Sensing and Unease in Immigration Detention: An Abolitionists Perspective

Vicky Canning

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter in a book


Seeking asylum in Denmark and Sweden usually begins with life in 'open' asylum centres and, for some, can end in closed detention. Many of the former are arguably spaces of existential confinement: one is technically free, but spatially or financially unable to exercise freedom. This chapter focuses predominantly on the latter: pre-deportation detention centres, before recalling similar forms of control – and their impact – in asylum centres.

How detention centres are constructed and how controls are enacted vary considerably across the two countries. Indeed Sweden in particular is often lauded for its 'soft' architectural environment in such spaces. Whilst the Danish centre I visited reflected many mechanisms of a prison, the Swedish centres took relatively 'soft' architectural and regime related approaches to confinement. Gym equipment, baked treats, 'crimyoga' classes - all efforts to humanise the spaces, most of which are unused during daytimes.

In this chapter I reflect on the ways in which these ‘soft’ centres influenced my sense that the only direction for immigration detention to move is toward abolition. Entering centres as a white researcher, awkwardly shuffling past confined Black and Brown bodies, repeatedly induced feelings of shame. In any other space, these people might be my friends or colleagues. Here, I was a voyeur, a cog in machinery that takes people’s freedom based almost exclusively on racialised notions of national identity.

The Swedish centres were warmer, brighter, and physically less daunting. People could smoke… Tropical fish adorned the main room of one centre, whilst the smell of baked goods emanated from the kitchen of another. On reflection, I tried to place why or how it was these more ‘humane’ places, rather than the harsher environment of the Danish centre, that solidified my rejection of reform and continued advocating of abolitionism. It is this: despite friendly lunches with staff, informative tours and insightful interviews; regardless of exercise classes and wide-screen television, the illusion of humanity in detention cannot overshadow its fundamental function: the confinement and removal of the unwanted ‘Other’.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationResearching Coercive Confinement
EditorsJason Warr, Kate Herrity, Bethany Schmidt
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2020

Structured keywords

  • SPS Centre for the Study of Poverty and Social Justice


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