Hidden in plain sight

Victims of trafficking who are detained in Immigration Removal Centres are longing to be given a voice, says Beatrice Grasso. JRS UK are helping them to be heard.

‘Please help me.’ These words are spoken very often inside Immigration Removal Centres (IRC) as the uncertainty of indefinite detention slowly takes its toll. During one of JRS UK’s regular outreach visits to Harmondsworth IRC, this was Xuan’s (not his real name) desperate plea to the volunteers.

The volunteer who accompanied Beatrice was a Vietnamese religious sister, and it was her that he initially addressed, apologising profusely for not being able to speak any English. In a place that generates isolation by its very nature, cutting people off from wider society, some people end up being trapped in their own language, too. Once he started talking, it became very quickly apparent that he had a lot to say. And soon, comforted by the reassuring presence of Beatrice's companion on the day, he started sharing a truly harrowing account of exploitation and abuse, starting from a childhood on the streets of Vietnam and culminating in being trafficked to the UK as a minor, forced to work in a cannabis farm and ultimately made to pay by being disbelieved and imprisoned.

Over the past eighteen months, JRS UK has worked with thirteen Vietnamese men who, like Xuan, displayed clear indicators of trafficking and yet were held in immigration detention, in direct contradiction to Home Office guidance. These men came to us looking for comfort, someone to acknowledge their experiences and, in some ways, their very existence in a system where they go largely unseen, trapped in a web woven by their abusers. Fear, shame and threats to family are ever-present shadows hanging over them, making it almost impossible to know who to trust. The negative impact that continued detention has on these men can hardly be overestimated. For all of them, detention is a constant reminder of their previous captivity and exploitation, leaving them crippled by nightmares and flashbacks. Most of them carry physical marks of their torture, yet they are often not officially recognised as victims. Even when their accounts are accepted, they remain in detention because of their ‘unacceptable behaviour’, a direct result of their exploitation. Despite showing clear indicators of abuse and vulnerability, they remain hidden in plain sight of those authorities who should protect them.

After seven long months in detention, Xuan was finally released with appropriate care thanks to the support and involvement of many different individuals. Many others were, sadly, not so lucky and disappeared soon after being released without adequate support arrangements in place. Others yet are still fighting to make their voices heard, knowing that JRS and many others will be standing beside them, giving a voice to the voiceless, restoring hope to those who have lost it, and ensuring that what was hidden is brought to light.

Pray for Xuan: JRS sends out a monthly prayer e-mail through which you can accompany men, like Xuan, held in detention. Subscribe

This article was first published on the 2019 Spring edition of Jesuits & Friends magazine.