This blog comes from Indre Lechtimiakyte. Indre is originally from Lithuania and has been working as a caseworker and coordinator of the Ex-Detainee Project for Samphire since 2016. Prior to joining Samphire, she worked on the return migration project at IOM Vilnius, human rights education and awareness raising projects in Bulgaria and in a private law practice in Lithuania. You can follow Samphire on Twitter at @samphire
Over three years ago, whilst working at the IOM Lithuania, I first encountered the impact that immigration detention has on people’s lives. Back then I had no idea that the UK doesn’t have a time limit on immigration detention, and that one day I would be working in this field.
That day, a Lithuanian migrant, just removed from the UK, came to my office for advice straight from the airport. He had lived in the UK since childhood and the only thing that connected him with Lithuania was his passport. Being ethnic Russian, he didn’t speak the language, so we talked in English. I was shocked. Locked up? Without a criminal conviction? Without a time limit? In a country known for its advancement? That surely didn’t sound right.
Six months on I found myself working on the Ex-Detainee Project at Samphire – a charity based in Dover, Kent. The charity supports people who have been released from immigration detention, assisting with their practical and emotional needs through a telephone helpline, which is currently used by 613 people across the UK.
In the beginning it was exceptionally difficult. What do you say to a fellow human being who is overcome with emotion when talking to you on the end of the telephone, because, after living in this country for 15 years, they find themselves separated from their family? He wants you to buy him bus tickets to go to see his family and to say goodbye for the last time. How do you explain to a homeless individual that homeless charities will not help him, because he has no recourse to public funds? Or that the charity has run out of emergency money that month so can’t give him cash to wash his clothes?
Some “lucky ones” are placed in the Home Office accommodation to avoid destitution. However, the Home Office support has strict conditions attached. When given Home Office accommodation, a person can be sent anywhere in the country, regardless of their family or social ties. A number of clients, with our support, travel across the country on night coaches, once a month, so they can spend a day with their child. The conditions in the Home office provided accommodation are often undesirable. On a daily basis I help people to understand their entitlements, help them to communicate with their housing managers, and assist to ensure their living conditions can be more humane and appropriate to their needs. No one would like to let their child sleep on a mattress that is infested with bed bugs or to be subjected to constant abuse as a transgender person in men’s-only accommodation.
One of our clients is a father of two. He lives with his wife and two children, yet the family struggles. Since 2005 he has been fighting for his right to stay in the UK – the country where his children were born. He doesn’t have a right to work in the UK to support his family, and also cannot fully support his family with joint parenting roles such as taking and collecting the children from school as he is restricted by being fitted with an electronic monitoring tag. He was released from detention in 2008 and his situation hasn’t changed.
Last week I spoke to a client who fights depression because of the abuse he suffered in detention. On average, one in three of our service users suffer from PTSD. Unfortunately, this is not only due to traumatic experiences in their country of origin but also due to the impact of detention in the UK. Mental health can still be stigmatised in western societies. For a lot of people coming from different cultural backgrounds it can be even more of a challenge – not being able to discuss it with their families, or not wanting to admit it, pushes them into a never ending circle of isolation and depression.
Each time the phone rings I am prepared to listen and help in whatever way I can. Emotional support and understanding is what a lot of our service users need. Sometimes it can be very challenging, but over time I am learning to accept the disappointment with this country’s immigration system and simply do my best to provide positive support to those who need it most.