Diane Abbott at the Medical Justice agm: a missed opportunity

Yesterday, Diane Abbott addressed the Medical Justice Annual General Meeting. Introducing a discussion on ‘How to end immigration detention?’, the Shadow Home Secretary outlined Labour’s commitment to close Yarl’s Wood and Brook House, to conduct a review of Immigration Detention estate and to push for an end to the involvement of private contractors in the deprivation of liberty. It was a speech intended to manage our expectations: Abbott committed to ‘end detention, as we know it’ and pointed towards electronic tagging as a possible alternative form of control. Cornered by a member of Women for Refugee Women, as Diane tried to leave, she refused to confirm that her commitment to close Yarl’s Wood extended to a commitment to end the detention of women entirely.

It was disappointing that Abbott left immediately after her speech. First and foremost, many in that anti-detention movement wanted to recognise how important Diane Abbott has been in drawing attention to Immigration Detention and the harmful impact of immigration controls more generally. It does not go unnoticed that, particularly when she speaks on these issues, she is subject to awful racist and misogynistic threats and abuse.

But it also missed an opportunity for her to learn from and be held to account by an audience of lawyers, doctors, caseworkers and activists with a vast and varied set of concerns about detention.

Abbott advised the movement to use human stories in detention and emphasise the difference between immigration detention and criminal imprisonment. Immigration detainees are not criminals, they are vulnerable and desperate is the message. This, of course, fails to acknowledge the way migration has been criminalised and that many people in detention have indeed committed crimes that are unrelated to their migration. While she said that politicians needed to show more leadership in the political discourse they use to address migration, she did not acknowledge the term ‘illegal migrant’ – one that she herself has used –immediately locates immigration wrongs on the level of criminality. In short, the human stories she wants to hear enter a public sphere in which they are already delegitimised by language that Labour including the current leadership have been participants in promulgating.

There is also a great irony for someone who is against the involvement of private companies in deprivations of liberty to also be considering electronic tagging as a potential alternative.  Electronic tagging is synonymous with the increased involvement by private contractors such as G4S, Serco and Capita (sound familiar?!) in the criminal justice system. Not only this, our experience of Electronic Tagging in the criminal justice system has shown that they are tools that expand the state’s ability to control and maintain surveillance without necessarily resulting in reductions in imprisonment. I hope anti-detention activists are preemptively setting themselves up to oppose these movements.

Finally, there was a missed opportunity for her to hear from the perspective of someone who had been in detention and was critical in giving Diane the experiences she drew on to support her speech. Diane made a point of crediting activist-detainees that blocked a corridor to ensure that her visit to Yarl’s Wood did not pass without her meeting women in detention. But she did not realise that one of those women was sitting next to her on the stage ready to speak after her.

Labour are perhaps making steps towards a policy platform that can carry the weighty and unlikely description ‘progressive immigration policy’ and no one is expecting her to use meetings like this to announce new policy. But without meaningful engagement with the movements that specialise in anti-racist, anti-detention activism there is a risk that they will replicate the mistakes of New Labour and build the systems of violence that future movements will have to work so hard to dismantle.


How ‘critical’ reports can legitimize increases in police power

Here are some observations about a Press Association article published in the Guardian newspaper about the police trials of facial recognition technology.  It highlights some of the ways expansions of police power are rendered necessary and common-sense, even in articles that are posed as criticisms of them. This is very much a snap response of a non-expert in this field. More can be found about facial recognition technology on Liberty’s website.

A police force has defended its use of facial recognition technology after it was revealed that more than 2,000 people in Cardiff during the 2017 Champions League final were wrongly identified as potential criminals.

The frame is primarily about false-positives and developing an ‘it could be you’ affect. The audience therefore identifies with innocence and being on the right side of the law obscuring the ways everyone is in breach of the law in some way but only some are held accountable to it.

South Wales police began trialling the technology in June last year in an attempt to catch more criminals. The cameras scan faces in a crowd and compare them against a database of custody images.

Trialling a technology without saying whether such trials have a legal basis. It normalizes an increase in the police power without public consultation and accountability. The database is one of ‘custody images’ – presumably this includes people who are arrested but not charged but even if not, the technology seems targeted at recriminalizing an already criminalised population.

As 170,000 people arrived in the Welsh capital for the football match between Real Madrid and Juventus, 2,470 potential matches were identified.

It’s relevant that it was used in the context of an influx of Italian and Spanish people.

However, according to data on the force’s website, 92% (2,297) of those were found to be “false positives”.

92% figure seems shocking sets up an acquiescence if new deployments of the technology have less shocking figures.

South Wales police admitted that “no facial recognition system is 100% accurate”, but said the technology had led to more than 450 arrests since its introduction. It also said no one had been arrested after an incorrect match.

Compares the failure of this technology to other facial recognition systems rather than other methods of policing. It does not point to the scale of non-arrest interaction with the police such as stop and searches that incorrect matches have led to.

A spokesman for the force said: “Over 2,000 positive matches have been made using our ‘identify’ facial recognition technology, with over 450 arrests.

“Successful convictions so far include six years in prison for robbery and four-and-a-half years imprisonment for burglary. The technology has also helped identify vulnerable people in times of crisis.

Identifies serious sounding offences based on the length of jail time to give the impression the technology leads to justice being done. No explanation given of what the second sentence means, neither who the vulnerable people were not why the police’s interaction with vulnerable people was a positive thing. Justifies policing on the basis of humanitarian control.

“Technical issues are common to all face recognition systems, which means false positives will be an issue as the technology develops. Since initial deployments during the European Champions League final in June 2017, the accuracy of the system used by South Wales police has continued to improve.”

Framing ‘issues’ as technical removes debate about the use, effect and function of the technology to a depoliticised and technocratic sphere.

The force blamed the high number of false positives at the football final on “poor quality images” supplied by agencies, including Uefa and Interpol, as well as the fact it was its first major deployment of the technology.

The problem is blamed not on the technology itself but on the practices of other agencies.

Figures also revealed that 46 people were wrongly identified at an Anthony Joshua fight, while there were 42 false positives from a rugby match between Wales and Australia in November.

All six matches at a Liam Gallagher concert in Cardiff in December were valid.

Much lower numbers false-positives at later events (without telling us of the rate of false-positives) create impression that the trial is working. The result is that while the article’s set up of a shocking statistic that seems to be critical of the technology, ends up alleviating concerns about it. The examples are all sporting events – it doesn’t mention the use of the technology at Notting Hill Carnival, for example.

The chief constable, Matt Jukes, said the technology was used where there were likely to be large gatherings, because they were “potential terrorist targets”.

Mention of terrorist targets – just in case you hadn’t already linked the increased police power with dangerous, racialised threats.

“We need to use technology when we’ve got tens of thousands of people in those crowds to protect everybody, and we are getting some great results from that,” he told the BBC. “But we don’t take the use of it lightly and we are being really serious about making sure it is accurate.”

Drawing on a fear of crowds and masses to justify technology – a vague means of protest, parties, highstreets. Also underscores the common-sense connection between safety and increased police power. Provides assurances that they are taking it ‘seriously’ without any content given about what accountability measures direct the use of this technology.

The force said it had considered privacy issues “from the outset”, and had built in checks to ensure its approach was justified and proportionate.

Does not unpack and make concrete what ‘privacy’ issues these were nor what ‘checks’ are put in place.

However, the civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch criticised the technology.

In a post on Twitter, the group said: “Not only is real-time facial recognition a threat to civil liberties, it is a dangerously inaccurate policing tool.”

Only group to respond is Big Brother Watch on Twitter. Giving abstract ‘civil liberties’ and also repeating the line that the main objection is inaccuracy.

The Solidarity Party: Policy announcement in response to Yarl’s Wood.

The Solidarity Party*: Policy announcement in response to the #HungerForFreedom protests in Yarl’s Wood.

The Solidarity Party’s only stated policy so far has been to advocate for time-limit on detention. In response to the demonstrator’s demands, the Solidarity Party would like to make the following policy announcements to show practical ways governments and opposition parties could immediately act to grant their reasonable proposals

  • We want an end to indefinite detention and a return to the original plan of the 28-day limit.

The Solidarity party would impose an immediate time limit of, at most, 28 days. Any time limit would only be meaningful if it applies to all people in immigration detention and there were substantial protections against re-detention – living in the community with the fear of imminent detention is not humane.

  • We want the Home Office to respect Article 8.

The Solidarity party would repeal the UK Borders Act 2007 which introduced automatic deportation orders and the sections of the Immigration Act 2014 and parts of the Immigration Rules that narrowed the interpretation of Article 8 in settlement and deportation cases, particularly for people with immigration or criminal offences.

  • We want the Home office to respect the European Convention of Human Rights regarding refugees and asylum seekers.

The Solidarity Party notes that there were 6 deaths in Immigration detention in 2017 alone and that the conditions in detention have been found to be in breach of Article 3 on a further 6 occasions. For this reason, among others, a time limit is insufficient, and the Solidarity Party will be looking to take measures to end all immigration detention. It would also enable people in detention to have access to camera phones, and the internet and so they were equipped to document abuses against them.

  • We want the Home Office to respect due process and stop deporting people before their cases are decided or appeals are heard.

The Solidarity party would immediately repeal legislation enabling people to be deported before the final outcome of all possible cases. It would substantially change the institutional culture at the Home Office from one in which caseworkers were incentivised to remove people to one in which they were required to ensure that people have access to the residence rights they deserve.

  • We want due processes before we are imprisoned on immigration matters.

The conditions are akin to imprisonment, yet there are none of the safe guards. The Solidarity Party would ensure any detention of migrants has to be before a judge and that the strong presumption against detention, that already exists on paper, exists in reality.

  • We want a fair bail process and the Home Office to end the process of selective evidence disclosure to the immigration tribunal courts and instead disclosure of all evidence to ensure a fair judgement is reached.

In judicial proceedings regarding detention prior to and after detention, judges should have access to all information that the Home Office has.

  • We want adequate healthcare and especially the mental health nurse to stop operating as an extension of the Home Office asking people such questions as, “did you know you were going to stay in the UK when you entered?”

 Healthcare in detention is of substandard quality and adequate protection of health cannot be managed in detention which is in itself damaging to detainee’s mental and physical health. The Solidarity Party would respond by developing a system in which drastically fewer people were detained. It would also repeal any legislation connected to the Hostile Environment programme that prevents access to vital services to people who live in fear of border enforcement.

  • We want the Home Office to stop detaining the vulnerable people, that is victims of rape, that is torture, all forms of torture, trafficking, forced labour, the disabled, the mentally ill and so on.

The Solidarity party will ensure that no one with vulnerabilities are in immigration detention and that the state cannot justify the detention of such people based on ‘immigration factors’ as stated in the current Adults at Risk policy. It also recognises that detention renders people vulnerable and that the only way to stop the detention of the vulnerable is the end detention itself.

  • We want amnesty for all people who have lived in the UK for more than 10 years and an end to the exiling of those who came as children and are culturally British.

 The Solidarity Party would grant an immediate amnesty for people living in the UK for more than 10 years. We would seriously challenge the notion that it is in the national interest for the state to be actively interested in detaining, deporting and pressuring people into ‘voluntary returns’.

  • We want an end to the Home Office’s of employing detainees to do menial work for £1 per hour, it prays on the vulnerable and forces them to participate in their own detention.

The Solidarity Party recognises the absurdity of a system which prevents people from working in the community but exploits their labour for £1 per hour when they have been detained. Any work undertaken in the managing and dismantling of the detention estate will receive a living wage.

  • We want an end to charter flights and the snatching of people from their beds in the night and herding them like animals.

Charter Flights are the result of concerted efforts to deport people of specific nationalities; they are a legacy of colonial relations with states such as Pakistan, Nigeria and Jamaica. They prevent people accessing their rights because of the lack of legal and casework resources. The Solidarity Party would end charter flights immediately and ensure that everyone was able to access legal resources and legal aid to effectively obtain their rights.


The Solidarity Party demands that other parties accept similar extensive and reasonable proposals and join us in re-imagining the state against racism and against the violent and continuing legacies of colonialism.

These policies proposals have been formulated by a well-meaning policy officer but it would need to undergo significant and meaningful consultation with those who made the demands and those most affected by immigration policies to see whether the measures go far enough.




*The Solidarity Party are a fictional party fabricated to think about out how a progressive state might respond to the injustices of detention and deportation. It is more of an experiment in thinking about what the state’s policies might be and how parties might respond to the protest and demands of those socially excluded.

8 Reasons to hate the new Bail procedures

Most of Schedule 10 of the Immigration Act 2016 were brought into force this week. Here’s 8 reason to hate them.*

1)   The word Bail has lost its meaning

Bail used to be the process people can apply to get out of prison or detention. No longer. Anybody ‘liable to be detained’ can now be subjected to immigration bail and the punitive conditions bail enables residence requirements, reporting requirements, electronic tagging. Bail is now the word for the raft of community-based control measures now going to be imposed on all people without status. It is an expansion of state power to control their lives and further signals the government’s intent to treat people without documents as criminals.

2)   People who can’t be detained can now be subject to bail conditions

In addition, people who previously could not be detained, can now also be put on immigration bail – including if ‘the Secretary of State is considering whether to make a deportation order against the person’.

3)   There is a wide power of arrest for arrest for people on bail

If an immigration officer has reasonable grounds for ‘believing that the person is likely to fail to comply with a bail condition’, that person can be arrested. The procedures explicitly say that being on bail is no protection from being detained.

4) There are more limitations on when a judge can grant bail from detention

The tribunal is no longer permitted to grant bail for eight days after arrival in the UK or if removal is (supposed to be) within 14 days.

5)   The Home Office can ignore the Immigration Tribunal on bail

As well as being able to ignore some tribunal decisions to grant bail to someone detained, the Home Office can, in some instances, modify the conditions granted by the Tribunal without judicial oversight. This is a bizarre constitutional trickery allows the executive basically to ignore the will of the judiciary.

6)   Section 4 accommodation is no longer exists

Unless one is an refused asylum seeker and can receive s95a accommodation, the Home Office will only provide an address, ‘in exceptional circumstances’ – for example, where there are Human Rights concerns.  This means there will be people in detention who are eligible for bail who have to remain in detention because they cannot get housing. There have been increasing instances of people in detention being released without an address – it is unclear whether this will increase in the absence of s4.

7)   Automatic bail hearings was meant to be a positive reform

The lack of judicial oversight of decisions to detain is a major criticism of the current detention process. Automatic bail hearings after 4 months were won after significant campaigning by reformers. This is another example of the government subversively responding to calls for reform by expanding its own power.

8)   We are likely to see compulsory electronic tagging for people leaving detention in the future

The one positive element of the recent announcement is that they haven’t yet implemented powers to impose electronic monitoring on everyone applying for bail from within detention.


*This is a blunt account of some of the problems with the procedures and obviously lacks detail and exceptions – please look to expert accounts on freemovement.org.uk and other places for better information and look-up BID if you need help with obtaining bail yourself. If any of this information is wrong or misleading please get in touch @tomgk90

Voluntary Removal and Granville Town 1772

Forced expulsion or deportation from the UK works hand in hand with voluntary removal. Whereas 12,542 people were forcibly returned in the year to June 2017, there were 22,822 so-called voluntary returns in the same period.[1]

That voluntary returns are preferable to forced returns is an assumption that is embedded in official documents and discourse. This assumption is accepted, presumably, by the charities that take up contracts in supporting voluntary returns who, I would venture to guess, would not apply for an escorting contract for enforced removals.

However, this begs the question of whether the conditions are in place to allow a ‘voluntary’ choice of departure.[2] A significant number of those ‘choose’ to be a part of the programs from within detention or on the receiving of letters from the Home Office threatening to imprison or deport them. The web of policies known collectively as the ‘hostile environment’ has grown to threaten the survival of people living without secure immigration status in this country. And this is to say nothing of a more pervasive cultural xenophobic and racist pressure, politically legitimised by ‘go home’ vans and Brexit, exerted through everyday racisms against people of colour.

The existence of voluntary returns, to say the least, should make us question whether this is another administrative fiction that conveniently allows for the removal thousands of people of colour who have chosen to reside in Britain.

The book Black and British by David Olusoga describes what we might call an early variant of the voluntary returns to a scheme we see today. In the later 18th century, while Britain’s participation in the Atlantic slave trade was burgeoning at this time, the legal position of slaves within the UK was ambiguous and many believed that the landmark judgment of Somerset v Stewart in 1772 had outlawed slavery.[3] This, coupled with an influx of a small number of former slaves who had fought for the British against the American rebels in the war independence, led to a visible number of poor black people on the streets of London. The new racism that had grown along with Britain’s involvement in slavery meant the life of free black people was very difficult, unable to find work, they grew reliant on the aid of ‘The Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor’, a group of wealthy philanthropists.[4]

A scheme was proposed and put into operation in 1787, to fund the transportation and settlement of black people in England in Sierra Leone. The state-funded the scheme, giving participants £14 each for provisions and promised land and, based upon the lies of a man called Henry Smeathman, promised fertile and idyllic land for participants to settle on. In reality, the new settlement – only a short distance from Bunce Island, a key port used by the British to transport slaves to the Americas – was a disaster, the climate unsuitable for habitation.

The existence of this bizarre scheme was only possible because of a coalition of pro-slavery advocates and abolitionists that shaped, advertised and led it. Of course, it was pushed by British racists and a pragmatic state that wanted to remove the inconvenience of poverty on the streets of Georgian London. Yet Granville Sharp – a dedicated abolitionist whose persistent research and campaigning had successfully led to shaping the common law against slavery – was heavily invested in the scheme. He believed in the scheme to such an extent that, not only did he encourage friends to join it, he wrote a book that, he imagined, would become the founding set of constitutional laws that governed this new, utopian community.

In reality, the participants were ill-prepared to live in an unforgiving climate, some became involved in the slave economy of Bunce Island, many died and the town was eventually burnt to the ground in 1789.

What, if anything, can be learned from such an esoteric, historical example of voluntary expulsion that may influence our understanding of today’s world? The effects of today’s voluntary removal schemes are hidden in the individual lives of those dispersed across the world and as such little is known about their life trajectories nor about the conditions in which they make the decision to sign on to the schemes. Yet, the parallels with this ill-fated utopian plan provide good reason to be wary of the ‘benevolent’ cousin of deportation.

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/immigration-statistics-april-to-june-2017/how-many-people-are-detained-or-returned

[2] http://journals.sagepub.com.chain.kent.ac.uk/doi/abs/10.1177/0306396810396606

[3] http://www.commonlii.org/int/cases/EngR/1772/57.pdf

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2005/aug/31/race.bookextracts

Refugee status must mean permanent residence.

The Home Office has recently introduced a Safe Returns Review that allows them to refuse refugee applications for indefinite leave to remain if it is judged that it is now safe for them to return. This post argues that the policy needs to be challenged. If you agree please sign this petition.

My step-mum, Anna, is a Chilean refugee who lives in South London. She was under threat of persecution from the Pinochet dictatorship installed by the US-orchestrated coup in 1971. Being recognised as a refugee in 1973 meant she could settle in the UK permanently and could plan her life for the long term. She trained to be a psychotherapist and worked in the NHS, she played active roles in the political communities in the Latin American diaspora and later in the struggle against the Israeli occupation of Palestine and she played a huge role in my upbringing.

For a long time now, the link between refugee status and permanent residence has been under threat. In 2005, the New Labour government, having previously lauded settlement as vital to refugee integration made the first crack in the connection. They made a formal change that meant that procedurally speaking refugee status was granted for 5 years, after which one would have to apply for indefinite leave to remain. This would routinely be granted automatically unless the applicant had a criminal record.

The Tory government have rhetorically tried to prise open the crack further. In 2015 Theresa May stated:

“We’ll introduce strengthened ‘safe return reviews’ so when a refugee’s temporary stay of protection in the UK comes to an end, or if there is a clear improvement in the conditions of their own country, we will review their need for protection. If their reason for asylum no longer stands and it is now safe for them to return, we will seek to return them to their home country rather than offer settlement here in Britain.”

This safe return review was quietly published in a new Home Office policy that states:

“All those who apply for settlement protection after completing the appropriate probationary period of limited leave will be subject to a safe return review with reference to the country situation at the date the application is considered. Those who still need protection at that point will normally qualify for settlement. Caseworkers must refer to the Settlement Protection instruction for more detailed guidance on considering such applications.”

This change applies immediately and means that the 59,000 people who have received status in the last 5 years now will undergo a full safe returns review. If the circumstances either personal or political that led one to receive refugee status have in the Home Office’s eyes ‘ceased to exist’ they are now able to block refugees from accessing leave to remain.

We don’t know the precise effects of the policy change. The Home Office may continue, for the time being, to routinely grant indefinite leave to remain to refugees. But whether it is immediately noticeable or occurs at an imperceptible speed, this move severs the connection between refugee status and permanent residence.

The increased uncertainty will have significant effects on the lives of those have already succeeded against the odds at persuading the Home Office or an asylum judge that they have a right to refugee status. Being a refugee no longer means one is in control of one’s own future: deciding what educational, professional choices to take, how one is to build relationships and participate in communities have to be taken in the knowledge that one’s right to remain is not secure. It means refuge is increasingly being re-characterised as a precarious, liminal status where residence is always dependent on the continued threat to one’s life. If biological life ceases to be threatened by persecution, one’s social and political life in the UK is immediately placed under threat.

Given the experience of poor Home Office decision making and the likelihood they may need to be overturned on appeal, refugees may now need to seek legal advice again when applying for leave to remain. This is likely to affect people who gained refugee status on the basis of gender based persecution because the personal circumstances involved are likely to be more subject to change.

There will be those who tell us the refugee status is only about protection and that’s all it is meant to do. They are wrong. Refugee status is about granting the security and control that enables people fleeing persecution to build a full human life that includes full participation, in whatever ways they so wish, in the life of communities in the UK. Long term residence is essential to this security and control and this is why it is so important that we need to repair, secure and celebrate the connection between refugee status and permanent residence in the UK.


The poverty of the ‘migrants contribute’ argument

One of the most prominent arguments against the racism and nationalism of border enforcement is to draw attention to the contribution that migrants make to the UK. A botched attempt to make it was made on question time last night and it back-fired big time. While I adopt a pragmatic approach to arguments in general (if it works, use it!) here are some reasons to be wary of it.

1. Analytical problems of the migrants contribute argument

a. It reduces people to their economic contribution
The migrants contribute argument participates in the ‘common sense’ idea that we should value each other based on their contribution society, however, often this is code for economic contribution. This neoliberal logic grounds a person’s right to citizenship in their participation in a national economy – usually through work and taxation. But this logic unduly celebrates work as a means of valuing ourselves and others. At the same time, it obscures the diverse ways that people participate in communities and families including ways that the majority in a community might not recognise.

b. It mischaracterizes the ties that connect migrant labour to European wealth

Europe’s relative wealth, including the development of the Welfare State, has been built using the labour of slavery, the accumulation of colonialism, the maintenance of neo-colonial and imperial power and racist labour exploitation based. The idea that people without British citizenship contribute both presents this history as a cosy, consensual agreement, drastically underplays the dependence of the European state on the labour of Black and Brown people and obscures the cost and conditions of the migrant labour.

2. Strategic problems: It is unlikely to gain support and it does not go far enough to achieve pro-migrant ends

a. Who does migration benefit?
Claims that migrants contribute in general beg the question of who they contribute to. On the one hand, we know that society isn’t organised to foster prosperity for all and the widespread feeling of being unjustly excluded from the riches of neoliberal growth is deeply entwined with emboldened nationalism and border-racism. So when we value migrants because they make profit or make coffee – it will not convince someone who doesn’t benefit from these activities.

On the other, it reinforces the kind of us-them thinking that the border is premised upon. We should not encourage people to require that their lives or country is being contributed to by someone in order for me not to want them to face everyday racism, be put in immigration detention or forcefully removed.

b. The trope of the good and deserving migrant

In order to create a socially just society, we need to be challenging the ‘legitimate’ social exclusion of people who are unemployed, homeless and those with criminal convictions. These are social problems that require social solutions – yet arguments based on how migrants contribute will always draw attention to those that don’t ‘contribute’ expected ways.

c. It invites questions of who contributes more?
In order to form discourse that builds a consensus around free movement, we need to build narratives that value everyone – both communities who have moved and those who are relatively static. The notion that migrants contribute, in conditions of austerity, industry collapse means that those who need to be included in a progressive vision of the future are excluded. Focusing on migrants doing important jobs dovetails with the classism and snobbery that British working class aren’t doing the jobs they are supposed to be doing.

3. There are better arguments

a. Free movement as a right that states have a responsibility to protect
The freedom to move and build lives and communities of one’s own is an essential part of human life. Recognising and fighting for the inherent value of the freedom to move and stay in new places is necessary to bring into view socially just futures. It is on this basis that we need to convince people to support the development of the open societies and infrastructure needed to enable less border control.

 b. Focus on the violence of border control
A focus on migrants contributing means that we silence the main instrumental reason we should be rejecting border control. Arguments that are based on harm done by the individual foreground the experiences of those who are the victims of state violence and adopts the stand that our collective liberation is dependent upon ending the violence and domination dealt out by the state where-ever it occurs and whoever it occurs.

For these reasons, we should be very wary of using claims that migrants contribute in order to pursue anti-border goals. It is both analytically misleading, strategically misguided and there are better arguments to use.

Methodological notes on Concepts and Empiricism

This blog piece articulates how and why concepts can be useful tools to work with in order to articulate the dynamic and practical political thinking generated within embodied, situated activist practices.

A motivating a theory of concept

In many domains of social life, there are conceptual models through which relationships between people are understood. These concepts may relate to common, broad categories of relationships as in the case of friends, colleagues, employers and lovers. They might also be more specific: developed within particular social and professional milieus – the relationship between lawyer and client, researcher and informant, commuters sharing adjacent seats. These models guide how we should behave, the expectations we might have of others and the possibilities which might be realised within the bounds of that model. While necessary and helpful in navigating social interaction, and forming a common understanding, these conceptual models can implicitly fix the possibilities of social life and carry unfair and imbalance social norms.

These concepts are honed and negotiated through several mediums: all originate in social practice but they are also described and reinterpreted in forms of social discourses in film, fiction and commentary. Some are the subject of scientific study while others are regulated in law. Individual instantiations of these relationships will exceed and stretch the conceptual model in detail, intensity and shape. Awkwardness or excitement might arise from the intersection of these conceptual models and creative conceptual thought might be needed to invent or stretch new concepts to navigate new social terrain. Concepts are not abstract and atemporal universals unchanged by time and material practice. Yet nor are they reducible to the concrete relationships that give rise to them: concepts extend the concrete, delineate possibilities, carry knowledge and inform the next iterations of practice. Concepts, in short, both shape relationships and are themselves shaped by the dynamic, diverse and intricate material relationships the constitute social life (Cooper, 2014).

In some domains of life, particularly those outside of institutional structures, there is no such a stable set of concept resources to mediate and navigate relationships. Here, the logics which govern how the community interacts with itself are developed and a precarious order arises out of uncertainty. It is important, then, to develop conceptual resources and a conceptual orientation that open possibilities for working together, are inherently dynamic and are not necessarily prescriptive, but are light footed, playful and responsive to the material conditions in which we are embedded. In these settings new concepts might be forged to articulate new ways of working together or, as is more often the case, concepts might be borrowed from other aspects of life, become stretched, rearticulated and refracted through its new material conditions.

In other words, the material interactions involved in activist (and other) practices are dynamic and productive. The problem is how to tease out these conceptual innovations that emerge, even fleetingly, to recognise new tendencies and new possibilities for political relationships in developing political fields.

A theory of the Conceptual

Academic work clustered around what we might call ‘philosophical empiricism’ or ‘New Empiricism’ has developed methodological innovations drawing on Deleuze’s notions of empiricism and concept (Bal, 2009; Cooper, 2014; Gane, 2009). Deleuze rejects the idea that concepts should be primarily associated with general categories – fixed mental abstractions that collect together different aspects of the world and obscure difference and singularity. Rather, concepts are dynamic intensities – incorporeal assemblages that arise and are shaped through the local social situations that not only represent what is happening but articulates the possibilities for action.

In Deleuze’s view, conceptual creativity is not only a question of explanation or categorisation but tools of navigation always connected to the problems encountered in the course of entanglements with the empirical world. Problems are not objective but are always invented – motivated by intentional actors or what Deleuze would call ‘conceptual personae’. It is in the tension between the empirical world and philosophical and political thought that concepts are generated and already existing concepts become refracted to expose new possibilities. In this way, transcendent concepts that point toward a world beyond the present such as justice or law are always immanently shaped by the material present.

Conceptual creativity might seen in the creation of new concepts but equally be articulated through the rearticulation existing concepts. As abstract objects of thought and speech, concepts travel from context to context, discipline to discipline, subtly changing their role and meaning. Gane uses the metaphor of concepts as bridges that constantly are being assembled and disassembled. As bridges, they articulate possibilities rather than represent a static reality. In this way concepts are affective – they articulate ways in which through engagement in materially situated practices of working together a collective’s capacities to be affect and be affected change.

There are elements of Deleuze’s notion of concept that are not taken forward by this methodology. Conceptual creativity is an elitist practice that falls to philosophers to carry out (Deleuze and Guattari, 2011; Massumi, 2002). More democratic understanding of conceptual development has been crafted elsewhere. For Cooper (2014), it is the role of concepts to move or reverberate between actualisation and imagining. The imagination stretches concepts to realise new potential to enact markets, property, the state, or democracy in ways other than they currently are practised. Actualisation in the activities of communities responding to social problems supports, sustains and shapes the direction of future movements. In practice, these aren’t separate processes but occur through one another. If one wants to understand the generativity of social life one needs to remain attentive to conceptual innovations and subversions that occur the dynamic and creative lives of those around us.

As Gane argues, Deleuze’s notion of concept is intimately tied to his understanding of empiricism – that is a project that does not only explain phenomena by tying them to pre-established, static systems by trying to locate and foster novelty (Gane, 2009). It means drawing concepts that are developed in one social milieu into new ones – not with the purpose of absorbing the new object of inquiry into the old concept but by locating the dissonance and tension, the transformations and inversions that indicate the new realms of political possibilities. Bal, working in the interdisciplinary humanities, argues that travelling concepts is an asset rather than a liability – it allows us to see the connections between contexts but also keep alert to the innovations and creativity at work in new spaces.

How might this work in practice?

That’s something I’m working out! But if theory is anything to go by the practice will not be contained by the theory, but will exceed it in response to the infinitely complex realities of empirical world!


Bal M (2009) Working with Concepts. European Journal of English Studies 13(1): 13–23.

Cooper D (2014) Everyday Utopias: the conceptual life of promising spaces.

Deleuze G and Guattari F (2011) What is philosophy? Repr. London: Verso.

Gane N (2009) Concepts and the `New’ Empiricism. European Journal of Social Theory 12(1): 83–97.

Massumi B (2002) Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Duke University Press.


The Removal Men: Immigration Detention, Activism and Art

CN: sexual violence, Immigration detention.
I have just seen a play called the Removal Men written by M. J. Harding and directed by Jay Miller. The play is centred on the lives of immigration detention guards and their feelings about their work and the people they detain. I arrived at the play sceptical: I was interested in it as a way of bringing the detention to the consideration of new audiences but I felt uncomfortable about how it was marketed as a ‘love story’ between a guard and a woman in detention. I had the following questions circling in my mind:
  • What is the range of acceptable, interesting or politically useful artistic responses to the violence of Yarl’s Wood?
  • What is the difference between participating in and normalising the racism and sexism of immigration control and helpfully re-presenting the racism and sexism of detention for the examination of new audiences?
For anti-detention activists, the importance of unambiguous condemnation of detention and deportation, of sexual conduct between border guards and people held in detention is important. Because of the political and social exclusion faced by those in detention, it is important that detainee voices and experience are represented and shared as much as possible. And plays that obfuscate, confuse and revel in the controversy of detention serve to normalise detention and extract financial and social capital for the artists without challenging audiences into political action against their existence.
For the artist, developing a play that embodies what is repulsive and oppressive about detention could be a laudable aim. The play reflects back at the audience a vision of detention and of themselves as caught up in logics that enable oppressive violence of detention to occur. Because guards are racist, sexist and homophobic, the characters can say racist and homophobic jokes. Because detention excludes people, is racist and violent, it is legitimate and perhaps politically useful to embody these by for example, failing to depict the detained woman who is in the relationship with the main character.
It is interesting that the artists, I think rightly, decide not to justify the play on the basis of liberal free expression to explore any such story about detention. Instead, their argument justifies the ambivalent depiction of detention on the basis of its instrumental effect that to prompt questioning and further inquiry for the audience about detention. Yet for this to be successful it must be the case that the elements that make the play repulsive and offensive are those things that make detention repulsive and offensive. It would be a failure if the play was repulsive and offensive in ways that obscure the ways that detention is. If this were the case, one couldn’t argue that the audience was being asked to interrogate their relationship to the oppressive institution reflected back at them.
The play explicitly interrogates a number of themes. Through the play’s central characters, Mo and George, the play explores white masculinity that the detention centres themselves embody: insecure in their identity and place in the world, fragile and prone to lashing violently out, and yet placed in positions of power over others. By channelling ‘The Office’ style humour and repeated references to ’empathy workshops’ for the guards, the play explores the ways care, love and empathy are mobilised to facilitate the operation of imprisonment and deportation in ways that empty these words of meaning. The soporific music and dream-like sequences instil a sense that the people working in detention have to remove themselves emotionally from their jobs and, perhaps, leaves the audience examining their own detachment from, and therefore complicity in, detention.
The plot is driven Mo’s ‘relationship’ with a character named Didi who is never present on stage. When Mo is tasked with letting Didi know she is about to be removed, he tries to prevent her removal by cutting her with a broken mug and raping her resulting in Didi becoming pregnant. These are the clearest words to describe what happened, but the play is less than clear about what actually happens. How Didi responded to Mo’s apparent wish to disrupt her removal is unclear because it happens just off stage. Mo thinks she actively consented, the detention centre manager is disgusted at what Mo has done and there is a dreamy music sequence in which the actor playing the detention centre manager seems to take on the voice of Didi persuading him not to try to ‘help her’. It is left ambiguous about what actually happened.
The play was uncomfortable and intentionally so. The line between indulging in the white fetishisation and sexualisation of the absent black women in custody and representing it to a new audience to critique is difficult to discern. And without a way for audiences to digest and get direction, the play seemed to revel in this indistinction and nihilism. While I had attended an aftershow discussion that helped the audience digest the political content of the play – this discussion was an exception and was only put on in response to the open letter by activists.
Art does not need to be didactic and it can usefully explore any of the stories that intersect with detention. I found much of the play’s use of ambiguity quite effective. It was necessary to attempt to think about the social conditions that enable people to work in places of detention. And it is necessary to explore what I took to be the play’s key thesis: that one of the reasons why detention is so concerning is the destruction it does to fundamental human emotions and instincts.
Yet, on the subject of sexual assault of women in immigration detention, I would question whether the same argument can be made. Here, the fact that there is sexual assault in detention is clear – one only has to listen to the people in detention, former detainees and activists that have worked hard to gain recognition of abuse. The ambiguity only results from the exclusion from political participation of people in detention and the culture of disbelief that surrounds both sexual assault and people who make immigration claims. The play, therefore, fails to achieve what the artist wants: represent detention for the inspection of new audiences. Instead, the play’s inability to clearly re-present these stories participates in the damaging cultural trope that maintains ambiguity around sexual assault. On this subject, the maintenance of ambiguity and the mirroring of exclusion of voice fails to support the people who have suffered in Yarl’s Wood and who have provided the subject matter for the play.
It is also unclear that the inclusion/exclusion of Didi a character who was so central to the plot but never represented as a character in the play by an actor aids in re-presenting to the audience problems of detention. I was quite sympathetic to the artists’ argument that by representing people in detention through one person in detention and by refusing to add to the depictions of suffering black bodies was a way to a avoid problematic politics of different kinds. However, I was less sympathetic toward arguments that the play was again mirroring the realities of detention since the absence of voice is difficult to feel without it being confronted directly.
The absence of Didi’s character was made more problematic by the ambiguous presentation of sexual assault, discussed above, and the way the marketing revolved around the question of whether a ‘love story’ could exist in detention. In the pos- show discussion, no responsibility was taken by the writer or director for the marketing of the play. But the framing of the play is an important resource through which an audience will approach the play and it is indicative of how the play understands itself. The fact is we cannot ask whether ‘love’ can exist in detention without a depiction of the agency of the woman in detention because a love story is not an emotion felt by a white man but suggests the collaboration and consent of others. This focus on the emotions of Mo his ‘love’, the indulgence of his white guilt in the last half an hour of the play, I feel took us further and further away from a confrontation with detention and its problems.
In all, reproducing the repulsive reality of detention is a useful pursuit. However, it is important to recognise the fine but definite lines between re-presenting the violence of detention and reproducing the social conditions which enable the violence of detention to exist.

2017: How to build on the growing Shut Down Yarl’s Wood demonstrations?

The Yarl’s Wood Demonstrations have been massive for the anti-detention movement. Indeed, the tireless work of Movement for Justice and others has created the movement. The demonstrations are not just shows of solidarity with women detained in the centre, but a reminder that the day to day of anti-detention work is not carried out in isolation and a sign of the growing strength of anti-detention sentiment.Two things struck me about December’s Yarl’s Wood Demo. Firstly, as I entered the demonstration and walked to the far end of the field, there were so many pockets of song and organisation, each expressing their outrage and love in overlapping yet distinctive ways. A coalition of groups representing

Two things struck me about December’s Yarl’s Wood Demo. Firstly, as I entered the demonstration and walked to the far end of the field, there were so many pockets of song and organisation, each expressing their outrage and love in overlapping yet distinctive ways. A coalition of groups representing organisational capacity to do more and more to resist detention.

Secondly, that when MFJ enabled women in detention to take to the microphone – there was a unifying respect and discipline: everyone was there to listen, to respond and to work alongside the women in Yarl’s Wood to shut it down. This unified display of political intention, to me, shows a movement learning a common way of doing politics together.

The question for 2017 is how can this movement expand and escalate from Yarl’s Wood demonstrations?

An answer, for me, must include growing a base of support against the men’s detention estate.

This is important because we know the dangers of movements that select groups of people subject to oppression as deserving of support. While policy changes may be made, the effect is to solidify the appearance of the fairness of detention without diminishing the numbers of people incarcerated and deported.

We urgently need to recognise the intersecting racist and sexist violence that occurs in Yarl’s Wood that manifests many ways, not least the numerous allegations of sexual assault committed by guards and the large numbers of survivors of rape that are held there. At the same time, it is important to resist becoming a campaign that falls into the trap of pitting good categories migrants against bad migrants. This is important especially in the context of widespread gendered and racist representations about black, male adults as threatening and expendable. Black men are both vulnerable to the violence detention and deportation and worthy of mass mobilisation against their incarceration.


I hope the Yarl’s Wood demonstrations continue and expand. But my hope for the movement is that it can draw strength from them and expand resistance across the detention estate.