I’m a torture survivor who was put in detention, this is what happened

I’m a torture survivor who was put in detention, this is what happened

After fleeing persecution in central Africa in 2005, Kolbassia Haoussou MBE arrived in the UK and was immediately detained in conditions that terrified him.

Once I’d arrived in the UK, having fled my home country and escaped torture, I was taken to Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre. The people in charge didn’t tell me where I was going, I was bundled into what looked like a prison van, and we drove for what felt like hours. I soon realised something was very wrong.

When we finally got there, it was late at night. I was tired, I was very sick, and I was bleeding. I was frightened. I asked to see a doctor, it was obvious that I needed medical care, but they told me I would have to wait until morning. I wouldn’t see a health care professional for the whole time I was detained.

I was only in Harmondsworth for less than week, but it felt like a lifetime. The whole time I couldn’t sleep, and I was constantly crying. It was here, even after everything that I’d been through, that my mental state really deteriorated. I was so fearful that I would be deported, that I would be sent straight back into the hands of my torturers. I completely lost my appetite; I could barely eat.

The people working there didn’t care about me. They saw I was crying, they could see I was distressed, but nobody even asked me if I was ok. There was no interest or concern for my wellbeing. I felt alone. Eventually I had to give an interview with someone from the Home Office. Very quickly, from my answers to their questions, they could see that I was a survivor of torture. They told me that I shouldn’t be there. But it was late in the day, so I had to spend another night in detention. The next day, I was finally released and put into temporary accommodation.

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It’s scary to think if that person hadn’t spoken to me, I could have been stuck there for much longer. There were so many missed opportunities for my vulnerability to be spotted. I should never have been there in the first place. The safeguards simply don’t work.

We’ve seen report after report outlining so clearly all the things that can go wrong behind closed doors. There are serious systemic and cultural problems within the immigration detention system. I was detained over 15 years ago but in that time a succession of inspectors have repeatedly identified that the failure of critical safeguards, the misuse of force and the culture of dehumanisation have contributed to an environment in which abuse is rife. And now things are about to get even worse. The Government's cruel cash-for-humans Rwanda Bill will likely see a drastic increase in the use of immigration detention – detaining more people for longer.

To try and make their Rwanda scheme work, the Home Office has just this week changed vital guidance that will mean torture, sexual violence and trafficking victims as well as those suffering with mental health issues and disabled people are more likely to now be held. This is shameful, and I’m really concerned.

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To really protect the people who have fled the most unimaginable horrors, we need to see a more compassionate approach from those in charge. People who’ve experienced torture, fled wars or persecution shouldn’t be detained. I know only too well how profoundly damaging it can be, both mentally and physically. When I was in detention I had flashbacks, I had nightmares and bad anxiety.

Clinicians who work with torture survivors every day at Freedom from Torture have recognised that, faced even with a short time in detention, many will experience re-traumatisation, including powerful intrusive recall and a deterioration of pre-existing trauma symptoms. All too often, sites of detention can be so reminiscent of the places in which survivors were tortured.

For too long now we’ve seen the Government prioritise enforcement policies over the protection of vulnerable people, including torture survivors. Detaining vulnerable people is a symptom of an enduring and escalating hostile environment towards refugees. The Home Office must release all survivors currently in immigration detention. It is time for this to stop.

Most people in the UK are caring and compassionate, 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 torture and war. It’s time for the Government to catch up with public opinion.

Kolbassia Haoussou MBE is a torture survivor who came to the UK in 2005 after fleeing persecution in central Africa. Kolbassia is Director of Survivor Leadership and Influencing at Freedom from Torture.

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