Bordered Lives: Immigration Detention Archive

Reviewed by Samantha O’Donnell, PhD Candidate in Criminology, Faculty of Arts, The University of Melbourne, Australia

Bosworth, M., von Zinnenburg Carroll, K. and Balzar, C. (2019) Bordered Lives: Immigration Detention Archive. Berlin: Sternberg Press.

Bordered Lives: Immigration Detention Archive (Bordered Lives), offers a unique insight into the carceral architecture of immigration detention in the United Kingdom and the lives of people who are detained there. A collaboration between Mary Bosworth, Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll, and Christoph Balzar, Bordered Lives draws on the authors’ combined expertise across the fields of criminology, performance, and art. The book presents digital images, paper-based art works, and first-hand accounts of immigration detention, from the Border Criminologies Immigration Detention Archive at the University of Oxford (the Archive). These images are interspersed with academic writing, depictions of a series of performances by Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll, and bureaucratic documents. In representing immigration detention across a variety of mediums, Bordered Lives presents a tapestry of experiences of confinement.  

The authors depict immigration detention as a stark and punitive space. One photograph shows a cell in a segregation unit with blank walls, barred windows and a hard wooden bed with a thin mattress. This image is synonymous with that of a prison cell and so the boundaries between immigration detention and prison blur. In the middle of the book, there is a script of the performance Men in Waiting by Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll. In Scene IX, the building is personified and its words depict the dissonance between political descriptions of immigration detention and reality:

They write on me, how pitiful, all graffiti will be washed off tomorrow. Nothing sticks here. Yes, I have a radio station even, but it’s not allowed to broadcast beyond my walls. I have newsletters, activities, it’s a holiday in here. Okay so the walls smell of a fear you can never wash off.

In this depiction, even the building can smell the fear and suffering trapped within its confining walls. This dissonance is also affirmed by a first-hand account from an unnamed Afghani person detained in Immigration Reception Centre (IRC) Tinsley House who observes: “this place is like prison, you have no freedom so it does not matter how good the facilities are. You will never enjoy them”. These depictions align with what Mary Bosworth (2014, p. 135) describes as the insistence by the state that immigration detention is merely a “brief interlude” sitting in contrast to the “reliance on a criminal justice imaginary in the institution’s design, staffing, and policy”. This is a design that is inherently violent, as I explore in a recent article on racism, carceral spaces and the overlapping forms of violence produced therein (O’Donnell, 2022). 

Bordered Lives is also structured in a way that takes the reader within the carceral complex of the immigration prison. The first image is a photograph of the bleak and sterile courtyard in IRC Colnbrook that overlooks neighbouring IRC Harmondsworth, two immigration detention centres in the United Kingdom. This is followed by drawings of faces, and other artworks from people detained. The book also includes bureaucratic documents, at one point, a map noting “you are here”; at another, a blank non-legally binding agreement for a new detainee to sign; at another, a feedback card.

A photo of the boardroom of BORDR Management, a fictitious company created by the authors to represent all private companies contracted to run immigration detention facilities in the United Kingdom, is presented to highlight our positioning as onlookers privy to this carceral regime. The BORDR Management logo is stamped on the final page of the book. As we are taken in and out of both the carceral and bureaucratic spaces, it becomes clear that perhaps we are the ones doing the detaining. Although Bordered Lives is dedicated “to the unnamed”, the book speaks to the broader public in an attempt to show us the living conditions and suffering within immigration detention. In affirming our complicity, Bordered Lives challenges our capacity to remain silent. 

This carceral architecture is also interrupted by unnamed faces and stories interspersed throughout Bordered Lives. In relation to her own performances that are depicted throughout the book in still photographs, Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll notes (p. 66):

the shadowed locations of immigration detention are obscured and indeed largely unrepresentable because of legal censorship, art offers a unique form of access… Having repurposed the shadow to also represent internal states by showing the silhouette of the migrant, I sought to produce affective and embodied evidence.

It is evident that these repurposed shadows also exist within the book itself through the photographs, paper-based artworks and first-hand accounts taken from the Archive. Faces throughout the book are drawn, blurred or masked. The first-hand accounts are from unnamed detainees. This anonymity is a direct choice made by the authors to ensure there is minimal impact on people’s immigration claims. Yet this anonymity also instils in us a sense that we are only seeing the shadows of those detained. Immigration detention is depicted here as a place of undarkness with shadow figures representing people’s experiences of detention as a “waking nightmare” (p. 67). This shadowed world is also one that aligns with the idea that “[t]here is no hereness in that space of waiting” (Scene IV, Men in Waiting), a theme that pervades Bordered Lives.

Bordered Lives also depicts the clear contradictions inherent in the paper-based artworks taken from the Archive. On one hand, art is seen as creative and therapeutic. A number of the paper-based artworks in the book explore themes that are seemingly disconnected from immigration detention. On the other hand, the carceral seeps into all activities within immigration detention and art is no exception. As Mary Bosworth (p. 31) suggests:

Art-making in detention, as it is in prison, is often portrayed as a means of coping, a moment of redemption, a method of transcendence. At the same time, however, art rooms in detention as they are in prison, are not entirely outside the security apparatus… As such, they are imbued with power inequalities and their consequences.

Even art is not completely untouched by immigration detention and its punitive aims.

It is through this assemblage of mediums that the authors represent immigration detention in a personal and affecting way. By using both visual and written representations, we gain a greater understanding of the immigration system’s violent consequences and insight into both the suffering and resistance of those detained. As the title suggests, the book is archival in form. The digital images, paper-based artworks, first-hand accounts and other forms of media, map out the structures of immigration detention and the experiences of those detained. As Christoph Balzar (p. 129) explains, “Bordered Lives is aimed at restoring and, where necessary, supplementing meaningful connections in the Immigration Detention Archive through artistic techniques.” In line with Behrouz Boochani’s call for creative disruptions, Bordered Lives uses art and performance to challenge the violence of immigration prison (Bhatia and Bruce-Jones, 2021, p. 85).

By combining art, storytelling and critique, Bordered Lives draws connections between voice and space in detention and affirms the deservingness of people who are detained to be free from harm. By taking this approach, the authors destabilise traditional forms of criminological critique and offer new challenges to the validity of the carceral immigration detention complex in the United Kingdom. By embodying the experience of confinement, Bordered Lives presents an unsettling but important insight into immigration detention, a space that is oftentimes concealed from public view.

This account of immigration prison is particularly important in light of the United Kingdom’s recent policy of refugee externalisation. Under this policy, the United Kingdom will transfer asylum seekers indefinitely to Rwanda to be processed (Easton-Calabria, 2022). This approach is disturbingly similar to that taken by Australia, my own home country, in its indefinite detention of asylum seekers “offshore” on Manus Island and in Nauru. As Loughnan (2022) asserts, such policies of externalisation lower the sending state’s accountability for suffering and help to justify the racialised rhetoric of ‘illegality’ that is directed at asylum seekers. In recording the shadowed worlds produced within immigration detention, Bordered Lives foreshadows the detrimental impact of such a policy.


Bhatia, M. and Bruce-Jones, E. (2021) ‘Time, torture and Manus Island: An interview with Behrouz Boochani and Omid Tofighian’, Race & Class, 62(3), pp. 77–87. doi:10.1177/0306396820965348.

Bosworth, M. (2014) Inside Immigration Detention. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199675470.001.0001.

Easton-Calabria, E. (2022) ‘The UK’s plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda raise four red flags’. The Conversation. Available at:

Loughnan, C. (2022) ‘Active neglect and the externalisation of responsibility for refugee protection’, in Dastyari, A., Nethery, A., and Hirsch, A. (eds) Refugee Externalisation Policies: Responsibility, Legitimacy and Accountability. Routledge.

O’Donnell, S. (2022) ‘Living death at the intersection of necropower and disciplinary power: A qualitative exploration of racialised and detained groups in Australia’, Critical Criminology [Preprint]. doi:10.1007/s10612-022-09623-2.