Understanding Immigration Detention – Overview

This research, funded by the British Academy, the Nuffield Foundation and the University of Oxford, John Fell Fund aims to shed light on the nature of the detention experience.

It is the first national academic study of life in detention in Britain and is broad and exploratory in its scope. Guided by findings from prisons literature I began by concentrating on (a) Relationships: among detainees and between detainees and staff; and (b) Regimes.

As the project developed, it included questions about health and wellbeing, work and family. Non-British citizens are detained usually as a precursor to deportation, often after having lived in the UK for some years. It is, in other words, an end-point of their migration path, rather than the beginning.

Though most are only detained for a matter of months, some remain in detention for considerably longer. The study explores the impact of differential time in detention, as well as the specific experiences and accounts of ex-prisoners, who make up around 50% of those in detention.

Over the past decade, the numbers detained have grown considerably in the UK, as they have elsewhere. Yet, we know little about the impact of this practice nor its effect. This study is the first step in a bid to understand the detention experience.

As Alison Liebling (2004: xix) puts it in terms of the prison, such understanding is crucial; “questions of exterior legitimacy… which relate to the prison’s structural, political, and social properties, can only be satisfactorily addressed if we develop a fuller understanding of the interior quality of the prison, and the way these interact.’

What happens if we apply the same logic to immigration removal centres? What can life in such places tell us about the practice, purpose and impact of immigration detention?