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After a series of lectures and activities in 2016, the second semester of ‘Redelijk Eigenzinnig’ is resuming on Tuesday 14 February with a lecture of Mary Bosworth. As a crimonologist, Bosworth has spent 7 years exploring the justification and impact of British immigration detention centers. It has convinced her that societies need to find non-custodial solutions to the problem of border control. An interview.


You chose to focus in your work on detention of immigrants and foreigners. What has motivated you to do so? And what is the broader value to pay more attention to issues of border control and the connections with (new) notions of nationality and citizenship?


My first area of research was on prisons. I did my PhD at Cambridge on women’s imprisonment in England and Wales. Then I moved to live and work in the US, where it was almost impossible to get permission to enter prisons to do the kind of institutional ethnography that I prefer. I kept writing about prisons, but I started looking around for other topics. After 9/11, living in the US it became very clear very quickly that the state was turning to all sorts of new powers to control putative enemies, among them immigration law.  At that stage I started paying more attention to issues of citizenship and border control, noting many of the similarities in the racialised application of immigration controls, and writing about the law.  

There is no reason why criminological methods should not apply to immigration detention centres
Mary Bosworth

When I returned to live in the UK, I decided to try to gain access to immigration detention centres.  Although at that stage no criminological work had been done inside these sites, I saw no particular reason why criminological methods would not apply. So, I asked around and found people in the prison service who introduced me to the various people who could give me permission to do my research. I have been regularly going into sites of detention since 2009. I remain the only UK academic with permission to do this, although I can extend it to my students and colleagues.


Research access remains a big barrier in the UK to studying border control. While there is a growing field of work on it — called border criminology — in the UK at least, still the issue of foreigners and border control remains under-researched.  There are other conceptual barriers too, as of course the immigration system is separate to the criminal justice one. However, as border criminologists argue, not only are there many points of intersection, but the overlaps have repercussions for both sides. We are used to thinking that immigration control has become, at least in part criminalised, what our research shows is that criminal justice is being affected as well.  It is for that reason, as well as entrenched issues of social justice, and the important overlaps with race and ethnicity, that criminologists should pay more attention to citizenship and nationality.  


Immigration removal centres and their role in border control and determining non-citizenship remain currently underresearched in criminology. Yet you also recognize the difficulty of gaining research to and doing research in such settings. What would you advise researchers who are interested in exploring these topics, what advice can you give them to facilitate their entry and develop their research in such sites?


It took me a long time to get permission to study detention sites. I had to have many meetings with different men.  In the UK there are many overlaps in personnel and policy between the prison service and the detention system. In other European countries there are similar relationships between the police and detention. As a criminologist I used those ties, to find men who could vouch for me and introduce me to the next person who could help. I was also more methodologically flexible than I had been previously — I designed a survey that could shed light on detainee experiences. I think that immigration authorities should be open to research and so our job as academics is to persuade them and help them open the door to us. This can be done, but it takes time and perseverance.

Justifications like justice or reintegration do not work when confinement is triggered by the absence of citizenship
Mary Bosworth

Belgium has its own issues with the detention of immigrants. A recent discussion focuses on the detention of minors. Since its conviction by the European Court of Human Rights in 2011 for detaining underage asylum seekers, Belgium has established ‘open’ housing units for families with children who have to be expelled. As some families however flee before their deportation, Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration Theo Francken calls for reinstalling ‘closed’ detention units, even when minors are involved. How do you think these cases should be handled? Is there a ‘human’ way to deal with minors who face deportation?


I do not think children should ever be detained.  There is significant evidence that detention adversely affects the mental health of all people who are detained. Those who are vulnerable are affected more adversely. Stripping people of their liberty is a moral choice societies make. They do so, usually, in the criminal justice system at least, due to beliefs about desert, justice or reintegration.  These justifications do not work when the confinement is triggered by the absence of citizenship. To be blunt, it may be simply a cost of running an ethical society that some families or young people abscond before they are removed. I think that cost is less high than damaging young people by detaining them.  Societies need to find non-custodial solutions to the problem of border control, rather than take the easy route of expanding closed confinement.


An obvious, but maybe complex question: How do you think Brexit will influence border control policies and policies on immigration detention and removal in the UK? How will this affect your own work as a scholar working on border control, within international research networks?


Like all the academic I know in the UK I was appalled and dismayed by the result of the referendum and the subsequent political decisions that have been made.  Brexit is going to be extremely harmful for universities in general, as critical knowledge has no borders.  British universities are highly international, especially Oxford where I work.  The institution and the students benefit enormously from this internationalism.  So, we will have to find a way around the government policy.  Already the Centre for Criminology is doing that, by establishing a global criminal justice hub. My research group, Border Criminologies, is an international network and will remain one.  


In terms of border control policies, I’m afraid that Brexit will inevitably draw more people into border control.  Already detention centres have some European citizens, usually from Eastern Europe (e.g. Poland and Romania). Currently EU citizens are harder to detain and deport, once that barrier is lowered, then I imagine their numbers in detention will rise.  Some supporters of Brexit hope that non-EU people will receive better treatment. There is no evidence that that will be the case. Instead, I fear, we will witness a ‘race to the bottom’. It is for this reason as well, that I hope that more criminologists and other scholars will start to pay more attention to these sites of confinement as they are surely set to increase in scale and scope. We need more critical evidence about them and analysis, in order to challenge their logic and to improve policy.



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