Time for a change on asylum

How thousands are detained in Britain without charge and the story of one person who chooses to visi

The long-running political row over the latest anti-terrorism proposals to detain people without charge for up to 42 days has been in stark contrast with the silence over the 2,000 men, women and children detained in the UK without charge.

These are the failed asylum seekers who are held for days, months or years in one of 10 prison-like, immigration removal centres scattered around the UK, and they are invisible.

But when they are noticed, it is generally by the tabloids and right-leaning think tanks. A recent example: The Sun reported that the ‘foreign lags’ in Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre are living in a ‘holiday camp’.

Well, for the past 18 months I have spent a couple of hours each week visiting these so-called foreign lags in Colnbrook and Harmondsworth next door, and from what they have told me and from what I have seen, it couldn’t be further from Butlins.

The two centres are next door to the Heathrow Sheraton and you could mistake them for anonymous hotels designed for delayed passengers and tired cabin crew. However, after the first glance, you see swathes of barbed wire, barred windows and uniformed officers milling around.

As a visitor, you require two forms of ID; finger prints and a photo are taken; and there is a thorough search. The atmosphere is a heady mix of loud, oppressive, emotional and distressing. Children are crying, couples are holding each other; and there’s me, talking to a stranger about politics, Hollyoaks, torture, music, desperately missed wives and children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and the infamously bad food.

I started visiting detained, failed asylum seekers during the summer heat wave in 2006. The political temperature was also running pretty high and the tabloids were baying for the blood of the now ex-home secretary, Charles Clarke.

The tabloids were scandalised to learn that foreign residents were released after completing a prison sentence. “They must be deported!” they shrilled, and the home secretary hastily complied. Inevitably mistakes were made, like attempting to deport British citizens. Abdul, my first client, told me he was British passport holder, who had come here with his family at 18 months old.

He had committed a petty crime and on completion of a short prison sentence, he received a notification of intention to deport to Bangladesh. After a speedy intervention from his solicitors in the High Court, he was allowed to go home to his British wife and children.

Aside from British citizens, torture victims also should not be detained according to the Home Office’s own guidelines. Michael, 20, from Uganda, and I got to know each other well as the many months passed in first Colnbrook and then Harmondsworth and he told me why he came to the UK: he came to the UK after the 2006 Ugandan elections, he was, and in exile, still is a prominent member of the youth wing of Uganda’s opposition party.

He was tortured by the Ugandan authorities – it is clear to see that some fingers nails on each hand have been pulled out - and he told me that he was badly beaten as a warning. He came to the UK soon after. Michael was on the ‘fast-track’ system, whereby the Home Office makes a decision on a ‘straightforward’ case within 24 hours, with a 99 per cent refusal rate.

According to Michael’s documentation from the Home Office, one reason why his case has been refused is due to the fact that the Home Office does not believe his claim that he was very politically active from 16 and became a constituency campaign manager for the youth wing of the party.

Perhaps, thanks to the political torpor among much of Britain's youth, the Home Office’s scepticism isn’t surprising. His case continues two years later and will be heard in the High Court in the coming months. He is no longer detained and receives counselling for post traumatic stress disorder.

The Home Office states people should be detained for as short a time as possible before removal. Currently, I visit Kak Ahmed from Kurdistan, who has so far been detained for 16 months after a short prison sentence.

He has told me that he can’t get out of Colnbrook because someone with the same name as him failed to comply with their bail conditions.

He feels that he and his solicitor have presented proof of the mistake, but judges repeatedly refuse him bail, believing he will abscond.

His solicitor is now taking this issue to the High Court. Kak Ahmed has severe medical problems, which the Kurdish government have stated cannot be treated in Kurdistan. So he is stuck in the system and being stuck means being deprived of liberty with no end in sight.

The UK is one of a handful of European countries that detains failed asylum seekers indefinitely, with no automatic right to legal advice, with no automatic right to bail and with no automatic case review.

Detention of failed asylum seekers is at the cutting edge of human rights but the majority of people, campaigning organisations, lawyers, journalists and politicians skip over these invisible thousands to politically safer territory.

I try to make a small difference to individuals where I can, but this isn’t scratching even the surface of the problem; there needs to be a sea change in government legislation that will end the indefinite deprivation of liberty that even terror suspects (rightly) avoid.

All the names in this article - including the author's - have been changed

Katie Walker independently visits Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre. She currently campaigns with the World Development Movement. She hold a Masters with Distinction in the Theory and Practice of Human Rights.
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.