British Inside: The Everlasting Waiting Game

British Inside: The Everlasting Waiting Game

In 2013 I embarked on a journey into the world of the British Immigration system and I am still on it. I didn’t choose to produce this programme, it chose me. I’ve always had an affinity with producing content that has a political edge, that raises consciousness, that gives a voice to the voiceless, but this was very new territory. Documenting the day to day lives of three young men held hostage by an unremitting sentence, waiting day to day in hope that their case would come to trial so that they had completion and could get back to living, rather than the threat of impending deportation. It was a lengthy process. And one which took me into darkness, depression and despair quite unlike anything I have ever experienced. Until now, I have not spoken publicly about this. But when I arrived at my office this morning, I knew that today was the day. I intend that the words I share today will shed light on a very unknown underworld and inspire others to take actions where they can to bring awareness and to make a difference, directly linked to this subject or in an area that matters and needs attention.

When I agreed to produce this documentary, I took on the responsibility to tell their stories. It was relentless at times. It felt like a duty. I would wake up into dread, but somehow made it from my bed into the studio and just started editing. I never gave up on the commitment I made. Spending time on location, witnessing how they live day to day and then listening back to their realities was at times, beyond shocking. I found myself living in a reality I had no idea existed. I have lived a varied and colourful life, I have done things I am not proud of. And yet what I witnessed was distressing and hopeless. I wanted to do them justice, to paint an honest picture for each of them and to encourage listeners to take action. Egotistically, I wanted to create change and I think it was the utter hopelessness of the situations these human beings found themselves in which took its toll. How could I really make a difference to them? Day after day, they were locked into the unknown. Not the unknown that you or I experience; mild uncertainties and concerns of paying bills, juggling child care, deciding what to cook for dinner, uncertainties around employment or challenges in our relationships. Not really knowing what the next five years will look like, but having a pretty good idea and having the tools to make it happen. Having choice.

Their unknown looked like this: I have a sentence which has no ending. It is open-ended, interminable, and I live each day waiting to see if the Home Office are ready for my case to go to trial. In the meantime, each day I am unable to work. I am unable to earn money (legitimately, legally). Each day I stay within the confines of the geographical area I am allowed to reside within, determined by the Home Office. My TAG dictates the hours in which I reside at home and those I am free to live in the outside world. I am unable to travel beyond these boundaries, work in paid employment or claim benefits. If I am deported I am likely to enter a war zone or for my life to be at risk the moment I step off the plane. So deportation is a non-negotiable fear I live with day to day. This is what I awake to each morning. This is truly the unknown. And for many, this unknown lasts decades. For these people, there is little quality of life, little purpose, little dreaming, little goal setting, little purpose. Their life day to day is about getting through another day, mentally and physically. Living in poverty and sub-standard housing. Being unable to support their families financially and being totally dependent on friends and loved ones to survive, day to day. Most of us would not survive very long in this rut. Imagine this reality. 

Our young men had varying stories. They were not squeaky clean. They had all served time in a UK prison. Their citizenship had been revoked because of their felony, but unlike that prison sentence which came with a clear duration, this sentence was open-ended. They had now entered the infinite world of the British Immigration System. They were on bail, which meant that they no longer resided in a secure holding facility, but all the aforementioned restrictions applied (so theoretically they were still imprisoned) but this meant they were able to share their stories and generously allowed us to document them, something we were unable to do with detainees as the Home Office would not allow it.

Colnbrook IRC is one of the largest and highest security facilities in the UK, located very near to Heathrow Airport, handy for swift deportation actions. When we, my presenter, Nick Bright and I, visited the facility, we were struck by the the desperation of the detainees. They told us every detail of their stories in the hope that by doing so their situation would change. Yet hearing their stories just fuelled the impeding dread because we were powerless. We were there simply to observe and experience the holding facility first hand. This enabled Nick to relay what he saw, experienced, felt whilst there. To recount the first hand experience to the listeners. I think that the ongoing powerlessness fuelled the depression and unease throughout the production process. Start to finish, it took 16 months to produce the documentary. That is an extraordinary amount of time to live in someone else’s world. It was a privilege to be let in. For the young men we spent time with to trust us to document their lives honestly, graciously. I was not alone in my production process, but the months of editing solitude take their toll. It is a relentless task and requires incredible tenacity. I was supported by a professional coach throughout the most arduous months, and without whom, this programme would not exist. Fact. For Rae Hatherton and her holding, I will be eternally indebted. 

Now two years on since the programme was broadcast I wonder if it made any difference at all. Immigration is still a hot topic. Our new Prime Minister who features in the documentary remains firm in her belief that these young men and their fellow illegal immigrants are ‘dangerous criminals’. She continues to paint a picture that instills fear in the minds of the masses rather than educate these minds into how and why so many young men end up indefinitely incarcerated in Home Office institutions. And of course there is the unspoken, inordinate cost to the British public of keeping people incarcerated, greater than most high security prisons. There is the cause and effect; the consequence and the devastation the threat of deportation causes to the families of those held indefinitely. The lack of access to legal aid or representation. The everlasting waiting game.

How did I overcome the depression and desperation and lack of self belief? The hope that this programme would raise awareness. I made unquestionable promises to many people, to deliver. The production company who employed me, the BBC who would broadcast the programme, the presenter who brought the story to life, every person I interviewed and who welcomed me into their home and shared their story honestly and generously and Detention Action whose sole aim is to ensure that people are treated fairly and with the aim to diminish their time incarcerated but mostly to provide support for detainees. It was the promises and the unspoken contract I had with each of these people that got me through. It was not the money. (I will post another article about the fees for producing radio documentaries soon, but suffice to say, my partner was relieved when this production was complete!) I had to set my self doubt aside. It has taken two years to let go of feeling that I failed them, that the programme changed nothing. Setting ideals and goals can sometimes be a dangerous game because they present bars that may not be met. What was I really expecting to happen when the programme went to air? Perhaps today as I write this, I reignite this topic and that is my way of making a difference again, in a world I am now entrenched in. I cannot look upon immigration in the same light. I know too much. I have seen too much.

If you are intrigued, please have a listen to the documentary. And please share it with others. I may feel a little less defeated if I know it hasn’t fallen on deaf ears. In the wake of Brexit I can see how ordinary people can bring about awareness and change. So I will keep making programmes with the intention of doing just that. I’m just waiting for the next story to find me.

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