In October 1987, Siva, a 20-year-old Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka, stood staring through a hole in the hull of the Earl William passenger ferry, moored just off Harwich in Essex.
Conditions on board the ship, used by Margaret Thatcher’s government to detain 120 asylum seekers, including 60 Tamils, were deteriorating rapidly.
Many were on hunger strike, and the ship was pitching and tossing.
Detainees were not allowed on deck because of the suicide risk. A banner, hung over the side of the ship, read: “British people! Don’t let us die!”
“The cabin was claustrophobic and tiny,” Siva, now 53, says. “It was like a tight little tin with no windows.
“We felt seasick all the time. We never knew whose turn it was to return to certain torture and maybe even death.”
It is 33 years since he took the decision to jump into the blackness, below which lay the freezing October North Sea.
Ten days later, the Earl William was smashed from its moorings by the Great Storm of 1987.
After a 14-hour ordeal, refugees and crew were rescued, with many offered temporary asylum on compassionate grounds.
One Tamil leader called it “the furious hand of nature” replying to the barbarity of locking up human beings on a ferry.
Yet three decades on, a new Tory government is exploring similar plans for detention.
As Home Secretary Priti Patel pledges to reform the asylum system, plans to house refugees in ships are “being given serious consideration” according to leaks from her department, as a “favoured option”.
Three decades on, Siva, a man once considered dangerous enough to be locked up 24 hours a day offshore, is a married bus driver with full UK citizenship and three children, who doesn’t want to be named as he still fears the UK authorities.
Back then, he was escaping the violent civil war in Sri Lanka.
In 1985, Britain had placed its first ever entry restrictions on a former UK colony, leading to thousands of Sri Lankans becoming “asylum seekers” overnight.
Siva arrived in the UK in January 1987, aged 19, and was detained and held at Harmondsworth Immigration Removal centre, before being taken to a regular prison in Yorkshire.
The first detainees were placed onboard the Earl William that May, Siva among them.
“Every day the officers would come and take people away,” Siva says, his words translated by his friend, the activist Nirmala Rajasingam.
“So, I lived in fear. I felt like I was dying inside. At times, I thought it will be better if my life ended.”
Amid public outcry, the newly elected Labour MP Diane Abbott visited the ferry on August 6 with fellow MPs Jeremy Corbyn and Harry Cohen.
“I remember the visit to the prison ship vividly,” Diane says. “The young Tamils were completely desperate.
“It seemed a barbaric situation and I felt very sad for them. Conditions were poor and overcrowded.”
She adds pointedly: “I am appalled to be still discussing prison ships for asylum seekers all these years later.”
Vanchees Janarthanan, founder of the Tamil Welfare Association of Newham, began organising protests at the port.
“The ship wasn’t much different from a prison,” he says.
“But it posed more risk than a normal detention centre. It was not fit for purpose and the conditions were terrible.”
Siva and a friend made a plan. “That night, we waited for the guards to come and check each cabin and then we made up the bed to look like someone was there and we went to the hole.
“I had already wrapped up the money I had in a polythene bag.
“I jumped first as I could swim. My friend could not really swim so I asked him to jump after me and I caught him and held him.
In a little while I saw he could float and then he slowly let go of my hand and he was swimming. It took only about six or seven minutes to get to the shore.”
However, they had reached marshland. “With each step our legs sank into the mud. We had to crawl.”
The two men reached the shore soaking wet, shivering and covered in mud.
They had both lost their shoes.
“Our feet were so badly cut,” says Siva.
“We found the station to find the last train had gone. Then we saw the lights on in a church.”
The two young men told the priest they were sailors on shore leave.
They had money, they said, but could he call them a taxi?
The priest invited them in to wash and called a cab.
By the time they reached a friend’s house in London it was the middle of the night, and he was at work.
They managed to get through the front door but found themselves trapped in the porch.
“We both crammed into that space and fell asleep. When our friend came, we washed, and our legs and feet were burning from the wounds.”
Members of the Tamil community took the men in.
Ten days later, they heard that the ship had lost its moorings in hurricane winds.
After three years of looking over his shoulder, Siva surrendered himself to the immigration authorities in 1990, and later won settled status.
“When I see desperate refugees swimming in the water from places like Syria where there is a civil war, I just feel so sad and angry,” he says.
“My mind goes back to the time when I had to take a similar risk. The Government’s plans will create a terrible prison where people are sent to die. Their minds will be completely gone. It is a totally inhumane idea.”
Vanchees Janarthanan is just as perplexed.
“It was tested and proven in 1987 that it’s a very bad idea to lock up vulnerable asylum seekers in a ferry,” he says.
“I don’t know why they want to reintroduce this inhumane method of detention. From my experience most of the detainees were traumatised for many years after their release.”
History tells us that like the Earl William, which ended life at the bottom of the Caribbean, this is an idea that should sink without trace.