres worked for less than a pound an hour. She said that the “jobs” were diverse: cleaning, in the kitchen or acting as a tour guide of the centre for new detainees.
“Even if you did’t work, you earned 50 pence each day you were in”, Veronica recalled. Due to her health situation, she couldn’t work at all, although her friends worked in the kitchen.
“They had machines where you could see how much money you had saved; you typed your number in and it showed you how much money you had”, Veronica explained.
Finally, with the help of some contacts on the outside, as well as a great friend who was very supportive and given her plenty of advice, she was temporarily freed from the detention centre, while she tried to obtain the appropriate paperwork.
Veronica Camacho*: Names and personal details have been changed at the request of the interviewer, in order to prevent reprisals or further problems.