The paradox of visiting people in detention

“We both hoped there wouldn’t be another visit.”

Detention Action volunteer Anthony talks about his time visiting people detained in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs), near Heathrow airport.

Image by @Carcazan

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 25th birthday, 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.