In this latest piece from our ‘Thinking Outside the Box’ series, which looks to capture some of the learning from those with direct experience of working with people in detention, we speak to Danielle, a long-time Advocacy Support Volunteer.
The first detention centre I went into was The Verne. It was strange because, outside, on your way up to it, it’s such a beautiful scene. The sea, the air, the beautiful old, evocative almost-Gothic architecture…And then you walk in and it feels exactly like a prison (which it was) and so there is an immediate jar. Of all the IRCs I’ve visited, the Verne has left the greatest impression on me. Its remoteness and isolation are just so brutal.
I remember my first call…I was so scared. It went straight to voicemail and all I could think was, thank god, that’s saved me a few more minutes! It’s not just that you’re calling this potentially very vulnerable individual but also that everyone is around in the office. First time round you don’t feel like you have the privacy to have what might be an awkward conversation. But after a few calls, it’s amazing how quickly you get used to it.
I am sometimes really aware of my American accent when I am talking to certain nationalities. I can maybe be a bit apologetic. Iraqis, Afghanis…But I guess that’s the same for Brits. One client I worked with was a translator for the British army and was on the verge of being deported. That moved me.
Despite coming from a background in international and immigration law, I always find it strange when people have to conform their narratives and life experiences to fit into very narrow legal categories. One person that has serious protection needs but doesn’t fit into the tight definition of ‘refugee’, for example…that’s always something I’ve felt uncomfortable with. It’s so limiting and working out whether by engaging in these terms I’m participating and propagating a certain way of thinking can be difficult to accept.
Sometimes it feels like people don’t want to talk to you at all. That can be tough. I’ve had people cry before and you don’t really know how to comfort them. But the wide range of emotional states you encounter mean I’ve become much more relaxed, and flexible, in how I approach speaking to people in detention. And it’s not always a sad, sombre conversation. Sometimes it can be funny, or inspirational, or philosophical.
At first I think I found speaking to people in detention over the phone easier than visiting them in person. There’s something in the physical distance it affords. But there’s something about working with someone face to face which inevitably speeds up the relationship-building process.
Whenever I go to Harmondsworth and Colnbrook I’m always amazed by the activity boards. They have all these strange posters of ‘happy people doing fun activities’ and ‘pottery class’, and making it feel like a holiday camp. The reality couldn’t be more stark.
What I found so shocking is the fact that only certain law firms are allowed to provide legal assistance in detention. It immediately narrows the field of how those in detention are able to get support. I’m also always struck by how limited legal aid is now, and how randomly appears to be deemed acceptable at some points in someone’s journey and denied in others.
I think of all the clients I work with those from countries harmed by American and Western military and economic programmes always affect me. It’s difficult seeing the ways our governments have really screwed up the world, and then watch the very same governments spit in the face of those that need in protection. The blind-spots around this cause and effect still scare me.
I saw someone today that had been in detention for five years.