As Deborah Cowen notes, today’s border infrastructure, ‘does not simply reflect existing inequality, but may engineer and entrench new forms’. What’s more, these contemporary forms have precedents, and bear traces of those carceral systems deployed throughout Britain’s imperial past – both real and speculative. Indeed, throughout the British Empire, the displacement and removal of people depended on both territorial expansion and a particular kind of carceral architecture – the prison ship. At the same time as it relied upon settler expansion and indigenous genocide in the Americas, Britain fuelled her colonies with convict labour, transported on hulking ships to serve sentences in exile. Given overcrowded domestic prisons, and the rapid expansion of population, poverty and petty crime in the urban centres of England, such ships provided an economic and punitive solution through the systematic removal of the ‘unwanted’ and ‘undesirable’, and served as a model to regulate populations throughout the Empire.
However, the proposal of new ‘prison ships’ for migrant detention is far from a novel revival of some cruel infrastructure from a distant past. In fact, as recently as 1987, the UK Government had deployed the Earl William, a disused ferry, as a floating immigration centre for detaining people seeking asylum. Moored at Harwich in Essex, the ferry accommodated dozens of people from Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Afghanistan, Uganda, the Seychelles, Nigeria and Sri Lanka.
The scheme almost ended in disaster the following year when hurricane-speed winds dragged the ferry from its moorings in the Essex port and out to sea. The crew, security guards and 78 detainees on board were all brought to safety, and the government gave the asylum-seekers temporary admission on compassionate grounds. Some had been detained on the vessel for over a year – the majority of whom were Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka who had fled pogroms and massacres in their homeland.
Offshore ships – alongside the appropriation of military barracks or the construction of ‘asylum camps’ in third countries – are the product of a logic which looks to externalise the ‘problem’ of immigration. Offshore detention ensures people are kept at an extreme distance, isolated, hidden and – ultimately – ‘disappeared’. To help make sense of how contemporary forms of carceral violence are deployed as instruments of bordering, Aidan Forth understands the dualism of the camps in terms of the conjoined emergence of British liberalism and colonial repression: care and control. Indeed, Forth contends that ‘Britain’s empire of camps anticipated future practices of military internment, political detention, and racial violence. But its most direct line of descent leads to contemporary shelters and detention centres housing refugees and displaced persons under international humanitarian management.’
Tracing this link between the violence of state formation, colonial expansion and contemporary practices of removal and exclusion can bring to light how such histories exercise significant influence on present policy. If we take the prison ship as a global detention product, for instance – much like the camp – its functional characteristics have been honed through centuries of use as a carceral device, now replicated in plans to transform disused ferries into floating containers for processing asylum seekers. The act of spatially exiling people to boats or barracks remains an intentional strategy that cannot be removed from the legacies of its architecture.
The UK government is reliant on the production of a population that can be detained and removed through the reinforcement of political, racial, and class-based boundaries. Modes of expulsion set out in earlier periods of imperial expansion offer a clear precedent for the current initiatives in which the border is re-imagined as an expanded network of violence through its internal mechanisms, and ultimately, as an instrument of control capable of operating through an assemblage of refusal, exclusion and expulsion.
We are witnessing visions of a border future that speaks to a global regime dependent on disciplinary tactics which – isolated and hidden from public scrutiny – offers little prospect of accountability. Such tactics already applied in the Hostile Environment can be seen to extend into the government’s new proposals: the border becoming less visible, less determinate, and everywhere. The case for asylum is further blurred with the case for removal. Accommodation becomes detention, becomes prison.
In post-Brexit UK, we can expect the continued neo-liberalization of the border and its pervasiveness within our communities, the outsourcing of its violence to security firms, logistical corporations and NGOs, and the expansion of the Asylum-Industrial-Complex to control an ever greater share of power over people and what they are entitled to.
As such, while plans for off-shore detention and processing are undoubtedly shocking examples of the extent this government will go to enforce the border, they should also come as no surprise. The UK’s contemporary border enforcement has long relied on an operation of excluding often the most marginalised and vulnerable in society.
Now released from its obligations to the EU, the government is capitalising on the opportunity to rebuild its “walls” as a sovereign and territorially distinct island, with increased determination to prevent people from seeking refuge in the UK.