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       Will Neal, Detention Outreach Officer at Jesuit Refugee Service UK, highlights that the findings of their latest report on detention are even more important during COVID 19.

'They put you there to forget about you'. When recently talking with a friend who had been detained on a number of occasions this is how he described the use of immigration detention in the UK. I would often encounter these feelings of being forgotten, of being alone, of being isolated when speaking with those who were detained at Harmondsworth and Colnbrook IRCs. Many detained there had been separated from family, friends and communities, moved many miles away from where they were living and dropped into a unknown environment of rules and procedures. It is easy to see, therefore, why our friend sees detention as a purposeful attempt to remove him from the sight and mind of society.

It is an experience shared by many who are subject to immigration detention, as detailed in our recent report ‘Detained and Dehumanised: the impact of immigration detention’. Although its findings are not new, the experiences and reflections shared in this report describe the traumatising and dehumanising impact of immigration detention which remain with individuals long after their detention has ended.

Throughout the report we hear how uncertainty pervades all aspects of detention and the immense strain this takes on people’s wellbeing: “People lose hope because you don’t know if you’re gonna be released. It’s like you’ve disappeared.” This uncertainty can be all-consuming, and exacerbates the fear that many have of being removed from the UK. Many also spoke of how their treatment in detention was not only inhumane but how they felt it had altered them in some way, that their detention had made them feel less human: “You go in there with all your senses and you come out senseless. Something happened to you because you are no longer the same person.”

The experiences shared in this report highlight, for me, why visiting those held in immigration detention is so vital. I can’t claim that a visit solves all the challenges and problems those detained are subjected to, but when you are trapped within a system that is desperately trying to tell you that you are not welcome, that you are unimportant, that you are forgotten, a visit may be enough to show that there is a community outside of detention still there for you.

During the pandemic, visiting detention has not been possible. As we entered ‘lockdown’ my concern was that feelings of isolation would deepen for those in detention who are already removed and cut off from society. In order to ensure that we could continue supporting those we had been seeing in person, and anyone else detained at Heathrow, we started to accompany individuals over the phone. It has been a steep learning curve and there are challenges in communicating over the phone that we don’t encounter when visiting in person; reading body language, unspoken prompts, not relying on poor phone signal. However I have also found some previously unforeseen benefits. With one friend still detained in Harmondsworth, phone support has offered a flexibility for us to speak almost every day compared to a weekly catch up within the constraints of visiting times at the centre.

‘Visiting’ over the phone is not perfect, and I look forward to the time when it is once again safe to visit those detained in person, but it maintains the connection we have with those separated from others. It allows us time to build and develop relationships. Most importantly it allows us to continue to show that those in detention have a community who are there for them. That they are not forgotten.

Will Neal is Detention Outreach Officer at Jesuit Refugee Service UK, which provides support to people detained indefinitely in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook detention centres near Heathrow. JRS UK also run a project supporting people after detention. You can find out more about their work here.

Photo by Milad B. Fakurian on Unsplash

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