Supporting migrants and asylum seekers in and beyond immigration detention in the UK

Vincett, Joanne (2019). Supporting migrants and asylum seekers in and beyond immigration detention in the UK. In: Wroe, L.; Larkin, R. and Maglajlic, R.A. eds. Social Work with Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Migrants: Theory and Skills for Practice. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, pp. 219–236.



At the peak of the migration crisis in Europe in 2015, the United Kingdom (UK) received 32,733 asylum seeker applications, its highest number of applications since 2004; it has the ninth highest number of applications in the EU (Home Office 2016b). People seeking asylum in the UK may be detained (and re-detained) at any point in the process of their claims. But asylum seekers are not the only people in detention. Anyone subject to UK immigration control can be detained for administrative reasons, with no forewarning or permission to collect one’s personal belongings, if already residing in the country, and no time limit in detention. Ensuing removal orders to one’s country of origin can also be enforced with advanced notice anywhere between three months and a few hours prior to being escorted to the airport.

Migrants caught in this system of penal power live precarious lives of waiting and uncertainty causing negative impact on their mental health and personal relationships (Turnbull 2016). Detainees may be separated from their family members and/or children, who may be placed into the care system; or they may have arrived in the UK as an unaccompanied minor and, after turning 18 years old, risk being sent back to a country with which they no longer identify. Although social workers and other frontline service workers may support people who have been detained or are at risk of being detained, or their family members, little is discussed in social work practice about how both supporters and those being supported may be affected by the detention regime.

From an inter-disciplinary perspective, this chapter aims to enhance our understanding of how migrants and asylum seekers may be impacted by immigration detention and possible activities to support them in and beyond detention. It provides an overview of the characteristics of immigration detention in the UK and inter-connected web of supporting and monitoring actors and relations inherent to the regime. This chapter also aims to be person-centred and offer constructive, practical guidance for human service workers, whether social work practitioners, managers or academics, while challenging them to maintain a critical stance from the institutional structures and practices that may bound their thinking.

This chapter is organised as follows. In the first section, I provide an overview of who, why, how and where people may be detained. I emphasise the negative impact of detention on the emotional and mental well-being of detainees, particularly vulnerable people such as asylum seekers, women, people already suffering physical or mental health issues prior to detention (Bosworth and Kellezi 2015), and ‘adults at risk’ (Home Office 2016a, section 11). In the second section, I describe how the support services each facility offers detainees differs depending upon the contractor for custodial care and operations tendered by the Home Office. I draw upon my three-year doctoral research with Yarl’s Wood Befrienders (YWB), a voluntary organisation that provides emotional support through a volunteer visiting scheme for detainees in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre (hereafter ‘Yarl’s Wood’). YWB is highlighted as an example of complementary voluntary sector support services that fills gaps in services offered by the centre to help detainees better cope with detention and decrease isolation (Vincett 2017). In the final section, I discuss factors to consider for frontline service providers (practitioners and managers), social workers, and academics/students working with people who are at risk of being detained, currently in detention, about to be removed from the UK, or recently released in the British community. I argue that ‘going the extra mile’ requires empathy, resilience and safeguarding of those coping with the challenges of detention, but also self-care of the supporter. I conclude with key practical lessons to take away from this chapter.

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