'You feel caged’: Woman released from Dungavel speaks out on life inside an immigration detention centre

Comfort Otiwaa Dwamena tells of her experience in Dungavel detention centre as threat of deportation continues

AN EDINBURGH resident of 13 years, Comfort Otiwaa Dwamena (pictured), was released from Dungavel detention centre on Tuesday (24 July) after spending fifteen nights in what she says felt “like a prison”.

“You’re there with an electric wall, with staff, and you feel caged. You feel in distress. I don’t think it’s worth it for someone to go through that,” Dwamena told CommonSpace.

Dwamena was given a shock earlier this month when she was taken to the immigration detention centre and told she would be deported to Ghana, before she had even learned that the visa application she submitted in September had been rejected with no right to appeal.

Following pressure from her local MP Tommy Sheppard, the Home Office released Dwamena and agreed to block her removal temporarily while the case is considered. Both Dwamena and her partner Kwame have been seeking leave to remain in the UK since 2010, and a decision on Kwame’s visa application is still pending.

Dwamena said the experience was “terrible” and left her in a constant state of fear. “There was a lot of crying there, people worrying about what’s going to happen. I was there for two weeks – imagine someone who is there for longer.”

READ MORE: MP of Edinburgh resident given temporary reprieve from deportation blames Home Office ‘incompetence and callousness’ for her situation

The daily routine, she said, was rigid: “You wake up, have breakfast at eight, you go, you come back, if you want to call your lawyer, you call them.

“We were mostly in the dormitory, a big room with eight beds, and there was nothing to do – we only went out for breakfast, lunch, dinner, to the library or to fax something. There was a gym and the ladies got one hour to use it.”

The doors on the dormitories, Dwamena explained, were locked and had to be opened by a member of staff. “Sometimes you had to wait 10, 15 minutes to get out. One day I waited and nobody was there to let me out.”

For Dwamena, even meal-times were an added stress, because the canteen was shared between men and women. “Most of the women sit in the canteen but some of us took our food away and up to the dormitory because we weren’t comfortable being there,” she said.

“I was told that some of the guys are not just there for immigration, they’re from prison. I didn’t know what they were in for - I didn’t ask. I just spoke to the girls, not the guys.”

Apart from that, the food was “terrible” and the same food was provided for three days in a row.

During her detention, Dwamena was told that she would be transferred to a female unit in Manchester – and when she objected, she was subject to intimidation. “I said my life is here, my family is here, and I asked for paperwork to forward to my lawyer. He [the staff member] said this is a confidential document and I can’t give it to you,” she said.

READ MORE: Analysis: How many controversies must occur before Dungavel is finally closed?

“I told one of the ladies [another staff member] that I’m not going - my lawyer told me I shouldn’t go - and the lady said if I don’t go they would manhandle me and handcuff me – it was like she was putting the fear in me. That lady made me feel sick.

“I always felt scared when I was there. I didn’t want to go out of the room in case they locked me out and took me by force to Manchester. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t go out much.”

The stress of the situation even impacted on Dwamena’s health, and she said she was far from alone in the experience. “I ended up with rashes all over my body and I had to borrow E45 from one of the girls because the doctor said it was only tablets she could give me until I called my GP.”

To get medication, she explained, detainees had to attend during one of three slots per day, and suitable care was not always forthcoming. “One girl, her whole body was sore on one side, even her eyes were sore.

“They gave her paracetamol for five days but the girl wanted a blood pressure check to see if everything was okay and to let her see a doctor. I still don’t know if she has seen a doctor yet. It doesn’t take long to do a blood pressure check - she should have been given that.”

While some of the staff were “nice and would come to you if you’re upset”, Dwamena said that she and other detainees were reluctant to share anything in fear that it would be passed on to others.

“One day, officers came and asked us questions about how we were feeling. I didn’t have much to say but some of the girls were really forward.

READ MORE: Dungavel detainee ends hunger strike ahead of appeal; rooftop protest over conditions on 13 July

“One girl went to open the door later and heard them using her name and swearing and talking about what she said - they had told them everything that was said. If I speak to someone, I expect it to be confidential.”

Now that she has been released, Dwamena said that relief is still hard to find, knowing that her future remains uncertain. At the end of the month, she must report to the police station to find out what happens next.

“You never know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if they’re going to take me again or give me another condition to follow - I’m scared,” she said.

“I have been in this country for 13 years, my dad passed away and my mum doesn’t work. If I go home, what’s life going to be for me and my children? There’s no help for me there.”

The one thing Dwamena is sure of is that she does not want to return to Dungavel. “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, and I don’t think it’s necessary,” she said.

“It wasn’t my fault this happened to me. People, even some of the workers, think you’re there because you’re illegal – ‘you’re in this country, keeping our money’. I’m not troubling anyone and we have been trying to regularise our stay for years.”

Migrant rights campaigners such as Scottish Refugee Council and the Unity Centre have condemned the UK’s policy of immigration detention, while the Scottish Government has called for the system to be replaced with “community-based solutions” and a more “humane and flexible” approach.

Picture courtesy of John Davis