Frontline extra: An emotional lifeline

The Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group provides practical help and support for asylum seekers held at Tinsley House, writes Indira Das-Gupta.

Robert is only 27, but he has spent most of the past five years in various detention centres. His only crime was to flee his native Sierra Leone, where he faced certain death. His mother, father and sisters were killed and his house burned to the ground. He was tortured for being involved with the opposition movement and has the scars to prove it. Little wonder, then, that he arrived with no passport or form of identification. But he has been penalised for it ever since - the immigration authorities say there is no proof that he is a citizen of Sierra Leone or a genuine asylum seeker. He is now held at Tinsley House detention centre near Gatwick Airport.

"I could write a book about what has happened to me," says Robert (not his real name). "I'm just trying to manage - what else can I do? Everyone has a hard life. I know my case is not going forward, only staying the same." A volunteer from Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group visits Robert regularly. "Having someone who comes to visit me and cares about what happens to me makes a lot of difference though," he says. "And I pray every day."

Few people in Robert's situation would be capable of pouring out their experiences to a complete stranger in such a matter of fact way, if at all. Others who request a visit from the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group are simply too traumatised to speak. "I visited one detainee who wouldn't say a word, no matter what I tried," says Felicity Dick, chair of the charity. "I eventually asked him if he wanted me to leave or stay and just sit with him, and he said: 'No, please stay.'"

The organisation provides the detainees with practical help such as a phone card so they can contact their solicitor, or finding numbers for lawyers or other useful services. They also deliver basic toiletries and clothing, donated by local businesses and church groups.

Above all, they try to prevent the detainees from feeling isolated by offering companionship. Although Tinsley House is located right next to a busy airport, relatively few people know about it. There are no public transport links and it is a difficult place for many detainees' friends and families to get to, especially as detainees are often taken to the centre from other parts of the country.

"The asylum seekers who end up at Tinsley House are almost always detained without warning, perhaps early in the morning, and are given just five minutes to get their things together," says Jessica Gustavsson, support worker for the charity. "Many end up in the detention centre without money or the number of their solicitor. It's humiliating, and they feel like they need to stress to us that they haven't done anything wrong when we go to see them."

According to the charity's figures, each year 12,000 asylum seekers pass through Tinsley House, which houses 150 people at a time. Some stay for a few days or even just a few hours - others stay for months. The charity distributes leaflets in 21 different languages and detainees can call a freephone number if they would like a visit from a volunteer.

Unlike prisoners, asylum seekers are required to find their own solicitors, so the charity is training volunteers to become low-level legal advisers.

Volunteers also receive mandatory training and meet every six weeks, mainly to offer each other support. Pascale Noel, the co-ordinator, explains: "Volunteers often feel powerless. They might visit someone who is in a desperate situation and who is about to be deported, and they often feel afterwards as if they haven't done anything to help them."

At the detention centre it soon becomes clear what Noel means as Robert reveals the catalogue of incompetence and legal absurdities that have resulted in him spending nearly a fifth of his life in detention. "I was arrested during my second week here," he says. "The police asked me why I hadn't been reporting in to them and why I didn't apply for asylum straight away, but I didn't know I had to."

Since then, Robert has been moved between detention centres and prison, with intermittent and limited periods of freedom. At one point he was even taken back to Sierra Leone, but the authorities refused to accept him because they claimed they had no evidence to prove his nationality, so he was brought back to the UK. Not long afterwards he was taken to the Senegalese, Gambian and Congolese embassies, all in one day, to try to establish his nationality.

At one point, when he was out of detention and living in Crawley, he was told he had to report to the police station in East Croydon. However, by this time he had exhausted all his appeals, so he was ineligible for any benefits and was forced to travel without a ticket. As he had no money and was reduced to sleeping rough, he decided to find work using false papers, but was eventually arrested. "If you have no money and nowhere to sleep, what else can you do?" he asks. "Some people might turn to crime, but I would not do that. I want to look after myself - I don't want to ask for help."

The sad reality is that nobody can say how much longer Robert will have to spend in detention. He admits: "If I knew what I would have to go through when I came here, I wouldn't be here today."

FACT FILE: GATWICK DETAINEES WELFARE GROUP

What it is: A Crawley-based charity that provides support for asylum seekers being held at Tinsley House, which is located next to Gatwick airport.

What it does: There are between 70 and 80 volunteers who visit Tinsley House at least once a week and keep the detainees company. They also provide practical help such as providing lawyers' phone numbers.

How it's funded: The Big Lottery Fund and the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation pay for the three full-time members of staff and day-to-day maintenance.

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