Content warning: rape, suicide
Today, Women for Refugee Women and After Exploitation have released new data revealing that, over the last three years, the Home Office has locked up thousands of modern slavery survivors in immigration detention. Between 2017 and 2019, the detention of trafficking survivors tripled from 410 to 1256.
The government makes a big deal about ending modern slavery and trafficking. But, behind the positive newspaper headlines, they’re causing further harm and distress to people who are victims of these traumatising crimes. I know this because I have experienced this treatment myself. This is my story.
My name is Voke, I’m 40 years old and I was born and raised in West Africa. My parents divorced when I was quite young. A few years later, my mother married another man. He was always telling me off; I was scared of him. Then, when I was a teenager, he told me we didn’t have enough money, and that I had to start bringing money in for the family. At first, I didn’t really understand what he meant, but then I realised he wanted me to have sex with other men for money.
“After what had happened in my country, I was terrified to be locked up again. I cried and cried”
I told him I didn’t want to do this, but he attacked and beat me. I was taken to hospital and was there for a few days. Afterwards I went to the police, and told them what had happened, but they didn’t do anything. When I returned home, my stepfather made me start having sex with other men for money. My mother knew what he was doing to me. Sometimes, she would beat me if she thought I wasn’t doing what my stepfather said.
After a few years, one of the men who had been paying to have sex with me told me he could help me get away. He helped me get a visa and I came to the UK. But after two years my visa expired. I couldn’t go back; I knew what would happen to me. I spoke to some solicitors, who said they could help me renew my visa, but they never did any work on it. None of the solicitors I saw asked me about what had happened to me in my country.
Then, at the beginning of 2017, I was arrested and taken to Yarl’s Wood which is a detention centre near Bedford. It’s a miserable place where mostly women are detained. No one from the Home Office asked me about what had happened to me, or any of my previous experiences, before I was detained. After what had happened in my country, I was terrified to be locked up again. I cried and cried.
While I was at Yarl’s Wood, another woman there gave me the name of a private solicitor. I called them, and after they had asked me some questions about why I had come to the UK, and what had happened to me, they told me I could claim asylum.
I had my asylum interview in Yarl’s Wood, and I told the Home Office about what my stepfather had done to me. After that, they referred me into the National Referral Mechanism which is the process for identifying people who have been victims of modern slavery. I thought, ‘Finally, someone is going to help me.’
But then the Home Office said they didn’t believe me. I was devastated that after I had explained the trauma I had been through, they could just dismiss it all. My solicitor didn’t tell me I could challenge this decision – they only said they needed more money to keep representing me. I couldn’t pay any more, so that was it.
By this point, I had been in Yarl’s Wood for over a month. After about another month, I had an examination by a doctor to see whether I should be classed as vulnerable. The doctor wrote a report which said the scars and injuries on my body were consistent with what I had explained had happened to me. The Home Office accepted what the report said, but they still kept me in detention.
“When I finally received my positive decision from the Home Office I thought: ‘Why have you only decided to believe me now? My story is the same as it was when I told you three years ago'”
I started to feel really bad. I was so depressed, but whenever I went to the healthcare department at the centre I felt like they weren’t really listening to me. I told them I couldn’t sleep, that something wasn’t right in my head, that I had been thinking about hurting myself. But they didn’t do anything. I started to feel like no one would ever help me, that what was happening to me would never end.
After I had been in detention for seven months, I couldn’t see the point of my life anymore, and I told a doctor that was how I was feeling. But even when I told them how I had started to hear voices, telling me to end my life, they still didn’t help me.
So I tried to kill myself. I just felt like my life had been taken away from me. It was at the weekend, so they put me on ‘constant supervision’, and told me I would see a doctor in a couple of days. The next day, after they had stopped watching me, I tried again. After it happened, one of the officers asked me why I had done something so silly. It made me feel so bad, like no one would ever listen to me, or take my feelings seriously.
Eventually, I got a new Legal Aid solicitor. And after I had been in detention for almost eight months, my solicitor went to court and a judge told the Home Office they had to release me. After my release, my new solicitor challenged the negative ‘reasonable grounds’ decision on my trafficking case that I had been given while I was in Yarl’s Wood, and the Home Office reversed their original decision.
Last year, in 2020 – three years after I was released from Yarl’s Wood – I finally got a positive ‘conclusive grounds’ decision. This means that the Home Office accepts that what happened to me in my country was modern slavery. When I finally received my positive decision from the Home Office I thought: ‘Why have you only decided to believe me now? My story is the same as it was when I told you three years ago.’ Three more years of my life have been taken away from me, pointlessly.
I have been having some counselling since I was released from detention, and I hope I will recover. But I will never forget being detained. I will never forget Yarl’s Wood; it scars your mind. I feel so sad to know how many other people are being hurt by detention like I was. But I am not surprised, because I know the Home Office treats people without humanity or care.
*The author’s name has been anonymised for safety