IMAGINE being dehumanised, isolated and detained without being told a date of release.

They are words which could be used to describe people in a situation on the other side of the world – far away from the liberal UK.

But according to campaigners it’s happening right here in Weymouth and Portland, at the Verne Immigration Removal Centre.

The Dorset Echo met with the Verne Visitors Group to find out more about what life is like in a detention centre.

“THESE are vulnerable people.”

Charles Campion-Smith is the chairman of the Verne Visitors, a group of volunteers who spend time with those detained – simply as a friendly face.

The Verne has been labelled in national press as ‘the loneliest migrant centre’ in the UK and the facility’s own website gives public transport directions as a bus from Weymouth to Victoria Square before a 15 to 20 minute walk uphill.

But with public opinion split on migrants, is this really a cause for sympathy?

“I think it’s very difficult for us to get our heads around what many migrants have gone through,” says Charles. “The complete break-up of everything, all the basic things – family, home, security. If you see that disappear around you, that complete sense of rootlessness – it’s not surprising people just want to get away and make a new start.”

According to the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (AVID), 30,000 people are held under Immigration Act powers every year in the UK. Some may have lived in the country for years, others will have recently arrived and some are foreign nationals who are waiting to be deported after completing a prison sentence.

Government policy is to keep people in detention centres for the shortest time possible – the majority are released within two months – but the UK is the only European country which does not have a time limit.

A spokesman for AVID said that in 2014, 161 people had been held for more than a year and 27 had been held for more than two years.

For the Verne Visitors Group – which works closely with AVID – it’s all about raising awareness.

Charles said: “We are trying to let people know what’s happening on our doorstep. If we pretend it’s not there we are turning our backs on the whole problem.”

The group sends volunteers on training courses run by AVID to find out more about the role and its limits – on issues of legality and confidentiality for instance. There is also a lot of support for new and existing members.

“We are seen by staff at the centre as a resource to help the inmates,” said Charles. “But we are also keen to emphasise that we are not part of the establishment, that we are independent.”

The Portland centre undoubtedly gets fewer visitors because of its distance from major cities, he added.

Offsetting this is what the Verne Visitors Group aims to do. There are also other groups which offer services within the Verne, including Samaritans and a Chaplaincy Service.

Charles said: “The detainees are not locked up in cells but, apart from hospital visits, there is no reason for them to go out. From arrival to departure they are never allowed beyond the razor wire topped walls with no view of the outside world. There are some recreation facilities – they play football – and there are some opportunities to work, though the level they are paid is below minimum wage.

“But it is a difficult situation they are in. If you have committed a crime and are serving a sentence, it is one thing. But they are in this limbo. Maybe they fear what they are going back to, if the reason that led them to come away in the first place is still there. It seems not unlikely that some people might really be at risk.”

There are also issues to do with isolation. 

“Mental health, language and cultural difficulties, privacy. The Verne does try to accommodate dietary restrictions, but it’s institutional food. There is some IT access but it’s very limited. I think for many it’s this constant uncertainty over what’s going to happen to them.

“They are aware of this attitude, that they are not wanted in this country, and that must be awful. To have a label, to be an immigrant rather than a human, that depersonalises them. It dehumanises them.”

For the Verne Visitors, it is not a matter of numbers, of whether the people held on Portland have a legal or moral right to reside in the UK. It is a question of faces, of stories and of individuals. Of the woman who lived in a UK town for 20 years, working and integrating into the community before a routine health check revealed her visa had lapsed and she was sent back to a country she no longer recognised. Of the man who hasn’t seen his children in months because his elderly mother cannot manage a three-hour train journey from London to Weymouth, a 20 minute bus ride and a steep, mile-long walk with a pushchair.

“We only play a small part,” said Charles. “For some people it might not make any difference. But it’s about meeting people, about recognising them as human beings – not labels like ‘immigrant’ or ‘refugee’.

“There’s a lot of power in hearing people’s stories and not making any judgement on it. It’s not necessarily so much about what we do, it’s just about the fact that we are there.”

  • For more information about the Verne Visitors, visit
  • The Dorset Echo requested a visit to the Verne Immigration Detention Centre via the Home Office. To date, we have not received a response.