We came from Romania to build a life, and were locked up for sleeping rough

We were in Yarl's Wood for 26 days with no idea when we were getting out. I felt like killing myself

Teofil Muntean,Marineta Olariu
Sunday 09 July 2017 22:56
Yarl's Wood: 'If it's not a prison, then why the electric fences?'
Yarl's Wood: 'If it's not a prison, then why the electric fences?'

We come from Romania. We left for the reasons most people do. It’s a corrupt country. If you have money you can do what you like, but if you have nothing, you can’t even get a doctor to treat you.

So we left. For twelve years we lived in Spain. It was difficult to find work that paid enough to live on but we survived. Marineta worked as a carer and Teofil did lots of different jobs.

In 2016 we decided to try our luck in the UK. We were curious about what life here was like. We hoped to find better-paid work, and improve our quality of life.

We moved to Sheffield. It wasn’t hard to find work, but it was hard to find anything that paid decently. We worked in a bread factory on zero hours contracts. When we couldn’t get work, we sold the Big Issue.

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Because we couldn’t afford to rent, we ended up sleeping rough in a tent. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was better than nothing. It’s a vicious circle. If you have a house, you can find work more easily. But how can you get a house if you’re not working?

One afternoon we were in our tent keeping warm when immigration enforcement turned up and arrested us. It came out of the blue. We had been sleeping rough for four days.

We said: “We’re legal. Please check our papers.” Teofil got out his Big Issue vendor’s badge, his work contract, his pay slips and showed them to the officers. They said: “I don’t care”. Then they said: “You’re being arrested for sleeping rough”.

They took us to Yarl’s Wood. We were told we could appeal. But because there’s no legal aid, it was impossible to find a lawyer to represent us. We had to do the appeal on our own

We were kept in Yarl’s Wood for 26 days. Every day you ask “When can we get out?”, but nobody can tell you. At least if you go to jail, you know when you’ll be coming back.

Yarl’s Wood is a terrible place. If it’s not a jail, then why the electric fences? One person tried to cut themselves with a glass in front of me. I saw women fainting and falling down. I had money on my credit card and wanted to buy food and cigarettes, but they wouldn’t let me. We had to live on 71p a day. I felt like killing myself.

They treat you like shit in there. There were old people locked in with us. I asked for a wheelchair for one woman and they said no. You ask Serco for help and they say: “I’m not immigration. I can’t help.” You only get to see the Home Office if you threaten to kill yourself.

Twenty-six days in jail—just for looking for a job.

We were released in February, but they kept our IDs. So we couldn’t work — we risked being put in prison if we did. And we had to report to the Home Office. I said to them: “Why do I have to sign?” They said: “Because you’re illegal”.

How does it make me feel? It makes me hate – not the people, but the system. Did I kill someone? I came here for a normal life – not to take benefits. What have I done to be treated so inhumanely?

I’m sorry for my frustration, but how can I be calm and talk nicely? Our arrest was not legal. We are Europeans. We have the same rights as anyone else.

I know it’s to do with Brexit, but this is the wrong way to make people go. We lost five months of our lives. I was close to getting a stable job when they arrested us. Now we have to start again.

We will go back to Spain soon. I cannot live in a place where they treat me like this. But I will do everything I can to make sure this doesn’t happen to others. I’m not afraid of the Home Office. I will tell my story to anyone — and you’re welcome to put my picture in the paper.

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