For migrants under 24/7 surveillance, the UK feels like ‘an outside prison’
In June 2022, the U.K. Home Office rolled out a new pilot policy — to track migrants and asylum seekers arriving in Britain with GPS-powered ankle tags. The government argues that ankle tags could be necessary to stop people from absconding or disappearing into the country. Only 1% of asylum seekers absconded in 2020. But that hasn’t stopped the Home Office from expanding the pilot. Sam, whose name we’ve changed to protect his safety, came to the U.K. as a refugee when he was a small child and has lived in Britain ever since. Now in his thirties, he was recently threatened with deportation and was made to wear a GPS ankle tag while his case was in progress. Here is Sam’s story, as told to Coda’s Isobel Cockerell.
I came to the U.K. with my family when I was a young kid, fleeing a civil war. I went to preschool, high school and college here. I’m in my thirties now and have a kid of my own. I don’t know anything about the country I was born in — England is all I know.
I got my permanent residency when I was little. I remember my dad also started applying for our British citizenship when I was younger but never quite got his head around the bureaucracy.
When I got older, I got into a lifestyle I shouldn’t have and was arrested and given a criminal sentence and jail time. The funny thing is, just before I was arrested, I had finally saved up enough to start the process of applying for citizenship myself but never got around to it in time.
In the U.K., if you’re not a citizen and you commit a crime, the government has the power to deport you. It doesn’t matter if you’ve lived here all your life. So now, I’m fighting the prospect of being kicked out of the only country I’ve ever known.
When I finished my sentence, they kept me in prison under immigration powers. When I finally got bail, they said I’d have to wear a GPS-powered ankle tag so that I didn’t disappear. I couldn’t believe it. If I had been a British citizen, when I finished my sentence that would be it, I’d be free. But in the eyes of the government, I was a foreigner, and so the Home Office — immigration — wanted to keep an eye on me at all times.
My appointments with immigration had a strange quality to them. I could tell from the way we communicated that the officers instinctively knew they were talking to a British person. But the system had told them to treat me like an outsider and to follow the procedures for deporting me. They were like this impenetrable wall, and they treated me like I was nothing because I didn’t have a passport. They tried to play dumb, like they had no idea who I was or that I had been here my whole life, even though I’ve always been in the system.
I tried to explain there was no need to tag me and that I would never abscond. After all, I have a child here who I want to stay with. They decided to tag me anyway.
The day came when they arrived in my holding cell to fit the tag. I was shocked by its bulkiness. I thought to myself, ‘How am I going to cover this up under my jeans?’ I love to train and keep fit, but I couldn’t imagine going to the gym with this thing around my ankle.
It’s hard to explain what it’s like to wear that thing. When I was first released — after many months inside — it felt amazing to be free, to wake up whenever I wanted and not have to wait for someone to come and open my door.
But gradually, I started to realize I wasn’t really free. And people did come to my door. Not prison guards, but people from a private security company. I later learned that company is called Capita. When things go wrong with the tag, it’s the Capita people who show up at your home.
The visits were unsettling. I had no idea how much power the Capita people had or whether I was even obliged, legally, to let them in. The employees themselves were a bit clueless. Sometimes I would level with them, and they would admit they had no idea why I was being tagged.
It soon became clear that the technology attached to my ankle was pretty glitchy. One time, they came and told me, ‘The system says the tag had been tampered with.’ They checked my ankle and found nothing wrong. It sent my mind whirring. What had I done to jolt the strap? I suddenly felt anxious to leave the house, in case I knocked it while out somewhere. I began to move through the world more carefully.
Other times, Capita staff came round to tell me my location had stopped registering. The system wasn’t even functioning, and that frustrated me.
All these issues seemed to make out like I was the one doing something wrong. But I realize now it was nothing to do with me — the problem was with the tag, and the result was that I felt harassed by these constant unannounced visits by these anonymous Capita employees.
In theory, the Home Office would call to warn you of Capita’s visits, but often they just showed up at random. They never came when they said they would. Once, I got a letter saying I breached my bail conditions after not being home when they came around. But I’d never been told they were coming in the first place. It was so anxiety-inducing: I was afraid if there were too many problems with the tag, it might be used against me in my deportation case.
The other nightmare was the charging system. According to the people who fit my tag, the device could last 24 hours between charges. It never did. I’d be out and about or at work, and I’d have to calculate how long I could stay there before I needed to go home and charge. The low battery light would flash red, the device would start loudly vibrating, and I’d panic. Sometimes others would hear the vibration and ask me if it was my phone. Being around people and having to charge up your ankle is so embarrassing. There’s a portable charger, but it’s slow. If you want to charge up quicker, you have to sit down next to a plug outlet for two hours and wait.
I didn’t want my child to know I’d been tagged or that I was having problems with immigration. I couldn’t bear the thought of trying to explain why I was wearing this thing around my ankle or that I was facing deportation. Whenever we were together I made sure to wear extra-loose jeans.
I couldn’t think beyond the tag. It was always on my mind, a constant burden. It felt like this physical reminder of all my mistakes in life. I couldn’t focus on my future. I just felt stuck on that day when I was arrested. I had done my time, but the message from the Home Office was clear: There was no rehabilitation, at least not for me. I felt like I was sinking into quicksand, being pulled down into the darkness.
My world contracted, and my mental health went into freefall. I came to realize I wasn’t really free: I was in an outside prison. The government knew where I was 24/7. Were they really concerned I would abscond, or did they simply want to intrude on my life?
Eventually, my mental health got so bad I was able to get the tag removed, although I’m still facing deportation.
After the tag was taken off, it took me a while to absorb that I wasn’t being tracked anymore. Even a month later, I still put my jeans on as if I had the tag on. I could still kind of feel it there, around my ankle. I still felt like I was being watched. Of course, tag or no tag, the government always has other ways to monitor you.
I’ve begun to think more deeply about the country I’ve always called home. This country that says it no longer wants me. The country that wants to watch my every move. I’m fighting all of it to stay with my child, but I sometimes wonder if, in the long term, I even want to be a part of this system, if this is how it treats people.
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