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       Gemma Goodwin discusses solidarity work in the face of the changing nature of detention.

Midlands Migrant Support, formerly Morton Hall Visitors Group, has been supporting people in immigration detention in the East Midlands since 2011.

Working tirelessly with the support of a part-time paid co-ordinator, their committed group of volunteers consistently offered emotional and practical advice to people detained in Morton Hall IRC until 2021, when the centre closed.

In that decade, they saw the government commit to reducing detention after much public pressure and a series of legal challenges. But in the past few years, there has been a dramatic u-turn in government policy, underpinned by new legislation in the form of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and Illegal Migration Act 2023. The latter grants the government sweeping powers to detain, remove and deport people and sets the stage for a potentially huge expansion in detention.

The closure of Morton Hall IRC was announced in 2020, but unfortunately, that did not lead to an end to detention in the East Midlands. Instead, the site was re-purposed to create different parts of the same machinery of detention, removal and deportation.

Fiona, AVID's Network Development Officer, spoke with Gemma Goodwin, Project Co-ordinator at Midlands Migrant Support, about how their group has been responding to the shifting sites of detention in the East Midlands in order to continue acting in solidarity with people detained...

  •                        Fiona:

Please could you share a bit about the journey you've been on to rename yourselves Midlands Migrant Support? How did this come about?

  •                        Gemma:

The way in which we support people in detention as a charity within Lincolnshire has evolved over the last ten or so years. Formerly named, ‘Morton Hall Visitors Group’, we visited Morton Hall immigration removal centre until it was closed in 2021.

The site reopened later that year, but as two separate identities: 'HMP Morton Hall' and 'Swinderby Residential Short Term Holding Facility'. This meant that there was some confusion when we started visiting people at Swinderby as ‘Morton Hall Visitors Group’.

Lincolnshire has seen a further expansion in the detention estate due to plans for the Scampton RAF base to be repurposed as a quasi-detention site for men, the first of whom are expected to arrive imminently, and as the only active visitor group in the area, we have begun exploring to what extent we can support people who will be held there. We also wanted to be able to expand the services and the geographic scope of our activities which called for a change of name.  

  •                        Fiona:

What have some of the challenges been in adapting as a group to support people held in a  residential short-term holding facility in particular?

  •                        Gemma:

The main challenges we have faced has first been that our volunteer base decreased in size due to the closure of the IRC and the restrictions during Covid, but also the massive change in the type of centre we are currently working in.  

As we continue to grow in numbers, whether an existing volunteer or one who has joined more recently, we are all learning ‘a new way of working’. Previously in the IRC, more of our work had centred around offering emotional support to our clients but we found that while signposting was an important part of what we did then, it is much more prevalent now in the Short Term Holding Facility where we meet our clients there only once before they are transferred elsewhere*. And we believe this support will be also very relevant to clients in HMP Morton Hall and other centres where we hope to be providing services.

Over the last few months, we have found that while some clients are seeking a space to talk about what has been going on for them, most are often looking into the ‘what’s next for me’, and we at Midlands Migrant Support use our visits to inform them of the various visitor groups, agencies and services around the country that they can contact to support them further, usually once they move on.

Privacy in and around our detained clients has been a challenge for us, which I believe is also for other groups in different detention centres. A space to talk and reaffirm our commitment to confidentiality and independence is fundamental to the support we want to offer to our clients.

  •                        Fiona:

As well as adapting to supporting people at a Residential Short Term Holding Facility, you've been preparing to visit people at HMP Morton Hall - both people who are detained post-sentence instead of released and those still serving their sentence. Why is this a priority for you as a group?

  •                        Gemma:

HMP Morton Hall, now a Foreign Nationals Prison, is able to hold detained men indefinitely under immigration powers following the end of their custodial sentence. Our primary aim is to ease isolation and anxiety – provide solidarity and signpost to services able to offer specialist advice and guidance.  

Compared to an IRC, within a prison, communication with the outside world is heavily restricted, with no mobile phones or internet access, which can have an impact on their immigration case and a person’s ability to appropriately prepare for returning to their country of origin. With this in mind, it is clear that there will be an increased need for us to support not just immigration detainees but all ‘Foreign National prisoners’ held at HMP Morton Hall.

We at Midlands Migrant Support believe this work is vital in order to ensure that people have access to emotional support, solidarity and services that can champion their human rights and secure just outcomes.

*People are held in a Residential Short-Term Holding Facility(RSTHF) for a maximum of 5 - 9 days, while an Immigration Removal Centre has no time limit. These centres tend to be much smaller with fewer facilities, more limited health care and do not allow people access to free legal advice.


       >>> *UPDATE*: Midlands Migrant Support is recruiting a Project Co-ordinator (jobshare) - Find out more here! (pdf)

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