Power, capital, and immigration detention rights:
making networked markets in global detention
governance at UNHCR
Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford,
51/53 Banbury Road, Oxford OX2 6PE, UK
Abstract With the expanded use of immigration detention and migration management
practices worldwide, detention has emerged as a key issue for United Nations and
international human rights institutions. A growing international rights movement seeks
to make the practice fairer and more humane, leading to the dominance of a mainstream
detention rights agenda and counter-hegemonic system of governance. Drawing
on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Geneva and elsewhere, this article examines
the capital, knowledge, and technological expertise that went into the construction of
UNHCR’s Global Detention Strategy. I highlight the rational calculation undergirding
this global detention rights agenda, including the transnational policy networks of
NGOs, INGOs, and academics that facilitate the movement’s moral authority and
capitalist growth. Their practices have become powerful neoliberal development tools,
which give veracity to human rights agendas and attract oppositionally-figured
Keywords GLOBAL CIVIL SOCIETY, GLOBALIZATION, GLOBAL SOCIAL MOVEMENTS,
GOVERNANCE, KNOWLEDGE NETWORKS, NETWORKS
Recent years have seen increasingly restrictive policies of immigration security and
control on an international scale. Along with tighter measures of border securitization,
immigration-related confinement has become an essential part of state enforcement.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, nation-states dramatically increased the numbers of
people held in specific ‘immigration detention’ facilities (Moran et al. 2013).1 Political
and media narratives surrounding the ‘war on terror’ started dominating immigration
discourses globally. In response, United Nations institutions began concentrating on
addressing immigration detention issues, underlining the negative effects of confinement
on individuals held under immigration powers.
In June 2014, on the side of its annual NGO consultations, the United Nations High
Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) pre-launched its global strategy, ‘Beyond
Power, capital and immigration detention rights
© 2016 The Author(s) 401
detention’, to consultation attendees and UN representatives from Geneva’s human
rights community. Backed by glossy PowerPoint slides, UNHCR’s strategy specialist
presented the project as an exciting step in tackling the expanding use of immigration
detention internationally. The strategy focused on the objectives of (1) ending the
detention of children, (2) ensuring that alternatives to detention are available in law and
implemented in practice, and (3) ensuring that where detention is necessary and
unavoidable that the condition of detention reaches international standards. This closely
followed the release of a ‘Monitoring immigration detention: practical manual’
(2014b), developed with the collaboration of the international non-governmental organizations
(NGOs), the Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT) and the
International Detention Coalition (IDC). The team underlined that both programmes
aimed to improve how governments hold individuals under immigration-related powers
and find solutions within state legislation. To chart the strategy’s performance,
UNHCR’s detention specialists put together national action plans for nine initial
countries. They selected Hungary, Indonesia, Lithuania, Malaysia, Malta, Mexico,
Thailand, the United Kingdom, and Zambia as the first focus countries, although they
instructed all other country operations to adopt these guiding objectives in their
advocacy. Staff in Geneva’s different regional bureaux and in the field were asked to
provide technical expertise, knowledge, and research to convince governments of the
benefits of adopting aspects of the strategy.
At the post-launch cocktail reception, held outside on UNHCR’s terrace, the
detention partners enthusiastically agreed that this marked the beginning of a new era.
The strategy would help states to progress towards rational migration managerial
solutions that not only work within requisite legislative structures but also fulfil
humanitarian objectives. Interestingly, despite nominally opposing the use of detention,
the principal focus of the international detention rights movement is on legislative and
regulatory reform. Improving detention conditions and ensuring the lawfulness of an
individual’s detention are the main rubric and developmental practice of detention
rights institutions. In this task, they are buoyed by a remarkable capital investment in
detention improvements as many governments look to private sector solutions and
institutionalized regulation of facilities and their operations. Commercial and nongovernmental
‘service providers’, from custodial management to medical and
educational practitioners, all help in facilitating ‘civil detention centres’ and
community, family, and child-appropriate detention models, as do contracted
intergovernmental organizations (INGOs).2 The development of the international
refugee regime has led a growth in legal tribunals and consultants, healthcare
professionals, and migration agents who provide assistance and legal training to
determine if individuals are ‘refugees’ or help present them as such (Lawrence and
Ruffer 2014). Similarly, refugee and asylum law are increasingly legislated and
internationalized fields of practice (Falk et al. 2008).
The circulation of global capital entailed in the detention market is vast, as is the
technical and humanitarian justification for assembling market-based reforms. Human
rights advocates present rights frameworks and their associated ideologies and
development practices as a progressive politics and liberalization of government
402 © 2016 The Author(s)
policies. But these assertions mask how human rights institutions ground their own
politico-economic agendas and similar forms of state-centric governance (Brown
1995). Research into humanitarian networks and global governance paradigms seeks to
destabilize this profession of moral authority, illuminating the extent of non-state actors
taking on authoritative roles and functions, many of which were traditionally associated
with the state (Barnett and Weiss 2008; Betts 2011). Influential discussions come from
critical political theory, with Hardt and Negri (2001) using ‘Empire’ to describe these
overlapping forms of rule. Many of these convergences are associated with the
structural adjustments brought about by neoliberalism. Under the tenets of market-led
governance and cost-effectiveness, moves towards privatization, outsourcing and
performance-based management have led to new actors and organizational directions
(Wallace 2004). Revenue generation and efficiency is intrinsic to development, human
rights, and humanitarian work, resulting in pragmatic solutions about rights violations
and strategic networks between diverse actors (Duffield 2001). Economic survival and
expansionism sees organizations contract in with one another, sometimes abandoning
oppositional forms of practice or autonomy, as does the search for new markets for
development (Harvey 2006).
In looking at the detention rights movement and its commonsense agenda, this
article argues that the detention reforms now being put into place are a consequence of
neoliberal reconfigurations, characterized by the shifting nature of the nation-state and
the development of tight connections between private and state actors. The international
detention rights movement and its reform policies are paradigmatic of these transformations,
with their economic mantras of growth and performance, which make ‘appropriate’
policy ideas gain currency. Wendy Brown (2015) looks at the ramifications of
neoliberal economic policies on the space of the demos, the space in which people
gather to assert shared struggles for equality and freedom. Neoliberalism, Brown
argues, eviscerates the very space where one can form a public, replacing terms of law
and justice with idioms of benchmarks, performance measurements, and best practices.
Brown treats neoliberalism not as an economic doctrine but in a Foucauldian sense, as
a broader governing rationality, which submits every field of activity to market metrics,
and governs them with market techniques and practices. I use this perspective here to
consider the ways in which the international detention rights movement has flourished
on the basis of shared governmental objectives for reform. UNHCR’s detention rights
framework, in particular, provides an entryway into the internal dynamics that
undergird the ‘regimes of truth’ of human rights-framed work.
I draw principally on fieldwork conducted over 15 months between 2014 and 2015
with representatives from the major UN bodies, government departments, NGOs,
private commercial firms, and academic institutions operating in the global detention
arena. Among other events across 2014, I attended UNHCR’s annual NGO
Consultations, IDC’s member conference, the detention strategy NGO launch, and its
related promotional events, all in Geneva. I also attended Detention Watch Network’s
Washington DC member meeting and the Asia Pacific Consultation on Refugee Rights
held in Bangkok. My placement was as a doctoral research student and often on the
back of the University of Oxford’s reputation, well known for its Refugee and
Power, capital and immigration detention rights
© 2016 The Author(s) 403
Migration Studies programmes. My primary methods were participant observation and
semi-structured interviews. This is supplemented by general knowledge of the
contemporary debates and major players in the detention industry, gained through
participant observation at national academic and industry conferences, offices, and
network forums in Australia, England, France, Switzerland, Thailand, and the USA. I
conducted over eighty interviews and spent time with state and private sector
employees, humanitarian and activist campaigners in order to understand the different
rationales behind their various approaches; in effect, becoming part of the international
detention rights circuit myself.
To understand the development and dominance of an international detention reform
agenda, I begin by setting out the institutional context of detention policy thinking. The
international detention rights movement exemplifies the consequences of new
economic prescriptions on institutional agendas. I then move to elaborate UNHCR’s
detention strategy and the principle actors and processes involved in the making and
diffusion of its common-sense approach. I discuss the political economic factors
underlying this pervasive humanitarian agenda, connecting these explanations with the
institutionalization of neoliberal policy. I then broadly consider the consequences of
detention reforms on the formation and regulation of the global detention market. I
explore how detention rights doctrines have led to a new institutionalism, in which
service providers are used to improve detention under regulatory frameworks and the
rule of law. I return to more general human rights critiques to consider the paradox of
liberal interventionism and its oppositional abolitionist politics.
The formation of markets for detention reform
The past few decades have seen a rapid increase in the involvement of actors other than
the state in migration management tasks and the provision of immigration detention
services. From border security and detention management firms to healthcare providers,
humanitarian organizations, legal firms, and research institutes, a range of
private actors and transnational networks
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