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Understanding Immigration Detention

As the British government holds its first public inquiry into the conditions and nature of immigration detention, it is a good time to take stock of what we know about these controversial institutions. Unlike prisons, about which there is a lengthy and robust tradition of critical academic scholarship, academics have written surprisingly little about everyday life in immigra­tion removal centres (IRCs). Details can be gleaned from parliamentary debates, governmental and non-governmental organiza­tions, and the occasional media report. Researchers also interview former detainees in the community. First-hand accounts can be found on websites, particularly those critical of detention. For the most part, however, academic debate over the purpose, justification, impact, and nature of detention (and its corollary, deportation) has developed independently from sustained engagement with the lived experience of those within these institutions.

Map created by Mary Bosworth

There are a number of reasons for the state of academic research in this field. On the one hand, immigra­tion removal centres are relatively recent institutions and so, there is no reason to expect a similar scale of research. Unlike prisons, which in some form or another have been around for centuries, the first institution to house foreign arrivals denied permission to land who were appealing their immigration case, Harmondsworth Immigration Detention Unit, opened near Heathrow airport on the site of today’s IRC Colnbrook in 1970. From that point first slowly and then, under the premiership of Tony Blair, more rapidly, the UK government began to establish the national system we have today. Today’s immigration estate, in other words, largely dates to the past 15 years.

It is not just that immigra­tion removal centres are relatively recent, but also that the numbers held under Immigration Act powers are low; 3,000 women and men on any given day are confined in 10 immigration removal centres (IRCs) scattered throughout the country. This figure starts to swell if we include the 1,000 or so who remain in prison post-sentence (or who are sent there from IRCs), held under immigration act powers, and the small number of families in the ‘pre-departure accommodation’ at Cedars. Another hundred or so sit in short term holding facilities at ports and airports within the UK and across the channel in Calais and Dunkirk. Still more are held in police cells, hospitals and Home Office reporting centres, and a few hundred have recently been placed in HMP The Verne. In comparison to other forms of custody as well as to the estimates of the sum of undocumented migrants in the community, these figures may be easily overlooked.

ExteriorIRCYarl's Wood
Exterior of IRC Yarl’s Wood (Credit: S Turnbull)

Complicating matters, immigra­tion removal centres do not fall all that easily into any particular discipline. While scholars in migration studies, political science, geography, and anthropology have been studying issues to do with migration control and citizenship for some time, those fields are not particularly familiar with custodial institutions. At the same time, in my own field of criminology, we have been slow to include IRCs, since, despite many overlaps and intersections, they do not fall within the criminal justice system.

Finally, of course, there is the highly politicized nature of these sites. Governments around the world have been reluctant to allow in researchers, a short-sighted policy decision that contributes to widespread concerns over their conditions and legitimacy. Managed via the terms of confidential commercial contracts with private custodial firms and the prison service, IRCs are, indeed, difficult sites to penetrate.

Once within their walls, the challenges do not stop. Wherever they are held, detainees are drawn from across the globe. Although in the UK they tend to congregate from former British colonies and thus most speak some English, few are entirely fluent. Cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity is breathtaking, making communication difficult. Most people are distressed, with some estimates placing rates of depression at above 80%. The population is also highly fluid; while a small proportion get ‘stuck’ in the system, staying for 6-months and longer, the majority remain for less than two months. Some are held for only a matter of days. The lack of an upper limit to detention – which has been heavily criticized in the recent Parliamentary hearings – makes it difficult not only for detainees and staff to plan their days, but, more prosaically, for researchers to interview and understand. Plans to meet up fall through, and those who agree to participate may be removed or released. Others who remain become progressively more anxious, and may, as a result, drop out of the study.

Bedroom at IRC Campsfield House (Credit: S Turnbull)

Researchers need to be aware both of the political limits surrounding their work, and of the vulnerabilities of those whom they interview. Many within these institutions, from detainees to all levels and all kinds of staff, express considerable reservation about the system. There are a lot of problems. There are also some examples of good practice, many attempts at compassion, some moments of shared humanity.

Going inside illuminates parts of detention that we sim­ply cannot otherwise see, filling in gaps in our knowledge. It challenges easy assumptions about the exercise of power, its effect, effectiveness, and legitimacy, by considering how such matters are made concrete in every­day interactions and experiences. First hand accounts remind us of our shared humanity and, in so doing, provide an important counter to the powerful rhetoric of securitization and criminalization that characterizes border control. Testimonies are moving. They reveal similarities and shared aspirations as well as differences of opinion. They are messy and confusing. They might also provide the basis for more creative thinking, a goal that I believe everyone involved in detention would welcome.

Headline image credit: Art and Craft room at IRC Colnbrook, Mary Bosworth

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