Objectification in Action

Migrants and asylum seekers are often conflated in the media, in political debate, and in populist rhetoric, with terrorists, criminals, those who are not to be trusted (‘bogus’), or the socially unworthy, who place a burden on public services. Such accounts often carry unsubtle racist undertones (Malloch and Stanley 2005; Rudiger 2007; Cooper 2009). In the United States, Cisneros (2008) argues that visual images of immigrants appear as ‘pollutants’ in news media, collecting like piles of dangerous ‘toxic waste’ rolling towards the frightened US citizen. Such imagery combines notions of threat with the undeserving irrelevance of Zygmunt Bauman’s (2004) ‘waste products’ of globalization, effectively dehumanizing whole swathes of the community. Andriani Fili’s (2013) work on immigration detention in Greece reveals an extreme example of the consequences of such processes. In a space designed for nine people, Athens airport detention centre holds as many as 120 individuals for months at a time. These people are locked in the cells all day, allowed out only to use the toilet. ‘At times even this “trip” to the toilet is not allowed due to severe overcrowding or staff inaction’, she writes. ‘As detention officers put it: “We are not their servants here. They cannot go to the toilet whenever they want. They are too many, so we will take them only when we can”’ (Fili 2013: 37).

Inside the cells:

When it is crowded ... the men cannot all lie down and sleep at the same time. ... The effect of absolute control is not lost on the male detainees: ‘we are buried alive here. This is like a mass grave ... but we are not animals, we are humans and we have human rights, no?’ (Fili 2013: 37)

In Fili’s account, detention officers appear to have lost any sense of empathy with detainees, objectifying them beyond recognition. Human Rights Watch (2000) has documented a similar process in Japan, where the vulnerability and abuses experienced by trafficking victims are ignored in the decision to remove them from the country. A Japanese commentator has described detainees as being treated like ‘living packages’ waiting to be delivered abroad and, in the eyes of the Japanese system, ‘not yet human beings’.[1]

These may be extreme examples, but they are not entirely unfamiliar in the United Kingdom. Emma Kaufman examines in Chapter 9 in this volume the reaction, bordering on political panic, to the releases in 2006 of over 1,000 foreign nationals from UK prisons before they were considered for deportation. The lurid media reporting, public angst, and political opportunism that accompanied these events articulated a latent xenophobia otherwise officially illegitimate in tolerant neo-liberal societies. Foreign national prisoners, hitherto considered relatively vulnerable, were recast as a major threat, despite the absence of any evidence that they were any more dangerous than British prisoners (Bhui 2007). The sense of fear and panic even led in some cases to the unlawful detention of British citizens who happened to have been born abroad (HMIP 2007; LDSG 2010).

In one case, a Jamaican man detained after the deportation crisis complained that ‘they [ie the government] are generalising all foreign nationals, not treating them as individuals’ (HMIP 2007: 16). He had lived in the United Kingdom since childhood, had a history of mental health problems, and had previously been released into the community after serving a sentence for his only offence, importation of drugs. He had a job, was complying fully with both his parole licence and immigration reporting conditions, and had kept health services appointments. His mother suffered from a serious physical illness and his brother was also mentally ill. Despite this, after more than 18 months in the community, he was abruptly returned to prison in 2006. Both prison and probation staff were very concerned about him, rightly as it turns out since he narrowly survived two serious suicide attempts just after his recall to prison. None of his personal circumstances were taken into account in the decision to recall him to prison.

Front line detention staff cannot escape making basic human connections with the people in their care. In contrast, immigration caseworkers, who are relatively junior government officials, generally do not meet the detainees about whom they are making far-reaching decisions. Within the UK’s immigration control agencies, it is harder and there is less motivation to see detainees as individuals.

The notion of an overriding group threat has been further reinforced recently by the creation of a new UK Border Force with ‘a separate operational command, with its own ethos of law enforcement’.[2] It came into being after another political scandal, this time concerning the relaxing of some passport controls to ease long queues, an event that led to a public row between the Home Secretary and the senior civil servant in charge of border controls[3] (Vine 2012). The message conveyed about this event was that there had been a failure to protect the United Kingdom against uncertain risks posed by potentially dangerous foreign nationals. Together, this example and the earlier deportation crisis capture the process described by a number of authors (including Wacquant 1999 and Palidda 2009), in which attempts to enhance state security, including border security and in-group national identity, buttress the notion of ‘enemy immigrants’ against whom extreme measures become legitimate.

In the United States matters appear to be worse. According to Kil, Menjivar, and Doty (2009) the militarized US/Mexico border has created an environment in which violence has become a legitimate response to undocumented migration. The border is policed not only by state-sanctioned personnel but also by private citizens. This combination of patriotism, vigilantism, and racism amplifies security concerns and suppresses the humanity of those crossing the border clandestinely.[4] The illegal migrant becomes primarily the embodiment of a threat, one that helps to legitimate what in other circumstances would be considered a disproportionate response.

In Europe, the use of technology in border control increasingly associates migration control with the language and hardware of warfare. For example, the European Border Surveillance System (EUROSUR) could involve unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), resonating uncomfortably with the US government’s use of unmanned ‘drones’ in the Afghanistan conflict in particular. This has resulted in an uncertain but probably high number of‘innocents’ killed. The United States has itself deployed surveillance drones on the Mexico border since 2011.[5] It is not that any symbolic threshold has been crossed—detention of migrants has until recently taken place mainly during wartime (Wilsher 2012), some borders are already heavily militarized, and the notion of ‘Fortress Europe’ has been around for a while (Geddes 2000). However, such policies reveal most starkly the tendency to draw migration control discourse closer to the blunt notion of a war on (predominantly) non-white migrants (people) rather than the act of illegal entry.[6]

On a more mundane level, the consequences of UK border control and deportation crises, and the associated dehumanization, are evident in the lack of attention given to individual circumstances in decision-making. In one case a man who had been in detention for 18 months at the time he was interviewed, had a British partner and child. He was increasingly worried and feeling guilty about his child’s deteriorating behaviour during his lengthy absence. A review of detention, which should have assessed all relevant personal factors, including family ties, noted simply that ‘there is no evidence of close ties with the UK’ (HMIP and ICIBI 2012: 26). In Chapter 8 of this volume, Mary Bosworth also shows how women seeking protection may be held to expectations that overlook their experiences of gendered violence. She quotes a Ugandan woman who was reportedly told that she was to be removed because she did not have strong ties to the United Kingdom, was not married, and had no children: ‘there are some things I cannot do because of what happened to me.’ The suggestion is that she was penalized by the system for being a woman who was subject to sexual violence.

The simple formulation of detention as a tool to achieve deportation hides a multitude of other, less overt functions and meanings of detention, which find expression in the way that immigration control operates, and emerge piecemeal from analysis of official approaches. For example, the UK Border Agency (UKBA) has been especially criticized for failing to take account of the human impact of detainee transfers, seeing foreign nationals as objects about whom decisions—who is to be detained, for how long, and where—are made at a distance (HMIP 2011, 2012; Wilsher 2012). In Chapter 9 of this volume, Kaufman reflects this point when she describes the relocation of foreign nationals to ‘hub and spoke’ prisons regardless of family or other ties. Another recurring issue is that detainees can be moved frequently around the United Kingdom between detention centres hundreds of miles apart, often in the middle of the night. These moves are for administrative convenience, filling detention spaces and making best use of escort vehicle capacity, with little regard to the emotional and practical impact on detainees who may be moved far away from legal and family support. Exhaustion and disorientation are common outcomes (HMIP 2008, 2010, 2011). Musinguzi (2013: 5) sums up the impact of this practice well:

One of the worst things I experienced ... Imagine having to move house every three months and on occasions every other month, and having to almost instantaneously integrate within a new community.

He goes on to describe being moved from London to Scotland and back again within 24 hours, before being told he was about to go to an airport detention room: [7]

  • [1] Personal communication from Koichi Kodama, a Japanese lawyer and expert on refugee issues,representing the family of a Ghanaian detainee who died during a forced removal. See also .
  • [2] Home Secretary’s statement to the House of Commons, Hansard, col 623 (20 February 2012).
  • [3] See .
  • [4] The ‘minutemen’ vigilante group was formed in 2005 to patrol the border, and though nowofficially disbanded, has had loosely affiliated offshoots ‘guarding’ the border ever since, sometimes withlethal results: see .
  • [5] See, for example, .
  • [6] See also Krasmann’s (2007) detailed discussion of Jakobs’ concept of ‘enemy penology’, in whichshe quotes him as follows: ‘Enemies are currently non-persons. To put it bluntly, enemy penology isthus warfare, whether it stays on the leash or is let loose totally’ (Jakobs, 2000: 53, in Krasmann 2007:303).
  • [7] thought it was a bit odd to be driven 12 hours to be issued RDs [removal directions] andthen returned to the same centre the next day . I think there are convenient administrativeprocedures in the systems that are attractive to Border Agency staff but cause absolute untoldmisery to detainees.
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