THE BLOG

Detention Breaks the Soul

24/10/2014 17:30 BST | Updated 24/12/2014 10:59 GMT

When I arrived at Healthrow Airport in 2007, I immediately claimed asylum. Life had become intolerable for me in Kuwait. Although I was born and brought up there, as a member of the Bidun community, I was a stateless person, not a citizen.

What does it mean to be stateless? In Kuwait, it means you have no identity documents such as a driving license or a passport - you cannot live a normal life. There are many barriers. Government officials are always asking for an ID. Without ID it is difficult to access some education and to find employment. You are harassed and excluded from many areas of life.

My experience of claiming asylum was a shock. Rather than being able to contact others from Kuwait and live in the community, I was immediately transported almost 200 miles north and kept in a detention centre outside Barnsley.

My fellow detainees came from many different backgrounds and countries - from Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, North Korea, from different Asian countries. What united us was that we were all deeply worried about our futures.

For myself and everyone else there, it was very strange - especially when dealing with English people. We had heard about them but it was the first time we had met them. Some were really nice but others were very strict and we couldn't understand why.

In some ways I was fortunate. I benefitted from new rules introduced earlier in 2007 which were intended to shorten the asylum process. My detention in Barnsley lasted 28 days, after which I was sent to Sunderland. I received my refugee status within six months of arrival.

I was so happy once the decision had been made; it felt like I had been reborn. Afterwards, I could continue my life, take my opportunities. Before I felt handcuffed, now I have energy, power and ambition. There are many things I want to do in life that I couldn't do before. That refugee status has changed everything.

Immigration detention today

Sadly, life for detainees has not improved in the last seven years and today conditions are much worse. I have seen this myself, through my volunteer work with Refugee Action, visiting immigration detainees at Harmondsworth and Colnbrook detention centres. Security is much tighter, conditions much tougher. Centres look and are run like prisons, by contracted companies, principally Serco and G4S.

The centre in Barnsley was more flexible. At least, I was able leave the centre during the day. I had access to legal advice and was able to travel to London for the day to meet my lawyer.

Harmondsworth and Colnbrook have guards and very high gates. CCTV is everywhere. You feel the doors lock behind you as you enter.

There is a lack of caring and trust. I think the security companies are doing their job but they don't really care - the main concern is to do a security job, not to support the wellbeing of detainees. The rules are very strict and rigid. The guards didn't even seem to trust one another - their priority is to follow procedures.

The effects are very evident. You see many detainees whose complexions are a yellow colour. Some said they didn't breathe fresh air or see the sunlight. No wonder. To go outside to the open air you have to pass through three or four gates or four or five doors. Many people lost weight because they lost their appetite.

There were some facilities such as a gym, library and some music but in the six months I visited I saw no detainees reading a book. When your mind is busy you cannot read - you cannot process it because your mind is busy with something bigger.

The detainees were worried about what was going to happen, what was coming next and what would happen when they got home. Many people had lost their homes and their dreams of a better life were gone. Their journey was terminated there in the detention centre.

Impact of detention

I have seen how detention is bad for the physical and emotional wellbeing of those detained, especially those who are kept there for months, not knowing when it will end. It is important to remember that these are not criminals but people who have been refused asylum or broken immigration rules - complex systems which few people understand.

I believe that if an asylum seeker has the reasonable claim to stay within the government rules they should grant them asylum or send them home with dignity -not keep them in detention for a long period. Detention breaks the soul.

I found it depressing visiting these detainees just for a few hours - imagine what it would be like for months on end. You can see on their faces, these are people living for nothing.

Nabil Al-Inzy, who left Kuwait for the UK to escape persecution as a stateless Bidun, now lives in London, and works as as a logistics support worker for Refugee Action