Methods in Action: Pioneering Work Inside Immigrant Detection Centers

Categories: Qualitative


Immigrants are driving the narrative in politics in Western democracies, whether it’s background to the Brexit debate, a key plank in the Trump campaign or a failed strategy in the French presidential election. What often fails to win as many headlines is the story of the immigrants themselves, especially those detained and awaiting deportation.

Criminologist Mary Bosworth and social psychologist Blerina Kellezi might add that these stories also often fail to reckon in academic headlines. The pair have been studying the quality of life inside immigrant detention centers since the middle of 2010, and a recent paper in the journal Criminology and Criminal Justice outlines some of their findings from Britain’s ‘immigration removal centres,’ or IRCs. Every year a network of these IRCs hold around 32,000 foreign nationals.

Bosworth and Kellezi’s paper, “Doing research in immigration removal centres: Ethics, emotions and impact,” the first national British study of life inside IRCs, details some of the methodological, bureaucratic and emotional challenges that they faced, whether from interactions with staff or detainees or from pioneering a new set of procedures and ethics for inquiring academics.

As you might expect, flexibility and creativity proved to be key allies.

Bosworth is a professor and fellow of St. Cross College at the University of Oxford and concurrently a professor at Australia’s Monash University. She’s the director of the interdisciplinary research group Border Criminologies and assistant director of the Center for Criminology at Oxford. She’s currently heads both a five-year project on “Subjectivity, Identity and Penal Power: Incarceration in a Global Age” funded by the European Research Council as well as a Leverhulme International Network on external border control.

Kellezi is a lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, where her research interests focus on understanding how of extreme life events, such as detention, torture and human right abuses, affect health and well-being.

In the questions below, the pair detail some of the policy and methodology lessons their efforts have provided, and explain how their specific work is — and isn’t — transferrable to work in other lockups or in other countries.

 Could you briefly describe some of your key findings from the research into IRCs? Why did you opt to study this issue? Did anything you learned surprise you?

 I have been studying IRCs in the UK since 2009. Blerina joined me in 2010 and has participated in a few different projects, most recently concentrating on access to mental health in detention.

When I began the project that forms the basis of the article in CCJ almost no academic research had been permitted inside British IRCs and so we knew very little. I rather naively thought that, due to their physical similarities with prisons, that I could approach these places of confinement using methods and ideas from prison studies. While there are some overlaps, in fact IRCs, are quite distinct and far more complicated to understand. Detainees are often highly distressed. They do not view detention as a legitimate practice and are unsure what will happen to them once they leave. Staff are also somewhat more confused.

The research that Blerina and I have done as well as that by others, has found that detention centers have a very negative impact on the mental health and well-being of those detained. These are institutions of low-trust, where meaningful relationships are hard to forge and communication is difficult to manage.

Methodologically, the ethical and emotional challenges of doing this research took us by surprise. Although we had both conducted research with vulnerable people before, and in places of confinement we were not prepared for the distress we encountered in IRCs.

Do you have any policy recommendations based on your research?

Much of our work is concerned with understanding these sites. We do engage in policy recommendations, however, it remains the case that there is little political appetite for significant change. Thus, our ability to bring about change is limited to institutional matters. In this regard, we have found, like others, that whilst the experience of detention was very distressing for all detainees, there were particular categories of people who struggled most with the experience. These include those with mental health problems, those who did not speak English, torture survivors, survivors of domestic abuse, and those separated from their young children. Such people need additional assistance and support during their detention. Everyone would benefit from clearer and more consistence communication of migration policies and their casework. Staff training and support is also much needed.


Mary Bosworth, left, and Blerina Kellezi

 Looking specifically at your methods, which were the focus of your article in Criminology and Criminal Justice, what method proved most useful?

 Given the lack of trust and complexity of the issues under investigation, we had to be flexible and creative. On the whole, ethnographic observations and incorporated in-depth interviews proved to be the most useful method. At different times, however, we have also used surveys which highlighted prevalence of some issues and comparison across centers, and other, more humanities-based methods like photography and art-making. All work best when taking a reflexive approach. It is especially important to be critical about the potential and limitations of what research can achieve, and the potential implications of research findings. The distressing nature of detention calls for careful consideration of the psychological impacts on participants and researchers. Ethnography allows observe such issues without being intrusive and addition to the distress while adapting to uncertainties, negotiate trust and gaining deep knowledge. Whatever method is chosen, researchers need ongoing support during the research and in its immediate aftermath.

 In that vein, what’s new to a qualitative researcher in these institutions? What are the biggest stumbling blocks? And how did all this differ from the theoretical underpinnings you brought with you on day one?

Understanding the nature of these places is challenging methodologically and conceptually. At the start we thought, like prison scholars, that we should focus on the relationships between the custodial staff and the detainees. However, we soon realized matters were far more complex in detention than in prison. Not only are there language gaps, but also cultural, national and religious differences among detainees and a lot of general confusion.

Immigration officials are particularly important figures in detention, yet they too, take multiple forms. There are onsite Home Office employees and offsite caseworkers. Detainees, understandably, were often preoccupied with their immigration case. Indeed, their concerns about their case in many ways defines the detention experience. Fitting this into institutional research that is temporally and physically bounded, is quite difficult.

 How do you deal with suspicion from inmates? From staff?

 All researchers need to expect some suspicion. As very under-researched sites, IRCs are both more and less suspicious than you might expect. On the one hand, we did not find that the kinds of difficulties prisons scholars often encounter in talking to staff and detainees. While relations between the two groups are not always good, they did not seem to mind us talking to both sides.

We did, however, have to be particularly patient, as people were scared to talk to us. We also had to overcome practical barriers to do with language. Some detainees worried we were actually working for the government. Senior staff, on the whole, were quite welcoming. Front line staff were often overworked.

Recognizing and acknowledging distress when it was expressed was also important and this could be from participants or staff. In the end, it was important to acknowledge that whatever version of reality participants choose to share with us was valid and valuable so we did not challenge facts or press for further information when encountering resistance.

 What are the ethical concerns and how did you address those?

The main ethical concerned related to the high levels of distress expressed by participants. Safeguarding their wellbeing was essential. We continuously questioned and monitored participants to understand if our research was having any negative impact on the participants. Soon we also started collecting and distributing potential and realistic sources of support for detainees inside immigration detention.

The second challenge related to acknowledging the limitations of scholarship. While we could not help detainees in their immigration case, we sought to make research participation as useful as possible for the participants by providing a listening year or acknowledging and validating the participants’ distress. In addition, we openly engaged in discussion and provided information to participants about what our research could and could not achieve.

 I’m talking to you from the United States, where there’ve also been concerns about the detention centers for immigrants. Australia has also had this debate, and we all know about issues of refugees on the Continent. How applicable are your methods or findings to researchers outside Campsfield House or Yarl’s Wood?

 As the field of research on immigration detention remains small, we all serve to learn from empirical work conducted in other jurisdictions. There is also a lot of policy transfer. While we were in Yarl’s Wood, for instance, the officers were presented with the opportunity to go and work at the Christmas Island facility in Australia, as Serco had just been awarded the contract.

Having said that, however, there are important distinctions. On the one hand, the UK is notorious for having no statutory upper time limit to detention. On the other hand, material conditions in the centres are actually quite good. These places are run by professional officers, and so some of the sorts of problems of violence, which characterize detention in other countries has not been nearly as pronounced. Also, of course, there are fairly robust legal frameworks. Unlike Australia and the US, for instance, the UK does not detain children, other than in family groups for very short periods. There is no equivalent to the offshoring conditions of Nauru or Manus or the family detention center in the US.

Your paper, in fact, alludes to detention centers in general, which would include prisons and jails and other centers of incarceration. What are key differences – if any – between traditional lock-ups and immigrant detention centers?

There are a number of differences between IRCs and other places of detention. While detainees commonly experience their confinement as punishment, in fact these are sites of administrative detention. In practice this means they are more flexible and less encumbered by the limits that constrain the criminal justice system. The lack of a statutory upper time limit is one manifestation of this difference. Another would be the vast array of reasons for immigration detention. People are held there post-sentence, or because they have no paperwork, they’ve overstayed their visa, they never had a visa, or they violated its terms. The only real thing they have in common is that they are not British citizens. This lack of a clear pathway into detention reflects the confusion over the purpose of these sites.

In that vein, your article in Criminology and Criminal Justice noted that your research was the first ever on the ground research from an IRC. How might that differ from similar work inside a prison? Or perhaps a refugee camp?

Unlike work in refugee camps or in post conflict settings, research in an IRC takes place in a closed environment. Similarly, unlike a prison, IRCs are far more open-ended. Without the criminal sentence of a prisoner, it is unclear how long someone will be detained. And yet, as refugee camps become more securitized, and as the numbers of foreign nationals grows behind prison bars, the similarities in the spatial arrangements of these kinds of establishments are growing. These days it is more appropriate to speak of a carceral continuum, in consideration of the treatment of foreign nationals, than to separate all of these kinds of establishments. As our work on IRCs suggests, and as that of our colleagues in Border Criminologies attests, traditional criminological methods and approaches need to be revisited.

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