The way JRS accompanies those held in detention has radically changed over the last couple of months with the loss of face-to-face visits. JRS, like organisations across the country, has had to think carefully about our work and mission, and adapt quickly to the changing social landscape.
In recent weeks, there has been very little opportunity to take stock as we try to adapt to what is slowly becoming a new normal. With each new development and piece of government advice, a lot of thought has been given to how we continue to live out our mission to accompany, serve and advocate on behalf of our friends who experience the trauma of detention, whilst ensuring the health and wellbeing of all those we serve.
It will come as no surprise to learn1 that conditions in detention centres – the shared rooms, the communal washing and eating facilities, the lack of fresh air that can move through the buildings – mean that infections spread quickly and easily through the population. Therefore, in the interest of safety, we quickly decided that our welfare and visitor support for those in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook should be temporarily suspended. Those we visit in detention have often suffered previous trauma leaving them with underlying physical and mental health conditions, and we see how continued detention is detrimental to anyone’s health and wellbeing. We feared that our coming and going from detention risked staff and volunteers unknowingly passing on an illness to our friends in detention; a risk that we shouldn’t be taking at this time. Subsequently, Immigration Removals Centres have closed to all visitors, except legal representative in exceptional circumstances, and introduced certain measures in an attempt to reduce the risk of infection.
Moving away from face-to-face visits, we continue individual casework and support over the phone. Our Detention Outreach Officer Will is the main point of contact for anyone at Heathrow Immigration Removal Centres who wishes to access JRS’ services, and holds responsibility for the overall welfare of our friends in detention. This pandemic has caused a lot of worry and anxiety for those still detained, especially as they are given no control over their situation or environment and are therefore unable to take their personal health and safety into their own hands. The need for emotional support is as high as ever so our incredible team of volunteers are speaking regularly on the phone with our friends; making themselves available as a sympathetic friend, a listening ear or a spiritual advisor at this time. In many ways, shifting this vital support to the phone has allowed us to be much more flexible, as our volunteers can speak with our friends as and when they can, and our friends in detention know they can reach out to our volunteers at any time of crisis. We are hugely grateful to our detention volunteers – without them our work supporting those in detention would simply not exist.
This move away from face-to-face support has been difficult; both for our friends in detention and for the JRS team. Our work has grown from our ethos to be with rather than do for, something which is much easier when you are able to sit and physically be with someone. It was important, however, to ensure we were still supporting our friends.
In response to the pandemic we have seen hundreds of people released from detention over the past weeks as the possibility of removals is all but eliminated. Whilst the reduction in detention numbers is good news, it unfortunately leaves those still detained in a state of heightened anxiety and distress. Seeing so many of your peers being released within a short space of time can leave people feeling dejected and unsure why they remain detained. Along with other organisations we continue to campaign for the immediate release of all those still detained into safe and appropriate accommodation as the use of detention places those detained at an unnecessary risk of infection.
With so many people being released from detention, many of our friends have been reunited with their families, friends and communities. Though they may no longer face the challenges of detention, there is a lot of stress within our communities at this time. Our post-detention support group, led by Will, previously offered a physical space for our friends to share and reflect on their traumatic experiences of detention, as well as an opportunity to express themselves creatively and try to adjust to their new lives in their communities. While this group can no longer meet in person, we endeavour to keep in contact with all our friends who are released via phone calls, emails and whatsapp, offering our continued emotional and practical support. We are also working collaboratively within the charity sector, and linking our friends up to local organisations that may be able to offer practical support during this challenging time.
Emergency Response Outreach
For those released to London, JRS seeks to support them through our emergency response project. Through this project we are delivering practical support through food packs and toiletries to the hundreds of destitute asylum seekers across London that JRS usually supports through our Day Centre; which we have also decided to close because of the pandemic. We are also providing mobile phone top ups for our friends, both in and out of detention, as their phones become more important than ever to sustain contact with solicitors, caseworkers and our support networks.
We have received dozens of new volunteer applications demonstrating that in times of crisis, the urge to help others, and overall goodness of humanity, shines through. Thanks to these new volunteers, we are able to comfortably make regular deliveries of our emergency packages, and also increase the emotional phone support we provide to our friends both in and out of detention.
Commenting on our latest work, Detention Outreach Officer Will said “As we move forward, the JRS team are thinking creatively about how we continue to support our friends who are so frequently pushed to the margins of society. During the pandemic, our outreach services continue to be a lifeline for our friends who have experienced the devastating trauma of detention; often with many ongoing mental and physical effects, long after they have been released. Whilst supporting those now released back into the community, it is important that we continue to be available for those who are still detained especially as the suspension of physical visits may result in heightened feelings of isolation. Your support during this time is greatly appreciated and we ask that you hold the whole JRS family, staff, volunteers, friends and supporters, in your prayers.”
For anyone who is looking for tangible ways that they can support those we accompany, please see below for more details on the different ways you can help.
1 Human rights charity Detention Action recently presented evidence to the High Court in a legal challenge over the Government’s failure to safeguard all those held in UK Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) from Covid-19. The legal challenge was supported by expert evidence from Prof. Coker (Emeritus Professor of Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine). Prof. Coker’s report is available here. Read more about Detention Action’s legal challenge here
To help support our friends in detention through prayer, please subscribe to our monthly newsletter ‘Praying with Detainees’,
or donate to our Refugee Friends Hardship Fund and help us continue to provide much needed practical support.