Britain has long been a haven for immigrants, from highly skilled workers from Europe and the United States to those coming from developing countries to escape political persecution or find a better life. Many of those immigrants come from former British colonies in Africa and Asia, and some find their welcome is not what they expected. Tendai Maphosa reports from London.
In 2006 Britain had a net influx of close to 200,000 immigrants. Some found ready-made jobs in the financial sector, in hospitals, schools, on farms or in construction. For other immigrants, however, the transition is not so easy. Some live in constant fear they'll be deported back to their home countries where they may face political persecution or, at the very least, the loss of the economic opportunities they had hoped to achieve for themselves and their families.
Recent news reports have highlighted the plight of those who have not been welcomed with open arms and who have instead ended up in detention camps set up around the UK to house immigration offenders and unsuccessful asylum seekers.
Angela, who will only give her first name, is one of those. She came to the UK from her native Uganda in 2001, at the age of 15. She says her father an opposition activist and the family was persecuted for his role. She says at one point she was even raped by unknown assailants in front of her father. After that, she says, she fled the country. On getting to the UK, she applied for asylum.
"When I made the application I was given exceptional leave to remain, because I was a minor. My exceptional leave was to expire a day before my 18th birthday," she said.
The Home Office turned down her request for refugee status to stay in Britain indefinitely. By this time she was a mother. She appealed the ruling and was told by an immigration officer that she would receive an invitation for an interview.
"Three days after she told me she was going to write me a letter for an interview, she turned up on my door with about six other men with a big van and I was put in handcuffs," she said. "I was told because my medical report said I was suicidal, so they were putting handcuffs on me just in case I tried to kill myself."
Angela was taken to Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Center. The bleak detention facility for failed asylum seekers and immigration offenders is surrounded by a heavy metal fence and under around-the-clock supervision by guards.
VOA talked to detainees, but was not allowed to record or film the interviews at the center, which holds 400 failed asylum seekers and immigration offenders.
Angela spoke to VOA after her release.
"Your rights as a mother are stripped away," she added. "You are told when to feed the child, you are told how to carry your child. A child cannot have a second helping if they ever ask for one, because you are following detention rules."
Angela was released after eight days. She now has two children and is still fighting to remain in the United Kingdom.
Alistair Burt is the member of parliament for West Bedfordshire, where the detention center is located. He says centers are needed to deal with immigration.
"Those who have tried to gain entry to the UK and take up residence here when they are told that they have to return may not want to, so they simply disappear," he said. "In a country like the UK, it is quite easy to disappear into immigrant communities in our major cities."
Amanda Shah is deputy director of Bail for Immigration Detainees, a non-governmental organization that works with asylum seekers and detained migrants. She says one of the disturbing features of detention is that it is open ended.
"Immigration detention centers are not set out for people to be held for long periods of time, and we are seeing many, many people who are held for periods of over a year," she said. "They are held indefinitely and the conditions that they are held in are not appropriate for somebody to be held in for that period of time."
Shah says by being held indefinitely, immigration detainees are worse off than terrorism suspects who, under British law, can only be held for 28 days.
Alistair Burt says while long detentions are unfortunate, it is not the government's fault. He says in some cases the detainee has appealed against removal or the government of the country where the person must be sent does not want to take her or him.
Burt expressed concern about the treatment of families.
"There are some cases where you do query the actions of the Borders and Immigration Agency in arriving very early in the morning and collecting quite a number of children, with their parents, and taking them from where they have been living for some years to countries where they have not been to for a long time, if at all, and there are profound worries about that aspect of the policy," he explained.
Burt says the government has to be seen as acting against people who think they can just come to Britain to start new lives. He said it is difficult to separate genuine asylum seekers from economic migrants or those brought into the country by traffickers.
"If the UK simply had a policy that, because there are human rights abuses in a whole variety of countries, nobody could ever be returned there, then frankly the UK would continue to be a magnet for everyone who wants to leave and come to start a different life somewhere else," he added. "You either have an open-border policy or you do not. The UK does not, and the UK should not have an open border policy. That means somebody has to take some difficult decisions. Occasionally, some people have to be returned."
The immigration debate shows no signs of abating. A committee in Britain's upper house of parliament, the House of Lords, has just released a report, saying that contrary to widespread assertions that immigration benefits Britain's economy, there is no firm proof that immigration contributes significantly to the economic wellbeing of the nation.
The findings were quickly rejected a day later by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, but the controversy continues.