Confusion and uncertainty are all consuming in immigration detention. Yet for those who only understand a little English, or for whom English is not their first language, this confusion is intensified.
In my role with the JRS Detention Outreach team, I would arrive in the Welfare Office at Harmondsworth IRC with a queue of Vietnamese men waiting to speak with me. They cannot understand or speak English and so their time in detention is all that more difficult. Things that we may assume to be simple, such as receiving a monthly report from the Home Office, can cause confusion and distress for someone who may not know what is written there, and can only assume the worst. During our drop-ins they could sit with me, another Vietnamese national, and feel free to tell me about their situation – what was happening in their lives – with confidence, as I understand them, as well as the cultural values they carry.
In accompanying these Vietnamese men in detention, I encounter the same story.
They tell me how they have fallen victim to burdensome debt in Vietnam, often at the hands of dangerous loan sharks who demand high rates of interest when money cannot be repaid. Many have come from poor families and the money borrowed is to cover health costs, yet they are unable to repay their loans as their debt continues to grow. Many are forced to make a deal with their lenders or enticed by gangs who promise work overseas as a way to pay off their debt and send money back to their families. They know that they are taking a great risk but it is often the only option that they can see.
Find out more about the devastating experiences of those we accompany in detention by joining us for our online event on Wednesday 9th September
On leaving Vietnam, many have good faith that if they work hard they will be able to repay the money they owe and will be able to support their families. However, upon arriving to the UK, they are forced to work in cannabis farms and hidden by their traffickers. They work hours upon hours, days upon days, not able to leave the premises or the room in which they tend to the cannabis plants. Their traffickers assure them that their money is being sent back to Vietnam but it never is. They are convinced by their traffickers that if they turn to the police or authorities that they will be deported. They are beaten and threatened.
When raids occur our friends are found, often alone, in the property and arrested on drug charges. We hear how many are persuaded to plead guilty in order to receive a shorter jail sentence, not knowing that their time in jail will be followed by their indefinite detention. I especially remember meeting one man who was under 18 and had been through all of this only to end up in detention; he stays in my mind.
These men were already wounded on the long journey from Vietnam to different places before arriving in the UK. They were beaten and badly treated. They were slaves of traffickers who made false passports for them to get through Vietnamese Authorities. When we encounter them in detention they have already experienced so many hardships and their needs are many. They need support and to be living in safety in a place to heal their wounds with kindness and understanding, not held in detention where their wellbeing only deteriorates.
When we sit with our friends in detention we go to befriend them, to listen to their stories without judgment or trying to ‘fix’ them. We listen as they try to unlock their stories that they have kept for a long time inside themselves. We accompany them in our love and prayers and assure them that they are not forgotten.
The 30th July was the UN day against trafficking of persons, an opportunity to reflect on the plight of those who are trafficked and endeavour to do more to help and protect them. Those we meet in detention are people, human beings from families far from home, feeling lonely and desperate to be where they are loved. They should be treated with compassion but instead are detained. It is unjust, it is wrong, it is inhuman.
As a JRS volunteer I have taken these stories to my personal prayer; journey with them and let them know that we are there by their side at all times.
Sr Vui volunteers with the JRS detention outreach team and regularly accompanies those detained at Harmondsworth and Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centres near Heathrow.
Want to find out more about our work in detention? Join us online on Wednesday 9th September for the first of our ‘Accompaniment in Action’ events.