Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Doing research in securitised spaces



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Post by Laura Rezzonico, PhD candidate at the nccr – on the move “The Migration-Mobility Nexus”, Centre for Migration Law and Laboratory of the study of social processes, University of Neuchâtel. Laura Rezzonico is conducting an ethnographic study of immigration detention facilities in Switzerland as part of the research project ‘Restricting Immigration: Practices, Experiences and Resistance’, led by Christin Achermann. This is the sixth post of Border Criminologies’ themed series on ‘Accessing the Migration Apparatus’ organised by Damian Rosset and Christin Achermann

Immigration detention centres are among those ‘obscured places’ where migration is regulated and hidden from view. They are spaces of exclusion and suffering for those detained, and source of uncertainty and frustration for both detainees and staff working there. Access to those sites, as well as to data and information about them, is very restricted. It is precisely for this reason that research inside them – whenever possible and allowed – is worth the pains and difficulties it involves. Yet entering detention facilities confers an ambiguous role to the researcher, who has to negotiate between her moral values, the research needs and the conditions set by the institution. Within our project, we requested access to several detention centres in Switzerland and I was finally able to conduct ethnographic fieldwork in two of them. In this post, I reflect on the access negotiation process and address three questions: a) what did it reveal about the field of study? b) how did it shape my research experience and data? and c) how did it impact on my relations with research participants?

When access negotiations are revealing of the field

Our efforts to secure access to detention facilities started in 2015 when we contacted the first prison director and presented him our project. Despite a positive and friendly contact, we were dissatisfied with the result of our access negotiations. The conditions set by the administration were too strict, reflecting a general reluctance on the part of the political hierarchical superior. They would require a long process of further negotiation without any guarantee of success. We declined this offer and tried our chance elsewhere. This was eased by the decentralised organisation of detention in Switzerland. Given that detention is managed at the cantonal level, decisions to grant access to different facilities are independent from each other. As there are more than 30 facilities employed for immigration detention, finally we were able to select and access two other facilities for the core ethnographic study.

Although I was disappointed with how unsuccessfully those first negotiations ended, when I look back, I can state that they have not been a loss of time. On the contrary, they represent my first actual contact with the field, during which I started to understand its underlying logics and functioning. Moreover, negotiating access helped me identify the most relevant aspects to analyse in my thesis. I was particularly struck by the omnipresence of security in all discussions about immigration detention. In previous contexts related to my academic and NGO background, I had mainly been exposed to the view of detained migrants and asylum seekers as vulnerable subjects. Now they were turned into dangerous subjects: it was taken for granted that spending time with them would imply a security risk for me.

Such prominence of security concerns in access negotiations made me conscious about the concrete effects of the securitization of migration (Huysmans 2006, Squire and Huysmans 2009) in general and of the specific mechanisms of securitization at play in the Swiss context. In fact, the majority of facilities used by Swiss authorities to detain migrants in view of deportation are actual prisons incarcerating convicted or on remand prisoners as well. This convergence of crime and migration control can be understood in the framework of crimmigration enforcement (Stumpf 2006, 2015) so the following question quickly became one of my main research interests. What effects does the embeddedness of immigration detention in the penal system have on detention practices and experiences? The analysis of the effects of detaining migrants in prisons in terms of the stigmatisation and criminalisation of mobility are now one of the main focuses of my research.

Observing while being observed: doing research under control?

Security concerns also affected my ability to do ethnographic fieldwork inside the two prisons I was finally granted access to. During access negotiations, I encountered certain scepticism among the prison management about doing participant observation. This was mainly related to security concerns that could arise from coming into close contact with detainees, and seemed to be influenced by the fact that I was a young woman in a mainly masculine environment. While it was easier to get the authorisation to shadow prison staff in their daily work, I was able to spend time with detainees in absence of staff only in one prison. This was possible in the courtyard, with the reassurance that I was always visible through cameras and that staff would intervene in case of necessity, but not in the cells’ area. Thus, my access to the prison’s life was limited to certain spaces and times and my movement around the prison was always dependent on members of staff as I did not carry keys. Furthermore, a couple of times prison officers prevented me from observing interventions that entailed the use of physical force, such as a forced cell transfer or the forced removal of a young detainee.

In some ways, the surveillance system shaped my daily field experience. I was carrying at all times an internal phone (which also had an “emergency” function). When I was discussing with detainees in the courtyard, I was observed by officers on duty through cameras and they would let me know when I was not visible so I could move out of a blind corner. Although this was allegedly for my security, it also allowed a certain degree of control over my movements and behaviours, as they would know with whom I was talking and for how long, for example. This sometimes made me feel uncomfortable. Certainly, the feeling of being constantly observed is one of the most defining features of incarceration for those who live and work there; a feeling that I as a researcher experienced as well.

Doing research in closed spaces: managing multiple loyalties

Doing fieldwork in an emotionally charged space such as a prison is highly challenging for any researcher. In my experience, it is even more arduous if you intend to analyse the viewpoints of several actors involved. The closed nature of the prison space, the constant surveillance and the simultaneous presence of persons with different roles and interests confronted me with competing claims and multiple loyalties that were not always easy to manage. During my field research, I felt profound empathy for those detained and wanted to give them a chance to express their opinions and feelings. At the same time, spending time with prison officers highlighted the distressing aspects of their job and showed how some were extremely dedicated to acting with decency and civility. Furthermore, I felt thankful to the prison management that had trusted me and opened the doors of their institution. Even though I was struck by the symbolic violence of detaining migrants pending deportation in prisons, I was also conscious of the challenges this entailed for the prison administration each time.

These multiple ‘loyalties’ certainly affected my relations with research participants and the way I felt in the field. From the beginning, I tried to be open and not take sides in order to engage and build trust with both staff and detainees. However, at times, I felt this was ethically questionable and emotionally arduous. Unsurprisingly, my position as a ‘neutral’ researcher created some suspiciousness: a few staff members did not feel comfortable with my note taking and kept asking about it. More importantly, some detainees were wary of my relationship with prison officers, as I was regularly interacting with them. One detainee expressed this by describing me as ‘a semi-member of the prison’.

Despite these individual cases of distrust, everyone generally welcomed my presence. For detainees, it was an outlet for expressing their anger, their lack of understanding of or disagreement with their incarceration. Participating in the research could also be seen as a political act, a way of expressing one’s voice and opinion in a condition of subjugation such as in detention, where agency is severely restricted. The act of talking to me, a white, Swiss, female researcher might also be described as an identity coping strategy, particularly for long-term residents in Europe. In fact, by establishing a friendly relationship with me and discussing about local issues and national politics, they were rejecting the identity of the excluded and (re)positioning themselves as citizens.

Entering immigration detention ‘from the front door’ – that is, with official authorisation – is very challenging and requires constant efforts of defining one’s position as a researcher in a contested field while being confronted with surveillance and multiple loyalties. Other ways to explore experiences of detention – such as interviewing released detainees or deported individuals – may avoid certain shortcomings of research inside detention centres. However, these different approaches, while necessary, they are complementary to understanding immigration detention in its complexity. Doing research inside immigration detention is extremely valuable since it allows to directly observe practices of detention and some of its most important aspects, as they are experienced by those who live and work there.  

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Rezzonico, L.  (2017) Doing research in securitised spaces. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/11/doing-research (Accessed [date]).

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