The volunteer visitor group, Yarl’s Wood Befrienders (YWB), formed in 2001 shortly after the purpose-built Immigration Removal Centre (IRC), Yarl’s Wood, began receiving immigration detainees. It is the main detention centre for women in Britain, with a unit for couples and a short-term holding unit for men, and has a maximum capacity to hold 410 people. YWB supports over 220 detainees annually, women and occasionally couples, through about 50 volunteer ‘befrienders’. I volunteer as a Yarl’s Wood Befriender and, as a full member of YWB, I am also undertaking research that aims to better understand what befrienders ‘do’ and how they co-create relationships with detainees.
Immigration Removal Centres and the befriender role
Befrienders aim to improve detainees’ emotional and mental wellbeing. In January 2017, the Centre for Mental Health found ‘the impact of detention on detainees’ mental distress to be significantly higher in Yarl’s Wood’ compared to the other IRCs. Many women in Yarl’s Wood have experienced trauma in their countries before being detained. This combined with the uncertainty of their time confined and limited contact with the outside world can create feelings of isolation, depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. YWB’s mission is ‘to offer befriending support to people detained to reduce their isolation, reinforce their self-esteem, and affirm their human dignity’. This is achieved through a one-on-one matching scheme in which a befriender visits an allocated detainee on a weekly basis.
UK immigration detention is unique to European law with its indefinite time limit. In 2016 a total of 28,908 people passed through the detention system, about half were asylum seekers. Of these 10% are women; they may be mothers, wives/partners and daughters separated from their loved ones for an uncertain amount of time.
Although detention should be the last resort after the Home Office’s decision on imminent ‘removal’ from the UK, it is often used as a measure to prevent people from absconding or for initial identity verification. Anyone subject to immigration control can be detained at ports, work/businesses, home, on the streets, or at a required Home Office reporting event. They may be refugees, migrants, asylum seekers, people without valid visas or identification documentation.
The UK’s immigration detention facilities are the second largest in Europe with the capacity to hold approximately 5,000 people at any given time. People are held in IRCs and Short-Term Holding Facilities located near ports and airports across Britain. Most facilities are managed by multinational corporations under long-term contracts, although Her Majesty’s Prison Service still manages four of them. Prisons also serve as holding facilities for detainees with a total capacity of 600 beds. Gradually volunteer visitor groups formed near each detention facility by individuals concerned about living conditions, human rights and mental health in detention.
Learning from my research on befrienders
As part of my research on volunteer ‘befriending’ in immigration detention centres, I completed participant observation, unstructured interviews and participant diary methods over a nine-month period (June 2016 – February 2017) with Yarl’s Wood Befrienders. I also spent about 105 hours befriending nine different detainees. The majority of this time was spent meeting them in-person in the Yarl’s Wood Visits Hall, but sometimes speaking on the phone in between visits with them, their solicitors or relevant charities on their behalf due to lack of English skills. Outside of befriending detainees, I spent an additional 145 hours as a volunteer and trustee engaged in fundraising and developing impact evaluations, Board meetings, and inside the restricted area of Yarl’s Wood for our Summer Fete and Christmas Party for detainees, and meetings with Centre staff and senior management. I conducted 22 interviews with befrienders and volunteer trustees, ranging from six months to 15 years in experience. Participants had the option to maintain diaries about their befriending experiences for three months, and this provided additional insights into their perspectives that I may not have learned through face-to-face interviews. I maintained my own befriending diary, plus reflexive fieldnotes throughout my study. Three interesting themes have emerged so far: familial ties, empathy and compassion, and emotions.
Making the time and effort to meet in person and talk on the phone are common activities amongst family and friends who care about each other. Although befrienders were not detainees’ regular family or friends when they first began visiting, they often used familial descriptions of their relationships developed with some of the women they befriended. By the time these women left Yarl’s Wood, either released/admitted in to the community or returned to their home countries, some maintained in contact and continued their kinships outside of the Visits Hall. In some cases, befrienders used familial language when describing their relationships:
‘Several other asylum seekers […] call me Mamma. This has been the case with at least three women who lost their mother in painful circumstances’ (Natasha).
‘We [befriender’s family] joke that they have become my two extra daughters’ (Amy).
‘I felt a bit like an older sister’ (my field notes).
Sometimes befriending relationships involved helping detainees’ contact their family or friends (who live often far from Yarl’s Wood and have not visited, or may not know they are in detention). In other instances, befrienders have brought their partners/spouses and/or children along with them to visit detainees. In YWB’s impact evaluations from detainees and detention centre staff, both groups expressed that detainees’ emotional wellbeing benefitted from the human, physical, contact with the outside world through social visits.
Empathy and compassion
Befrienders have re-told detainees’ vivid stories to me about fleeing from war, torture, persecution for their homosexuality, or forced marriages to older men. They and I have befriended women that were victims of physical and sexual abuse, human trafficking/modern slavery and female genital mutilation. These chaotic histories are often underneath the newly acquired distress experienced whilst in detention. ‘Most of the detainees are going through a very difficult situation and as a volunteer one can listen to their stories but one feels powerless to change their situation. This I find very hard to bear’ (Alice, Befriender).
At the minimum, befrienders commit to providing a safe space for detainees to talk. I learned in my research that befrienders often don’t know a detainee’s whole story about how she arrived in the UK or in Yarl’s Wood. Befrienders take what she says to be fact, never expressing disbelief. Beyond sympathetic listening, befrienders empathise and some may compassionately act in various ways to try to alleviate detainees’ pain and suffering. Depending on a detainee’s level of English and physical and/or mental health, thus adding to their vulnerability, some befrienders described how they were ‘organising them, supervising them and sort[ing] them out’ (Amy, Befriender), called solicitors on their behalf, referred them to relevant charities or wrote letters to Members of Parliament.
Visiting people in detention involves your emotions: ‘It is emotional because you sit with her, hold her hand and wipe away her tears’ (Jess, Befriender). Some befrienders ‘shared the pain’ (Alice, Befriender) even after they have left the Visits Hall, but others emphasised maintaining an emotional distance. Befrienders often listen to women describe the traumatic events they encountered before they arrived in Yarl’s Wood. Offering emotional support to these detainees is even more challenging when the effects of incarceration can create anxiety due to the uncertainty of their time in confinement and the possibility of deportation. Keeping a brave face during visits and maintaining emotional resilience were often mentioned in order to sustain their volunteering. In my befriending experiences, I struggled at times to stay positive for the detainee that was facing me, distraught and losing hope, upset because she was separated from her children, or telling me she wanted to commit suicide.
In conversations and interviews with befrienders, as well as in diary entries, frustration with the systems concerning detainees were also expressed: booking visits, restrictions on bringing gifts, healthcare services provided, and asylum processes. Most were confused and daunted by immigration law. Many expressed shock, anger and sadness about some of the women’s cases they encountered. Most British volunteers voiced their disgust and guilt about the ways their country treated migrants. Befrienders articulated their worry and concern for some detainees when they left the Centre, either released in the community or deported, not knowing if they were going to safe environments.
Befrienders sometimes are the only visitors that detainees have and the only physical contact with the outside world. Befriending is not just about cheering up someone who has no idea how long she will be held. It is about building and nurturing social relationships with strangers that are vulnerable and uncertain who to trust. Through talking and listening, befrienders offer a new kinship and demonstrate they care irrespective of how much they know about detainees. The befriending approach is to accept detainees as ‘friends’ from the first visit until they leave the Centre. This may be weeks, months or even a year later. Some friendships may continue after they leave, but YWB’s remit is to support those detained. Volunteers return to the Centre to meet the next detainee requesting a befriender.
Joanne Vincett(@jovincett is a PhD student at The Open University, Faculty of Business and Law. She is a complete member-researcher of her ethnographic study as a volunteer visitor to women detained in Yarl’s Wood IRC and Trustee on the Board of Directors of Yarl’s Wood Befrienders. The names of her respondents are pseudonyms.