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’.
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.

'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
When I first visited someone in immigration detention I knew I must speak out. It is one of the darkest corners of our asylum system and not widely known. It is against our testimony to equality and must be brought into the light and brought to an end.
Every year around 30,000 people are detained in immigration detention centres in the UK. This is a vast increase since the 1980s when numbers were in the mid-hundreds.
Anyone with ‘irregular status’ can be detained – new arrivals, people with no papers or ‘wrong passports’, overstayers. Most have not been charged with any crime. Those who have, if they had had British passports, would have been released on licence or walked free. Any foreign national offender who has served a sentence of more than 12 months is now subject to forced removal.
The decision to detain is an administrative one – there is no judicial oversight and people can be held indefinitely. The recommendations for a time limit from the all-party parliamentary inquiry of 2015 and the more recent Shaw report, have not brought change. Nearly half of all those detained are subsequently released back into the community. Detention has served no purpose.

The demonstration outside Campsfield Detention Centre near Oxford.

Indefinite detention affects mental health. Yet men and women are detained who should be exempt, under the government’s own rules; these include those with severe physical and mental health problems and torture survivors.
Most detention centres are run under licence from the government by private companies for profit, often in difficult to access locations. The annual cost to the tax payer is around £75 million but there is limited accountability. The Independent Monitoring Boards play an important role, but often lack the authority to make changes.
Conditions are variable, with no consistent standard. At one IRC there can be up to 6 men in a room, there are problems over food, and health care is poor.
There are many ways in which Friends can and do act. These include demonstrating outside detention centres and visiting those inside, supporting their families, standing surety when they apply for bail and offering help on release. Friends also challenge the system, lobbying MPs, campaigning for a 28 day time limit on detention, contributing to submissions to parliament and engaging with the private companies which run the centres.
Based on this experience, we believe that immigration detention is neither right nor necessary. Detention is not the answer – for anyone.

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.) The photo essay of this visit is available here
Purple faux-leather armchairs. A children’s TV blaring in the play area. A wall of vending machines in one corner of the room, surrounded by a row of breakfast high-chairs. Large windows. And hamburgers on sale from the security guards. In my league table of detention centres, this one, Yarl’s Wood, had by far the cleanest looking visit hall I had ever seen.
Not that this mattered to Alice, who was sitting across a small table from me. Neither to Heather, who was visiting Alice. Alice had been detained there for a number of months, after a short spell at another detention centre. Heather’s transparent wallet was on the table, full of loose coins. More than a decade ago, I used to collect certain coins for my weekly visits to Harmondsworth. Temperamental drinks machines there selectively accepted only some coins, hence the need for many spares. Shamefully, I forgot to bring any coins with me today – I was out of practice.
In a matter-of-fact manner, Alice was telling us about her life, up to the point of her detention when her world disintegrated. She had spent well over a decade working professionally, working for the same employer throughout. Being suddenly wrenched away from a tight-knit community, Alice was being supported by her ex-colleagues and neighbours who visit her at the detention centre regularly. Much of our conversation revolved around her aging and frail mother, a British citizen. When she asked for bail to be with her mother, it was denied because of “absconding risks”. Alice said ‘My mother is the only person I have in this world. Where else would I go?’
I could see about six other groups in the visitors’ hall. In one group, a sleeping baby was passed around amongst a group of women, each of them cooing into the baby’s face. In another, two people are in a deep conversation with their foreheads almost touching. Ordinary human interactions, but in an extraordinary setting of administrative incarceration.
A certain amount of patience was required to get to Alice physically. In the first building visitors must report to, the machine that stores visitors’ fingerprints refused to register mine. Again and again, I pressed my thumbs, my index fingers and then my middle fingers but nothing seemed to satisfy the machine. While the receptionists negotiated with the computer, I stared at four identical clocks on the wall, showing four different time zones – a reminder of the detention centre’s liminality, oddly located in the middle of an industrial estate in Bedfordshire. One of them showed the time zone my aging parents live in and of the country I was born. With my prints finally registered, we went to the second building. Here, you go through a small room to be searched, one by one, before being allowed into a visitors’ hall.
For many years, Heather has been visiting women detained at Yarl’s Wood detention centre, and I’ve known her for years too. If I am ever detained, I want Heather to visit me. I still think about this regularly when I think about immigration detention, even though I now have British citizenship through naturalisation and am “safe”, for now. Heather is my insurance against perhaps illogical but mounting fear: who could be certain where the line will be drawn in the future between the wanted and the unwanted?
Alice was a softly spoken and unfailingly dignified woman. While listening to Alice, I wondered whether all the security was there to protect Alice from me or me from Alice: on top of having to have your finger print recognized twice, we also had to go through security checks and three doors. If there was one word to describe Alice, it was ‘care’. In addition to her mother, Alice was worried about well-being of other women at Yarl’s Wood and those who were released. She was also worried about those who were supporting the detained women and about various staff working in the centre.
When the charter flights were going ahead, Alice said, the sound of women crying was unbearable. ‘I cried hearing that noise, even though they were not coming for me. Everyone cried. Who is hearing our cry? Nobody is listening.’ Alice also talked about how prisons would be better than being stuck in detention centres: ‘At least, in prisons, you know how long you will be there. You can plan.’
Alice was adamant that she would not “work” in detention centres, at the rate of £1 for an hour. It was clear that she found the arrangement offensive (‘like a slave’ she said) and she was not going to comply with this demeaning system.
Alice originally comes from a country that was once under the colonial rule of a Western European state. Her family seems to have survived through this historical violence by seeking opportunities to survive elsewhere. All her relatives have either died or left the country and settled in various parts of the world – and she was now being sent back to a country where she knew no one. In the eyes of the Home Office, she had the wrong passport to live and work in the UK. But she didn’t choose that passport. Her community didn’t care about her passport and welcomed her as one of their members: to be very frank, I think she has more community ties than I do.
It was after a pause in our conversation – we were discussing her legal situation, difficulties getting advice and her failed attempts to get bail, and all the while, I was aware of Alice’s voice becoming weaker and weaker – when Heather said ‘We are not giving up.’ On hearing her voice, I exited my muddled survivor-guilt feeling and I was back to work. I explained my job to Alice and asked her if there was anything she wanted me to convey to the government, politicians and people who don’t know anything about immigration detention.
Alice thought about this for a while. I saw her push her carefully braided hair back behind her ears. ‘I have one question for them,’ she said. I inched towards her not to miss her words. Alice said quietly: ‘Do you think this is fair?’.
Of all the actions one could be taking against immigration detention, I believe visiting is one of the toughest. Whenever I visit to talk to someone detained, my mind is racing: I am searching for words, phrases and something, from somewhere, from anywhere, that can make it better, make it disappear. Of course, such words don’t exist. Every conversation we have is inconclusive. How do you respond to this?
After saying goodbye to Alice, we stood just outside the security door to the exit, waiting for it to open. I looked back in the direction of Alice: she was waiting for her door on the opposite side of the room to open, the door that leads into the centre. Suddenly, across the room, Alice looked much smaller, vulnerable and fragile. She was looking at her feet, and occasionally looking nervously around the hall. I waved at her to bid farewell. I don’t know if she registered it. If she did, I hope she could not see my facial expression: even after all these years of working in immigration detention, I never know what to do with myself when I have to say goodbye like this. Besides, perhaps Alice chose not to lock eyes with me: perhaps she didn’t want me to see her looking so broken.
Outside the centre, Heather and I sat in her car in the parking area, in silence. At the station, we hugged each other and I travelled back to London.
Heather shared her reflection afterwards, over email.
I have lived my life in a bit of a bubble, I am so much more aware of what is going on in the rest of the world now, particularly for women and I am far more cynical about how this country is run. I think my family were initially rather surprised but they now understand why I feel so strongly about what I do and they are proud of me. Some of my friends and neighbours certainly think I’m a bit odd but I think I have given them something to think about.’. 
I have indeed been visiting for many years. I started visiting because I was rather astonished that women were being locked up simply because of their immigration status. I didn’t have a time period in mind but I didn’t expect to be so affected by what I saw and heard there. I will not give up because I have seen how devastating the effect of detention on the women I visit is. Yarl’s Wood is just five miles from my front door, I can neither forget it is there or ignore it.  
Apart from having children, I don’t think anything else has had such a lasting effect on me.’
Not so long after this, Alice left the UK, shattered by her experience of detention. Heather will soon be starting yet another new year of visiting Yarl’s Wood. Tonight, thousands of people will be spending anxious night in the vast detention estate in this country, hidden from the public view, away from their families and separated from their friends. Alice’s single message to all of us was ‘Do you think this is fair?’.
We are not giving up. Join us.


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.

Dr. Amara turned up for her weekly obligatory immigration sign-in when she was briskly and without warning taken into custody, with only the clothes on her back and the items in her possession. Without warning she had her personal belongings taken away, she was held for several hours in a locked room and then bustled into a van for the journey to an unknown destination which turned out to be Yarl’s Wood IRC several hours away. Upon being re-detained, as in Dr. Amara’s case, the psychological stress and trauma increased infinitely when she was also given removal directions with an airline ticket within a week to return to Sudan; to the same situation, the same government, the same country she risked life and limb to flee. Return would almost certainly cost her her life.
This is not a scenario from long ago nor is it depicting life in a faraway land. This is a true account of what happens on a daily basis in 21stcentury Britain. We need to start talking about detention.
It was a cold January day when we visited Dr. Amara at Yarl’s Wood IRC, an immigration detention centre in Bedfordshire just outside London. Waging Peace operates a Sudanese Volunteer Visitor’s Group matching trained volunteers to meet people in detention to provide non legal yet hugely and vitally important emotional support; human being to human being. Very often there is a language barrier which makes it difficult for non-Arabic speaking individuals to provide the kind of support needed but Dr. Amara was fluent in English and this particular instance called for a visit from my colleague and me specifically – both of us non-Arabic speakers. This was my first visit to a detention centre and I had no idea what to expect. And I was nervous and tense. I mean, how can I really help? What can I do?
As I prepared to meet Dr. Amara, the impact the detention centre would make on me blindsided me. It wasn’t the back of beyond physical location of the detention centre that initially got to me, nor was it being bussed-in by a small van to a walled up, barbed wire fenced-in facility. It wasn’t even the cold and unwelcoming reception from the front desk staff who only allow you to proceed with your visit once your fingerprints and official photographs are taken and stored on their system. It was the general atmosphere. I was shocked at how prison-like the operations were. This continued as I observed stark barren walls with the exception of one or two signs posting stern warnings that no visitor was to take anything – not a pen or paper, not an offering of food, not a book, not a sliver of any humanity from the ‘outside’ world, not even your own belongings – into the visitor lounge.
The only thing allowed in your pockets is change in coins up to and strictly no more than £10. A small number of lockers are available to store your personal belongings and if they are already full or you don’t have a pound coin to hand, there is no other recourse. I didn’t have exact change so went back to the front desk but my request was met with unhelpful shrugs of “sorry, we can’t help”. I had to remind myself that the woman I was about to meet was not a prisoner, she was a person, who happened to be an asylum seeker under humanitarian grounds fleeing extreme conditions in her home country after being victimized by her own government and subjected to torture, sexual violence and traumatised.
“Yarl’s Wood detainees aren’t there because they have been charged with a criminal offence:”, reported BBC Home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw in his article ‘Yarl’s Wood: Years of misery and controversy’ (June 2015), “they are people, many of them vulnerable, whose claims for asylum or right to stay in Britain have been rejected or are being challenged.”
I finally sorted out the storage of my belongings and was now free to wait in line to enter, one by one, into a small and secure room with an officer and an x-ray scanning machine. After walking through the x-ray machine, I was given a pat down by the officer and asked to take the coins, up to £10 only out of my pocket to be counted. When the officer was satisfied, she unlocked the door to the visitor lounge and finally I made my way to find Dr. Amara.
But how can I help I thought? What can I do? I smiled as I approached Dr. Amara and warmly extended my hand. She returned my smile with a sense of sadness and despair and with no other words she collapsed into sobs into my arms. I gently embraced her and when she was ready, we sat down and talked for the next two hours. It was finally clear to me. The value of a volunteer is not in what we do. By meeting people where they are, we don’t have to ‘do’ anything. Dignity, comfort, care and empathy are the outstretched arms of humanity. In detention, humanity is stripped away through every locked door, through each pair of eyes watching your every move even in your most intimate moments. You fear being alone. You fear being with anyone else. You lose hope. And despair is a false friend which hovers near as you have no recourse to knowing when release may come. The UK is the only remaining country in Europe that still does not have a time limit #Time4aTimeLimit so people exist from day to day in no-man’s-land.
What did my colleague and I do that day? And what do hundreds of volunteer visitors do daily in UK detention centres? We offer hope. Hope that someone is watching. Hope that someone is fighting with them. Hope that someone cares. Hope that they will be heard. Hope that they are not alone.
For more information about detention visiting, visit AVID website here.  

I’ll never forget . . .

Scottish Detainee Visitors asked their volunteer visitors to write a few sentences about a memorable experience they had while volunteering with them – visiting people detained in Dungavel detention centre. 
They asked them to start with the phrase ‘I’ll never forget….’
Here’s what they said.

I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a young Afghani man. He was telling me that he had gone to school one day and when he came home his house and all his family had been destroyed by a bomb. Then he told me that being in Dungavel made him feel worse than anything he had felt before.
I’ll never forget the horror I felt 25 minutes into my first car journey to Dungavel when I realised I’d forgotten my photographic ID. I’ll also never forget the look on the guard’s face when I presented my Partick Thistle season ticket to him as “ID”. Suffice to say, it didn’t work, and a wait of an hour and a half in the car park followed.
I’ll never forget all the people who have thanked me for my visits and for my motherly care (I am somewhat older than the young people we usually see). Some people do eventually get out of detention. I love the way we can keep in touch these days. I now have new friends in London, Glasgow, Inverness and Pakistan and sometimes get phone calls from various African countries It’s such a pleasure to be able to visit those people who live near by and to see photos of other friends’ growing families on Facebook.
I’ll never forget my first journey down to Dungavel, feeling very nervous about what I could say or do for those detained there, but it turned out to be far less intimidating than I’d imagined, and I began to realise that, as well as practical advice, the folk there also wanted lighthearted conversations about us and our worlds. On one visit, I even ended up dancing with an African guy, (he didn’t think I could shake my booty!). It made all the others laugh, and one person came up to me afterwards saying thank you, – that was the first time he’d laughed since he arrived. So I still try and get someone to dance with me if they will!
I’ll never forget when a shy skinny Syrian refugee (via translation from another person we were visiting) told me before he fled Syria he was constantly being asked to fight for various different groups. “I am an ordinary man. I am not a political man,” he told me. “I don’t care who is in power as long as I can live in peace. How can I fight for a group when I don’t even know what it is I am fighting for?” I always think of this man when I see comments online from British people suggesting the Syrians should have stayed and fought for their country. I wonder if these people would be quite so confident and brave if they were being used in a tug of war between different militant groups.
I’ll never forget my first visit to Dungavel, and not just because it was only a month ago. I was a little anxious in the car journey, but my fellow visitor put me at ease. When we arrived, I was pretty overwhelmed at the scale of the razor-wire fence surrounding the giant old house. Once fingerprinted and through security, I spent most of my time talking to a young Iraqi-Kurdish man who had been in detention for just a few weeks and was clearly still extremely bewildered at the whole system of detention. I soon realised that I couldn’t offer him any quick fixes, just a sounding board and some empathy. The Sorani-Kurdish phrases I was able to sprinkle into our conversation went a long way to letting the young man know that I was visiting him as a support, rather than being part of the bureaucratic machinery he was fast becoming used to. As it happens, he was released on bail just a few days ago, and I’m going to meet him for lunch today. Having to try and find his feet in a new, freezing cold city must be pretty intimidating for him, but I’m keen to offer him any support I can.
I’ll never forget arriving at Dungavel with three other visitors on a cold winter night. We waited outside in the cold for ages before the gate was opened. And then it took a long time to book us in because we had a lot of things to leave for the people we were visiting and the staff had to record everything. As we waited for all this to be done, one of my fellow visitors sat in reception whistling the theme tune to ‘The Great Escape’.
I’ll never forget when a woman detained in Dungavel quietly told me she had been trafficked and followed it quickly with a shy smile. Later in the visit she told me it wasn’t too bad in Dungavel and everyone was really nice. I had a stark realisation of where I was in the luck end of the scale in the world, simply because of my circumstances and the country I happened to have been born in.
I’ll never forget the first woman I spoke to at length in Dungavel. She had been in the UK for 10 years and was suddenly detained. She was dignified, strong and sad. I realised that while everything we can practically do is important, the best thing we do is listen.
I’ll never forget the first meeting we had with someone newly detained.  He sat down grinning, and, with a flourish, pulled a bar of dark chocolate out of his jacket like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat.  We are not allowed to bring food into the visiting room, and this young guy breaking a bar of chocolate to share with the group also broke the ice.
I’ll never forget a conversation with three people who used to be detained. They described sitting at home, not allowed to work, watching the people outside busily going about their lives.  They would close the curtains, because it was too painful a reminder that their lives, still, were on hold; still under the control of immigration; still not free. One described it as ‘detention without walls’.
I’ll never forget James, who we visited in Dungavel for more than two years. How he managed to stay sane and strong I will never know, but he did. He liked to buy us a drink from the vending machine in the visits room, to try and make the situation feel more like friends meeting in a café or bar. He eventually got out of detention and was able to build a life in Scotland. And a couple of years after that, I danced at his wedding.
I’ll never forget the time we hit a pothole on the way to Dungavel and burst two tyres. Four of us sat in the car until 11pm when the AA arrived. It was winter and snowing and we were stuck in in the middle of nowhere. We kept the engine running to keep warm, shared half a flapjack and a handful of dried apricots. And we played ‘I spy’.
I’ll never forget Rima, the lovely young woman for whom we bought fashion magazines and Asian cloth so she could make her own clothes. She was in Dungavel a very long time, and was scared of being sent back as her family had vowed to kill her. She was sent back. We’d promised to keep in touch and to check on her. A few of us tried writing to her email address several times, but she never replied. I hope she is fine. I worry she is not.

When I sing, I sing for them. When I speak, I speak of them. When I shout, I am shouting about them.

By Jess Anslow, Coordinator of Yarl’s Wood Befrienders.
Visiting women who are being indefinitely detained in Yarl’s Wood IRC is challenging.
It is challenging because you witness injustice. Injustice coming from a country that is known and admired across the world for its justice. There is justice in the criminal courts, and justice for victims of violence and justice for the wrongly accused being set free. Yet when it comes to Immigration detention, there is no justice…well not that I can find anyway.
“You there! Yes you, foreigner! You are guilty until you can prove to me otherwise. You are guilty of lying about the murder of your son; about your sexuality; about your rape.”
Sounds absurd doesn’t it. But this is the reality for immigration detainees, for thousands of men and women who come to this country hoping for safety and respect. Unfortunately, rather than respect and safety, they get labelled a liar and are detained.
Our natural instinct when we meet someone in need is to try and help, try to solve their problem. But, for many of us who visit IRCs do not have the answers and may not be able to help in the way the detainee wants. This I find challenging. Being a befriender is about recognising your limitations and being comfortable and committed to the simple task of listening.
Visiting women who are being indefinitely detained at Yarl’s Wood IRC is emotional.
It is emotional because you sit with her, hold her hand and wipe away her tears. You listen to her past experiences, and share her pain. You hear her voice breaking as she talks about her children that have been taken from her by social services due to her detention, and about children left behind.
‘Befriending’ creates a really special relationship. You visit someone for the duration of their detention and may therefore be seeing that same person every week for a very long time. They may see each other more than the befriender see’s their own family. My role is different, as I generally only meet a detainee a couple of times before passing them on to a befriender. But, there are those women that I have met where real and long-lasting friendships have formed.
One of the things I find hardest is seeing the deterioration of your friend’s mental health and wellbeing. It never gets easier.
Many of the women have experienced rape, domestic violence and torture, yet it seems that being detained is the thing that is slowly destroying them. After all that they have been through, it is the cruelness of indefinite detention that they find the hardest to cope with.
I remind myself that although her story is not my story and her experiences are uniquely her own, that it is OK to cry.
It is OK to feel frustrated to the point of bursting. It is OK to get emotional.
Visiting women who are being indefinitely detained at Yarl’s Wood IRC is inspiring.
Every day I am inspired by their bravery. They inspire me to live a life of kindness and to continue to walk the path of peace and justice. I try to put myself in their shoes, and to imagine living the life they have lived, and I wonder how I would cope. Not half as well as they have done I am sure.
I imagine myself as a woman the same age as me, but having not been afforded the privilege of being born in a quiet English town, to a good family and given access to free education. Instead, I was born and raised in abject poverty; kidnapped; sold into sexual slavery; forced to take hard drugs and contracted HIV. I somehow find the courage to run away from my abusers, and come to the UK for safety. This in itself is hard enough to bear, and then I find myself detained, under lock and key, with absolutely no idea as to when I will be allowed to return to the place I call home – if ever.
No, I wouldn’t cope at all.
We are aware that long term detention causes a plethora of mental health issues, notably depression and anxiety, and yet, even through the darkness that engulfs them, the detainees that I meet are managing to cope; sometimes it is easy, but more often than not, it takes guts and the strong will to survive.
Inside Yarl’s Wood IRC, there is such a strong sense of community, of sisterhood. Women from all countries are living together, supporting one another, and encouraging each other. This inspires me.
Knowing that the women sitting across from me with her hair done up, her make-up on and a smile across her face, is actually feeling like a shadow of her former self; inside she is wailing, she is struggling to breathe, she is vulnerable. Yet, she manages to show me the strength that brought her here and to hold her head up high. This inspires me… She inspires me.
And on the next table, a woman that is speaking so openly and is physically showing her pain, crying out to be touched. She has been stripped of those social barriers that teach us to be strong. She too inspires me.
When I sing, I sing for them.
When I speak, I speak of them.
When I shout, I am shouting about them.
Befriending is challenging, emotional work and we do it for them.

Visiting, unlocked – Danae on Colnbrook

This blog post is an #Unlocked15 interview with Danae Psilla, Advocacy Co-Ordinator at Detention Action.


Can you remember the first time you visited Colnbrook? What were your hopes/fears/assumptions?

I first visited Colnbrook 5 years ago, when I was volunteering at one of Detention Action’s workshops. What struck me most back then, was the number of high security doors we came across; the electric gates, the weird-shaped keys, the big fat locks on every door, and the dense barbed wire that sat on the thick tall walls surrounding Colnbrook. I could not understand why these men were deemed so dangerous so as to justify the level of security.

I returned to Colnbrook as a Detention Action staff member 5 months ago. This time it was the interior spaces that drew my attention. When entering Colnbrook, I was greeted by jolly photographs on the walls of healthy looking men engaging in numerous activities; lifting weights at the gym, cooking in the kitchen, reading in the library. In the visiting area, paintings of the animal kingdom are decorating the walls, and gentle announcements on billboards remind both visitors and detainees how to behave themselves.  I was confused by these evident efforts to normalise what is essentially still quite a violent space, and I wondered if the men detained here have ever notice them. When your right to liberty is so abruptly taken away, can you see colours, smell, taste, understand the space that indefinitely confines you in the same way that we who visit these spaces do?

What was the first thing that struck you about Colnbrook – ie. something maybe you were not expecting?

What struck me was what strikes most detainees too, I think.

Detainees often bring it up when I talk to them – that the majority of the detention centre staff are of immigrant background. There is a level of tragic irony for people in detention. You’re picked out from a community because do not satisfy the requirements that would allow you to continue being its member, confined in a centre while someone decides on your fate, and ‘guarded’ by people who are just like you.

Was is it like having to collaborate with the staff members in Colnbrook?

We tend to have positive working relationships with staff members in Colnbrook. It can really make a huge difference when you come across someone working there who is genuinely nice and who does not want to set yet another wall between us, as well as between staff members and people in detention.

We recently visited the healthcare unit in Colnbrook where there are about 6 rooms for detainees with physical as well as mental health problems. A female staff member greeted us with a smile on her face, despite the evident fatigue hiding behind that smile at 6 o’clock in the evening. We ended up chatting for a long time to one middle-aged man who had been held in healthcare for several months. He described how his days and nights in detention are long, at times never ending, and that most days there is no reason for him to get out of bed. Yet, when he hears the voice of this particular staff member – trying to get people out of bed for breakfast – he knows his day will be a good one, or at least that it will not be a terrible one. He could not understand why all the other staff members couldn’t be like her: kind, calm, polite and caring towards all the people held there.

From your perspective, what do you think is the main thing that gets people through places like Colnbrook – what enables them to survive? What kind of coping mechanisms have you seen different people employ?

Knowing that others have made it through, and knowing that there organisations, like Detention Action, who are aware of what people in immigration detention are going through and are fighting for them. A sense of solidarity is very important.

You often see people in detention gain that extra strength when they realise there is someone else that is struggling alongside them, and that this person could do with a bit of support, or direction, or company. It’s amazing to see the number of people who act as interpreters, they listen to each other’s stories, they act as each other’s mediator. There’s a whole underground workforce of counsellors in places like Colnbrook, just made up of the people detained there. Of course it shouldn’t be like this but they give one another a purpose, a sense of agency, that was in part snatched away from them when they were put in detention in the first place.

What do you think are the long-term impacts on those individuals you’ve working with who have been detained in Colnbrook?

I have seen immigration detention scar people. I know people who chose to return to a country they had never known before,  where their life would potentially be in danger rather than to remain indefinitely confined in a detention centre in the UK. Unlike serving a sentence in prison, the punitive character of detention is very hard justify and to rationalise to those that experience it. I have seen spirits being broken, slowly and tacitly. And I have seen men go numb, and men who pause growing.

As someone with a background in working with migrants across Europe, but specifically in Cyprus, are there any outstanding differences in our respective countries’ approach to detention as a means of immigration control?

Unfortunately, there are no great differences in the way Cyprus and the UK use detention as a means of immigration control. In a country of the size of Cyprus however, small tweaks to the way policies and regulations are implemented can actually bring about positive change in a short amount of time. Currently in Cyprus, there are very few asylum seekers left  in immigration detention centres after a decision was taken in late 2014 that stated that people who had come to the country with an intention to apply for asylum, should not be detained even if they had entered illegally or been arrested for irregular stay. It is still the case however, that people who cannot be returned to their country of origin, may spend months in Cypriot immigration detention centres before the lawfulness of their detention can be challenged – after 18 months. If their challenge is successful, they are released only to be re-detained some months later as the law currently in place makes it extremely difficult for migrants to regularize their stay in the country. Just like the UK, there is no automatic review of the lawfulness of detention in Cyprus.

One would hope that a small country like Cyprus, where the current number of people in immigration detention facilities does not exceed more than a couple of hundred, could have been pioneers of alternatives to detention, whose advantages for both the state and the individual have already been well-proved by other EU states that have been implementing them for several years now.

Does working with people in detention make you feel differently about your own status as a migrant in the UK? Do you find people respond to your differently as a migrant yourself?

My work with people in detention definitely reinforces the way I come to understand the numerous injustices that characterize the current global immigration system – a system set in place to satisfy the very needs and wants of the countries that have set it up.  I was born only 70 nautical miles away from Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. The fact that I have been able to travel freely to the UK, study here, get a job here and make this country my home simply because I happened to be born in a country which is on the ‘right’ place on the map, can at times be baffling and frustrating. People in detention would not usually ask most of us working at Detention Action with a non-British accent where we are from, either because there are many of us here, or simply because to them this is ok. A few people ask however, out of genuine human curiosity, and no matter how many times this question was posed to me, I always find myself feeling awkwardly strange and not knowing for a few seconds how to justify – where there is no need to – the fact that my experiences as a migrant in the UK are utterly different to theirs. Should I be feeling ‘lucky’ to be allowed to stay here while not even belonging to any of the ‘great’ nations that have created the rules of the game? Still, the rules of this game seem to changing pretty quickly it seems, so I might not be one of the lucky ones for too long anyway.

A visitor's view of Campsfield


Campsfield House is widely considered one of the ‘better-run’ IRCs and the last report by HMIP, the official inspection body, vouched for this. Most people detained there, who have experienced other IRCs, like Harmondsworth or Brook House, agree in my experience. But for all that, the effect of detention on people in Campsfield is still profoundly toxic. The fact that Campsfield House is branded “well-run” arguably deflects criticism from the inherent ill-effects of detention and lends specious support to the argument that our current system of immigration detention is acceptable.

Originally a young offender institution, the Campsfield House site became an IRC in 1993. At one time it held both men and women – but since 1997 only men have been held there. The contract for running the Centre was awarded to Mitie in May 2011. The Centre Manager is the impressive Neil Aubeelack whose background is in the military and HM Prison Service, a background shared in common with a number of Campsfield House staff.

It may not be the official company line but, ‘four star holiday camp’, is a phrase that crops up with some regularity talking with Campsfield House staff. Reading the more critical findings of the most recent report from the independent inspectorate of detention centres, HMIP,  one gets a different take.  The report found that there is a high level of surveillance – so staff know a great deal about your life and daily activities – there is very little privacy.  Rooms are searched once a month and further searched with drug dogs once every three months. Handcuffs were used in a little under a third of cases for external appointments. Sanctions can be used for non-cooperation with powers to place people in cells in an austere separation unit, without mobile phones. There were 74 job roles, mainly mundane, such as cleaning, kitchen and laundry work paid at a token rate. There had been a self-inflicted death, children wrongly detained and there was no awareness of people who were disabled. Poor Home Office casework led to unnecessarily long periods of detention and there was a lack of interpreters for important and sensitive meetings. In addition there was a lack of defibrillators and staff trained in their use along with inadequate healthcare staff available at night.

Your first impression as a visitor to Campsfield House is the sheer volume of razor wire – its prominence means it’s difficult to make out the buildings inside the secure perimeter. The last Inspection Report commented on it “creating an oppressive atmosphere in some areas”.


Getting inside

After getting through the double security gates to reception, inside feels less intimidating to me. People being detained may feel differently as they arrive, perhaps following a heavy handed immigration raid at their home in front of family and children. As HMIP noted, people being detained at Campsfield House often arrive at night to a cramped reception area, where reception processes can take hours and risk assessments for new arrivals frequently are not held in private. As a visitor, who’s free to leave, after being fingerprinted and photographed and having your ID documents checked, you’re led out of the reception hut across a tarmac compound to another security fence and gate, then across an attractive garden tended by people in detention though not available for their use.

A further set of security gates leads you through to the Visitors Centre. At the front-desk in the Visitors Centre your security pass is checked and your details confirmed again on the computer system. You’re then allocated a table number where you must sit, while you wait for the ‘detainee’ to arrive – no-one is allowed to accompany them, even when an interpreter is needed, because in the words of an incantation one hears frequently, “those are the rules”.

Campsfield House staff

On a tour of the Centre a visitor sees plenty of activities going on, although the maze of similar seeming corridors can feel daunting and disorienting. Staff are mainly friendly and polite and do remarkably well given the 12 hour shifts they have to work.  You get the impression, though, that visitors from NGOs are seen as strange animals by staff – maybe uncertain of the role NGOs play, perhaps seeing their own role as taking care of all the welfare needs of people entrusted to their care.

Some staff have explained that at least the most vulnerable are looked after well in the Centre. Certainly HMIP praises staff relations with people detained at Campsfield. It may sound strange but I find all the staff likeable, concerned and thoughtful – admirable in many ways, people for whom I have a lot of respect. However, in the many conversations with staff, the very fact of being deprived of one’s liberty never seems to register as a big thing, even though it is recognised as one of the most fundamental rights the world-over. Even in the much harsher times of Magna Carta ‘liberty’ was a big deal. You realise why very quickly as a visitor – incarceration very rapidly drives people ‘crazy’.

Perhaps to work in any role you have to believe in what you’re doing – mentally minimising harmful effects and focusing on what you believe you are doing for the good. Almost to a person, the staff at Campsfield seem to believe in what they are doing. This is what is so worrying to my mind, because it shows how institutions condition our thinking and actions, and the effects on the people detained are truly disturbing. In some cases the effects are stark.


I recently visited a man, Mahmoud, who had been tortured on a number of separate occasions by Government forces in his home country, known to fiercely oppress, torture and kill the minority ethnic group he belongs to. He told me he had tried to take his own life in Campsfield House by swallowing a cocktail of tablets. When discovered, he told me, he had not been sent to hospital by medical staff at the Centre. Eventually released on bail with help from the charity Medical Justice, he had already been in detention for a month when visiting started. At the beginning of the visits he was palpably terrified and told of hearing voices. Every time a door banged his distress was visibly acute – and he was under regular observation in a unit where the doors, I’m told, clang shut with a lot of noise. Staff who were concerned about his welfare, took on a different symbolic value, dressed in uniform, with jangling keys, acting as his jailers. At night lying in his cell in Campsfield House, he felt he was suffocating, hands round his throat trying to choke him.

Of course, torture survivors should not be detained because they are retraumatised as the detention centre brings back overwhelming memories of imprisonment at the hands of their tormentors. Indeed, torture survivors are among the groups of people the Home Office’s own rules exclude from detention, but in practice this doesn’t always work.  As HMIP noted in their last inspection report, although Campsfield House is a ‘well-run’ Centre, the Rule 35 reports written by doctors are of limited value as they don’t express a clinical opinion.  For instance, an opinion on whether the symptoms and scars a person has are consistent with, or highly consistent with, or definitively diagnostic of, the torture they describe. As a result, Home Office responses are frequently dismissive, and the Rule 35 reports meant to protect victims of torture and other vulnerable people and secure their release, are ineffective in Campsfield House.

In this context the following observations by HMIP about bail rights and legal access at Campsfield House become all the more worrying: “Only about a third said they had received a visit from [a lawyer]….Waiting times for the [legal] surgeries were too long, sometimes over two weeks… All detainees should have received ongoing representation during bail proceedings but we were not assured this was happening….Only 40% of detainees said it was easy to obtain bail information… Not enough was being done to advise detainees of their bail rights”.

Cases of highly vulnerable people, like Mahmoud, who shouldn’t be detained in Campsfield House are by no means uncommon in my experience. Even where people have no pre-existing vulnerability the effects of detention over any length of time are distressing to see.


Another gentleman I visited, Adam, was from a country with notorious human rights abuses and genocide.  On finishing University in the capital he was conscripted into the army. After the initial training he was expected to serve on duty – which meant complicity in the persecution of any number of declared ‘enemies’ of the regime. Rather than participate he fled the army and the country and made his way to Europe, thinking Britain had a strong record on championing human rights and asylum claims.

When we first met, Adam, a highly articulate intelligent man who spoke very good English, was humorous, friendly, chatty and participating in many of the activities at the Centre as well as patiently explaining basic Arabic to me. He was also generously providing me with an education in diaspora authors from his own country who had settled in exile whose work frequently dealt with this most difficult of experiences. Over the few months Adam was detained the deterioration in his mental state was alarming but sadly not untypical. When he first came to Campsfield House he would wake at 7.30am, get up for breakfast, then take English and computing classes in the morning and early afternoon, and participate in football games in the later afternoon. He was praying, as was his custom, 5 times a day.

After 3 months in Campsfield House his condition was very different. He woke up at around the same time but didn’t get out of bed until nearly noon. He would then sit outside thinking for an hour or so until lunch for which he had little appetite. He then spent many hours after lunch sitting outside, watching football if people were playing, but not playing himself. He would often sit like this until dinner. After dinner he might watch football on television. He would go to his room when Campsfield shut down for the night at 11pm – but didn’t get to sleep until 3 or 4 am. He frequently had bad dreams which disturbed the little sleep he did get. Much of the time he spent thinking about his situation in Campsfield House and also thinking about his home country. He thought a lot about his family, all of whom (mother, father, sisters, brothers) were in a refugee camp. While in detention, he heard that his mother was seriously ill following a stroke. He said he often felt hopeless and prayed much less frequently – some days not praying at all. Although prohibited by his religion he sometimes wished he wasn’t alive and thought of taking his life. He also started experiencing pains around his sternum and rib cage and thought maybe it was God’s will he should die.

Even with a well-run IRC one wonders how anyone would cope if placed in Campsfield House for months with no definite date for release. Only in a truly dystopian world should one view these places with alacrity.

Visiting the Verne detention centre

We asked members of the Verne Visitors group to share their thoughts and experiences on visiting people at the Verne.  We were interested to hear what led them to start visiting, what they discovered when they started visiting, what they thought the hardest part of visiting was, and to describe their experiences a little. 



I started visiting in January this year.  I had heard about the Verne becoming an IRC (Immigration Removal Centre), and I had some friends who expressed an opinion that locking people up for administrative purpose was not a thing that a civilised society should do. So I thought I could find out about what was going on, and give some help to people.

I really had no experience of this sort of thing, so it came as a shock to find out the effect that indefinite detention can have on people.  The first chap I visited was educated and articulate, and had been active in his community in London.  But the time he was detained broke his spirit (not permanently I hope).  He became distressed and frustrated, to the extent of talking about ending it all.  We had interesting chats, as we had some common interests, but my overall feeling was of frustration that I was not able to give him much practical help, despite spending time communicating with various agencies in an attempt to help him get bail.  I learnt such a lot about his home country and the persecution he faced there, and I really got to understand his fear of being returned.  He would ask, and be interested, in what I did over the weekend, family outings, places I’d visited – but I was always so aware that he was stuck where he was.

The different people I have visited each have their own story, and have reacted to detention differently, but they share a sense of injustice.  I have learnt from them.



I started visiting because of the increasing unjust treatment of refugees.    I discovered that no two cases are alike, and that the laws regarding asylum are very complicated.

It’s difficult waiting upstairs for the detainee to arrive.  The visiting room is quite pleasant and spacious, with comfortable chairs and activities for children. There is no clock and, as sometimes you have to hand over your watch, it is difficult to time the visit.

I wonder – as it happens so often – why some detainees do not turn up.


I have always felt concerned about immigration rights in this country and when we moved to Weymouth recently and realised the prison we could see on Portland from our kitchen window had become an IRC, I couldn’t ignore it and had to get involved, especially as my dad was from Portland and had brought me up to work for equal rights and justice for all. I tracked down the visitor’s group and asked what they needed to help the detainees and they got back to me with a training date for potential visitors.

It is a total privilege to be allowed into the trust of a person detained and despite the terrible situation, feels like something precious.

It is pointless to look for logic in the Home Office’s decisions. Detainees have very few rights and most people have no idea of the ridiculous and inhumane things they have to go through.

Staff at the detention centre (Verne) appear to be doing their best in very difficult circumstances (hugely understaffed, no holidays, no proper breaks, no cultural training or languages, violence and mental health problems in detainees) and often, the left hand often doesn’t seem to know what the right hand is doing. Staff are often equally frustrated and baffled by Home Office decisions.

The hardest part?  Feeling helpless to enable a detainee out soon or reassure them this will happen. Having to listen to someone feeling desperate or helpless. Not being able to make things less complicated and frustrating for them. Waiting around while various officers try to work out where your detainee is/because the doors are broken/because the family in front of you is visiting for the first time with many bags and different officers are giving them conflicting orders/ because the officer forgot to ring for your detainee etc etc etc.

The visiting room is a large, light prison visiting room with bright multi-coloured soft comfy chairs, some paintings, a colourful childrens’ play area with toys, books and soft play on one side. There are separate cubicles used for solicitor’s meetings with detainees and a big desk for several guards with computer/phones etc, plus two other stations for guards. Overhead cameras filming everything. A toilet for men only (women and children/babies have to be let out through two locked sets of doors as toilet is downstairs). There is a kitchen which appears to be off limits for anyone except the officers, although there is supposed to be a detainee whose job it is to offer tea/coffee (not in my experience). Visitors have to buy drinks and snacks from three vending machines for themselves/families/the detainee they are visiting. Food and drink cannot be brought in from outside. If you stand in one corner, you can just see the sea! (Detainees generally cannot see outside the IRC grounds from their rooms but it is nearly surrounded by the sea).

This work is also very rewarding. When a detainee gets released/gets bail (even if you or he doesn’t understand why all of a sudden), it’s amazing. Although, sometimes, speaking to them once they’re out, it’s hard to hear how badly their mental health has been affected. Other times you get really happy endings which is lovely and detainees and ex-detainees are generally so grateful for any help, it’s very moving.

Sometimes it’s very hard to empathise with a detainee’s opinions/ethics/strongly held religious beliefs that seem to conflict with mine but I’m not there to argue. If I have a good, trusting, longer visiting relationship with them, I will banter and discuss their takes on different cultural mores. It’s certainly an education!

Verne 1


I wanted to visit people detained in the Verne because I felt it important that people in detention have some support in the community.   I think the Verne is well run and the officers seem well trained and supportive, although I think the lack of a set time limit for the inmates is so frustrating for them that they cause problems for everyone.

The hardest thing is knowing that I can walk out into the open air and my detainee has to go back inside.

The visiting room is spacious, sunny and well furnished with colourful, comfortable chairs and pictures and children’s play equipment.  It is a pleasure to spend time in.

The hardest time was when my detainee texted me to say that the man in the closest cell to him had killed himself in the night.  Also I had to ask that somebody be put on suicide watch on my second visit. I believe he was well looked after.

Verne 3


What led me to start visiting:?  I have always been sympathetic to the plight of refugees and/or economic migrants in any case (all four of my grandparents came into this category).  I had in my early life been a prison teacher ( including at the Verne) so I had an idea what kind of environment the detainees were being held in and what that felt like if you had committed a crime, let alone if you hadn’t.

The things I discovered when I started visiting, that I perhaps hadn’t expected before, were how inefficient the whole system was. I expected it to be inhumane (which it is) and that the staff locally would struggle but on the whole do their best. I didn’t expect the system to be so chaotic and so hopelessly inefficient.

The hardest part of the visiting is the difficulty of offering hope to the detainee. One of them asked me about his rights and I had to explain to him that under our law he could be detained indefinitely. I think the “indefinitely” is the hardest part for them, as there appears to be no end in sight to the uncertainty.

The visiting room is large, I have never visited when it has been crowded, there is plenty of space for visitors and detainees to sit around brightly coloured and reasonably comfortable (new) armchairs. There are attractive pictures on the wall and there is a large children’s area with plenty of toys and books. There are two vending machines in the corner as you go in. These are a pain, they break down frequently or are not restocked, they do not give change and they are quite expensive as it is. Occasionally they have an orderly on duty in the little kitchen who can make cups of tea or coffee free of charge but he is not there very often and the detainees I have visited prefer Coke in any case.