How has visiting people in immigration detention changed over the last 10 years? Ali McGinley, Director of the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detention (AVID), looks back at the lasting significance of face-to-face support detention visitors offer and considers what the future might hold for detention visiting. Ali tweets at @McGinleyAM.

One of the many distressing aspects of detention is having your phone taken away. While a few years ago this may not have had the same significance, we now rely on our phones for much more than talking. They are a means for us to connect, to share, to feel part of a group. We are all so used to having our friends and family in our lives at the touch of a screen. When something happens, we post on social media or tell our friends on Whats App and we get a response, and validation, instantly. In detention, phones are removed and replaced with a standard issue mobile phone (usually one of the old Nokia “bricks”). Phones with cameras or internet access are banned inside. Most of us would struggle to be without our phones or offline for a few hours. In detention, you are stripped of all your freedoms in a matter of hours, and this includes the freedom to communicate easily with loved ones. 

In this context, face-to-face visits take on a whole new significance. In the words of one man detained at Dover ‘it means everything, it means everything in the world. Because behind there…you just don’t know what’s going to happen’. Another woman who was held in Yarl’s Wood away from her children on two occasions describes visits as her way of surviving ‘it helped, to know that someone out there was thinking about me and concerned about me and appalled at what was going on’. These comments are not referring to visits from friends or family members, but from people that prior to detention were total strangers: volunteers from local organisations commonly known as ‘visitors groups’, although this term no longer does justice to the depth and breadth of activities they carry out. While some are registered charities with a solid infrastructure (such as Detention Action or Jesuit Refugee Service UK) others, like Morton Hall Detainee Visitors Group, may only have one part time staff member. Others still, like Lewes Prison Visiting Group or Manchester Immigration Detainee Support team, are run solely by volunteers. What they all have in common is the coordination of volunteer visitor support – in its widest sense – for people in detention.  

10 years of conversations with people in detention and the volunteers who visit them 

For the people held in detention, visits are a chance for connection, for conversation, and importantly, to offload. It is a welcome break from the routine inside. But for many, the physical location of the detention centre and the restricted visiting hours means they often don’t get visits, because family and friends are so far away. Or they may not know anyone to come and visit. AVID – the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees – has been working with volunteer visitors and visitors groups to try to alleviate this since 1994. We mark our 25th anniversary this year. With members who visit in every single detention centre, residential short term holding facility, and some prisons, there are over 520 volunteer visitors registered in groups across the UK. Primarily set up to provide emotional support and practical advice to people on a one-to-one basis in the visits hall, AVID member groups now provide a whole range of support and services including workshops, drop-in sessions, support after detention, policy and advocacy, campaigning, education and training.  AVID brings this network together, ensuring information is shared, volunteers are trained and supported, collective advocacy approaches are pursued, and making sure that information on the day-to-day realities of detention reach the wider public. 

One of the reasons there is so much speculation about immigration detention is that very few people – other than a handful of groups or organisations – have been inside. AVID members are one of only a few non-statutory bodies with access to all detention centres. As such, the volunteers within our network are undertaking a critical role. 

It is hard to describe a typical volunteer. Motivations vary massively, but largely they fall into two groups. Perhaps they are people who live locally to a detention centre and feel that they have time to give –most groups tend to have a number of retired individuals. Others are motivated by the injustice of detention and a concern to support those who are subject to what has been described as one of the UK’s greatest human rights concerns. Of course these are generalisations. Motivations overlap, change and adapt over time.  But you have to be committed. The journeys are long; security procedures are onerous and restrictive. Cancelling a visit when someone has – literally – waited a week or ten days to see you can be heart-breaking for that individual.  During the visit, volunteers are often faced with a barrage of concerns, worries and complaints, many of which they can’t do anything about. They might be meeting people with very complex immigration cases, perhaps someone who is clearly struggling with their situation, perhaps someone who has additional needs and shouldn’t be in detention. Volunteers need resilience, but they also need good quality training and ongoing support to know how to face these challenges. It is not a volunteer role that is for everyone. Some find it far too difficult. Volunteers must have access to a support network and many times need to ‘take a break’ to avoid their own mental health and wellbeing suffering. That said, AVID members have some volunteers who have been visiting for many years. That in itself speaks volumes about how needed they are, how rewarding it can be, and that they feel that they are making a difference. 

“The thing that I will take with me, all my life, from visiting, is the experience of meeting people with such courage, such bravery, and sometimes a serenity of coping with so many difficulties”.

How visiting creates change

I’ve been involved with AVID for ten years. In that time, I’ve spoken to many hundreds of volunteers who visit in detention and I’ve seen their work first hand in every detention centre. The one-to-one relationship – being there for the individual – remains at the heart of the work of our members. But the volunteer role has definitely changed over time. 

As numbers in detention sky rocketed in the early 2010s, people were held for increasingly long periods, sometimes several months or years, particularly those who had served time in prison. Visitors were coming across more and more complex cases, requiring substantive knowledge of immigration and asylum law, just as legal aid was all but decimated. Visitors had always been a bridge between people in detention and legal support, but this became much more critical.  Now, the difference between befriending and casework is much more fluid. Volunteer visitors and visitors groups now regularly take a casework approach: signposting, referring and ensuring support reaches those who need it, bringing in specialist help such as lawyers, or thematic NGOs with specialisms in working with survivors of trauma or torture, or in working with people who have been trafficked, or who can help with age assessments. 

Now, visitors groups are often described as having an informal ‘human rights monitor’ role. Visitors are often the first to raise alarms when things go wrong – for example, in potential cases of unlawful detention, or in highlighting cases that exemplify some of the more high-profile failings of the Home Office such as breaches of Human Rights law. We work collectively to monitor detention, to identify inconsistencies, patterns and gaps, and to ensure information on the realities of detention reach beyond the walls. And this is vital, as without volunteer visitors we’d know very little about life and regime as experienced by those detained. 

“Visiting detainees I think does have an effect on the system. Because it is then quite…known….that we are there, we are hearing things, we are seeing things…we don’t see everybody obviously, we are not aware of everything that goes on but we do hear, we are eyes and ears on the outside, and I think that can only be a positive thing”

Being there, on a daily or weekly basis, hearing and seeing what is going on, is a powerful tool for change. Visitors are face-to-face with the immediacy of the uncertainty, they see first-hand the anxiety this causes. They hear in intimate detail how it feels to have your freedoms taken away, how it feels to be told when and what to eat, when and where to sleep, when to wash, to exercise, to feel fresh air on your face. They hear what it is like trying to sleep at night, how hard it is to miss your children or your friends. And they hear things a lot worse than that.

Along with first-hand testimony from experts by experience, it is this very human act of listening and hearing that contributed so richly to the volume of evidence that formed the basis of various reports, inquiries and investigations over the years. Without visitors, it is unlikely that we would know as much as we do about daily life as experienced by people in detention. Their contribution to the detention reform movement cannot be underestimated. 

The future of visiting 

When AVID began, in 1994, there were around 720 people held in detention in the UK at any one time. By 2002, this figure had nearly doubled to 1370, with a commitment made by the Home Office to expanding to 4,000 detention spaces. When I joined AVID as Director in 2009, we had 21 member organisations, and there were around 29,000 people detained annually, including around 1,000 children. Five years later in 2014, detention numbers had swollen to just under 30,000 a year, reaching a high of 32,500 in 2015. At that point we had 20 member organisations, but volunteer numbers were growing, with around 600 visitors nationally, supporting around 2,000 people in detention over the course of a year. Now, in 2019, our member numbers have reduced to 16. This is mainly due to centres closing and the numbers in detention reducing. Last year 24,748 people entered detention, 10% less than the year before. The lengths of time people are spending in detention is also reducing, and four centres have closed in the last three years. Interestingly, volunteer numbers haven’t reduced proportionally. There are still 520 registered in these 16 groups. 

We work with groups when centres close, to help them either divert their energies into similar work like community support or visiting in prison. And in the centres that are still operating, there are far fewer people in detention, and for shorter periods. While this is to be celebrated, we are working with our members to adapt to these shifts, too. It of course means that the nature of visiting is changing once again. If, as we hope, a time limit is introduced and there are further closures, it may be that visiting will move more towards one-off support sessions than long term visiting relationships. Visiting someone once or twice requires a very different skill set and is an entirely different volunteer role to that based on visiting every week and developing a friendship over time. Without the time often required for trust to develop, visitors may have to become much more able to impart vital information concisely, quickly and easily. It may become much more about crisis management than casework. They may have to respond much faster in the here and now, identifying issues and responding immediately. Other activities may supplement visiting. Groups have already started to provide support for people on leaving detention and this may become much more integral to the work of our network. 

Volunteer visiting is part of the day-to-day fabric of detention in the UK; it has played a pivotal role in helping alleviate the worst injustices of this inhumane system over the last 25 years. Whatever form visiting takes in the future, it will remain an integral part of the civil society response to detention, until hopefully one day it is no longer needed.  

AVID is marking 25 years of supporting people in detention. You can find out more about our work and make a donation here

You can find out more about the history of visiting and the impact it has had, via our Hidden Stories project.