United Kingdom: mitigating harmful government policies on detained migrants
03 October 2013

JRS team member Anne Elizabeth receives a thank you gift from detainees accompanied by JRS in Colnbrook, United Kingdom (Jesuit Refugee Service)
She came every week and sat beside me. Her patience and her compassion called out to me and I finally found my voice.
London, 3 October 2013 – In a recent conversation with a German colleague I learned that oversight for the detention of asylum seekers has recently been granted to the courts, resulting in the dramatic reduction in the numbers detained. This is in sharp contrast with continuing practices in the United Kingdom where the decision to detain asylum seekers is made by civil servants with little judicial oversight. Equally important there is no limit to the duration of administrative detention in the UK, notwithstanding the potential impact on the health of detained asylum seekers.

Research has repeatedly demonstrated that detention causes psychological distress and all too frequently aggravates pre-existing mental health problems of refugees who have already suffered traumatic experiences. Loss of liberty, uncertainty regarding return, social isolation and forceful removals are contributing factors which may lead to self-harm and in extreme cases suicide. Additionally, the open ended nature of migration detention was found to increase distress and vulnerability among detainees.

The provision of healthcare services within the current detention structure in the UK is fragmented and sub-contracted by the UK government to commercial operators who manage the detention centres. Consequently, systems to identify, treat and care for mental illness varies from one detention centre to another. In the face of this precarious arrangement, monitoring and maintaining standards of care across the detention estate remains obscure and complex.

The Jesuit Refugee Service teams in the UK draw their knowledge from their experiences accompanying detainees in two centres, located near Heathrow Airport in London. These two centres host more than 900 men and an additional 27 units for women where undocumented migrants and failed asylum seekers are held upon arrival and prior to deportation.

Quite often, new arrivals appear to be distressed, dejected and fearful. They join the existing residents disempowered by a system detrimental to their health and well-being. One grasps quite quickly that it is not enough to meet simply their physical needs. Their evident vulnerability is commonly exhibited in mood swings, irritability, anger, frustration, social withdrawal, self-harm and, in extreme cases, suicide.

In response, the JRS consultation team formulates holistic assessments based on the person's physical, emotional, social, psychological and spiritual needs, allowing staff to consider the best option for each individual. While JRS teams refer detainees to organisations offering specialist services for torture victims, help to find accommodation, and legal assistance to facilitate bail applications, teams offer a range of services designed to support to promote the well-being of detainees in vulnerable circumstances.

Another service fundamental to the mission of JRS is accompaniment in a pastoral capacity. To carry out this role, staff and volunteers seek ways to build trust allowing the detainee to rediscover their inherent sense of value and self-worth. Additionally, the provision of psychosocial support encourages the person to integrate with their fellow detainees who in turn offer their own form of care. Our volunteer complementary therapist also contributes to relieving anxieties and stress through massage, reflexology and other means best suited to the needs of the person.

"I felt like everything I saw was through a dark space. I could see, hear but could not speak. She came every week and sat beside me. Her patience and her compassion called out to me and I finally found my voice. It was her faithfulness that called me out", said Lucky, a detainee, of one JRS team member.

The provision of volunteer visitors also enhances the psychosocial support by creating bonds of trust and friendship. Building a trustful relationship with vulnerable persons strengthens their confidence in personal value and worth as an individual.

"I like my visitor but really like my pen friend. I can tell her how it really is because she does not see me. I also see the outside world through her eyes", said Osama, a detainee.

I'm not in favour of detention. Bearing in mind those I visit, if given an opportunity to make change, I would decide that no immigrant should be detained. Detention evokes all sorts of negativities for the detainees and the pervading atmosphere continues to threaten the most robust person with a gloomy dread of the unknown. It is for these reasons that the work of the JRS UK is invaluable to the detainees as it is purposely designed to support the person, to allay individual fears and reduce anxiety levels.

Margret Baxter SSMN is a Roman Catholic nun with the religious order of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur. She is the Detention Outreach Coordinator of the Jesuit Refugee Service in the UK.