Quasi-detention: The blurred lines of the UK’s asylum regime

By Lisa Tilley|July 31, 2023|Uncategorized|0 comments

Author: Annabel Miller

MSc Migration, Mobility and Development Studies Jane Baker Award Assistantship

Through the generous support of MSc Migration, Mobility and Development Studies alumna Jane Baker, this summer I have undertaken a Research Assistantship under the supervision of Dr Anna Lindley. Together we have been working to track the burgeoning elements of ‘quasi-detention’ in UK’s asylum system.

I carried out a literature review of academic research, NGO reports and media coverage to explore how this term was increasingly being used to describe the restrictions of asylum seekers’ freedoms. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Immigration Detention’s inquiry into quasi-detention in December 2021 provided a comprehensive, evidence-based review (APPG, 2021). Through analysing the Napier Barracks, Penally Camp and Tinsley House sites, the report exposes the increasingly blurred lines between detention and asylum accommodation and the traumatising effects for people seeking asylum.

Various forms of ‘in-between spaces’ have been emerging – from barges, to military barracks, to hotels. More and more, what were first intended as emergency measures are now commonplace, with the Napier contract being extended without consultation with the local government and community (Jesuit, 2023; Asylum Matters, 2022). Indeed, the Government has positioned Napier as a prototype for future asylum accommodation, which will accompany more hardline legislation like the ‘New Plan for Immigration’ within the National and Borders Act 2022 and Illegal Migration Bill 2023 (Cole, 2023; Jesuit, 2023). Everyday life in these kinds of sites can be characterised by socio-spatial isolation and surveillance. Movement, privacy and access to support services are systematically controlled in the name of cost effectiveness and security. Behavioural (dis)incentive-based enforcement approaches are common, extending outside of the sites themselves; indeed, protesters were warned by police that asylum claims of Napier residents would be negatively impacted if their protest went ahead (Jesuit, 2023).

I found comparing asylum reception and detention in the UK with the wider European context particularly interesting. Despite being a key feature of asylum regimes across Europe, detention remains an opaque phenomenon, practiced and justified variously from one country to the next. Populist anti-refugee rhetoric (Özerim and Tolay, 2021) and the growing backlog of asylum claims are driving European governments to diversify the types of facilities which receive and detain asylum seekers – from hotel airports and police stations in France, to vessels in the Netherlands, to army barracks in the Czech Republic (Asylum in Europe, 2023; Home Office, May 2023; Szczepanikova, 2012). Widespread emphasis on migration control is being used to justify the institutionalisation of excep-tional, hostile measures. Indeed, although originally established to tackle capacity challenges, Italy’s ‘Extraordinary Reception Centres’ were built into the country’s new asylum regime from 2018, which came with poorer provisions and integration services (Novak, 2021).

The entanglement of different actors involved in asylum decisions and practices has complicated questions around responsibility and accountability. Indeed, although EU frameworks encourage state institutions to hold all decision-making power, private institutions have increasing influence, while many NGOs have faced resource challenges or been pushed aside (Szczepanikova, 2012). EU law also distinguishes between reception and detention, yet simultaneously “blurs those divisions when regulating areas where both notions come into play”, this ambivalence creating significant legal flexibility for state-endorsed detention policies (European Council on Refugees and Exiles, 2020, p.7).

The last couple of decades saw the UK build one of Europe’s largest asylum and immigration detention systems (Global Detention Project, 2016). Particularly since the pandemic, the UK’s approach reflects the trends of exceptional flexibility with detention, including use of emergency state powers to prolong confinement and extend temporary measures (Jesuit, 2023). In sum, ‘quasi-detention’ appears to be a concerning trend, with institutionalised ambiguity allowing practices to continue with limited scrutiny or understanding. We need to acknowledge the human (and financial) cost of normalising quasi-detention.

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