Post by Thomas Ugelvik, Associate Professor, Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law, University of Oslo. This post is the first instalment of Border Criminologies themed week on Immigration Control: Staff Perspectives organised by Thomas.

Immigration Control: Staff Perspectives

Migration and border control research has often focused on the life worlds of the migrants being policed, detained, and deported. For this week’s series of blog entries, we want to adopt a different perspective. The five posts this week all highlight the experiences and points of view of the various government officials working in different parts of the Norwegian immigration control system. Directorate of Immigration case workers, reception centre officials, immigration police officers, Norwegian police officers seconded to Frontex, and immigration detention centre officers all have in common the need to find meaning and purpose in doing jobs that are highly controversial. This series of blog entries discuss professional migration control workers’ understandings of their work and how they cope with and thrive in their jobs. To start it off, I will contribute with a brief discussion of findings resulting from my research at Trandum, an immigration detention centre located next to the main Oslo airport in Norway. 

View from a plane taking off from Gardermoen airport, Oslo. Immigration detention centre buildings can be seen in the distance. (Photo: © T. Ugelvik)

Legitimacy and Immigration Detention in Norway

The Police Aliens Holding Centre at Trandum is Norway’s only high-security immigration detention centre. Since its opening, Trandum has been a controversial institution in the eyes of the Norwegian public. Staff at Trandum have to live with the fact that their place of work is regularly compared with a Third Reich concentration camp in newspaper op-eds. While Norwegian prison staff in general are proud of their job and happy to talk about it, several officers at Trandum told me that they avoid telling strangers they meet at a party where they work. No wonder, then, that active self-legitimation work is important for Trandum staff. For detention centre officers, successfully dealing with the institutional legitimacy deficit is an important part of the job.

As Tankebe and Liebling state in the introduction to their edited book Legitimacy and Criminal Justice, the recent interest in legitimacy within criminology has been primarily focused on procedural justice. Without denying that procedural justice is an important part of the whole, in this blog I’m interested in the more informal behind-the-scenes or backstage narrative legitimation work that goes on wherever immigration detention officers meet over a meal, a cup of coffee, or a cigarette. The idea is that self-legitimation, at least in part, is produced through the telling and sharing of stories. In my analysis, four kinds of stories are regularly used by officers at Trandum for this purpose: (1) stories that attribute responsibility to individual detainees (‘it’s his own fault, he brought this on himself’); (2) cautionary tales about disturbed, risky, or dangerous detainees (‘these are dangerous people, we must protect ourselves and the other detainees’); (3) stories about the proficiency or professionalism of staff (‘we are trained to do this, we know what we’re doing’); and finally (4) stories about Trandum as a humane and decent institution (‘this is a decent place, we treat people properly, there’s nothing really to complain about’). Although there are important differences between individual officers, and between officer sub-cultures, these are types of stories, not types of people. In my experience, an officer can share a ‘war story’ about ‘flooring’ a nasty and dangerous detainee one minute, and talk―with great pride―about that time she or he managed to diffuse a situation and avoid a fight the next.

The different stories shared around the lunchtime table are targeted at different implicit criticisms, but in a sense, they accomplish the same. The four sub-genres of lunch table narratives all tell a tale about a legitimate immigration detention centre. Stories about dangerous or deranged detainees are directed at critical voices claiming that Trandum is, in effect, nothing more than a prison for people who don’t belong in a prison. Stories about the humanization of detainees are directed at claims that Trandum is a terrible place where people are treated badly. For immigration detention officers, legal legitimacy and procedural justice are undoubtedly important for their professional sense of self, but knowing that your acts comply with dusty, leather-bound law volumes isn’t enough. The informal narrative self-legitimation work creates a sense of common sense of destiny and esprit de corps. According to Rodney Barker:

Regimes can survive an absence, failure or collapse of legitimation amongst their subjects. They cannot survive a collapse of legitimation within the personnel of government. When subjects lose faith in rulers, government becomes difficult. When rulers lose confidence in themselves, it becomes impossible.

The everyday ritual of sharing stories that validate their actions as important, decent, and legitimate may be absolutely vital for detention centre officers doing emotionally difficult and highly controversial work.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Ugelvik, T. (2016) Tales of Legitimate Immigration Detention. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2016/02/tales-legitimate (Accessed [date]).