Post by Sarah Turnbull, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford

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On 22-23 January 2015, the final instalment of the ESRC-funded seminar series, ‘Exploring Everyday Practice and Resistance in Immigration Detention,’ was held at Lancaster University. The aim of the conference, ‘The Business of Immigration Detention: Activisms, Resistances, Critical Interventions,’ was to explore ‘the challenges facing academics and activists in the area of immigration detention and related border-security practices.’ This conference was organised by Dr Imogen Tyler and hosted by The Centre for Mobilities Research (CeMoRe) at Lancaster University.

The conference opened on the evening of 22 January with a public lecture by Dr Alison Mountz, Professor of Geography and Canada Research Chair in Global Migration, Wilfrid Laurier University. Mountz’s presentation, ‘The Business of Detention, the Death of Asylum, and the Life of Activism,’ explored the complicated terrain of detention globally with specific focus on islands as unique sites of confinement. Her talk drew attention to the vast array of business interests in the global detention industry, including governments, private companies, and NGOs. Mountz presented data from a research project that explored migrants’ journeys, their experiences of detention on islands, and practices of activism and resistance. Following Mountz’s presentation, a public performance of the ‘Asylum Monologues’ was staged by Ice & Fire. This performance provided first-hand testimonies of the UK’s asylum system in the words of those who’ve experienced it.

On 23 January, the conference opened with welcomes from Tyler and Professor John Urry, Director of CeMoRe, and powerful songs by members of the Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST) choir. The day was divided into two sessions, ‘Activisms In and Around Detention’ and ‘Research as Resistance,’ and concluded with a keynote address by Dr Jenna Loyd, University of Wisconsin.

Session 1: Activisms In and Around Detention

Speakers in the conference’s first session were Christine Bacon, Artistic Director of Ice & Fire; members of WAST; Pa Modou Bojang (Prince) of Liverpool’s Migrant Artists Mutual Aid (MaMa); Eiri Ohtani, Co-ordinator of The Detention Forum; and John Grayson, activist and independent researcher with the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group.

Bacon spoke briefly about her previous research on the role of private companies in making the UK’s detention estate what it is today before turning to her current work with Ice & Fire as a means to reach out to the ‘uninitiated’ through human rights performance art. She spoke of the role of Ice & Fire in training and education for Home Office staff as well as medical students about the challenges facing asylum seekers in the UK.

WAST demonstration in Manchester, June 2014 (Photo: S. Turnbull)
Next to present were members of WAST, a Manchester-based women led, campaigning, and self-help support group. The speakers explained WAST’s work and how the organisation helps women in need, such as through its anti-deportation group and weekly drop-in on Fridays. One of its ongoing campaigns is to shutdown Yarl’s Wood, a detention centre that many WAST members have experienced first-hand. WAST holds monthly demonstrations as part of this campaign, as well as a performance called ‘Still We Rise’ to raise awareness about women’s experiences of asylum-seeking and detention. The WAST choir closed the presentation with song.

Prince shared his experience of the UK immigration and detention systems and his work in broadcasting as a way to connect to others, share information, and push for political change. His story highlighted some of the challenges of the immigration system for migrants including the cost of legal representation, wait times, and finding suitable accommodation and employment.

Ohtani’s presentation explored the question: why doesn’t immigration detention end? Asking how the system ‘works,’ she offered a critical examination of the various players involved in the detention ‘industry,’ a list including the likes government and private companies to NGOs and academics. Ohtani noted the absence of migrant voices in most of the writing and research about detention, and underscored the important relationship between knowledge and social change. This presentation encouraged critical self-reflection on the part of academics researching this area and the role we play in the detention industry.

In the session’s final presentation, Grayson focused on asylum housing in the UK as ‘soft detention,’ and an under-researched aspect of the detention system. He explained the big business of asylum housing and the involvement of key operators G4S and Serco in a £1.8 billion contract started in 2012. Grayson highlighted asylum seekers’ experiences of indignity and lack of respect, as well as the gendered impact on women with children and pregnant women.

Session 2: Research as Resistance

Speakers for the day’s second session were Professor Alice Bloch, Manchester University; Dr Maja Sager, Lancaster University and Lund University; Professor Gillian Whitlock, University of Queensland, Australia; and myself. Unfortunately Dr Alex Hall, York University, was unable to attend.

Bloch presented research findings of her study of the strategies used by undocumented migrants in London to stay hidden from the gaze of the state. Of interest were the ways in which these migrants managed ‘illegality’ on a day-to-day basis, including how and if they worked, where they lived, and how they spent their time. Bloch found that undocumented migrants used a variety of strategies to manage precarious and often exploitive conditions of work. They lived with the ever-present threat of raids, both at home and in their places of employment, with some isolating themselves as a safety strategy.

In the next presentation, Sager examined the ‘continuum of constrained mobility’ experienced by asylum seekers in the UK. She noted that upon claiming asylum and becoming ‘asylum seekers,’ these individuals are subjected to a variety of mechanisms of constraint, including destitution, detention, and deportation. Sager discussed participants’ techniques for reducing the burden of these constraints, such as community building and developing systems of mutual support with others.

Whitlock’s presentation focused on the testimonies of migrants who experienced enforced ‘tow backs’ by the Australian Navy through its ‘zone of exclusion’ and captured the event on their smart phones. The footage was later broadcast on ABC in Australia. Whitlock discusses how the video documentation of the tow back policy in action enabled the creation of a testimonial narrative showing the embodied experience of the expulsion, one characterised by suffering, shame, and anger, yet reflective of agency and subjectivity.

A mural in Colnbrook IRC (Photo: S. Turnbull)
In the session’s final presentation, I spoke about some of the methodological and ethical challenges of researching immigration detention. Drawing on my experiences of conducting 149 days of fieldwork across four detention centres in the UK between September 2013 and August 2014, I discussed key issues related to studying institutions in flux, building trust, maintaining research access, and dealing with vulnerability.
Closing Keynote
Loyd’s talk, entitled ‘The Business of Detention and Wages of Innocence: Ending Detention Without Exception,’ made connections between the right to move/right to remain and prison abolition. She highlighted contemporary examples of activism in the United States related to both social movements, drawing attention to the twin roles of racism and criminalisation in blurring the lines between ‘non-citizen’ and ‘criminal.’ Racism, and racialised understandings of threat and confinement, are embedded in migrant detention practices. For Loyd, the systems of criminal justice and migrant detention should be understood as interrelated, and that ending immigration detention involves linking multiple forms of confinement within abolitionist movements.
For more on the event, see #cemoredetention on Twitter.
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