by Michael Goldin, Coordinator of the Detention Jewish Visitors Group
On Sunday 1st March I attended an event to mark the yatrzheit of a friend of mine, Amir Siman-Tov, who died in Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre in 2016. The event was put together by Jewish Solidarity Action who organise to promote equality, justice and anti-racist policies in the UK.
Prior to the vigil itself we met in a community center near the Home Office building on Marsham Street where we began by studying some Jewish texts relating to immigration, asylum seekers and caring for the vulnerable. It felt appropriate to ground what we were doing, i.e. critiquing the government’s policy to detain indefinitely many people who have irregular immigration status in the source texts of our traditional values. Treating the ‘stranger’ as alien is as old as society itself and it was comforting to be reminded that these biblical and medieval Jewish texts have always advocated the opposite. As an autodidact who rejoiced in engaging in traditional texts and ideas I feel Amir would have approved.
We also heard from Kasonga Ishiaba from Freed Voices who, as a former detainee himself, is an expert by experience. He told us what the reality of life is like for people who are locked up for no crime other than wanting to seek a better life; either by escaping war or hardship in their birth-country or by wanting to remain with their family in the UK. Kasonga explained to us that this horrible reality has led to the deaths of tens of people whilst and we resolved to keep their memory alive by reading their names aloud and then writing them onto stones which we would put at the entrance to the Home Office.
Stones in hand, we walked round the corner to the Home Office were we placed the stones at the base of tree near the entrance. We said mourners kaddish in memory of Amir and all those who have died in similar circumstances. I said a few words about my friend who I knew only as softly-spoken man who put the needs of others, especially his family, before his own. I recounted that the one time I visited him in his home Amir insisted that I sit on the sofa whilst he chopped mint leaves that he had brought fresh that morning in order to make me what he said was “the finest Moroccan tea in the world”. He also gifted me an elaborate corkscrew as a thanks for visiting him in his home. Amir was the consummate host and we should be embarrassed that as a country we could not be the same to him.
The horror of immigration detention continues to be a stain on our society. Just a couple of weeks ago an inquest jury found that Prince Fosu, a Ghanaian national, died in in 2012 in Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre due to neglect and gross failures on the part of the Home Office and its associated contractors. Mr Fosu had come to the UK on a business visa but died on the floor of a segregation cell naked and alone. Amir’s inquest is still ongoing but one this is clear, he was a vulnerable man who died whilst he was in the care of the state. It is clear where the responsibility for his death lies.
Around 25,000 people each year are detained indefinitely in the UK under the government’s immigration powers. The effect this has on their life is immense. Amongst innumerable other consequences this cuts them off from their families, it often prevents them getting adequate medical treatment, it exacerbates the existing mental health conditions (including those of people who are victims of torture) and it disrupts communication with their legal advisers. In short, it doesn’t treat human beings with the dignity they deserve and we should be doing everything we can to change that.