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Opinion

‘Detention centres destroy people’s mental health’

Lamin Joof knows what it’s like to be on the inside of a detention centre. Here, for The Big Issue’s Refugee Special, he details the trauma they inflict.

I would love the whole world to hear this: detention centres destroy people’s mental health and they destroy families.

Detention centres are mental destruction.

They’re similar to prison, but it’s worse than prison. In prison, you have a one-year sentence and you’re coming out. But in a detention centre, you don’t know when you’re coming out. And this is doing no good for no one.

These people are not criminals. They’ve come here to better themselves. Some of them have their sadness because they miss their family, or they’ve lost their family because of being there. The sadness inside them is that they’ve lost their way – they’ve lost their husband, they’ve lost their wife, they’ve lost their kids – because they’re captured in detention centres.

Instead of looking at the sky, you see a net

Before I came to the UK, I lived in Gambia. Life there was really hard, it was hand to mouth. It was really hard to find a job even after doing all my studies. So in 2007 I came to the UK.

But I was detained a decade later. I’ve been in three different detention centres, for nine months in total. I started my journey in Dover detention centre, until it got closed down. Then I was transferred to Brook House in Gatwick. It was just an inside thing, you can’t even see the sky.

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When you come out in the smoking area, it’s just a tiny place and everyone is in there. And above is a net, so instead of looking at the sky, you see a net.

I felt very uncomfortable there, it was not a good place for me, so I asked for a transfer and I was sent to another one in the Isle of Portland, Dorset.

There was this guy I knew in one of the detention centres called Lucky Mo. His cell was next door and we were very close. They took him three or four times to the airport, but then never sent him back. They always take him to the airport and bring him back to detention. It’s like, “Pack your stuff and say bye-bye to your family,” and he’s thinking “I’m not gonna see them for a long while.” And they do it again and again, making him weak, making Lucky Mo depressed and sad inside.

People inside have lots of things to say. We all have ways of expressing ourselves and we feel different pain, which we need to release. Some people have their missus leave them, some people lose their kids, some people lose all their assets and the goodness they’ve built for themselves. They end up in detention. So they want to sing – they want to sing from their heart what they want the world to hear.

Hear Me Out is a project that takes music-making into immigration detention centres. In the sessions people are allowed to release their feelings, their own way. You release your anger through your music. It lifts the strength. After I came out [of the detention centre], I decided to apply for a position and joined the charity’s board of trustees.

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When I came out in 2018, they gave me a work permit with economic use, which is called the shortage occupation work permit [a government scheme giving migrants work visas for occupations they deem in short supply of staff]. But you have to earn like £33,000 or £34,000 a year. And you have to do specific jobs, which I wasn’t qualified to do, like being a doctor or an engineer.

So now I’m here waiting for the work permit and waiting for them to make confirmation of my settlement status.

I have a wife, who I have a son with, and I have two stepdaughters. I also have a daughter from a previous relationship. So my family life is here in the UK.

Everyone can take certain things to a certain limit. But I’m a healthy man and I can’t work to support my family. Imagine how that makes me feel? It’s not right. I feel I’m not counted as a human. And when is all this going to end?

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