SDS visit people who are being held in Yarl’s Wood, Harmondsworth and Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centres. Visiting is central to who we are as a group. The nature of support we provide depends on the specific needs, desires and circumstances of the person being visited.
Visiting can be difficult: as a visitor you will meet people who have been through multiple traumas both in their home country and the UK. However, there are so many positive things you can do as a visitor. How deeply you get involved will depend on what you can commit to and what the person you visit wants and needs. You may wish to only offer emotional support to the person you see, and this may be all they want from you. Being a reliable friend and someone ‘on the outside’ to look out for the person you visit in a hugely difficult and isolating time is extremely important.
A significant group objective, however, is to offer practical support and solidarity as well. This can require greater commitment and time. As legally unqualified volunteers we cannot give any legal advice – giving legal advice if you are unqualified/unregistered can result in a jail sentence. But there are many other ways we can help. Apart from basic things such as bringing people in detention necessities like toiletries and phone credit, we can explain the asylum/immigration process and navigate it alongside the people we visit. We work with detainees to connect them to the medical, legal and other professionals most needed to deal with their case, help them get out of detention and assist with any other issues. For example, as a visitor you might help a detainee find a good solicitor, put them in touch with an independent doctor, help them raise money to pay for expert evidence in their case, or help them find bail sureties (or act as one yourself) to name just a few things.
Being locked up in a detention centre can be a very isolating and traumatic experience. Many people we visit may be in a very vulnerable position and not know anybody else in the UK. Having a visitor can mean a source of contact with the outside world and a source of support that can be invaluable.
Visiting relationships are always different, and are usually a negotiation between the person being visited and the visitor – it is up to each pairing to define their expectations of one another. It is important to note that we try to act out of solidarity rather than charity.
Although there is relative flexibility and diversity in how a visitor fulfills their role, by visiting with SDS you are signing up to a certain ethos as outlined in our aims. Thus we should say the well-being of the detainee is of utmost importance to us as a group. So if you feel for a variety of reasons, be it time or emotional instability, you are not able to handle the responsibility you must inform the Paid coordinator speedily so that he/s/he can find a suitable replacement timely. Furthermore if it has come to light that as a visitor you are not fulfilling your responsibilities or are acting inappropriately you might be approached by the coordinator. Please understand this is merely to limit harm to the detainee and the reputation of SOAS Detainee Support as a whole.
To be a good visitor you need to be committed and be able to give your time. We support each other as a group on practicalities and emotionally, so there is no need to worry if you lack knowledge of the immigration system or asylum process when you start – you will pick up what you need from other visitors, and from the training and resources we provide.
Although we are primarily a visiting group, energy in areas other than visiting are always much appreciated from our members. There is much to do, from fundraising to organising events to updating legal info and organising campaigns – if you’ve got an idea we will likely be enthusiastic to support you and join in!
We have weekly meetings in which all major group decisions are made (currently on Wednesday evenings). There are also several open and accessible ‘working groups’ that function autonomously but report back to the main weekly meeting. Come along to one of these meetings, join the mailing list, or get in touch with the coordinator for more details.