Shine A Light

Detention is the essence of immigration control

At any one time more than 2000 people are deprived of their liberty because a UK immigration official considers they have breached a control regulation. In a new book, Alexandra Hall argues that what goes on at the gloomy fringes of the immigration system emerges from principles that define the whole of our society.

Don Flynn
24 September 2012

Looked at from the standpoint of mainstream liberal democracy the idea that the state could be empowered to imprison tens of thousands of people each year outside of a process which considers guilt or innocence of a stated crime is at best a grave anomaly, or worst as an outright abomination.

Yet the business of managing migration according to the model favoured in developed industrial countries appears to require a routine capacity on the part of the state to incarcerate tens of thousands of people for the infringement of regulations whose very existence – let alone meaning – is often only vaguely comprehended by the alleged malefactor.

Indeed, as more than 2000 students at the London Metropolitan University have been obliged to contemplate in recent weeks, the danger of detention can arise, not because of anything the individual migrant has done, but because of the failure on the part of others who were supposed to have done something to sponsor them by maintaining bureaucratic records to the standard required by the UK Borders Agency.

It is hard to think of any other group of people in a country like Britain who can be deprived of their liberty, not for having broken a law defining a criminal act, but for breaking a rule designed to produce a required level of order and conformity on the part of administrators. Why are immigrants placed in this position of exception in our liberal democratic societies?

Welcome to Locksdon IRC

Alexandra Hall considers this question in her new book, Border Watch: Cultures of Immigration, Detention and Control. She draws on evidence from her research at the pseudonymous Locksdon Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) where she was ‘embedded’ as an academic researcher with the officers who maintained order amongst the centre’s male detainee population. In addressing the question of why we imprison immigrants Hall comes to know these staff members better than the people they watch over and her approach is to dissect the professional culture they inhabit as well as their personal attitudes and circumstances which allow them to live within and operate by its rules.

Her thesis is the startling one that establishments like Locksdon exist and operate as they do, not in contradiction to the generally liberal values of the mainstream of society, but because of them. Immigration Removal Centres are part of an approach to security which is less concerned with prohibiting things from happening, which is the characteristic of authoritarian societies, but with governing “by ‘letting things happen’ so that the consequences and effects of different outcomes might be played off against one another.”

Following Foucault and Agamben she argues that non-liberal approaches to the disciplining of society tend towards the closing off of territories and isolating communities from each other. Liberalism on the other hand encourages the crossing of borders and, in our current age, aims towards outright globalisation. In contrast to the non-liberal the type of security policy consistent with the liberal standpoint is therefore one that anticipates disorder and aims to mould individuals into order through multiple strategies of intervention and correction.


The effect of this more flexible approach is to de-emphasis immigration as being merely a question of human bodies crossing the physical frontiers of the nation, and instead to concentrate resources on managing the situations that arise when this movement has taken place. 

Hall’s discussion of the culture of security in Locksdon centres on the phenomenon of ‘bodywatching’ on the part of the removal centre staff. Bodywatching is a special way of observing the movement and behaviour of the observed that allows the observer to extract information without knowing anything about the personal background of the individual concerned. Lingering on corridors, spending a fraction of time too long gazing out of a window, the particular way shoulders might be hunched when addressing an officer, are all significant factors that might prefigure open defiance of the order of the establishment. 

Knowing how to bodywatch involves knowledge passed from officer to officer across a network of professional and personal relationships that embody codes of reliability and trust. The strongest bonds exist between those who share a military background or long experience in the prison service. Beyond this group a periphery exists of unreliable elements who take too seriously official management injunctions to respect cultural diversity and empathise with the position of the detainee.

Bodywatching mobilises racial stereotyping, providing the officer with the lens of the ‘typical’ African, or whoever, whose protests against the indignities of detention can be put down to ‘overexcitable natures’.  On occasion it will also identify an individual who even the hardened officer will consider to have been unfairly treated, usually on the basis of their fluency in English and the approximation of their response to their predicament to that of people from the class which most detention officers will identify with.

For Hall, Locksdon is not so much a place of rigid rules and harsh discipline, but somewhere in which order is constantly negotiated and re-negotiated on the basis of the countless judgements which are made at all the points in the day when officer and detainee interact with one another.  But it is a negotiation in which one party has the stronger hand in determining the legitimacy of the order in which both officer and detainee live.

The perspectives which Michel Foucault’s and other thinkers who follow the same path brought to the themes of imprisonment and punishment runs throughout this book. This can lead to the view that the only thing that can be usefully said about immigration policy is its capacity to detain and imprison people, with less consideration given to the other ways that constitute liberal society’s much wider project of maintaining surveillance and control over immigrant populations.

Long before we get to prison officers, others need to be inculcated into the habits of bodywatching, from employers, with their duty to record the immigration status of employees, college and university authorities, who need to report on attendance, satisfactory progress, and anything else potentially relevant to the immigration authorities, right down to you and me, on the high street and the supermarket check-out queue, always aware of ‘anything suspicious’ and the need to make use of that Crimewatch phone number if we see anything that might justify an immigration raid on an unsuspecting household or workplace.

Though dealing with the narrow space of an Immigration Removal Centre, Hall sets out some principles that might help us understand how immigration comes to be placed right across society, and to appreciate better that it happens this way not necessarily because our social systems are authoritarian, but quite possibly because they operate unreflectively on the basis of liberal principles which merit much closer scrutiny.


This piece is republished, with thanks, from Migrants’ Rights Network.


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