Larne House Visitor Group
By Cara Gibney
Rio Olympics 2016 introduced a ground-breaking new team this year. The Refugee Olympic Team garnered the hearts and minds of the world through their courage, their grit, their stories. They marched directly behind the Olympic Flag at the opening ceremony to deafening roars of support. There was a global outpouring of solidarity for those 10 human beings who have endured pain, terror, loss unimaginable to the vast majority of us.
Others do not see themselves as refugees; they would say they are displaced from their home, from their country. Either way though, the number of people who are leaving home to seek sanctuary elsewhere is growing. According to the UNHCR, by the end of 2015 “65.3 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or human rights violations. This is 5.8 million more than the previous year (59.5 million).”
To be nominated for the Olympic team, each individual needed their official refugee status to be verified by the United Nations. The granting of refugee status to anyone requires a very robust process of checks and authentication, as applied by the country in which a person seeks sanctuary. Until refugee status is granted, a person is considered an asylum seeker – described by the UNHCR as ‘someone whose request for sanctuary has yet to be processed.’
Not everyone is granted asylum. This leads to thousands of people across the UK, for example, being detained in immigration removal centres every year, the reasons for which can vary greatly. Their removal may be imminent, or their status may not be clear. In other cases individuals are found to have false or no papers, or have overstayed their visa.
In Northern Ireland, Larne House Short-term Holding Centre holds detainees for up to a week before they are removed, transferred, or released. Before Larne House opened in 2011, immigration detainees in Northern Ireland were held in prisons or police custody cells – a procedure which was eventually deemed inappropriate.
“Incidentally Larne House is situated within Larne Police station and makes use of the former police cells,” Heiko Topp of Larne House Visitor Group explained. A large number of detainees suffer extreme isolation as they know no-one in the UK and know little of the law or their rights and entitlements. Because of their experiences at home, many are already traumatised and now find themselves detained, “with no release date and with the prospect of being forcibly returned.”
Larne House Visitor Group is an independent volunteer group that visits immigration detainees in the holding centre. “Immigration detention means being locked up in a strange place indefinitely without family, friends or a connection to the outside world,” Heiko explained. “Understandably this de-humanising situation makes people feel frightened, isolated and depressed. They have no idea what is going to happen to them.”
The group offers “non-judgemental support, understanding and a vital life-line to the outside world when people feel the most isolated, distressed and hopeless. We cannot contact government agencies such as the Immigration Service on behalf of the detainees. Only their legal representatives can do so. We can however contact other NGOs or groups we think might be able to help, and speak to them on their behalf after securing prior agreement from the detainee” explained Heiko.
“And because we are absolutely independent, the detainee often trusts us with information they may not have revealed to anyone else.” This then enables volunteers to pick up issues, like signs that the detainee may have been trafficked, or has mental health concerns. “Our volunteer visitors are frequently the only friendly faces people see who are not connected to the immigration service. They are therefore a vital source of reassurance, comfort and help.”
Before any visits take place, volunteer training is given which provides, “information on procedures, legal issues, and raises awareness of the more challenging elements our volunteers could face (i.e. victims of torture, people trafficking and mental health issues).”
Larne House Visitor Group needs more volunteers. Special skills, such as a legal or mental health background, are very welcome; however, they are not essential. “If you feel compassion and/or believe that detaining people who come to seek refuge is questionable and would like to help, then we would like to hear from you.”