My time in a detention centre
“I was encouraged to work – for £1 an hour”
Tamil Solidarity activist Nandan, who recently spent several weeks in a Home Office detention centre, spoke about his experience of organising against the exploitation of inmates and the campaign to fight for refugee rights.
I came to the UK to study in 2011. But in 2012 my previous political activity, campaigning for the rights of Tamils in Sri Lanka and organising students, caused me problems. The then Sri Lankan gov
ernment of warmonger Mahinda Rajapaksa made accusations against me and the financial support I relied on stopped. I claimed asylum and changed to studying part time.
Because of a lack of understanding and problems with translation, my case was refused. I appealed. Until then I had avoided politics in Britain, fearing it could cause me problems. But problems came anyway and so I started attending meetings. At a book launch in East Ham I met Tamil Solidarity. They stood out as a group because they said the only way to win our rights is to fight for them and because they were democratic.
I was arrested. I had committed no crime but I was held in custody for one day as there was no transport to take me to the detention centre. They said it wasn’t a prison but it felt like one. They said I could do whatever I wanted but we went through six or seven locked doors to get to the box I was locked in until 8am.
I could have a phone – but not if it had a camera on it. There were books to read – but nothing interesting and definitely nothing political. I could have 50 minutes internet – but no access to social media. I could watch news – BBC, but not Al Jazeera.
Friends were not allowed to bring me food or toiletries. There was plenty of food but portions were limited. I was so hungry. They said I could buy more but I had no money. They told me to work. Outside I was banned from working but inside I was encouraged to work – for £1 an hour. We could clean, garden, cook, launder, work in the library.
Initially when I was detained I felt hopeless – that this was the law and there was nothing I could do.
But my experience helped me realise that this system is not for us, that it’s true we have to fight for everything, for our rights – not only in my country but here too.
While I was there I saw at least two people a day brought in and it made me think that there’s payment per detainee for the private company running the place. Not only is this unjust, it is also profiteering.
So I started to discuss with some of the others about our right to earn the minimum wage. It was difficult to organise a campaign – there’s CCTV everywhere and if you gather in groups they ask what you’re talking about. So a few of us chatted with people during work about a strike.
Me and the other four leading activists in this struggle were released before the strike could be fully organised. But I continue to build the struggle for refugee rights – raising the demands for the right to work for refugees and the closure of the detention prisons.
The Refugees Rights Campaign is an umbrella organisation, involving Tamil Solidarity and others. It demands that refugees be allowed to work and an end to deportations. Speakers from the campaign will lead a workshop forum at Socialism 2016.