Shine A Light

Wasted lives in UK immigration detention

Yarl’s Wood, the UK Border Agency’s notorious Bedfordshire detention centre, is once again mired in scandal. How to make the inhuman absurdity of immigration detention freshly visible?

Imogen Tyler
2 October 2013

Since it was opened on 19 November 2001, migrants and their activist allies have been campaigning against Yarl’s Wood, a detention centre which holds 900 people and is currently run under contact by the outsourcing giant SERCO. Yarl’s Wood is a human waste production facility. In just over a decade we have witnessed riots, fires, naked protests and hunger strikes by immigration detainees. There have been many allegations of racism, abuse and violence by detainees and undercover journalists. There has been report after report published and circulated by NGOs, activists, and medical bodies, condemning the conditions in detention, the length of time people are held and the absence of adequate medical and legal support systems. Now serious allegations of sexual exploitation of detainees by guards have been exposed by The Observer.

Alan White, writing in the New Statesman, has described Yarl's Wood as “An object lesson in how evil happens”.

It is time for a public inquiry.

It is time to shut this factory down.

But we will only do this by changing how the public think about – and how they perceive – immigration detention.

In what follows I examine one attempt to make the inhuman absurdity of the British immigration detention system newly visible.

The short black comic film “Asylum” (2011, Directed by Joern Utkilen) depicts the lives of two migrants Alfred Islami (Mihai Arsene) and Wan Yun Ji (Andy Cheung) living through the interminable time of an immigration detention centre in Scotland. Immigration detention, “Asylum” reveals, is characterised by an excess of time. In the absurdist tradition of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ (1953) the detainees ‘can only kill time, as they are slowly killed by it’ (Bauman 1998: p. 88).

Alfred Islami dreams of running a biodynamic farm, he spends time reading about bio-dynamic farming methods, acting out his farming fantasies with the few props, chairs, pot-plants, rubber gloves, at his disposal and attempting to procure potatoes and cows from detention officials. Alfred shares a shabby room in the detention centre with Wan Yun Ji (Andy Cheung). While Alfred spends his time playing farmer in order to ‘kill time’, Wan Yun Ji engages in repeated acts of self-harm, including cutting his wrists in a failed suicide attempt and throwing himself through the glass window of his detention centre room. These different strategies of survival represent attempts not only to pass time but to sustain some semblance of agency and self-determination. These are activities which stave off (the seemingly inevitable) psychological deterioration into zombie-like “dead but undead” states of being, which overwhelm detainees around them.


Asylum, 2011

Zygmunt Bauman argues that one of the major characteristics of global capitalism is the manufacture of ever greater numbers of ‘wasted humans’ within and at the borders of sovereign territories (Bauman, 2004, p. 5). The rise of neoliberal social and economic policies since the 1970s has accelerated “human waste production”. In particular, the staggering economic inequalities effected by neoliberal globalization have led to an increase in migrations and border-crossings around the world, particularly from the former communist bloc and from the Global South toward the more affluent countries of the Global North. Growing numbers of wasted lives are no longer be contained within the ‘dumping grounds’ and shanty towns of the South, but are visible as shadow populations at and within the borders of wealthy nations — slum-dwellers, illegal workers, rough-sleepers, immigration detainees.

Bauman suggests that the world is now characterised by two classes of people: tourist-consumers, those with agency who are free to consume and move, and vagabonds, disposable populations who get stuck and whose lives are often wasted. What distinguishes these two classes is mobility, the relative freedom to move across borders. As Abby Peterson summarises, for the tourists ‘distances are easily bridged [...] and borders are easily crossed’ (Peterson, 2010, p. 16). By way of contrast, when vagabonds attempt to cross borders:

"they travel surreptitiously, often illegally, sometimes paying more for the crowded steerage of a stinking unseaworthy boat than others pay for business-class gilded luxuries and are frowned upon, and if unlucky, arrested and promptly deported, when they arrive." (Bauman in Peterson, 2010, p. 16).

In the case of unwanted migrants, immigration detention centres are factories of human waste production which strip people of their human dignity and reproduce them as dehumanized, deportable beings. Joern Utkilen’s Asylum is a meditation on the human waste disposal industry. From the name of the detention centre, ‘Dungwood’ , a reference to Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre in Scotland, to Islami’s explanations of the shit-based science of biodynamic farming, to Wan Yun Ji’s poem ‘Shit Hole’ , this film is about the production of wasted lives. It is a story told from the perspective of migrants interpellated as illegal, deportable, waste. Through a black comic lens, it examines what it might mean to find oneself constituted as disposable, and what the conditions for surviving such an abject classification might be.

Shit Hole A poem by Wan Yun Ji

This place is shit hole, shit hole, shit hole.

Food here taste like smell of shit hole, shit hole, shit hole.

Only one way out, toilet.

Thank you for teaching me English now I can say to warden please don’t kick my shit hole, shit hole, shit hole.

The protagonists of Asylum resist and survive the human waste removal centre. While Islami fails to persuade the detention centre manager to allow him to transform Dungwood into a biodynamic farm, by the end of the film he has succeeded in obtaining a ‘live potato’. Wan Yun Ji, is in a wheelchair after throwing himself through the window, but has found love (and a possible route out of imprisonment) with a Scottish Nurse who cared for him in hospital. In the final scene of the film we see Islami planting his potato in the grounds of the detention centre with Wan Yun Ji beside him. Embracing the philosophy of biodynamic farming, they have both find ways to resist their designation as human waste. The moral of Asylum seems to be that there is always some value, some life, some comedy and some hope, to be extracted from the shit holes in which we find ourselves.

While we are witnessing the intensification of the production of wasted lives, we are also living in a period of intensive resistance to wider processes of disenfranchisement. This is a time when people around the world are questioning deepening inequalities, the impoverishment of democracy, the marketization of welfare, the proliferation of surveillance cultures and the militarisation of borders. In this context it is important to map, explore and document some of the diversity and vitality of protests against border regimes in a range of local and national contexts. The difficulty of resistance and the creative means through which migrants, artists and activists engage in protest.


Asylum, 2011

We also need to reflect on questions of in/visibility and in particular the centrality of representations and perceptual frames in creating value and prescribing differential values to human lives. Equality and justice requires transformations in the relations ‘between words and things, between words and the visible’ and a reorganization of ‘the sensory configuration of what is given to us and how we can make sense of it’ (Rancière 2008, 174).

Documenting resistance and protest involves the creation of new aesthetics of migration, which in turn can be used to question the inclusive/exclusive logic of citizenship and the language and economics of illegality. So whilst everyday resistances might go unnoticed, and even spectacular events such street protests might register as little more than minor disturbances within the public sphere, the restaging and repetition of these acts form part of a critical practice of counter-mapping which creates a fabric of resistance.

(Stills from Asylum, 2011, directed by Joern Utkilen. This piece first appeared on Imogen Tyler's blog,
Social Abjection. A longer version will appear as an afterword by Imogen Tyler & Katarzyna Marciniak to ‘Immigrant Protest: Politics, Aesthetics and Everyday Dissent’ SUNY Press 2014)


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