Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The Volunteer’s Dilemma: Reflections on Volunteering in IRCs



Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Isotta Rossoni, MSc Student in Criminology & Criminal Justice at the University of Oxford.

An older photo of Campsfield House IRC's visitor centre by Melanie Friend.
For a few months now, I have been volunteering with a local charity that supports refugees, asylum seekers, and immigration detainees. As a visitor to the local immigration removal centre (IRC), Campsfield House, I meet with an allocated detainee once a week. Every IRC in the UK has a visitors group. The aim is to provide detainees who feel neglected, helpless, and ‘unwanted’ with a link to the outside world. Volunteers befriend detainees, but cannot provide them with legal advice. While this experience has proved invaluable, I would like to underscore some of its tensions and contradictions. Scholars often discuss the ethical dilemmas underlying research in prisons or in immigration detention; yet, it would be a mistake to assume that volunteering isn’t equally fraught with paradoxes. For one, it presupposes an asymmetrical relationship between volunteers and detainees. It also raises deeper and more problematic questions. What is volunteering for? Are we really enacting social change? Put simply: How are we helping? Are we helping at all?


Suspended conversations: What can we talk of in detention?

Although many detainees are frustrated by the fact that volunteers cannot deliver legal services, they often welcome the opportunity for a weekly chat. For some, visits bring a whiff of fresh air to the monotonous reality of detention. Yet, conversing in IRCs isn’t always an easy task. Volunteers cannot light-heartedly discuss the past, present, and future with detainees, as they would with their friends or acquaintances.

Oftentimes, the past is either a touchy topic, or taboo altogether. Not all migrants wish to delve deep into their memory banks. It’s not easy to re-live difficult, emotionally charged experiences. Even when detainees allow their interlocutors to catch a glimpse of their past, their narratives can be muddled and fragmented; volunteers may have to bite their tongues, putting a rein on their curiosity and resisting the temptation to ask too many questions.

The library in Campsfield House IRC. (Image: Immigration Detention Archive)
In an attempt to steer away from awkward situations, volunteers often prefer to focus on the present, discussing practical, day-to-day matters with detainees. They inquire about their health, ask whether they enjoy the food served in the canteen, or if they have made friends. They often urge them to engage in activities that may help them divert their attention away from their current predicament, such as painting in the arts and crafts room or exercising in the gym. They also seek updates on the migrant’s case, to learn whether any progress has been made. However, more often than not, days and weeks drag by without any real change taking place, and the present may prove to be a rather dry conversation topic.

Even in these circumstances, volunteers tend to resist discussing the future. Eliciting migrants’ unspoken hopes and desires can be problematic. It may appear hasty to encourage detainees to daydream. At times, their cases have meager chances of success. If their future involves removal or deportation back to a country they don’t wish to return to, why indulge in deceitful storytelling? In detention, past, present, and future are ‘frozen’ and even human interaction can be forced and artificial.

Stories, stories, stories… so many stories

Not all detainees are willing to share their―often painful―memories, yet it’s likely that gradually, especially if visited regularly, they open up. Visitors tend to be good listeners. In fact, visiting migrants in detention involves lending one’s ear to a host of human narratives.

Although there’s no time cap on detention in the UK, most migrants are detained for relatively short periods of time. When they are released, or moved to a different centre, they are deleted from the charity’s database. While volunteers may choose to keep in contact with them, they are allocated a new detainee to visit. Thus, over weeks, months, and years of visiting detention centres, volunteers become living receptacles of migrant stories. What can be done with such a wealth of knowledge?

'Hidden Stories' is a film of collated testimony from volunteer visitors, and former detainees who were supported, over the last 20 years by UK-based AVID (Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees).
Occasionally, charities obtain consent from migrants to publish testimonies on their websites or in their newsletters. While many fear a backlash from the Home Office, some detainees and former detainees are eager to make their voices heard. Yet, in most cases, except perhaps when big and popular charities and NGOs are concerned, the message is likely to reach only the same, ‘select’ audience. Even if we’re optimistic about the possibility of raising public awareness, we must concede that the majority of stories don’t garner public attention. They tend to remain covert, as some sort of secret between the volunteer and the migrant.

As a result, many of these stories are likely to be forgotten. Time can wash away volunteers’ emotions in reaction to such narratives. Volunteers may attempt to keep them alive, by recounting them to friends and family. Nevertheless, at some point, even unsettling, thought-provoking testimonies are likely to become passé and trite.

In a way, we may argue that this isn’t wholly negative. I often find myself muttering a shameful ‘I understand’ in response to detainees’ harrowing testimonies. This is more of an automatic reflex, an often sincere attempt to make detainees feel at ease. In this I have never been challenged: nobody has ever told me that I do not and cannot understand.

Although charities encourage refugees and former detainees to take up visiting, most volunteers are British or European. While as human beings, they are capable of empathizing with others, most―myself included―can only vaguely imagine what it must be like to endure the suffering that many asylum seekers are faced with during their lifetimes. On the one hand then, volunteers should be cautious about speaking up on detainees’ behalf. On the other hand, voluntary work should not be devalued altogether. After all, it stands as a powerful testament to the significance of empathy. And if it’s true that empathy is what our world is in dire need of, perhaps it’s also true that volunteers can help remind us of its importance and worth. However, how to go about doing this, is and perhaps always will be, the volunteer’s dilemma.

For additional reading on the topics of volunteering and the relationship between the voluntary sector and immigration detention, see blog posts by Ali McGinley on the work of AVID, and reflections by Julia Morris and Philippa Tomczak on researching the voluntary sector.

Any thoughts about this post? Get in touch with us! Send us an email, or post a comment here or on Facebook. You can also tweet us.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Rossoni, I. (2015) The Volunteer’s Dilemma: Reflections on Volunteering in IRCs. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/reflections-on-volunteering-in-ircs/ (Accessed [date]).

With the support of