How it feels to… live in a detention centre
This week’s Sunday sit-down is with Veronica Black
Veronica works for a charity, volunteers in a soup kitchen in her North-East town and is a busy mum. Seeing her at the park on a play-date or at her local church, you’d never guess what Veronica has been through, or what brought her to the North East. She doesn’t often tell people. But now a new women’s detention centre opening up in Consett has prompted her to tell her story to Mim Skinner, so that others in County Durham can understand what really happens in detention…
My trafficking happened in 2001, when I was 17. My trafficker brought me over on a Malawian passport, so even though I’d never been there and hadn’t seen the passport before, it was stamped forever as my country of belonging – losing my citizenship in the process.
I was a rebellious teenager. When we were 16, we were already getting prepared for marriage. From the age of 13, even, they’re preparing you. I realised what was happening and rebelled. I never had a voice.
My mum felt that I was bringing a lot of shame on our family through my rebellion. So even when I was coming to England, my clothes were sticking to my bruises from when I ran away. She said: ‘you have to go, you’ve already been paid for’. I never wanted to leave them – they were all I knew. I had no idea what I was coming to.
My traffickers intentionally infected me with HIV as a means of control early on. When I was with them, they used to give me drugs and alcohol and then bring in clients. I never used to understand it.
When I wasn’t escorting, they used to take me to go clean or work in factories. I never saw any money from any of it. If I dared ask, I would get a beating. The only way I’d be able to get through what they were putting me through was if I was intoxicated the whole time, to numb whatever pain I was feeling.
I escaped but was beaten so badly I was hospitalised. After that, I lived without an address until I eventually ended up in a police cell. When I was there, I remembered a friend of mine who used to tell me: ‘you need to go to immigration, you need to claim asylum’. So I said that to the police officer – I want to claim asylum. I didn’t even know what that meant, I just knew the words.
Back then, knowledge about human trafficking and about modern-day slavery had only just started coming out. I was traumatised and scared, coming from a background where I never finished education. I’m dyslexic as well. To be put in a situation like that, you need to really understand the system, and to understand your case.
I didn’t even have the language to speak about it myself. I just kept telling them: ‘this man brought me here. I was brought here by a man.’ But the immigration officers didn’t pick up on the trafficking clues and none of the lawyers who came across my case really understood it.
They put me in a shared house while they looked at my claim. Three weeks later, I got a letter from the Home Office saying: ‘We’ve denied your claim, you need to leave this house’.
That night, I went to buy some drugs and a whole bottle of vodka. I drank so much vodka and took everything I could get so I never had to wake up. The next thing I remember was that, at 4am, I was woken up by at least 18 immigration officers raiding the loft where I was passed out. I was so confused, thinking: why are all these people in my room?
It was like a different world at the detention centre. Locked doors and barbed wire. I remember thinking: how did I end up here? What crime have I committed? I kept my head down. I was still really traumatized and I didn’t know if they’d believe me. They really interrogate you. They scare you and use aggression.
They withheld my HIV medication from me for six weeks so that my health deteriorated. The only clothes I had were the ones I was wearing, and my phone was taken away so I had no contact with anybody. There were kids in there in those days, toddlers and babies.
They realised after three months that there was nothing they could do about me because I was stateless. Malawi didn’t know me and my own country didn’t recognise me either. It was so painful. Because I never had a choice. I never wanted to come here.
When they realised there was nothing they could do with me, they let me out. I was stateless and homeless. I couldn’t open up a bank account. I couldn’t rent a house. So I was escorting and selling drugs, paying in cash and sofa surfing. My health was deteriorating too, as I struggled to take my medication – I didn’t have access to any for months.
But even then I was volunteering in a soup kitchen, at a charity for people living with HIV. It was the only place I felt safe, where I had purpose. So one day, I took the cash I’d saved into the local city college and asked: how can I go about doing a catering course? That kind of gave me confidence.
I didn’t have the right paperwork, I wasn’t recognised by the system, but I could get this qualification from college. So I did my level, 1, 2 and 3. I don’t know how I did it now. Nobody knew I was illegal. They didn’t know that I’d lived this trauma, that I had underlying mental health conditions, that I was homeless, HIV positive and that I’d been trafficked. In that place, I felt at home.
Then, suddenly, I was taken back into the detention centre. But this second time, I had my eyes open. I was angry and wounded. I was ready. There were more people self-harming then, more people on suicide watch. I was on suicide watch 24/7. One day, I came back to my room to find my roommate had hung herself. There were people in there who were born in the UK or were invited over on Windrush.
By then, I knew my trafficker had been granted leave to remain. He’d mentioned me in his asylum claim, saying I was his wife. I’d called the police when he was attacking me years before, so the police had records of when I was stabbed and beaten by him; records of him writing out my boarding card; records of him using the fake passport. So they had all this evidence, but they wouldn’t act. Even though they knew all of this, he was free and I was locked away indefinitely.
I had some really nasty experiences with some of the detention centre officers. Part of me felt that there was some racism in it. It just cuts deep, the hate I felt from them.
It took five appeals to get me out. I had to educate myself on the law, on modern slavery, on the systems I was dealing with. I got a lawyer who really fought for me, who knew my case and just appealed and appealed until they listened. They withhold information from you, so you really have to educate yourself to be able to understand what you’re dealing with. I understand they have limits. They have to process people, they can’t let everyone in. But they need to treat people as humans, with dignity.
To be honest, my immigration case is the one thing that knocked me out. It broke me, and just made me feel like nothing. The trafficking I could cope with, but immigration – I’m still suffering with the long-term damage that experience has given me. You get so used to the system. Now I have to train my mind to know I’m not in it anymore.
I have to pinch myself sometimes to realise that I’m free. I have to remind myself that I’m not in bondage. When I look at my bank card, when I look at my ID, it feels so surreal.
I have to remind myself that I don’t have to constantly ask for permission to live life. I don’t have to wait for someone to say: you can eat, you can drink, you can work.
It’s an ongoing struggle for me. I’ve got my ID now but it’s not permanent. My case is still going after a decade.
But, you know what? I stood my ground. As much as I was afflicted and wounded, as much as it was painful, as much as they thought I was crazy, it has made me stronger – really, really strong. It has made me wiser, it made me really do my research.
What I’ve taken away from it all? Don’t be scared to ask questions. Don’t be scared to look stupid. Don’t be scared to reach breaking point. Don’t give up, don’t ever give up. You have to keep going, even if it kills you.