Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Is it Ethical to Carry Keys for Research in Immigration Detention Centres?



Time to read

4 Minutes

Post by Sarah Turnbull, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford. This post is the fourth instalment of the Border Criminologies Themed Week on Research Methodologies, organised by Prof Mary Bosworth

Conducting research on immigration detention poses a number of closely entwined methodological and ethical challenges. Among the most pressing are how to build trust among research participants, ensuring independence as a researcher, and communicating across differences of gender, race/ethnicity, language, culture, and religion. Such challenges are compounded by the profound uncertainty, anxiety, and vulnerability that characterises the lived experience of immigration detention. In this post, I explore some of these matters in relation to my experience of drawing keys to undertake fieldwork at four immigration removal centres (IRCs) in the United Kingdom.

A sitting area in Alpha Unit, Colnbrook IRC. (Image: Immigration Detention Archive, Border Criminologies)
These reflections are based on the time I spent at Campsfield House, Yarl’s Wood, Colnbrook, and Dover between September 2013 to August 2014. To carry out this fieldwork, I used a mixed-methods approach involving ethnography (i.e., participant observation, interviews, and focus groups) and the administration of a survey, developed by Mary Bosworth and Blerina Kellezi, that aims to measure the quality of life in detention. I spoke with detained individuals and staff, although most of my interactions were with detainees. The majority of my time was spent in the common areas where the bulk of activities and ‘hanging out’ took place, including the arts and crafts room, games room, library, IT/English room, cultural kitchen, and various spaces for sitting. I also observed a variety of events offered at the centres, including first aid classes, music and art workshops, bingo and other social activities, football matches, and consultative meetings with members of staff and detainee representatives.
At each IRC I was granted permission to draw keys and, while following the necessary security protocols, had relatively free access to wander the spaces of the centres. Though undoubtedly institutionally convenient, carrying keys shaped my ability to build relationships of trust with participants and position myself as an independent researcher in quite problematic ways.
(Source: mirror.co.uk)
At the outset of the research, I didn’t fully think through the implications of drawing keys. I merely thought that they would enable greater freedom for interaction and observation, reducing the burden on staff who would otherwise act as escorts. As the research proceeded, however, I came to realise my decision was not so straightforward.
On the plus side, having keys did allow me greater mobility and thus more freedom to observe and interact with both detainees and staff. I was able to enter and exit the centres based largely on my own schedule. I wasn’t tied to the availability of an escort, a crucial benefit, given the short-staffing I observed at some of the centres. In more practical terms, I could easily move from one space to another to conduct interviews or administer the survey, such as going from the busy arts and crafts room to the more quiet space of the library. This allowed me flexibility to meet with participants in spaces they felt more comfortable, and which allowed for greater privacy.
There were, however, several downsides to having keys. Building relationships of trust with participants in the stressful, confusing, and uncertain environment of detention is always hard. The fact that I wore keys around my waist raised questions for some about my independence as a researcher, perhaps adding to rumours that I was spying on detainees for the Home Office (for example, see this blog post by a former detainee). I often had to explain myself to the women and men. In my experience, having keys combined with my being white to position me as part of the ‘system,’ such as working for Immigration or an NGO providing services in the centre. This is because in most IRCs I attended, my whiteness (and gender) functioned as a type of uniform, aligning me with the primarily white ‘keepers’ in contrast to the non-white ‘kept’―an experience that speaks more broadly to the racialised and gendered nature of immigration detention.
To counter the perception that I worked for Immigration, I’d often wear a University of Oxford sweatshirt or T-shirt in an attempt to (re)assert my identity as an independent, university-based researcher. I also wore a lanyard with my University business card to display when people asked who I was and what I was doing there.

Among staff, the fact I drew keys also generated confusion. They were not always clear whether I ‘worked’ in the centre and could therefore perform such tasks as escorting detainees who I’d been speaking with back to their units. I would have to explain that I was only given keys to escort myself around the centre.

A corridor of Colnbrook IRC's short-stay unit. (Image: Immigration Detention Archive, Border Criminologies)
I also didn’t realise at the outset how carrying keys would make me feel so uncomfortable. For instance, in Yarl’s Wood’s Hummingbird Unit (the family unit), women were free to associate in the main part of the centre if a member of staff was there to open and secure the door leading into and out of the Unit. Often, women would be waiting, sometimes for 5 to 10 minutes, to get in or out of Hummingbird Unit. I found it awkward to let myself in or out while explaining that I couldn’t open the door for them. It was often easier just to wait with the queue outside of a door, rather than open and lock the door for myself.
There are clearly both methodological benefits and drawbacks to carrying keys to undertake research. In hindsight, I would’ve thought more clearly about the ways in which having keys could impact the research. I would have also given more consideration to how I’d ‘feel’ about, and experience, carrying keys and the sorts of everyday interactions that would be affected by this additional marker of difference between myself as a researcher and those I spoke and interacted with. This, of course, isn’t a new issue; it’s been discussed in the prisons literature and divides people there too. There’s seems to be no easy answer as to whether it’s ethical, or methodologically wise, to carry keys for research in custodial settings.
Themed Week on Research Methodologies:

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Turnbull, S. (2015) Is it Ethical to Carry Keys for Research in Immigration Detention Centres? Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/immigration-detention-keys/ (Accessed [date]).

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