From the Field: Approaching Detention from Different Perspectives



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6 Minutes

Post by Andriani Fili, Managing editor of the Border Criminologies blog and PhD candidate at Lancaster University, Sociology Department. Her research focuses on exploring the history and development of immigration detention in Greece. This post draws partly on her chapter ‘Voices in immigration detention centres in Greece: Different actors and possibilities for change’ in  Criminal Justice Research in an Era of Mass Mobility', edited by Andriani Fili, Synnøve Jahnsen and Rebecca Powell. This is the fifth installment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on how research changes over time, organised by Mary Bosworth.  

‘Why do you want to do research inside immigration detention? Aren’t you scared?’ These are the kinds of questions people often ask me when I talk about what I do. While the answer is easy for me, ‘I simply want to understand what’s going on in these hidden places’, I can’t say I’m not puzzled either by my fascination and unrelenting energy to work in this field, despite all the messiness and emotional and intellectually demanding components, so eloquently documented elsewhere. In line with this week’s theme, I reflect here on my experiences of approaching immigration detention as a researcher and as an NGO practitioner over the past eight years.

Back in 2011, I was about to enter the Greek immigration detention system for the first time as a researcher. To the best of my knowledge, this was the first such academic study in Greece which had been granted full access to staff and detainees. As a novice research, I initially felt very excited for the opportunity to conduct this piece of research. Upon entering the field, however, and given the lack of information about it, I was rapidly overwhelmed. As has been noted elsewhere the wings in the Petrou Ralli pre-removal centre were oppressive and frantic.  It was a stressful physical environment and the women I met expressed considerable high frustration. As a young female researcher, I couldn’t help but notice the dominant forms of masculinities. Police officers would make comments about taking me out for a coffee or were referring to me as the ‘girl from the university’, to whom they reluctantly had to speak.

On many occasions, participants demanded answers about whether I thought their overtly racist ideas were ‘right’. ‘Iraqis have a certain mentality, that women have to be animals. I’m not saying this to offend them but this is their way of thinking because of their religion, their culture, as a country, as a people. Women have to animals, be uneducated, not knowing what's going on around them, have babies all the time. No?’ (detention officer, Petrou Ralli detention centre). Afraid that an honest response would hamper my access to detainees, I remained silent most of the time, nodding along, as I listened to officers’ comments about inadequate women, for their contravention of gender-based expectations, and failing cultures.

A cell at the airport special detention facility

Over time, my silence, became a great source of personal anxiety. I agonized over my limitations as a researcher and my powerlessness to speak for detainees. As soon as I could leave the field, I hoped that committing people’s words on paper would matter and make up for my silences while in the field. Yet, as I sat in front of my computer screen rereading my interview transcripts and fieldnotes about life inside a Greek detention centre, I had the nagging suspicion that the research and articles, which would be produced drawing on it, would be irrelevant to the women I had interviewed. In an era of mass mobility that entails so much human suffering, academic work often seems self-indulgent and somewhat removed from the immediate problems facing participants.

At this point, I decided that if I were to continue working on detention, my labour would have to make a difference to detained women and men. So, I left the field as a researcher, and began working as a support worker for an NGO at the special holding facility of the Police Directorate of the Athens Airport together with a psychologist and a doctor. Over a 15 month period in this role, I conducted more than 900 interviews with detainees and held informal conversations with several detention officers.

The airport special detention facility was in dire need of humanitarian intervention. At the time, 120 men were detained in 9 single-occupancy cells. They had very little natural light and had to share two toilets. Space constraints meant they were unable to lie down or sleep at the same time. Their only physical movement was limited to going to the toilet for a few minutes in the morning and the evening. At all other times they were locked inside their cells. Other rules restrained them: they were not allowed to smoke more than three cigarettes a day, they were not given cutlery for ‘security’ reasons and conditions of hygiene were never properly observed.

I began this work with humanitarian, albeit contested, ideals of ‘saving’ people in detention. Not long after my first days at work, a ‘sense of realism’ crept in born not only of self-knowledge but also of empirical observation which gave few grounds for optimism that my work in detention would make a difference. Yet, my colleagues, who had been in the field for much longer, tried to reassure me: ‘You know the beginning is always difficult. Don’t worry about it, you’ll get used to it. …You have to be neutral and not let anything affect you so much’ (Fieldnotes, March 2011).

Remaining neutral is extremely challenging under conditions that so provocatively contravene basic standards of decency and humanity and that was not my intention in any case. I was there to speak for the detainees at the top of my voice. So, we discussed with the director of the NGO the possibility to act on the information about abuse and ill-treatment we were witnesses to almost every day. Each time we were discouraged from pursuing further action because this would, allegedly, disrupt our relations with the police and would affect our daily routine. Regrettably, this was not far from the truth. The complaint letter we sent out to the relevant authorities was met with outrage. High ranking police officers at the centre threatened to file lawsuits for slander. Detention officers compromised our access to detainees. Although managing authorities grew more receptive to our recommendations, or at least appeared to do so by allowing for more ‘freedoms’ (e.g. cutlery, more cigarettes, more visits to the toilet), our success was soon forgotten as the situation gradually went back to ‘normal’.

Being exposed to the daily realities of a detention facility, which had the unenviable — albeit deserved — reputation as the worst in Athens, and not being able to help those within it was paralysing. I became increasingly cynical and pessimistic, responses which, over time, affected my efficiency and productivity. Indeed, no stories of harrowing border crossings, death and loss would shock me anymore. I even began to question whether all this suffering was real. Feelings of burnout, disillusionment and compassion fatigue are common among aid workers, who face increasing demands they cannot resolve and work in distressing contexts. After just a few months I went home every day feeling exhausted; I found it unbearable to be confronted with my own powerlessness in the face of so much hardship.

This has been a rather bleak representation of my experiences as a researcher and a practitioner in immigration detention in Greece. I understand that my accounts might leave mine or others’ work open to challenge, but I see it as a way of accounting for ‘emotional baggage’, integral to the experience of doing fieldwork and working in such environments. While being a researcher seemed, in 2011, too detached from people’s realities inside detention, NGO work brought me too close to how detention was implemented.

Sadly, little has changed inside the immigration detention system in Greece over the intervening years. Detention is used arbitrarily and indiscriminately. People are placed in unsuitable locations with little access to the outside world and many endure ill-treatment at the hands of staff. Championing a strong anti-immigrant rhetoric, the newly elected government has recently announced that more detention facilities will be opened around the country, to house all irregular migrants before they are returned to their home countries. In this context, it is ever more important to remain committed to shedding light to these practices.

Over the years, I have zoomed in to the system, coming, at times, too close to make sense of the little details. I’m now zooming out, conducting interviews with a range of actors around the detention system in the hope of capturing the bigger picture so I can map the whole territory of immigration detention in the country. While both lenses are important, I treat them as vantage points, rather than fixed positions. For, in order to make sense of what is going on in closed environments, researchers need multiple perspectives, to be able to switch theoretical lenses and trace the connections between them.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Fili, A. (2019) From the Field: Approaching Detention from Different Perspectives. Available at: (Accessed [date])

Found within

From the Field
Detention centres; immigration detention; border control


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