Post by Ali McGinley, Director of AVID (Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees). AVID is the national membership network supporting volunteer visitors groups across the UK. AVID works to develop, support and train those visiting, as well as to raise awareness about immigration detention and push for positive change in the system. Find out more at http://www.aviddetention.org.uk. This post is the first installment of the Border Criminologies Themed Week on Volunteer Visiting in the Hostile Environment organised by Ali.

It’s testimony to the power of the media that when we discussed this blog series many months ago, we had no idea that the tide of public sympathy would have taken such a dramatic turn. The thought of 100,000 people marching through central London shouting ‘Refugees Welcome Here’ would’ve seemed ridiculous. But now we can take some comfort: the penny has dropped. There is now an unprecedented level of understanding of the perilous journeys people are making to reach our shores in seek of safety and sanctuary. And more than that, a genuine desire from the very local levels, to help.  

Like many, I’m saddened that it took horrendous images of a toddler’s body to awaken the public consciousness to this humanitarian crisis. In recent times here in the UK we’ve struggled with the government’s ‘hostile environment’: a series of policy interventions that have only succeeded in pitching communities against each other, engendering fear and suspicion on our streets. This environment continues to take its toll at home, despite the ever growing concern about the fate of refugees in the Mediterranean. And while this may have succeeded in changing political and media rhetoric, it hasn’t changed in real terms any policies or stance towards those who’ve managed to reach our shores but who have uncertain immigration status. The recent proposals in the immigration bill are set to turn landlords, doctors, and even banking administrators into border guards. Somehow, we must address this chasm in understanding between the recent sympathetic outpourings from the public and the media, and the reality of the insurmountable obstacles people face in accessing justice once they reach the UK.  We need to bridge the gap between sentiment for those desperately trying to reach the UK, and those who are  already here, trying to survive under the threat of destitution and/or detention.

The theme of this week’s blog series is volunteer visiting to immigration detainees in the hostile environment. Immigration detention is probably the most damaging aspect of current government policy. There is a raft of evidence that details the lasting damage it causes to those detained, and we are one of the only countries in Europe to detain without time limit. Yet, despite cross party Parliamentary calls for reform, detention remains a mainstay of the government’s security rhetoric on migration.

For over 20 years, volunteer visitors up and down the country have proved the exception to the rule that no one cared about immigration detainees. Volunteer visitors groups have existed for as long as there have been detention centres, providing practical and emotional support and advice to those detained. Over the years, groups have grown in a myriad of ways. While some remain volunteer-led, some are now registered charities with paid staff and expanded remits to encompass the growing needs of immigration detainees as the system has grown. As well as visiting, groups now engage in awareness raisingsupport for ex detaineesresearch reportscampaigning and advocacy. Volunteer visiting itself has changed. It still involves long and tedious journeys to remote locations, security checking, endless waiting times, and frustration at a system that leaves those detained so disempowered. But now, visiting does not take place in a vacuum. Visitors are part of a growing civil society movement that’s shining a light on the injustices of detention and a collective advocacy that’s pushing for change. And it’s this collective push against the impacts of the hostile environment that we consider in this themed week. We will hear from two groups in the UK, from Dover and Glasgow, about what this push means in their specific local context and setting.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

McGinley, A. (2015) Volunteer Visiting in the Hostile Environment. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2015/10/volunteer (Accessed [date]).