Michael is an ex-detainee who spoke to us about his reasons for fleeing his home country of Sierra Leone and how he has managed since. He has suffered detention, lived on the streets and still, after 15 years in the UK, doesn’t know if he will be allowed to remain.
I met with Michael who was born in 1984 in a small village in Sierra Leone. His earliest memories were of being hungry and wet as he and his family sheltered from the heavy tropical rain that dribbled in through the straw roof of his family home. He described his home in great detail; its mud floor and walls, the fire that everyone tended and fed with sticks they would bring back from the fields, and the straw roof, its repairs long overdue, home to various animals and a skylight to the stars. “everyone was poor,” he explained, “nobody could get work, not in the fields or in the town.” His village was small, comprising of perhaps 12 or 15 dwellings most of which contained family, and all of which were very familiar to him. Michael reiterated, “It was hard, never enough money, people were depressed and fighting,” then the soldiers came.
The soldiers were rebels, belonging to the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Michael witnessed his parents and many other members of his family and neighbours being killed, he thinks some might have escaped but is just hoping. He himself, along with some other girls and boys, was forced to go with the soldiers and work for them. Some were forced to fight, some used for sex, and some, like Michael, as bearers to carry supplies for the rebels. During his time with the rebel soldiers he learnt not to trust anyone, not even the other children who were suffering alongside him. “Everybody lied, nobody had friends; if you have a friend you will soon be wrong…”
Somehow Michael managed to get away from the RUF and walked at night until he reached Freetown on the coast, here he met many boys in a similar situations to himself; surviving by begging, stealing and finding opportunities to do small tasks for payment. The beaches of Freetown still attracted the affluent; local businessmen and their families and aid workers all enjoying the white sands and warm seas despite civil war still raging not far away. Michael was 14 or 15 by this time and had learnt how to survive using his only resources; his strength and an ability to charm people into giving him payment for looking after their sun lounger or fetching them a drink. He slept on the beach, or tucked away in secluded doorways, over time coming to rely on the other boys working the beaches for friendship and protection.
After some time, Michael was befriended by a man who was rich, and who said that the beach belonged to him, he would have to give his earnings to the man who, in return, would give him a wage and sort out some schooling for him. Michael had no choice but to trust the man, the alternative was to risk starvation, or be caught and used by other gangs of ex-rebel soldiers elsewhere. For some time (Michael thinks maybe 2 years) he continued to work the beaches around Freetown but never got paid what he had earned and soon realised that school was also an empty promise. Eventually he was told by other men who worked for the boss that there was different work for him. He was taken and put into the back of a lorry along with 3 or 4 others and driven a long way across the border into Gambia. Here he was told that he was going to be given papers, then taken to the airport; he would be put on a plane and go to England. He was given instructions along with threats, “In England you will get lots of money and send it straight back to the man (boss), or you will be killed.”
Michael made his way, under threat of death, to England; he had no idea what to expect, how far it was, how it would be in the aeroplane, and what England would be like. He just expected to arrive and be greeted by men in the employ of the boss who would take him to work somewhere. Instead he was taken away to a room in the airport to be interrogated by customs officers for whom it soon became apparent that Michael had been trafficked by using false papers and a corrupt immigration system. Now, caught up in the UK immigration system without papers to show his entitlement to remain, he was taken to Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre (IRC), near Heathrow airport, to await the travel documents that would allow the Home Office to put him on a return flight to Gambia or Sierra Leone.
After several months and difficulty in locating proof of country of origin, Michael’s claim for asylum was refused. Without the correct documentation he could not be returned to his home country. He was released from the IRC and spent some time on the streets before being put in touch with a charity who helped him to apply for Home Office support. He was given a room in a section 4 house in Bolton and a voucher/card with funds to use in specific shops. A While later Michael was moved to West London, where he is still living eight years later.
When asked about his most valuable possession Michael said, “To be able to eat and sleep; when I got to England, everything I had was in a small bag, it disappeared when I went to the immigration people.” He says of himself, “No papers, no value – without papers people don’t trust, they are fearful of me.” His feelings of isolation came to the fore as we spoke, his eyes danced, flicking from one side of the room to the other; his lower lip trembled as he stumbled and stuttered over words to describe his sense of despair. He has no family, lacks trust in any friendship and trusts only in charities. The reality of his position of absolute solitude gripped my own emotions as he explained
“I consider samphire as my family, they believe me, they talk for me, come to court with me. I cannot complain about the house, the Home Office will take it away, but Samphire saw it and complained for me, now it is getting better.”
Michael was making reference to the charity manager’s visit to his accommodation to collect photographic evidence of the state of living conditions; using this evidence the charity was able to get some improvements to Michael’s accommodation. It seems he is right to believe “We have no right to talk, only the charities have rights.”
He is still carrying the trauma of his childhood and adolescence and has given up trying to sleep at night; sleep comes as daylight reassures him. Once awake, he tries to be busy, he works out, and plays football with a local migrant charity who pay his travel costs for him to make the fifteen mile journey. He also goes to English classes twice a week. As he described this he became more animated and his face brightened into a smile.
“Here, any person has the right to go to play football, to walk in the supermarket, to stand in a queue with the Prime Minister; even the Prime Minister has to join the queue!”
He made a comparison between this freedom and with his time in detention; “Detention is worse than prison,” he stated “You never know when it will end, it is like torture.”
In one sense Michael is still imprisoned by the uncertainty of his immigration status; unable to work, to get a driving licence or choose where to live, and living within earshot of the airport that threatens to take him back to Sierra Leone. However, he is free to sleep, eat, and walk down the street. He holds on tightly to this freedom, his only possession.