This blog was written as a reflection on a collaborative research project recently undertaken by Scottish Detainee Visitors (SDV) with people released on bail and temporary admission from immigration detention in Scotland. This blog was written for Unlocking Detention by SDV volunteer and Masters of Research student Bridget Holtom, and the film ‘Detention Without Walls’ was co-produced by the Life After Detention group.

When I first began visiting immigration detention centres 5 years ago, like many others I naïvely thought that most people I would meet would be asylum seekers and refugees. Although the categories are not mutually exclusive, in reality around half of those administratively detained in the immigration detention ‘estate’ have served criminal convictions in prison. Furthermore, with the celebrated success of the suspension of the Detention Fast Track, more and more voices from inside detention are from those who have spent criminal convictions. This year I have read various articles that challenge individuals and organisations to consider the implications of campaigns which emphasise the good, hard-working and contributing migrant in contrast to the dangerous, undeserving detainee. Just last week, Nic Eadie’s blog ‘Almost as British as Me’ told powerful stories about people who have committed petty crimes and are awaiting deportation inside immigration detention. As I reflect on where I would now draw the line on immigration and crime and how the debate has changed over time online, it is evident we still have a long way to go. There is still a tendency to talk about the injustice of detaining people who’ve “committed no crime”. Furthermore there is a tendency to emphasise petty crimes and avoid any mention of more serious ones that people may commit. Therefore, there are bigger, unaddressed questions about criminality and immigration that must be unpicked in order to end immigration detention once and for all.

The deportation of ‘foreign criminals’ was brought to the public’s attention in 2006 when the news broke that over the previous decade 1,023 foreign national ex-offenders had not been considered for deportation. Following the resignation of then Home Secretary, MP Charles Clarke, the 2007 UK Borders Act introduced automatic deportation orders for non-EEA nationals sentenced to 12 months or more in prison or whose sentences over the past 5 years cumulatively add up to more than 12 months. Following that, the UK 2014 Immigration Act added a clause to the British Nationality Act 1981, which permits the Secretary of State “to deprive a person of a citizenship status” if the “deprivation is conducive to the public good” and if the person might be able to “become a national of another country or territory.” This means that even ‘foreign nationals’ ‘with status’ such as Leave to Remain or naturalised citizenship visas, can be stripped of their status.

With each new immigration act, another line is drawn, encircling previous residents and refugees with the right to remain and creating a new category of people, who can for the first time be legally be detained, deported or made destitute. Many of those detained in both prisons and detention face charges relating to their immigration journey itself. Although individual cases are not disclosed in the film ‘Detention Without Walls’, each tells the story of a transformation into illegality. Most people who took part in the film had entered the UK via legal routes but their status had changed over time. Some overstayed temporary visas, some breached their reporting conditions, others came to the end of their asylum appeals process and were found to be working illegally. For example, Ismail, who was recently removed to his country of origin shortly after he spoke out publicly about his case, shows how people’s cases can change over time into criminal cases:

we talk about people’s cases as if they are separate from lives. They [the Home Office] make your case illegal…but the case is your life, it makes or breaks you.

Ismail’s removal is for me an emotional example of the high human cost of a business of detention and deportation that generates profit for private security firms such as G4S, Mitie and GEO. Therefore, it is understandable that detainees and their advocates distance themselves from associations with crime in order to make their case for citizenship and avoid removal. For example, Pablo insisted that “before I came to this country I was a good boy”, shifting the responsibility from himself to the situation his family faced when they migrated to the UK. Similarly, Andy insisted “I’ve not done anything wrong…I’m not a criminal” and Juan put his crime of absconding in opposition to “real crimes…you know, I’ve never sold drugs, I’ve never stolen anybody’s money or anything, my visa expired and thats it”. Whilst these appeals to innocence may help individual cases, the logic of innocence multiplies categories of exclusion rather than removing them. As Melanie Griffith’s blog post last year reminded us, many anti-detention advocacy campaigns continue to focus on ‘vulnerable’ populations in detention. Whilst there are indeed additional safeguarding needs for certain populations, these campaigns contribute to the division between the innocent migrant-as-victim and the dangerous migrant-as-criminal.

The current process of making acts of migration illegal is an abhorrent injustice which should not be ignored. However, not every non-EEA national who has served a sentence for a criminal conviction is detained in immigration detention because an act of migration has been criminalised. There are more serious, unspeakable crimes. Drugs offences. Violent crimes. Domestic and sexual abuse. Murder. These are the crimes that populate the public imagination when people hear the term “foreign criminal” and these are the crimes circulated in the mainstream media. Therefore, it is natural to want to counter these in order to be more representative, but are we being more representative? Ask yourself, where do your own boundaries lie about migration and crime? and to whom would you extend your hospitality when faced with decisions about resources and capacity?

It is time that these difficult questions are pushed to the surface through sensitive and supportive conversations. During my visits to people inside detention, it was through conversations and unexpected friendships that the limits of my own moral boundaries shifted. I have come to believe that detention and deportation is still a double punishment, for any person who is in immigration detention regardless of their crime. Taking into consideration critical concerns about safety, I make a point of not asking people about their criminal history, nor their immigration case. During the question and answer sessions at screenings of Detention Without Walls, the question is often posed “are we preaching to the converted?”. However, everyone draws and redraws their own lines all the time and foreign national ex-offenders have limited numbers of supporters. When Home Secretary Theresa May asked “whose side are you on?” she did so to increase the divisions between the deserving and undeserving, between us and them. Take a stance, and then take action.