Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Border Control and Abolition



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4 Minutes

Guest post by Olivia Johnson. Olivia completed her MSc in Migration Studies at the University of Oxford. She is interested in the intersection of migration regulation and penal regimes. This post is inspired by recent events and based off of her dissertation titled 'From Convict Transportation to the Deportation of Foreign National Offenders, Britain's Carceral Project'.

In the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and countless others at the hands of the US state, calls have rung out not only to affirm that Black lives matter but also to defund and abolish the institutions that continue to criminalize, disappear and kill Black lives. Crucial to this conversation, is abolition, which Critical Resistance defines as “a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.” Abolition does not simply call for the end of prisons and police but also takes to task migration control, counterterrorism measures and surveillance. In the UK, activists have focused not only on the number of people who have died in police custody and as a result of ostensibly racist policies of stop and search, but also on ending counterterrorism measures like Prevent which turn civilians into police and border guards.

Like prisons, these measures shape criminality and endorse penal structures. They directly fund the police, prison and global security bodies, like G4S. In addition to funding, they share similar strategies. The over-policing of minority communities is shaped and informed by the same techniques and technology used to surveil borders. In some cases, these practices not only reinforce carceral regimes but are part and parcel of them. 

Angela Davis writes, “prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings.” As a society, it is our eagerness to disappear people, especially those with previous criminal convictions, that leads to migration control measures like detention and deportation. In studying the rise of the prison industrial complex (PIC), we can trace the surge of deportations from a UK perspective. The logic behind tough on crime legislation and increased sentence lengths have led to overcrowding. This, in turn, is resolved through building additional prisons, giving justification for foreigner-only prisons and thus streamlining the process of removing foreign prisoners through laws like the UK Borders Act (2007). Therefore, deportation is not separate from the prison industry but must be studied as an extension of it.

For my master’s dissertation, I explored Britain’s history of expelling criminal populations as a carceral tool. I looked at the interlinkages between the rise of the prison industry in the 1800s and its connections to penal transportation as well as the PIC and the deportations of foreign national offenders (FNOs) we see today. Through this analysis I traced the role of empire and colonial practices (i.e. prison building and funding abroad) that persist to this day.

Similar to the colonial administration of penal transportation, the deportations of FNOs today form global regimes of carcerality. Deportation measures reinforce prison structures at a local and global level. In the name of migration control and public safety, the UK is boosting prison capacities abroad as well as detection strategies which support the security industry globally. In an effort to expand prisoner exchange agreements (to deport foreign prisoners), the government has initiated global databases and police partnerships to widen detection strategies. They have also contributed funding to build prisons in Nigeria and Jamaica to incentivize the return of prisoners. Criminologist Saleh-Hanna argues, “To dismantle penal coloniality requires an analysis of who is most vulnerable to penal oppression: populations that have historically been colonized and enslaved by Europeans are the most vulnerable to penal colonialism.” In this context,  the UK is investing in prisons like Kirikiri in Nigeria, following the historical practice of the UK building prisons and penal systems; indeed, it was the British who established this prison back in 1955. 

The frightening reality is that the investment and training dedicated to this facility will be utilized to fill the prison with people living in Nigeria. Like previous colonial policies, those marginalized by the state are vulnerable to these penal structures. Beyond direct prison building projects, penal migration control is embedded within development discourse and funding. The money distributed by funding bodies like the IOM and the Department for International Development (DFID) sponsor deportation related activities, a form of aid that Bosworth calls “penal humanitarianism.” Private suppliers bid for contracts with the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) and as of 2016 those included security firms like G4S and Aegis Defense Services as well as development and humanitarian organizations namely Mercy Corps, World Vision and DAI. For context, the new Kirikiri prison wing in Nigeria is funded through CSSF. This fund further finances the police forces in Nigeria (£2.5 million) and Sierra Leone (£2.31 million) as well as the border patrol in Bulgaria (undisclosed). CSSF funding has also sponsored the creation of a new reception center behind Muhammed Murtala International Airport in Lagos for deported migrants.

These systems of penal migration control are rooted in a history of colonial and racialized violence which persist in the form of border control and the deportation regime. These policies are oftentimes coded in humanitarian language but are carceral at their core. Deportation funding is directly embedded in the expansion of the security infrastructure, including the police and prisons. Therefore, the movement against border and migration control must also employ abolitionist praxis as we are fighting the same penal systems of containment and policing. We cannot fully imagine a world without prisons if we cannot comprehend their extension into the industry of border regulation.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Johnson, O. (2020). Border Control and Abolition. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/11/border-control [date]

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