There are certain norms in terms of how immigration detention can be described. ‘Inhumane’,
‘unjust’, ‘unfair’, ‘harmful’ – but ‘racist’? Gemma Lousley (@gemmalousley) at Women for Refugee
Women unpicks why and how NGOs and charity organisations avoid talking about ‘race’ and what its consequences are for anti-detention campaigns.

In July this year, Women for Refugee Women published a report on the use of immigration detention for survivors of trafficking and modern slavery. During a Westminster Hall debate on the report on the day of its launch, the Labour MP Kate Osamor made the following statement:

‘For Members to truly understand and appreciate the reality of immigration detention, it is necessary for all of us to critically examine the ethnicity and race of those impacted by the process. Immigration detention is a racist practice, and the policies used are racist and discriminate against certain groups. There is nothing controversial or novel about my statement. Just ask the many women and men who have been detained.’

Osamor is, of course, entirely correct. One of the most glaringly obvious features of immigration detention is that it is a racist practice. The Home Office’s own statistics show that, across 2018, 16,179 of the 24,773 people detained were originally from countries in Africa, the Middle East, Central, South and South East Asia, and Central and South America. Clearly, then, it is people who are racialised as non-white who constitute the vast majority of those locked up in UK detention centres. 

And yet, although there was nothing controversial about Osamor’s statement, it certainly was novel. Since the publication of the APPG detention inquiry report in March 2015, there have been a number of Parliamentary debates on detention – but the debate in July was the first time that an MP had spoken about immigration detention, in itself, as a racist system.

Systematic anomaly ignored

A similar pattern plays out across the numerous reports that have been published on detention since 2015. In Stephen Shaw’s two reviews of detention, for instance, as well as the recent Home Affairs Committee and Joint Committee on Human Rights’ inquiry reports, racism is referred to at points – but only ever in terms of racist behaviour towards people in detention by individual members of detention centre staff. Immigration detention, itself, has been described by these reports in a number of ways: the Joint Committee on Human Rights, for example, damned it as ‘slow, unfair and expensive to run’. Yet none of the reports identify detention as a racist system.     

The way that these reports treat racism in the detention system might be understood as characteristic of the ‘postraciality’ of the contemporary era. In his 2015 book Are we all postracial yet?, the critical race theorist David Goldberg explains: 

“The claim that we today inhabit – or have come close(r) to inhabiting – a postracial society embeds the insistence that key conditions of social life are less and less predicated now on racial preferences, choices, and resources … It insists that the legacy of racial discrimination and disadvantage has been waning over time, reaching a point today where, if existing at all, such discrimination is anomalous and individually expressed. It is not structural or socially mandated.”

By reducing the racism of immigration detention to simply a matter of individual staff behaviour, these reports ignore and deny the racism that underpins and organises the detention system itself – meaning that the racist oppression and exclusion it enacts remains unquestioned and firmly in place.

NGOs and charities campaigning against immigration detention, including Women for Refugee Women, need to examine our own role in minimising and even ignoring the racism of the system. Over the past decade, the voluntary sector has built a wealth of evidence on the harms and injustices of detention – and this evidence, and the campaigning that has gone alongside it, has been crucial to significantly reducing the number people held in detention centres in the UK. In NGO reports, detention has been repeatedly condemned, using terms such as ‘cruel’, ‘inhumane’, ‘punitive’ and ‘barbaric’. Rarely, however, have we criticised it as a racist system. 

Silence of race

Writing about the ‘silence of race’ in much of the academic literature on borders and migration, the criminologist Alpa Parmar has explained: ‘Silences are not simply absences but also need to be understood as constitutive features of discourse and practice. As race disappears from public discourse, the naming of racism also becomes difficult and unfashionable.’ Over the years, I have been struck by the number of women who have prefaced their accounts of being locked up indefinitely by telling me, ‘I don’t want to say detention is racist, but … ’. Their hesitation about naming the racism of the detention system must, I think, be seen in terms of the silencing of race that has characterised much NGO advocacy, as well as the ‘postracial’ era more broadly. By not being clear that detention is a racist practice, therefore, NGOs and charities put limits on what it is possible for people who have experienced detention to say.  

It has sometimes been suggested within the voluntary sector that by talking about immigration detention as a racist system we will lose support from, for instance, Parliamentary allies – because MPs will find such a characterisation unpalatable and off-putting. In fact, by ignoring its racism NGOs actually hamper anti-detention advocacy efforts and make it easier for the government to maintain this system. Despite the well-documented harms and injustices of detention, the government has justified its ongoing use by insisting on it as an appropriate and reasonable response to the ‘problem’ of mass migration – and by emphasising that safeguards are now in place to ensure that anyone who is detained is treated with dignity and respect. Yet, against the identification of detention as an inherently racist system, the presentation of it as ‘appropriate’ and ‘reasonable’ collapses, and promises of ‘dignity and respect’ look obviously absurd. As the criminologist Sarah Turnbull has argued, then, by naming detention as racist we are better able to ‘challenge and denaturalize’ government justifications for its continuing existence. To abolish immigration detention, we need to talk about its racism.