Vicarious strength: friends and befriending in UK immigration detention

By Joel White.

‘We use the word friend here. Not client, or service user. Not asylum seeker, or refugee. We try to say friend.’

These were the words that stuck with me most after a volunteer training at the Unity Centre, a drop-in space for people going through the asylum and immigration system in Glasgow. Years later, during 12 months of ethnographic research with people navigating this system across the city, I found myself returning to such ideas of friendship, thinking specifically about how people who had been through immigration detention drew on such ideas in navigating their ‘detainability’.  

I asked my friend Alyssa, who I met at Unity Centre, about this and she told me:

You know, in Yarlswood [an Immigration Removal Centre, in England], I didn’t know about the Unity Centre. But without fail twice a week I’d get a call from them. I didn’t know these people. I can say that. They would ask: ‘How am I? How are things?’ They listened to what I had to say. For me, that was important. People from Church would call too and come to visit.

So, you know, for me, friendship means strength in the struggle, but vicariously. Vicarious support. If [you are inside and] two people get deported, nobody has any strength at all. But if we are outside, we are here, we are caring, you get … I don’t know what to call it … like … vicarious strength?

Balloons at a protest at Dungavel House Immigration Removal Centre, South Lanarkshire, 2017
(image: Joel White)

Friendship was a key idea and practice for a range of people I met during my fieldwork, spanning from the kind of politically levelling and vicariously binding vision of ‘the friend’ we see above, to more codified forms of ‘befriending’, particularly in the context of NGO detention visiting groups. Linking all these visions of friendship was a focus on the political importance of relationality, a sense of building commitment and trust as a way to meet and resist the violence of the British border regime.

From the outset, I tried to link this to a methodological question about doing research in such a system: is it possible to be a good ‘friend’ through academic work? Can research on migration join in building ‘vicarious strength’? Or is friendship necessarily outside such remits, and what would that say about academic notions of consent, participation and ethics?

Humanitarian kinship

Considering friendship as a methodological as well as theoretical issue meant focusing on how people I worked with interpreted being a ‘friend’, rather than the somewhat limited anthropological writing on the topic. Friendship has been a key topic in activist and migrant solidarity writing for some time – linking to ideas of affinity, anarchist ethics, mutual aid and antiracist organising tactics. One popular zine I encountered during my fieldwork drew on Foucauldian and Queer ideas of relationality to talk about friendship as a ‘destabilizing, empowering, desubjectifying process’, a way to examine possibilities for collectivity and revolutionary change.

Another book that was popular with activists I got to know through places like the Unity Centre asked: ‘If capitalism works by dismembering transformative relationships, can friendship be revalued as a radical, transformative form of kinship?’ Such work raises questions about the granular task of building interpersonal connection and solidarity within a system that is deeply racialized and gendered. This, in turn, expands and augments questions about academic ethics processes and positionality, pushing researchers to consider if and how they are sharing in the struggles of those they get to know. 

Many NGO groups also theorized friendship in particular ways, with groups that visit detention across the UK often framing this in terms of ‘befriending’. Such initiatives worked to create interpersonal bonds across complex forms of difference, and though on face value they were more codified – through trainings, ‘visitor packs’, mentorships and audits – NGO visiting often ended up being fairly improvised and loose in its own way.

I met a large range of detention ‘visitors’, including a significant number who had been through detention themselves, who approached the question of ‘befriending’ in widely different ways. Many saw themselves as part of a tradition of  ‘welcome’ and ‘sanctuary’ (see also Darling, 2010) that drew on what Tom Kemp calls a ‘mythology of British hospitality’: this linked to a history of often Quaker-led prison visiting and reform initiatives that considered friendship as doing ‘God’s will’. Others brought religiosity to their visiting in a more overt sense, as a Christian duty, while some used visiting to get experience while studying or in the middle of their own struggles for the ‘right to work’. For some this was a directly personal and familial thing, as one woman told me:

I didn’t know there was a detention centre here [in Scotland], but my son was detained down south and was removed to Zimbabwe. I’d visited him in England and realised how long people were there.

Seeing him closed away from the world, it really hurt me […] I’ve seen what my son went through and I’d like to give as much support as I can to people who are in detention. And it’s my passion to help people who are in need.

So, I decided it was good to do that here. I felt like I needed to visit people in detention because I know what they go through.

Through my research I came to consider initiatives like detention visiting as part of a broader trend towards what I call humanitarian kinship – forms of humanitarianism that focus on interpersonal connection as a way to ‘do good’. Narratives of ‘befriending’ aim to transform the moral subjectivities of both visitor and ‘detainee’, with the latter clearly positioned as suffering ‘victim’ in certain ways. As the quote above shows, however, this was often blurry and complex.

While it’s tempting to treat activist and radical notions of ‘friendship’ in opposition to the humanitarian kinship of ‘befriending’, both involve efforts to incorporate groups of people in a community of relatedness, conditioned by the racialized violence of the UK border regime. By attempting to methodologically share in the ethics of friendship used by the people we meet, ethnographers can expand and question our ideas of consent, accountability and participation.

Joel White lives in Glasgow and is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. He completed a PhD at the end of 2021 entitled, ‘Holding Space: Friendship, Care and Carcerality in the UK Immigration Detention System’.

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