SOAS University of London

Department of Development Studies

Building bridges: understanding voluntary sector engagements with immigration detention

While the government works to ensure a hostile environment for unwanted immigration, many people around the UK are working to support those who find themselves on the hard end of government measures. The drivers, modalities and politics of these collective efforts to support migrants are not often studied. This small project focuses on a particular part of this picture focusing on voluntary sector engagements with people held in immigration detention.

Detention is a key and expanding element of the UK’s immigration regime. Around 30,000 people are held each year in some 5,000 'spaces' in immigration removal centres, prisons and other establishments, with no statutory time limit on their stay. Both the human consequences and the financial costs of immigration detention are increasingly widely questioned.

Typically research has approached immigration detention from ‘top-down’ perspectives, focusing on how it is used by the state to control and set people apart from British society. More recently, ‘bottom-up’ perspectives have emerged through ethnographic studies, NGO initiatives, social media and press coverage, opening up everyday life inside detention centres.

However, immigration detention is also the focus of diverse voluntary sector and solidarity activity. Many people work to build bridges between those detained and the rest of society, offering emotional and practical support and pushing for policy change. These involvements are barely researched, but are beginning to make a mark on mainstream political debates, and are increasingly being described as an anti-detention movement. They are a key example of how people are challenging the hostile environment that the government promotes.

Combining qualitative and survey research, this study will explore four questions:

  • What motivates and sustains people engaging with immigration detention issues?
  • How do people organize and campaign on immigration detention issues, and what do they learn in the process?
  • What sorts of politics are reflected or emerge in these engagements?
  • How do these engagements relate to wider issues and trends in contemporary social mobilisation?

This study aims to contribute to scholarship on migration, citizenship, volunteering and social movements. It also aims to contribute to discussions within the sector and will include a workshop engaging with people involved in detention visiting and campaigning. The project will produce the following key outputs: 

  • An online working paper setting out main findings and exploring implications
  • 2 peer-reviewed academic journal articles
  • Practice-oriented commentary piece


British Academy / Leverhulme Trust Small Research Grants Scheme.

Total award: £8290


September 2015 – September 2016

Principal Investigator:

Anna Lindley (SOAS, University of London)

Telephone: +44(0)20 7898 4690