Volume 19 Number 2
Images of Immigration Detention
01 April 2006
'THREE MEN AND THREE WOMEN came to our house at 5.30 am. My wife started to cry. They took first my wife and my son, and then me and the two children....
'THREE MEN AND THREE WOMEN came to our house at 5.30 am. My wife started to cry. They took first my wife and my son, and then me and the two children.... We were all crying.' These words of a distraught father are quoted in a new photographic exhibition which features not Chile, South Africa or the Soviet Union in the Seventies but, shockingly, the treatment of asylum seekers in Britain today.
On any one day some 2,000 people are held in immigration detention in the UK. A large proportion are asylum seekers, who have fled from oppression overseas. Some have been refused asylum and are waiting to be sent home; others are still going through the process. Many, like the family quoted, have been picked up in the early hours of the morning with no opportunity to prepare.
Imprisoned, which was first seen at the Spitz Gallery in London in January, was created by Isabelle Merminod, a French photographer who for eight years ran a group of visitors to detained asylum seekers held in centres near Heathrow Airport. A special needs teacher by training, she is particularly passionate about the detention of children, 2,000 of whom are estimated to be locked up by the immigration authorities every year.
Photography is not allowed inside detention centres, so Merminod uses pictures of former detainees to tell her story. They are accompanied by quotations from detainees and from reports by human rights groups.
Although the regime in Britain's detention centres is different from that in prisons, the experience is still one of imprisonment. Detainees cannot leave the detention centre and they live behind locked gates and walls topped with barbed wire. Unlike convicted criminals, they can be held indefinitely.
'You do not have a voice when you are detained,' says one of those interviewed by Merminod. 'You become someone who has nothing, who is nothing.'
Another describes being told by an immigration officer: 'I do not have the right to talk to you, because you have nothing to say.... Speak to your solicitor. Tell him to write to me.
I speak with written words.' For people who have suffered in their home countries and live in terror of being returned, the experience can be devastating and dehumanising. Twelve people have committed suicide in immigration detention since January 2000: one of them the day after the exhibition opened.
The exhibition, sponsored by six charities and NGOs, is available for display in other venues.
GETTING KIDS BACK TO SCHOOL
FRANCES HARRISON only recently came to work as a manager at Fairbridge West in Bristol, UK, with socially excluded young people. 'Society is unfair to kids who struggle to fulfil their potential. The school system doesn't always work for them and they don't fit. Fairbridge meets them on their level,' says Harrison. She is not a religious person; instead she operates on her values. The job that she had before was in strategic policy at the National Consumer Council. She took a significant pay cut and left London because she felt that as her career rose, she was becoming distanced from the grass roots.
Last year, Fairbridge separated its courses for under-16s from those for over-16s. 'We had to change the way we dealt with some very challenging young people, and for instance we have used yellow and red cards to discipline them. This has made a real difference, and forms part of our strategy of plan, do, review and apply,' says Harrison. She coordinates the two teams operating at the front line. The first is the Outreach Team, whose job is to target people who may have drug problems, are excluded from school or have a hard time at home. Harrison points out that 60 per cent of prisoners in the UK were excluded from school at some stage, so getting kids back to school at an early stage is essential.
The Development Tutors take the young people on an access course, a week in Wales doing things from climbing and caving to canoeing and gorge walking. This teaches the young people that they can do almost anything they set their minds to. They come back to the office and set themselves a course that could involve outward bound adventure, cookery or a range of other activities. These courses in turn teach them personal and social skills, as well as how to have fun.
Operating out of a two-storey shop unit on the Gloucester Road in Bristol, Fairbridge West has an annual budget of £400,000 a year. It is one of 15 Fairbridge branches around the country which are almost entirely funded by a relatively small corporate and government contribution.
One of the high points of the last year was a venture set up by the Financial Services Authority (FSA). The clients set up an exhibition at the Watershed on Bristol's waterfront, showing what they had learned on the course. The main event was a short play by the Fairbridge clients and workers from the FSA. 'Among the audience were local MPs, businessmen and young people. The applause showed the response to their efforts-it was amazing,' says Harrison.
MOVING FROM COMFORT ZONE
JIM AMSING'S willingness to help others in Calgary, Canada, has taken him through various enterprises. He started working as a police officer in 1978, but that did not seem to be enough for him. He became Chairman of Emma Maternity House, where he encountered several difficulties. 'Our problem wasn't getting the funding or finding the people to help, but with some of the 14- to 18-year-old pregnant residents. All of these girls came from difficult family situations. For instance, some had been brought up in singleparent families, or were prostitutes or hung out with Vietnamese gang members,' he says. However, not all the girls were difficult, and many of them kept in contact with the organisation to express their thankfulness or report back to it.
Having had this experience, Amsing went on to set up a maternity home for Crisis Pregnancy.
In 1997, he participated in the foundation of the Diakonos Retreat Society that helps emergency service workers, policemen and firemen, as well as their families, to keep mentally healthy even when they work in stressful situations. Diakonos also offers programmes that help families to have quality time together.
Currently, Amsing is the Executive Director of the Crisis Houses in Edmonton and Calgary. These houses host people, who are going through different problems, for three months, offering them professional help and taking care of all their needs.
One of the things that had worried Amsing as a police officer was the increasing number of suicides, addictions and interpersonal problems amongst his colleagues. Following a call he had felt long ago, he became a chaplain in the Police Service. His understanding of the profession has been of much help. 'As a police officer/chaplain I am perceived more as a fellow worker by myy peers. It is easier for the to call me when they run into a crisis,' he says.
His advice about how to start doing things for others is 'to understand that there is a specific purpose or mission in our lives. To look at what you are interested in because there will always be a need in front of you. Sometimes we need to move out of our comfort zone. Don't be afraid to give. It doesn't always have to be economic help, words can mean more to someone who really needs it.'