Content warning: torture, rape. Image by @Carcazan

This two-part blog features reflections from two volunteers with JRS UK, who support people detained in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs), The first comes from Cashel Riordan, a counsellor and volunteer.

Recently, I started reflecting on my counselling work, and was particularly struck by the difference between my private clients and those I see for counselling in the Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) at Harmondsworth and Colnbrook as part of my volunteering with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS UK). I can say I find the work to be quite similar but the surroundings are totally different.

For me, the purposes of counselling are a means to help individuals see a way forward in their lives, possibly to discuss issues that are troubling them and to consider if there are any aspects they would want to change. We take all of this reflection and look at how they could go about making those changes in ways that might bring more contentment for themselves.

My private clients source me on the internet and other such places whereas in the IRCs, people are referred to me by detention staff, other JRS colleagues and also through my interacting and mingling with them in the welfare room, where they usually seek me out so as to have someone to talk to.

Those I meet in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook want out and to be free so I see my role as helping them to manage their detention existence, to cope with the uncertainty regarding their release or deportation. Research has shown that nearly all people suffer some psychological difficulties if they are held in unwanted confinement, no matter where. The difference for my private clients is that they are free to come and go from my counselling room as they please.

However, both groups, within the counselling hour, are given a time that they may not find elsewhere to talk about those things that are uppermost in their minds. Being able to talk, disclose, cry, are hugely relevant in releasing tension and allowing people to see what might be possible. To both, I’ll talk about their support systems, their family and who they feel they can really talk to and receive some empathy.

Particularly with those in detention, I will check their wellbeing: are they eating, drinking water, getting exercise and any quality sleep, as these are important to maintain their spirits. In detention, sleep is difficult given the circumstances but is important for their mental wellbeing. I find their minds tend to be full of bad memories and often horrific events such as torture, killings, rapes. I’ll ask them to try and picture some happy events. As I have found few to immediately recall happy times, I’ll offer suggestions – good times with families, partners, sport etc… Then I ask them to try when going to sleep to keep visualizing and thinking of these happy memories because research again shows that quite often we dream about those things we have been thinking of before we fall asleep. I suggest when possible not to be looking at violent action films on TV before sleep for that same reason. Generally, I believe, it takes most of us 5 positive thoughts before we can dampen down 2 negative thoughts, a ratio of 5:2.

A major difference in the IRCs is that I can’t have any certainty that I will see the same person the following week, either because they are not able for different reasons to come and see me or they have been moved to another centre, released or returned to their home country. Whereas my private clients make appointments with me and rarely do not attend.

Overall, I enjoy working with both sets of client, one helps to pay my mortgage and the other helps me to do something positive for my fellow man.

Martin is one of the newest Detention Outreach Volunteers at JRS UK. Today he shares with us his reflections on his first few weeks of visiting.

It was not without some trepidation that I ventured to Harmondsworth for my first visit, but with some handholding from an experienced visitor to guide me though the essentials I met Omar (not his real name). His thick Arabic accent was difficult to understand, and still is, with his strange pronunciation of English and French but he seemed positive about his situation and its outcome. After the visit I felt a certain amount of inadequacy concerning my role. Not inasmuch as an inability to handle and support him but that my contribution was of so little consequence.

However, over subsequent visits his demeanour deteriorated as his application for a bail hearing was delayed and he was seeing others being released after having spent less time in detention than him.

My feelings of inadequacy were now compounded by frustration. Omar’s health, his prospects and his level of legal advice were, to me, insufficient. I was concerned that my support may not be providing what was needed in this situation. Being aware that JRS provides more than just emotional support through social visiting, I asked my volunteer colleagues who provided him with practical support and advice to share with me some more information about his case. To that end, I was uplifted by the discovery of the reason for the hold up in the Home Office decision.

Two recent visits have had to be cancelled as Omar has not been feeling well and although I have made it plain that as he has my telephone number and can contact me 24/7 he has not yet made that move to a more confidential association with me. Maybe I’m not what he thought he was getting when he requested a visitor; perhaps I should ask him if he might prefer another with whom he might be able to better interact.

After each visit I ask myself if I could have done anything differently, more constructively. Each time I don’t see any other approach other than being positive to Omar, suggesting he makes full use of the amenities of the centre, mental and physical, that he avails himself of the ‘Welfare’ facilities on a Thursday and keeps as close a contact with his solicitor as is appropriate to press his case to a solution.

How do I relax and recharge my batteries after a demanding visit? Brahms, Beethoven and for anger management Shostakovich 2nd Piano Concerto. The anger expressed in that fantastic first movement, Allegro, then the soothing balm of the Andante can reduce me to tears.

Do I want to continue? Most certainly, as long as I can contribute in any capacity to the work of JRS.