AVID Training
(You need to be a member and logged in to view this video)

Chris from Manchester Immigration Detention Support Team (MIDST) writes about his experience visiting people in detention at Manchester Residential Short Term Holding Facility and gives advice for new visitors.

The detention centre in Manchester is different. It is not an Immigration Removal Centre (IRC). It is a R-STHF (Residential Short Term Holding Facility). This means that visiting in Manchester is different from visiting in an IRC because the people we visit know that they will be there for less than seven nights. They mostly know this because they are told it at induction by the staff but it is easy to miss or forget such an important piece of information when you are very upset and especially when English is not your first language. When that is the case, inductions should be in a language that you can understand. I like to check that this seven night restriction is understood at the beginning of any conversation. Nearly always it is understood.

What it means for us visitors is that we almost never see the same person twice. This is not going to be a long-term relationship. What then are we offering? Well, two things: solidarity and ‘signposting’. These two s-words are contained in the name of our group. We are the Manchester Immigration Detention Support Team. Both of these s-words are very important and we are often rewarded with heartfelt thanks. That I find difficult to receive. I come away from the detention centre with a need to calm down emotionally. A drink in a coffee bar on my way home helps a bit – to my comfortable and privileged home. Above all my safe home.

Our first duty as visitors is to listen. Do not imagine that as a visitor you will always be listening to things that are easy to hear; rather more often it is painful to hear. Claims for asylum are based on someone’s ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ if they were to return to their country of origin. A number of the people we visit have experienced great pain – not always but sometimes physical pain. If we hear of something that has involved torture (and it is not unusual to be shown scars) then ‘signposting’ is called for. We have at hand our leaflet (translated into as many languages as we can manage) and in it we can underline the item which gives the telephone number and email of Freedom from Torture. We can explain the potential benefit of that. Aside from actual torture there are of course other forms of persecution.

One of the fingers of our signposts points to the excellent organisation, ‘Bail for Immigration Detainees’ (BID). One startling fact is that a very high proportion of people who apply for bail are successful. This reflects a situation in which Home Office staff all too often detain people who should not be detained.

The variety of situations that people in detention have been in is very great. Some are students who came on a visa for a particular college course and overstayed. They might even be looking forward to going home and seeing Mum and Dad again. We can swap stories about the good and bad points of living in UK. I take a map showing England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to discuss which countries they have visited, or even the joys and difficulties of mountain walking; comparing the mountains in Scotland and in Ethiopia.

Although the detention centre we visit is in the airport, it is relatively rare to meet someone who has just flown in to Manchester and been detained there. More often people in detention have been in UK for some time, perhaps for many years. I am thinking now of a man who had been in England for over 15 years, working as a chef. How hard it is to ‘return’ to a country you have only known as a child. How much contact has been maintained over the years by phone and internet? Who will it be good to see and who not?

A high proportion of those detained in R-STHF Manchester are on their way to an IRC in another part of the country. IRCs have one significant difference to STHFs; they have legal surgeries. These provide free legal immigration advice for 30 minutes. Our leaflet shows on which days these surgeries are available. We take time to explain what benefit this could be. 30 minutes is not very long. What questions do you need the answers to? It might be appropriate for us to talk this over with the person we are visiting.

One sort of reason for being detained stands out in my memory: people who have come to our detention centre from the marriage unit in Liverpool. Yes, marriage unit. A person who has married a citizen of UK or of another country in the EU and whose basis of permission to stay in UK rests on that marriage, may find the validity of the marriage questioned. There is a Home Office unit in Liverpool set up specifically to test whether a marriage is one ‘of convenience’ or is genuine. Couples are separated and the same questions asked of each party. The word ‘sham’ is used. We can all imagine how hurtful it is to be told that your marriage is sham. Our listening cannot heal the wound but it can help a detained person to feel valued.

The worst reason for doing nothing is that we can only do a little. I would say you should grasp the opportunity to visit if it is right for you.

This article was written as part of our Human to Human Winter Appeal which you can donate to here.

Watch: Hidden Stories
Share this page