Uncertainty and despair: psychological violence in UK migrant detention policy

Ali Bilgic and Athina Gkouti

People take part in a demonstration against Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedford, UK on 8 August 2015. Photo: Andrea Baldo via Getty Images

If we were to… have a blanket policy of not detaining pregnant women… I fear we would find quite a lot of people saying they were pregnant as another method of delaying their departure from the UK… I do not want this to be an excuse that women who are not pregnant dream up in order to throw a legal obstacle in the way.

These were the words of Mark Harper, former Minister for Immigration, in a UK Parliament debate on the detention of pregnant women on 5 September 2013. They not only reflect troubling assumptions the UK government makes about some immigrants but also demonstrate how gendered these assumptions are.

Our article in International Affairs, ‘Who is entitled to feel in the age of populism?’, investigates migrant detention policy in Britain. We found that detention is less a principled and regulated policy, and more akin to an unregulated performance, acted out for anti-immigrant audiences to ease fears about immigration. While detention has no significant benefit and high financial cost, the emotional and psychological violence detainees endure often goes unnoticed.

We were particularly interested in women because women migrants experience higher rates of exploitation than men and are less likely to be able to meet the financial cost of regularising their status — often meaning they end up in detention. Detention also relies on a model of state power and control which operates in gendered ways particularly for younger women. Women are also more likely to have caring responsibilities which are severely disrupted when they are detained, resulting in feelings of despair and uncertainty about dependents.

Private profit and mass incarceration

In the 1990s, only a few hundred migrants were detained annually, and only then in exceptional circumstances. However, by the migration ‘crisis’ of 2015–16, detention had become normalized, with tens of thousands detained per year and penal characteristics introduced throughout the detention system.

Both the physical infrastructure of immigrant detention and the management of detainees are adapted from the practices of penal institutions. Contemporary detention in the UK is characterized by human transport in barred vans; police-like uniforms for immigration officers; detainee uniforms and solitary confinement in some cases. Notably, these practices take place in the absence of a formal charge, which prevents the incarcerated from enjoying the rights bestowed by criminal law.

The UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights report underscores the lack of time limits on detention, its punitive character, financial cost, and the underlying lack of evidence to show that detention reduces irregular migration. Indeed, in the financial year 2017–2018, the detention estate cost UK taxpayers £108 million, according to the Home Office. The profitability of the industry is not fully known because of commercial confidentiality agreements. However, analysis in 2018 by the Guardian revealed a 20–40% profit margin on the contracts, some of which were valued in excess of £200 million.

The political theatre of mass detention

The main justification for the policy from the Home Office has long been the importance of detention in deterring ‘illegal’ immigration. However, this argument does not account for the number of immigrants released after winning legal arguments against their detention, which is higher every year than those deported. In 2019, 58% of detainees had sought asylum during their immigration process, including while they were in detention. Some of our interviewees were also asylum-seekers. The detention system does not enforce immigration law.

What, therefore, is the driving force behind this inefficient, costly, and legally problematic policy? Our argument is that detention, like other ‘migration control’ policies such as the militarisation of the Channel to stop crossings or ‘Go Home’ Vans, is part of a political performance to ease anti-immigrant emotions of fear and anxiety, which have escalated since far-right populism has started to shape the UK’s political agenda. These performances are not about effectiveness; their success lays in generating a feeling of security in the broader population. But at what cost?

The human cost of government policy

Before their detention and criminalisation, our interviewees felt a sense of security and safety in Britain. For one, Britain was a ‘free country’ where she could live her sexuality; another felt safer in multicultural Britain. However, these feelings of security were shattered once they were treated like criminals.

Life inside detention was marked by fear and insecurity. One issue that repeatedly came up was detention officers ‘calling’ them to their office, creating uncertainty and despair. Although ‘the call’ could be about anything, morning calls to ‘sign transfer papers’ were perceived by our interviewees as tactics to ‘break them’ so they could sign documents to leave the UK ‘voluntarily’.

One of the most important findings was that detention deeply damaged their sense of belonging to British society. Detention without reasoning and justification, time limits, or legal advice caused emotional and psychological distress. One interviewee who grew up in the UK stated that, after detention, she felt like an outsider, now aware of her rightlessness and race. Fear of being detained again for no reason shaped their everyday lives in Britain as a direct result of the arbitrary and punitive uses of detention characteristic of UK government policy.

Solutions and political obstacles

Two important changes in direction are needed to move UK migrant detention policy away from arbitrary mass detention. Firstly, a more comprehensive legal framework that clarifies under what conditions immigrants can be detained and for how long is urgently needed to stop this legally dubious process of arbitrary and indefinite detention. Secondly, community-based systems where detention is the last resort should be introduced. International Detention Coalition and Detention Action have formulated these cost-effective alternatives. Unlike detention, alternative systems do not break the connection between the immigrant and their broader community, ensuring that the individual’s integration into society is not brutally interrupted by unjustifiable incarceration.

However, the question of detention is, at its heart, political rather than technical. Detention developed because migrants are consistently seen as threats by politicians and the public in an age of heightened anti-immigrant populism. As long as government policy remains driven by the desire to capitalize on anti-immigrant sentiment, it remains unlikely that the UK detention system will become less psychologically violent, punitive or arbitrary in the foreseeable future.

Ali Bilgic is Reader in International Relations and Security at Loughborough University and Emeritus Professor at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

Athina Gkouti works at an international organization that supports refugees and asylum seekers in the UK.

Their article, ‘Who is entitled to feel in the age of populism? Women’s resistance to migrant detention in Britain’, was published in the March 2021 issue of International Affairs.

Read the article.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.

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