Keeping it neutral: conducting research on immigration detention

Jake Hollis speaks to those detained at Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre in Scotland.

Three years ago, I volunteered as a visitor offering emotional support to people detained in Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre (IRC), Scotland. Most of the people I spoke to inside the IRC were dumbstruck as to why they were being held without time limit in an institution that was not merely prison-like, but run under lock-and-key by the Home Office. 

Many were asylum seekers who had fled conflict or persecution in their home countries and had endured transcontinental migrations in a bid to find refuge in the UK. Some had braved ill-equipped boats in the mediterranean, stumbled through unknown terrains by night, lay huddled in lorries crossing Europe, and had eventually made it to the UK against the odds. They represented a small sample of the crush of humanity described in the media at the time as the ‘European migrant crisis’. Now they found themselves in a former prison in rural Scotland.

I was outraged by the UK government’s practice of indefinitely detaining asylum seekers and other foreign-born nationals. Hoping to contribute something to the emerging body of research on the psychological impacts of being held in immigration detention, I conducted some interviews with people who had subsequently been released from detention.

'The science should be politically neutral'

Feeling a little unsure of whether my work was of interest to anyone besides my dissertation supervisor, I emailed Dr Katy Robjant. Katy was one of the few psychologists I could find who had studied the mental health impacts of being held in an IRC. Katy and her colleagues (Sen et al., 2018) found that over half the people they surveyed in IRCs were depressed. Meanwhile, a fifth were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and roughly the same proportion were at risk of suicide.

Katy read my research paper, and encouraged me to submit it to journals. She also offered some valuable advice to temper my tendency to polemicise. “In my experience of researching and providing therapy in this area, it is best to keep advocacy and clinical/research work as separate as possible,” she wrote. “The science should be politically neutral.” 

Katy told me that she didn’t at all subscribe to the ‘scientist-practitioner-advocate’ model, and felt that whilst an individual could wear different hats at different times, trying to wear them simultaneously was ill-advised. 

“I remember when I did my research in this area”, she added. “I was outraged, and being able to do some advocacy work really helped me, but I found it better to separate them”.

Paragons of resilience 

Katy helped me to avoid another pitfall in my initial research paper. Having criticised the use of psychiatric diagnoses to pathologise distress, I had ironically made use of another kind of  label – that of the migrant as a ‘paragon of resilience’. “Reject categorisation”, Katy helpfully suggested. 

The subject of immigration detention provides fertile terrain for the thrashing out of today’s culture wars. People in detention, and migrants more generally, are cast as terrorists, criminals and sexual predators, or otherwise as oppressed – albeit voiceless – victims. When initially reading through my interview transcripts, I had been so concerned to resist such mediations of the ‘migrant experience’, that I had blindly subscribed to another stereotype. This was the idea of asylum seekers as stoic and resilient, remaining steadfastly goal-driven in spite of common backgrounds of trauma and persecution, precarious migrations and uncertain futures.

Katy meanwhile, had cautioned against this narrative: “People are just people. We could all be asylum seekers. All depends on context.” 

The exchange encouraged me to return to my interviews with a fresh pair of eyes. I realised I had been overly keen to draw a narrative of uniformly resilient migrants, heroically enduring the limbo of detention. Some of the people I had interviewed had drawn on resources of resilience, the depths of which I cannot fathom. But for every person I spoke to who was able to reframe and create meaning from their time in detention, there were others in whom something vital had withered.

“Nobody can lock your spirit” 

There was Sharo*. Sharo was a personal trainer whose softly-spoken reflectiveness was as much a part of his presence as his barrel-chested masculinity. Sharo’s life in Iran had become impossible due to his support for greater political participation for the Kurdish minority. Seeking refuge in the UK, he instead found himself detained for two months in Dungavel IRC.  

In coping with the purgatory of detention, Sharo drew on the defiance of his family members who had served in the Kurdish military force – the peshmerga – which translates as ‘those who face death’. “My father told me, about man, and our culture, that when some problems happen for man, it is like to test you. How much you are a man.” He laughed. “So, you must be so strong when you have a problem.”

There was Naseem, too. Naseem was a calmly optimistic Yemeni bus driver. Having fallen into spirals of ruminative depression during the initial weeks of his seven-month detention, also in Dungavel, Naseem was eventually able to reframe his confinement as a time for contemplation.

“You’ve been separated from the world you was living in.” Naseem told me. “You are in a different world now, a small world. But that gives you a chance to think about your life again.” 

Naseem found meaning by weaving together his own syncretic philosophy, through which he transformed his understanding not only of detention, but of freedom itself. “Some people outside [of detention] even, they are not free as well. They can’t do what they want, because they don’t understand what they want.” He reflected. “They’ve been locked. You know, your spirit. So, nobody can lock your spirit.”

Then, there was Fikriyah. Fikriyah was a Pakistani student who fled death threats from relatives over her marriage to a lower-caste man. She became pregnant with her husband a few weeks into their seven-month detention in Yarl’s Wood IRC, Bedfordshire. Fikriyah told me that she was denied basic healthcare needs and was verbally abused by custodial staff. For her, the ordeal was not something that could be overcome through mental toughness.

“I’m totally changed. I’m not the person before detention.” Fikriyah explained. “Now, just, I feel the people are looking at me. I know they don’t know that I was in detention [but] I feel they can read my face.” She said, in tears. “This thing break me inside.” 

Evidently, there are as many ways of responding to the uncertainty of confinement as there are people. 

Us, on a different day 

Having worked hard to find a middle ground between narratives of vulnerability and resilience, I submitted what I hoped was a more nuanced paper to a journal for publication. During the peer review process, I was surprised to find that one of the reviewers was concerned that by placing so much emphasis on individuals’ ways of coping in detention, and perhaps by not sufficiently voicing my sense of indignation at the system of detention, I might be implying that it was the responses of individuals to detention which needed to change, rather than the institution itself.

Despite a brief impulse to backtrack, I recalled Katy’s measured words. Rallying against the injustices of immigration detention was important in the right context, but make it the driving force of an empirical paper and you risked undermining your integrity as a researcher. 

Casting people in immigration detention as uniformly heroic is just as reductive as the less flattering distortions I had sought to avoid. It denies the fact that the ‘migrant experience’ is every bit as radically heterogenous as the human experience. Heroising narratives are convenient in that they tend to insulate us ‘over here’ in the West, from what Katy had reminded me. Save for accidents of context, we could all be asylum seekers. Or, in the words of the writer George Saunders, “what seems other is actually not other at all, but just us on a different day.”

* Please note that the names of interviewees have been changed to respect their anonymity. 

- Jake Hollis is a mental health practitioner and researcher. 

Key sources

Hollis, J. (2019), The psychosocial experience of UK immigration detention, International Journal of Migration, Health & Social Care. Vol. 15 No. 1, pp. 76-89. 

Mallinckrodt, B., Miles, J. R., & Levy, J. J. (2014). The scientist-practitioner-advocate model: Addressing contemporary training needs for social justice advocacy. Training  and Education in Professional Psychology, 8 (April 2015), 303–311.

Sen, P., Arugnanaseelan, J., Connell, E., Katona, C., Khan, A. A., Moran, P., Robjant, K., Slade K., Tan, J., Widyaratna, K.,  Youd, J. & Forrester, A. (2018). Mental health morbidity among people subject to immigration detention in the UK: a feasibility study. Epidemiology and psychiatric sciences, 27(6), 628-637.

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