‘I prefer to be killed here than go back to my own country’

October 21, 2004

Written by Harmit Athwal

A meeting at the House of Commons on 19 October saw the launch of a report on women’s experience of immigration detention in the UK.

The report by the Bail for Immigration Detainees project and Asylum Aid’s Refugee Women’s Resource Project examines the experience of thirteen women asylum seekers, the majority from Africa, who were detained for varying lengths of time. It found that all the women suffered from ‘fear, uncertainty and a profound sense of injustice and bewilderment’.

Detailing the experiences of the women – from why they sought asylum in the UK, their experiences at home of rape, torture and disappearances to their asylum interviews, arrest and subsequent detention – it makes for harrowing reading. For the women are fearful of the future, especially because they have restricted access to legal representation. This fear affects their mental and physical well-being and then the well-being of the children. For the women are often the only carers.

At the House of Commons meeting a number of women, gave moving testimonies of their experiences in detention, which brought many in the audience to tears. For example when E from Congo Brazzaville asked ‘what did I do wrong to be put in detention… I came here to ask for protection… they tortured me psychologically – I felt like I was dying… I prefer to be killed here than go back to my own country’.

The detention of asylum seekers is being used not only for ‘newcomers’ but also people who have been in the UK for a number of years. For example, a woman who had lived here six years was arrested at her home by police and immigration officials who took her to Dungavel removal centre in Scotland. Another was arrested and detained by police after travelling in the car of someone else who was arrested (the other person was later released). But she was taken from a police station to Yarl’s Wood. Another woman was arrested and detained despite making plans to return to her country under the assisted voluntary returns.

Testimonies from the report
  • ‘Two of my uncles were shot dead the day we left [my country]. One of my brothers disappeared, he was shot in the leg. My mother was put in prison and my two sisters were raped. Two of my sons are in Tchad at the moment, with the Red Cross. All my family has been dispersed. Until today I don’t know where my husband is.’
  • ‘It was very scary because they put me in a police cell for two nights. It was prison and I thought “oh my God“, I couldn’t believe I was in prison in another country.’
  • ‘Why did they put me in detention? … I spent six years here, if they didn’t want me to stay here, they should have told me immediately. I have a family here, my children speak English.’
  • ‘My children started to cry, they said to them “shut up“. All day long my children didn’t get anything to eat, just the thought of it gives me pain. My baby, they didn’t even give me any nappies for my baby, he peed on my lap, they didn’t even give me milk.’
  • ‘One day they came and they took me away. I was at a friend’s house and they were looking for him. They checked my papers when I was there and they took me away. I had nothing, just the clothes I was wearing, my coat and my mobile phone. I was in shock. I was pregnant.’
  • ‘In Oakington I did not know anything about release/bail procedure. I did not know anyone there. Only I knew about right for someone to have a solicitor from the American movies.’
  • ‘I started getting used to it [being in detention] and I have to accept it. I did try and fight with immigration but nothing worked. After two weeks of detention, they asked me for two sureties of £4,000 [CIO bail], but I didn’t have money to pay. So I was just in detention, staying and praying.’
  • ‘On the X of December, I received another removal letter. After all this suffering. Why? I was crying… I took a headscarf and I tried to hurt me, I just wanted to die that day. They took the headscarf from me and took me to the security area using force. They locked me during the night and drugged me with three tablets to get me to sleep.’
  • ‘At Oakington a four month pregnant lady from Jamaica was bleeding for a week but they didn’t take any action. Just when she couldn’t walk anymore, all the black women went to the Immigration Officers’ office and told them that if they didn’t do anything, they will do something like going on strike. They took her the same evening, I don’t know where.’
Key recommendations in the report

The report makes a number of recommendations including:

  • Asylum seekers should not be detained
  • Genuine alternatives to detention be actively considered and employed
  • The detention of children under 18 be prohibited by statute
  • The detention of the mentally ill, those with serious medical conditions, those who have been tortured, and pregnant women, be prohibited by statute
  • A statutory maximum length of detention be introduced
  • Quality, publicly-funded legal representation be provided to all detainees
  • Statutory provision be made for all those who are detained under the Immigration Acts to be brought promptly and automatically before a court for an independent review of their detention. If refused, further reviews of this nature should take place at regular intervals
  • The bail mechanism be changed to give Adjudicators jurisdiction to consider the lawfulness of detention, and if lawful, the necessity of detention in the particular circumstances of the case
  • The planned extension of the detention capacity be halted
  • Independent monitoring mechanisms be established to consider the legal and human rights implications of the forcible removal of people whose asylum claims have been refused.

Related links

Full text of the ‘They took me away’: women’s experience of immigration detention in the UK (Word file 707kb)

Bail for Immigration Detainees

Refugee Women’s Resource Project

IRR News story – The psychological toll of ATCSA detention’

'They took me away': women's experience of immigration detention in the UK, by the Bail for Immigration Detainees project and Asylum Aid's Refugee Women's Resource Project.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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