In advance of the ESRC-funded seminar The Politics of Detention, to be held at York on 1 July 2013, Alex Hall gives some background to the rise of detention as a means of managing human mobility in the west.
"The recent High Court order to the Home Office to pay compensation to four torture survivors who were held in British immigration detention centres once again (briefly) thrust the issue of detention into the headlines. The case revealed that people who claim to have been tortured are not always medically examined and released from detention, as Home Office rules dictate. The case affirms what critics of immigration detention have long argued: that victims of violence, sexual assault and people with serious mental and physical problems routinely find themselves detained in the UK.
Detention has become increasingly controversial over the last two decades, as the power to confine non-nationals under immigration law and in the name of security has been steadily entrenched across western states. Detention brings to mind high profile cases from the ‘war on terror’ - Guantánamo Bay, the secretive practices of extraordinary rendition, and the pre-charge detention of people suspected of terrorist activities but unable to be convicted under normal juridical procedures. The relationship between the detention of people deemed threatening and risky and the pursuit of security is hardly new, but detention has become increasingly normalised and pervasive in western states over the last decade. More specifically, the framing of human mobility as a problem of security means that detention is more than ever viewed as a vital tool in ‘effective’ state immigration control and the ‘robust’ management of western borders.
Under UK immigration law, non-nationals can be administratively detained pending a deportation order and imminent removal, or when there is a problem with verifying someone’s identity or a perceived likelihood of a person failing to comply with the conditions of release or temporary admission. Asylum seekers may be detained to enable a rapid decision to be taken on an asylum/human rights claim, but guidelines for frontline staff nonetheless state there should be a presumption ‘in favour of temporary admission or release’ and people should be detained for the ‘shortest possible time’. In practice, detention populations in the UK include people who have been held for days, months or even years, and they may be categorised in various ways: as asylum seekers, ‘illegal’ migrants, ex-foreign national offenders.
Although detention is framed as a proportionate response to