Last Sunday morning, more than 40 people crammed into a wide circle to ‘talk migration’ under the wooden beams of Impact Hub in Kings Cross.
Talk Migration was a day of talks and discussion around the topics of migration, borders and refugee rights, organised by Thighs of Steel.
Every year, Thighs of Steel cyclists come together to fundraise for grassroots refugee organisations around Europe. In 2019 they are aiming to raise £100,000 with their legendary London to Athens relay ride.
A bicycle bell called us to order and the smiles rang out…
Our second speaker was Michael Darko, part of Detention Action’s out-reach programme Freed Voices.
Freed Voices are a group of ‘experts-by-experience’ whose mission is to increase awareness of the grim day-to-day reality of life in detention.
Michael Darko was born ‘on his grandmother’s lap’ in Ghana. He spent just 4 years in Ghana, before travelling with his family to Nigeria and the Ivory Coast, finally settling in London when Michael was 12.
At no stage in the journey did Michael have any identity papers – no birth certificate, no passport, no visas, nothing.
When Michael was 15 his father abandoned the family, leaving them to fend for themselves. As the oldest, Michael dropped out of school to look for a job. Because he had no papers, Michael could only pick up casual work in Hackney Market, but at least it was enough to support him and his 4 siblings.
A year later, however, social services found out about the unusual family structure. Michael was still just a kid and, with bills piling up, the family lost their home.
Forced into a corner, and still head of the household, Michael fell in with a gang on the streets of Hackney. Unable to stomach the violence, he ran away and ended up in Northampton. There, he got a legitimate job at a logistics company – but only by using another man’s identity.
Being a smart guy, Michael rose through the ranks until he was earning £40,000 a year as a team manager. Then his luck ran out.
The man whose identity Michael had stolen made a claim for benefits – the computer threw up an error, and Michael was tracked down, prosecuted for fraud, and sentenced to 20 months imprisonment.
Michael accepts the punishment for his crime: he stole another man’s identity and deserved his sentence.
But what happened next was out of order.
The day before he was due to be released from prison, Michael’s immigration status was investigated. Having no papers, he was told that he wasn’t going to be released after all.
Not only that, but because he was uncooperative with the investigation, Michael was transferred immediately to a high security prison. He languished there for another 12 months until his sentence was completed.
At this point, Michael had paid his debt to society and, if he’d been a British citizen, he would have been justly released. Instead, the Home Office transferred him to a detention centre – for an indefinite length of time.
Michael ended up staying there for another two and a half years.
During those years, Michael had plenty of time to study and he became an expert on immigration law. He helped 48 fellow detainees avoid deportation by writing their judicial review applications. In response, he was threatened with prosecution.
The irony is that Michael only ever wanted to work to earn a living. This right was denied to him in free society, but inside detention, compliant asylum seekers are allowed to work – for the princely wage of £1 per hour.
Almost all detention centres in the UK are now run by private companies, who run their business for a profit.
Over the past few years, the Home Office has reduced the amount they pay these businesses to £86 per detainee – and now these private companies need to find alternative streams of income to keep up their 20-30% profit margin.
One way they can do this, of course, is by exploiting these 21st century slaves.
Michael appealed for bail 15 times and was finally released in December 2014 after taking charge of his own legal defence and making a request for his Home Office file.
In those papers, Michael found out that the Home Office knew that the Ghanaian authorities had no record of his existence and would not accept his return.
Rather than dropping the deportation, the Home Office was keeping Michael in detention, waiting for… What?
The day before his arrest for fraud, Michael was a high-earning, tax-paying member of British society. By the time he became a free man once again, his detention had cost the tax-payer around £100,000.
And for what?
‘My story is not an isolated case,’ Michael says, ‘and it shouldn’t shock you. It is a fraction, a fraction.’
Michael doesn’t disagree that immigrants who have committed a crime should be deported. It’s the interminable wait that he feels is unjust.
Why does the deportation process only begin at the end of a custodial sentence? ‘The wait is mental torture,’ Michael says.
In fact, the whole asylum system is designed to work against the people it is supposed to protect. During Talk Migration, we discussed two such ways: the denial of the right to work and the denial of the right to healthcare.
Since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act of 2013, access to legal aid has been made increasingly difficult. This means asylum seekers are often faced with expensive legal fees that they can’t pay without looking for paid work – in contravention of the limited rights granted to them.
If they are caught, their asylum application can be rejected out-of-hand and they can be sent into detention. A vicious cycle.
That’s not the only way that the deck is stacked against asylum seekers.
Until they are granted indefinite leave to remain, asylum seekers have no recourse to public funds. This means that they can’t use the NHS for anything other than emergency care – and even then they will be expected to foot the bill.
One very common reason why an asylum seeker might need to use the NHS is during childbirth. On their journey, it’s not uncommon for female asylum seekers to be the victims of rape. The pregnancy comes to term in the UK – so what can they do?
Childbirth is primary care, but any pre-natal check-ups are not. This means that female asylum seekers come to hospital (if at all) at the last minute. This, of course, leads to poorer health outcomes for mother and baby.
But there is worse to come. A routine birth costs the NHS around £6,000, and asylum seekers are expected to pay 150% of the costs, so are hit with a bill for about £9,000.
Of course, there is no way that most asylum seekers can afford to pay these bills. You might be wondering why the NHS bothers to chase them at all. Well, it’s got nothing to do with covering their costs.
If a person makes a claim for asylum and they owe more than £500 to the NHS, then their claim can be thrown out without further consideration. These bills are an easy way for the Home Office to strip people of their refugee convention rights and deport them back to the country they fled from.
Our health service is being used for political ends to punish vulnerable refugees. Hats off to the healthcare professionals who do what they can to push back against the system and end the sharing of patient data between hospitals and the Home Office. You know who you are!
What happens after detention?
The strange thing is that most detainees are never deported: more than half are eventually released back into the community. Back to where they started, but with one crucial difference – they are traumatised through their detention ordeal.
Up until the moment of their incarceration, most detainees are simply trying to make a new life under extremely difficult circumstances. But if anything is going to traumatise, criminalise and radicalise, it’s the dehumanising conditions of detention.
This psychological trauma is not treated by the Home Office, of course. It falls on the community to absorb the damage. So if you think that you aren’t doing enough, take heart from Michael’s assertion that, ‘any little thing you do makes a big difference’.
How can that possibly be true?
The perception of detainees from the inside of a detention centre is that the whole country hates you. This is desperate.
Remember when you felt like everyone in your class hated you for letting in a goal on sports day? Now imagine that, but it’s not just 30 classmates, but 66 million.
This makes even the smallest gesture of support incredibly powerful to a detainee because it shows them at a single stroke that not everyone hates them. And if one person doesn’t hate them, then perhaps there are dozens, hundreds, millions of people out there who, in fact, support them.
Detention Action are currently recruiting for volunteers, particularly listeners with language skills. They are also fighting for a 28-day time limit on detention.
This limit would end the uncertainty, and reduce the trauma caused by detention. So far the campaign has the support of around 70 MPs.
Find out more
Watch and read Michael’s story on Detention Action, on The Guardian.
On life in detention: Working Illegally (28 minutes, 2015)
On life in Brooks House detention centre: BBC Panorama Undercover: Britain’s Immigration Secrets (60 minutes, 2017) on BBC iPlayer [Not currently available], or HDDocumentary.com
Thank you to Thighs of Steel for putting on Talk Migration, a day of talks and discussion around the topics of migration, borders and refugee rights.