"The second time I went into detention, it was the worst. You know, when I used to hear that people had committed suicide, I used to say that nothing would make me take away my life. But when I was detained the second time, inside the van, that was when I realised that when you are in so much pain, when you are harming yourself, you do not feel the pain."
Helen, 29, is from Cameroon. At the time she was first taken into detention she had a 10-month-old son. After BID spoke with Helen in 2008 she had another asylum claim refused after which she attempted suicide.
Helen’s heart-wrenching detention ordeal is best told in her own words:
“I’m from the south west province of Cameroon, in a town called XXXXX where I was born and bred. I’ve been involved in politics, inheriting it from my father. He was a politician and he died in 1994. He was killed in a rally, when they were opposing the government during one of the most controversial elections in Cameroon. The military from French-speaking Cameroon opened fire on the group of rioters and he was unfortunate to be one of those that were killed.
“When I grew up I decided to get involved in politics. I see how people suffer in Cameroon, how we are being deprived of so many things, and I decided to join the cause for independence. In Cameroon, the president has been in power for 28 years and he doesn’t want to relinquish power. People who resist the government are targeted – they go to the universities and they rape students that try to demonstrate against things that they think are not right. They shoot them, they arrest people, they make people disappear.
“I was involved with the South Cameroon National Council. We are not a violent group of people, we do carry out non-violent activities and demonstrations in order to put our points across. Even when I came to the UK, I did not relent on my efforts, even in this country I have organised a lot of demonstrations against the Cameroonian government.
“So, I was a politician back home and as a result of that I suffered a lot of torture, I went to prison. The prison conditions in Cameroon, they are very, very horrible. The last time that I went to jail I was there for five months.
“Finally, I succeeded to escape, and got to the UK with the help of a friend in 2006.
“When I came to the UK, things were not that good. But not because anybody was giving me any trouble, it was just my own state of mind. Things were quite difficult for me, probably because I had lost touch with the outside world for a while, and I wasn’t quite myself. I don’t know, I was scared of everything. I was scared of light, I was scared of darkness. I was scared of speaking to people. I didn’t feel comfortable sitting in the midst of people. So I was always reserved or blocking myself off, inside a room.
“Things became worse when I realised that I was pregnant, because I didn’t know that I was pregnant when I came to this country. I was in a hostel in Leeds, and I wasn’t feeling quite well, but at first I just thought it’s because of the depression. They kept sending psychiatric nurses and doctors to see me, but the medications that they were putting me on, they were not working, because I had actually lost my mind. I could scream the whole night, because I would be seeing things, I would be having all these nightmares, I would be dreaming, I could not sleep. I was scared of noise, I was so confused.
“When I found out I was pregnant, that was the end of everything. Actually, I collapsed, I fell on the floor and I passed out. Because automatically I knew how the pregnancy had come about and coupled with that was the fact that where I come from, that is unheard of. When you hear an African person use the word an abomination, it means it is something very, very big. Something like that is not something that you sit and talk of. It is very, very bad. People don’t sit and talk about rape and they talk even less of you getting pregnant in the course of that. It is something that you can just kill yourself or hate yourself for. So I could not cope. Things became so bad for me. But because of my religion, as a Christian, I didn’t want to think of abortion.
“I was moved from XXXX and they sent me to XXXXXX, and I started attending a church there. The church members there, they were very good to me. The vicar and his wife, they are just like my family in this country. They really looked after me, and stayed with me in the hospital when I was having my baby.
“Then things started going pear-shaped with the immigration. My case was refused, all my appeals were turned down. Then, they came to my house the first time to detain me, and when they came to detain me I was not there. A friend was organising a party, so I had gone there that day, and I slept there. In the morning, my next door neighbour, she called me and she said ‘Helen, where are you, the immigration are here and they have broken down your door.’ So I told her that I’m coming. She said ‘Are you really sure that you want to come?’ I said ‘Yes, I’m coming, I don’t need to run away’.
“Before I got there, they had left. So I called the immigration office and told them that they came to my house this morning and I wasn’t there. There was no need for them to break my door because it’s not like they asked me to come and I didn’t come. So, I told them that I am at home now, if they want to come they can come, or they can send me a letter, and tell me when to meet them. For four days I was calling that office and no-one was available to speak to me, it was just clear that they didn’t want to speak to me. So I just left it. They said ‘okay we’ll send a letter, and invite you for an interview’. They never, ever sent the letter. The next thing I knew again was they came early in the morning, I think two months after, and detained me.
“They came at about six o clock in the morning. I was asleep when they came and they knocked the door. The way they knock you will know it is an abnormal knock. I looked through the window and I saw them. I opened the window and I said to them that I’m coming down. I went, I opened the door. Some of them were nice, and some of them were very, very rude. When they came in they said ‘sit down there, sit down, you don’t have to say anything’. I said okay, I sat down, I didn’t argue with them. They said ‘we have come to arrest you’ I said ‘okay’. They said ‘you are going back to your country’, I said ‘okay’.
“We went upstairs. I was in my nightdress and I told them ‘I have to change, if you people want to stay in my bedroom can the ladies stay, and the men should go out for me to change’. They refused. I was on my period and I had to change in front of these people. There were about seven of them, two women and five men. They made me change in front of them. I changed my dress, I couldn’t even change my pants because I couldn’t go through that, to be changing my pants in front of men.
“I carried my son, and then I wanted to make milk for him. One of them was shouting at me, saying that I’m not supposed to move, I’m not supposed to say anything. Then another one of them came and said ‘the lady has not been causing us any trouble, why don’t you just leave her to make food for the baby, it will be a long journey for them’. So they let me do that.
“Then, when we were leaving one of them turned and said to her colleague ‘oh today it’s a nice day, its been a long time since we came to detain someone like this that would not fight with us, and would not say anything’. I didn’t respond.
“On the journey, I was that scared, I was really shaking and crying. We stopped at the police station in XXXXX, and then they put me inside another van, and we went to Yarl’s Wood.
“The stuff that I had, they were the ones that packed it. Because when they came to detain me, they came with their own bags. Anything they can lay their hands on, they will pack. Obviously, there were lots of things I needed that I didn’t have with me in detention. I lost everything, everything of mine in XXXXX, I lost it. A friend there went to my house to carry some things, but she couldn’t carry much of it.
“When I was in detention at first, because I had integrated so well into my community in XXXXX, I had a lot of support. They were writing petitions and sending to the Home Office, they were calling the immigration, and they were really standing their ground that I should be released and sent back to XXXXX. But in the time that I was in detention, I lost contact with most of them.
“In February, I was released from detention. I was very happy, thinking that I am going home, that I have been released to go to my house. Then, when I got down to the reception they came and gave me this paperwork to say that I’m going to Ashford, under the Home Office Alternatives to Detention scheme. I was the first person to be taken to that scheme.
“It was hell there. I was subjected to emotional abuse. The manager was so, so rude. Telling me that if I’m a Christian my God should come and save me. That I don’t have any right to stay in this country, that the immigration have got the right to treat me the way they want.
“It wasn’t easy there, it wasn’t a good experience. Ashford was horrible, it was a very, very horrible place. They were telling me to go back to Cameroon. If I don’t go back, the manager used to tell me, it is just a phone call, one phone call, you go back to detention. You will go back where you came from. He used to put this pressure all the time. You have to go back to your country. I told him that I wished I could go, nobody would want to stay here and be subjected to this. If I could go back I would go, but I can’t go.
“It was such a tough time for me there. They had a night porter that tried to take advantage over me. The man started stalking me, he would be following me around. When people had gone to bed he would come and knock at my door. He would be telling me that he loved me, that he can help me, if I sleep with him he is going to help me to stay in this country. I was that scared. But he started stalking me in a way that other people who were there wouldn’t realise it. I was scared to report it. He just picked on me. I don’t know why. Maybe because the other women there he was seeing their husbands and he couldn’t go close to them, I don’t know.
“It was somebody else that started to report it on my behalf, a man from Afghanistan. He was the one that went to a female staff there and said, I think one of your staff is stalking this lady. So they came to speak to me - that is when I opened up to them, and told them all what had happened. Now, when I explained all what had happened to them, I don’t know if they were scared or what, but they decided to team up against me. Because an investigation started going on, and they decided to say there was no basis for me to say these things to them. They didn’t do anything, they just dismissed it. What happened was, the people that were there as witnesses at the time that this man was stalking me, before they started the investigation, they removed all of them from Millbank. So there was just nothing, nothing that I could do. I was just there, left on my own. Just like this, they were dismissing me.
“I told them, I cannot stay here, I am not safe and somebody is threatening me. I cannot sleep. This man is knocking on my door, following me around. There was a day I was standing in the corridor, he passed and he touched my bum. I was so, so upset. I was so angry that day. I went to my room, I was crying. I said can’t you people see, this is the kind of things that I know a bad man when I see. This man is stalking me, he is saying things to me that he is not supposed to. And they just dismissed all of it. The people that were ready to come and testify against him, they removed all of them from Millbank.
“Because I was so much being abused and tossed around in Ashford, I packed my things and I left. But I did not abscond. What happened was, when I packed my things, I left, I came back to XXXXX to my place. Because the housing providers, they told me that the house is still there for me. So I left, I came to my house. Immediately when I got into my house I called the immigration with my own phone. I told the immigration that I have left Millbank for this and this reason and I am back in XXXXX in my house. So I have decided to report myself that I have left there.
“My friend, Reverend xxxxxx was with me. He took the phone and spoke to my caseworker and asked: ‘Did you people say that Helen has been released?’ He said yes. My friend asked: ‘If Helen has been released, why don’t you people allow her to stay with her friends and family in XXXXX, where she has a lot of support? Why don’t you people allow her to stay close to us?’ The caseworker said: ‘I don’t have any response to that, I will not respond to that.’ So my friend said: ‘Ok, I am bringing her to your office.’ He arranged for me to come to their office to speak to them so that I could really explain what is happening and the reason why I cannot be in Millbank. So when we got there, they refused to see us. Then, the immigration officer said, if I don’t go back to Millbank, I will be detained. So Reverend xxxxxx told him: ‘if Helen is under arrest, I am here with her, you just tell me that she is under arrest and I will hand her over myself. Is she under arrest?’ The caseworker said: ‘I will not respond to that’.
“So I went back to my house. That evening, I had a call from the UK Borders Agency. They said that if I go back to Ashford, they will not put it down that I have absconded. I said that I did not abscond. Somebody that absconds will run away, but I came here and I told you people that I am here. So you can’t tell me that I’ve absconded. They said okay, if you don’t go back, we will put it down that you have absconded, and you know that that is an offence. I said right, I am ready to go back, but provided that you people hold a meeting with the manager of that place, and you tell him to stop bullying me, and you open up an investigation into all the things I have complained of. So the UK Borders Agency said okay. So they told me that they will send somebody to come and pick me on Monday at two o clock. I talked to the housing providers, and they said ‘Helen, this house is still under your name, you just go back with them there and we think you will be there just for about one or two weeks and then they will officially leave you to come back here.’ So that is why I left all my stuff there.
“So they came and took me and carried me back to Ashford. So, two days after, the UK Borders Agency sent somebody to Ashford. He came and talked, and he was taking down statements from me, to tell him all what had happened. I told him how the manager has been bullying me, and a night porter is following me around, I told him everything. So that is when the investigation started properly, but it did not end anywhere because they tend to start backing their staff. The manager was so quick to remind me all the time that, anyway, you are an illegal immigrant in this country and you’re not supposed to be here, you’re supposed to be alright to go back to your country.
“Before I was taken back to detention from Ashford, I knew. My friend was also a single mum, and one of the staff who was working for Migrant Helpline was chatting her up as well and trying to date her. So, this man confided in my friend that I was going to be taken into detention the next Tuesday, and she came and told me. Luckily, I was not the only one in the room. We were there about five women are everybody asked her ‘are you sure of what you are saying?’ She said ‘I am not lying, that is what this man told me.’ So all the other women were angry with her and said ‘you have to be careful, you don’t say things like this’. Because I started crying, I was panicking. And behold on Tuesday they took me to detention.
“When they arrested me I did not have any removal direction, I was just there. So a week after, the same friend called me one early morning. She said ‘Helen, they will take you back to Cameroon, but this time they will not tell you the date, they are coming to take you by surprise. They have set a removal direction for you on the 26th. They have booked your flight.’ I said, my God, what is this. I called my solicitor, and I told her that this same lady who told me that I would be detained, she has called me again this morning to say that my removal direction has been set for the 26th, that they are planning to come and take me by surprise. My solicitor said ‘Helen, don’t be daft, if you had a removal direction they would have sent it to you and they would have sent it to me.’ But she said ‘that not withstanding, I will not take this for granted, because the first time she said you would be detained we took it for granted.’ So she called the immigration and she confronted them. She told them that we have heard, and is it true that you have set a removal direction for Helen on the 26th?’ She said at first they were beating around the bush, and then they turned around said yes, we have. She was that angry, she said ‘why would you people do that, why would you set a removal direction for somebody and you don’t tell the solicitor and you don’t tell her?’ So that day, they sent the removal directions to her and they sent a copy to me as well.
“The second time I went into detention, it was the worst. You know, when I used to hear that people had committed suicide, I used to say that nothing would make me take away my life. But when I was detained the second time, inside the van, that was when I realised that when you are in so much pain, when you are harming yourself, you do not feel the pain. Because the pain that you already have in your mind, it’s like its overcoming what you are even using to cut your own arm. Because when I was inside the van, I knew the suffering was just too much, and I was just bent on ending it all. I cut my arm but I did not even feel the pain. I said I have fought a lot and I can’t fight any more. I have to end it now. I didn’t even realise that I had slashed my arm. When I knew that blood was coming out from my arm it was when the security people inside the van said ‘Helen, what are you doing?’ That was when I saw blood coming from my arm. But I did not feel the pain, I didn’t feel it. So then they reversed the van, and they went to a police station in Ashford. They took away everything from my side and one person was sitting by my side, they were talking to me, telling me to be calm. But I was just looking at them, thinking if only these people knew what I have gone through. If only they knew the pain that I’m carrying on just my one head. They would not be saying this. Or they would not be doing this to me.
“I could die, this last time that I was in detention, I could have died. Because they took me inside that place I used to sit and, you know, it was as if the whole world was collapsing on my head. I used to sit in the night, that place was cold but I would be sweating, it would be dripping on my leg, my whole body would be wet. I remember there was this time at two am in the morning, I was sweating, I had all this pressure in me, I said oh my god I wish I could die now. I was even scared of my own room. I ran out of the room and I went down to their office. And the officer asked me ‘what is it?’. I said ‘oh, if only you could understand.’ So you know, this life is so unfair. Some people, you know, you get it tough.
“They stopped my medication, because I had been on sleeping tablets and anti-depressants for a very long time. When I went into detention they stopped my medication. I wasn’t getting any of that. After a while, when Medical Justice wrote, with the intervention of one of their doctors they put me on another medication. But what they did was, the medication that I was taking before, it’s not the medication that they gave me. They went and gave me Kalms. This is a pill that you get over the counter. But with a situation like mine, Kalms will not make you sleep. I didn’t know anything about it, I just took it that it wasn’t working. Only when I was released, then a GP was asking me ‘who gave you this medication?’ I said they gave it me in detention, he said ‘I can’t believe this.’ So I had a tough time because I wasn’t sleeping at all. I could stay up 24 hours without any sleep because the moment I closed my eyes I started having all these horrible dreams and I would be screaming and crying and I could not sleep. So during the day I would have these severe headaches and confusion, I could not sleep at all.
“The worst thing about detention was seeing people harming themselves, seeing people slashing their clothing. People trying to put naked wires, connecting them in water and standing on them. Seeing people slashing their arms.
“To hear that they will take me back to where I am at high risk of being killed, despite all the evidence that has been given to them by me and even other people who do not know me and have done research on their own.
“I am so scared of being locked up in a room. Since I left prison [in Cameroon] I am so scared of being locked up, because when I am in an enclosed space, I just feel that somebody can come and attack me. I just feel that I will die. I just feel that something will happen to me.
“I have Hepititus B and problems with my liver, and was receiving treatment before I was detention, but when I went into detention everything was stopped, I didn’t receive anything. Even when I was in Ashford, my baby was still supposed to take his last dose of the Heptitus B vaccine, to prevent him from catching the virus from me. So one of the staff nurses there told me that because I don’t have status in this country I have to pay for that vaccine. I said but, you can’t have to pay for a vaccine for a child, they gave him the first and the second dose before I was detained, I didn’t pay for it. They said, well you don’t have the status so you have to pay for it. I had to get Medical Justice involved, and that is how he got the vaccine.
“In detention, you meet people, but the thing is you people can’t really talk because you all have got the same problem. Everybody in detention is depressed. Everybody is crying. Everybody is trying to commit suicide. Everybody is going on hunger strike. So there is nothing positive that you people can talk. You people cannot help yourself.
“In detention, we’ve got these befrienders, the person that they sent to me, she’s such a nice lady, she used to come and see us.
“There was a chapel. I’m telling you, in detention, when it comes to Christianity, its so sweet, its so nice because everybody is that passionate, everybody is that committed. You are just looking up to something that will reassure you that things will be okay. So you have this very strong Christian community inside there.
“The first time we went into detention, my son was ten months old, and he didn’t really know what was happening. But the second time, he was over a year, and it was telling on him. Because the way I was feeling, the pent-up I had in me, I don’t know how I can explain it, it was affecting him. Because each time I start crying, he would start crying. If I cry for two hours, he would be crying for those two hours, until the guards would come to my room and say, you can’t be doing this, look at your son. But then, it didn’t matter to me that Alistair was my son at that time because the way I was feeling, I wasn’t seeing him by my side at that time.
“He wasn’t sleeping. It’s not only him, all the children in detention, they don’t sleep. At 2am, 3am, 4am in the morning they are up running. As their parents don’t sleep, they don’t sleep.
“So it really did affect him, because he was a very happy child, but when we left detention this second time he just started withdrawing. Before, he was not the kind of child that was clinging onto me too much, he was like loving going to other people. But when we left this second time, when I am holding him and somebody comes to take him, you know, he becomes that withdrawn and he becomes that aggressive.
“He lost his appetite, everything. He wasn’t eating, he was that thin, his neck was that thin and he head was that thick. I could take him to the dining room to eat, but he didn’t want most of the food most of the time. So, almost on a daily basis, I had to end up buying him the noodles from the canteen that he would eat. In Ashford, it was the worst because they didn’t have a children’s menu. They were putting chilli in the food that they give to children. If you go and complain, that’s your problem.
“The lawyer that I had the first time when I went to detention in February, they were not that good. They were just good to get you an injunction to stop your flight, and that is it. I have never even met him, I have never seen him.
“So I got another solicitor and they are that good. They are very, very good. They put in a fresh claim. What happened, they dug right deep into my case, and started doing their own research. They started corresponding with politicians in Cameroon directly themselves. It came to a point where SCNC, the only English-speaking group that is opposing the government in Cameroon, said that they were ready to send their Vice-Chairman to come and testify here in the UK on my behalf. That is something, that for a major party to do that, it means that you are a politician not only by mouth but by action. It means they know who you are. So my solicitors did a lot of research that I could not do even on my own. Because I had lost contact with so many people, I had lost numbers. So my solicitors, they did a lot of work. So we are still hoping to hear from the Home Office. When they put in a fresh claim for me in February, I was released on temporary admission, to Millbank.
“If I could speak to the Home Office now, I would just say, I know it is difficult for them sometimes, to know who genuine asylum seekers are. But if people have undergone the kind of trauma that somebody like me has undergone, and they come here where they think that they are safe, but they are still being verbally abused and mentally tortured by Home Office staff, I don’t think the world is going to be a better place. I don’t think that is going to do any good. Because for somebody like me now my life is not the same again.
“Where I am staying, I am sharing the house with a lady, but I’m telling you this lady has already lodged a complaint. Because I’ve got this thing, when I am sleeping, the moment I hear a footstep, I get up and I scream in my dream. The moment I hear a knock on the door it’s like I will fall on the ground and collapse. I sleep with my door open, and the moment I hear a footstep, like if she gets up in the night, I will be screaming ‘Mary, is that you, what do you want, why should you be moving about in the night?’ Because with the amount of fright that’s been put in me I’m so, so scared. I am scared of the unknown, I’m scared of everything, because I have had it in my life. The tough times that I have had, if they give somebody the person will not be able to carry it. I have had it.
“So they should just treat asylum seekers with a bit of respect and dignity. We come to claim asylum, but we are human beings. It is situations that force people out of their country, to come here and claim asylum. If they carried you now to another country where someone would be torturing you for no genuine reason, when you knew you could come back to Britain, you would not do that. If you know that you will be safe in your own country you would not go somewhere where they will be rough handling you.
“Sometimes, the way they handle your case, you just wonder, these people, did they do any research? They should try to find out who genuine asylum seekers are. Because people suffer in this country when they have fled, running here for safety. They are being treated like nothing. I have lost my mind, I have lost my memory. I go to college, but when I sit in the classroom I realise that I am so daft, I cannot even remember one plus one sometimes. Everything has wiped out from my mind. I have explained to my course tutor some of the things that I have gone through so they should really understand why I find it difficult to catch up with things now. It will be really hard for me.
“My GPs, they are very, very helpful, they have been stepping in from time to time. We just had a meeting last week, because I have been on anti-depressants and sleeping tablets for a very long time. I have been talking with them to try to see a way to come out of it. Even though they are saying if I come out of it, it will do more harm than good, but I think I’ve taken them for a very, very long time. So what they have done now, they have organised counselling. I have just enrolled to do a course in counselling myself at college. Because I think if I go into the course myself it’s going to help me to deal with things better. Even though there are certain things that it will be difficult for me to wipe away from my mind, but maybe I will find a better way of dealing with them and living with them."