Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Researching Immigration Detention



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3 Minutes

In this post, parts of which draw on her forthcoming book, Inside Immigration Detention, Mary Bosworth, Reader in Criminology at the University of Oxford, builds on the previous posts by Leanne Weber and Bethan Loftus to think about research methods in immigration detention centres. Working with two research officers, Mary spent 24 months conducting ethnographic research in six UK immigration removal centres from 2010 - 2012. Chapters and articles drawing on this research can be found on the publications page of the Border Criminologies website. 

Academics have written surprisingly little about everyday life in immigration removal centres (although see here, here, here, and here). Numbers reduce still further if we limit ourselves to criminology (although see here). Although there is a wealth of theoretical literature on border control and deportation, depictions of ordinary life inside are much harder to come by. Details can be gleaned from parliamentary debates, governmental and non-governmental organisations, and the occasional media account. 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, outside anthropology, its corollary, deportation) has developed independently from sustained engagement with the lived experience of those within these institutions.

A housing unit in IRC Brook House. Image provide by the Home Office
Doubtless, theoretical inquiry can be rich, challenging scholars and policy makers to think afresh about state power, punishment, migration, and belonging. However, when nearly all the available scholarly debate is based on secondary materials, questions must arise, not only about accuracy, but also about interpretation. Can we really grasp the nature of these institutions without going inside? What can an interior view contribute to our understanding? What might it lend to our critique?
In my work, some detainees hoped that an account of life inside might change people’s minds about their government’s migration policies. I was urged to tell people outside what it was ‘really like’ in detention. ‘People don't see nothing,’ Tahir (not his real name) angrily asserted. ‘The citizens out there don't know what is going on.’ (Sudan, CH, focus group) Others wanted to tell me their story, no matter what the effect.  ‘His mouth is full of it,’ Aufa explained on his friend’s behalf: ‘He needs to talk’ (Unknown nationality, BH).
Many, however, were mistrustful, unsure of my academic credentials, ‘Why criminology? We’re not criminals!’ women and men proclaimed.  Some were also critical of my home institution:  ‘You know, all those politicians -- they went to Oxford,’ Saqib teased. ‘What are you doing up there? I hope you didn’t teach them!’ (Pakistan, CB).  It was not just detainees who were suspicious.  Although for the most part staff members were happy to be interviewed, a few were unenthusiastic. ‘If it was up to me,’ Slade said crossly, ‘I wouldn’t let you in here,’ (SMT, BH, male) Others were merely indifferent: ‘Here’s this woman, look after her and let her do whatever it is that she does.’ (Reina, DCO, BH, female).
Interior view of shop in IRC Tinsley House. Image provided by Home Office
‘Why are you here?’ Jamil challenged me, ‘Who let you in? Maybe you’re from UKBA and everything I tell you, you will go and tell them.  I know how the system works. Why should I talk to you?’ (Uganda, BH).  Others struggled to see the benefit of an academic study. ‘You do nothing,’ Deb yelled at me, ‘you don’t help, you just ask people about their experiences but you do nothing for us.’ (Nigeria, YW). ‘Who will read your book?’ many demanded. ‘What’s in it for me?’ On the other hand, and often just as unsettling, some staff and detainees hoped the research would bring about change. ‘Maybe they will listen to you,’ one man said, ‘from your fancy university.’ (Pakistan, CB). ‘If we had proper information about problems’ one member of a senior management team earnestly told me, ‘we could fix them.’ (SMT, IRC Campsfield).
Building rapport, gaining trust, are inherent in the ethnographic method. In detention, such matters are compounded by linguistic barriers, cultural differences, varying duration of detention, as well as by the high levels of depression and distress. Together these factors raise questions about the possibility of understanding as well as about the purpose or value of academic scholarship.
Methodologically they also demand answers. Under conditions of great uncertainty and low levels of trust, should we scholars pursue alternative strategies? Interviews and fieldwork notes, however detailed, can only illuminate so much. Might people respond differently to non-verbal techniques? Would other aspects of detention be highlighted?
Here at Border Criminologies we are keen to start a conversation about border research. As we have seen in recent posts, colleagues in policing are already discussing the matter. Those who work in prison have long had such a debate. What explains the lag in IRC research? How does it connect to problems of research access? And how might we overcome these issues?
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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Bosworth, M (2013) Researching Immigration Detention. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/researching-im…tion-detention/ (accessed [date]).

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