Drug use and violence: I was locked in a decrepit detention centre | UK News


I was detained in Harmondsworth IRC when I first arrived in the UK (Picture: Kolbassia Haoussou)

Decrepit. Chaotic. Shocking.

Those are only some of the words that have been used to describe Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre, near London’s Heathrow Airport.

Chief inspector of prisons Charlie Taylor’s report found that the conditions were the ‘worst’ ever ‘seen in immigration detention’ in the country – including staff shortages, overcrowding, serious suicide attempts, and ‘widespread’ drug use and violence.

Reading this has been deeply triggering for me. This is because I was detained in Harmondsworth IRC when I first arrived in the UK. I was there for less than a week – nearly 20 years ago – but I remember it like it was yesterday.

My heart aches for the vulnerable refugees who are still enduring similar things to me. It’s unacceptable.

In 2005, I was forced to flee my family and my home country in central Africa to escape torture.

My journey to reach safety was long and incredibly dangerous. It took me about eight months to reach the UK – I had to cross countries that were controlled by violent rebels, I walked through the bush and risked crossing the English Channel

When I arrived, I was alone, confused and frightened.

I was detained straight away upon claiming asylum. But the people in charge didn’t tell me what was going on, or what was going to happen to me.

I was put into what looked like a prison van, and driven for what felt like hours. When I arrived at Harmondsworth IRC, I soon realised something was very wrong.

The week I was there felt like a never-ending nightmare. I was sick and still bleeding constantly from the injuries I’d received from torture, couldn’t sleep, eat, or cry. It was very difficult for me.

I remember looking through the window of my cell when my eye caught the Union Jack flag dancing in the wind. It looked beautiful and graceful to me.

But it was during this time – even after everything else I’d been through – that my mental state really declined. I was so scared.

Would I be like the guy from a nearby cell who was deported the night before? What would happen to me if I was sent back to the country that had tortured me? 

I tried my best not to close my eyes at night so nobody could drag me out of the cell while I was sleeping. 

I found myself living side-by-side with people who’d done jail time for serious crimes. Everyone was just mixed together.

It was shocking, intimidating, and very frightening. It’s inappropriate to mix vulnerable people seeking protection and seasoned dangerous criminals.

On top of that, the people working there didn’t seem to care. They didn’t care about me – they saw me crying, they saw how frightened I was, but nobody ever asked if I was OK. I felt so alone.

When my asylum status was granted in 2005, I cried out of sheer relief, says Kolbassia (Picture: Kolbassia Haoussou)

Eventually, I was released when they realised that I was a survivor of torture. But I never should have been there in the first place.

People like me are slipping through the cracks all the time and are at very real risk of serious harm.

When my asylum status was granted in 2005, I cried out of sheer relief. It was so bittersweet. I felt so sorry for myself and for everything I’d been through, and I was overcome with emotion that I’d finally reached a place where I could stop, where I’d have security.

I could finally start to rebuild my life. And just live like a human being.

Since then, I was lucky – I found Freedom from Torture that same year. Working with doctors and therapists, I was able to understand what had happened to me and how to cope with the damage caused by torture.

I joined with some fellow survivors from the organisation to form Survivors Speak OUT. We wanted to build solidarity between survivors.

We are experts by experience and our expertise is desperately needed in the world of politics right now. We need to be around the table together with decision-makers, helping them see better how they can create positive changes.

We want to ensure that survivors like us receive fair treatment in the asylum system and a proper opportunity to rebuild their lives in the UK. As people who’ve gone through this very system, we can help improve it.

Off the back of this latest report, prisons watchdog Charlie Taylor said: ‘The level of chaos that we found at Harmondsworth was truly shocking and we left deeply concerned that some of those held there were at imminent risk of harm.

The new Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper (Picture: Photo by Victoria Jones/Shutterstock/Rex Features)

‘Nobody should be detained in an immigration removal centre unless they are going to be removed quickly from the country, yet around 60% of detainees were released from the centre, with only a third deported, which begs the question of why so much taxpayer money was being spent keeping them locked up in the first place,’ he added.

But this report today is only the latest in what has been a painful series of shameful revelations about the barbaric reality of immigration detention in this country. We’ve seen report after report outlining so clearly all the things that can go wrong behind closed doors in places like Harmondsworth.

It is time for this to stop once and for all. 

To really protect people who’ve fled the most awful things, we need to see a more compassionate approach from those in charge. People like me should never be detained.

When I was in detention, I had flashbacks, nightmares, and bad anxiety.  

The new Labour government has committed to rebuilding a just asylum system that respects human dignity and the rule of law. But the detention of people like me and other refugees can play no part in an asylum system that is fair, efficient and compassionate. 

Most people in the UK are caring and kind. I know from my own experiences how welcoming and supportive many have been.

They believe in fairness and the importance of providing sanctuary to people fleeing war and torture. 

Now is the time for the authorities to finally catch up with public opinion.

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