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Michael Flynn, Lead Researcher, Global Detention Project. Immigration Detention and the Aesthetics of Incarceration. Oxford Immigration Detention Workshop, 21 May 2010. What is the Global Detention Project?

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michael flynn lead researcher global detention project

Michael Flynn, Lead Researcher, Global Detention Project

Immigration Detention and the Aesthetics of Incarceration

Oxford Immigration Detention Workshop, 21 May 2010


What is the Global Detention Project?

A research project on the role detention plays in states’ responses to global migration, with a focus on the policies and physical infrastructures of detention.

Goals include:

1) to develop a measurable and regularly updated baseline for analyzing the growth and evolution of detention practices and policies;

2) to encourage scholarship in this often under-studied aspect of the immigration phenomenon;

3) to facilitate accountability and transparency in the treatment of detainees.


Global Dimensions(estimates & approximations)

80 countries: 1,200 sites of detention (including 450 prisons and 450 immigration detention facilities).

United States: 350 detention sites (only 27 of which are dedicated immigration detention facilities), total budgeted capacity of 33,000.

EU 27:250-350 detention sites, of which there are some 170 dedicated facilities with a total capacity of 34,000.

Total est. global immigration detention pop.: 100,000 (???)



Immigration detention is closely related to criminal incarceration. States have responded to this association in schizophrenic fashion, bolstering detention practices to deter undesirable aliens while endeavoring to disguise the penal aspects of detention through misleading names and laws. The result is that the phenomenon of immigration detention, when looked at globally, is extraordinarily difficult to characterize, a fact that has ramifications in efforts to protect the rights of detained persons and construct appropriate immigration policies.

Illustrative cases: Turkey and the United States


What is migration-related detention?

The deprivation of liberty of non-citizens because of their status.

What is deprivation of liberty?

Locking people up against their will.

Who is a non-citizen?

Irregular immigrants, asylum seekers, refugees, victims of trafficking, stateless persons.

What are sites of deprivation of liberty?

The problem at the heart of this paper.


Problems with standard characterization

What does it mean, “open” or closed” detention “camp”?

  • Two faces of the “camp”

The Holocaust and summer vacation. Inappropriate to associate immigration detention with either of these concepts, and broad use of the term “camp” to refer to all detention centers undermines the fact that there are some sites of detention, especially in the developing world, that do in fact reflect aspects of camps.

  • “Open”?

Obvious contradiction with the concept of detention.

Fails to capture complex nature of custody in “reception centers” for asylum seekers.

  • “Closed”?

Fails to distinguish between the myriad types of detention facilities.

Like the term “open,” fails to transmit the complex nature of custody in all detention centers.


Proposed typology scheme

(coding the aesthetics of detention)

  • Facility type
  • Security level
  • Management
  • Custodial authority

Facility typology

  • Dedicated immigration detention centre(designed for the long-term, administrative detention of non-citizens)
  • Prison(penitentiaries, local jails, police lock-ups, juvenile hall/borstal institutions)
  • Immigration office(holding cells)
  • Reception centre (for asylum seekers)
  • Ad hoc (camps, prisons, shelters, other)
  • Transit centre (external detention at airports and other ports of entry, typically short-term)

Security level

  • Secure: Deprivation of liberty
  • Semi-secure: Deprivation of liberty with caveats
  • Non-secure: No deprivation of liberty, “open”
  • Mixed regime: Facilities that have secure and non-secure sections


  • Public

police, military, prison services, immigration agencies

  • Private

1. Security contractors (Serco, Corrections Corporation of America)

2. Non-profit agencies (Red Cross)

  • International organizations(UNHCR, IOM)

Custodial authority (bureaucratic chain of command)

  • Security (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement)
  • Prison system (Malaysian Prison Department)
  • Home affairs (UK Home Office, Border Agency)
  • Justice (South Korean Ministry of Justice, Immigration Bureau)
  • Immigration (Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship)
  • International organization (UNHCR, IOM)

Why is this important?


“To facilitate removal [of aliens] … detention and other forms of custody are constitutionally permissible to prevent individuals from fleeing or endangering public safety. However … if the circumstances of detention become excessive in relation to these noncriminal purposes, then detention may be improperly punitive and therefore unconstitutional.” (Kalhan 2010)


How to translate permissible forms of administrative detention into reality, develop measures for assessing whether current methods are excessive, design “soft” or alternatives forms of custody based on best practices.


Construct data that will allow scholars to compare detention practices across an array of disparate cases.