Out of sight, but not out of mind

Beatrice Grasso considers the impact of immigration detention and explains how the Jesuit Refugee Service UK are working to support people in detention.

Imagine being taken away from home in the middle of the night, with no time to pack or call your friends. You are then detained, indefinitely. No, this isn’t a prison, but it sure looks like one. You do not know when you’ll be released, or even if you’ll be allowed to stay in this country at all. You might be on the next plane out of the country you now call home to a place you left as a child, where you will be a foreigner in everything but your documents. You might not see your home again, laugh with your friends, play with your children. Life as you knew it is officially over: you might leave detention at some point, but detention will never leave you.

Can this happen in the UK today? For many of the people the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) UK regularly visit inside immigration detention centres, this is exactly how it works.

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 detention definitely fall into this category, forgotten as they often are in places most people don’t even realise exist. Yet the chances are that most people in the UK will have been close to one of these centres at least once in their life, whether while going to the airport for that much-deserved holiday or perhaps because they live not far away from one.

There is something particularly disconcerting about being detained indefinitely, about lacking a clear point on which to focus. For many of the people we at JRS UK meet during our outreach into immigration detention, this ‘not knowing’ is devastating: uncertainty adds to previous trauma and ends up compounding existing vulnerabilities, often resulting in excessive stress, anxiety and a wide range of mental health issues.

Community and family ties are also strained by prolonged detention, especially if detention happens in a centre far from home, and cost and distance make it harder for families to visit. One man we have been supporting recently told us: ‘I call my son every day, and when I call he asks me: “Daddy, when are you coming home?” But what can I tell him? I don’t know, but I don’t want to lie to him.’.

In this very bleak picture, there is a little ray of hope. It is through the work of our fantastic team of volunteers that we attempt to reduce the anguish of the men held in the two IRCs near Heathrow Airport. Through their commitment to visiting detainees, our volunteers really put into practice the JRS mission: “Accompany. Serve. Advocate”.

Accompanying these men through what is possibly one of the darkest times in their life, walking alongside them as they navigate their fears and their uncertain futures. 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 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.

Giving up a few hours of their time every week, our volunteer visitors really contribute to changing a person’s life. In the timeless void that is immigration detention, a visit gives a person something to which to look forward. During a period when their whole life is under scrutiny and their future is yet to be determined, knowing that there is someone ready to listen and not judge them can be the only thing that stops them becoming truly lost to themselves. A phone call or a supportive card tell them they are in our thoughts. Knowing that someone is praying for them lets them know they are not forgotten.

It is truly amazing what power of comfort even small gestures can hold. To remember someone by name in our prayers means to recognise them as an individual and to acknowledge their plight. Prayer can reduce distances, enabling us to stand together while miles apart, united in the knowledge that no one is ever truly alone. This is why at JRS UK we have decided to revive our Prayer Companions and Pen Befrienders schemes, asking individuals and communities who sign up to pray for those held in immigration detention, and show their support by sending us letters or cards which will then be redistributed to the men held in the Heathrow IRCs.

Let us, then, come together, no matter where in the world we may be, to tell them: You are not forgotten. You are not alone.

To find out more about how you can support those in immigration detention by volunteering to visit someone or to sign up for the Prayer Companions/Pen Befrienders Schemes, please contact detentionuk@jrs.net.

What is detention?

All undocumented migrants (sometimes called irregular migrants) and all those claiming asylum in the UK are liable to being detained in an Immigration Removal Centre (IRC, often called a detention centre). Immigration detention is primarily an administrative process, and the initial decision to detain someone does not automatically go before a judge. Official Home Office statistics show that 27,565 people entered immigration detention during the year ending September 2017. There is no time limit on detention in the UK and people are often held for years – as at 30 June 2017, the longest length of time a person had been detained for was 1,514 days, in excess of four years.


This article first appeared in Jesuits & Friends issue 99 Spring 2018. Read it online