Post by Joanne Vincett, a final year PhD candidate in the Faculty of Business and Law at The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK. Her engaged ethnographic research, as a volunteer with Yarl’s Wood Befrienders, explored the practices of compassion and coping with emotions in volunteer work to support migrant women detained in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. Alongside her research, she collaborated with Dr Sarah Turnbull on a public engagement project, ‘Art as resistance: A story from immigration detention’. This blog post reflects on how this project evolved from their separate ethnographic research projects, both within the context of Yarl’s Wood. Follow Jo @jovincett and Sarah @SL_Turnbull.

‘Who brings their children into a detention centre?!’ My husband said to me when I brought up the idea of us all going to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre to visit Kai (all names are pseudonyms), the woman I was befriending, who had been detained for five months (Fieldnotes, 3 June 2016). I had recently returned to my doctoral research after my second maternity leave; our children were one and three years old at the time. Understandably, his initial reaction was loaded with memories of when I was mysteriously taken there ten years prior to my fieldwork. I managed to convince him about visiting, but I think he had long given up on trying to understand how I could return to the centre as a researcher and volunteer after being detained there.

I thought it might lift Kai’s spirits to meet my family, and it did, if only temporarily. It changed things up from our usual conversations during my weekly visits about her drawn-out legal case, distress and overall depression caused by the uncertainty and waiting for an unknown period of time in detention. In the Visits Hall, I had seen how young children had lightened the mood for some visitors, particularly mothers, although the heart-breaking moments were seeing when they had to part ways at the end of the visits.

These mixed, and sometimes conflicting, emotions infused within the walls of detention are unforgettable even now as I have nearly completed my doctoral study, but continue to write and speak about it to diverse audiences. Continuously engaging with the public and exposing the harms of immigration detention inflicted on detained people and their families has been at the core of my work and one of the aims of the project that I have been working on with Dr Sarah Turnbull.

I first met Sarah at a Border Criminologies seminar at Oxford University in 2016 where she presented her post-doctoral research on the affective experiences of immigration detention and deportation. Her research, which was part of Mary Bosworth’s European Research Council, Starter Grant, 313362, ‘Subjectivity, Identity and Penal Power: Incarceration in a Global Age’, focussed on the concepts of ‘home’, belonging and identity of people held in four different immigration removal centres in the UK. As part of this project, all the participants experimented with visual methods. 

Later, when Sarah became a lecturer at Birkbeck University, School of Law, we met again at a symposium she co-organised there on ‘Borders, Racisms and Harms’. At the symposium, I curated and exhibited a collection of origami art made by detained women in Yarl’s Wood. Our collaboration was born from our common interests in origami art produced in detention and the dilemma about how to widely share visual and tactile ethnographic data (see Sarah’s previous work in this area). Art exhibitions may be stimulating and moving for viewers, but they are time consuming and labour intensive for exhibitors and have limited reach beyond those who physically attend the event. When a research innovation funding opportunity arose at Birkbeck, we decided to create a public engagement project, ‘Art as resistance: A story from immigration detention’, to address this dilemma.

Our approach to the project was to employ data visualisation techniques by illustrating narratives from our ethnographic data that touched on the negative effects of immigration detention on the mental health of detained people and their families. The short story crafted from our data is accompanied by illustrations by Gabi Fröden and written from the point of view of Lily, who endures life in detention by practicing origami art together with other detained women. We highlight how detained women, mainly in Yarl’s Wood, practice origami art to cope with and resist the mundane institutionalisation and harms of immigration detention. The story points out the hostility of British policies that permit detaining people without informing them of whether they will be released or removed/deported, or when. Additionally, it emphasises the lack of a statutory time limit that instils uncertainty and vulnerability in those subjected to incarceration. These lasting effects impact their social and familial relationships, as well as their abilities to lead fulfilling lives and to contribute to society even after they leave detention.

Next to engaging the public, our second aim was to open up access to social science research that is often locked within subscription-based academic journals and disseminated in text-heavy formats. By sharing our ethnographic data in an accessible and digital format, we call on more researchers to consider open, visual and creative methodologies and approaches to disseminating their findings. Social science research has the potential to tackle hidden social issues, such as the separation of parents and their children due to immigration detention in the UK, but unless broader audiences are reached, injustices may remain unchallenged.

Art as Resistance’ can be freely downloaded and shared to help educate people and build awareness of immigration detention.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Vincett, J. (2020). Public Engagement and Exposure of the Harms of Immigration Detention through Illustrated Narratives. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/01/public-engagement (Accessed [date])