Eamonn is a volunteer with the JRS UK Detention Outreach team and visits the men held in the immigration removal centres near Heathrow offering a listening ear, compassion and friendship.
Sometimes, when visiting my new friend, an asylum seeker imprisoned at a government Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) near Heathrow Airport, I wish I could be the angel who broke St. Peter out of jail in the Acts of the Apostles. I want to lead my friend out of captivity, unlocking gates as I go.
But all I can do is sit with this young man, listen to him and share his pain in a limited way. In an hour, I’ll walk out of the detention centre and he won’t. That seems a disheartening gulf between us. But I continue as a volunteer social visitor for the Jesuit Refugee Service because I want to help ease the suffering, in whatever small way I can.
I was asked recently what the experience of visiting those held in detention has taught me about freedom. One of the clearest lessons from the past several months is what the lack of freedom can do to a person. Unlike in prisons, those detained in IRCs don’t know how long they will be here. The deterioration from the constant stress of seemingly endless incarceration, and the fear of deportation that could happen at any time, is painfully evident. It drives many to the depths of despair.
It makes me wonder how we can bring ourselves, as a society, to do this to these people. My friend has been tortured and trafficked as he made his way to the U.K. across the Middle East and Europe, escaping war and poverty. We respond to him and millions like him not with compassion, but with suspicion and mistrust. I don’t think we do this because we are bad people. We do this, I believe, because we are not free.
My young friend’s walls are made of concrete and razor wire, but fear and prejudice are just as damaging and even harder to overcome, as we’ve sadly seen in the news. Those “big, beautiful walls” are just the outward manifestation of our insecurity. We imagine we need them to keep us safe. But they are also our prison walls, keeping us trapped in our fears about anyone different than us.
I’d like to think that I’m not captive to such things, but that’s not true. Not only am I not an angel, I have stubbornly held preconceived ideas about people who are very different from me. I am making unconscious judgements that colour my interaction with those around me, even the men I am visiting. I am building my own prison walls when I’m unable to cross political, social and religious divides.
So how do I get out of this jail I find myself in? I think it is by loving. I need to be aware of the judgements, put aside fears, overlook the differences and just love the human being in front of me. That’s a tall order, of course, and takes a lifetime of effort, but visiting those in detention has taught me that it is possible. When successful, even for a moment, something miraculous happens to both the visitor and the visited. With a shared smile, a funny story, a listening ear, we’re leading each other out of our prisons, unlocking our hearts. Yes, the concrete and razor wire are still there, but at least for those moments of friendship and love, they are of no consequence.
As I write this, an email arrived, telling me that my friend has been released. He’s not going to be deported, at least not yet. I’ve also been changed forever by meeting him. We are both free.
A 28-day time limit on detention would foster a shift towards a system based on dignity rather than one on deterrence. Indefinite detention is costly, unproductive and deeply traumatising.
Write to your MP today calling for a time limit on immigration detention. Download the template letter here.