Grey and hopeless: The grim reality of immigration tribunals
The immigration system is full of small personal slights. These are the regular unspoken humiliations which reveal, more than any law or ministerial speech, just how little respect the state has for those who wish to live here.
Harley Miller, a specialist therapist who spent nine years working with vulnerable children on the NHS, was in Hatton Cross yesterday, where immigration tribunals are held just by Heathrow airport. She'd waited six months for her day in court. During that time she was banned from working, so she used up her life's savings on legal fees and subsistence.
Twenty judges were on call, but oversubscription meant Harley's case was put on the 'float list' along with a few others. Maybe you get seen, maybe you don't.
Hatton's Cross feels like somewhere where humans should not be. It's like Worthing crossed with Bosnia. Grey, grotesquely scaled and administrative.
The first thing that hits you when you leave the Tube station is the proximity of the planes as they come in for take-off and landing. It is rare to see one so close while in the air. They are monstrous: deafeningly loud and massive. They own the landscape.
It feels like the place is for the planes. They are the dominant species in this environment and the people just ants scurrying below them.
Large industrial estates and iron fences litter the landscape. The people and objects here are the detritus of Heathrow. Aside from the tribunal, Harmondsworth detention centre is nearby, its inhabitants ready to be bundled out and onto a flight at any moment.
The route to York House, where the tribunals are held, is similarly unattractive. Large roads provide a constant stream of cars and lorries. The pavement is badly tended, with branches of trees prodding out and forcing pedestrians precariously onto the road.
The security at York House scan you with a sensor while chatting to one another, as if stacking shelves. You are waved into a grey waiting room. There are three snack machines on one side selling coffee for a remarkable 35p, the cheapest I have ever found in London. It is also the worst coffee I have drunk in some time – a grim, grey liquid, like the water left in an ashtray after the rain.
In the room sits a collection of desperate people, most of them being advised by lawyers. They look bleakly determined. Grim faces, staring forward, tired of answering the same old questions. Many of them will be here for hours, waiting all day on the off-chance they'll be called up, making occasional walks to the nearby Tesco and wolfing down a cold sandwich.
Harley has ten supporters to meet her. It's no small ask: the journey here is long and difficult and it's a working day. Most of them will have taken the day off to come.
She does not reflect her surroundings. She is warm and colourful and impassioned. She talks about dancing and romance and late evenings out and generally she is the type of person who makes interminable hours in a grey waiting room more tolerable.
We are kept waiting all morning. Then at midday we are told there are no judges free. At one we are told that it is lunchtime and hearings will recommence at two. People keep waiting.
In the afternoon we're told there will be no hearing today. So that's it: six months waiting, ten people taking the day off, all for nothing. For a moment it appears the hearing might be set for March. There is, of course, no justice in this. It creates a reality on the ground regardless of the legal process, for who can afford to go so many months without working? It is justice denied. Instead, Harley is told slots are open in September, as if she was very lucky.
There is something decidedly dismissive about the entire enterprise. These are the tiny humiliations of the immigration system. Only the naive or the hopelessly imaginative would consider it a positive advert for British justice.