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The Refugee Experience Book Reviews: Border Watch

This week the government announced that the UK will take 20,000 Syrian refugees between now and 2020. This has prompted Jo Manby to look back at her archive for reviews of books, available in our library, that look at the refugee experience in Britain. Read the others here and here.

This review is adapted from an original piece published in the Centre’s journal Ethnicity and Race in a Changing World.

Book review: Border Watch: Cultures of Immigration, Detention and Control by Alexandra Hall (Pluto Press: London and New York, 2012)

This ethnographically researched volume uncovers the hidden day-to-day world of the immigration detention centre from the perspective of the officers. Its premise is that an understanding of the effects of the act of detaining individuals relies upon an awareness of the intimate details of how exactly the ‘secure regime’ works on the level of ordinary, everyday experience and interaction.

Photograph of people in an airport walking towards UK Border checkpoint
Source: dannyman,

Theresa May announced the closing of the UK Border Agency (UKBA) in 2013, its work returning to the Home Office as UK Visas & Immigration. Meanwhile to many, detention still denotes the preservation of national security and the control of ‘populations of out-of-place, potentially risky immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees’ (p.4). Its mechanisms and processes are shrouded in secrecy and it is only occasionally that, with incidents such as the fire at Yarl’s Wood centre in 2002 or the death of a man undergoing forcible deportation in 2010, immigration detention comes to the public’s attention.

Hall’s first, introductory chapter outlines the backdrop of immigration law, border security; the reach of sovereign power; the creation of the condition the philosopher Giorgio Agamben describes as ‘bare life’, ‘a biopolitical state where a person is stripped of political status and becomes abject: unworthy, excludable, undesirable’ (p.12); and ethical systems in detention.

It also summarises the staff structure and regime of the fictitious detention centre that is the focus of the study, which she calls ‘Locksdon’, as well as the existing literature and the methodology involved in her research. Chapter 2 enters the daily life of Locksdon, beginning with material gleaned from discussion with an employee, Ed Davies, who regretted changes made in the detention system whereby an officer no longer enjoyed the relative freedom of using their own discretion in certain situations. He felt there was a concomitant loss of control over the detainees, who, he was at pains to emphasise, ‘…“could be anyone. We have no idea who they are and what they are doing here”’ (p.28).

Visual control was referred to by Ed, including ‘bodywatching’; the surreptitious, vigilant observation of detainees, ‘a set of embodied visual habits, which constantly “read” the detainee’s body as a site where intent and proclivity could be discerned ahead of time’ (p.29). The chapter then moves into the reception of a new detainee, remarking on the language and attitudes of the officers, who took a new detainee through what they call a ‘dirty room’ – dirty in the sense of ‘being liminal, “polluting” and ambiguous’ (p.30), where they were strip-searched, measured and photographed, their fingerprints digitally recorded and their possessions examined.

Relationships among Locksdon officers are the subject of ‘Being There: Social Life in the Centre’. Locksdon is a men’s detention centre, although the staff includes some women. Many of the staff are ex-military, and their ‘stories, anecdotes and reminiscences’ tend to ‘invoke [  ] the (male) sociality of the barracks, pubs and training grounds of forces life’ (p.60). Hall examined intimacies and interactions between staff allied to trust and friendship, loyalty in working relationships, the gossip and speculation about one another, Locksdon’s ‘seething social complexity’ and its ‘sense of egalitarianism’ (p.82).

‘Compliance and Defiance: Contesting the Regime’ explores the ways detainees tactically negotiated the rules, for example, food refusal ‘became an issue of power and control’. To officers, it was not a matter of the detainee expressing trauma or ‘existential insecurity’ (p.91) but more likely a means of securing a transfer to a different centre. This chapter also examines the conflation of detainees’ ‘complaints or expressions of frustration, anger or desperation ….. with discourses that posited this behaviour as evidence of “unreasonableness” or “not being all there”’ (p.95); the way officers saw the detention centre as a prison, since the illegal act of ‘fraudulent entry’ invited detention as punishment; and the 2003 incident whereby detainee insurrection led to ‘an afternoon of “concerted indiscipline”’ (p.106) that had to be treated ‘“like a prison riot”’ (p.107).

Chapters 5 and 6 discuss outbreaks of violence and control and restraint procedure, and the suicide of a detainee at Locksdon in 2003 respectively. The latter subject, ‘the witnessing of a man’s death ….. precipitated an ethical moment between detainee and officer that challenged the “grammar of sovereign power” as it was lived in the detention centre’ (p.172). Hall sees this as ‘a hopeful, incongruous and unexpected reaction’ that could signify a ‘challenge to the logic of detention’ (p.172), and thereby, positive change.

By aiucentre

An open access library specialising in the study of race, ethnicity and migration. Part of the University of Manchester and based at Manchester Central Library.

3 replies on “The Refugee Experience Book Reviews: Border Watch”

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