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Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies

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Out of Time: The Temporal Uncertainties of

Refused Asylum Seekers and Immigration

Melanie B.E. Griffiths

To cite this article: Melanie B.E. Griffiths (2014) Out of Time: The Temporal Uncertainties of
Refused Asylum Seekers and Immigration Detainees, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies,
40:12, 1991-2009, DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.2014.907737

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Published online: 15 Apr 2014.

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Download by: [UVA Universiteitsbibliotheek SZ] Date: 26 September 2017, At: 11:54
Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 2014
Vol. 40, No. 12, 19912009,

Out of Time: The Temporal Uncertainties

of Refused Asylum Seekers and
Immigration Detainees
Melanie B.E. Griffiths
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Despite long-standing recognition that variations exist between peoples experiences of

time, and that time is central to the framing of social life and bureaucratic systems,
migration scholars have tended to neglect the temporal dimension in their exploration
of mobility. This continues to be the case today despite it being over a decade since Saulo
Cwerner, in this journal, called for migration researchers to give greater attention to
time. This article seeks to reinvigorate the debate, drawing on ethnographic research
with refused asylum seekers and immigration detainees in the UK to question how an
appreciation of time provides insights into understandings of mobility and deportability.
It argues that deportable migrants suffer from the instability and precarity created by
living with a dual uncertainty of time, one that simultaneously threatens imminent and
absent change. The article distinguishes between four experiential temporalities (sticky,
suspended, frenzied and ruptured), and considers how the re-appropriation of time
might aid individual resilience.

Keywords: Immigration Detention; Asylum; Uncertainty; Time; Temporal

Context: Time and Migration

Immigration detainees and refused asylum seekers are subject to multiple temporal
tensions. In part these relate to cultural diversity, which is associated with variations
in conceptualisations of time (Adam 1994a; Fabian 1983; Gell 1992; Marcus 1984).
To a large extent, however, they arise from specific characteristics of the asylum and
detention systems, including certain administrative procedures, chronic uncertainty
and the systemic primacy of waiting. Although the relationship between time and
space has been examined by philosophers and geographers for several decades
(Hgerstrand 1975; Harvey 1990; Lefebvre 2004; Massey 1992; May and Thrift 2001),

Melanie B.E. Griffiths is an ESRC Future Leaders Fellow at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies,
The University of Bristol, Bristol, UK. Correspondence to: The School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies,
The University of Bristol, 11 Priory Road, Bristol BS8 1TU, UK. E-mail:

2014 Taylor & Francis

1992 M.B.E. Griffiths
time remains under-theorised in relation to migration and mobility.1 This remains
the case despite Cwerner (2001) drawing attention to the neglect over a decade ago in
this journal (Anderson 2007; Griffiths, Rogers, and Anderson 2013, 1). This article
seeks to reignite the debate and argues that an appreciation of time offers valuable
insights into migration practices, including the lived experiences of immigration
Time is a challenging concept. The term means both too much and too little, and is
simultaneously overanalysed and taken for granted (Adam 1994b). Various typologies
of time have been developed (Adam 1996; Nowotny 1994) and a great deal has been
written on whether time is linear or circular (Chambers 1994; Zerubavel 1981),
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absolute or relative (Gross 1982) and discrete or continuous (Hgerstrand 1975;

Hodges 2008). This article approaches time as a social phenomenon relating to
questions of when and considers how time is understood, discussed and negotiated
in practice. It is written on the assumption that temporal variations not only exist
between different groups, but that multiple temporal models coexist within societies,
varying between individuals and across contexts and the life-course. It recognises that
time cannot be conceptualised without reference to space (Conlon 2011; Gill 2009b).
The article draws on the narratives of refused asylum seekers to suggest that time is
a metaphor by which deportable migrants experience and describe the instability and
powerlessness of the immigration system, and that temporal uncertainty and discord
mark points of tension within the system. Experiences of temporal variation are
identified as reflecting both a disjuncture between people (for example refused asylum
seekers feeling outside the normal time of mainstream society) and as a contradiction
felt by individuals between different aspects of their lives (e.g. immigration detainees
simultaneously contending with imminent change and endless waiting). It argues that
a sense of temporal difference contributes to the experiential distance many refused
asylum seekers feel from others, including those who physically share the same space.
The material presented draws on 18 months qualitative fieldwork conducted in
20082010 with people who had claimed asylum and who were living in Oxford or
detained at nearby Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre (IRC). Conduct-
ing research with precarious migrants is always challenging but it is particularly
difficult to gain access to IRCs (although some researchers have been able to, e.g. Hall
2012). Like others facing institutional barriers to research sites, I used a variety of
access points, including volunteering with non-governmental organisations (NGOs),
interviewing and informally speaking with refused asylum seekers and conducting
interviews with people working in the field. The article is also informed by two years
working as a member of parliaments (MPs) immigration caseworker, although
information about constituents cases is not used for research material. In total, I
spoke to over 300 individuals who had sought refugee protection2 in the UK. The
majority had received a negative decision and were either living in limbo in Oxford or
held in immigration detention, facing removal.3
There are no comprehensive statistics about the number of asylum seekers in
Oxford, although local NGO staff gave me estimates of 30006000 asylum seekers
Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 1993
and refugees in the county. I spoke to approximately 160 people living in Oxford who
had claimed asylum. They were mostly single men aged between 16 and 30 and were
extremely diverse in terms of their backgrounds, experiences and nationalities. They
came from some 30 countries, although there was a predominance of Iraqis, Afghans
and Iranians. Some had lived in the UK for over a decade, whilst others had arrived
only days earlier. Some had only just claimed asylum, or had received decisions to
their applications within a few months, but most had lodged applications years earlier
and were still awaiting a decision.
Most of the Oxford-based participants (both those refused protection and those
still awaiting an outcome) lived in a precarious, quasi-legal space. This was especially
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so for the 80 or so who were in the legacy backlog, an accumulation of several

hundred thousand unresolved asylum cases.4 The majority had effectively been
forgotten by the authorities and eked out an existence working illegally or relying on
friends and charities for support. A reliance on casual labour and friends with spare
couches meant that people often moved frequently within and between cities. In
many ways Oxford is unusual, including as a result of having a disproportionately
large number of asylum-orientated NGOs. Although this can cushion people from
some aspects of the asylum system, the issues discussed in the article are not unique
to Oxford.
At the time of research, Campsfield House IRC held up to 216 adult male
detainees. I spoke to 160 men detained there. As with their Oxford-based counter-
parts, they were highly diverse, including in terms of their countries of origin (coming
from some 50 countries), immigration trajectories, life histories and experiences in
the UK. They had been in the UK anywhere from a matter of days to their entire
lives. Immigration detention has become a key aspect of border control and involves
depriving non-citizens of their liberty in order to realise an immigration-related goal,
such as deportation (Schuster 2005; Silverman and Massa 2012, 679). In theory,
detention is employed for minimal periods, in order to facilitate removal from the
country. However, various obstacles can delay or even prevent this.
The UK is one of the few European countries to detain foreign nationals
indefinitely.5 At the time of research, people were held at Campsfield for an average
of six weeks.6 However, as people are often transferred between IRCs, the time spent
at Campsfield may be much shorter than their total length of detention. There is also
a high degree of variation of detention lengths, with some moved in and out within
days, and others held weeks or months. More than 20 of those I spoke to had been
detained for longer than 12 months and many more had been detained for over 6

Despite the diversity of the research participants, all described the immigration
system as characterised by uncertainty and instability (see Griffiths 2013b). For
example, fears of dawn raids, detention and deportation contribute to a sense of
1994 M.B.E. Griffiths
insecurity, whilst legal processes often mean a substantialbut unknownwait for
an outcome. People often have little information about the asylum process and face
barriers to obtaining legal advice. Refused asylum seekers living in the community are
generally prohibited from working and yet struggle to access financial support, so
experience poverty, debts and insecure accommodation, as well as stresses relating to
a precarious immigration status (Crawley, Hemmings, and Price 2011).
Those in immigration detention live with the daily difficulties of incarceration in
addition to potential incidents such as disturbances or fights. There is continual
movement of detainees in and out of Campsfield, at a rate of about 21 people a day in
2008 (HMCIP 2008, 20). Whilst over half left Campsfield for removal, nearly a third
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were instead transferred to other IRCs (HMCIP 2008, 78). Detainees complain that
they are transferred repeatedly and that this breaks their ties to NGOs and legal
representatives, and leads to lost possessions. A Togolese detainee described how:
they took me to Harmondsworth. From Harmondsworth they took me to
Colnbrook. From Colnbrook they took me to Campsfield. From Campsfield they
took me [back] to Harmondsworth, saying that he was moved so often that he
could not sleep properly. Indeed, he once called me at 2.15 am to tell me he had just
been moved, without explanation, to a yet another IRC.
As the article discusses, time is a salient means by which refused asylum seekers
conceptualise this uncertainty and disruption, and vocalise their frustration and
despondency. Much of this temporal angst relates to the perceived disjuncture
between the temporalities of themselves and those around them, and between their
expectations of progress and efficiency, and the machinations of the immigration and
judicial systems in practice. One temporal consideration, that of speed, is a
particularly contentious aspect of the immigration system. There are competing
claims that the system is too fast and too slow: that the wheels of the system turn so
slowly that people wait years for decisions, but also that decisions are rushed, with
decisions in the Detained Fast Track, for example, being made in just a few days. In
unpicking these tensions, the article teases apart four experiential temporalities: a
long, slowing time of waiting (sticky time), one that can decelerate into complete
stagnation (suspended time), a fast time rushing out of control (frenzied time) and
tears in peoples imagined time frames (temporal ruptures).

Sticky Time
In contrast to plethora of literature on the acceleration of modern life, much less has
been written on slowness, although there is some work on waiting, queuing and
stillness (Bissell and Fuller 2011; Corbridge 2004; Jeffrey 2008; Prez 2010). Slowness
is a frequent complaint of travellers and migrants, from frustration at the ever-
lengthening naturalisation process to the annoyances of long airport queues and
bureaucratic red tape. A sense of time slowing down is particularly relevant to certain
aspects of migration, however, including immigration detention and asylum decision-
Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 1995
The experience of a slow time of waiting has been explored in relation to prisons
(Wilson 2004), including work demonstrating that for prisoners, time can become a
source of suffering in its own right (Medlicott 1999). Similar arguments can be made
for immigration detainees, although a significant difference arises from the absence of
a prison sentence. Although average and individual lengths of immigration detention
fluctuate, an eighth of the men spoken to were detained for over a year, with one held
for almost five years in total (in two separate stints) before eventually being released.
For illustration, a West African man I spoke to had spent 15 months in prison,
followed by over 34 months in immigration detention, whilst a Kurdish man was held
in immigration detention for 29 months after being arrested for fighting. An African
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detainee whose disputed nationality prevented his removal for many months
described his sense of being forgotten in detention by saying: I dont want them to
dump me here, this is a removal centre! Not a place you can leave someone. It is for
removal, for emergency [his emphasis]. In so doing, he contrasted his experience of
lengthy waiting with the policy commitment that detention should only be used for
the shortest possible periods of time.
The asylum decision-making process is often a slow one, beset with bureaucracy,
applications, interviews, paperwork and judicial hearings. Decisions can take years7
and communication with the Home Office can involve waiting months for a
response, if one ever comes. Delays in communicating official decisions to applicants
are not uncommon, including instances in which people only find out that they have
refugee status months or even years after the decision. One woman I interviewed, for
example, found out she had been granted Humanitarian Protection (a status that lasts
five years) six months after the decision was made.
People also wait months for court hearings to be scheduled, for the Home Office to
enact judges decisions, for appointments with embassies, for identity documents to
be sent and for a variety of decisions to be made. I found that in both my NGO and
MP caseworker roles I frequently had to tell people to wait a little longer, or pass on
messages from the Home Office that the person needed to be patient and wait whilst
the system worked its slow course.
Individuals whose asylum claims had been refused, who were in the legacy
backlog or lived forgotten in the community as undocumented migrants, spoke
particularly evocatively about a sticky, slow time. Many had spent several years in
the system, as was the case for a Kurdish man in the legacy backlog who told me:
My case, its been like stuck for six years. Six years! Six years with no answer! A
friend of his, Moussa, was a refused asylum seeker who had been in the UK eight
years and spent each day standing outside his friends shop, simply trying to waste
time. He told me that he had nothing to look forward to and was living in parallel
universe. He illustrated his stress and the lengthy wait by pointing to his receding
hairline, saying: Look at my hair! No hair over just one piece of paper. A piece of
paper! Eight year wait too long. Although many people in the legacy backlog did
eventually receive decisions, the governments target for resolving all legacy cases by
1996 M.B.E. Griffiths
the summer of 2011 was not met and as of March 2014, a handful of participants
remain waiting in the backlog.
In contrast to the rush associated with much of modern life, deportable individuals
like Moussa have an excessive amount of time. Asylum seekers are rarely allowed to
work and so have little to fill it up with, with some even instructed by Home Office
representatives that they cannot engage in voluntary work. The chronic waiting of the
unemployed and the means by which such people attempt to create temporal markers
and find ways to waste time has been noted in other contexts (Jeffrey 2010;
Masquelier 2013). Certainly, the impact of prohibitions against work for asylum
seekers is profound and generates an enforced idleness in which people have little to
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do other than wait.

In todays world of technology, in which speed is fetishised, stillness and passivity
tend to be considered as negative phenomena (Bissell and Fuller 2011) and patience is
often said to be in decline. Being made to wait is inextricably bound up in power
relations and is associated with bureaucratic domination (Bourdieu 1997; Prez
2010). Whether migrants are forced to wait by smugglers en route or within the UK
by the Home Office, the imposition of waiting, always with a glimmer of hope for
eventual change, is part of the technique of control that sustains the marginality and
compliance of undocumented migrants.
Waiting is not always a negative or empty experience, however. Rather than simply
constitute dead time, it can be a productive, reflective and social space (Conlon 2011;
Masquelier 2013; Schweizer 2008). Indeed, Giovanni Gasparini (1995) distinguishes
between three types of waiting: as blockage of action, an experience filled with
substitute meanings and as a meaningful experience in itself.
Refused asylum seekers engage in several forms of waiting. Those in Oxford tended
to hold onto the hope that there was purpose to it, even if the outcomes were
unpredictable and distant. The administrative creation of the legacy category and the
accompanying Case Resolution process helped sustain the hope that waiting might
result in a positive outcome. Many held onto an (incorrect) belief that there was some
order to the process, some paper-based queue at the Home Office which new
applications joined the end of. People expressed resentment when others received
decisions out of turn without a long wait. They spoke of the importance of waiting
meekly and were concerned that displaying impatience would anger decision-makers.
As a result, people who asked me to ring the Home Office to chase up their case often
changed their minds at the last minute, afraid that it would invoke retaliatory refusals.
The emphasis on appearing to be waiting patiently may help explain why there is so
little overt political action or protest conducted by refused asylum seekers and
undocumented migrants in the UK.

Suspended Time
Subtly different from this slow but potentially fruitful time of waiting is the
experience of directionless stasis. Perhaps indicative of why immigration detention
Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 1997
can be so destructive, this sense of suspended time was commonly voiced by detainees.
They tended to see no purpose, fairness or progression to their incarceration.
Without a maximum time limit, it consisted of an irrational, meaningless and endless
time, more a temporal suspension than a queue-like waiting for a goal. Time is often
imagined to exist on a trajectory, progressive even if chaotic. And yet some detainees
speak of a timeless present, whilst the world and the people around them continue
In the past, some anthropologists suggested that there are cultures in which people
perceive only of a static, timeless present [for example, Clifford Geertzs work on Bali,
(Munn 1992)]. I am not suggesting that refused asylum seekers experience time in a
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fundamentally unique way, nor that they believe that time has literally stopped. If
nothing else, the timings of institutional routines and bureaucratic schedules, from
meal times to bail hearings, serve to mark chronological rhythm within IRCs. But
nonetheless, a noncumulative temporal suspension was a powerful model by which
many people described the asylum and detention systems. Long-term detainees in
particular frequently speak of their lives as having stopped, with comments such as:
Ive been [in detention] nearly three years. Every day is the same (an African
detainee at Campfield), or: My life, its no stopped, but something like (a Moroccan
In the suspended time of immigration detention, time not only becomes stuck, but
can morph into the Kafkaesque. For example, there is considerable variability in the
lengths of time people are detained before a judge will grant bail on the basis that
they have been detained too long for the Home Office to realistically still promise
that removal is imminent (White 2012, 3). It is not the case, however, that if detainees
wait long enough, their detention will definitely become too long. There was a
memorable example in which a man who was detained for well over two years, had
seven bail applications refused on a variety of grounds, only for his eighth to be
rejected on the basis that he had now been detained for so long that he was deemed
too likely to abscond to be released. He had somehow passed the too long for
continued detention point, and was in the peculiar position of having been detained
too long to be released.
Temporal suspension was also voiced by some refused asylum seekers living in
Oxford, especially those without the hope afforded by being assigned to the legacy
backlog. Sentiments such as one mans cry: Im stuck! Im just stuck! were common.
Reza, an Algerian man, told me in detail about the years he waited in Oxford for a
decision to his asylum claim: That wasnt any progress in there, just that was passing
your life Four years, going [no]where, going on to say: Nothing change for last
two year. I just lost my time. And I know, if I stay here for next two years again, just
doing the same, is nothing is going to happen.
Reza spoke of a disjuncture between his own temporal stasis and the seemingly
progressive time of others around him. He found it painful when his asylum-seeking
friends were granted immigration status and return to the forward flow of normal
life. Such dissonance was the means by which many people illustrated feeling
1998 M.B.E. Griffiths
abnormal. Moussa, introduced above, explicitly presented his excessive time as
marginalising him: I keep thinking, thinking, thinking, when, when, when? When
I going to get papers? I want to be like you. I want to be normal. Moussa told me of a
period in which he slept on a friends floor and became a recluse. He only realised
how much time had passed when he finally left the house and was shocked to see
strong sunlight and that the trees, which he had last seen during wintertime, already
had leaves on them.
Although Moussas days were not differentiated into week days and weekends
(my naive questioning about what he was doing one weekend was met with near
incomprehension), and his waking hours slipped into semi-nocturnal ones (he slept
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from 4 am until the early afternoon), by standing on the pavement each day,
watching people rush by, Moussa was attempting to share the same space as
mainstream society, if not their time. Echoing others, Moussa spoke of his time as a
source of shame or oppression, telling me that his life was an unproductive, endless
present and that he was unable to plan or believe in a future.
Like many others, Moussa associated this suspended time with a lack of social or
personal progress, including the forced idleness of prohibitions against employment
and a feeling that he could not achieve social goals such as marriage or starting a family
whilst he remained in limbo. Indeed, several of Moussas Kurdish friends explicitly
described themselves as boys rather than men despite the passing of years and their
advancing age, because they felt that their immigration status prevented them from
becoming fathers or husbands. Their exclusion from social ageing was highlighted
when younger brothers in Iraq married before them, and many came under familial
pressure to abandon their wait in the UK in order to return home and normal life
developments. This links to a broader infantilising tendency of the asylum system, with
its structural impediments against adult-like self-determination (Griffiths 2013a).
The concept of liminality has been employed in analysing migration, including in
relation to border crossing (Donnan and Wilson 1999; Salter 2005). Temporal
suspension can also be considered as constituting a liminal space, one that maintains
entrapment between firm legal categories, rights and countries, with restricted access
to work, education and marriage. Even a member of Campsfields Independent
Monitoring Board whom I interviewed described irremovable detainees to me as
being stuck, saying: Theyre in a state of limbo. This pointless and halted time
entrenches alterity, constructing refused asylum seekers and immigration detainees as
fundamentally different from the busy people around them.

Frenzied Time
Alongside a sense of sticky or suspended time, in which refused asylum seekers
experience little change, over long periods, there is also a more frantic pace of change.
There is considerable literature on the idea that social life is accelerating, including in
relation to capitalism (Tomlinson 2007), new technologies (Eriksen 2001; Hassan
2005), globalisation and modernity (Binde 2000; Hassan 2009; Scheuerman 2009).
Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 1999
In relation to mobility, speed is associated with new transport technologies
(Cwerner 2009; Klein 2004; Lash and Urry 1994), and arguments that immigration
leads to unsustainable levels of social change (Connolly 2009). Migration policies and
bureaucracy in the UK are in near-constant flux, with constant political and
administrative reorganisation and major pieces of new immigration legislation
introduced in 1993, 1996, 1999, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009 and (almost
certainly) in 2014. Governments frequently and explicitly portray speed as a sign of
success, including in terms of the rates of deportation and asylum decision-making
(Cwerner 2004).
In addition to the pace of change of the structures managing immigration,
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migrants themselves speak of experiencing time within the immigration system as

one in which developments can happen suddenly and without warning. This is true
across migration categories, and includes economic and education migrants, who
have short time frames in which to find a new job or course if dismissed from their
existing one before the conditions of their visas are invalidated.
Migrants without regular status however are particularly vulnerable to an
unpleasantly rushed sense of time. Participants living in Oxford feared that they
might suddenly be detained when reporting to the authorities, after a random identity
check or during a dawn raid at their home. Asylum and immigration decisions can be
made very quickly. The Detained Fast Track is particularly frenzied, with initial
asylum decisions made in less than a fortnight, appeals heard within four days of a
refusal and judges decisions served within a further two days. Outside of the Fast
Track, unsuccessful asylum seekers have just 10 working days to lodge appeals (or
five if they are detained) and people making fresh asylum claims from detention can
receive a decision within the same day.
Deportations and removals almost always entail an accelerated sense of time, with
a desperate panicked rush of trying to contact solicitors, MPs and friends and family.
Individuals normally have just 72-hours notice of their removal, and sometimes even
less. Until a High Court ruling in 2010, the Home Office could remove suicidal and
other vulnerable people from the UK without any notice at all (Webber 2010),
leading to some detainees claiming that officers could ambush you for removal at
any moment. The short time frames make challenging deportation difficult, especially
when the notice period coincides with weekends or public holidays, when offices
are shut.
Frenzied time is also evident in the forced movement of immigration detainees
between IRCs. Individuals can be transferred to other centres at short notice and
without explanation, sometimes several times within the same day (HMCIP 2006,
16). Even release from immigration detention into the community can happen
without warning, in some instances so quickly that the individual has no time to find
accommodation and becomes destitute. These movements have a clear spatial
element and have been described as a dehumanising spatial churn by Nick Gill
(2009a). Appreciating that they are also temporal in nature, however, is important in
fully understanding the instability that they engender.
2000 M.B.E. Griffiths
All of this contributes to a frenzy, in which time accelerates quickly and rushes out
of control. This is disempowering and overwhelming for the individuals concerned
and also hinders others from providing support. Friends and family can struggle to
locate individuals when they are moved rapidly around the detention estate, and MPs
and legal representatives are forced to make representations under great time
pressure. My experience of making such challenges as an MPs immigration
caseworker was of frantic drama, often working weekends and into the early hours
of the morning to deal with the latest of an endless number of emergencies.

Temporal Ruptures
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The dramatic and sudden movements of frenzied time can bring significant
dislocation of temporal and geographical expectations. Involuntary mobility, such
as deportation and transfers between IRCs or unwelcome decisions on ones
immigration applications, has the potential to dramatically alter peoples temporal
patterns and imaginings. For example, unexpected dawn raids, in which people are
woken abruptly by a team of immigration officers in the early hours of the morning
violently overrides their immediate plans for the day, in addition to those of their
longer-term futures, as they are taken to detention for removal. And unlike prisoners,
immigration detainees cannot imagine their release, not knowing when it might come
nor where they will end up; whether they will be returned to their lives in the UK or
deported to another country.
The cruel power of deportation (Gibney 2008) produces a particularly acute
temporal rupture; one that dramatically alters the individuals present and future. But
because the future for potential deportees is not just suspended and out of reach, but
utterly unknown, it is extremely difficult for people to plan for this eventuality. As
NGO visitors attest to, detainees tend to be so distraught at the idea of removal, they
are unable or unwilling to consider contingency plans for that possibility, leaving
them particularly vulnerable and unprepared if and when removal occurs. The
potential temporal rupture of removal is especially felt when they are unsuccessful,
be it as a result of last minute political or legal interventions, bureaucratic problems
or complaints from other passengers. These lead to people being taken to the airport
or even onto aeroplanes before returned to immigration detention. A Cameroonian
man I spoke to had seven sets of removal directions in the five months he was
detained. He had to repeatedly experience the intense uncertainty of the removal
process, with the associated farewells to the past/present and envisaging of a new,
unwanted and feared future, only to find himself instead back in detention.
The temporal discontinuity of deportation tends to be experienced as disempow-
ering and disruptive. However, temporal ruptures are not necessarily negative.
Indeed, the idea of positive breaks from the past is found in religious narratives of
rebirth and within processes of political change, and some argue that it is integral to
lived experience and expectations of the future (Game 1997). Sudden changes in a
migrants temporal expectations can result from a successful appeal, unexpected letter
Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 2001
or surprise release from detention, rather than arrest or deportation. Migrating itself
can be considered an act employed in order to break stasis and generate change (see
Cole 2010; Mains 2007). However, when out of ones control, dramatic reconfigura-
tions of ones immediate and long-term future tend to be experienced as profoundly
distressing, especially when it arrives without expectation or preparation.

Temporal Uncertainties
Uncertainty and instability are key characteristics of the asylum and immigration
detention systems (Griffiths 2013b), and are central to the condition Nicholas De
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Genova (2002) describes as deportability. This article argues that an appreciation of

time helps illuminate sources and experiential qualities of this insecurity. It has
differentiated between four temporalities voiced by refused asylum seekers, ones
where time appears to speed up (frenzied time), slow down (sticky time), halt
(suspended time) or shift dramatically (temporal ruptures). Research on uncertainty
often portrays dramatic upheaval, in which lives are made nonsensical as a result of
profound change over short time periods. This article has argued, however, that in
addition to instability caused by rapid change, peoples lives can also be made chaotic
through a lack of change.
The temporal uncertainty of refused asylum seekers is compounded when different
temporalities are experienced simultaneously, as is the case when someone is detained
for many months but undergoes the repeated emergency of multiple removal
attempts. The mistrust of time also arises as a result of time frames that are
unpredictable and beyond individual control. This manifests in the disorientation of
being unable to imagine even the near future and confines people to living in the
absolute present. Those living with the threat of removal describe being unable to
plan for more than a few days ahead, illustrated by an African detainee who
underwent several unsuccessful removal attempts telling me: maybe tomorrow they
will take me. You dont know what tomorrow will hold for you. Another man, who
endured multiple removal attempts during his 17 months in detention, told me the
evening before he was due to be deported that he could not possibly know if it would
actually take place, saying Im just going to have to wait until Saturday night and see
what happens. As it happens, this time he was removed, despite being emotionally
and practically underprepared.
A significant source of the instability and powerlessness of the asylum and
detention systems is the tension between anticipating constant change and fearing
indefinite stasis. This was suggested by Moussa, who struggled with a lack of temporal
limits, describing having to wait, maybe two weeks, maybe two years wait. Just wait.
Although true for all immigration decisions, temporal uncertainty is particularly
meaningful in relation to immigration detention, where time is felt especially acutely.
This underlies a key difference between detention and prison. Both prisoners and
detainees are involuntarily incarcerated and experience impacts on their sense of
time, including having an extended present and distorted sense of the past and future
2002 M.B.E. Griffiths
(Brown 1998). However, the absence of a sentence or release date means that
prisoners and immigration detainees fundamentally differ on temporal terms, as
voiced explicitly by an Eritrean detainee: They could keep me another 10 months, I
dont know. Or they could release me, I dont know Prison I know what I was
doing, you know the release date.
It was common for detainees, like this man, who had experienced both immigration
detention and prison, to spontaneously raise such a temporal comparison in
explaining the particular insecurity of immigration detention.8 Without advance
knowledge of how long they will be detained for, what might with hindsight be a
plateau of months of waiting, is instead experienced as a series of days overlooking a
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precipice, with each day having the potential to bring profound and unwanted
change. This means that immigration detainees constantly anticipate imminent
removal, transfer or release, even if they end up doing so for months or years. And
without a maximum threshold or date of release, the waiting of immigration
detention has no cumulative purpose. There is no goal that one is working towards or
end point to which the clock is ticking down. Rather, people feel that they are
forgotten in the system, until a distant civil servant happens to look at their file and
the frenzy begins.
These issues have serious practical implications, not least because high levels of
depression and trauma characteristic of asylum seekers have been linked with the
indefinite and yet temporary nature of the asylum process (Mansouri and Cauchi
2007). Without any idea how long they will have to wait, people struggle to imagine a
future or invest in themselves, as an Iranian man in Oxford illustrated in relation to
his inability to study: Because nothing is certain. You dont have any base to build
on. You dont know where you going to be next year. Are you going to be here next
year or not? Strikingly, detainees often told me that they were reluctant to join
activities or contact NGOs because they did not know where they would be the
following week, a concern that might initially appear surprising for an incarcerated

Making Time
Much of the tension caused by temporal uncertainty relates to the lack of control that
refused asylum seekers (and immigration detainees in particular) have over their own
time. However, there is the potential for some fragile positives in the lives of refused
asylum seekers and a time-sensitive analysis offers insights into these. For example,
some of the young men in Oxford in the legacy backlog carved out a space of
suspended reality in which they enjoyed student-like freedoms: waking late, drinking,
clubbing and dating. For them, in addition to the uncertainty and lack of progress of
the asylum system, temporal suspension was also a liberating time outside of familial,
religious and social expectations and controls.
Van Gennep (1977) and Turner (1967) described liminality as being between
categories, a position in which people are tainted with danger, pollution or illegality
Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 2003
(Douglas 1969). It is also a transformative time and by employing the concept of
liminality we can examine the potential of transmutation proffered by this abnormal
state. Unable to plan their futures, some refused asylum seekers were able to embrace
the present and live in a limbo that offered opportunities to enjoy freedom otherwise
circumscribed. Illustrating this, Reza described his years waiting as an asylum seeker
as a jail, but recognised that they were also freeing:

when I live with the people who were in-between, before they get their permission and
thing, they do what they like! Because nobody expect anything of them. They are not
British, they are not Algerian, they are no belonging to anywhere, any community. They
are in-between. They just do what they want.
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Reza and his peers were outside the normality of both their home and British
societies, cocooned in a stasis without the means or pressure to achieve anticipated
social goals.
This is a complex and contradictory arena. Although on multiple levels excessive
and suspended time is intensely harmful, under certain conditions temporal
liminality can have the potential to offer freedom and transformative rites de passage.
This is only the case, however, for people with strong support and who do not fear
potential removal, in other words, those with outside help, without family relying on
them and for whom forced return is not associated with danger. For those individuals
able or supported to take control of their own time, they could transform these spaces
of sticky or suspended time into ones of productivity, in which waiting for decisions
and letters became just an aspect of their lives rather than the entire framework for
them. They reconceptualised the present as a meaningful time in itself, rather than
simply a dead space of killing time.
Far fewer positives were evident amongst immigration detainees. There was
perhaps one man out of the 160 detainees who appeared to experience anything
beneficial from his time in detention. This young man, Tao, was effectively
irremovable for several months and recognised that detention offered him one thing
that he had not previously had much of and was unlikely to have in abundance again.
Immigration detention offered Tao a lot of time. Tao consciously decided to imagine
that Campsfield was a boarding school and to utilise this gift of time to give up
smoking and improve his fitness. Unlike most detainees, Tao could imagine and
invest in a future. He informally translated between staff and detainees so as to
develop interpretation skills and actively invested in social relationships with other
detainees in order to form contacts that he could draw after removal. His strategy
worked and not only was Tao able to maintain a positive outlook during hislong
detention, but once he was deported, the social network he had established enabled
him to find emergency accommodation and eventually a job.
Time is a resource, a commodity that one can have too much or too little of.
Although from the outside it appears that many detainees have an excessive amount
of time, the extreme temporal uncertainty that they experience means that this is only
known with hindsight. Furthermore, the great anxiety that most have around
2004 M.B.E. Griffiths
removal, means that their time feels oppressive rather than abundant. Tao was able to
conceptualise his time as a resource because he was in the relatively fortunate position
of not fighting his deportation, having no family that he was leaving behind in the
UK and knowing that disputes between the Home Office and his embassy meant
that he was unlikely to be deported quickly or without some warning. Although
most detainees are not in such a position, they might be helped to explore ways to
re-appropriate their time, so as to give it purpose, engender a sense of self-
determination and tame fears around temporal ruptures. This could involve forming
routines, in order to provide structure and sense to the days, or developing plans for
the immediate and longer-term future in order to conceptualise and feel some control
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over it, even if they only felt able to do so for a matter of a few days ahead.
In terms of broader advocacy, by recognising that time can be oppressive both
when too fast and too slow, and when excessive as well as circumscribed, campaigners
should be wary of emphasising the need for quicker asylum decision-making or
shorter detention periods, if the result is that decisions and appeal systems are rushed
or that the time-consuming cases are sidelined in favour of those that can be resolved

This article drew on Cwerners suggestion that time is paramount to understanding
migration, to consider how an appreciation of temporality provides insights into
refused asylum seekers experiences of the immigration system. Whilst seeking to
avoid exoticising this group, the article has argued that their experiences of time
differentiate them from others around them, including people who share the same
physical space. This is most evident when their temporal experiences collide with
those of others. This includes the detainees who spoke of the torture of each long
hour in detention as they waited weeks for correspondence from slow bureaucrats
with busy workloads. It was also illustrated when Campsfield officers returned from
months of maternity leave to find familiar faces amongst the supposedly transient
population of detainees, and when those in the suspended time of the legacy backlog
saw their friends suddenly move forward once they received leave to remain. Reza
eloquently highlighted the temporal disjuncture that separated us when he said you
know four years for you here, is four years. Four years here for me, is maybe eight
years, maybe ten year.
In a similar vein, an Iranian detainee described realising that the Home Office had
different conceptions of time from him when a representative at each of his five bail
hearings claimed that he was facing imminent removal. The first four immigration
judges accepted this, even though the removal never materialised. The man told me
that he struggled to understand the meaning of the word imminent and wondered if
the Home Office had special clocks that measured time differently.
These temporal tensions do not exist in isolation. Time is neither independent of
nor external to space (Hgerstrand 1975) and many of the difficulties articulated by
Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 2005
refused asylum seekers are inextricably bound up in both the spatial and temporal
realms. This is illustrated by people having to keep moving between cities in order to
find friends to stay with, being trapped in the UK waiting for a resolution to their
asylum cases, being ripped from their home or the street during raids or arrest,
forcibly transported across the country for detention, confined to the bounded space
of an IRC, moved long distances during repeated transfers within the detention estate,
and most evocatively, through the temporal and spatial schism of deportation. People
not only did not know if or when in time change might occur, but often did not know
where they were or where they were going in spatial terms. These and other
disempowering aspects of the asylum and detention systems are situated squarely in
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both space and time.

The article has suggested that the temporal anguish of the asylum and detention
systems is not born simply from the absence of a time frame for decision-making, but
from a dual temporal uncertainty. People wait for what might be long periods of
time, longing for an end to the waiting, but with little idea when it might happen and
fearful of the change it might bring. This creates an unenviable dilemma in which
people simultaneously desire and fear time speeding up and slowing down, leading
many to start to press for change only to back down at the last moment, afraid of
what kind of change intervention might bring. By being detained indefinitely, without
knowing how long for and with the continual possibility of both imminent release
and removal, detainees worry that detention will continue forever and also that it will
end in unexpected deportation the next morning. They have the simultaneous
concern both that there will be sudden change and never-ending stasis. This is a
profoundly uncertain sense of time, in which the threat of immediate disruption
extends across indefinite, but often long, stretches of time.
It is the lack of temporal predictability that prevents deportable individuals not only
from being able to plan for the future, but also from having the stability of knowing
that the present will remain uncertain for a protracted length of time. Mental health
problems are associated with the asylum process being simultaneously indefinite and
temporary (Mansouri and Cauchi 2007), and psychologists have demonstrated that
experiencing time as passing slowly is linked with suffering (Flaherty et al. 2005). In
the case of asylum and immigration detention then, the slowness and uncertainty that
is a feature of many bureaucracies are highly exaggerated, becoming a source of
anguish and tool of governmentality. As such, dual temporal uncertainty is a technique
of power, one that keeps deportable migrants in a passive and desperate state of
continual transience and uncertainty.

I am indebted to Drs Bridget Anderson and Ali Rogers for stimulating conversations on time and to
the many people whose experiences inform the piece. Very many thanks also go to the reviewers
and staff of the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.
2006 M.B.E. Griffiths
[1] An exception is the literature on mobilities (King et al. 2006; Urry 2001) and a handful of
geographers of migration who explicitly consider time (Conlon 2011; Gill 2009b;
Hgerstrand 1975). Time is also implicit in research on second generation migrants and
retirement migration (Andall 2002; Christou 2006; White 2006).
[2] The criteria by which individuals are recognised as refugees are established by the 1951
Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol.
[3] Although there are administrative differences between deportation and removal, including
time-specific prohibitions against return for deportees, for the purposes of this article they
can be treated as equivalents.
[4] The legacy backlog refers to people who claimed asylum before March 2007 and either
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never received a decision to their claim or were refused refugee status but not removed. In
2006, the Home Office estimated that this backlog consisted of around 400450 thousand
individuals (ICAR 2009, 4).
[5] The UK opted out of Directive 2008/115/EC of the European Parliament and Council, which
sets a maximum period of 18 months for the detention of migrants.
[6] In 2008, detainees were being held at Campsfield for an average of 46 days (HMCIP
2008, 78).
[7] Figures for the length of time people waited for asylum decisions are not available for the
period of fieldwork. In 2010, however, out of the 5978 cases pending an initial asylum
decision, 3417 had been waiting for more than six months (Home Office 2012, table as.01).
In 2007, the New Asylum Model was introduced for managing asylum claims and the Home
Office committed itself to faster decision-making, building up to the target of 90% of
applications being decided within six months by December 2011. Although the targets were
deemed unachievable (Independent Chief Inspector of the UK Border Agency 2009, 12), and
were eventually abandoned, anecdotally, the New Asylum Model did appear to reduce
average waiting times.
[8] The argument that immigration detention is made especially harmful as a result of the
uncertainty of being held without a sentence has also been made by scholars (e.g. Pirouet
2001, 95).

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