Compassion in volunteering: Befriending in a UK immigration detention centre

Joanne Vincett is a doctoral researcher in the Faculty of Business and Law at The Open University in Milton Keynes, and a trustee overseeing fundraising on the Board of Yarl’s Wood Befrienders. Her current research explores how volunteers practice compassion and emotional resilience while befriending detained migrants and asylum seekers.

I am honoured to have been selected as this year’s winner of the Campbell Adamson Memorial Prize for best paper in the New Researchers’ Sessions at the 2018 Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference, organised by NCVO and the Voluntary Sector Studies Network (VSSN).

This post draws upon my paper. I will share some of my personal challenges in undertaking ethnographic research with Yarl’s Wood Befrienders (YWB), a charitable voluntary organisation that befriends women and families detained in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre.

Stranger and friend: befriending in the context of immigration detention

For nearly three years I have been studying how volunteers practice compassion in a befriending scheme for migrant women and asylum seekers in Yarl’s Wood, an immigration detention centre near Bedford, England. Yarl’s Wood is the main centre in the UK where foreign national women and some families (with children over 18 years old) are detained under immigration powers. It was purpose-built in 2001 when the government expanded its detention estate with the intention to ‘remove’ those whose asylum or immigration applications have been refused.

During my fieldwork, 2016-2017, Yarl’s Wood Befrienders (YWB) visited 222 women who were detained for an average of 95 days. Furthermore, in 2017, only 23% of people detained in Yarl’s Wood were removed from the UK, which begs the question: what was the purpose of their detention?

The UK is the only country in Europe to have no time limit to its policies on immigration detention. People are also given little to no notice of their release from detention or removal from the UK. Therefore, they do not know how long they will be confined and separated from their family and friends, or the final outcome. Practitioner and academic research has found that this uncertainty in immigration limbo contributes to detainees’ mental health deterioration, and compounds the trauma of many whom are seeking asylum.

YWB’s befriending scheme offers emotional and practical support to detained people in Yarl’s Wood through one-to-one weekly visits in-person. By listening with empathy and demonstrating emotional resilience, volunteers befriend strangers they have never met before. They may not even be able to clearly communicate to each other in a common language. Underlying this type of befriending is a spirit of compassion for suffering individuals.

A compassionate approach to research and volunteering

Compassion was not the centre of my study when I first began my research. It was discovered through my explorative and fieldwork-driven approach to studying the lived experiences of volunteers. I decided to take an engaged and participatory approach to researching the voluntary organisation where I was, and still am, an active member.

I deliberately sought out volunteering with YWB in my personal quest to learn more about the place where, nearly 10 years before starting my research, I was inadvertently detained as a tourist. This personal and emotional journey returning to the same centre where I was briefly detained was arduous when starting my fieldwork, but one I overcame with time by practicing self-compassion. While self-compassion was one of the emergent themes found in my research, it was through my practice as a befriender that I learned this integral aspect of befriending was also part of my approach as a researcher. For example, journaling and offloading my emotional experiences, by talking to people in my support network, were crucial to my wellbeing and sustainability in my role as researcher as well as befriender.

Few people who have been detained choose to return to a detention centre to voluntarily visit someone held there. Understandably, volunteer visitor groups are rarely able to recruit formerly detained individuals, since returning to a detention centre can aggravate distressing memories.

For the first few months when I began volunteering, I was anxious and had trouble sleeping the night before my scheduled visit with a detainee I was befriending. When I arrived the centre, I was often nervous, particularly when I interacted with uniformed detention centre staff members or when I heard the sound of their keys jangling. However, after listening to the stories of women who had been trafficked or forced into marriage, I quickly realised how small my worries were in comparison, and how much impact a caring individual could have for people who were isolated and denied their liberty.

Through an engaged approach to this research, I have learned that receivers of compassion are not limited to vulnerable detained people; they include the vulnerable researcher-befriender. As Sanders rightly pointed out, ‘when the researcher does confront his or her fear and creatively devises ways of dealing with both the danger and the anxiety, useful data is acquired and new insights arise’.

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