A visit to Gatwick Airport detention centre

On the south side of Gatwick Airport stands a large modern building, with an imposing stone coat of arms on its outer wall. It is run by an American security firm. Its higher inner fence is topped with razor wire, and uniformed guards ask your business before letting you in through the remotely operated sliding gate. Inside the front door, you ring the bell and are scrutinised before the security lock is released. There is form to be filled in, then all property has to be bagged or put in a locker, before you are body searched and finally allowed into the visits room.

You have come to see, not a high risk convicted criminal, but someone seeking asylum in Britain and detained by the Immigration Service while their application is dealt with. This is Tinsley House. There can be up to 400 detainees here at any time, men, women and occasionally children. They comprise a small percentage of asylum applicants and they usually have been stopped at a port or airport where their papers, or their story has been found unacceptable. Other have been living in England for some time, perhaps having overstayed a six month student visa, (we may criticise them for not keeping to the rules but it is tragic for them when they are separated from their partner of many years standing and their children). Most will eventually be sent back if their country is considered safe. They are often detained for many months but never know in advance for how long. A few are allowed to remain in the country.

Early in 1995, our diocese and the Anglican Diocese of Chichester became concerned about the plight of detainees in what was then a small detention centre in Gatwick, the forerunner of Tinsley House. The diocese supported the setting up of Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, which was registered as a charity in January 1996, with its first members being recruited from local Christian churches and the Moslem community. We do not campaign on asylum issues, We make no judgment on individuals. We visit only those who ask for a visitor. What kind of people are they? They are generally in their twenties and come from countries where unpleasant things are happening.

They have left their homes, families and language, filled with fear and despair for the future. Far from coming to 'work the system' all those I have encountered only want to work or study, and they are bewildered by their situation and the labyrinth of our refugee and asylum laws. They sit in detention, their money gone, usually without family or friends in this country. We can give them toiletries and a little money for a phone card. We can help them sort out decent legal representation (not all cowboys are in the building trade) Most of all we can listen; we can be a friend during the months of uncertainly and loneliness before they are either released or sent back.

One detainee wrote: "You know very well that I did not have anyone known to me in London. It was an experience never to be forgotten when I got to know you in a foreign country." I have visited young men and women from Algeria, former USSR, the Gambia, Iran, Kosovo, Nigeria, Pakistan and Rwanda. They were Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and Moslem. Tinsley House is a place of great faith and prayerfulness. Ministers of most Christian faiths hold services and the Iman from Crawley supports the Moslem detainees in the practice of their faith.

Being a visitor can be hard work, It is sometimes upsetting but it is very rewarding. New visitors are asked for references and undergo a basic training course. The group is very supportive: two staff members at out office in Three Bridges, Crawley, co-ordinate and help the visitors and further support is provided by five Area Groups based in Crawley, Oxted, Horsham, Brighton and Reigate with Caterham which meet every six weeks for mutual support - a chance to share experiences and concerns. Could you consider being a visitor? It involves visiting once every week for about one hour between 2pm and 9pm. You need to bring your own transport but most of all you need common sense and a kind heart.

Please ring Martyn or Anna at our office on: 01293 434350 or 01293 434350 if you would like to know more, with no obligation. feature first pubished in A&B News April 2001

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