For the past few months I’ve been accompanying a young man, originally from Zimbabwe, to the Borders Agency office in Vulcan House, near the river Don in Sheffield. It is an area that was redeveloped over the past ten years with a host of residential flats and offices being built with river frontage. It has never really appealed to me as an area, the design of the buildings always felt substandard. I didn’t have occasion to visit the area except to walk or ride along the riverside on the path until I was asked to go along with this young man.
Every month, on a Friday, he is required to sign on at the Border Agency office to verify that he is still present and that he is being above board in his life here, he is not allowed to work, he has no income at all: he is a destitute asylum seeker, one of many whose initial claim for asylum has been rejected who is officially not allowed to reside in the UK but is tolerated in the interim, before deportation, or the submission of a new claim and has to verify his residence once a month at this office.
I accompany him because he may, on one of these occasions, be taken into custody before being sent to a detention center and deported. He had heard that they were ‘picking up’ Zimbabweans and it was on that occasion he asked me to go with him. So each time I prepare myself with his lawyers number, the number of the Chair of ASSIST, the number of the legal expert at ASSIST so that I can call them in that eventuality as time is of the essence.
It is a horrible experience going there, it feels like going into a nether world, like a vacuum from which there is no escape. This innocuous building is entered via an electronic door manned by three security border guards. They take all your belongings, ask you to remove your belt, remove your phone battery (in case you hide a razor blade), put everything through a scanner and scan you like in an airport. Once on the other side you really are in a parallel state where people do really just disappear behind a door and emerge in detention centers.
I’ve been working with destitute asylum seekers in a voluntary capacity for a few years now and knowing from personal experience how much they deserve to have respite in this country it is agonizing to be in the vortex of that building, it feels so far from anywhere.
The manners of the staff there are not bad but they are not always that good either. The security guards are brisk, they are polite but firm, greeting the new arrivals with a Sheffield ‘Alight Mate?’ – but it is a one sided relationship, on this side you are truly impotent. The first time I went I was really shocked, I hadn’t realised that here in this town was a portal like this. I was as polite as I could be and my friend, the young man, was shocked by how much better he was treated with me present. I can’t verify this as I am always there when I am there – but I know that should he be taken away all I will have is my telephone numbers, there will be no heroic rescue.
To the young man the place really is like a facist state, somewhere his rights can be obliterated in a moment, somewhere that stands outside the moral law that brought him from Zimbabwe in the first place, with his father and brother, ten years ago when he was a child. Brought up in England, schooled in London, at 18 he was told to go home: what he must have asked? Home? This is home.
On that first visit I was waiting, sheltering from the rain, under a cycle shed roof. I struck up conversation with a woman working inside the office explaining I was accompanying a young man afraid of being arrested. After a long conversation about cigarettes she said ‘You see, We’re not that bad, we’re just normal people’. Fair enough. Until you take him away. Put him in a cell. Put him in a detention center and send him to a plane to ‘return’ somewhere he hardly knows and would be profoundly dangerous for him. But yes, you are normal, it is normal.