Post by Andriani Fili, Managing Editor of the Border Criminologies blog and PhD Candidate at Lancaster University. Andriani is currently working on her PhD ‘Mapping Resistance in Immigration Detention’. This is the final instalment of Border Criminologies’ themed series, which includes short posts based on chapters from the book 'Criminal Justice Research in an Era of Mass Mobility', edited by Andriani Fili, Synnøve Jahnsen and Rebecca Powell.

Detention centres are filled with voices. Sometimes they are loud and their echo is strong; other times they are muted. But, who is their audience? Does listening enable representation? Can we ever speak for others? Drawing on my experiences as a researcher and an NGO practitioner in immigration detention centres in Greece, in my chapter ‘Voices in Immigration Detention Centres in Greece’, I explore whether it is possible to represent the voices of immigrant detainees in a way that may have a positive impact on their situation. While I understand that my accounts in the chapter might leave mine or others’ work open to challenge, I see it as a way of accounting for ‘emotional baggage’. To imply that challenging encounters such as the ones recounted in the paper do not happen is to ensure that novice researchers and practitioners are not prepared or equipped to face them. It hides the emotionally and intellectually demanding components of our work in immigration detention. I have, thus, taken to writing about my experiences in order to help make sense of them and what they might suggest for the role of academic scholarship and the third sector in places of confinement.

Female wing, Petrou Ralli detention centre (Photo: Gavriella Morris)

Immigration detention has, for many years, been Greece’s key policy for managing irregular arrivals. It offers a means of satisfying European Union (EU) demands to secure Europe's frontiers, appeasing Greek citizens by discouraging the visibility of undocumented people, and attempting to deter prospective arrivals by willfully making detention facilities unlivable. The situation in detention, particularly at border locations, was described as a ‘humanitarian crisis’ by UNHCR long before the so-called 'European refugee crisis' in 2015 due to its arbitrariness, overcrowding and poor conditions. After many years of expansion and a short halt in 2015 following the inauguration of the first left-wing government, the Greek state has resumed confinement and detention tactics to manage the rising number of refugees and migrants.

Despite the scale of this practice, surprisingly little is known about it, other than what we can glean from reports by human rights organisations (see here, here, here, here). As governments have restricted access to detention centres, detention practices have become resistant to change. The growing activist movement against detention, racism and fascism are very vocal about what is going on behind iron doors, however, they cannot effect change beyond their own circles. NGOs that work in detention, though strong, have limited political capital or influence vis a vis the state. Detention centres in Greece have remained the 'blind spots in migration governance as they strangely lie beyond the radar of academic research' (Rozakou forthcoming) (although see here and here). 

By offering personal examples I argue that the tendency of civil society and academia to avoid conversing with each other, with each side claiming a kind of moral high ground (hearing, understanding and representing the voices of others), assumes a compulsive quest that ‘truth’ about life in detention can be attained, from one perspective or another. While researchers and practitioners ebb and flow in and out of detention centres, dependent on their funding and access arrangements, detainees either float in the murky waters or sink hard and fast in the detention maze. Since I first encountered the immigration detention system in Greece in 2011, little has changed and people inside them continue to suffer. Without ethical accounts of representations that seek to address the who, how, who to, and why of representation, we end up with a scattering of painful stories that fail to achieve change in research participants’/beneficiaries’ situations.

Detainees do have a voice; sometimes they let it be heard, other times they prefer to be silent. Detainees speak to the authorities and to each other. They speak above and beyond fences. A number of actors listen and by virtue of their positions report. Before they do, though, they have to make decisions about how to take the words out of their participants’ mouths and represent them in other outlets. Those acts of representation take myriad forms: from writing an article or a news item, to presenting conference papers and/or liaising with the authorities. But who listens? As these representations hit the brick walls of self-indulgent academic communities and indifferent governments or a xenophopic public, it becomes all the more evident that who the audiences are, matter. The impact of words can depend significantly on who else is engaging with those representations. Arguably, representation should be defined not only by what is said, but also by the audience and/or others’ recognition of and reaction to what is actually said. Understanding the interaction between speakers, audiences and other parties is thus at the heart of understanding representation, which seeks to effect change.

According to Flynn, to effectively challenge the many drivers of detention policies and practices, requires flexibility of thought, analysis, strategies, and tactics. While there is no prescriptive recipe for ethical involvement with detained people, serious consideration of the ethics of representation may provide a start to a reflexive, collaborative journey towards a shared ethics of engagement in social scientific research and practice. This would take into account a variety of voices, the urgency of particular situations, the lessons learned from the history of failed attempts to ‘save’ detainees, and the objectives and needs of different governments, social groups, and—most importantly—detainees. In this way, representing immigrant detainees in a way that may achieve political change in Greece must have many different aspects to be effective.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Fili, A. (2019) Voices in Immigration Detention Centres in Greece: Different Actors and Possibilities for Change. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/01/voices (Accessed [date])