Essay – Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre

July 22, 2019

Joanna Coulson, Graduate, Politics and Internationa Relations, University of Bristol


Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Center (IRC) is one of ten detention centers in the UK and remains highly secretive in it’s institutional practices. Immigration detention can be broadly defined as: ”…the confinement of non-citizens under administrative powers rather than criminal law to achieve immigration-related aims..” (Turnbull, 2017: 1). Globally, their use has increased over the past 25 years and remains one of the many mechanisms states use to identify, prevent and forcibly remove immigration and control borders (Turnbull, 2017: 1-2) . In the first section of this essay, I will provide a background to the history of detention centers in the UK and how some scholars have conceptualised them as expansions of the penal state. In the second part of this essay, I will outline Michel Foucault’s conception of confession as constituting subjects and Fanon’s analysis of what this means for the colonial subject. In the third part of this essay, I will go on to analyze these concepts in relation to Yarl’s Wood IRC to conclude that it is an expression of confessionary culture and scrutiny deployed unto non-citizens who by definition care not considered as trustworthy subjects. As noted by Turnbull, the use of detention facilities as a way of confining and constructing the “other” has a long history in how states respond to foreign nationals in times of war through quarantine (2017: 2).


The United Kingdom has long held the power to detain and imprison foreign nationals, a practice that started and continues to be highly racialized (Bosworth, 2014: 21-22). Carl’s Wood IRC is one of ten immigration detention facilities in the United Kingdom and currently owned by the private security company called Serco. Detention centres in the UK frequently detain children and asylum seekers in attempt to punish and deter immigration, despite such practices violating international law (Mainwaring and Lorena Cook, 2018: 2). Britain’s detention policies can be traced back to the Immigration Act in 1971 expanding the government’s ability to detain people and, most notably, under the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act that expanded the definition of detainable non-citizens to include asylum seekers (Mainwaring and Lorena Cook, 2018: 8). The most recent expansion resulted in a dramatic increase in detainees over the past two decades (Mainwaring and Lorena Cook, 2018: 8). In a year ending in June 2018, 26,215 people had entered UK’s ten detention facilities (Home Office, 2018). The criminalisation of migrants and privatizing of detention centers, both in the UK and other Anglo states, justifies the increased punitive migration controls and outsources moral and political accountability beyond the state (Mainwaring and Cook, 2018: 11). The delegation of responsibility to the private sector extends the states powers to detain and intersects with constructions of immigrants as a security threat during the war on terror, further reinforcing associations between race and crime (Mainwaring and Cook, 2018: 11).


Scholars Lorenzi and Tazzoli analyse Foucauldian notions of subjectivation and confessional practices in relation to the interpellation of the colonial subject as detailed by Frantz Fanon. Foucault argues that confessional practices, based on the idea that to be complete, healed or saved one must reveal truths about oneself to someone else, is integral to Western societies. Because this process relies to some extent on free will, individuals are constituted as a subject obligated to the truth they tell about themselves (Lorenzini and Tazzoli, 2018: 73-74). Equally, this process takes place within relations of power between the state and governed individuals. The co-implication, according to Foucault, between the exercise of power conducted by the state onto individuals and the truth acts said individuals are required to perform defines the Western regime of truth (Lorenzini and Tazzoli, 2018: 74-75). Fanon, in contrast, crucially argues that the colonial subject is characterised by the inability to tell the truth. Those who are racialized are interpolated as inherently deceitful and, as such, the limited freedom of constituting oneself is denied the colonized subject (Lorenzini and Tazzoli, 2018: 76-77). Asylum seekers are subjected to a series of racialising political technologies that categorise and attach value to individuals as “people who really need the state’s help” and “bogus refugees”. Here, asylum seekers, who are often detained at Yarl’s Wood, are considered suspect subjects that must prove their need for refuge and simultaneously incapable of telling the truth about themselves (Lorenzini and Tazzioli, 2018: 72). While this particular categorisation is applied to asylum seekers, I argue that this is true for detained immigrants more generally.


With this theoretical framework in mind, Yarl’s Wood IRC engages in many practices of secrecy within the institution itself and as a broader policy of immigration in Britain. The IRC engages in many secrecy practices including restricted media access, logging personal details of detainees and visitors and enforcing strict regulations on clothes and necessities brought into the facility by relatives or friends of detainees (Bulman, 2018). Yarl’s Wood has in recent years received media attention due to the human rights abuses and subsequent hunger strikes that have taken place there. Even government officials have struggled to gain sufficient access and notably, Diane Abbott was originally not allowed to speak to detainees about their circumstances during her visit (Gentleman, 2018). Reports of insufficient and lacking medical care, racist and misogynist abuse from guards and forced separation between families at Yarl’s Wood have come to light through investigative journalism. A Channel 4 documentary interviews a former detainee who reports: ‘When you are ill and go to health care, they [doctors at Yarl’s Wood] go like: ‘oh, you are doing this because of your immigration status’. They don’t take you serious. ’(2015: 6:43-6:53). This testimony is an explicit example of how detainees are understood as untrustworthy because of their status as a noncitizens and the dire circumstances they are subjected to as a result. Out of the Yarl’s Wood’s more than 400 detainees, most of them are women held indefinitely, some of which have lived in the UK for many years (Gentleman, 2018). This secrecy is necessary under the logic that immigrants pose a security “risk” as a “dangerous” population that must be contained (Turnbull, 2017: 6-7).


Mainwaring and Cook argue, through their analysis of the Anglo Model of detention centers in the UK, USA, Australia and Canada, that these ostensibly liberal democracies have expanded the immigration detention complex over the past 25 years without the accountability associated with “free” societies (2018: 22). This is facilitated in part due to the secrecy of detention centers and the processes that fill them with detainees. Yarl’s Wood was built, along with six other facilities, as part of a building and conversion programme under the Labour government in 2009. At this time, the government also rebranded detention facilities by instead calling them Immigration Removal Centers, a term meant to signify short-term secure housing before people were to be deported or removed from the UK (Bosworth, 2018: 48). It should also be noted that this did not coincide with a a change in policy on mandatory and indefinite detentions.


Officially, detention centers like Yarls Wood are considered sites of administration and identification. Detainees are considered foreign nationals first and without the right to remain second (Bosworth and Fili, 2016: 82-86). What becomes clear from individual case studies is that the power dynamics, outlined by Foucault, only apply to citizens of Western societies. The truth that detainees are obligated to is constructed for them. Confession, or identification of self to the state, leads to incarceration and forcible deportation for those incarcerated in Yarl’s Wood IRC. Given the legacy of colonisation, it is unsurprising that the Western regime of truth, as it is articulated in Britain, involves the dehumanisation and forcible removal of those deemed as other (Bhui, 2016: 270-273). Even when immigrants incarcerated at Yarl’s Wood IRC tell the truth about themselves, that they have in many cases lived in the UK for many years or that it is dangerous for them to go back to their country of origin, it is overridden by the British state and redeemed inconsequential.


In conclusion, the theoretical concepts outlined by Foucault and Fanon help configure secrecy at Yarl’s Wood as a matter of producing and reproducing identities. What detainees experience is not so much an absence of confessionary subjectivation, but an active punishment for the racial construction and construction of their immigration status. Upheld by processes of secrecy, the immigration detention complex typical of Western states continues to proliferate as part of the criminalisation of immigration. In conclusion, the confessionary dynamics which grant limited freedom is dependant upon the mutual respect of subjects. This mutual respect required for subjects to constitute themselves is denied non-citizens in Britain because the state does not have any obligations to them under principles of nation-state sovereignty. In this instance, Yarl’s Wood detention center continues to reproduce logics of secrecy by understanding immigrants as a racialized threat to nationals who must be protected.



Bhui, H. (2016). The place of ‘race’ in understanding immigration control and the detention of foreign nationals. Criminology & Criminal Justice , 16(3), pp. 267-285.

Bosworth, M. (2014). Inside immigration detention . Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bosworth, M. and Fili, A. (2016). Immigration Detention in the UK and Greece. In: R. Furman, D. Epps and G. Lamphear, ed., Detaining the Immigrant Other , 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bulman, M. (2018). Yarl’s Wood: Inside the crisis-hit immigration detention centre . [online] The Independent. Available at: [Accessed 25 Feb. 2019].

Channel 4 (2015). Yarl’s Wood: Undercover in the secretive immigration detention centre. Available at: [Accessed 25 Feb. 2019].

Gentleman, A. (2018). Yarl’s Wood women feel desperate, says Diane Abbott . [online] The Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 25 Feb. 2019].

GOV.UK. (2018). How many people are detained or returned? [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 Feb. 2019].

Lorenzini, D. and Tazzioli, M. (2016). Confessional Subjects and Conducts of Non-Truth: Foucault, Fanon, and the Making of the Subject. Theory, Culture & Society , 35(1), pp. 71-90.

Mainwaring, C. and Cook, M. (2018). Immigration detention: An Anglo model. Migration Studies .

Turnbull, S. (2017). Immigration Detention and Punishment. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice .