A lens on life inside the IRC

Female asylum seekers talk about their experiences of life inside UK Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs)

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Dr Maria De Angelis is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology, HEA Fellow, and Independent Researcher at Leeds Beckett University. Maria’s research on human trafficking and immigration detention foreground the relationship between criminal justice and social policy responses.

 

This blog is based on a recent article entitled Female Asylum Seekers: A Critical Attitude on UK Immigration Removal Centres’.

Although the UK’s immigration detention estate is one of the largest in Western Europe, what it’s like to be inside an Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) remains a mystery to most. Included in this mix are detainees’ relatives, their support workers, local councillors, concerned citizens, and interested academics like myself. Bucking a steady trend of allowing charities and community groups in to befriend and run workshops (see Music in Detention and AVID, the association of visitors to immigration detainees), researcher access is almost wholly precluded (for exceptions see works by Alexandra Hall and Mary Bosworth). Against this preclusionary standpoint, female asylum seekers living in Leeds answered my call to share their experiences with me. Mobile cameras are defiantly fixed on a UK Border Agency site, as women provide this article’s micro-lens on life inside the IRC.

Simply put, this research is a show and tell project – to hear what women have to say about their detention experience and visualise key narratives through photography to maximize their impact.  Publicly available data on immigration detention tends to be quantitative (outlining trends and statistics) and available or not, on Home Office (HO) websites, through government-commissioned reviews , and in Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) reports . Contrary to fears that ex-detainees might be nervous of talking detention with me, these women genuinely welcomed the academic interest, demanding to know why it had taken so long. Our semi-structured conversations lasted between two and three hours, with a drink and a bite mid-way to sustain us. The decision to close down the call after the fifteenth participant was based on narrative saturation and not insufficient interest. For this blog, I therefore want to set academic theories of Agamben and Foucault to one side (always a struggle for criminologists) and reflect on the in/exclusionary dynamic which runs through women’s narratives. By this, I mean their accountability (inclusion) under immigration laws and regulations and simultaneous denial of (exclusion from) entitlements and protections under citizenship.

Listening to women’s stories reminds us that these centres are intended to hold for removal persons without a legal entitlement to be in the UK (as indicated in their renaming from immigration detention to immigration removal centres under the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act, 2002). The fact they provide facilities like a gym, hair salon, shop, or computer room does not distract from the reality of being confined without a criminal charge.  As Trinity from Nigeria remarks, such facilities make for a ‘glorified’ prison environment but it’s still a prison. Women in search of sanctuary relay confinement in an IRC as punishment, with all its inherent pains and losses – family separation, social exclusion, fractured identities, controls and captivity. Importantly, such comparisons with prison and punishment enable women to raise a critical commentary on the ethicality and legitimacy of their immigration detention. As Kia from Uganda puts it:

There was one lady mixed in with us who was classed a foreign national, who killed her husband and her child and who had a history of fighting the guards. She said the toughest place they brought her was the IRC. (Laughs) How can this be right when it’s not a prison and we are not criminal?

But looking at centre routines and practices under the micro-lens of lived experience also raises the fragility of this imposed in/exclusion, firstly across a heterogeneous detainee population and, secondly, between citizen and non-citizen. Unlike ethnic and religious divisions observed in other studies (Bosworth and Kellezi), many describe the kindness of existing detainees towards them on arrival. Joli – a Christian from Namibia – recalls languishing in her room until a Kenyan detainee and professed Muslim showed her where to eat and how to use the computer room. Kia – an Anglican from Uganda – describes arriving with nothing bar the clothes she is arrested in, to be given a wrap by a Russian Orthodox Christian. Inside the walls of the IRC and across such a diverse social group, this kindness magnifies an administrative indifference for ethical care and social belonging (as felt in the removal of mobile phones with cameras and picture galleries; restrictions on free association; and the severance of emotional and community ties). In spite of these segregating measures, women’s affiliation in faith-related networks outside the IRC subverts feelings of non-belonging in wider society, since all faith groups (Mosque, Church, Synagogue) are tasked with prayerful and charitable obligations towards their members. As Kia from Uganda explains:

My local church was like a small community praying and campaigning for people like me. When I had a problem inside they rang round to get legal advice, and when I was to be released they arranged for me stay in the vicarage.

This said, Stonewall has flagged up an absence of faith-inclusive support inside and outside detention for LGBT persons – a shortcoming in need of greater research inquiry.​

In summary, the value of a micro lens on the IRC is the critical commentary on aspects of legitimacy, social exclusion, and ethical care raised through this medium. This, in turn, queries the necessity, efficacy, and defensibility of placing people seeking asylum inside these institutions. Until the Home Office and custodial companies relax their entry restrictions on researchers, it is left to remarkable women like these to make their own plight known and raise a critical challenge of continued asylum governance along present lines.

Contact

Maria De Angelis, Leeds Beckett University

Email:  m.de-angelis@leedsbeckett.ac.uk

Images: courtesy of the author (https://www.leedsbeckett.ac.uk/staff/dr-maria-de-angelis/) and Jeremy Abrahams (https://www.jeremyabrahams.co.uk). This is part of an ongoing visualisation of asylum lives in and beyond immigration detention.

Critical Conversations on Criminology and Gender: Innovations in Research

Reflections on dynamic and innovative contemporary research methods in criminology and gender studies

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Dr Marian Duggan is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Kent and the new Chair of the British Society of Criminology Women, Crime and Criminal Justice Network.

 

 

British Society of Criminology Women, Crime and Criminal Justice Network’s 3rd Annual Event.

Inspired by burgeoning developments in creative and innovative methodologies in criminology, 2019’s annual WCCJ ‘critical conversations’ event showcased an array of innovative ways of doing and communicating criminological research via visual methods, arts and multi-media methods, documents and the positioning of the researcher. While we fore-fronted methodological innovations, the conference reflected a rich feminist tradition of attending to critical issues of power and politics in research. As well as offering opportunities to share knowledge and experiences of using innovative methodologies, we intended that the day also offer opportunities for networking. As the incoming Chair of the BSC’s Women, Crime and Criminal Justice Network I am delighted to share my reflections on the day’s events with you in this blog.

Approximately 65 attendees congregated at City, University of London, in April 2019. Speakers were invited to step outside of the confines of PowerPoint and were given around 15 minutes to share their research. We were delighted that all accepted the challenge, bringing along films, photos and art-works connected to ongoing projects. Our invited speakers included a mix of committed criminologists and those working in cognate disciplines, as well as a mix of established and early career researchers.

The day was divided into four thematic panels: 1) Film and photo, 2) Arts and multi-media, 3) Words and documents, and 4) Researchers and selves, before finishing up with a critical insight from our Keynote Listener, Dr Emma Wincup (University of Leeds). The day’s events were tweeted out (with presenters’ permission) under the #wccj2019 hashtag to @bsc_wccjn followers. Using these and others’ tweets (particularly those by Stigmatised Sexualities & Sexual Harm Research, @SSSH_research), we bring you this round-up of the day.

In the first panel (film and photo), Dr Wendy Fitzgibbon (University of Leicester) and Dr Camille Stengel (University of Greenwich) shared photos and discussed their use of Photovoice as a research methodology in their respective research projects. The synergies between their studies led them to co-author a journal article which was awarded the WCCJ 2018 Best Paper Prize, so a great start to the day indeed. Photovoice is the method of choice in the project currently being undertaken by Dr Tara Young (Kent) and Dr Susie Hulley (Cambridge) into how joint enterprise is affecting young people. The audience learnt how this creative method was shown to give voice to individuals while increasing their self-worth, proving to be transformative for participants and others who see similar experiences represented in the images. We were also guided on how best to employ the method, with advice including limiting the number of images per participant (to around 10) and having them think carefully when composing the photos. The ethics of such innovations were also covered by speakers, particularly in terms of representation, ownership and respecting anonymity. The final presentation was by Dr Shona Minson (Oxford) who has produced a series of excellent video resources on the impact on children whose mothers are sentenced to prison. Demonstrating how film offers instant communication with target audiences, the presentation was interwoven with snippets from one of the film to indicate how, where, when and why particular strategies had been employed throughout. Ethical considerations were as relevant here too, with issues of power, politics and positionality (of both the researcher and researched) discussed in some depth throughout. Shona highlighted the importance of having ‘buy in’ from participants, particularly those with significant status and authority, to elicit the maximum impact in disseminating the message.

Continuing with the interactive theme, Panel 2 (arts and multi-media) began with Dr Jo Deakin (Manchester) outlining the classroom dynamics of her arts-based research with young people and their thoughts on the Prevent Agenda. This method involved employing poetry writing, drawing, drama and physical games with school-aged young people to gain their trust and foster more open means of communication. Jo showcased several of the drawings produced by participants alongside the narratives they provided before signposting attendees to the online resource: Extremely Safe Radical Preventions. Next up was Dr Magali Peyrefitte (Middlesex) who reflected on her work using objects to open up narratives about migration, belonging and identity. Drawing out the importance of intimacy to her method, Magali described the story circle format she employed and participated in, while also providing pictures of some of the objects which featured in the research. Finally, Dr Fay Dennis (Goldsmiths) provided an interactive presentation whereby she played audio clips of her research participants alongside the pictures they had drawn to explain their experiences of drug taking. This powerful representation of emotion and sensation using image and colour excellently illustrated the additional understanding that can be gleaned beyond text.

After a delicious lunch, Panel 3 (words and documents) began with Dr Alpa Parmer (Oxford) and Dr Coretta Phillips (LSE) outlining their use of oral life history methods to explore race in relation to culture, structure and agency. Important points of note were being aware of what information stays with the researcher once the interview is done, and how sensory experiences can shed greater light on the data being gathered. Next was Dr Tanya Serisier (Birkbeck) who drew on her recently published book about feminism, rape and narrative politics to highlight the prevalence of fairy-tales in published rape memoirs. Finally, Dr Jennifer Fleetwood (Goldsmiths) introduced the audience to innovative research using podcasts, in particular My Favourite Murder, to explore routine, repetition and meaning in women’s first person narratives.

Presenters in panel 4 (researchers and selves) adopted a different approach, reflecting on their positionality in relation to their research and chosen methods. Dr Hannah Mason-Bish (Sussex) drew her recently published paper in which she outlined methodological issues relating to elitism, power and identity in what she termed the ‘elite delusion’. Returning to the earlier discussion of researching with people in positions of authority, Hannah reflected on the insider/outsider dichotomy and how this shapes the research according to how one’s status is interpreted by participants. Discussions of status and transitions in and out of identities and spaces were also key theme in Dr Ross McGarry’s (Liverpool) work on militarised identities and the meaning given to key sites that formed part of the celebrations of Armed Forces Day. The use of public space was also relevant to Dr Alex Fanghanel’s (Greenwich) presentation, which drew on her recently published book into the use of the sexualised female activist body in women’s and animal rights protests. Alex’s reflection on her own ethnographic participation in the research invoked questions about gender, rape culture and positionality. Finally, Rachel Stuart (Kent) ended on a similarly feminist note by discussing her research into webcammers and the access issues that come with researching stigmatised communities.

Dr Emma Wincup accepted our request to close the conference as our Keynote Listener. Emma is a long-standing network member and an expert in qualitative methods and feminist methods. She artfully drew together some of the latent themes and questions of the day, challenging us to think critically about the use of innovative methodologies for doing and communicating research. She reminded us that feminist research approaches, research on women and methodological innovation haven’t always been valued in criminology. Emma especially thanked our presenters for their candid accounts of their work, and sharing what happens when things don’t quite go to plan, as well as the personal commitments, and emotional impacts of doing criminological research. She made two observations about the potential of innovative methods in particular: firstly, their usefulness in ‘making the familiar strange’, both to respondents and ourselves, and secondly, their capacity to open up the seemingly banal or mundane for analysis. Emma concluded by reflecting on some pragmatic considerations in innovative methodologies – these are time consuming modes of data collection and communicating research, demanding new skills, training and collaboration. Furthermore, ethical issues become magnified and more complex. But, as the day’s presentations demonstrate, the kinds of data that can be generated have the capacity to communicate critical issues in novel and important ways.

This event was made possible thanks to the British Society of Criminology’s annual funding of the women’s network and a significant sponsorship from City, University of London’s Centre for Crime and Justice Research. Planning is already under-way for next year’s events. If you would like to join the Women, Crime and Criminal Justice Network, please email our Membership Secretary Dr Emma Milne on e.milne@mdx.ac.uk and provide your details (including up to five research interests) to be added to the WCCJ network database (overseen by Dr Gemma Birkett). Alternatively, to stay in touch and hear news from WCCJ and our members, join the Jisc-mail list. Finally, do take the time to visit our website.

Contact

Dr Marian Duggan,  University of Kent

Email: m.c.duggan@kent.ac.uk

Twitter: @marian_duggan

Images: courtesy of the author