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Having completed a twenty year ‘stretch ‘working as a Probation Officer in London in 2010. I started to look around for new and energising pathways into working outside the statutory sector and in particular fulfilling a long standing interest in working in the voluntary sector.
At the time, I favoured working as a volunteer visiting those caught up in the Orwellian world of Immigration detention centres, but childcare considerations meant that this option remained impracticable. So since 2012 I have given up most Thursdays to work in the vibrant and challenging Jesuit Refugee Centre -JRS (based in Wapping, East London), and this has offered a richly uplifting personal experience, whose anchored ethos is in the foundational principles of catholic social justice, respecting the dignity of the human person and recognising the importance of human solidarity.
Buoyed by the motto of the JRS’ which is to ‘serve, accompany and advocate’ The Jesuit Refugee Service was started in 1980 by Father Pedro Arrupe SJ.
I was mildly amused to note that the Jesuits have what they define as house probation; novices perform most of their basic but essential tasks, alongside their heroically lengthy formidable period of formation. The time I have so far spent at the JRS has been unremittingly rewarding and has offered me a privileged opportunity to meet with, work alongside and support the refugees and vulnerable asylum seekers, many of whom offer their greetings and friendship, when they arrive at the day-centre and prior to leaving. I now feel a warm attachment and measured respect for those who have now become friends, whose stories of displacement and rejection, have resulted in unmerited destitution which mean that they are almost totally reliant on the charitable support of the JRS and other voluntary bodies.
Around 60% of people who attend the JRS had slept rough within the last year, and over a third were physically afraid of those they lived with. In March 2019 a landmark ruling in the High Court found that the governments ‘Right to Rent’ scheme to be unlawful, on the grounds that it causes racial discrimination. This hostile environment also criminalises other everyday activities, such as driving and working, for certain categories of migrant, and increasingly bars access to essential services such as much NHS care.
Many of those classed as foreign national offenders are among the most vulnerable detainees in Immigration detention and in JRS outreach support and casework to the Heathrow IRCs many of those who acquired criminal convictions, did so as a result of coercion from human traffickers and once destitute it is so easy (as I recall when working as a probation officer) to get caught up in a web of punitive measures. The JRS has called for an end to indefinite immigration detention with a 28-day time limit to be introduced, and for decisions about detaining and continuing detention to be independent of the Home Office.
As a volunteer, I am able to draw freely upon by my professional background, meeting with refugee ‘friends’ at the JRS often at times of great individual distress, opening up when necessary an emotional space and presence and bringing to such encounters active compassionate listening. I have always aimed at moments when my patience or attention is lacking, to recall the enduring words of holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, ‘ If I see a person or persons suffer and the distance between us does not shrink, then my place, is not good, not enviable’.
Mike Guilfoyle, Retired PAM