Helen Brewer

June 19 2023


In this series, Helen Brewer explores how social reproduction within the UK’s asylum regime has been shaped by the spatial, institutional and financial structures of private contracting and political neglect. In a system shaped by outsourced provision and the slow ‘death of asylum’, who performs such care? How is it controlled? Who profits? 


Asylum can be understood as an expression of the ‘right to care’ and, ultimately, ‘the right to life’ – regardless of how peripheral such care may be to an individual’s application. But what happens when this care is financialised? With companies holding contract worth millions to perform an essential humanitarian service, the asylum-industrial complex is born out of the murky intersections between the social reproductive systems necessary to sustain life, the border regimes seeking to deter and regulate migration, and growing incentives to expand markets and profit in the public sector. 


Drawing, through collaboration with Migrants Organise, on recent first-hand testimony, alongside visual representation of its carceral architectures, this series charts how the contemporary UK asylum system has been transformed by processes of outsourcing and neglect – while uncovering its relationship to longer imperial histories of domination.


Part One introduces the concept of the asylum-industrial complex within the context of the UK government’s increasingly draconian immigration regime, and the ‘crisis of care’ that this has begun to precipitate.


Part Two delves deeper into the webs of subcontracting that now comprise the UK’s asylum regime, and the ‘organised abandonment’ these generate.


Finally, Part Three investigates how the emergent futures of asylum in the UK continue to reprise forms of domination and exploitation from the colonial past.

Figure One: The UK's Asylum Claims Process

Since the first Covid ‘lockdown’ in March 2020, people seeking asylum have been accommodated in empty hotels across the country. Initially introduced as a ‘temporary’ or ‘contingent’ measure, critics of these repurposed buildings have noted their inadequacy for housing needs, their enforced social isolation, and the barriers they present to accessing essential services such as legal advice. In September 2020, use of these sites expanded to include disused military barracks, such as the now closed Penally Camp in Pembrokeshire, Wales and the still active Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent.

The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 marks a significant shift in the future of the UK’s asylum policy. The sharp changes it introduces to immigration legislation deprive the right to claim asylum from those arriving in the UK through so-called ‘illegal routes’ – such as small boat crossings – and limit the possibility of asylum to those using ‘official’ avenues, like UNHCR refugee settlement schemes. Accompanying the proliferation of migrant detention camps in recent years, continued social restrictions on detained migrants following the Covid pandemic, chronic underfunding, disabling precarity, and diminished social services, these major legislative changes are set to exacerbate ‘the crisis of care’ engulfing asylum provision.


However, we would be mistaken to see these conditions as simply signs of ‘failure’ or ‘neglect’. Rather, to be fully understood, such changes to the UK’s asylum regime that have seen it seemingly abandon any remaining accord for international rights and humanitarian governance, must be grasped as attempts to actively enable and exacerbate forms of both financial exploitation and social domination. This operation, I suggest, is the ‘asylum-industrial complex’ – an assemblage of state and private sector actors benefiting from the expansion of ‘for-profit’ provision in asylum services. In this introductory piece, I introduce the concept, situating it within the context of the UK’s immigration regime. As a starting point, I focus on how the rise of the asylum-industrial complex has shaped recent changes in the provision of asylum care in particular. 

Reneging on the right to asylum

At first glance, ‘the right to asylum’ appears the hallmark of cosmopolitan idealism – the product of humanitarian benevolence, institutionalised by post-war Europe. The 1951 Refugee Convention instated the universal right to protection for people who believed themselves to be at risk of persecution, torture or death in their home country. 


Yet, as many people will attest, the route to safety – the search for a better life – is anything but easy. With the UK government intent on breaching its agreement to the convention through legislative changes and hardened asylum criteria, the right to asylum as such in the United Kingdom is slowly and violently deteriorating. Once inside the UK, people seeking asylum are carolled onto a waiting list for the adjudication of their applications which can take decades to resolve. In the year ending June 2022, 63,089 asylum applications – relating to 75,181 people – were made in the UK (this does not include applications submitted and pending from previous years). In the same year, only 15,684 people (including dependents) were granted asylum. Numbers of those who have died en route are even bleaker. It is difficult to know precisely how many have been lost and drowned at sea, or killed while crossing militarised border fences. 


To seek asylum is to seek a life of freedom, dignity and care. Yet, in the UK, those seeking asylum discover a life at risk. Without the legal recognition provided by the offer of asylum, detention, deportation and destitution all remain stark possibilities – as tools used to buttress the security regime, and embed asylum within the broader administration of the internal border.

Precarity and the hostile environment

The asylum-industrial complex builds on – and in turn looks to exacerbate – the precarity generated through ‘background’ policies of ‘hostile environment’ enforced onto those without legal status. At its heart, it captures the way in which the state’s mandate to provide humanitarian protection and care to those seeking safety within its borders has been exploited as an opportunity to further the financial interests of those companies contracted to it, often to the detriment of the people it is meant to serve. Administering a securitised asylum regime, and reproducing the conditions of precarity required for its effective functioning, is lucrative business.


For the Home Office, the operation of the asylum-industrial complex is a desirable outcome. It acts neatly in accordance with two interests: empowering those fractions of capital tasked with ‘administering’ the asylum regime on the one hand and, in due course, ‘deterring’ the UK as a destination for safe refuge. If conditions for asylum seekers inside the UK are known to be hostile or negligent, they suppose – a safe presumption, given the service provided by companies willing to pursue profit above all else – others will be deterred from seeking asylum in the future.


The conditions created in the wake of the asylum-industrial complex in turn shape and degrade the forms of social reproduction available to those captured within its confines. It is on this interaction – between the asylum-industrial complex and ongoing processes of social reproduction – that the rest of this piece focuses. Social reproduction depends on access to the fundamental infrastructures and relationships required to meet a person’s emotional and physical needs. When this is denied or withheld, as I suggest is common under the conditions of the UK’s asylum-industrial regime, people are unable to sustain or participate in everyday life-making processes. 

Social reproduction and asylum

Social reproduction refers to the activities necessary to sustain social and productive lives. For marxist feminists in particular, it more specifically captures the labour power and material conditions required to reproduce the worker, who in turn produces goods and services for the capitalist market. As Titi Bhattacharya puts it, ‘If workers’ labor produces all the wealth in society, who then produces the worker?‘ This might be the domestic labour that maintains members of households or the care required to look after one’s health and well-being. For Bhattacharya, this also includes regular infrastructures’, like public transport, parks or schools. 


Under capitalism, workers are not only produced through childbirth, but maintained and re-produced through their access to recreational and educational activities, to name just a few. 


A key insight of social reproduction theorists was to understand these two different spheres of production as ‘an integrated process‘. Often, a traditional Marxist perspective separated labour power in the marketplace from the private sphere of the household, where it went unrecognised and unwaged, more often than not by (migrant) women. Nevertheless, social reproduction is not evenly experienced nor is the worker evenly reproduced, in line with their varied mediation by the market and capitalist accumulation. 


During the twentieth century, for instance, the establishment of the welfare state saw many aspects of social reproduction brought into public provision, such as health and social care, housing and education. While access to the ‘public goods’ offering renewed support to social reproduction often remained highly gendered, racialised and tied to imperialist economic structures, it nevertheless provided a route relatively unmediated by the capitalist market.


However, with the neoliberal retrenchment in the final decades of the century, that left these  lines recast – removing access to many public goods and services which have been severely cut, privatised or are simply no longer available – many have remarked upon a growing “crisis of care”, pointing to the increasing inability of the worker to reproduce themselves. Furthermore, since austerity that has gripped the UK since the 2010s, increased costs of living, shortages of adequate housing, and low and stagnant wages showcase the social contradictions in financialised capitalism. As Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek write in “The Crisis of Social Reproduction and the End of Work“: 


‘An increasing proportion of domestic tasks are being bought directly as goods and services or indirectly through privatized reproductive labour. Some elements of social reproduction are increasingly being delegated to a hyper-exploited class of cleaners, nannies, and other care workers (themselves often women involved in global chains of care). This has led to a dual track approach to social reproduction, with the wealthier being able to afford privatised replacements, while those on lower incomes increasingly work to provide those services. In the absence of adequate public provision, social reproduction is falling to the privatized or personal spheres in a manner that is profoundly marked by income inequality.’


In these conditions, migration has come to play an increasingly significant role in the reproduction and maintenance of society, providing cheap migrant labour power to undervalued, precarious and so-called “low-skilled” sectors in the economy. When we consider this alongside asylum, the exploitative and oppressive networks of the crisis become clear. In asylum, the social reproductive work necessary in humanitarian provision has been privatised and contracted out to for-profit companies. Workers are sometimes migrants themselves, who take on shortages in employment in security, hospitality and healthcare. Furthermore, the person seeking asylum has their own social reproduction to care for, yet they are barred from the right to work or recourse to public funds. Policy blueprints endowed in New Labour’s flagship 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act further centralised the asylum system under NASS (National Asylum Support Service), introduced the controversial “No Recourse to Public Funds”, and prevented asylum seekers from working (they had previously been entitled to work legally after six months and if permission was granted). The minimum care is provided, tangent to the approval of an application. When left out of this thread-bare safety net and considered with the Hostile Environment, characterised by its use of surveillance, isolation and exclusion as technologies used to strangle social reproduction following the rejection of an application, care services remain inaccessible.

The asylum-seeking market

The criminalisation of people who seek asylum in the UK outside of government-sanctioned settlement programmes ensures that any person seeking asylum will have their claim made illegitimate unless they prove themselves otherwise. This is what Lisa Marie Cacho calls, “social death”, meaning that, ‘certain populations’ very humanity is represented as something that one becomes or achieves, that one must earn because it cannot just be’. The person seeking asylum is no longer seen as an individual with personhood deserving of care but transformed into a “burden” on the state. Cacho goes on to explain, ‘…ineligibility to personhood refers to the state of being legally recognized as rightless, located in the spaces of social death where demands for humanity are ultimately disempowering because they can be interpreted only as asking to be given something sacred in return for nothing at all‘. Asylum is governed by emerging markets in the public sector, but it is also systematically reduced to the rationale that migrants are in competition for status and entry into the national community. As such, asylum has become an economic concern as much as it is a political one. 


In Systems of Suffering Jonathan Darling reveals how the term ‘asylum-seeking market’ entered into public discourse. In 2013, Stephen Small, managing director at G4S described the outsourcing and subcontracting operations run by G4S in asylum accommodation as the working model for the ‘asylum-seeking market’. Darling emphasises, however, that the conditions for the market were already present, well before asylum’s privatisation in 2012 when housing and welfare were decommissioned from the charge of local authorities. Coinciding with neoliberal economic and political reform in the 1970s, first modelled by Thatcher and later continued by Tony Blair and New Labour, subsequent Immigration Acts from 1971 have largely been scripted in the language of fiscal austerity. Emphasising what Gargi Bhattacharyya describes in ‘racial capitalism’ as a system to ‘differentiate and divide’ populations, particularly within the labour market, ‘sometimes with an economic purpose, but always with an economic outcome’. Bhattacharyya explains, 


‘Those subordinated by the operation of racial capitalism may be excluded from the formal wage economy or may be relegated to lower paid and/or lower status work or may be able to access only fleeting forms of waged work or a varying combination of these experiences. All of these positionings jeopardise the processes of social reproduction, both for individual ‘households’, more extended family groupings and for communities or neighbourhoods. This is one trait of racial capitalism—the greater and often extreme challenges faced by some groups in the quest to continually remake the means of life.’


Neoliberalism as a political project established an ideological and economic regime, including privatisation of public infrastructures, economic deregulation, and the construction of market conditions for capital accumulation, in all areas of life. Yet rather than a mere economic condition, Michel Foucault’s rationale for neoliberalism in his theory of governmentality posits the cumulative ways in which this logic has shaped human conduct toward individual market value and competition. The asylum-seeking market is couched in this operation. A further example, can be found in Emma Dowling’s The Care Crisis, where she details how neoliberal reforms have contributed to the division in care, differentiating like in the marketplace how, ‘one person’s care needs are often played off against another’s, separating and dividing people and putting their needs in competition with one another in a context of manufactured scarcity, producing significant care inequalities. All too often this arises from political decisions about whose care decision-makers consider dispensable and whose they do not’. This became evident during the Covid-19 pandemic when care workers, transport workers – workers who were classified “essential” to the productive capitalist functioning of the state were made the most vulnerable and at risk of infection. Unable to afford to self-isolate and not work, their own safety and ability to care for themselves and their families were denied.


The asylum-industrial complex has consolidated a financial regime contradictory to its own discourse. This clash of aims has revealed a growing dissonance in the provision of care and its essential function in the reproduction of society. As neoliberal ideologies took hold in the public sector, the opportunity for decreasing government spending and outsourcing to private parties show how the contemporary asylum regime continues to be built on the historical exclusion of migrants in society, relegating the work of social reproduction to the margins. Mapping and spatialising these sites of reproduction in the Asylum-Industrial complex is one route to understanding the murky networks, actors and contracts which make up this regime.

Figure Two: UK asylum accomodation and support contracts (click to zoom)

The UK government has billion pound contracts with several private companies to provide asylum accommodation and support services. They have been the subject of controversy and criticism in recent years, with critics arguing that the housing provided is often inadequate and unsuitable for the needs of asylum seekers.

The Home Office’s procurement pipeline is a thriving marketplace for outsourcing in the asylum-industrial complex. Comprising a hazy network of contractors and subcontractors, parties are employed to carry out anything from the construction of ‘new’ accommodation ’centres’, to propping up the social and care work required therein, to investment in technologies of control such as electronic tagging and biometric data capture. Following the Home Office’s move to begin offering billion-pound contracts to the operation and management of asylum accommodation in 2012, the resulting carceral geographies have become vast, distributed and evolving. Within their bounds, people seeking asylum are subject to strict internal immigration controls which limit their mobility and – following the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act – enforce their dispersal around the country, often to places far from the reach of their family or communities. In addition, following the social restrictions put in place during the Covid pandemic and a failure to source enough adequate housing, the Home Office began to normalise detention-like spaces for asylum seekers in the form of hotels, military barracks and short-term holding facilities and camps.


In this blog, I piece together how the wholesale privatisation and outsourcing of the UK’s asylum system has exacerbated a number of interrelated crises within its bounds. First, by introducing a logic of profit maximisation into the provision of care, standards have sharply fallen. However, by broadening the number of actors involved and dispersing those seeking asylum around the UK, outsourcing means that mechanisms of accountability have also begun to evaporate, with fewer and fewer held to account for fundamental failures. 


In light of these failings – and the UK government’s increasing turn to draconian measures in response to small boat crossings in the English channel – a prominent response from many has been to insist that the UK continues to live up to the ‘humanitarian’ obligations it holds towards refugees under international law. I suggest, however, that those criticising such disastrous state failures nevertheless remain vigilant to the ways in which dominant ‘humanitarianisms’ can often replicate the racialised logics of control and policing which they seek to oppose.

Failing in care

People within the UK’s asylum system are passed through a network of controlled infrastructures that have continued to prove incapable of meeting the duty of care to protect children and vulnerable adults (specified within the Care Act 2014 and Immigration and Asylum Act 1999), as well as establish safeguarding guidelines in contract work. We can trace these well-documented failings to a ‘race to the bottom’ logic encouraged by outsourcing. 


The Home Office decides on both to whom contracts for housing asylum seekers are assigned as well as the locations to which migrants are dispersed, removing local authorities – who, in the past, had played a greater role as essential service providers – from the decision-making process, replaced instead by a phalanx of contractors and subcontractors. This new contracting process prioritises economic efficiency above all else. Suppliers bid for contracts on which they will make a profit, and exploitation becomes rampant down the chain, with the workers they employ becoming increasingly precarious  as their working conditions and wages are squeezed. In turn, those in receipt of such care see its standard fall lower and lower, following the oversights and corner-cutting that follows from treating essential care as a transactional exchange. As Gargi Bhattacharyya writes, migrants must negotiate a ‘contracted space in relation to the terms of life’.  This understanding of ‘contracted space’ I add, signals a double meaning to both the spatial depreciation of the social provisions people have access to and the simultaneous financialisation of the sites in which the contracts operate from. 


Prior to 2012, when asylum was privatised as the Commercial and Operational Managers Procuring Asylum Support Services (COMPASS), local authorities and multifarious agencies – including private contractors and third sector organisations such as charities and faith groups – were contracted and made responsible for various aspects of asylum provision. The old COMPASS system came under fire when accommodation management was found to be ‘substandard, unsanitary and in some cases unsafe‘. G4S and Serco, in particular, were called out for failing to meet their contractual duties to provide asylum housing, and the government expressed desire to recuperate £7 million in rebate. In 2019, the system changed to Asylum Accommodation and Support Services Contract (AASC) and a new set of bids for contracts were tendered. 


Despite the change in contracts, systemic neglect and institutional violence continue to feature in asylum accommodation. From protests in Napier Barracks which led to the High Court ruling that the site had failed to meet minimum standards in provision, to violent far right-attacks on people in ‘asylum hotels’, to at least 19 people, including a two-year-old boy, dying inside asylum accommodation in 2021. Almost weekly, reports of new incidents under this chaotic regime are revealed. Upcoming bids this year show that procurement has already begun for contractors to build newer accommodation ‘centres’ in Britain. The Guardian notes an additional £70 million is up for grabs, though critics have described these centres as simply ‘warehousing’ people before deciding on their application and potential detention and deportation. 


In January 2023, immigration minister Robert Jenrick reported that around 440 children had gone ‘missing’ from ‘asylum hotels’ (with only half having been found at the time of writing), but neither the Home Office nor local authorities have claimed legal responsibility for neglecting safeguarding duties. When policymakers sought to segregate asylum provisions away from the welfare state and market private gains to companies, social care was disaggregated into multiple spheres of reproduction. The Home Office rejects the involvement of local authorities in decision-making, managing, or monitoring the provision of asylum accommodation, instead, they will hand-select from the heavyweights in security and instituionalised care, such as Serco, G4S, Mitie and ClearSprings. Issues such as the length of time people stay in hotels, isolation, and lack of social support fail to be taken into account, the conditions of which contribute to the extended precarity of the most vulnerable users of asylum accommodation. 


Furthermore, the UK government’s dispersal policy, introduced in 1999 and designed to reduce asylum seeker accommodation in areas of London and the South-East, has also led to increasing numbers of people seeking asylum held in economically deprived and ethnically homogenous regions, exacerbating both racial tension and social isolation. Research into the dispersal of asylum seekers in England from 2004-17 by José M. Alonso and Rhys Andrews also suggests that governance of the dispersal system, has ensured ‘partisan opponents to the governing political party are burdened with unwanted social and economic costs and that areas prone to close election results are not’,  illustrating how uneven geographies of displacement are often governed more by political imperatives than criteria of suitability. Migrant dispersal has subsequently increased in Labour-controlled areas writes Joel White, and often ‘…in under-resourced cities and towns around the de-industrialised North, the Midlands, and Scotland – places with existing problems with poverty and badly maintained housing’.

Care and custody

‘Seeking asylum is increasingly discussed as something abnormal, unusual, threatening, or even criminal: it is rendered exceptional, despite increasing numbers of claims’.


As things stand, the UK Government is considering withdrawing the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), should their draconian strategy to ban all small boat crossings and deport all arrivals regardless of their asylum claims, be blocked by the European Supreme Court. The very right to asylum itself is therefore hanging by a thread. 


Faced with such a flagrant repudiation of basic human rights, many have responded by calling on politicians to reaffirm their commitment to uphold the norms and values required by the UK’s existing obligations towards humanitarian protection under international law. 


However, Rishi Sunak’s wish to ‘push the boundaries’ of what is legally possible while remaining in the ECHR in fact helps to draw out the shortcomings of the ‘limits to violence’ approach that structures this existing humanitarian framework and its response to crises. As Polly Pallister-Wilkins details, such humanitarianism often implicitly relies upon ‘racialised hierarchies of humans between those who suffer and those who save, and through the specific processes of medical and emergency triage that calculate and order suffering to better manage relief, humanitarians are created as powerful subjects who claim to speak on behalf of humanity… [which reproduces] and deepen[s] inequalities between saviours and those in need’. If this is the case, in opposition to government attempts to wholeheartedly restrict rights to asylum, we ought not to rally behind the humanitarian status quo, which also carries with it a similar logics of ‘hierarchy’.


As Michel Agier writes ‘Humanitarian intervention borders on policing. There is no care without control’. In today’s global camps, in the UK or further afield, the ‘stateless’ are confined and left waiting – made both ‘vulnerable and undesirable’ for entry into national communities – populations managed either through stringent asylum processes or through militarisation under the umbrella of “protection”. 


Humanitarianism operates on what Pallister-Wilkins calls ‘the global colour line’ – a system of racial hierarchies and inequalities which, instantiated through modes of social reproduction underwritten by legal conventions –  attributes ‘differential value attributed to human lives’. Often, this ‘global colour line’ at work in humanitarianism can be found in processes of ‘organised abandonment’, such as the UK’s so-called “asylum hotels” and barracks. At least initially, these were set up in response to “crisis”, albeit one stemming from from the UK government’s own bordering practices and lack of desire to house people they would rather deport.


Such organised state abandonment is a central motor of the Asylum-Industrial complex, describing the ways in which institutions and organisations, both public and private, operate to increase private profit at great cost to particular populations. In the Grenfell Tower fire, we witnessed a sobering example of the racial and violent dimensions of these sustained processes of neglect, exclusion and precarity, underpinned by colonial logics of domination. As Brenna Bhandar has argued, Grenfell has come to represent more than the building itself, but a callous and calculated indifference to working class and racialised peoples, where ‘In its rush to make the provision of social welfare, such as housing, profitable for business, the state in conjunction with the corporate sector have subjected some of the UK’s most vulnerable populations to lethal forms of precarity and insecurity’.


We see similar processes at work in the organised abandonment of people seeking asylum within the destitute infrastructures provided by the UK’s outsourced system. And though many humanitarian actors will see their relief work as making the best of a terrible situation, in seeking to abide by liberal and lawful institutions, they often end up rewarding “good migrants” and punishing “bad migrants”. Of course, there are aspects to reproduction that exist outside the market and disavow the total commodification of life held within, whether in asylum accommodation or outside. Care does happen in other ways, not just through the state, or private and contracted entities. But through friendships, solidarity, and a form of collective care disentangled from the grips of exclusionary and punitive action or white saviourism.  


Private contracting holds the Asylum-Industrial complex together, structuring the system through chains of ideological and transactional relationships between care-givers and receivers. As the evidence from the UK presented here suggests, when care becomes dependent upon financial incentives, systemic neglect is likely to abound. Similarly, over two decades of a strict dispersal policy has led this contracted care to become less accountable, as the regime pushes those seeking asylum out to places with little connection to their own community. People are left displaced and reliant on private contractors to provide the care they need, which is often far from guaranteed. Lastly, we have seen that even the ‘care’ which does still take place under ostensible ‘humanitarian’ intentions can be understood as tied to control, having aligned itself with the broader regime of managing and regulating migrants within ‘dispersal areas’, fixing them to place as they await a decision on their application. The state of contingencies which imbricate these contracts squeeze out any sense of real solidarity possible in care relationships. 

‘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.’

In October 2020, leaked reports revealed that the Home Office had been working on plans for overseas detention. These included everything from cost-estimates to build asylum camps in Moldova, Morocco and Papua New Guinea, to elaborate schemes for ‘wave machines’ in the Channel aimed at deter migrants, to militarising islands in the South Atlantic and former oil rigs in the North Sea. 


Even more recently, in 2023, Home Secretary Suella Braverman has secured a deal to deport people seeking asylum to a UK-funded centre in Rwanda, while PM Rishi Sunak tinkers with a plan to convert a fleet of disused ferries and cruise liners off the coast of Dorset for asylum accommodation. To better understand the trajectory of these architectures as instruments for the global governance of migration and to forge what Alison Mountz has termed “the death of asylum”, we must first read their emergence alongside current legislative proposals. 


Looking more closely at the UK Government’s plans in the 2023 ‘Illegal Migration Bill’, reveals a series of legal instruments to not only expand the detention estate, but also absorb many of the existing sites used to accommodate those seeking asylum into the ‘detention’ system. For instance, under the bill’s provisions, anyone arriving ‘illegally’ on a small boat can be detained for up to 28 days without appeal to judicial review or the option of bail. Furthermore, it also grants the Home Secretary discretionary powers to detain people for as long as is deemed necessary to remove that person, in whichever location they desire. Asylum, under such conditions, comes to mean little more than arbitrary detention.


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.

Helen Brewer is an activist and architectural researcher. Her work investigates the humanitarian border, economic and social abandonment and community infrastructures. Helen’s work searches for a “new” mode of care subject to the terms of solidarity and its practice of a relational ethics. Helen is also a PhD candidate at the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths University of London.

This series produced in collaboration with

Testimonies featured in drawings by Migrants Organise: https://www.migrantsorganise.org/


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