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A friend in need. . . who are volunteer befrienders and how to become one?

15 June 2018

Volunteer befrienders at immigration-removal centres provide a service to detainees. Jemima Thackray finds out what it takes to become one


“MY BEFRIENDER makes me feel good, like I’m not in this hole. I don’t feel like I am inside when she visits. She’s like the mother I have never had. I feel like we are in the park or something, like I am free and a child again,” one detainee said, when describing the visit of a volunteer from Yarl’s Wood Befrienders.

Yarl’s Wood, the female-only immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire, is one of 11 immigration-removal centres (IRCs) in the UK holding asylum-seekers, foreign offenders, and visa over-stayers, against their will and without a transparent time-limit. Many of them will go on to be released at some point, their detention futile, costly, and emotionally traumatising.

“There are thousands going through the system, and very little is known about them. For me, visiting is about saying ‘I see you and I hear you,’” Camille Herreman, a volunteer befriender at Morton Hall, in Lincoln, and the co-ordinator at Morton Hall Detainee Visitors Group (MHDVG), says.

The Rt Revd John Richardson, when he was Bishop of Bedford, set up Yarl’s Wood Befrienders to provide support for detainees, as soon as Yarl’s Wood opened in 2001. Now, every centre has a visitors group: an organisation of volunteers who provide emotional and practical support for people being held in indefinite detention.

Volunteer visitors, or befrienders, make a commitment to visiting some­one in detention every week, or every other week, and some also stay in touch by phone. All visitor groups stipulate that volunteers befriend just one person at a time.

Frazer Waller, PhotographerA befriender talks to a detainee in the “visits room” at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre

“You can visit for a long time — sometimes more than a year. Or you may only meet the person once, and then they are released,” Mary Barrett, who is 72 and a visitor with the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG), says. “You have no idea, just as they have no idea. This unpredictability is part of their tor­ment.

“Detention centres are either former Category B prisons, or built to the same spec. Many who have been in prison before say that the centres are worse. The men I visit are three to a room with an open toilet. There is a lot of noise and aggression. I think the place dehumanises everyone.”

The primary function of befrienders is to provide a non-judgemental listening ear for people in these difficult conditions. “Befriending is uniquely about com-passionate listening,” a volunteer and trustee at Yarl’s Wood Befrienders, Jo Vincett, says. “Many people are scared to talk openly, but we can be independent listeners who are not part of the system, not trying to seek the truth of their story or question their motivations, or their past. We’re just taking what they say at face value.”

There is also an element of providing practical support, from helping foreign detainees to learn English to supplying mobile-phone credit for the pay-as-you-go handsets with which they are issued. One detainee visited by GDWG said that he found it useful simply to be “in touch with someone from a different culture; so that when I leave Brook House and walk down the street, I see someone who looks like my visitor, and right away I see that stranger as a friend. When my visitor sees someone of my race on the street, they see him like a friend.”

Frazer Waller, PhotographerSome of the Yarl’s Wood Befrienders’ volunteers

Visitors can also assist with administrative tasks related to the legal case of their allocated detainee, even accompanying them to bail hearings. “Part of a befriender’s role is to signpost people towards their rights: their right to apply for bail, to seek legal advice, to ask for a medical examination,” Mrs Vincett says. “Befriending is about empowering people to seek help, and be resourceful when they can.”

This must be balanced, Rhiannon Prideaux, a visitor with MHDVG, says, with a degree of patience and realism about the system in which these people find themselves trapped. “There is not much you can do, practically, to help the person’s case, and this can be frustrating.

“So it’s perhaps not for you, if you’re the kind of person who likes to find quick solutions. But I realised that, just by turning up, I am showing care that counts for a lot. I once had an email from one man who said, ‘Thank you for visiting today — not many people would waste their time with someone like me,’ which revealed a lot about his low self-esteem, but also about how he valued the time I gave him.”

Visits always take place within a “visits hall”, and, in most centres, this is in a separate building. “But you still encounter ten-foot fences, the barbed wire, and sniffer dogs,” Ms Herreman says. “All visitors have a pat-down search as they enter. You have to get over feeling intimidated at first.”

Beatrice Gasso, the volunteer co-ordinator for the Jesuit Refugee Centre UK, which serves the two Heathrow IRCs, says that there is a degree of mental toughness that all visitors need to have, “particularly emotional resilience, and mechanisms to cope with pressure, as it can be very distressing”. Mrs Barrett says: “You have to be able to offload yourself. You need a good support network around you, because you will get close to very distressing situations of extreme stress and families torn apart.”

Training is provided to help prepare volunteers, involving an extensive induction process, which includes shadowing experienced visitors. The Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (AVID) is the membership organisation that supports all the visitor groups, and it provides regular training for its members in personal boundaries and self-care.


“We recommend that visitors maintain contact only during detention, and not after,” the acting director for AVID, Harriet Ballance, says. “There are other organisations who can support people who have been released; so we recommend signposting to these. Other boundaries include being careful about how much you tell a person about your personal life, and things like not offering bail surety.”

Ms Gasso recommends that volunteers attend visitors’ support groups once a month to recount their stories and offload any problems. Volunteers must also produce a short written report after each visit, “to check if there have been any significant issues for the detainee that need following up. It is also a chance for the visitor to stop and reflect on their emotions, as an act of self-care.”

Mrs Vincett says that befrienders must also be able to withstand negative opinion. “Many people speak about the stigma attached to working with asylum-seekers: how family and friends had assumptions, prejudices, and the generally negat­ive public view; so visitors need to show a level of courage to act from their hearts. But I’ve found that most visitors seem to have this real sense of determination to fight injustice.”

Other than this shared sense of moral compulsion, volunteers’ motivations can be diverse. “At Yarl’s Wood Befrienders, there are some who have travelled the world a lot, and are motivated by their engagement with different cultures; and others who have never really left Bedfordshire, but are interested to meet other kinds of people,” Mrs Vincett says.

A significant proportion of the volunteers are motivated by Christian faith. Indeed, many of the visitors’ groups have Christian roots (not only has Yarl’s Wood Befrienders a religious history, but GDWG was started by Fr Paul Fleetwood, a Benedictine monk at Worth Abbey, and JRS UK, which serves the Heathrow detention centres, is part of the international Jesuit charity originally founded to respond to the Vietnamese boat-people crisis). Although most are now secular charities open to all volunteers, “it’s particularly useful to have people from faith perspectives, as many detainees are religious, and want to speak about this, and may even want to pray together,” Mrs Vincett says.

Sister Linda Moag came over from the Philippines in 2014 to join the Medical Mission Sisters. She volunteers with JRS, and speaks of many profound spiritual encounters during her visits. “I remember when I started visiting a Muslim man who only spoke Arabic, and he asked if I could pray for him. We held hands, and even though he didn’t understand my language, it was so moving and humbling.”

All the volunteers interviewed speak in similar terms about the sense of reciprocity in the volunteer-detainee relationship. “I often feel I’ve gained more than I’ve given, because you meet people from all over the world of such strength and fortitude. It’s so life-affirming,” Mrs Barrett says.

“I have been taught a lot about how to welcome people. And I often think, ‘Isn’t it meant to be the other way round?’” Sister Linda says. “When I feel most moved is when the men say “Thank you, Linda.” Because when people in detention say these words, it is in such a meaningful, deep way that comes straight from their heart. Seeing this openness in people is so striking and makes me recognise my own vulnerability, my own wilderness.”


If you are interested in volunteering, or wish to support the work of befrienders, visit www.aviddetention.org.uk/visiting.


Mary Barrett

Mary Barrett has volunteered as a visitor for Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group for 22 years

I HAVE been visiting since the very beginning, when there was just a small holding facility at Gatwick Airport. I am a Catholic, and I was part of the group that Fr Paul Fleetwood gathered. The detention centre has got bigger and bigger, and the charity has grown with it. Now, there are two purpose-built removal centres, which can hold about 700 men at any one time.

There are people there from all situations, from those who have come off the boats from Europe to people who have been picked up from the streets after years in the UK. So you could be talking to someone with very little English, or to some-one with a strong London accent.

It can take time for the relationship to develop, mostly because not many of the men will have encountered an older Englishwoman saying “Can I be your friend?” It’s an odd starting-point. So I just try to share something of myself, and perhaps try to talk about things other than their case, although sometimes they want to focus on it, for obvious reasons.

I talk about my family, which they seem to like, and about the GDWG allotment where we grow vegetables — many of them can relate to this, if they are from a rural economy. I just try and take them away from the terrible situation they find themselves in.

I also want to show something different to all the negative connotations that they have about Britain. I want to show I am proud to be British, and that, despite appearances, we have a proud history of welcoming strangers. Hospitality, friendship, and welcome is a universal language which they can understand.

Not all people in detention centres are “perfect”, and you may not like everyone. You mustn’t be overly sentimental, and you need to be aware of the potential to be manipulated. I don’t say this in an accusatory way, because detainees are under such enormous stress. You also need to be aware of cultural differences — the fact that women can be seen differently in their culture — and this can be challenging.

Frazer Waller, PhotographerJoanne Vincett

Joanne Vincett, 41, has been a visitor for Yarl’s Wood Befrienders for two years. She is also a trustee, and is conducting Ph.D. research in befriending

I BECAME involved because I was once detained at Yarl’s Wood in 2007. I was flying in from Sweden with my English boyfriend, and, at the airport, the immigration officer didn’t believe I wouldn’t overstay my welcome. I was interrogated, and not allowed to speak to my partner. They said they would give me a bed, as it was getting late.

I thought we would be going into a nearby room, but, instead, I was put into an unmarked van. I didn’t have a clue where we were going, and the journey seemed to take ages, as we were picking up other women along the way. We eventually arrived at Yarl’s Wood, which I had never heard of at the time. I speak Mandarin; so I ended up spending the night helping to translate for some of the other detainees.

The next day, I had my visa denied, and I had to fly back to Sweden. The whole experience was so traumatising I could barely talk about it for years. I was so shocked by what I saw, to discover this hidden system, which is why I have now returned to it in my academic research.

I am the only Mandarin-speaking volunteer; so I tend to befriend all the Mandarin-speakers. I think there are seven different languages that we can now befriend in as a charity, and we’re actively seeking people who can speak the languages of detainees.

There are lots of the women who have been sexually exploited, assaulted, and trafficked. I also meet women who came as unaccompanied minors to the country, have stayed, and had children here; they turn 18, and then are detained, leaving their children behind.

I find these cases of mothers’ being separated from their children particularly affecting, being a mother to young children myself. Seeing children coming in to visit their mums can be incredibly painful to witness.

There are also many elderly and unwell women in detention — people even in wheelchairs — and you think, this can’t be right. Surely there is another, more humane way to manage this situation.

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