This article is published as part of ‘Unlocking Detention’ – an annual ‘virtual’ tour of the UK’s detention estate, which aims to shine a spotlight on one of the gravest civil liberties issues in Britain today. Michael Goldin is an alumni of the René Cassin Fellowship Programme and previously worked for the JCWI.
I first met Amir Siman Tov when he called me up at work looking for someone to represent him in his Judicial Review. We spent a long time talking about his long and complex immigration histories. Born in Morocco, he had spent time in Iran and Afghanistan in both Muslim and Jewish communities and was now trying to make a life for himself in the UK. Unfortunately, we were unable to help him due to lack of capacity and I directed him on to another law firm. We stayed in touch however and I would often visit him in his home where we would talk, drink Moroccan tea and he would tell me the aspirations he had for him and his wife in the UK once his immigration problems were sorted.
He would text me every week to wish me Shabbat Shalom, the Jewish greeting for the Sabbath and I would reply in kind. However, after a couple of months his texts stopped. I tried once or twice to get hold of him but to no avail. I knew he had legal representation so I wasn’t too worried and I assumed he would get in touch with me in due course.
Then one day, as I was walking into work reading the news, I discovered that my friend was dead. He had been detained at Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre and one morning had been found dead in his room. The circumstances around his death were, as they remain, unclear. Suicide was mooted as a possibility, as was medical negligence on the part of the Colnbrook staff. Amir had severe mental health issues and immigration detention would not have been a safe place for him to be. He needed to be taking regular medication and in a supportive environment, not in a detention centre – a prison in all but name.
For that is what they are. Every door is locked, your daily schedule is strictly regulated and contact with one’s family and legal representatives is limited. There is also limited opportunity for social activities and the provision of healthcare is narrow. All this makes life in detention extremely difficult but what is perhaps worst of all is that the end is almost never in sight. Indeed, the UK is the only country in Europe that still has indefinite immigration detention. It is one thing to be locked up, it is quite another never knowing when exactly you will be able to wake up free and not inside a compound surrounded by barbed wire and uniformed guards.
Amir had extensive family in the UK and his brother told me he was the one who looked after the family and kept them together. Had he been afforded the opportunity to stay in this country he would’ve been a major asset. He was intelligent and kind and exactly the sort of person we need in these turbulent times.
While it is important that his family is told the truth and that as a society we can make sure something like this doesn’t happen again, the reason for Amir’s death is ultimately irrelevant. What needs to be acknowledged is that he was an extremely vulnerable man at the mercy of a state that failed him. Immigration detention is a controversial and politically charged issue, but what is manifest is that there is simply no justification for locking people up indefinitely when they have committed no crime and just at the point of their life when they need the most support. We need to care for people in Amir’s situation not treat them as criminals.