Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Themed Series: The Changing Landscapes of Immigration Detention


Ana Ballesteros-Pena
Cristina Fernández-Bessa


Time to read

5 Minutes

Guest post by Ana Ballesteros-Pena, Complutense University of Madrid (Spain) and Cristina Fernández-Bessa, University of A Coruna (Spain). This is the first post of Border Criminologies’ themed series on 'The Changing Landscapes of Immigration Detention' organised by Ana and Cristina.

On September 1-2, the Law School of the University of A Coruna, in North Western Spain, hosted the International Conference ‘Changing Landscapes of Immigration Detention’, which brought together more than 50 scholars from a wide range of countries, three plenary lectures, fourteen panel sessions and forty two presentations. The conference was jointly organised by the research group ECRIM of the University of A Coruna, the Center of Criminology and Socio-Legal Studies of the University of Toronto and the Complutense University of Madrid.

a group of people posing for a photograph


During the two days of the workshop, the presentations highlighted the diversity and changing nature of immigration detention practices around the globe, which in contrast to other manifestations of penal power, reflect a high degree of flexibility and mutability. The three keynotes pointed out some of the main directions of the ongoing changes of detention practices. Kelly Hannah-Moffat (University of Toronto) presented a paper called ‘Automated decisions, risk and the ‘datafied subject’ in criminal justice and immigration control’, Martina Tazzioli (Goldsmiths, University of London, UK) gave a plenary speech titled ‘Confining by choking and the withholding of time: asylum seekers’ counter-discourses in Greek refugee camps’, and Sanja Milivojevic (University of Bristol, UK) gave a talk on ‘Technology and detention of non-citizens’. A summary of the workshop can be found here.

two women speaking at a conference
From left to right: Cristina Fernández-Bessa, Ana Ballesteros-Pena

We are aware that the singularities of the different local cases, the multiple disciplinary approaches to immigration detention and methodological nationalism obstacles make it difficult to engage in international and multidisciplinary conversations. To overcome these challenges, setting out some dimensions of analysis could be useful to guide further research in the field. These dimensions should be understood as a continuum where particular practices of detention can be placed and explored in their particular contexts. They will help to capture the situated nature and the specificities of different detention practices, but also could help to foster international conversations and comparative analyses about the immigration detention phenomena. Going beyond global narratives that frequently respond to a limited group of countries, we propose the following four situated dimensions that can be explained and explored in context in order to identify and fully understand commonalities and nuances: space and time; nature and role of actors; violence and conditions; and the punitiveness and humanitarianism characterising detention practices.

Space and time: Space and time have become key components in our understanding of immigration detention. It is not only where people are detained, but also for how long, in case a time limit is established. It is not just physical detention but also forms of containment through mobility that offer new dimensions to our approach to spatiotemporal constraints. Furthermore, the ways in which people navigate temporalities in the diversity of detention and containment institutions and practices are shaped by multiple factors that need further exploration.

Nature and role of actors: Immigration detention practices involve a number of services, infrastructures, technologies frequently delivered by the so-called “industries of illegality”. In these industries, state actors (law enforcement officers, border guards, etc.), the public sector, private and security companies, NGOs, and other actors coexist. The specific combination of actors involved and its connection with the different levels of privatization differ from one country to another and depend on the type of practices and facilities involved. Thus, it is necessary to explore the actual relationships between actors, the economies that emerge from their interactions and the role each one adopts in the governance of unwanted mobility.

Violence and conditions: The intrinsically violent nature of border control and immigration detention practices has been pointed out many times. However, many accounts remain encapsulated in the monopoly of legitimized state violence while overlooking the many instances where lawful and unlawful violence converge. Furthermore, the emphasis on physical violence sometimes obscures other forms of violence, such as the manifestations of mental, economic, xenophobic violence deployed by both state and non-state actors. While we are witnessing an escalation of the use of violence as a tool to control and refuse unwanted international mobility, we need further research to theoretically and empirically expand the conceptual understanding of violence in border criminologies.

Punitive and humanitarian dimension: Historical and sociopolitical trends shape how countries configure their approaches to international mobility and their evolution over time. On the one hand, certain western countries have been historically countries of reception of asylum seekers developing a well-structured refugee system with a humanitarian orientation. However, this notion of the refugee has been displaced by categories such as “bogus refugees” or “queue jumpers”, making conditions of arrival and reception harsher. On the other hand, other countries that traditionally have been focused on the punitive management of “economic” and irregular migrants, have experienced the opposite trend. So, they have started to introduce more humanitarian practices to deal with human mobility. Thus, punitive and humanitarian components entangle in immigration detention and containment practices in different forms that should be explored.

Further developments of these dimensions will be found in a forthcoming Special Issue of Punishment and Society.



This themed series brings together a sample of the contributions to the conference. Ingrid Eagly starts the series giving an overview of some of the topics discussed during the two-day workshop and introducing her new research about the intersection of Detention and Adjudication. In her blog post, Sabrina Axster traces the origin of immigration detention in Germany through archival research that points out its colonial and anti-Semitic roots. Following the historical perspective and through the analysis of deportation files, Ariela House brings some light to the detention for illegal entry and deportation practices in Spain during a period that is usually obscure: Franco’s dictatorship and the first years of the post-dictatorship. Iker Barbero’s analysis shows how these police bureaucratic files nowadays acquire a completely different value. Deportation files in motion, through the “the magic of legal consciousness”, become a kind of safe conduct that allows migrants in transit to use the reception facilities and could even grant a legal and safe status. Ivana Belén Ruiz Estramil reflects on the role of the EU regarding asylum and the pervasive consequences of its externalization.

A second group of contributions focuses on current detention practices in different jurisdictions. Natalia Torres details the paradoxes of the legal regime of immigration detention in Spain and shows how its legal configuration is reminiscent of enemy penology. Spaces of detention are analyzed by Julia Manek, Gemma Bird and Andrea Galán in a contribution that explores hotspots as torturing environments that, despite the efforts for improving living conditions and prioritizing caring, end up being uncaring environments where punitive and humanitarian practices are intertwined. Following this vein, Gregory L. Cuéllar reflects on the emotional and, frequently, paradoxical nature and uses of the religious spaces within immigration detention, that can end up losing their therapeutic nature. The Canadian context is analyzed in two blog posts. First, Dale Ballucci and Sam Ghebrai analyze practices of immigration detention, such as the use of risk-based tools to classify and distribute migrants according to the risk rate, and their impact on migrant detainees. Second, Efrat Arbel and Molly Joeck examine the relevance of some novelties that began during Covid 19, such as the use of virtual hearings, and also the increasing justifications of releases by taking conditions of confinement as a key argument. Finally, Carolina S. Boe’s post focuses on the use of electronic monitoring and digital technologies in the US, discussing the carceral continuum emerging from these new tools and its economies of confinement.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

A. Ballesteros-Pena and C. Fernández-Bessa. (2023) Themed Series: The Changing Landscapes of Immigration Detention . Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/03/themed-series-changing-landscapes-immigration-detention. Accessed on: 18/07/2024

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