Anjum Nahar speaks to Meltem Avcil for TWSS #16, ‘Crossing the Border’. Meltem has first-hand experience of the UK Immigration Detention system. She has spent time in the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre. This is her story.
How did you end up in Yarl’s Wood and how long were you detained for?
My family and I came to the UK in 2001 to apply for asylum. After six years of being relentlessly moved from city to city, our asylum claim was rejected. One very early morning in August 2007, around eight to ten immigration officers forced their way into our home and took me and my mother to Yarl’s Wood detention centre to deport us back to where we had come from. We were detained for three months; I was thirteen years old at the time. Detaining children for more than twenty-eight days was illegal, but despite that, I was still detained.
What were the conditions like in the detention centre?
As soon as we entered the B-class prison, our belongings (we were not allowed to take much) were confiscated and we were searched thoroughly. Our photos were taken, and we were given ID cards to use inside the ‘ward.’ There were two wards at the time: one was the family ward and the other was for single people. We were taken to the family ward. The series of metal doors we passed by were locked one after the other as we walked further along. We were given a room to share, number 150. The windows could open just an inch and it was sealed so we could not be seen. Yarl’s Wood is in the middle of nowhere so we wouldn’t be seen anyway. There was a courtyard with very high walls, barbed wire and strict rules of usage. For people suffering from pain, there was a ‘GP’ kind of place where victims of the system were treated badly. Very badly. I went one time when I had kidney pain and I was crying, trying to endure the pain. The nurse came out and shouted at me, telling me to shut up. Yarl’s Wood had nasty conditions.
What did it feel like to leave the detention centre and adjust back into your normal life?
I do not think I fully ever left the prison. I would not call it a detention centre; at least in my imagination, detention centres come with some sense of freedom. Not Yarl’s Wood. For me, it was a prison for people who had not committed a crime. I was thirteen years old but did not feel like it. I grew up a lot, more than I wanted in three months. At the end of our long fight, we were told that we were to be released on the 22nd of November 2007. I felt a broken sadness; it had already taken so much away from me, that I did not understand what the outside world could ever give to replace the pain and suffering Yarl’s Wood caused. It was a moment of my life I have never forgotten, and I do not think I ever will. Normal life? I could not adjust at all, I felt alienated. I was always afraid to build a ‘normal’ life that could, one day, again be taken from me. I was messed up academically, I was in a different high school every year, and at one point I moved from two different high schools in just one year. So honestly speaking, I never could adjust back to the normal life.
Tell us about the campaigning you have done on the issue of immigration detention.
I started a campaign in Yarl’s Wood at the age of thirteen with the help of great people, we won that in 2010. I still simply could not move on and started another campaign with the help of more great people in 2014 to close down Yarl’s Wood. Even though I was still not fine, I knew we could do something about the situation and so I accepted an offer from Natasha Walter (founder of Women For Refugee Women) to start another campaign and speak up for what we believed was right.
There are various campaigns happening in Bristol working towards ending and delegitimizing the immigration detention system. What would you say to students and young people to encourage them to participate and support these campaigns?
Mine and my mother’s lives were saved because of campaigning and the help of people who genuinely cared about the issue. Selfless people, who were passionate about the lives of others. My advice would be that campaigning really can save lives, and although it does take time, in the end, what is right will win. If the students can campaign for anything they are passionate about, then they should go for it! Campaigning can save a lot of things, but before campaigning, caring can save even more.
Illustration by Jianning Wu.