The Nigerian experience is physical, emotional and sometimes international. No one knows it better than our features on #TheAbroadLife, a series where we detail and explore Nigerian experiences while living abroad.
Today’s Abroad Life talks to us about moving to the UK when he was 13 and being sent to a detention centre once he needed a visa to continue staying in the country.
When did you move to the UK?
I was 13 when my parents sent me down to live with my aunt. Their aim was to give me a better life.
Soon after, the UK became my home. I was planning to go to university when it dawned on me that I needed a visa. I was 18.
So you were talking about trying to get a visa?
That’s how my battle with immigration began. I sent in an application to the home office, and they denied it over and over again. One time they said, “Oh, you know, you’ve been here for so long. You’re older than 18. You can look after yourself. You can take whatever it is that you’ve learned here to your home and started a new life.”
But the UK was my home. I didn’t have any ties in the country they wanted to send me to. At that time, I wasn’t really even in touch with my parents.
I showed proof that I wasn’t lying. My school records showed how long I had been there. We went back and forth until they told me to report. If you don’t have the right status, papers or the visa to stay, you have to go to a centre to show them you haven’t absconded, then they mark you present. That’s what reporting was. My appointment was once in two weeks, and I did this for over a year.
Then what happened?
I was taken. I went to do my report and was detained.
The lady reporting me told me, “Oh, you have an interview today.” And as soon as she said that, I knew that there was something wrong. They took me into another room, took off everything I had on me and told me to wait. I sat down for a while and an immigration officer came and went, “We’re ready for you.” He took me into another room, and she started asking some questions. After a while, she said, “Unfortunately, we’re not going to be letting you go today.” I just started crying. It felt like my spirit left my body. I thought that was the end for me.
I was taken into a van. I didn’t know where we were going or what was going on. They don’t tell you anything. We were driven for about an hour. Then we stopped somewhere that looked like a prison. They took our fingerprints then put us in a cell. It was at about 1 a.m.
I called my aunt once I knew I was at a detention centre. She knew something had happened because I left home at 3 p.m. the day before, but she couldn’t get in touch with me because my phone had been taken. I used the centre’s phone to tell them about the situation I was in.
I’d never committed a crime, I’d never been to prison in my life, but there I was. After two weeks, they transferred me to a different centre, where I spent about two months and some weeks. I was in detention for about three months.
During all of this, did they explain why they were doing this?
No. I had a few solicitors representing me. But the Home Office kept telling them that I had no rights to be in the UK. I had no legal documentation, so they were processing my deportation.
My solicitors said, “Okay, he doesn’t have these papers, but it’s not that he doesn’t have the right documentation. He’s tried.”
So your solicitors kept trying for you?
Yes. My solicitors said, “You want to send away this guy that’s been here for over 6 years. He came when he was a minor. How’s he going to cope if you send him back?” They were asking them to put all these into consideration, though it seemed like they’d made up their minds to send me back.
I applied for bail, I paid a lot of money to lawyers. my solicitor presented my case. The home office lawyer also presented their case. Only for the judge to turn around and say, “I’m not going to grant you bail.”
At that moment, I lost it. I thought it was game over for me, and this put me in a depressive state. I thought it was better for me to probably end it and just kill myself.
The anxiety. People kill themselves in detention centres. You’re in a place where you’re left in the dark. Literally, you have no idea what’s going on. They could come any minute and say: “Okay, it’s time for you to go. We are taking you.”
They will literally drag you to the plane and even escort you to whatever country you come from.
What were the conditions of the place?
It was hostile. Definitely not a place where people should be. They lock you in the cell at a certain time. They open the cells at a certain time. It’s routinely controlled and monitored. You can’t have smartphones. Your freedom is taken. There were rats everywhere and drugs. Some people go in there clean, but their mental state changes and they resort to drug use.
Violence was also rife. People fought all the time because there was nothing else to do. I could step on your toes by accident, and it would become an issue because people were angry and depressed.
Did any fight happen while you were there?
Yeah, there were a lot of fights. I personally didn’t witness people die, but there were stories even on the news.
I’m sorry you had to go through all of that. On what grounds did they release you?
It was unexpected. Remember, I’d already gone to court to get bail. They just called me and said, “If we were to release you today, where are you going to go?” I was so shocked that I forgot my address. I’d been there for three months. I was released that evening. I got detained in August 2018 and was released in November.
How did you feel?
Uncertain, because the journey never ends that easy. A lot of released people get kidnapped again. They could tell you to come and report again, and if you still don’t have the right legal papers, they may detain you. There’s someone that I know that has been there three times.
And I’ve heard cases of people who have been there more than three times. They take them, release them, take them again, release them. It’s like a continuous cycle.
There are people who have been there for two-three years without leaving.
That’s fucked up.
Where the problem is now is that they don’t know what’s happening. They’re locked in these places and don’t know when they will be released. If you commit a crime and you go to prison, they give you a sentence. But you know when you’re coming out. That’s not the case here. You don’t know. You can be there for weeks or for years.
Is there any chance that you could get detained again?
My papers are sorted now.
Are you still in touch with your family in Nigeria?
Now I am.
You weren’t before?
It was on and off. I spoke to them rarely.
How did they take everything that happened?
When I reconnected with them and told them the story and everything, they couldn’t believe it. They would have probably wanted me to come back rather than going through all of that. In a way, I’m glad I experienced these things, and I’m glad it didn’t break me. Once I came out, I thought, “I’m going to do everything within my power to help the countless people that are also going through the detention process or even just the immigration process in general.
What have you done to help?
I joined a charity organisation called “Detention Action”. It was the first thing I did when I came out. What we do is to campaign to bring an end to indefinite detention. That’s what we fight for.
Want more Abroad Life? Check in every Friday at 12 PM (WAT) for a new episode. Until then, read every story of the series here.