By Charlie Leddy-Owen, University of Portsmouth.

When visiting Haslar Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) for the first time I was struck by the pleasantness of the local area. Haslar’s western boundary adjoins a residential neighbourhood of detached and semi-detached housing, whilst immediately over the southernmost fence you’ll find a golf course and shingle beach. The IRC’s eastern fences border a sea wall from which walkers and anglers can admire a panoramic view across the English Channel towards the Isle of Wight, and its immediate neighbour to the north is the impressive though derelict Haslar Hospital, which treated sailors injured at the Battle of Trafalgar, a prominent example of a local landscape layered with British military history.

Walking below the high, razor-wire capped fences of Haslar IRC, providing the weather is in your favour, you are therefore likely to encounter golfers, dog-walkers, anglers, ramblers and cyclists, happy to exchange a nod and a smile, all the time observed by the centre’s many CCTV cameras. Unless very attentive, you are unlikely to notice the irregular but steady stream of Tascor vans bringing individuals to and from the removal centre.

As a sociologist, the stark contrasts between the lives and places either side of Haslar’s fences suggested an interesting and potentially revealing research project. I decided to try to speak to those who live on the free side of the fence in the vicinity of Haslar about what they think about their local area, about the IRC, about those detained within Haslar, and about immigration generally. In January and February of this year I conducted in depth interviews with 25 people, all of whom live within half a mile of Haslar. The remainder of this piece will sketch out some the key findings emerging from the research before specifically linking them to the Unlocking Detention project.

It is first important to note that nearly all participants demonstrated a considerable amount of sympathy for and empathy with those detained inside Haslar as well as with irregular migrants generally. At the same time, however, when discussing how Haslar fits into their views of the local area in which they live, participants generally suggested that the IRC is ‘invisible’ or ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Some participants did discuss Haslar in somewhat negative terms due to the parking issues caused by centre employees and visitors, but most considered the presence of an IRC with indifference. A few portrayed Haslar in a positive light, discussing how they enjoy the opportunities for walking along the sea wall by the centre, with one suggesting that an IRC is a preferable use of space than would be a housing estate because detainees make predictably ‘quiet neighbours’. For nearly all participants the function and population of Haslar ultimately seemed to disappear from view within a local area they primarily associate with secure, comfortable and homely, leisured lifestyles.

This pattern is of course somewhat understandable due to the inevitable, habitual backgrounding of physical surroundings in our daily lives. How often do any of us notice, let alone really reflect upon, the places and buildings we travel past or through during our everyday lives? Furthermore, those within Haslar are physically veiled behind high fences and walls, and regardless of how close you live to the centre, unless you make a serious effort to peer over these walls or fences on an afternoon in which detainees are outside playing football, you simply cannot see anyone.

However, my research also suggests that the barriers for thinking about Haslar and detainees are not merely physical – they are also ideological and emotional. When asked whether they would be interested in ‘hearing the stories of those detained within Haslar’, a question specifically aimed at provoking discussions about detainees as individuals, many participants reacted defensively. Some mistakenly thought that I might be trying to recruit them to actually hear the stories of detainees in person, a prospect that made them uncomfortable and led to expressions of guilt or anxiety. For example, one participant revealingly suggested that a ‘problem’ that might arise from meeting detainees is that he would ‘become too emotional’ and potentially ‘a soft touch’. Participants’ responses also implied that hearing about the lives of those within Haslar could lead to the sense of security and homeliness they associate with their local area being unsettled by the discomforting effects of talking and thinking about detainees and irregular migration.

Many participants therefore positioned themselves and the local area in which they live as vulnerable in relation to detainees and irregular migrants – a perspective that seems paradoxical given the vastly more privileged and powerful position of those on the free side of the fence. An explanation for this pattern may be that many of us in Britain (and ‘the West’ generally) are emotionally invested in discussing what we feel comfortable with, and we thus often react defensively if feelings of guilt and anxiety are provoked. We work hard – consciously or otherwise – to try and avoid or ignore these feelings and therefore restrict our emotional connections with stigmatised individuals, such as irregular migrants or asylum seekers, even when feelings of sympathy and empathy seem, almost instinctively, to be what we think we should feel. Participants in my research, rather than trust their initial emotional connections with detainees, seemed to defensively reject these connections, distorting their feelings in relation to nationalist ways of thinking.

This was not true of all of those interviewed however. A smaller number of participants did reflect upon the function of Haslar, the lives of detainees, and the implications of exclusion and deportation for individuals and families. Furthermore, some did so in relation to the starkly contrasting context of the local area and their own comfortable and leisured lifestyles enacted just metres away from those often undergoing tremendous trauma. This was evident with participants who had personally known refugees and asylum seekers, though empathy was also found among participants who had never met irregular migrants but who reflected in a more abstract way about the migrant experience, about detention, and about the possible motivations for irregular migration. As one participant put it, by simply opening a space for reflecting on these issues in more detail then detainees can ‘become somebody, not just a fence’.

The research therefore suggests that, in order to break down the ideological and emotional barriers legitimising detention, the individuality, the personhood of detainees needs to be communicated. The virtual tour provided by the Unlocking Detention campaign, in opening up highly secure institutions that are rarely reflected upon, even by those who pass them every day, is an excellent way of portraying detention as being about somebody and not just about the fences and boundaries we may otherwise routinely deem normal to the places we live and to our sense of who we are. Here, as with the Detention Inquiry, activists and detainees alike need to try and ensure that the voices of those detained within places like Haslar, as well as the voices of those friends and family from whom detainees are forcibly separated, are heard and heard louder. Exposure to these hugely disrupted, often highly traumatised lives makes it clearer to all but the most prejudiced that far more commonalities than differences are shared by us all, regardless of our immigration status. Once this realisation is made, the violence of the detention and removal system becomes harder to evade emotionally, and impossible to justify ethically and politically in any consistent way.