“Allowing people to see what might be possible”: Volunteering in detention

Content warning: torture, rape. Image by @Carcazan

This two-part blog features reflections from two volunteers with JRS UK, who support people detained in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs), The first comes from Cashel Riordan, a counsellor and volunteer.

Recently, I started reflecting on my counselling work, and was particularly struck by the difference between my private clients and those I see for counselling in the Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) at Harmondsworth and Colnbrook as part of my volunteering with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS UK). I can say I find the work to be quite similar but the surroundings are totally different.

For me, the purposes of counselling are a means to help individuals see a way forward in their lives, possibly to discuss issues that are troubling them and to consider if there are any aspects they would want to change. We take all of this reflection and look at how they could go about making those changes in ways that might bring more contentment for themselves.

My private clients source me on the internet and other such places whereas in the IRCs, people are referred to me by detention staff, other JRS colleagues and also through my interacting and mingling with them in the welfare room, where they usually seek me out so as to have someone to talk to.

Those I meet in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook want out and to be free so I see my role as helping them to manage their detention existence, to cope with the uncertainty regarding their release or deportation. Research has shown that nearly all people suffer some psychological difficulties if they are held in unwanted confinement, no matter where. The difference for my private clients is that they are free to come and go from my counselling room as they please.

However, both groups, within the counselling hour, are given a time that they may not find elsewhere to talk about those things that are uppermost in their minds. Being able to talk, disclose, cry, are hugely relevant in releasing tension and allowing people to see what might be possible. To both, I’ll talk about their support systems, their family and who they feel they can really talk to and receive some empathy.

Particularly with those in detention, I will check their wellbeing: are they eating, drinking water, getting exercise and any quality sleep, as these are important to maintain their spirits. In detention, sleep is difficult given the circumstances but is important for their mental wellbeing. I find their minds tend to be full of bad memories and often horrific events such as torture, killings, rapes. I’ll ask them to try and picture some happy events. As I have found few to immediately recall happy times, I’ll offer suggestions – good times with families, partners, sport etc… Then I ask them to try when going to sleep to keep visualizing and thinking of these happy memories because research again shows that quite often we dream about those things we have been thinking of before we fall asleep. I suggest when possible not to be looking at violent action films on TV before sleep for that same reason. Generally, I believe, it takes most of us 5 positive thoughts before we can dampen down 2 negative thoughts, a ratio of 5:2.

A major difference in the IRCs is that I can’t have any certainty that I will see the same person the following week, either because they are not able for different reasons to come and see me or they have been moved to another centre, released or returned to their home country. Whereas my private clients make appointments with me and rarely do not attend.

Overall, I enjoy working with both sets of client, one helps to pay my mortgage and the other helps me to do something positive for my fellow man.

Martin is one of the newest Detention Outreach Volunteers at JRS UK. Today he shares with us his reflections on his first few weeks of visiting.

It was not without some trepidation that I ventured to Harmondsworth for my first visit, but with some handholding from an experienced visitor to guide me though the essentials I met Omar (not his real name). His thick Arabic accent was difficult to understand, and still is, with his strange pronunciation of English and French but he seemed positive about his situation and its outcome. After the visit I felt a certain amount of inadequacy concerning my role. Not inasmuch as an inability to handle and support him but that my contribution was of so little consequence.

However, over subsequent visits his demeanour deteriorated as his application for a bail hearing was delayed and he was seeing others being released after having spent less time in detention than him.

My feelings of inadequacy were now compounded by frustration. Omar’s health, his prospects and his level of legal advice were, to me, insufficient. I was concerned that my support may not be providing what was needed in this situation. Being aware that JRS provides more than just emotional support through social visiting, I asked my volunteer colleagues who provided him with practical support and advice to share with me some more information about his case. To that end, I was uplifted by the discovery of the reason for the hold up in the Home Office decision.

Two recent visits have had to be cancelled as Omar has not been feeling well and although I have made it plain that as he has my telephone number and can contact me 24/7 he has not yet made that move to a more confidential association with me. Maybe I’m not what he thought he was getting when he requested a visitor; perhaps I should ask him if he might prefer another with whom he might be able to better interact.

After each visit I ask myself if I could have done anything differently, more constructively. Each time I don’t see any other approach other than being positive to Omar, suggesting he makes full use of the amenities of the centre, mental and physical, that he avails himself of the ‘Welfare’ facilities on a Thursday and keeps as close a contact with his solicitor as is appropriate to press his case to a solution.

How do I relax and recharge my batteries after a demanding visit? Brahms, Beethoven and for anger management Shostakovich 2nd Piano Concerto. The anger expressed in that fantastic first movement, Allegro, then the soothing balm of the Andante can reduce me to tears.

Do I want to continue? Most certainly, as long as I can contribute in any capacity to the work of JRS.

Three years after Moroccan Jew’s death in detention, why no inquest?

Content warning: suicide, death. Image by @Carcazan

This piece comes from Hannah Swirsky, Campaigns Officer at René Cassin. It was originally published on Jewish News.

Immigration detention has again reached national news after a recent Guardian investigation into those detained in the UK found thatmore than half of the sample were either suicidal, seriously ill or victims of torture”. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the number of self-harm incidents requiring medical treatment in immigration detention settings almost trebled between 2011 and 2017.

Furthermore, of the sample of 188 people held in detention on the 31st August 2018, nearly a third had dependent children in the UK. Although children are no longer routinely detained, unlike in America, the UK still separates families by locking up parents.

The results of this investigation were published as news came that the inquest into the death of Amir Siman-Tov, a Moroccan Jew who died in Colnbrook immigration detention centre in 2016, had been postponed for a third time.

Described as “intelligent and kind”, Amir had been placed on suicide watch at the detention centre near Heathrow prior to his death.

Michael Goldin, a trainee immigration solicitor who knew Amir well, stated: 

“The circumstances around his death were, as they remain, unclear. Amir had severe mental health issues and immigration detention would not have been a safe place for him to be. He needed to be taking regular medication and in a supportive environment, not in a detention centre – a prison in all but name.

Amir’s inquest is now scheduled for the end of March – meaning questions about how and why he died will have been left unanswered for more than three years.

The fact that this man is Jewish connects him to our community, but this is a policy that affects more than thirty thousand migrants who are held indefinitely every year in the UK.

The detention of people for immigration purposes is largely a hidden issue. Even less known is the fact that there is no time limit on how long someone can be detained.

The UK is the only country in Europe to indefinitely imprison people in immigration detention centres. Described by a cross-party group of MPs as “expensive, ineffective and unjust”, indefinite immigration detention is rendered unnecessary by the fact that many of those detained are eventually released back into the community.

The personal cruelty of the UK immigration detention system was again highlighted to me during a recent interview with ‘Yuri’, a Jewish refugee who was detained in an immigration detention centre for three months. Yuri had come to the UK seeking asylum after fleeing anti-Semitic persecution but was then locked up in one of Britain’s immigration detention centres. Denied his liberty, he was also stripped of his dignity – on a visit to hospital, he was handcuffed and had his legs tied together. His remark that “I thought that Britain was a country of human rights but this is not the case in detention” was unsurprising, but also hard to hear.  

René Cassin is a proud member of the Detention Forum and has long campaigned for the introduction of a 28-day time limit on detention as an essential step towards a fairer system. In other areas of law, this is the maximum time considered acceptable to hold someone without charge. Furthermore, evidence shows that after 28 days, the detrimental impact on mental health increases significantly.

René Cassin also supports alternatives to detention, which would make the immigration process more humane, more effective, and less costly.

Persecution and estrangement are indivisible from Jewish religion, history and culture. As Jews we must continue to demand a more accountable and transparent immigration policy, which seeks to serve not administrative targets, but the rights and dignity of all.

“I regularly speak to people who are in absolute despair”

Content warning: torture, trafficking. Image by @Carcazan

In the second of a two-part series from Detention Action, volunteer Mary-Ann talks about what she’s learnt from supporting people detained in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs).

 Volunteering for Detention Action has very much opened my eyes to the UK’s hostile immigration environment and its immigration detention centres. I came to Detention Action with some knowledge of international refugee policy and support, having previously worked with UN member states and humanitarian agencies such as UNHCR.  At the time, I was conscious of the UK lobbying other member states to honour their refugee and human rights commitments, and to increase their refugee intake with increasing global irregular migration due to natural disasters, conflict and failing states. Ironically however, the UK’s own intake of refugees is very low by comparison: in 2017 the UK was hosting just 122,000 of the world’s 25.4 million refugeeswhile Turkey, for example, was home to nearly 3.5 million

My time at Detention Action has given me an insight into the harsh reality for people seeking asylum in this country, and in particular those who find themselves in immigration detention.  I discovered that, at great cost to tax payers, the UK’s detention estate is one of the largest in Europe. There has been between 2,500 to 3,500 migrants in detention at any given time over the past decade.

In order to provide practical and emotional support to people in detention, I spend my time developing an understanding of people’s personal stories and immigration history by talking to them by phone, and reviewing any Home Office, legal and health records that they wish to share. I am struck again and again by the often incredibly difficult circumstances that people have endured, and survived, only to find themselves locked up in prison-like conditions indefinitely. Indefinite detention is a psychological torture for any human being. Even people in the criminal justice system know the length of their sentence. I regularly speak to people who are in absolute despair, as many of them fall between the cracks of a very complex, inefficient and harsh immigration system.

I have got to know people in detention who have been tortured and are suffering from PTSD, have chronic insomnia due to anxiety over being detained, and a range of physical and mental health issues which are poorly addressed by the detention centre and the Home Office.  While these people are understandably feeling utterly miserable, I’ve been close to tears when they’ve asked me how I’m going and ask if I’m okay.

I have been supporting a Vietnamese man who is detained in Colnbrook IRC whom I’ll refer to as Tran. Tran is a victim of trafficking. He was taken from his country and forced into slave labour in various countries, badly beaten, and when brought to the UK made to work on a cannabis farm. He ended up with a criminal conviction following a police raid, despite obvious indicators that he is a victim of trafficking. After serving a prison sentence, Tran was taken directly to Colnbrook detention centre. Tran does not speak English which makes him particularly vulnerable. At one point, Tran was able to access legal aid to support a trafficking claim. However, out of genuine fear that his traffickers would kill him and or his family in Vietnam, like many victims of trafficking, Tran kept his story somewhat vague, which resulted in his claim being rejected. Having been imprisoned and then detained, Tran in absolute despair told me, via a volunteer interpreter, that he had built-up the courage to speak in more detail about his traffickers. We are now trying to see if legal aid is possible to appeal Tran’s negative trafficking decision, although we have been told by immigration lawyers that he is likely to be unsuccessful ‘because he has changed his story’. I feel very sad for Tran as he is an extremely polite young man who, despite his difficult situation, doesn’t want to inconvenience anyone. Detention Action continues to try and fight his corner as they do for many other vulnerable people like Tran.

“We both hoped there wouldn’t be a next visit”: The paradox of visiting detention

Image by @Carcazan

In the first of a two-part series from Detention Action, volunteer Anthony talks about his time visiting people detained in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs), near Heathrow airport.

 I remember feeling particularly nervous about making my first call. I had no idea what to expect from the person on the other end of the line. I was very keen to make a good first impression and was worried that if I said the wrong thing he would be left anxious and apprehensive about our visits. All my fear was forgotten as soon as he picked up the phone, it was as if we had spoken many times before and we both shared excitement on arranging our first meeting. His positivity made it easy to forget he was being detained.

For the first visit I tried to prepare by coming up with answers to hypothetical questions. I compiled a list of topics we could discuss and tried to memorise it, knowing that I wouldn’t be allowed a notepad in the visitor’s area. When I arrived at Harmondsworth the first thing I noticed was the huge fences, topped with huge rolls of barbed wire that surrounded bleak, windowless walls.

Once through the 3 security checks, we met SL and the conversation was immediately free flowing. I felt like I completely forgot everything I had memorised, but it didn’t really matter. It was much more of a casual conversation than I had anticipated, he didn’t really ask us for anything and seemed happy just to be able to talk to someone about his situation, even if he didn’t understand it fully himself. He spoke very passionately about how badly he had been treated by the Home Office and by the staff at Harmondsworth. It was hard to believe we had met that day. After the visit it was tough for me not to feel angry about the situation people in detention find themselves in. The isolation and loneliness is almost palpable within the centre and as I left through the car park I couldn’t help but feel a sense of guilt.

 All the people I have met have had vastly different stories and diverse paths which led them to detention. Despite their different personalities, they all shared the same feelings of fear and isolation. Visits allow people to speak freely about any topic they feel like, and provide them a brief escape from their depressive realism. Most importantly visits provide some of the most vulnerable people with a chance to be heard. So often people in detention feel they are misunderstood, or simply ignored, by solicitors, judges, case workers and society in general. Knowing that a visitor will be there to listen and be emotionally supportive on a regular basis can be unbelievably reassuring.

While it is difficult visiting people in extremely distressing circumstances, I feel very privileged to have spoken with some of the most optimistic and determined individuals I have ever met. The fact that a person can remain strong and positive whilst in horrendous surroundings is truly inspiring and although not every visit I made was full of hope, the opportunity to witness some incredible mental strength has changed my perspective for the better.

One person really stands out. From the first visit, SA and I instantly connected and developed a friendship over the 3 months we met. When we first met he had just began his 7 month in detention which followed 2 years in prison. Having moved from Pakistan with his entire family as a child, SA considered himself more British than he did Pakistani, and with his distinctive British accent it would be hard to assume otherwise. He served 2 years of a 3 year sentence and was now serving his probation in detention, with the Home Office looking to deport him based on his criminal conviction. There were some very real concerns SA had about going to Pakistan. Yes, he could speak the language, but he didn’t know anyone there. How would he support himself? Where would he live? Was it safe? What would his family do? He and his solicitor were arguing these points to the Home Office.

SA would often say how he preferred being in prison to Harmondsworth. From the food, the attitude of the guards, the recourses available, the condition of the building, everything was worse in Harmondsworth. The hardest thing, he said, about being in detention was the fact that you don’t know when or if you will be let out. He said this point effects every single person in detention and undoubtedly has an effect on people’s mental and physical states.

When I met SA he was starting to apply for bail, so that he could fight his immigration case alongside his family. Although we enjoyed each other’s company we both really hoped that there wouldn’t be a next visit and that when I next phoned him he would be back at home. Finally, after 11 long months in detention and 3 weeks before his 25thbirthday, SA got the bail he was hoping for and was able to be with his family and friends again. Although the story is far from over for SA, at least now he can fight his case whilst surrounded by the people that matter most to him.

“Immigrants emigrate, hopeful anticipate”

Write | Detention Forum

Image by @Carcazan

This contribution to #Unlocked18 comes from Ralph, who got in touch via Twitter. Ralph was detained for a total of 14 months in two prisons and a detention centre. Ralph tweets as @RO2tm

I was detained on two separate occasions. First was after serving a 10 month custodial sentence. The home office detained me for another 8 months. This was between 2012- 2013, then I was released in December of 2013 and detained again in August of 2014. I was first detained in HMP Hewell, then HMP Wormwood Scrubs, then Harmondsworth IRC.

Considering the level of suffering and my thirst for freedom, I opted to leave in January of 2015 voluntarily and I’ve been trying to get back to my four children ever since. It’s been nearly three years without my kids. Bear in mind I lived in the UK well over 12 years before all of this.

Commercial and social shackles are generally unjust, oppressive, and impolitic. As an immigrant, I chose to live in the UK because it is one of the free and most vibrant nations in the world. And as an immigrant, I feel an obligation to speak up for immigration policies that will keep the UK the most economically robust, creative and freedom-loving nation in the world. Immigration is a necessary component of economic growth.

Believe me, I understand the majority’s anguish about immigration, but what I can’t and will not understand is the racism. I will support concrete and progressive immigration reform based on three primary criteria: family reunification, economic contributions, and humanitarian concerns.

Immigrants emigrate

Hopeful anticipate

Teachers educate

I am what I am without

A shadow of doubt one of a kind

Walk through tryna find my place

Tryna escape all the hardships

I’m confronted with

Revolving around me was a law that facilitates hate premeditated

Judgement never got a fair

Judgement spent a lot of time down in the seg

Thankfully I had my pen’s intervention

Don’t seek revenge

But I seek redemption for the separation

I’ve got see my kids got to show them love got to give them kisses

Depicting wisdom: Drawings from detention

Trigger warning: suicide and self-harm

Like Red, whose poem we published earlier this week, Mishka is a member of the Freed Voices, a group of experts-by-experience who are committed to speaking out about the realities of immigration detention in the UK. In this blog, Mishka talks about the following images he drew based on his time in immigration detention. Mishka writes under a pseudonym and tweets @Mishka_anonym

I made these artworks a few months ago but so far I had only shared them on Twitter. Therefore I am glad that these will be shared on Unlocking Detention 2018 as well.

The reason I decided to create these pieces was to give a message to others who are not very aware of these experiences of immigration control. I hope that they will get the message I was intending to convey.

Audience-wise, I made these for people with compassion and empathy – but not sympathy because sympathy turns me off – who would get the message I was trying to convey.

I drew these artworks using computer software called Sketch Book Express. I drew them a few years after I was released, between November 2017 and February 2018. I was released from detention in 2014.

I enjoyed drawing them. I remember I used to draw one per week at that time. Even though my drawing skills are basic, I thought I would be able to convey a meaningful, strong message in the form of an artwork. A few people have told me that these drawings give a strong message, and I believe them.

The time it took to draw each of these varied. I would say on average it took 30 minutes to draw each one but some took a bit more time.

There must have been a trigger for me to choose these themes. For example: I remember why I decided to draw about reporting with the Home Office. It was because I remembered at the beginning of this year, my mum was asked to report with the Home Office. I grasped that she did not like going to report with the Home Office and was nervous, and I understood why.

I have been in that position before. This is why I decided to draw the painting about reporting with the Home Office. I had been in mum’s position, and I grasped the set of feelings that would have gone inside her mind when she was asked to report with the Home Office. So, I put that in a drawing.

The reason I drew the painting with chains and handcuffs is because they actually took me to the hospital A&E department in 2014 with a long chain and handcuffed with two detainee officers on both sides while hundreds of patients and visitors were watching, just like in the drawing.

What I happened was, while I was in detention, I became very ill. Then they took me to the A&E department. I could not even walk due to the severe pain caused by my illness, but this is how they took me to the hospital. I was chained to the hospital bed as well.

I still remember people were looking at me with confused faces. Even though it was a hard experience at that time, now in a way it feels funny when I remember the faces and reactions of those confused people, visitors, patients.

I had a long beard at that time, as I did not care about grooming my beard while I was in detention. I was heavily tattooed and I was escorted by two detainee officers on both sides, with chains and handcuffs. People in the in the hospital were like, “Who is this peculiar alien?” This particular first-hand experience is the reason I drew this.

All these artworks are directly linked to my past difficult and painful experiences that I had endured. In other words, these themes that I have chosen are about unpleasant or painful experiences that I have overcome already. Before I started drawing any of these, I looked back at those memories and experiences to envisage ‘old me’ in that position. Then, I draw these, adding a bit of black humour as well.

Lastly, the pain and traumatic experiences you endure in life eventually turn into wisdom. This wisdom helps you to see the world differently with a greater understanding. Also, the pain and harsh experiences you go through in your life can break you, but they can make you as well. So, when I drew these drawings, the pain and trauma blended into these drawings had already healed and turned into wisdom. These themes no longer feel painful or unpleasant; instead, it feels like they depict wisdom.

With thanks to Mishka for sharing his thoughts and drawings.

If you would like to share your own drawings, paintings, photographs or other visual images as part of Unlocking Detention, please get in touch on Twitter (#Unlocked18) or at detentionforumcoordinator@gmail.com

The guide to #Unlocked17 blogs is here!

Thank you for following Unlocking Detention in 2017!  We have listed all the blogs that were published during #Unlocked on this webpage for easy reference. Did you have any particular favourite? If so, tweet at us at @DetentionForum and let us know!

16 October: Welcome to #Unlocked17

16 October: ‘Do you know what immigration detention is?’ Part 1 Told by Mrs A, expert-by-experience

17 October: ‘Do you know what immigration detention is?’ Part 2 Told by Mrs A, expert-by-experience 
As we begin this year’s Unlocking Detention tour, we are sharing this two-part series by Mrs A, submitted by her solicitor at Duncan Lewis. We have not met Mrs A. We have no idea who she is.  We understand that she was detained herself and wants to tell you about the secret world of immigration detention.  And here it is, her take on immigration detention in the United Kingdom.

17 October: #Unlocked17 – a beginners’ level quiz

18 October: For groups wanting to support Unlocking Detention
One of the themes of this year’s Unlocking Detention tour is action.  We are distributing the following material for groups interested in joining the tour.  Please feel free to use them, share with others and so on!

18 October: Verne closes, Shaw looms
Detention Action has been running advice surgeries every month at the Verne detention centre, which is set to close at the end of this year.  Jerome Phelps, Director of Detention Action, considers what our next task is.  

18 October: “We need it now. People are dying.” Freed Voices lobbying for #Time4aTimeLimit
The theme of this year’s Unlocking Detention is ‘action’ so who better to hear from than the Freed Voices group. Earlier this week, Mishka from Freed Voices joined campaigners Fred Ashmore and Timothy Gee from the Quakers to lobby the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable. We sat down with Mishka to ask him a few questions about the experience.

20 October: ‘The Seamed Zones’
Where does ‘invisibility’ of immigration detention centres start?  Ben du Preez, Campaigns Coordinator at Detention Action, stares into the gap between nonplace-ness of detention centres and their material human impact and finds hope in Experts-By-Experience’s power to bring the truth to light.  

Week 2: Yarl’s Wood 

23 October: ‘Everyday in Yarl’s Wood is a struggle’
Boatemaa* was detained in Yarl’s Wood earlier this year.  She was recently released from Yarl’s Wood, to continue with her asylum case, after four months in detention.  She shares her story here.  

24 October: Photo essay ‘To Yarl’s Wood detention centre’
Yarl’s Wood detention centre is perhaps the most high-profile centres in the UK.  This photo essay is for those of you who have never been to this detention centre.

25 October: ‘A country I had called home for 13 years had imprisoned me.’
Families with children were regularly detained at Yarl’s Wood and Dungavel detention centres until the change of policy in 2010 drastically reduced the number of children detained.  Now, a smaller number of families with children are detained in an unit within Tinsley detention centre.  But what happened to many children who were detained at Yarl’s Wood and who are turning into adults in the UK?  Ijeoma Datha-Moore, from Let Us Learn, looks back on her 15-year-old self who suddenly found her and her family detained at Yarl’s Wood.  When she finished writing this piece, Ijeoma said ‘I’ve done it. I can’t tell you how odd it felt, but empowering. I am so proud of myself for being able to do this.’ A big thank you to Ijeoma for sharing her story with Unlocking Detention. 

26 October: Remembering My First Time
Though no official survey exists, UK is one of the few countries around the world where each detention centre has a dedicated visitor’s group, in addition to other groups who visit formally and informally multiple centres.  Hundreds of people must be regularly visiting those held in detention centres, but what does visiting really do?  Sonja Miley of Waging Peace write how she found an answer to this question, during her very first visit to Yarl’s Wood.

Week 2 summary blog: #Unlocked17 visits Yarls Wood

Week 3: Brook House and Tinsley House

30 October: ‘I try to forget about everything that I went through at Brook House.’
Paul* was removed from Brook House to Jamaica earlier this year, after being detained for over two years.  For the last six months of his detention, he had signed up to return voluntarily.  Paul talked to Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, who supported him during his detention, about his attempt to ‘forget about everything’ that he went through at Brook House.  (This is not his real name.)

31 October: Why political pressure needs to be ramped up now
The Detention Forum which runs Unlocking Detention is a network of many groups who have been working together to challenge UK’s immigration detention policy and practice.  Jon Featonby, one of its Coordination Group members, explains why now is the time for everyone to start taking action against detention. 

Week 3 summary blog: #Unlocked17 visits Brook House and Tinsley House

Week 4: Prisons and Short Term Holding Facilities

6 November: ‘There are no real seasons in detention. It’s just a grey blur. White noise.’
Immigration detention is sometimes described as ‘administrative detention in prison-like conditions’.  And the Home Office can detain people under immigration powers in prisons. In fact, as at 26 June 2017, there were 360 people held in prison establishments in England and Wales as “immigration detainees”. But what are the differences between being held in prisons and being held in detention centres?  Sam, from the Freed Voices, contemplates on this question. This piece was originally published in May 2017 by Detention Action.   

7 November: ‘No one has even thought of me or visited me’ – immigration detention in prisons
When we talk about immigration detention, of course we think of immigration detention centres.  But hundreds of people are also detained as “immigration detainees” in many ordinary prisons.  Ali McGinley of AVID shines light on this forgotten group of people and their daily struggles to be heard.

7 November: Parliamentary meeting on immigration detention on 16 November – is your MP attending?

8 November: An open letter: “My name is Nobody”
For many involved in asylum and migration justice work, immigration detention was a taboo subject for a long time and, in some quarters, it still is. One of the reasons for this is the mixed nature of those incarcerated. It is not just “model” asylum seekers who find themselves in detention: people from all sorts of experiences and life trajectories get incarcerated because they do not have a right type of passport or visa. But ‘As a society, how and who do we deem worthy of our empathy?’. Isabel Lima, visual artist and researcher, shares with Unlocking Detention her open letter about Nobody, a man with ‘many qualities and faults’ who finds himself in limbo. This letter is based on a true story and Nobody was anonymised for security reasons. 

9 November: If I am ever detained
There is understandably huge interest in knowing what immigration detention centres look like: barbed wire and prohibition of cameras inside the centres increase people’s curiosity.  But can you see the impact of immigration detention with your eyes?  What does immigration detention do to us? In this blog, Eiri Ohtani (@EiriOhtani), the Project Director of the Detention Forum shares her reflection and that of her colleague, Heather Jones (@Heather_Jones5) who has been visiting Yarl’s Wood detention centre for many years. They visited Alice* who was detained at Yarl’s Wood detention centre. (This is not her real name.)

Week 4 summary blog: Week 4: Prisons and Short Term Holding Facilities

Week 5: The Verne

13 November: ‘The Verne is closing but for those of us who experienced it, it will always be open’
We are told that the Verne detention centre will be closed at the end of 2017.  But is it really closing in the minds of those who were detained there? ‘Juan’ from Freed Voices responds to this news with this poem.

13 November: “When you see injustice – speak out!”: These Walls Must Fall in Manchester
Without people taking action, change won’t happen.  Luke Butterly of Right to Remain reports back on a recent campaign event of These Walls Must Fall which took place in Manchester.  This blog was originally published on Right to Remain’s website here.  

14 November: Won’t somebody please think of the children
The impact of immigration detention is not confined behind the gates of the detention centres: it involves people’s children, families, friends etc. Nick Watts is a child & family practitioner and co-founder of the charity Migrant Family Action, that provides specialist social work, advocacy and youth work to families who are oppressed as a result of their immigration status. Nick explains here what types of impact immigration detention has on children whose family member is detained.

15 November: The Verne IRC: on either side of the razor wire
Maddie Biddlecombe is a member of Verne Visitors Group in Portland and sent us this reflection.  The Verne detention centre is set to close at the end of 2017.   

16 November: Trafficked into detention
Trafficked people in detention are being denied the full protection of the Home Office’s flagship system for protecting victims of modern slavery, according to new research by Detention Action. Many victims of trafficking are taken to high-security detention centres after being picked up in raids on places of exploitation such as cannabis factories. Once in detention, they are treated as irregular migrants to be removed, and find it difficult to access support for victims of modern slavery. Susannah Wilcox of Detention Action explains how came to light through Detention Action’s casework and what their research found. 

16 November: Going Behind the Walls
Located on the Isle of Portland, off Weymouth in Dorset, the Verne epitomises the Government’s ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach to detention. In this blog, Ruth Jacobson of the Verne Visitors Group describes how this isolation compounds the many harms of indefinite detention, how the group seeks to challenge this, and their reaction to the announced closure of the Verne.     

19 November: #Unlocked17 Parliamentary Meeting on Immigration Detention

Week 5 summary blog: Week 5: #Unlocked17 Visits The Verne

Week 6: Campsfield House

20 November: Walls of resistance
This piece is written for Unlocking Detention by ‘Jose’ of the Freed Voices group (the author’s name has been altered to protect their identity). ‘Jose’ was detained in Campsfield detention centre.   

21 November: Detained for sleeping rough
Increased detention and deportation of EU citizens from the UK has been in the news for some time, especially in the context of debates surrounding Brexit.  NELMA has been working with EU citizens who have been detained while sleeping rough.   

21 November: WORKSHOP 11 DEC, GLASGOW – Oral histories of immigration detention: ethical approaches in research and activism

22 November: Slave Wages: How Our Clients Shone a Light on Detention Centre Exploitation
Toufique Hossain, Director of Public Law at Duncan Lewis Solicitors, specialises in challenging Government policy and practice in asylum and immigration law, with a particular focus on unlawful detention policies. He tells Unlocking Detention about the strategic litigation case of “slave wage” in detention centres he has been involved with and what it is like to represent people who are caught up in this never-ending nightmare of immigration detention.  

23 November: “Time After Time”: music from Campsfield House detention centre
In this blog, Ruth Nicholson describes a day of Music In Detention’s songwriting workshops in Campsfield House. Ruth is a musician, and a volunteer both for Music In Detention (MID) and the Detention Forum. This blog was originally published by Music in Detention in March this year here where you can also listen to the music recorded in Campsfield.

23 November: ‘Young arrivers’ caught in immigration detention
Dan Godshaw (@DanGodshaw) has worked for NGOs on migrant advocacy and support for 10 years. He has visited people held at Brook House IRC as well as supporting Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group’s (@GatDetainees) research and campaigning work since 2013. Dan holds an MA in Migration Studies from The University of Sussex, and is currently an ESRC-funded doctoral researcher on immigration detention and gender at The University of Bristol. 

24 November: ‘When I first visited someone in immigration detention I knew I must speak out.’
Immigration detention is an important issue for many Friends (Quakers). Bridget Walker, who is part of the Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network, details the conditions she witnessed and those endured by detained peoples.  This blog was originally published by Quakers in Britain 

Week 6 summary blog: Week 6: #Unlocked17 visits Campsfield House

Week 7: Harmondsworth and Colnbrook                                       

27 November: Five guys
Reflections on indefinite detention are often framed in the singular, as personal and introspective testimonies. In this special piece for Unlocking Detention, however, Mishka from Freed Voices, sketches five guys that shaped his experience of Harmondsworth detention centre and continue to dominate his thoughts today, post-release. 

28 November: Ten years on: reflections on a decade working on the injustice of detention
Immigration detention and the detention estate sometimes appear permanent and unchanging. However, underneath the surface, things are changing. Tamsin Alger, Casework and Policy Manager at Detention Action, looks back at a catalogue of actions people in detention, she and her organisation have taken to challenge immigration detention over the last 10 years.  

29 November: Four days in Colnbrook
This blog was written by Helen*, a US citizen who travelled to the UK and was detained earlier this year. She spent four days in Colnbrook detention centre, before being returned to the US.  In this blog, she recounts her experience.

30 November: The Importance of Being With
Beatrice Grasso is Detention Outreach Manager at Jesuit Refugee Service UK where, with volunteers, she supports many detained in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook detention centres. In this blog, she explains how their mission “Accompany, Serve and Advocate” informs and shapes their work in these detention centres, ‘places most people don’t even realise exist’.

1 December: From British playgrounds to Immigration Removal Centres
Authors: Candice Morgan-Glendinning and Dr Melanie Griffiths (University of Bristol) The following post is informed by an ESRC-funded project running at the University of Bristol. The research examines the intersection of family life and immigration policy for families consisting of British or EEA nationals and men with precarious or irregular immigration status. Further project information, including a report and policy briefings can be found here: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/ethnicity/projects/deportability-and-the-family/

Week 7 summary blog: Week 7: #Unlocked17 visits Harmondsworth and Colnbrook

Week 8: Morton Hall

4 December: Mapping detention
In this piece, Freed Voices members are our guides to the psycho-geography of detention centres, including Morton Hall which Unlocking Detention is visiting this week. The piece was originally published on Detention Action’s webpage here in 2016, in response to Unlocking Detention. Please do visit the original webpage which contains a full piece with more visual material. *The names of some Freed Voices members in this piece have been changed.

5 December: It’s about time – a time limit on immigration detention
Since the publication of Detained Lives (which Tamsin Algers refers to in her earlier blog here), a campaign to end UK’s practice of indefinite detention has been gathering pace.  Rachel Robinson, Advocacy Manager for Liberty, argues why the time is now to end this practice once and for all.  

6 December: Over 150 people demonstrate to mark 24 years since Campsfield ‘House’ opened
This blog was written by Bill MacKeith, joint organiser of the Campaign to Close Campsfield, for Unlocking Detention. Photos: Campaign to Close Campsfield

7 December: Putting stock Home Office statements in the stocks
New Freed Voices member, John P.*, was recently released after ten months detained in Morton Hall IRC in Lincolnshire. For this #Unlocked17 special, he sat down with Detention Action to go through his thoughts on some of the stock phrases the Home Office trot out in response to anti-detention campaigners. * John P. is not the author’s real name. This has been changed to protect his identity.

8 December: ‘A Prison For My Heart’
Coming out is often be a nervous and fearful experience – what does it feel like to that in immigration detention? Umar (not his real name) had to do that to protect his life. We are grateful to Umar who said he wanted share his story in order to raise awareness about the plight of LGBTI asylum-seekers and refugees and made this story publicly available, though was anxious to conceal his identity.  

Week 8 summary blog: Week 8: #Unlocked17 visits Morton Hall 

Week 9: Dungavel

11 December: Visiting Dungavel for another year…
This week, #Unlocked17 is visiting Dungavel, Scotland’s only detention centre. In this blog, Kate Alexander, Director of Scottish Detainee Visitors (SDV), reflects on another year of visiting Dungavel, and takes us on the journey that visitors make twice a week. Visitors also prepare a report after every visit, which Kate reviews. Here, she highlights the patterns she sees in these reports: of visitors’ concerns about the health of those in detention, frequently linked to the length of time people have been detained; of people’s frustration, anger and distress at their detention and the complex immigration processes they are caught up in; and of their worries about their families on the outside. 

12 December: If only everyone could be welcomed as warmly as Paddington…
Jawad Anjum and Steve Rolfe are activists with Global Justice Glasgow, a group of committed people who campaign to tackle the root causes of global poverty and injustice as part of Global Justice Now, a democratic movement in the UK which campaigns in solidarity with people in the global South. They write for Unlocking Detention about a lively campaign that is going on in Scotland.  

13 December: Life After Detention: A Film
The harm caused by detention does not end once a person is released. For many, the trauma of detention, and the struggles with uncertainty, continue. This is the subject of ‘Life After Detention’, a new film made in collaboration with the Life After Detention group from Scottish Detainee Visitors. The group filmed aspects of their life in Glasgow on their mobile phones and worked with film-maker and SDV volunteer, Alice Myers, to create the film. It was premiered at an Unlocking Detention event on Tuesday 12 December at the Glad Cafe in Glasgow.

18 December: Guantanamo Bay, A Tube Ride Away
In the final week of Unlocking Detention, we are now looking at where we will go from here. And we believe it is a perfect opportunity to publish this speech delivered last month by Jose, from the Freed Voices group to launch Amnesty’s #WriteForRights project. Jose says, ‘hope calls for action, just as action is impossible without hope’ and shares what gave him hope when he was in detention and when he is campaigning to end indefinite detention. The speech was originally published by Detention Action.

19 December: “If more people knew what was going on, more would recoil in disgust and demand explanations.”
This year’s Unlocking Detention featured over 40 blogs. Massive thank you to everyone who contributed and shone a light on the reality of immigration detention! As we conclude this year’s tour, some of the volunteers running the project share blogs that have left special impression on their minds. If there was any blog that especially resonated with you, do let us know which one and also why.

Week 9 Summary: #Unlocked visits Dungavel

Week 7: #Unlocked17 visits Harmondsworth and Colnbrook

The seventh week of #Unlocked17 focused on Harmondsworth and Colnbrook: two detention centres alongside one another, a stone’s throw from the runway at Heathrow airport. Around 1,000 migrants are detained across these two sites.
Harmondsworth alone has space for up to 661 men – making it the largest detention centre in Europe (yet another shameful record the UK holds, alongside being the only country in Europe without a time limit, and for detaining more migrants than any other country in Europe, except Greece).
Harmondsworth and Colnbrook are both run by for-profit company Mitie: in 2014, they won a bid worth £180 million to run the two centres until 2022. 
This week also saw some encouraging news from Manchester in the campaign against immigration detention: scroll down to learn more!

Inside Harmondsworth

The latest Prisons’ Inspector report, published in 2015 (after Mitie took over the running of the centre), was scathing. It said, “Many of the concerns that we identified in 2013 have not been rectified and in some respects matters have deteriorated.”
The report flagged the vulnerability of many of those in detention: in their survey, 80% of men said that they had had problems on arrival and nearly half said they had felt depressed or suicidal.
They also highlighted the length of detention, noting that over half were detained in the centre for over a month. 18 people had been held for over a year, and one man had been detained on separate occasions adding up to a total of five years.

This week’s first blog for Unlocking Detention came from Mishka from Freed Voices, who was detained in Harmondsworth. He sketches five guys that shaped his experience of Harmondsworth and continue to dominate his thoughts today, post-release. The five vignettes are called ‘Skeleton’, ‘Lifer’, ‘Blood’, ‘Brother’ and ‘Michael’. It’s a must-read piece, available here.

We also re-visited some older pieces written by experts-by-experience about Harmondsworth, such as Shariff:

Inside Colnbrook

Neighbouring Harmondsworth is Colnbrook, a high-security detention centre with capacity to detain just over 400 people, the majority men.
A Prisons’ Inspector report published in 2016 flagged the continued detention of vulnerable people and issues in the provision of care, noting, “Healthcare was an area of particular concern. Chronic staffing shortages affected the continuity and consistency of care. Care for those with severe mental health needs was generally good, but it was concerning that people with such severe illnesses were in immigration detention at all”

This week, we had an insider’s account of Colnbrook from Helen, a US citizen who was detained in Colnbrook for four days after travelling from to the UK to visit a friend. She wrote a detailed account of her experiences, documenting the injustice she felt and saw. You can read it here

Visiting Colnbrook and Harmondsworth

As part of Unlocking Detention’s virtual tour of Colnbrook and Harmondsworth, we also heard from individuals involved in visiting these centres and challenging detention.
First, Tamsin Alger, who has worked at Detention Action for ten years, looked back at actions taken over the last decade to challenge the injustice of immigration detention, including by people in detention, herself and her organisation, and at what’s changed in that time.
She concludes: “So much has changed in the last ten years. The one constant is the devastating human impact that immigration detention has on people who are held indefinitely.” Read her reflections here.

Beatrice Grasso is Detention Outreach Manager at Jesuit Refugee Service UK. With volunteers, she supports many detained in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook detention centres. In this blog, she explains how their mission “Accompany, Serve and Advocate” informs and shapes their work in these detention centres, ‘places most people don’t even realise exist’.

Finally, we had a post from Candice Morgan-Glendinning and Dr Melanie Griffiths, examining the intersection of family life and immigration policy for families consisting of British or EEA nationals and men with precarious or irregular immigration status.
They write, “Experiences such as immigration detention significantly impacts people’s mental health and feelings of belonging, with research participants describing themselves rejected as ‘nothing men’, ‘ghost men’ and ‘useless’. Detention and deportability led to people feeling both of being outside British society, and yet permanently bonded to the country through citizen children and partners.
You can read their blog here.

Manchester City Council passes a motion condemning immigration detention

We had some great news from Manchester this week, with the city council becoming the first in the UK to pass a motion condemning immigration detention. The full wording of the motion is here. Visit These Walls Must Fall to find out more!

And more support for #Time4aTimeLimit, including from a celebrity:

Mapping detention

Images courtesy of Freed Voices

At Unlocking Detention, we occasionally receive emails from people, including those who say they are journalists, asking us to let them join the “tour”. These requests stem from misunderstanding: some assume we are organizing physical, guided tours of the inside of these immigration detention centres, while we are actually running a “virtual” tour unearthing facts and voices from these centres.

While their interest is welcome, it also makes us feel uneasy – what legitimizes our gaze inside these centres, when it is not for an official purpose of monitoring or supporting people inside the centres? Should these centres be open for casual inspection by anyone who happens to be curious, knowing that people who are detained there are having a truly devastating time of their lives? When does this gaze transgress into the sphere of voyeurism? What makes us think that we can fully understand immigration detention through seeing its infrastructure?

In this piece, Freed Voices members are our guides to the psycho-geography of detention centres, including Morton Hall which Unlocking Detention is visiting this week. The piece was originally published on Detention Action’s webpage here in 2016, in response to Unlocking Detention. Please do visit the original webpage which contains a full piece with more visual material.

*The names of some Freed Voices members in this piece have been changed.


A few weeks ago, during the fallow days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the Freed Voices group met to reflect on a busy twelve months of campaigning and to mark the conclusion of ‘Unlocking Detention’ – Detention Forum’s annual, virtual tour of the UK’s detention estate.
In homage to the latter – (which digitally ‘visited’ those sites of indefinite incarceration up and down the country that the Government would otherwise have you believe are ‘out of sight, out of mind’) – the group conducted their own exercise in ‘mapping detention’.

To begin with, they plotted the general outline of a detention-centre (most Freed Voices members have experienced several different IRCs so chose the detention centre which resonated most). Then they filled in ‘key landmarks’, such as their rooms, healthcare, the canteen, visiting rooms, legal services, the shop, the yard, welfare and/or induction areas.

Next, Freed Voices members detailed the different demographics that might make up any given detention centre – where were the detention centre staff based? Where did new arrivals come in? Where were their friends in relation to their own rooms? Did different national or religious groups congregate in different spaces? Who dominated the yard? What was their typical movement through the detention centre on any given day?

Lastly, they designed a post-it key, with different colours to represent different emotional states. The group then pin-dropped these across their maps in different loci they associated most with that particular feeling.

Feeding back to each other, and reflecting on their respective maps, several outstanding themes emerged.

Firstly, the group acknowledged how they had (at least initially) all interpreted the exercise’s leading direction – ‘to draw the outline of the detention centre’ – very differently. Some members experienced greater freedom of movement throughout their incarceration and could detail the wider physical perimeters of the detention centre in great detail.
Others (despite, in some cases, spending longer periods of time in detention) did not map out anything beyond their wing. As John* explained, “this is really where day-to-day detention happens – everything you need to know about detention is on your wing.”

All agreed, however, that this was equally applicable to their rooms – that the essence of detention boiled down to four brick walls, complete with one or two bunks, maybe a toilet, and more often than not a hermetically sealed window (occasionally with a birds-eye view of a nearby airport).
Boone, who was detained for 7 months in Colnbrook, adjacent to Heathrow, said that ‘every minute and a half a plane flew past the window. Each one reminded me I was going to be deported back to my country. My room was my hell.” Omid said ‘my room was hopeless(ness)…I thought I never ever go out and that’s why in my nightmares I can see this room.” Shariff described his room as ‘My Coffin’.

Second was the extent to which members described how their identities had been unmade, made and remade again whilst they had been detained. Almost all noted how their primary physical/emotional interaction with detention had been under the cloak of darkness, arriving in a blacked-out van, usually at around two or three in the morning, handcuffed, and marched through high-security gates like a criminal.

Joe, a survivor of torture from East Africa, spoke about how, when he arrived at Dover detention centre (where he spent the next two years) he had to pass through its three enormous gates. At the first one, they registered his name and country of origin. At the second, they frisked him. At the third, they gave him a ‘Prison Number’ and waved him through. “I had never committed a crime in my life, I received no trial, and yet I was given a life-sentence?”

John, who was predominately detained in Colnbrook, spoke about being stripped of the most important aspect of his identity: his humanity. He recounted how he had been spoken to like an animal, caged like an animal, and barked at by immigration officers like an animal – and not in a figurative sense, but with an actual guttural canine-growl.

Thiru, a survivor of torture from Sri Lanka, highlighted his time in segregation – or the ‘Isolated Rooms’, as he called them – as the darkest part of his detention experience (a sentiment concurred by several other members). Thiru described how here, in solitary confinement, his past and present traumas had merged into one. He said he felt; “Tortured again. Only this time I wasn’t sure why. Back home, I knew it was because of who I was. But here, it was because of who I wasn’t. It was confusing.”

Freed Voices members largely agreed that the inevitable result of these kinds of experiences – the violence of segregation, the dehumanisation encouraged by staff, the deteriorating sense of self – was an intense distrust in everything around them. On one hand, this was directed at the individuals and systems that compounded their detention: Home Office-picked solicitors, the complaints system, welfare, healthcare staff.

But it also occasionally, tragically, resulted in a self-imposed isolation, either from those going through similar experiences and/or from those with shared national, ethic or cultural backgrounds. Both Omid and Thiru marked out on their maps where people from their home country of origin, Iran and Sri Lanka respectively, tended to congregate in detention. But they also noted how, over time, they had both drifted away from these groups, and in turn, the social links/bonds to their ‘pre-detention identities’. Omid said; “I must be alone in Harmondsworth. After time, everyone the same to me. I see just faces, all the same.”

This dissolving of national identities was not the case for Michael, who has been based in the UK since he was 12, and who spent his two and a half years of detention exclusively in Morton Hall.

His English fluency, English upbringing, and English partner were all a cause of social stigma within detention, where he wasn’t enough of an Other. At the same time, his proposed deportation promised to wipe clean these cultural indicators, erasing any sense of self in one fell swoop: “I grew up in the East End on pie and mash. I supported Chelsea. I went to British school. And now I’m an illegal immigrant about to be deported? I had no idea whether to hold on to who I was in detention, or let it go.”

Michael did note however, that some sense of self was salvaged whenever his partner – someone from outside Morton Hall’s walls – came to visit. Only then was he reminded who he was and what was normal.


This was echoed by other members, who also relied on some kind of external ‘force’ (real or imagined) to help puncture the mind/identity-bending bubble of detention. Boone took great solace in the Colnbrook’s chapel, which he said brought him closer to his family, ‘even though they were thousands of miles away’. Joe’s room at Dover IRC looked out over the sea and he spoke about how, on a clear day, he could see France and that this vague outline of land became a source of calm: “It helped me focus. I remember why I came to the UK in the first place.”

Others reiterated the vitality of visitor-groups, like the Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group, Detention Action or the Verne Visitors Group, who provided practical advice and support but also treated them ‘as individuals’. “We weren’t just numbers to them,” reflected Michael.
Lastly (although perhaps unsurprisingly), was the omnipresent black cloud of indefinite detention. Fogging every other aspect of life in detention, the psychological impact of not-knowing when they would be released was the singular, outstanding theme Freed Voices members kept coming back to. ‘Torture’ was repeatedly used to express the horror of endless incarceration.

Freed Voices members were quick to point out that it was almost impossible to delineate and dissect other aspects of life in detention – whether it be the activities available to them or conditions more generally – in separation from indefinite detention. Timelessness infected everything. At one point in the exercise, Thiru covered almost his whole map in post-it notes in an attempt to explain the geographical translation of this pervasive emotional violence. Shariff said that indefinite detention meant that ‘even the smallest details in detention make you lose hope’. Joe spoke about the mental and physical fatigue that comes with bearing this psychological weight everyday: “I felt every second of my detention. I was there more than two years. It was exhausting.”

The importance of being with

Image courtesy of @Manchestermisol

Beatrice Grasso is Detention Outreach Manager at Jesuit Refugee Service UK where, with volunteers, she supports many detained in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook detention centres. In this blog, she explains how their mission “Accompany, Serve and Advocate” informs and shapes their work in these detention centres, ‘places most people don’t even realise exist’.

Imagine being taken away from home in the middle of the night, no time to pack, to call your friends. Imagine being driven around in a van for hours not knowing your destination, no breaks, strangers joining you in your mutual confusion. And now imagine being told you’re going to be detained, indefinitely.

No, this isn’t a prison, but it sure looks like one. You don’t know when you’ll be released, or indeed even if you’ll be allowed to stay in this country at all. It might just be possible that you’ll be put on the next plane to a country you left as a child, where they speak a language you don’t understand, where you’ll be a foreigner in everything but your documents. You don’t know if you’ll see your home again, laugh with your friends, play with your children.

Your life as you knew it is officially over: you might leave detention at some point, but detention will never leave you.

This can’t be real, right? It certainly sounds like a nightmare, not like something that could ever happen today in the UK. Yet, for many of the people we regularly visit and support inside immigration detention centres, this is exactly how it works.

At the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) UK, we’re committed to caring for those who are totally neglected or inadequately attended to, supporting the most vulnerable members of our society. People held in Immigration Removal Centres definitely fall into this category, forgotten as they often are in places most people don’t even realise exist.

Providing pastoral care to people in detention is a challenging task we have set ourselves, but one that our many committed volunteers nonetheless tirelessly dedicate themselves to, visiting the Heathrow Immigration Removal Centres every week. We strive to provide what support we can, attempting to bring comfort where there is only distress.
This is not without its difficulties: how can we avoid giving in to the despair that surrounds us? What can we do, when we are faced with so many questions we simply do not know the answers to? Where can we find the strength to battle the frustration and the helplessness we feel when we realise there is nothing we can do to change that person’s situation?

To find the answers to these questions, we need to go back to our mission: “Accompany, Serve and Advocate”. Accompanying these men through what is possibly one of the darkest times in their life means walking alongside them as they navigate their fears and the uncertainty their future holds. Serving them as companions, putting them at centre of all that we do, and accepting the fact that sometimes there is nothing we can do except to be: to be present and available for whatever is needed, be it a word of comfort or just a shared silence, and sometimes simply to be there, with them and for them. And lastly, to advocate, giving them the voice that has been taken away from them, making sure that, while they might be out of sight, they are not put out of mind.

When starting our service in detention, many of us are guided by a deep desire to fight injustices and change the world. We are soon confronted with the fact that this is much too big a task for anyone to carry out by themselves. When the sadness surrounding us becomes overwhelming, it is tempting to think that this has all been a pointless exercise. When we witness the mental and physical deterioration of so many over time, it is hard to remain convinced that we still have a meaningful role to play.

When our ideals seem just illusions, it is easy to start feeling hopeless. It is in those times, then, that we need to remind ourselves of the true strength of our work, which is not found in grandiose gestures, but in little, daily acts of love. A phone call every few days tells a young man that he is in our thoughts. A visit gives him something to look forward to. A listening ear gives him the space to express his anger and pain, knowing that, for once, he will not be judged for what he says.

There have been many instances in the past where this has become apparent, but one episode in particular resonates with this. During one of our regular visits, we were approached by a young man who, like so many others, was devastated by the fact that detention was tearing his family apart. His greatest despair, he told us, was that he would not be there for his child’s fourth birthday the following week. His greatest fear was that she would think he had forgotten about her, and this constant worry was breaking him. Thanks to the generosity of many, we were able to help him by sending his daughter a small gift and a birthday card in his name. The joy in his voice when we saw him again is a memory that will last for a very long time. What was only a small gesture to us, had helped this family feel together again, if only for a brief time, and had, in that moment, made his stay in detention slightly more bearable.

It is through these small acts of care, then, that we can try to shine a small light of hope in the dark void that is indefinite detention. For until this inhumane practice is brought to an end, and a time limit on detention is introduced, this is all we can wish to do. We might not be able to change the world, but we must do all we can to change one person’s world.