Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Quasi-Detention: The Expansion of Dehumanising Border Spaces


Sophie Cartwright


Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Dr Sophie Cartwright. Sophie is the Senior Policy Officer at the Jesuit Refugee Service UK and a Research Associate at the Centre for Criminology.

UK detention spaces

Immigration detention in the UK can be characterised as indefinite incarceration via a purely administrative process, in which the limitations and safeguards placed on deprivation of liberty in other contexts, such as in criminal law, are all but absent. Now, we are seeing the expansion of quasi-detention sites, and the use of detention in contexts where the rules and powers at play are increasingly unclear.

In September 2020, the UK government redeployed the disused Napier barracks in Kent as asylum accommodation, and opened a similar site at Penally in Wales. The former is still operative, and the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) UK supported asylum seekers there over the last two years, both practically and pastorally, offering a listening ear, helping to find solicitors, and advocating for access to healthcare. I have been there several times as a member of JRS UK’s team. It is bleak and feels like a prison. There are high walls and uniformed security guards mill around the site. For much of time, indoor spaces are closed, so residents have nowhere to sit inside except for on their beds. These, residents explain, are narrow, uncomfortable, and in crowded dormitories. During the winter 2020-2021 COVID-19 lockdown, asylum claimants were prohibited from leaving the site. The high court later ruled that this had amounted to unlawful detention, and did so partly because Napier was a prison-like setting. Although Napier residents are now permitted to leave the site, many explain to us that they don’t find it easy to do so because the site is isolated and stigmatised as prison in the eyes of both its residents and the wider community. It is also a long walk to the centre of town. In this way, people seeking asylum are ghettoised.

Agency over everyday life is also severely restricted. For instance, residents cannot make GP appointments themselves, but must do so via the onsite nurse, who needs to approve the need for the appointment. As with asylum accommodation centres elsewhere in Europe, the set up intentionally enforces dependency and exerts control, depriving people of meaningful freedom and membership of society. It is dehumanising.

The way people are brought to Napier, usually from asylum hotels, frequently constitutes a deprivation of liberty: Routinely, they are given less than 24 hours’ notice that they are moving and are not told where they are going either until they are en route, or upon arrival at the site. Several people moved in this way have stated to JRS UK staff members that they would not have gone had they known.

Napier is one of several immigration contexts where the boundaries of detention are being blurred – and stretched. Last year, the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detention (AVID) warned of “[s]udden changes in the status of detention facilities overnight”. Tinsley House Immigration Removal Centre, built in a prison-like way, in common with other immigration detention centres in the UK, was briefly reclassified as ‘asylum accommodation’ in spring 2021. Napier residents who had spoken out about the conditions at Napier, and briefly arrested in connection with a fire there, were bailed to Tinsley House. They had to navigate six security gates to get out. When a member of JRS UK’s staff team went to visit them, she was initially told by site staff that this was impossible because they were “detained.” The use of prison-like spaces as asylum accommodation is thus accompanied by ambiguity about whether asylum seekers are detained when placed in prison-like spaces.

Quasi-detention looks set to become the new normal for asylum accommodation. In its New Plan for Immigration, of March 2021, the government announced plans to provide “basic” asylum accommodation in reception centres, as part of a wider overhaul of the asylum system.  The new Nationality and Borders Act creates provisions for expanding their use. The Home Office admits these centres are now being trialled at Napier. An ‘asylum processing’ centre has recently opened at Manston airport. Ironically, the government is determined to establish a system of asylum reception centres akin to those in many EU countries, at the same time as pushing ahead with a hard Brexit. The use of this institutional asylum accommodation is nakedly punitive, in that it is designedly unpleasant, and intended as a penalty:  the previous Prime Minister listed accommodation centres among a catalogue of measures to penalise people seeking asylum for travelling via third countries or without prior authorisation.

Concurrently, de jure immigration detention – formal detention under immigration powers – is also set to increase beyond pre-pandemic levels, having hugely reduced during the height of the pandemic: the then-Prime minister announced in April that “we are expanding our immigration detention facilities”, and the Nationality and Borders Act creates fresh processes for determining asylum claims in detention. The new Home Secretary has similarly indicated she intends to increase the use of detention. Campsfield IRC in Oxfordshire, closed in 2019, is earmarked to reopen. This represents a reversal of praxis and policy: after growing exponentially since the start of the century, the detention estate’s capacity reduced by around 40% between 2015 and 2019. Since 2016, the government had avowed an aim of reducing the detention estate.

In its arbitrary deprivation of liberty, the practice of immigration detention inherently treats those subject to immigration control as undeserving of justice. Then, within detention, procedural justice is regularly absent. Research from JRS UK shows that detention frequently obstructs access to justice in asylum and immigration processes, partly through impeding access to legal advice and wider information, and partly by disempowering individuals to engage with their cases, through erosion of mental and physical health. Often, government actors within detention skip or rush processes intended to ensure safeguarding. For instance, in 2020, asylum screening interviews that should be able to identify vulnerability routinely skipped two questions key to identifying trafficking; this allowed the Home Office to hurriedly remove potential trafficking victims to EU states, under an EU agreement on transfer of asylum seekers that would cease to apply in the UK in 2021. Immigration detention constitutes a border space in which governments can act with very limited scrutiny and where the rule of law is eroded. The ambiguity of quasi-detention spaces provides further ways in which authorities can avoid scrutiny. Quasi-detention operates without the already meagre safeguards that exist in formal immigration detention, such as detention centre rules and the possibility of applying for bail. The expansion of quasi-detention entails more border spaces in which migrants can be treated without justice, and the rest of society is expected not to care.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

S. Cartwright. (2022) Quasi-Detention: The Expansion of Dehumanising Border Spaces. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2022/10/quasi-detention-expansion-dehumanising-border-spaces. Accessed on: 17/07/2024

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