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God behind bars: faith stories in an immigration removal centre

The treatment of immigration detainees has made TV headlines recently. Chaplain Rev Roger Harper shares the stories of those he has prayed with behind the barbed wire fences of a removal centre

James* was required by the UK Home Office to board a plane for Iraq. They had turned down his claim for asylum. If he refused, three or four trained officers would forcefully escort him onto the plane and to Baghdad.

James had grown up in a Christian family in Mosul and had enjoyed the freedom that came after the removal of Saddam Hussein. But with this monumental event came a backlash from conservative Muslims who were aghast at the sinful Western culture flooding into their country via TV and music. ISIS grew rapidly and James’ family were forced to flee Mosul.

James made his way to the UK and applied for asylum, confident that his longstanding Christian faith would be recognised as putting him in mortal danger in his birth country. For a couple of years, while his claim was being assessed, he lived with relatives in London and was very active in the refugee church.

One day, without warning, James was detained by the Home Office. He was sent to Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre near Lincoln (pictured, above right), a former prison with towering fences and razor wire, holding 370 other detainees from many backgrounds, half of whom had served prison sentences in the UK. I met James while working at the centre for three months as a chaplain.

James’ solicitor had lodged a last minute appeal against the refusal of asylum. For now, he was still on the list for immediate deportation and was refusing to go willingly to Heathrow. A couple of days later, his permission to appeal was granted and he was released back to his family in London. At the time of writing, his final immigration status is unknown.

Abuse and injustice

A recent BBC Panorama documentary levelled serious criticisms at another immigration removal centre, Brook House. Hidden cameras showed a few officers belittling and intimidating detainees, sometimes using excessive force.

It is right that these officers have been suspended for investigation. However, my three months at Morton Hall gave me great respect for most officers there who show patience, kindness and respect to detainees who are sometimes angry or abusive. Short staffing meant that officers were often required to work overtime, taking them away from their families. If our government wants officers at IRCs to treat the detainees well, they need to treat the officers better, as well as disciplining those who succumb to the temptation to hit back.

Most people who are detained have a faith of some kind 

Every year the Home Office chooses to send individuals back to their own country for a variety of reasons. It can be a messy, ugly business and is far from perfect. A quicker, more humane system, would involve more trust. At present asylum seekers have to prove that they are in danger. This is deeming them, from the start, guilty of making a false claim until they prove their innocence. In my view, it would be better to deem asylum seekers, at least from certain countries, innocent of making a false claim until they are proved guilty. The Home Office would have to prove that they are not in danger. The government would soon learn how hard it is to produce such proof.

Important questions 

As a chaplain at the removal centre, I was not there to judge the rights and wrongs of the system but to lead worship at the chapel and offer personal prayer and pastoral support to detainees. Before I tell you more of their stories, here are some common questions often asked about immigration removal:

How can the Home Office not know how dangerous it is for Christians like James to live in places like Mosul?

All asylum and ‘leave to remain in the UK’ claims are dealt with on an individual basis. There are no blanket directives to accept certain people from certain places. Each claimant has to prove that they are indeed in danger. The fact is, a good number of would-be immigrants exaggerate the dangers in their birth country. Home Office officials have to weigh each case on its own merits, against a powerful, popular and political drive to restrict and reduce immigration. This weighing is complex, takes time, and needs the wisdom of Solomon.

How long do people stay in detention?

Any time from two days to two years, depending on their case. The centre where I worked normally had 15 men coming in and 15 men leaving, out of 370, every day. Following the Panorama documentary, Church leaders called for an end to indefinite detention. However, matters are not always that simple.

No mention was made of detainees deliberately prolonging their detention. Equally some countries, such as Zimbabwe, refuse to accept detainees who did not return voluntarily when first asked. One regular at chapel, Graham, widely liked by the staff, had regularly drunk too much in Zimbabwe and had a notable scar on his face from a car accident while drunk. The centre helped to dry him out and come to his senses over the two years he was there, but Zimbabwe refused to allow him to return. He was eventually released into the UK.

What are conditions like in an immigration removal centre?

The BBC showed only the gloomy, oppressive parts of detainees’ days, without any social, educational or religious activities. Within IRCs, detainees have more facilities and more freedom than prisoners. They are given a mobile phone with £5 each week to spend on phone credit, should they wish, and the opportunity to earn up to £30 a week in various tasks. Friends and family can send money to them and visit (though there are strict security checks of visitors due to the problem of drugs being smuggled into centres).

They are given meals and the opportunity to buy food and supplies at a shop and cook for themselves from time to time. They have TVs in their rooms, social areas and access to a computer suite with limited internet use also allowed. They are given paper, pens and can send faxes. They can go to various educational classes, mostly English and simple employment skills, such as barbering and window washing. They are unlocked from 8am to 8:30pm, with a couple of short lock-ups for the centre to count them.

They have open access to a library and a faith centre, with a chapel, a mosque and small rooms for Hindus and Sikhs. They have chaplains, paid by the government, for each faith.

Jake meets the shepherd

Most people who are detained have a faith of some kind. At Morton Hall a small group of Christians, mostly African, meets in the chapel at 7pm every evening and at weekends.

After worship one Sunday, Jake from Cameroon asked me to pray with him. He said he was due for immediate deportation. “I want the last rites,” he said earnestly. His father had been much involved in political opposition in Cameroon and had been killed in mysterious circumstances. He feared for his life if he returned.

I said we would pray according to Psalm 23, as ministers often do with those about to go into the valley of the shadow of death. We asked the Holy Spirit to come to make the presence of Jesus the Shepherd known to this man. He sat quietly for a minute or so. When I asked how he felt, he said he was surprisingly calm and the back of his neck was warm. We thanked the Holy Spirit for this Shepherd’s touch, the crook placed between the shoulders of the sheep to reassure and guide. We asked for more.

As we continued to sit quietly I noticed that his head was moving, a little, side to side. He explained that he felt that the hand on his neck was nudging him to turn his head both left and right. I encouraged him, saying, “I wonder what you can see beside you as you move your head…Keep your eyes closed and see if there’s anything there.” After a little quizzical pause, he said, “Feathers. Large white feathers.” “You have Jesus’ hand on you,” I said, “and Jesus’ angels beside you. Remember this as you go.” He seemed calmer and I was glad to know that Jesus was doing for him what no human could do. I did not see him again.

Losing your life in the UK

The spiritual realities of some Christian asylum seekers can lead to conflicts with the UK’s secular approach. A Nigerian I met over lunch criticised the Home Office for not recognising a danger which Africans would understand. His sister was now heavily involved in witchcraft and his life there was under severe threat. He declined my offer to pray with him.

More usual are the Bangladeshis, Chinese, Vietnamese and those of other nationalities who have overstayed their visas, sometimes by a good few years. It is hardest for people who came to the UK as children, and made their life here before being told they had no permission to stay. Foreign national criminals also lose their right to remain, especially if the offence involves guns or drugs.

A Vietnamese restaurant owner with a good reputation in his community was convicted of money laundering and, after his sentence, was detained for deportation. Such cases are often harrowing. I talked with his distraught English neighbours, concerned especially for his lovely teenage children who had only ever lived in the UK. The most I could do practically was to suggest they contact their MP as their route to the Home Office.

Peter sees blue skies 

I believe prayer can sometimes help Christian detainees decide where their future best lies.

Peter asked me to pray with him as he was due for deportation to Ghana. “Are you in danger there?” I asked. He laughed and said he did not want to return to the shame of failing at his dream to begin a new life in the UK. His uncle had been in the UK legally for years, working to support his relatives back in Ghana.

I felt prompted to pray in tongues 

Peter’s sister had sold a small trading business to finance his journey to the UK. He arrived on a student visa and enrolled on a course. He felt bad about depending on his family and applied for a simple job, using the ID of someone else who had permission to work. His fraud was discovered, and now he was awaiting deportation.

Peter’s mother was a leader in a longstanding Pentecostal church in Ghana. Ashamed to tell her of his arrest and detention, he had not spoken with her for months.

As we prayed, on my prompting, he chose the picture of the Holy Spirit coming as glitter to make him and his application shine in the eyes of the Home Office. We sat quietly. After a little while, he said he could see a bright blue sky with shape outlines moving around in the blue. He said he did not understand this picture. 

How to pray for immigration removal centres

• For the wisdom of Solomon for Home Office case workers as they make immigration decisions.

• For the patience of Job for the officers in immigration removal centres as they continue to be kind and respectful to a variety of often angry young men. Ask the Holy Spirit to remind them that all are made in his image.

• Courage for the government to allocate more resources to this area and find humane ways to meet their goals for immigration.

A day or so later I talked with Peter and encouraged him to phone his mother. He did. She was delighted to hear from him and was less anxious knowing what was happening with him. I suggested that blue skies are more likely to mean life in Ghana than in the UK. He was not angry but clearly did not agree with me.

While Peter was praying with me on other occasions he received a few further pictures and words which I believed were more likely to mean returning to Ghana than staying in the UK. On my last day at the centre, he asked me to pray again. I felt prompted to pray in tongues and the interpretation which I was given was a message that Peter would shine in the darkness. Peter said this rang very true with his spirit. I told him that I think the darkness represented his return to Ghana where he cannot see a way forward, but that God would go with him. We parted on good terms.

A Christian response 

The Old Testament commands compassion for the alien and the foreigner. Even so, visitors remained aliens rather than immigrant members of the nation, except for the few who gave up their former identity, culture and religion, as Ruth did.

So how should Christians respond? Is the biblical way to welcome people (perhaps more readily than we do at present) but keep them always as guests with their home elsewhere, to which they will return eventually? If they want to stay, should they give up ‘alien’ ways and adopt ‘our’ ways? Might this enhance the British tradition of welcome while reassuring some of those who are against immigration? Or would it be a step backwards?

These are important questions we need to ask ourselves, while always holding out the love and compassion that our faith in Christ requires in seeing all people as God’s children, and that his family transcends national borders. Meanwhile, we must pray for grace and wisdom for officials who make difficult immigration decisions, the people whose lives and futures hang in the balance, and the staff who come faceto-face with those affected. 

* The names of detainees have been changed



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