Guest post by Sarah Hughes, a second-year PhD student based in Durham University’s Department of Geography. Her research brings into conversation literatures on creativity with debates on resistance within the interstitial spaces of the UK asylum regime. This blog post is based upon her recent article entitled ‘Beyond Intentionality: Exploring Creativity and Resistance within a UK Immigration Centre. Follow Sarah on Twitter @Sarah_Hughes90.

All detained persons shall be provided with an opportunity to participate in activities to meet, as far as possible, their recreational and intellectual needs and the relief of boredom. ‒ The Detention Centre Rules 2001, No. 238, Part 2, Rule 17(1)

Creative activities within the UK detention estate have been predominantly framed as a means to alleviate the boredom that characterises many lived experiences of the detention regime. Within the academy, creative activities within immigration removal centres (IRCs) have primarily been explored in relation to concerns around mental health, identity formation, citizenship claims, and are frequently present in work on everyday realities of detainees as activities that help to pass the time of waiting (see work by Mary Bosworth and Alexandra Hall).

My research contributes to and extends this engagement with creativity by focussing upon how an attention to creativity can help us develop an understanding of resistance within these contested spaces. I’m working alongside Music in Detention, a charity that runs optional music workshops inside the centres for detainees, to explore the role of music within the centres and what this might be able to tell us about resistance.

Resistance in UK IRCs

This framing of creative activities as a distraction contrasts with how resistance has been conceptualised within IRCs. Resistance here has been frequently framed by the view that specific ‘acts of resistance’ require the intention of subjects and/or the recognition of intent by a target or observer. Much attention has consequently been given to discrete moments of defiance such as hunger strikes, marches, lip and eye-socket sewing, institutional complaints, and politically motivated disruptive artwork. Action here is interpreted as directed towards an envisaged result, at a future considered preferable to the present.

My work provides an intervention within these debates, suggesting that exclusively considering resistance that takes a particular form increases ‘the visibility of these modes of politics whilst simultaneously rendering other modes invisible.’ Such a position limits our understanding of these spaces and those within them. I’m therefore following Foucault to argue that to resist something is to create something, as ‘inventive, as mobile’ as power itself, and it’s for this reason that I’ve turned to the creative, looking at music and art to explore other ways of thinking about resistance within UK IRCs.

‘Music in Detention’ by Zbigniev Cedro, detainee at Haslar Immigration Removal Centre, 2008

Yet, in arguing for an attention to resistance beyond intent, I’m not stating that intent is insignificant when researching resistance, and neither do I want to negate the imperative to act to prevent deportation, the importance of supporting campaigns to help detainees, or the psychological impacts that doing something about their situations may have upon those held in this state. Instead, I’m looking at the possible limitations of only understanding resistance as constituted by seemingly intentional acts. Here, I’m turning to look at the multiplicities, complexities and ambiguities within creative processes that allow for an openness to a ‘future that has yet to be determined,’ one that exceeds that dictated by the state.

(Dis)united Beats: Improvised Music in an IRC

Joseph [an IRC officer] explained that he was going to sing a song from his home country in Southern Africa that he had learnt in 5th grade. This was interesting as although Joseph works for [an outsourced management company] he was making it that known he too was a migrant, and from Southern Africa - directly linking him with many of the detainees present. Joseph then sang a song in Zulu, which some of the detainees knew and joined in with shouts of recognition, whilst the rest of us just sat and drummed along with the beat.  ‒ Field notes

This moment where the music played connected to the past experiences of some of those at the workshop, is helpful for illustrating the importance of framing resistance as plural, as the intervention of officer Joseph doesn’t ‘fit’ into the anticipated detainee acting against the state. Instead, as an IRC officer with his own migration journey, Joseph is complexly woven into the detention regime: a security worker, a migrant, with a history of suffering or loss. It’s not possible to capture this ambiguous positioning that Joseph embodies, and therefore he exceeds the governing lines of in/exclusion drawn by the state.

Yet shutting down moments by categorizing them as to whether or not they can be considered acts of resistance is an interpretation that limits the reading of these acts. In my work I’m turning to look at creativity to argue that an act, encounter, or thought can be both resistant and compliant, and settling on it as ‘resistance’ can ignore the ambiguities that serve to unsettle any definitive sense of what the future might bring and the opening up of new possibilities for political claims within these spaces.

This example resonates with the broader argument of my PhD, that when thinking about resistance within the UK asylum regime, we need to be attentive also to resistances beyond that of intentional actions against the state. In the context of the UK asylum regime, a world of complete certainty and determined futures would constitute a fully administered world with no possibility for politics and no space for political claims to be made. The creativity of the detainees provides ambiguous moments where the certainty of their exclusion is disrupted. The moments that I’m encountering in my fieldwork contain improvisation, rhythm, laughter, and confusion and can be considered political in their very unknowability, as they challenge and resist the certainty of the production of a governable political order.

Author’s note: Importantly, Music in Detention do not campaign against detention, instead they are an independent charity that works through music to give voice to immigration detainees, create channels of communication between immigration and detention staff, local communities and the wider public. For this research, I undertook participant observation within a Music in Detention workshop for my MA dissertation in 2014. The names of the centre staff and the centre itself have been made anonymous.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Hughes, S. (2016) Creativity and Resistance within UK Immigration Removal Centres. Available at: