Guest post by Isotta Rossoni, MSc Student in Criminology & Criminal Justice at the University of Oxford.
Suspended conversations: What can we talk of in detention?
Although many detainees are frustrated by the fact that volunteers cannot deliver legal services, they often welcome the opportunity for a weekly chat. For some, visits bring a whiff of fresh air to the monotonous reality of detention. Yet, conversing in IRCs isn’t always an easy task. Volunteers cannot light-heartedly discuss the past, present, and future with detainees, as they would with their friends or acquaintances.
Oftentimes, the past is either a touchy topic, or taboo altogether. Not all migrants wish to delve deep into their memory banks. It’s not easy to re-live difficult, emotionally charged experiences. Even when detainees allow their interlocutors to catch a glimpse of their past, their narratives can be muddled and fragmented; volunteers may have to bite their tongues, putting a rein on their curiosity and resisting the temptation to ask too many questions.
Even in these circumstances, volunteers tend to resist discussing the future. Eliciting migrants’ unspoken hopes and desires can be problematic. It may appear hasty to encourage detainees to daydream. At times, their cases have meager chances of success. If their future involves removal or deportation back to a country they don’t wish to return to, why indulge in deceitful storytelling? In detention, past, present, and future are ‘frozen’ and even human interaction can be forced and artificial.
Stories, stories, stories… so many stories
Not all detainees are willing to share their―often painful―memories, yet it’s likely that gradually, especially if visited regularly, they open up. Visitors tend to be good listeners. In fact, visiting migrants in detention involves lending one’s ear to a host of human narratives.
Although there’s no time cap on detention in the UK, most migrants are detained for relatively short periods of time. When they are released, or moved to a different centre, they are deleted from the charity’s database. While volunteers may choose to keep in contact with them, they are allocated a new detainee to visit. Thus, over weeks, months, and years of visiting detention centres, volunteers become living receptacles of migrant stories. What can be done with such a wealth of knowledge?
As a result, many of these stories are likely to be forgotten. Time can wash away volunteers’ emotions in reaction to such narratives. Volunteers may attempt to keep them alive, by recounting them to friends and family. Nevertheless, at some point, even unsettling, thought-provoking testimonies are likely to become passé and trite.
In a way, we may argue that this isn’t wholly negative. I often find myself muttering a shameful ‘I understand’ in response to detainees’ harrowing testimonies. This is more of an automatic reflex, an often sincere attempt to make detainees feel at ease. In this I have never been challenged: nobody has ever told me that I do not and cannot understand.
Although charities encourage refugees and former detainees to take up visiting, most volunteers are British or European. While as human beings, they are capable of empathizing with others, most―myself included―can only vaguely imagine what it must be like to endure the suffering that many asylum seekers are faced with during their lifetimes. On the one hand then, volunteers should be cautious about speaking up on detainees’ behalf. On the other hand, voluntary work should not be devalued altogether. After all, it stands as a powerful testament to the significance of empathy. And if it’s true that empathy is what our world is in dire need of, perhaps it’s also true that volunteers can help remind us of its importance and worth. However, how to go about doing this, is and perhaps always will be, the volunteer’s dilemma.
For additional reading on the topics of volunteering and the relationship between the voluntary sector and immigration detention, see blog posts by Ali McGinley on the work of AVID, and reflections by Julia Morris and Philippa Tomczak on researching the voluntary sector.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):
Rossoni, I. (2015) The Volunteer’s Dilemma: Reflections on Volunteering in IRCs. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/reflections-on-volunteering-in-ircs/ (Accessed [date]).