Thinking Outside the Box: Silvia

This latest ‘Thinking Outside the Box’ piece features Silvia, a long-time Advocacy Support Volunteer and (we’re very pleased to say!) our new Casework and Administrative Intern. The ‘Thinking Outside the Box’ series looks to capture some of the learning from those with direct experience of working with people in detention. 


I came to the UK to do my Masters at LSE. At the volunteer fair there was this girl in a Detention Action t-shirt talking about detention in the UK. I remember being completely shocked – “is that even legal?!”

When I first started working with people in detention I was much more worried about my level of English being a problem. I still am, to some extent, but that becomes much less of an issue working with someone face-to-face. Empathy is universal. Body language can be very important in making someone feel at ease, safe to share. And I am Italian, so I use my hands a lot! I also sometimes draw on the fact that I’m a migrant too – that I’m not coming from a ‘traditionally British’ perspective.

Lots of people in detention talk about the horror of the induction unit. This is where you first come in to detention but it’s also where you are taken if you are about to be deported, so it is full of people desperate to stop their removals. I will never forget one man talking about how he saw someone trying to kill himself with a pen.

I grew up on the outskirts of Milan. It was very homogeneous, not mixed at all. I started volunteering at a farm run by nuns, which hosted facilities for asylum seekers and refugees. I started because I’d just done languages at university and thought I could help teach Italian. But very soon I was much more involved. Before I knew it I had been dragged into a very different world…This one.

My first visit was to a Nigerian guy and I went with a very experienced volunteer visitor, to shadow her. It was amazing to watch her in action. She had an incredible ability to say the right thing, at the right time. He was very angry and spoke non-stop but in the short spaces where she did have time to say something, she managed to calm him. She didn’t say much but what she did was very powerful. He thanked her so much at the end. In that moment, I realised the importance, and art, of ‘listening’.

I am always struck by the visiting room in Harmondsworth. There is this semi-ironic sweeping London skyline, with a strange melancholic sunset. This is a picture of the very place people are being removed from.

Working with people in detention has definitely made me more aware of the fragility of my status as a migrant in this country. The government’s tone towards foreigners seems to be shifting and I don’t feel welcome here, that’s for sure. Before I think I thought you were exempt as a European, for some reason, but we work with several long-term detainees from Portugal, France. I also have lots of overseas friends and I am starting to get genuinely worried that one day I might end up speaking to them on the phone at Detention Action.

I’ve cried several times in detention centre visiting-rooms. It can be difficult being there and watching real visitors – friends, families, lovers – go through such heartache in front of you. There is no privacy in these spaces so it is all laid out bare, in front of everyone else there. It can be brutal.

One of the main problems with indefinite detention are its knock-on effects. The mental impact of indefinite detention clouds, or fogs, everything else.  And this means people in detention can’t engage in activities, in distractions but also, crucially, in their own cases.

I often find I am most moved by those individuals who don’t speak English. Some are completely lost. People also tend to dismiss them very quickly, and some staff seem to treat them particularly badly, perhaps because they feel there won’t be the same consequences.

To survive detention you really get the impression people need someone else – that could be friends, or family, or an NGO visitor, or a God, anyone. It’s crazy the number of times you hear people say things like ‘if it wasn’t for my kids I would have killed myself long ago’.

I usually try and go somewhere very crowded after I’ve visited someone in detention – like Piccadilly Circus, or a Primark. It’s funny because these are spaces I would normally try to avoid, but after a visit, it seems to offer some immediate compensation for the loneliness of detention.