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Deconstructing detention in Britain

Immigration detention and borders are cultural and historical constructions which criminalise and traumatise migrants. They are neither inevitable nor a given, says Nath Gbikpi.

Nath Gbikpi
27 May 2013

The number of migrants held in British immigration removal centres, also known as detention centres, is exponentially growing; meanwhile the conditions in these high-security prison-like centres are worsening. The last 20 years have seen a tenfold increase in the number of detainees: from 250 in 1993, they were 28,909 in 2012.

As recently reported on openDemocracy, we are simultaneously witnessing a growing number of litigations against unlawful detention. These include four judgements ruling breaches of article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (inhuman and degrading treatment) following the detention of individuals suffering from mental health conditions. Furthermore, the UK is one of the few European countries not to have a time limit on detention, and, according to the UN Refugee agency UNHCR, the country that detains the most migrants for the longest time periods.

It is the urge to react to this situation that motivated the student group SOAS Detainee Support Group (SDS) to organise a recent conference, which took place in London on the 26th and 27th of April. Regrouping academics, legal practitioners, students, activists, but also, and refreshingly so, ex-detainees, asylum seekers and refugees, some of the questions addressed in the conference were: ‘what are the arguments for an end to detention?’, ‘what are alternatives to detention?’, ‘are alternatives to detention at risk of co-optation by the government?’ and ‘does change happen by incremental reform or does that only normalise the very practices one wants to contest?’

The conference started with a sophisticated historical reconstruction of the practices of detention by SOAS professor Pavarthi Raman. Her speech highlighted how detention dates back to at least the 12th Century, and is based on the idea that those seen as a threat to society should be excluded from it. With the introduction of the 1920 Alien Act in Britain, migrants became ‘detainable’ on the same rationale: the image of the ‘detainable’ became constructed in opposition to the ‘good citizen’. Dr Raman situated the increasing use of detention in the wider neoliberal discourse, which promotes the need to control populations and constrain individual liberty in favour of economic profit. In this context, detention is seen as a noble practice, one on which the government prides itself before its citizens. Dr Raman concluded by calling for a discourse that has as its centre our common humanity rather than our differences. The main message I took from the speech, however, was that detention is a historical and cultural invention, and as such, is neither inevitable nor a given.

Liza Shuster from City University London followed Dr Raman’s analytical approach, pointing out that borders too are cultural and historical constructions. Taking the stage with a slide reading ‘Be realistic, demand the impossible, freedom for all’, Schuster argued that freedom of movement is possible; and that borders too can be deconstructed.

Schuster’s paper showed that borders are hugely costly on an economic level (the UK Border Agency budget in 2010 was £2.41 billion), and also damaging on a psychological, physical and emotional level. Freedom of movement would not only allow a more effective and sensible investment of money, but also, on a more humane level, recognise the political nature of human beings, based on their right and capacity to choose. While it could potentially cause a levelling down of the economic wealth of the West, Schuster argued that, comparatively, it would greatly improve overall global development. Her talk reminded me that we need to look at the consequences of freedom of movement for all, and not only for ‘us’, as is shamefully most often the case in discussions of migration.

After a night of poetry, music by Music in Detention, and Ugandan food prepared by the Confidence and Community Cooking Initiative, on Saturday participants looked at arguments and techniques to react to and contest current British practices of detention and border control. Speakers talked about the arguments for ending detention, from social, legal, medical and economic perspectives.

Stephen, an ex-detainee, spoke about the emotional disruptiveness of detention. ‘Detention is a prison’, he said, ‘a polite word to say prison’; it criminalises and traumatises migrants. Starting with the premise that access to legal advice is access to justice, Alison Pickup, a barrister from Doughty Street Chambers, then drew attention to the situation of detainees without legal representation. This, she explained, was the situation of a quarter of all those detained in 2012: they could not know whether their detention was lawful, or how to get out of detention. Furthermore, as she pointed out, detainees without legal advice cannot know whether it is possible to challenge their removal.

Frank Arnold, one of the founding directors of Medical Justice, then argued that detention is medically unsustainable. Health care in detention, he said, is ‘frequently inadequate, often unethical, regularly damaging to health, occasionally lethal’. During his career, Dr Arnold has witnessed four deaths due to failures to diagnose brain tumours, TB and serious heart conditions. Failures to adequately examine detainees also mean that torture survivors are frequently unlawfully detained. Psychologically, it is well noted that detention re-traumatises torture survivors.

Finally, Meena Venkatachalam, from Matrix knowledge consultancy, demonstrated that detention is economically unprofitable. Her organisation has recently conducted a research project answering the question ‘what are the economic benefits of an early release as alternative to long term detention – i.e. more than 3 months – for migrants who are eventually released anyway?’

The cost of detention per day per person is £110, while the cost of release under Section 4 (a system of asylum support which includes accommodation and living expenses, available to refused asylum seekers and former detainees) is £12.66. Meanwhile, payouts for unlawful detention cost, on average, £7.5 million per year. Based on these facts, the consultancy found that over five years, the benefit of releasing detainees under section 4 would be of £377.4 million. This, Venkatachalam pointed out, is a conservative finding, since it does not take into account mental health, self-harm and other arguments that would make the case against detention even stronger.

The arguments for an end to detention are endless. But how do we get there?

Expanding on his recent article on openDemocracy, Jerome Phelps from Detention Action spoke to conference participants about alternatives to detention. Detention, he argued, is in crisis in the UK, not only for the growing number of unlawful detention litigations, but also, in line with Schuster’s and Venkatachalam’s arguments, for the inefficient and wasteful use of public money it represents. £75 million a year are spent on the detention estate. Phelps also pointed out the high percentage of migrants who, after having been detained for 24 months or more, are ultimately released (57%). To be able to implement change, he said, NGOs need to engage with the state and its priorities; to show the government that it can meet its priorities, and those of migrants, without detention.

Not everyone agreed with this position. For Adeline Trude, from Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID), any alternative based on case management schemes, for example, (that is schemes where migrants are released to community-based support where they receive a variety of services including legal advice and welfare support), would only coerce more people who would otherwise not be detained. The solution, Adeline argued, lies in addressing current problems rather than finding alternatives.

Lisa Matthews, coordinator of the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC), was even more sceptical of the idea of alternatives to detention. Speaking about alternatives to detention, she said, risks normalising the very practice that one wants to contest. A discussion of alternatives, many participants felt, is thus only good insofar as it opens a space to contest the practices of detention themselves.

Notwithstanding the atmosphere of dialogue and respectful confrontation of the day, we didn’t find one best solution for ending practices of detention, and many questions ultimately remain open. Yet we certainly all agreed that we are all working towards a common goal, and that we need all actors, with their different approaches, to work together to create a movement with a common strategy.

While academics can deconstruct common assumptions and researchers can provide data to construct arguments, practitioners can act ‘here and now’. Campaigners can raise public awareness and refugees can make their voices heard. One ex-detainee pointed out, for example, that improving conditions in detention is extremely important; and that those of us who think that fighting for improved conditions in detention will only normalise the practice should probably put their pride aside and listen to those who are in fact affected by detention. Again, and it never hurts to repeat it, cooperation and dialogue are key.

I myself came out of the conference with the painful realisation that I had come to accept detention, to accept borders. I had started to act and think in terms of improving the conditions of detention, and the living conditions of migrants more generally, but forgetting the broader picture. For me, a key message that came out of the conference was not so much that we will soon see a future without immigration detention; I believe we will probably not. Rather, that we need to constantly challenge all our assumptions; that it is morally wrong to detain non criminals like criminals; that the difference that we see between citizens and migrants is constructed, and can, and needs to, be deconstructed. Only then we can hope for a future without detention...and a future without borders.

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