Immigration Detention: Investigating the Expansion and Global Diffusion of a Failed Project

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Social and Political Science


This project examines the expansion and diffusion of immigration detention systems around the world, despite evidence that they do not deliver stated policy objectives and cause harm. Immigration detention fails to deter, is disproportionate to immigration control objectives, discriminates on the basis of race, gender and class, and often includes inhuman and degrading treatment. Scholars have highlighted the high financial and human costs of detention that regularly involves the incarceration of already vulnerable adults and children, produces additional vulnerabilities, and harms detained individuals and their families.

Despite these failings, immigration detention systems are expanding across the world. Why? This project has two aims. First, it seeks to understand why immigration detention policies continue to be pursued and how they have diffused globally (Aim 1). What are the state and non-state agents of diffusion, what is their role in the diffusion of this policy and what interests do they have in immigration detention? What functions does immigration detention play beyond stated policy goals? Second, the project critically assesses resistance to immigration detention (Aim 2). Why have academics and activists been unable to convince policymakers of basic truths about detention, such as its failure to deter? Where have they been effective at resisting the expansion of detention and how might we learn from their successes? And finally, how has the Covid pandemic affected detention practices and NGO activism? Here, I adopt a participatory research approach with NGOs as key collaborators in the research design, execution, and dissemination.

The project delivers its aims through the comparison of three case studies: Australia, the UK, and the US. These countries are early adopters of immigration detention and remain innovators and leaders in the transnational policy field. They maintain the largest detention systems in the world and, in contrast to most other countries, enforce mandatory and/or indefinite detention. They are powerful actors whose policy choices are less affected by coercive exogenous factors, thus allowing us to probe why states adopt and sustain policies that fail to produce explicit policy goals. Finally, they represent liberal democracies whose ostensible commitments to human rights and the rule of law are fundamental to their nationalist projects and run counter to the practice of detention.

A range of methods are used, including (1) documentary analysis of policies and archival material; (2) discourse analysis of media coverage; (2) interviews and (3) focus groups with state and non-state agents of diffusion (policymakers, multinational companies, international orgs), and actors involved in resisting detention (NGOs, detainees, their friends/family, detention staff). In each country, key NGOs will participate as research collaborators. Analysis will focus first within each case and include discourse and thematic analysis, alongside a genealogical analysis to policy diffusion. A systematic comparative analysis between cases then follows to capture how the global and local intersect, how flawed policies travel transnationally and find resistance at the local, national and international levels.

The project engages and contributes to a number of academic literatures, including on (1) policy diffusion/transfer; (2) social movements; and (3) race and colonialism. The systematic, comparative approach breaks new ground in the study of detention, as existing scholarship largely theorizes from single country case studies and assumes the US to be the primary innovator in the field. Public and policy engagement are also central to the project. Advocacy organizations, policymakers and other stakeholders are integrated throughout the research to ensure the study's success, help publicize findings, and identify opportunities to change public discourse on detention and promote less harmful policies.


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