Post by Joanne Vincett, a third year PhD candidate in the Faculty of Business and Law at The Open University based in Milton Keynes, UK. Her research project is an organisational ethnography of Yarl’s Wood Befrienders, a voluntary organisation that visits women detained in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) in the UK. She is a full member of the organisation she is studying, as a volunteer, befriender to detainees and a trustee. For more information on her project, go here. Joanne is on Twitter @jovincett.

Ten years ago, on my return flight to England with my British fiancé, I was introduced to the hidden world of immigration detention. As an American national I didn’t need a tourist visa for less than six months stay, but the border officer was convinced I would overstay and, by her discretion, refused my re-entry in the UK where we were already staying with his family. While in the holding room of Gatwick Airport for hours and interrogated, many questions ran through my mind. I had not broken any laws, so why was I being held? Was I racially profiled by my ethnic-Chinese appearance? I was later told I would be taken to ‘a place with a bed to rest’, but not told where. I expressed my gratitude since I was cold and tired. I had no idea I would be taken to an Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) in an unmarked white van in the middle of the night, or that we would stop at another holding facility on the way there to pick up more people, a detained woman and a young girl. Naïvely I didn’t even know what an IRC was or that a British detention regime to hold up to 5,000 people existed. After years of not being able to talk about this traumatic experience, I returned in April 2016 to the same female detention centre where I spent one day and one night, this time as a trained volunteer visitor to detainees, also known as a ‘befriender’, and as an ethnographer.

My doctoral research is an organisational ethnography of the charity Yarl’s Wood Befrienders (YW Befrienders) in the UK. I take a complete membership approach to studying the place where I work as a volunteer/befriender. My research examines the experiences and activities of befrienders to women in an immigration detention centre in order to bring new knowledge to an under-explored area in organisation studies. Although research has helped us learn more about life in detention and afterwards, much less is known about the voluntary sector support for detainees, who may have little physical contact with the outside world, to help them cope with the uncertainty of immigration detention.

Artwork by female detainees at Yarl's Wood detention centre (Photo: Joanne Vincett)

Since Yarl’s Wood is the only centre in the UK for women, people are often relocated far from their families, friends and communities. Also, the UK is the only country in the European Union with no time limit to immigration detention. In this context, volunteer visitors play a major role in offering emotional support to detainees and challenging the status quo of how detainees are treated in IRCs. For example, YW Befrienders may raise concerns with IRC management in specific cases about healthcare service issues or the use of restraints and handcuffs during the removal/deportation of individuals from the Centre to the aeroplane. Befrienders ensure detainees are aware of the services offered within the Centre, help them understand their legal entitlements and how to access them.

During nine months of data collection, from June 2016 to February 2017, I spent about 250 hours visiting allocated detainees once a week at the IRC, volunteering on the Board of Trustees as the overseer of fundraising, interviewing 22 befrienders in the organisation, and participating in meetings with befrienders and Centre-wide social events, YW Befrienders organised for detainees. My multiple roles as a volunteer befriender, trustee and an ethnographer brought continuous challenges to understanding my boundaries since my membership was not a temporary one. Even though I completed data collection, I continue to befriend detainees and serve on the Board. By far the biggest challenge in doing this type of ethnographic research ‘at home’ has been managing my emotions, since my own experiences as a befriender also informed a significant part of my data.

I have built my emotional resilience as a befriender and researcher, but initially I struggled to overcome my own anxiety about returning to the same facility where I was briefly detained ten years ago. It took me at least eight weeks to get used to travelling to Yarl’s Wood and be inside without feeling uneasy, even though I am now married with two British-born children and British residency. Most visits are emotionally and mentally exhausting. I go to the IRC once a week to meet my allocated detainee, who is usually anxious and depressed and mainly talks about her legal case and her declining physical and mental health. Because of my language skills, I am usually paired with Chinese detainees. I am currently visiting my eleventh detainee that has been detained for one year (in two different IRCs). As the only befriender in the charity with Mandarin skills, I feel the extra weight of responsibility when she asks me to help interpret documents sent to her from her solicitor, the Home Office or other charities helping with her case.

Befriending is emotional voluntary work. Detainees may have experienced traumatic events before arriving in the IRC. Listening face-to-face to their stories of human trafficking, torture, abuse, forced marriage, sexual assault or victimisation can be difficult to withstand and stay emotionally resilient. Their mental wellbeing may be further exacerbated in detention where they are confined for an indefinite period of time and separated from their families, children and loved ones. I try to keep a brave face, but on a couple occasions, I could not hold my tears back when detainees were sobbing uncontrollably during visits.

‘She broke down sobbing. I told her if she wants to cry, then cry. She said she has been crying so much, there weren't any tears left. But she had plenty of tears today. […] When she mentioned she had two boys also and that she hadn't seen them or heard from them. I started to imagine if I hadn't seen or talked to my two boys. It made me sad and I couldn't hold back my tears’ (Fieldnotes, 12 April 2016).

Befriending and researching befrienders at the same time makes for even more stressful work. My own emotions are evoked when I review data from my fieldnotes, unstructured interviews with befrienders and their solicited diaries which often described detainees’ shocking stories, disturbance or sadness. Some befrienders became emotionally overwhelmed during interviews when speaking about their volunteering and relationships with detainees. Analysing the compassionate efforts of befrienders that help alleviate detainees’ pain can be heart-warming, but concurrently disheartening as they share their struggles to be effective. ‘At-home’ ethnographers, who are members of the organisations they are researching, are particularly at risk of emotional strain when exposed to sensitive topics, in contact with vulnerable people or in stressful settings over a prolonged amount of time. About six months into my research surrounded by adverse stories, my negative emotions amassed to feelings of depression. Then, a detainee I was befriending attempted suicide, and this incident prompted compassion stress/fatigue in me. Compassion stress/fatigue is similar to ‘secondary trauma’ or ‘vicarious trauma’ commonly experienced in researchers in emotionally charged and distressing contexts or in contact with suffering individuals (see also Alice Gerlach’s account during her research involving women released or removed from immigration detention in the UK). With few emotional and mental health resources in my university, I sought counselling and training on emotional resilience to eventually overcome this.

Doing this research has had a heavy emotional impact on me, but has also made me realise emotions are data in their own right. Embracing emotional reflexivity and considering emotions as significant data at any phase of the project has helped me endure doing research in this environment. Expressing my feelings and emotions in my fieldnotes when I can stop and reflect on them helps me release them and incorporate them in my data analysis. On an emotionally draining day, such as after a visit with a detainee who was feeling anxious or depressed, a brief pause is often needed before returning to the experience as data. However, it has become equally important to switch off and not reflect in order to give my mind a rest. This research has helped me to understand and practice resilience, enact self-care strategies and be involved and detached at the same time. With these valuable lessons from the field, I hope to ultimately have a positive impact as a befriender and researcher.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Vincett, J. (2017) (Re)entering the World of Immigration Detention in Britain. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/01/reentering-world (Accessed [date]).