Post by Sarah Turnbull, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford. Sarah is on Twitter @SL_Turnbull.

Review of Immigration Detention: The Migration of a Policy and Its Human Impact edited by Amy Nethery and Stephanie J. Silverman (Routledge, 2015)

States across the globe are increasingly utilising immigration detention as a tactic of border control. Although the detention of migrants and noncitizens isn’t a new practice, it’s becoming a common feature of state responses to unwanted migration. Academic attention toward immigration detention has also increased, albeit more slowly. As readers of the blog will know, immigration detention is the focus of research for several Border Criminologies network members who are working on advancing knowledge about detention and exploring alternatives. It’s therefore exciting to see new academic scholarship on the topic.

The edited collection Immigration Detention brings together sixteen case studies of detention from an array of jurisdictions, including both the so-called global north and global south. More descriptive than analytical, the volume provides a useful compendium of information about how detention originated and is practiced in each country, along with what the editors term its ‘human impact.’ The volume contains contributions on an impressive range of countries: the United Kingdom, Netherlands, France, Finland, Malta, Cyprus, Turkey, United States, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, and Israel. It’s especially interesting to read about detention practices in places like Mexico and South Africa about which academic research is rare. Importantly, the contributions also highlight the influence of certain northern countries on the spread and implementation of detention in those of the south. Of note are European Union policies shaping detention in Turkey, Malta, Cyprus, and Finland; Australia’s preoccupation with ‘stopping the boats’ bearing on detention in Indonesia and Malaysia; and the US’s impact in Mexico and Cuba’s Guantánamo Bay.

The editors, Amy Nethery and Stephanie J. Silverman, provide an introduction to the collection, situating immigration detention within its global context and explaining what it is, who is detained, why detention is used, its governance under international law, and its human impacts. The editors also outline how detention as an ‘old idea’ has re-emerged with a vengeance in modern times, shifting from an exceptional to a ubiquitous policy and practice. The following sixteen substantive chapters aren’t organised formally into sections but rather are arranged geographically, starting with Europe, then North and Central America, Australasia, the Middle East, and Africa. One of the important strengths of the collection is that each chapter considers the ways in which detention impacts those who are detained, offering site-specific examples demonstrating the psychological and physiological consequences of this particular type of confinement.

The case-study approach enables the book’s chapters to standalone. However, it’s through reading Immigration Detention in its entirety that the similarities and differences in the policy and practice become apparent, along with the volume of individuals affected worldwide. The magnitude of detention is evident, for example, in reading Melanie Griffith’s discussion of the UK where approximately 30,000 individuals are detained each year, and Christina Elefteriades Haines and Anil Kalhan’s analysis of the US, a country that detains over 400,000 people annually. The conditions of detention also vary considerably. Cetta Mainwaring’s chapter, for instance, notes the problems of overcrowding and substandard living conditions in Malta and Cyprus―issues shared by Australia’s ‘off-shore’ detention facilities, as outlined in the chapter by Robyn Sampson. The contributions also highlight the variations in the availability and reliability of information and data about immigration detention depending on the jurisdiction, including, for example, a notable lack of research on the human impacts of detention in South Africa as indicated in Roni Amit’s chapter. In addition, read together, the chapters show how the global spread and implementation of detention is linked to long-standing (neo)imperial and (neo)colonial relations, as well as tied to international law and mechanisms of governance. For instance, Amy Nethery, Brynna Rafferty-Brown, and Savitri Taylor’s contribution on Indonesia was especially interesting given the influence of Australia on the development, implementation, and expansion of detention in the country, due largely to Australia’s funding and according to its interests. I also appreciated the inclusion of chapters drawing on empirical research, such as Nicolas Fischer’s ethnographic work at a detention centre in France.

Immigration Detention is focused primarily on the confinement of asylum seekers. The editors explain that this is ‘because of the unique and important legal, moral, political, and practical issues that the detention of asylum seekers raises’ (p. 4). Undoubtedly, this particular manifestation of detention policy and practice is troubling, and there’s a significant body of research documenting how the vulnerabilities often present in asylum-seeking populations makes detention especially problematic for this group. However, I worry that the narrow focus on the detention of asylum seekers may inadvertently work to reinforce the assumption that other migrants, such as former prisoners or visa over-stayers, are more deserving of, or suitable for, detention. It risks simplifying complex legal statuses and personal histories and experiences into binary categories of asylum-seeker and other, while unintentionally drawing on and (re)circulating related assumptions about innocence and deservedness. For this reader, the editorial choice to focus on the detention of asylum seekers could’ve been better explicated in order to recognise the associated benefits and pitfalls.

Immigration Detention provides an important baseline of information about detention policies and practices from around the world, including their development and genesis, current (at time of writing) manifestation, and, in some instances, changing character. Its clear writing style makes the book accessible to non-specialists and undergraduate students. The book represents a welcome addition to the growing academic literature on immigration detention and would be of interest to those in law, criminology, and migration studies. 

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Turnbull, S. (2016) Book Review: Immigration Detention: The Migration of a Policy and Its Human Impact. Available at: (Accessed [date]).