Posted by: srari1 | February 24, 2011

“What are you doing… right now?”

By Sayomi Ariyawansa

One of my colleagues tried to get permission for me to accompany her on a tour of a detention centre in New Jersey. However, the Department of Homeland Security denied her request and true to form, their denial was not accompanied by any sort of explanation. Strangely, I would have been permitted to accompany her if she was visiting a client or giving a presentation – I’m not entirely sure what the rationale behind this apparent distinction is.

So I was rather surprised when my supervisor came to my cubicle bounding with alacrity and said – “What are you doing… right now?” I found myself dashing to my apartment to get my passport and running to the train which would take my supervisor, myself and an interpreter to New Jersey.

It is rather odd to describe being excited about going to a detention centre – but after reading so much about them, I was very keen to get an idea of what they are really like. My first thought, when I saw the detention centre looming before me, was: “I hope that’s not it.” Cheerless and windowless, it was a battle just to get through the door to see our potential client. Despite the fact that my supervisor is an attorney and regular visitor to the centre, getting beyond the tiny reception area is an experience which is, at the very least, extremely frustrating.

When we finally met our potential client for an intake interview, we were in a very small and sterile harshly lit white room. There was one yellowing picture of a chubby cartoon girl on the wall and another was covered with a painted mural of a tribute to the United States of America. The interview rooms are next to the visiting area, and through the wide windows I was sometimes distracted by seeing various detainees and their visitors enjoy a few moments together. The fact that they were able to sit beside each other was a victory of advocacy for many human rights groups including HRF – previously, these non-violent immigration detainees spoke to their loved ones through plexiglass.

I’ve never been involved with interviewing someone who was in detention. It was clear, immediately, how dehumanising the experience is. They all wear uniforms, are referred to by number, and this particular client had no one to speak with as the one other detainee who spoke her language left. The effect of absolute isolation was palpable. It is unimaginable that some people, including children, spend many months in detention centres facing an arc of indefinite time without freedom.

It looks like my last two weeks will be my busiest. I now have another intake report to write, another intake to finalise and several research tasks. One research task I’m doing is looking at the scope of the “membership of a particular social group” ground for seeking asylum and how it applies to those persecuted because of their sexual orientation or sexual identity – so I’ve been trawling through the 1951 conference documents as well as researching the persecution of gay and lesbian people during WWII.

I am truly loving the work and I will be very sad to leave HRF – three months doesn’t feel like enough right now!


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