Skip to main content

Against the Manichees: Immigration Detention and the Shaping of the Theo-political Imagination

Part of the Religion and Global Migrations book series (RGM)


This chapter explores the practices of immigration detention examined through an Augustinian lens. Making a case for a metaphysical reading of contemporary immigration practices distilled from the reasoning of both detainees themselves and the theological tradition, Anna Rowlands deploys Augustine’s notion of evil as the process through which the good is lost as an illuminating way to understand the disordered nature of detention practice. She concludes with an argument for attending to the question of the global, national and local “goods” that an immigration system should serve.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    Rowan Williams, On Augustine (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 79.

  2. 2.

    On “survival migration,” see Alexander Betts, Survival Migration: Failed Governance and the Crisis of Displacement (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013). On the relation of religion and migration, see The Refugee Crisis and Religion: Secularism, Security and Hospitality in Question, ed. Luca Mavelli and Erin K. Wilson (London: Rowman and Littlefield Press, 2017).

  3. 3.

    Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, “Muslims and Others: The Politics of Religion in the Refugee Crisis,” in Religion and the Refugee Crisis, 97–108.

  4. 4.

    See Anna Rowlands, “Forgetting the Good: Moral Contradictions in the Response to Mass Migration,” blog post for ABC Religion and Ethics, available at (accessed 03/2017). See also Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, “The Faith-Gender-Asylum Nexus: An Intersectionalist Analysis of the ‘Refugee Crisis,’” in The Refugee Crisis and Religion, 207–221.

  5. 5.

    See Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, “The Faith-Gender-Asylum Nexus,” 207–221.

  6. 6.


  7. 7.

    See Rescripting Religion in the City: Migration and Religious Identity in the Modern Metropolis, ed. Jane Garrett and Alana Harris (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013); Intersections of Religion and Migration: Issues at the Global Crossroads, ed. Jennifer Saunders, Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh , and Susanna Snyder (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016); Church in an Age of Global Migration: A Moving Body, ed. Susanna Snyder , Joshua Ralston, and Agnes M. Brazal (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

  8. 8.

    I am enormously grateful to Karen Kilby and Margaret Atkins for reading drafts of this work and commenting in detail on its content. Improvements are thanks to them, errors remain my own.

  9. 9.

    This chapter relies on publicly available material written by detainees/former detainees about their experience and empirical research conducted for public policy reports and academic writing. Research access to detention facilities is notoriously difficult. The author of this chapter spent five years volunteering at a UK immigration facility and has worked with community organizing groups in dialogue with policy makers on the detention of children and families for immigration purposes (2010–2011). This experience informs this piece but does not constitute formal empirical research.

  10. 10.

    Matthew Gibney, “Asylum and the Expansion of Deportation in the United Kingdom,” Government and Opposition 43/2 (2008), 146–167. Home Office, Controlling Our Borders: Making Migration Work for Britain (London: Home Office, 2005).

  11. 11.

    Mary Bosworth, Inside Immigration Detention (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); Daniel Wilsher, Immigration Detention: Law, History, Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

  12. 12.

    See (accessed 03/2017).

  13. 13.

    See (accessed 03/2017).

  14. 14.

    Each country’s practice of detention differs, and while there may be commonalities of experience across detention facilities for the purposes of this chapter, I am focusing on one country-specific practice of detention.

  15. 15.

    For a legal overview of detention, see Wilsher, Immigration Detention; for a comparison of international practice see (accessed 03/2017). This chapter engages in particular with the (currently unparalleled) in-depth UK ethnographic work of Bosworth, Inside Immigration Detention. See also the cross-party Parliamentary report of the Immigration Detention Inquiry Report, March 2015, available at (accessed 03/2017).

  16. 16.

    See Immigration Detention Inquiry Report.

  17. 17.

    See (accessed 03/2017).

  18. 18.

    See Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 170–173.

  19. 19.

    Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (London: Vintage, 1977).

  20. 20.

    Hannah Arendt, On Violence (New York: Harcourt, 1969), 38–42, for her analysis of “rule by Nobody.”

  21. 21.

    See Arendt’s writings in The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958) and her later writings collected as Responsibility and Judgment (New York: Schocken Press, 2003).

  22. 22.

    See a longer summary of Arendt’s relevance to theological debates on migration policy in Anna Rowlands, “On the Temptations of Sovereignty: The Task of Catholic Social Teaching and the Challenge of UK Asylum Seeking,” in Political Theology 12/6 (2011), and a blog on the same theme: (accessed 03/2017). See also Amanda Schmid-Scott on Arendt and detention at (accessed 03/2017).

  23. 23.

    Yousif Qasmiyeh, “The Camp is Time,” available at (accessed 03/2017).

  24. 24.

    The report can be read at (accessed 03/2017).

  25. 25.

    Ibid., 18.

  26. 26.

    Ibid., 19.

  27. 27.

    Testimonies from detainees/former detainees are collated by the Detention Forum and used on their website to raise awareness. Detention Forum represents a number of not-for-profit organizations working to accompany detainees. See Given the paucity of detainee testimonies their work represents a rare insight into detainee experience. These testimonies available in the public domain closely mirror conversations the author had over a number of years through pastoral work and advocacy undertaken in the now-closed Oakington Detention facility.

  28. 28.

    As above. Taken from the Twitter feed of Detention Forum.

  29. 29.

    Made available at

  30. 30.

    See (accessed 03/2017).

  31. 31.

    See Henry Giroux summarized in Fran Cetti, “Europeanity,” the “Other” and the Discourse of Fear: The Centrality of the Forced Migrant as “Global Alien” to an Emerging European National Identity, Unpublished PhD, University of East London, 2012, 22.

  32. 32.

    William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998).

  33. 33.

    Christopher Insole, “Discerning the Theopolitical: A Response to William Cavanaugh’s Reimagining of Political Space,” Political Theology 7/3 (2006), 323–335.

  34. 34.

    St. Augustine, Confessions (London: Penguin, 1961), Book VII, 12, 13, 16.

  35. 35.

    Rowan Williams, “Insubstantial Evil,” in On Augustine, 88.

  36. 36.

    On the move from higher to lower goods see Augustine, Confessions, Book VII, 16. See also Frederick H. Russell, “‘Only Something Good can be Evil’: The Genesis of Augustine’s Secular Ambivalence,” Theological Studies 51/4 (1990), 698–716. See also John G. Prendeville, “The Development of the Idea of Habit in the Thought of Saint Augustine,” Traditio 28 (1972), 29–100. Both referenced in David Grumett, “Arendt, Augustine and Evil,” Heythrop Journal 2000, 154–169.

  37. 37.

    Williams, “Insubstantial Evil,” 91.

  38. 38.

    D. A. Kress, “Augustine’s Privation Account of Evil: A Defence,” Augustinian Studies 20 (1989), 109–128.

  39. 39.

    Williams, On Augustine, 101.

  40. 40.


  41. 41.

    See Charles Mathewes, The Republic of Grace: Augustinian Thoughts for Dark Times (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010) as an example of Augustinian political theology in a civic virtue mode. See also Eric Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2008). I write within a broadly civic virtue tradition of political theology that owes a debt to both authors.

  42. 42.

    Bosworth, Inside Immigration Detention.

  43. 43.

    See Bosworth’s interviewee comments on stranger-hood as a self-relation in detention: all four of these purposes have been articulated to this author as moral justifications for detention and its “effectiveness” during Home Office conversations in the context of Citizens UK’s work on child detention 2010–2011 and formed the background to the report.

  44. 44.

    Augustine, City of God, Book XIX, 12, 13.

  45. 45.

    Bosworth, Inside Immigration Detention.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2018 The Author(s)

About this chapter

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this chapter

Rowlands, A. (2018). Against the Manichees: Immigration Detention and the Shaping of the Theo-political Imagination. In: Schmiedel, U., Smith, G. (eds) Religion in the European Refugee Crisis. Religion and Global Migrations. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Download citation