Border Watch: Cultures of Immigration, Detention and Control

Border Watch: Cultures of Immigration, Detention and Control

by Alexandra Hall


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Questions over immigration and asylum face almost all Western countries. Should only economically useful immigrants be allowed? What should be done with unwanted or 'illegal' immigrants?

In this bold intervention, Alexandra Hall shows that immigration detention centres offer a window onto society's broader attitudes towards immigrants. Despite periodic media scandals, remarkably little has been written about the everyday workings of this system, or about the people responsible for setting immigration policy. Detention, particularly, is a hidden side of border politics, despite its growing international importance as a tool of control and security.

This book also looks at the social life and the relationships between officers and immigrants to explore broad social trends, as well as resistance within the system, and provides rare insights into the treatment of the 'other'.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745327235
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 08/07/2012
Series: Anthropology, Culture and Society Series
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 12.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Alexandra Hall is Lecturer in Politics at the Department of Politics, University of York.

Read an Excerpt


Introduction: Going Inside

Locksdon immigration removal centre accommodates men who have been detained under UK immigration law. The centre is a cluster of buildings set behind an imposing perimeter wall topped with razor wire. For Locksdon officers, staff and visitors, entry to the establishment is through a small door in the wall that leads into the gate area. For people who find themselves detained at Locksdon, entry is in the back of an escort contractor's van, often at the end of a long and exhausting journey. Inside the centre walls, detainees getting out of the escort van, like staff coming through the gate to start their shift, find themselves in an open quadrangle, with an administration building to the left and the main centre straight ahead. Detainees will spend only a few moments in the fresh air, stretching their arms and legs, before being taken by the private security contractors into the reception area, where they will undergo a series of checks before being admitted to the establishment. Locksdon officers and staff, on the other hand, will use keys attached to a key pouch to pass through a series of time delay gates and doors to gain access to the main centre.

Once inside the centre, new detainees and staff members alike confront a long corridor with doors leading off to various offices and departments – the visits centre, the multifaith centre, dormitories, gymnasium, dining hall and kitchen, education department, health department and offices used by immigration officers. Depending on the time of day, the main corridor is either silent and deserted, or busy with detainees moving and talking in groups and staff bustling in and out of offices. The smell is always the same – disinfectant, bleach, institution. As an officer walks towards the centre office to discover his or her detail for the shift, he or she might encounter a new detainee carrying his 'in possession' belongings in a large box and being led to a dormitory which will be his 'home' for the following days, weeks or months.

What kind of place is a detention centre for those who live and work there? What kind of life is led behind the walls? What strategies of control and government are at play in detention? And what forms of contestation and resistance?

This book is concerned with these questions through an examination of the daily life and everyday practices of immigration detention, focusing on the immigration removal centre that I have called Locksdon. My starting point is that the practice of detaining asylum seekers, undocumented migrants and 'illegal' immigrants in the West is shaped by, and makes explicit, a series of boundaries between insider/outsider, citizen/other, secure/dangerous, deserving and undeserving. This book is concerned with the lived meaning, expression, contestation and reproduction of these boundaries and hierarchies in the everyday routines at Locksdon. This book does not address itself directly to the experiences of those detained. Rather it places centrally those people charged with the enactment of practices of detention: Locksdon's officers. This book will show how the officers' experience of their work, their understandings of detention populations, their interactions with one another and with detainees, and their discretionary judgements produce and reproduce the secure detention regime, with ramifications for those who find themselves detained. This book's premise is that understanding the act of detention and its political effects on individual lives requires knowledge of the ways in which the secure regime is produced within daily, even banal, social practices and interactions.

Immigration detention only periodically comes to public attention in the UK, usually through media reports of crises within the detention estate: the 2002 fire at Yarl's Wood, for example; riots and disturbances at Harmondsworth in 2004 and 2006; hunger strikes and protests by detainees, and the death of a man being forcibly deported in October 2010. These reports briefly reveal a hidden world of 'cultures of control', indeterminate lengths of detention, dawn immigration raids and forced removals. News about crises in the detention estate is frequently accompanied by statements from state authorities which justify detention as a crucial and necessary part of a robust border. Just as frequently, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and advocacy groups condemn detention (especially in the case of asylum seekers, or children and families) as an excessive, punitive and brutal method of dealing with vulnerable and traumatised populations (see, for instance, Burnett et al. 2010; London Detainee Support Group 2009, 2010). Despite these criticisms, detention capacity has been enlarged in the UK over the last decade, with two new immigration removal centres (Brook House and HMP Morton Hall) being added to the estate since 2009. At the end of March 2002, as fieldwork for this book began, there were 1370 people subject to immigration law being held in secure establishments in Britain. The numbers fluctuate, but on 1 December 2011 there were 2419 people held in immigration detention (Home Office 2002a, 2011).

Under UK immigration law (the 1971 Immigration Act) a person can be detained pending a deportation order and removal. According to guidelines, the act of detaining someone under UK immigration law is considered an 'appropriate' measure to: effect removal; establish a person's identity or basis of claim; or where there is a perceived likelihood of a failure to comply with the conditions of temporary admission or release. In the case of asylum seekers, people may be detained to enable a 'rapid decision' to be taken on an asylum/human rights claim. Detention is viewed as vital for 'effective' state immigration control, but guidelines for frontline staff nonetheless state there should be a presumption 'in favour of temporary admission or release' (UKBA 2012: 55.20 and chapter 57). In practice, the decision to detain is taken at a port of entry, or after an initial encounter with an immigration officer, for a variety of discretionary reasons (Weber and Gelsthorpe 2000). Far from being a 'last resort', people may find themselves detained at any stage of an asylum claim or appeal, or petition to remain. The guidelines stipulating 'presumption in favour of release' and detention for the 'shortest possible time' (UKBA 2012) are in tension with frontline border officers' duty to protect the 'public from harm' in the case of those people subject to immigration law who have been convicted of criminal offences, for example.

The men held at Locksdon may be appealing against negative immigration or asylum decisions, finding themselves detained for months or even years during this process. They may have exhausted the appeals process and be facing imminent removal. People in the detention estate may have an asylum case which has been considered 'unfounded' or liable to be 'fast-tracked'. People may also enter the detention estate from prison after having served a criminal sentence or after being issued with a deportation notice. Some people in detention have been picked up by the authorities (often for a petty misdemeanour) after overstaying a visa, or after working or living without official immigration status in Britain (sometimes for many months or years, or even decades). People are moved around the detention estate for various logistical or administrative reasons. Some detainees will be granted bail, or will gain leave to remain and even eventual citizenship. While all detainees held in detention can apply for bail to the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal, in practice many men, women and children face indefinite and unchallengeable detention periods. The men held at Locksdon are part of a growing detainee population in Europe and the West, held in various accommodation and induction units, secure detention facilities or holding centres.

Detention has become increasingly controversial over the last two decades, as the power to detain non-nationals under national immigration law, but also in the name of counter-terror, has been steadily entrenched across western states. Detention has become an important entry point for debate about the contemporary international political terrain shaped by the 'war on terror'. Detention brings to mind high-profile cases like Guantánamo Bay, the secretive practices of extraordinary rendition and the pre-charge detention of people suspected of terrorist involvement who could not be convicted under normal juridical procedures. In the UK, for instance, the Home Secretary has the power to detain people suspected of being 'a terrorist' under the Terrorism Act 2000, when doing so is 'conducive to the public good' and for reasons of national security. The 'evidence' for detention is frequently provided by security agencies and police in secret or closed hearings, and is based on material that could not be used to secure conviction in a regular court of law (see Amnesty International 2011; Carlile 2009). The detention of people deemed a security risk 'outside' legal norms across the West raises crucial questions about how sovereign power operates across multiple domains of contemporary life (Diken and Laustsen 2005; Gregory 2006; Guild 2003; Minca 2005; Salter 2008; Tyler 2006).

Detention has therefore come to epitomise the exceptional measures that are unleashed in the name of protecting national security, and for managing populations of out-of-place, potentially risky immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees. Yet despite increased concern with the topic, relatively little has been written about the detailed operation of detention, or about the individuals who make detention work at the grassroots (though see Gill 2009; Makaremi 2008; Pratt 2001, 2005). In part this is due to the occlusion and securitisation of administrative immigration detention facilities in the international context, which has made their functions notoriously difficult to examine empirically. This book, then, contributes to the interdisciplinary literature on detention by examining individuals in social, cultural and political context as a means of understanding the 'micro-physics' of power (Foucault 1977: 26) at work in contemporary detention.


Locksdon immigration removal centre (hereafter IRC) is operated by Her Majesty's Prison Service under contract to the UK immigration authorities. Four of the UK's thirteen IRCs are run by the Prison Service, while the rest are managed by private security contractors for profit (see Bacon 2005). Locksdon is operated under the Detention Centre Rules (2001) and, unlike some IRCs, holds only male detainees. The centre is staffed by approximately forty-five prison officers and ten operational support grade (OSG) staff. Both wear prison uniform. There are also administrative and training workers, estates staff, four nurses, on-site immigration officers, a chaplain and education staff from a nearby Adult Education College, as well as two Prison Officer physical exercise instructors (PEIs).

Officers at Locksdon frequently argued that the detainees being moved around the detention estate were unknown: 'we don't know who they are, what they've done' and 'it's better to be too secure than not secure enough'. The problem of the unknown, unidentified detainee at Locksdon is a prominent one. It draws forth a secure, surveillant regime that seeks to control men's movements and interactions around the centre. One of the central themes of this book is the way in which security and mobility are related in Locksdon, and how security becomes embodied and achieved through officers' decisions and actions. My starting point is that the control and organisation of people's movement across UK borders is intertwined with the production and protection of security, which I see to be a shifting and contested concept. Detention crystallises the problematic relationship between certain kinds of movement and projects of security. I am concerned with security as a social and cultural category, expressed and experienced within daily life in the IRC.

It is not new to suggest that migration has become 'securitised' in the West (see, for instance, Huysmans 2006; Squire 2009). In the European context, the acceleration and diversification of migration into and within member states over the last two decades, coupled with the dissolving of internal borders, has produced a paradoxical relationship between liberalisation of the markets, liberty of movement and the security of citizens. Immigration and asylum have become ever more prominent in national domestic politics since the end of the Cold War, frequently conjoined with concerns about employment and welfare, and with an increasingly 'schizophrenic' and suspicious stance taken towards asylum seekers and 'economic migrants' (Gibney 2001; 2004; Schuster 2003a, 2003b). The 'war on terror' and fear of the Islamic fundamentalist has exacerbated this suspicion and the politicisation and securitisation of migration. Europe has seen a steady rise in exclusionary nationalist politics – what Derrida (2001: 53) calls 'purifying reactions' – as well as a gradual conjoining of immigration and terrorist threats with border security initiatives. The current security climate, argues Bigo (2001, 2008) is characterised by interpenetration of 'internal' and 'external' security, producing an indistinct, contingent border like a Möbius strip, where the battles against crime, immigration and terrorism become blurred within a context of 'unease'.

In 2002, the year fieldwork for this book began, Locksdon was feeling the effects of a tumultuous period in the UK immigration and asylum system. The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington had kickstarted the 'war on terror' and a series of 'shake-ups' of the UK's border. There had also been a series of recent asylum controversies: the Sangatte crisis of 2001–2 (where asylum seekers repeatedly tried to use the Channel Tunnel to enter Britain from the camp near the French tunnel terminal) had sparked a diplomatic furore between Britain and France. The 'bogus asylum seeker' featured prominently in media reports about an immigration system deemed 'out of control'. In the British detention estate, the 2002 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act was swinging into force and Locksdon was negotiating the full transition from prison to IRC. New Labour's immigration reforms had, since 1997, aimed to facilitate 'beneficial' economic migration within a modernised immigration system, while stepping up the exclusion of 'undeserving' asylum seekers and threatening mobile people (see Bloch and Schuster 2005; Flynn 2005; Sales 2005; Walters 2004). This vision of an orchestrated and 'tightly managed' system described in the White Paper, Secure Borders, Safe Haven (Home Office 2002a) placed detention (alongside dispersal and deportation) as a crucial pillar of the 'robust but fair' border. So, while detention had been an aspect of UK border governance regimes throughout the twentieth century, through the 1990s and 2000s, it emerged as a 'normalised' technique of control (Bloch and Schuster 2005).

If internal and external security become intertwined in techniques to target the immigrant/terrorist, as Bigo (2001, 2008) argues, then interdisciplinary interest has increasingly moved away from the idea of a state-centric view of security towards a more nuanced account of the practices enacted in the name of security (see, for instance, Buzan and Wæver 1997). The issue here is not how a situation of security is attained in the international and national context via military or police action, but how certain domains of life and populations become understood and governed as security problems. In relation to contemporary security-migration complexes, as Guild (2009: 3) puts it, the crucial question is how an individual becomes placed within 'a set of state structural frameworks' and 'categorised as a threat to security and to state control of migration'. Or, as Bigo has it 'Who is doing an (in)securitisation move, under what conditions, towards whom, and with what consequences?' (2008: 5). These questions, applied to the context of detention, move attention away from detention as a response to 'illegality' or 'threat' among groups of mobile people (asylum seeker, refugee, economic migrant). Rather, the question becomes how detention creates, targets and produces populations of insecurity, undesirability and illegality. That is, detention is a technique of government through which individuals and mobile populations become managed as illegal, undesirable or threatening.


Excerpted from "Border Watch"
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Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Hall.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
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Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Going Inside2. Visual Practice and the Secure Regime3. Being There: Social Life in the Centre4. Compliance and Defiance: Contesting the Regime5. Drawing the Line: Discretion and Power6. Ethics and Encounters7. ConclusionReferencesIndex

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