When Wilson Mukerjee, his wife Ruth and his son Charles reported to the British Home Office on April 4, they thought it was for a routine check-in. In fact, it was the beginning of a nightmare for this family, who are all asylum seekers from Pakistan.
UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd was recently forced to resign after it emerged that legal UK residents were being wrongfully threatened with deportation as a direct result of targets set to increase the number of people removed from the UK. The story of the detention of a vulnerable family from Pakistan may possibly have been another result of this system.
This is the story of the Mukerjee family from Pakistan, who were arbitrarily detained for six nights - a particularly traumatic experience for son Charles, who has severe epilepsy in addition to learning disabilities.
A dangerous family dispute
Shahzad Wilson Mukerjee first came to the UK with his wife Ruth and son Charles in 2011. A polite and articulate 52-year-old from Pakistan with manicured sideburns and a proud mustache, Mukerjee enrolled in a masters program at the University of Wales. When he graduated, he transitioned from a student visa to an entrepreneur visa. The family never planned to stay long-term in the UK. However, during this period, Mukerjee's family in Pakistan got embroiled in a bitter inheritance dispute.
He says that his brother, Suneel Shahani, resented the fact that Wilson, who had been adopted by their parents, was given an equal share of the inheritance. Suneel Shahani made threats and even came to the UK to reportedly kill his brother. Wilson went to the police and contacted his local member of parliament. As a consequence, Shahani was removed and banned from entering the country for ten years.
But Shahani, who had been working as a special assistant to an important Pakistani senator, had powerful friends in Pakistan. Wilson Mukerjee realized that he couldn't go back. On March 19, 2014, he applied for asylum in the UK.
"No one leaves their birthplace unless there is danger," he says. "I had a [law] office in Pakistan. A nice home. I employed servants. Here, I live in poverty. The answer is, I had no choice."
Living in limbo
Despite receiving support from his local member of parliament, Wilson's asylum application was refused in February 2017. "My bad luck was that my caseworker wasn't good," Wilson says.
Whatever the result of his asylum application, Wilson knew he couldn't return to Pakistan. He continued to fear for his life. Moreover, his son Charles, aged 22, had serious medical issues for many years, including epilepsy, learning disabilities, memory loss and speech impediments. Wilson and his wife, who are full-time carers for their son, were afraid that returning to Pakistan would be detrimental for his health.
Once the Mukerjees' asylum claim was rejected, their government benefits stopped. As asylum seekers, they were not allowed to work. They got by with help from their church and Asylum Link Merseyside (ALM), a Liverpool-based charity that helps migrants and asylum seekers. Finally, the family appealed the decision to stop their benefits, citing their son Charles' medical needs.
"[Charles is] totally dependent on his parents to support him in his daily living needs and activities, changing, washing, preparing food, attending appointments and taking medications when required," wrote Dr. Karam, a general practitioner, in a letter of support seen by InfoMigrants.
The court ruled that is would allow them to stay in government housing and continue receiving support. Wilson Mukerjee began to work with a lawyer at ALM to make a new case for his family's leave to remain in the UK. But, in the meantime, the family remained in limbo.
An unpleasant surprise at the Home Office
Shortly after 9am on April 4, the Mukerjee family arrived at the Home Office in Liverpool. Like other asylum seekers or failed asylum seekers, they have to regularly sign in to keep receiving benefits.
At first, everything seemed normal, but "my sixth sense said there was something fishy," Wilson Mukerjee remembered. He says that his family was called into a special room and that the door was locked behind them, "like a cage."
Two officials from the Home Office entered and told the family that they were going to be detained. Wilson says he tried to show them the court order detailing his son's medical condition and letters from a GP and a neurologist, all explaining that Charles was unfit to travel.
Wilson Mukerjee says one of the officers told him, "This is not in our records nor do I want to see this." When contacted by InfoMigrants, the Home Office refused to respond to specific questions about the treatment of the Mukerjee family.
Ewan Roberts, the manager of ALM, says that even if the Home Office had decided to deport the Mukerjees they did not need to detain the family to do so.
"With a severely disabled son, they didn't pose a flight risk," Roberts said in an interview with BBC Merseyside. "If the Home Office had done their homework and read the neurologist's statements, they wouldn't have done it in this manner. It was unsafe."
Wilson Mukerjee recalls that his son Charles was getting more and more agitated by the stressful situation: "The detaining officer was so aggressive," he remembers. "My son had a panic attack. I've never seen anything so bad. There was a chair nailed into the ground, he hit it so forcefully that it went flying. My wife and I were crying, we couldn't control him."
Wilson Mukerjee says that as Charles got more and more out of control, Home Office staff left the room. He added that even though there was a paramedic on hand, no medical personnel came into the room to assist, as Charles' conditioned worsened. ALM manager Roberts, who calls Charles "sweet and docile," says this behavior was extremely uncharacteristic and probably came as a result of the stressful situation. That opinion was seconded by Mencap Liverpool, a charity for people with learning disabilities.
Finally after two hours, Wilson and his wife Ruth managed to calm Charles down.
Next stop: deportation?
At some point, they were allowed to make some calls. Wilson called his church, ALM and Mencap in the desperate hope that they could advocate for his family from the outside. Soon after, however, the family learned they would be taken by van to a detention center.
"Before boarding the van we were again body-searched, although we had all been in a locked room since 10am, constantly monitored by personnel and CCTV cameras," Wilson Mukerjee says. "All of my belongings were taken."
By the time they boarded the van it was around 5pm. "I said, what about lunch? My child needs medicine," Wilson explains. However, there was apparently no food provided during the journey, which took five hours. Nor were the family allowed to take bathroom breaks during the drive - even though the four guards and paramedics were allowed to stop to use the toilet themselves.
Finally Charles, whose medicine makes him need to urinate frequently, became desperate. With no other option, Wilson told his son to urinate in the van. Only then did the officials accompanying them arrange to take him to a bathroom at a police station.
Tascor, the private company that transported the Mukerjee family, did not respond to InfoMigrants' requests for details on the journey.
'If they don't let me go, I'll kill myself'
Around 10:30pm, the family arrived at Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Center, a detention center used to house foreign nationals prior to their deportation. Located in Bedfordshire, it is one of ten such facilities in the UK.
Since it was first opened in 2001, Yarl's Wood has frequently been mired in controversy with allegations of sexual abuse, cruel treatment and even deaths in custody. Over the years, detainees have held numerous hunger strikes about the conditions there. The most recent began in 2018 - just two months before the Mukerjee family arrived.
Wilson says that shortly after their arrival at 11pm their documents were checked and logged - a process the continued until 1am. Only then was the family given food. The Mukerjees were then led to their rooms in the family wing.
The next day, Thursday, April 5, Charles had a series of panic attacks and epileptic fits. "At one point, my son said to me, 'Papa, if they don't let me go home, I will kill myself,'" Wilson Mukerjee remembers.
Wilson reported these comments, which led to Charles being interviewed by staff from Serco - a private company manages the detention center. Wilson Mukerjee also spoke with a member of an Independent Monitoring Board about the treatment his family, and especially his son, underwent. According to Wilson, they concluded that "Charles should not be in this place for even one second" and began the long proceedings to get the family out.
However, that process would take many more days. Following Charles' comments about self-harm the family was no longer allowed to keep his medication in the room. Instead, they were forced to make visits to the detention center's pharmacy several times a day. Wilson says staff there insisted on administering Charles' medicine and would not let the parents help.
Regardless of the medical attention, Charles kept having seizures and panic attacks. He stopped eating. In his rare moments of quiet, he would stare at the ceiling or floor, refusing to speak to his parents, Wilson recalls. When the Epilepsy Society, a British charity, sent Charles a special pillow to help prevent him from injury in case of a nighttime fit, Wilson says authorities held it for three days.
Serco has not yet responded to questions submitted by InfoMigrants.
Community gets behind Mukerjee family
During this time, many people were working to get the Mukerjee family released. More than 5,500 people signed a petition for Charles' release.
"Everything [we’ve] heard about Charles' treatment since he was seized ... suggests that the Home Office has paid no regard to his needs as a vulnerable adult," disability charity Mencap Liverpool said in a statement. "They have repeatedly subjected him to stressful situations which he can't understand and which are likely to trigger seizures."
Liverpool Member of Parliament Luciana Berger shared the petition on Twitter and also stated that she had personally contacted Home Secretary Amber Rudd and the Home Office about the case. Several British media outlets meanwhile also covered the story. BBC Merseyside was able to record a call with Wilson from within the detention center. The BBC also reached out to the Home Office, which refused to comment.
Going home at last
The Mukerjee family remained trapped at the detention center for days. On Monday, April 9, staff there told the Mukerjee family that the Home Office had refused to release Charles on the basis of his medical file. They said they would only consider releasing the family on the basis of a report by detention center staff, which, however, refused to accept reports of any prior seizures.
A few hours later Charles had yet another epileptic fit and, this time, staff submitted a full report. The next morning, on Tuesday April 10, Charles met with Dr. Saeed Chaudhary, a doctor with G4S, the private contractor that runs the healthcare services at Yarl's Wood. InfoMigrants was able to look at an assessment written by Chaudhary; he mentions that Charles was clearly distressed, felt as if his medication had been "stolen" and was suffering from increased seizures.
"He mentions he wants to go home," Chaudhary also noted. Finally, that afternoon, the family was released.
Promises to follow up
On April 16, Luciana Berger MP, asked Home Secretary Amber Rudd about the Mukerjee case in parliament.
"Will the Home Secretary urgently look at this family's experience and see what changes need to be made to ensure that we treat all people who are detained humanely and in a dignified way, especially those with learning disabilities and mental ill health?"
"I thank the honorable Lady for raising that issue," Rudd said. "The answer to her question is yes. I will, and I ask her to send me the information, which I will take a look at personally."
However, just under two weeks after making that promise, Rudd resigned after it emerged that she was aware of the targets set for removing illegal immigrants from the UK - despite having previously denied this knowledge to parliament.
Rudd has also been under fire for her role in creating laws and policies meant to create a "hostile environment" for undocumented immigrants, leading to some legal residents being denied healthcare, pension and benefits - and, in some cases, also being threatened with deportation.
In a further twist to this story, when ALM posted materials online calling for the Mukerjee family to be released from detention supporters of Wilson's brother started leaving threats in the comments sections.
"It shows they are still being watched and the danger they fled from is still there," ALM director Roberts told the BBC. "If the family were returned to Pakistan, I don't think they would have adequate protection."
The Mukerjee family is now working with an ALM solicitor to submit further evidence to their asylum case. They are also building a second case for Charles, citing medical reasons and human rights.The detention experience, however, continues to haunt them; Charles, in particular, has been struggling since the traumatic experiences. Wilson Mukerjee says that Charles is now terrified of police and anyone in uniform. Even Charles' doctor noticed changes in his behavior, the family says.
Home Office registration visits still hang heavy over the Mukerjee family:
"Today was our signing. Charles heard us talking about it and had a panic attack," Wilson says. He admitted that he, himself, was also worried about the meeting.
"It's stressful," he says. "We can’t trust the Home Office anymore. This country is a champion for human rights and then they treat us like this? You can't imagine the trauma we've faced."