Ensuring Refugees’ Welfare: the Testimony of a Volunteer from the Independent Monitoring Board

05 October 2023

The Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) is set up to monitor the living conditions in places of detention in England and Wales. Its members are volunteers and passionate about making a difference in detained people’s lives. Revd Gill Songer, is an IMB volunteer at Dover and Manston. 

When Revd Gill Songer, minister for St Andrews, Folkestone and the Elham Valley Methodist churches in the South Kent Methodist Circuit, saw, “a young man lying on his back in a marquee looking at me, I felt it was Jesus looking at me. It really made me wonder, if there was nothing physical I could do for him, could I make this unseen man seen by sharing his and other people’s stories?” 

After being rescued from the Channel and arriving in England, refugees are sent to the short-term holding facilities at Dover and Manston, where they stay for 24 hours before going to hotels. If there is anyone under 18 years old, they are held in separate facilities until a foster placement can be found through social services.  “Recently I talked with a young man from Sudan who turned 18 the day before he arrived, this changed how he was treated. He was quite anxious about his future” remembers Revd Gill Songer. 

All places in the UK where people are detained, such as prisons, holding rooms and Short-Term Holding Facilities are affiliated with the IMB. Its members are recruited by the Home Office but remain independent. Their duty is to monitor what they see and hear at the time of their visit. 

“It is very moving when we see them arriving at Dover, walking along the gangplank and onto UK soil, but it is hard to know how they feel, relief or anxiety,” wonders Gill Songer. A member of the IMB for more than two years, Gill’s job is to observe and report on the living conditions in the Holding Facilities that asylum seekers are sent to and the way they are treated. “Our main concern is the welfare of the detained people.” 

When Gill received an email from Churches Together mentioning that IMB was looking for volunteers, she checked it out and decided to apply. Her group of volunteers has eight members from different backgrounds. While their visits are not scheduled, they have monitoring visits twice a month during which they can come at any time and any day. “Sometimes, there is no one when I arrive, so I check in with the staff who are tidying and cleaning, preparing for the next arrival,” adds Gill Songer. 

Board members can go everywhere within the facilities, check records and produce an annual report.  In November 2022, at a time when the plight of migrants was receiving intense media interest due to the overcrowding of the facilities, the IMB literally became the eyes and ears of the public, reporting the conditions and human rights of the people being held there.  
You can find out more about the IMB and volunteering to become a monitor at imb.org.uk.