In this post, Ali McGinley, Director of the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees, and a member of the Border Criminologies’ Advisory Group reflects on Refugee Week and discusses the role played by those who visit the women and men held in UK immigration detention centres.

Refugee Week 2014 poster
 
Last week, Refugee Week included special events across the country to recognise and celebrate the contributions of refugees to the UK. This year, I was struck by the inclusion of immigration detention in many events planned, such as Immigration Detention and Beyond at the University of Glasgow, which explored the research undertaken in immigration removal centres (IRCs) by Mary Bosworth and Sarah Turnbull, and an awareness raising event and film screening by the Campaign to Close Campsfield in Oxford. Putting immigration detention in the Refugee Week mix is a welcome inclusion; the issue has remained marginalised for long enough. Recent campaigns by Detention Action and Women for Refugee Women have done much to raise awareness, and media and public interest has been sparked by recent tragedies and scandal in detention centres like Yarl’s Wood. And it is the presence of independent volunteer visitors groups in every detention centre―a ‘small army’ of community volunteers prepared to make the arduous journeys in and out on a weekly basis―that ensures detainees voices are heard on the outside. These volunteers telling the stories of those they visit, recounting the realities of life in detention, have helped bring immigration detention that little bit further into the public consciousness. This year AVID, the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees, marks its 20th anniversary as the organisation offering support, information, training, and advocacy to these twenty volunteer visitors groups across the UK.
 
AVID began in 1994, started by a group of individuals visiting near Gatwick, concerned that the volunteer groups providing befriending support for detainees should have access to standardised training and information to carry out this important role. A volunteer visitor is a source of practical and emotional support and advice during someone’s detention, they act in lieu of friend or family to those who very often have no one else to turn to. It is a very demanding volunteer role, but one which emerged from a very basic human concern to ensure that those isolated and incarcerated for immigration purposes can access a friendly face and a listening ear.
 
Campsfield House IRC (Photo: M. Bosworth)
Despite the dramatic increase in the use of detention since then―when AVID started there were 250 detention spaces, there are now closer to 5,000―it is encouraging to note that visitors groups are now an everyday presence in every single detention centre in the UK as well as some prisons and short term holding facilities. Our 20 member groups have around 670 volunteers, from diverse communities and backgrounds across the country, united by a concern that detainees should not be ignored and a desire to provide support at a time of great uncertainty and anxiety. Detainees often describe their visitors as a ‘lifeline’. While befriending is still at the heart of the volunteer role, they also provide signposting advice to other sources of support for detainees―NGOs like BID or Medical Justice, legal advisors, or specialists like the Helen Bamber Foundation―as well as practical help with clothing or mobile phones.
 
AVID still provides training to visitors groups on issues they may come across while visiting, such as how to deal with vulnerable people, how to support yourself as a visitor, or detention policy and practice. We also now provide development support to groups, one to one advice and guidance, and resources like our popular monthly immigration digest In Touch and the Handbook for Visitors. We bring groups together so they can learn from one another and share experiences at our annual Coordinators Conference. We also work to achieve positive change in the detention system through collating an evidence base on conditions and treatment, and providing advocacy support on a range of issues to our membership. AVID has grown to become a national voice on detention, but the membership of visitors groups remains very much at the core of our work.
 
Over the last 20 years, visitors groups have developed and expanded, with many now providing other services alongside volunteer visiting. Supporting people when they leave detention, providing services for asylum seekers in the community, raising awareness in schools, and undertaking research into detention are just some of the activities undertaken. However, several of our member groups are still much smaller, wholly volunteer led, coordinating visiting through local community facilities and operating on a shoestring. Whatever their stage of development, they all play an essential role in bringing issues to light that would otherwise remain hidden. As the ‘eyes and ears’ of a detainee on the outside, very often it is visitors who are able to describe the daily realities of detention, and they are often the first to identify problems and concerns in conditions and treatment. This ranges from the very serious breaches of Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights with regards to the treatment of mentally ill detainees, to more everyday concerns such as availability of legal advice, access to the internet or mobile phones.
 
Protest in Manchester as part of Refugee Week (21 June 2014). (Photo: S. Turnbull)
It is no easy task to ‘cross the fence’ each week, undertake the rigorous security procedures and sit in the visits hall facing someone who may be utterly desperate to know what is going to happen to their case, what is happening outside and why it is taking so long. Volunteer visitors will all face the inevitable question how can I get out of here?, to which there is no easy answer. In fact, it is a harder question now than 20 years ago. The situation facing immigration detainees in 2014 is bleaker than ever, as the UK is detaining more people than ever before and remains wholly committed to the use of detention despite growing evidence that it is not fulfilling its purpose. The UK is also one of the few countries in Europe to have no time limit, and lengths of detention can be extreme. A visitor with Asylum Welcome recently told me of meeting someone who had been detained for no less than 8 years, in four different detention centres. For volunteer visitors, it is dealing with the fall out of these policies that is the most difficult part of their role. For detainees, it is even worse. Anxiety, insomnia, self harm, and depression are all issues that detainees talk to their visitors about and which can be common when detention is longer term. For this reason the support of visitors groups and the broader network are so important in helping individual volunteers by providing the training and information they need to feel confident in providing the best support they can in difficult circumstances.
 
Despite these challenges, volunteer visitors numbers are growing, something which we can take heart from in today’s increasingly ‘hostile environment.’ AVID has recently welcomed two new visitors groups, who have been able to find their feet much more quickly by tapping into the expertise and experiences of others in our network. It is also testimony to the groups themselves that many volunteers do stay involved for lengthy periods. It is a volunteer role like no other in terms of being able to genuinely have an impact.
 
Visitors were recently described to me as providing “the human and emotional connections needed to engage broader audiences on detention,” and it is this which has become so important in recent years, and on which we must continue to build. Without visitors, the experiences of detainees will remain largely hidden and unheard, and we must continue to make sure this doesn’t happen.
 
As part of its 20th anniversary celebrations AVID is undertaking a ‘Visitors Testimony project’ to record the experiences of visitors and detainees over the last 20 years, ensuring these stories are collated and shared. To help fund this project, please consider a small donation. Text AVID20£10 to 70070 to donate £10.
 
Any thoughts on this post? Share a comment here or on our Facebook page. You can also tweet us.
 
____________________
 
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):
 
McGinley, A. (2014) Visitors Groups: A Refugee Week Celebration. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/visitors-groups-refugee-week/ (Accessed [date]).