On the 17th February, Amir Siman-Tov was sadly found dead at Colnbrook Detention Centre. The details around the circumstances of his death are still unclear. Amir is the 26th person to die in a UK detention centre. His death comes in the wake of continued calls for reform to the immigration detention system.
We hear a lot of numbers surrounding the issue of indefinite detention, 3000 people held at any one time, over 30,000 people held every year. Yet it is important to remember that every one of these numbers is an individual that has friends and family that are affected by their imprisonment without a trial and without a time limit.
Michael Goldin writes about his friend Amir:
I only knew Amir for about 6 months before he died at Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre. In that short period of time we had become good friends and would speak often about Judaism and politics in addition to his complex legal issues. His complicated immigration status coupled with his mental health issues meant that he was not in a particularly easy place in life. However, throughout the period I knew him he was unfailingly generous to all those around him, often spending time helping others with their issues at the expense of dealing with his own.
Amir first called me up at work looking for legal advice and over the phone detailed his long and difficult immigration history. As a young man in Morocco his politics forced him to flee the country to Iran. There he commenced his postgraduate education studying philosophy with a view to an academic career. A consummate humanitarian, when not studying, Amir would join aid missions to Afghanistan providing assistance to the injured and internally displaced. It was on one of these visits that he made contact with some of the last remaining Jews in Afghanistan, from one of whom he took the surname “Siman-Tov” meaning “good omen”.
However, it became clear that Iran would not be a safe haven for Amir and he fled again, this time to Europe, eventually making his way to the UK. After having lived here legally for years, and having laid deep roots with family and friends, the Home Office began trying to deport him back to Morocco. All over again Amir needed to fight to for his safety. As a Jewish political dissident with hardly had any ties to his country of birth being deported was not something that he could countenance. However, the savage cuts to legal aid made it very difficult for him to engage a lawyer and so he invited me round to where he was living in east London so that together we might formulate a plan of action.
I arrived at Amir’s house just as a doctor from an NHS mental health crisis team was leaving. Assuming I was some sort of carer, the doctor pointed out to me to the paper bag full of anti-depressants he had left on the dining-room table. Amir seemed upbeat however and he insisted that I join him in the kitchen as he carefully chopped mint he had grown in garden to put in the tea he that was brewing, and, over Moroccan tea, we put together a plan that we hoped would enable him to stay in the country. I stayed much longer than that however. Amir loved talking about religion and politics and we spoke at length about a range of issues. He was intelligent and widely read and I learnt a huge amount from both this and the many similar conversations we had over the following few months.
Amir would text me every week on Friday to wish me Shabbat Shalom and would often send me articles and videos he thought I would find interesting. Then, at some point in January, he stopped texting me. I assumed that meant his judicial review had gone to court and that things were finally progressing. However, one day, as I browsed the news on the way to work, I discovered he was dead. He had been detained by the Home Office and had died in unexplained circumstances.
Amir died at his most vulnerable – at the mercy of the state pleading only to be allowed to live a quiet life with his loved ones. My friend was a kind and gentle man who gave far more than he took from the world. However, the circumstances of his death remain unexplained. The Home Office refuse to divulge any information at all regarding the circumstances in which he died. It has been almost a month and still Amir’s family are entirely in the dark. The fight for justice is not over.