Friday, 14 June 2013

The Politics of Detention

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 illicit or threatening forms of mobility, and a necessary part of effective deportation procedures, it is more accurately viewed as a means through which categories of national citizenship, identity and security are shaped and performed. Contemporary detention facilities – from prisons and removal centres to airport ‘hotels’, temporary holding centres and accommodation hostels – produce flexible spaces of control where multiple aims of protection, policing and punishment coalesce. In this sense, detention is productive: it creates and sustains ‘the detainee’ as a particular kind of political subject. The failure of the Home Office’s own policies relating to the treatment of victims of torture suggests that concerns to manage ‘the detainee’ securely tends to override states’ other (humanitarian) obligations to people fleeing persecution, suffering and violence.

Scholars and activists working on detention increasingly emphasise the political challenges that detention poses to western states, with their avowed concern with protecting liberties and freedoms. Detention practices show that these freedoms and liberties always rely on exceptions and exclusions. Scholars also note that detention is increasingly preventative and preemptive - intercepting the movement of people seeking humanitarian protection, exporting the sovereign border away from territorial state boundaries and constraining the mobility of people in the name of national security.

These are some of the issues that will be discussed at The Politics of Detention seminar, part of an ESRC-funded series. The seminar will address the following questions: What kinds of political subjects are produced by detention? How, precisely, do detention practices differentially value people and lives?  What kinds of authority, knowledge and expertise shape detention? Through what devices does detention constrain dissent and protestation? How are these devices experienced? What challenges face those who wish to open spaces for the political contestation of detention? To what extent does contemporary detention blur the lines between protection, prevention and punishment?" 

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