Post by Sarah Turnbull, postdoctoral research fellow, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford.

As readers of this blog are likely aware, a defining feature of immigration detention in the United Kingdom―as in other countries like Australia, Canada, and the United States―is its indeterminacy. At present, there are no statutory constraints on the length of time an individual can be detained, although the recent report of the Parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention and its aftermath, including the broader movement calling for an end to detention, has encouraged the British government to reconsider its position.

© Border Criminologies, Immigration Detention Archive
Immigration detention is uncertain and unpredictable; it may last a few hours or a few days, or weeks, months, and even years. Through my observations and interviews over the course of my research project, the lived experience of detention appears to be one of waiting: waiting to know both when and how detention will end. Will it involve release to the community or expulsion from the country? The denial of liberty and the conditions of confinement present additional challenges for the women and men who are detained, as they must contend with significant limits to their agency as they await the decisions of a variety of other actors: their immigration caseworkers who process files off-site and are notoriously difficult to reach; the detention custody officers tasked with their care and control; their solicitors―if they’re fortunate enough to have one due to the often prohibitively high costs and the reduced access to legal aid; the judges of the immigration and asylum tribunals who make decisions about appeals; friends and family members who are often called upon to help gather documents or belongings and organise funds to retain legal representation or provide necessities for life in detention (e.g., mobile phone credit, cigarettes); and volunteers and other advocates who may (or may not) be able to assist with their situations.

In an article for a forthcoming special issue of the journal Time & Society coedited by Sarah Armstrong and Lucy Pickering, I explore the themes of waiting and uncertainty, drawing on research participants’ narratives of ‘passing time’ in immigration detention. My research supports previous findings by Mary Bosworth and Melanie Griffiths, among others, about uncertainty and unpredictability as key features of detention that shape the lived experience of this particular form of confinement.

The article considers four interconnected themes emerging from the study. The first relates to how detainees pass time in conditions of uncertainty, including the challenges of bureaucratic and institutional processes that impose significant restrictions on their agency. The second examines the experience of being, in the words of one participant, ‘stuck in the middle’ where ‘you can’t go forward; you can’t go back.’ The third theme is how some play, in the words of another participant, the ‘waiting game,’ strategically choosing to wait in detention for a resolution to their immigration cases. The fourth explores what’s at stake for those who wait, emphasising the difficulty of waiting for decisions that have the potential to fundamentally alter their life courses.

© Border Criminologies, Immigration Detention Archive
Overall, the article shows that for many participants, detention is a place of liminality where they are ‘stuck,’ for indeterminate lengths of time, while they wait to know what will happen to them and their futures. Some detainees coped with this liminality better than others, turning to their faith or pressing their caseworkers for action. Some didn’t cope well, unable or unwilling to accept bureaucratic delays and the uncertainty of their situations. In practical terms, however, few have any other choice but to wait.

The full article is available here. An earlier version of the paper is available open access through Border Criminologies’ SSRN Criminal Justice, Borders & Citizenship Research Paper Series

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Turnbull, S. (2015) Waiting and Uncertainty in Immigration Detention. Available at: (Accessed [date]).