As more detention centres are closed, visitors’ groups shift their focus to what’s next. Clara Della Croce, from Asylum Welcome, explains to Unlocking Detention what Asylum Welcome did after the closure of Campsfield immigration detention in Oxfordshire.
On Friday, 9th November 2018, Asylum Welcome was informed that the Home Office had decided to close Campsfield House in May 2019. Throughout 25 years Asylum Welcome visitors had been in Campsfield House, Immigration Removal Centre, near Oxford, sometimes every day of the week.
These detainees were incarcerated under an unfair and hostile detention system and many of us had been campaigning for the end of immigration detention. We were elated but, also somewhat confused. The Home Office statement read that this closure was part of an ongoing strategy to reduce detention numbers by 40%. Questions began to dawn upon us: where were Campsfield detainees going to go? Many were so vulnerable; we knew some of their stories. Is this the only detention centre to be closed? We asked. Asylum Welcome staff, and volunteers to Campsfield House, all had similar feelings of incredulity and joy accompanied by a strong concern for the welfare of the detainees.
The wider Oxford community, who had campaigned for the closure of Campsfield and the end of all immigration detention, saw this as a moment for celebration. In contrast, the detainees themselves were saying that whilst being in Campsfield was depressing and stressful, their experience of other detention centres, where the regime was much stricter, was even worse. By mid-December 2018, Campsfield was empty and the remaining few detainees were transferred to Brook House or Harmsworth Immigration Removal Centres.
Asylum Welcome’s staff and volunteers are very keen to build upon their long experience supporting detainees in Campsfield: overstayers, refused asylum seekers, and those with past convictions who had finished their criminal sentence and had been transferred to immigration detention. We are united in the view that our work in this field should not end with the closure of Campsfield – there are ongoing humanitarian needs that we are well-placed to address.
Asylum Welcome contacted HMP Huntercombe, and our offer to provide a visiting service to prisoners was warmly welcomed. Huntercombe is a category C prison in Oxfordshire, populated solely by 480 foreign nationals; not a single inmate there is British. After several months setting up the project structures, we are now taking our first steps as visitors within the prison. In offering a service to Huntercombe prisoners there are four concerns that we believe we can help to address: isolation, communication, wellbeing and advocacy.
Whilst some prisoners had built their lives in the UK prior to offending and therefore have family in the country, others, including many with an asylum background, have no one to talk to or support them from beyond the walls of the prison. A regular volunteer visitor can make an enormous difference.
Foreign national prisoners at Huntercombe are from a multitude of backgrounds. Language barriers are a common problem as many prisoners lack good spoken English. Asylum Welcome’s multi-cultural, multi-lingual visitors can act as a bridge.
Huntercombe is a calmer, more orderly environment than Campsfield. This is possibly because inmates know why they are there and when their sentences will finish, whereas in Campsfield, like all immigration removal centres, people had to cope with the uncertainty of being held indefinitely, provoking feelings of depression and anxiety surrounding their future. Nevertheless, foreign prisoners suffer the anxiety of an uncertain future because they do not know what will happen when they have completed their sentence: whether they will be released, kept in prison under immigration powers, transferred to immigration removal centres or if they will be put straight into a plane back ‘home’. Our visiting service is still in its early stages, but we anticipate that we will be an important source of support for those wanting to talk about the impact of this uncertainty on their wellbeing.
From our experience at Campsfield we anticipate that foreign national prisoners, similar to detainees, will sometimes struggle to understand the systems and procedures affecting their situation, their legal rights and access to representation. We expect that our visiting team will draw to the attention of legal representatives and the prison authorities any instances where prisoners need help to understand and exercise their rights. Asylum Welcome also intends to share its learning from this project with other U.K. organisations to support improvements in policy and practice concerning detainees and foreign national prisoners.
In the current uncertain political times, we firmly believe that it is important to ensure the welfare of this largely politically unpopular yet vulnerable migrant group, and support them while they complete their sentences. By so doing we hope to give them a better chance of reintegration into the society they return to.