Posted on 11 April 2024 in immigration, photography

Seven Photographs That Expose the Stark Reality of Immigration Detention

Dr Greg Constantine has spent years photographing people in immigration detention. Here, he shares some of their stories.

Matt Warren

Universal Impact Writer

This article was written by a team member of Universal Impact.

They’re photographs that reveal hidden stories. The stories of people who have been trapped, often for years and unseen by wider society, in the stark and sprawling systems of immigration detention of the US, the UK, Malaysia, Mexico and mainland Europe.

ISRF Fellow Dr Greg Constantine has dedicated years to photographing and recording the testimony of immigrants who have faced detention – or the threat of it – in these countries. He discovered that their experiences are often Kafkaesque tales of alienation and confusion – and shared many of them at a recent lecture at Gresham College, London, as part of a wider ISRF-sponsored series on migration.

As an unprecedented number of people flee their home countries hoping for better lives elsewhere, they’re often reduced to statistics and headlines as governments respond by proposing tougher rules, deportations to Rwanda, ever higher walls. Many would argue that governments must have policies to manage rising immigration. But how humane are those policies – and what of the people they impact? The migrants’ experiences, motivations, fears and hopes often remain out of sight and out of mind.

Greg’s work is about highlighting the human. He shines a light inside detention systems that are normally all but invisible to the general public and bears testament to the trauma that so many immigrants and their families suffer while waiting for judgement on their future – and often, even if they’re granted asylum, for years afterwards.

Much of Greg’s work is chronicled through his Seven Doors project, named after a story told to him by an immigrant formerly detained in the UK.

“When they put me in detention,” the man told him, “I remember walking through only one door at the detention center. I was in detention for three and a half years. When they let me out, I remember they walked me through seven different doors, from my cell to the last door where they said, ‘You are free.’ But how could I be free? I’m still not free. Those seven doors said, ‘You will not forget this. You will always feel like you are in detention.’”  

It is a story that exposes the bureaucratic maze which so many find themselves in every year – and its damaging long-term legacy. 

But it is just one story of so many. Here, in his own words, Greg tells the stories behind seven of his photographs – and the (often unseen) people and places they illuminate.


I met him at the public library in Liverpool, UK. He was in his early 30s and originally from West Africa. He told me the reasons for fleeing his home country and the details of his troubles in the UK. He told me about when the Home Office detained him. The struggles he had trying to find a way out. His confusion for why he was kept in detention.

“The Home Office is not accountable for anything,” he said. “It’s a game. They are just gambling with your life, and they play with it.”

He talked about the trauma he survived while in immigration detention in the UK. He was detained for one year and six months.

After we finished talking, we walked out of the library. I asked if I could take his photograph in a way that concealed his identity. I found a private spot near some stairs in a walkway. 

“I’d feel more comfortable if I could put on your coat,” he said. “It will cover my own clothes.”

He put on my coat, I made a photograph, showed it to him on the screen of my camera and he was comfortable with it.  We said our goodbyes. I’ll never forget talking with him. Nor the fear instilled in him because of his experience of detention. 


Karnes County Residential Detention Center, operated by a private prison company, is located just over an hour’s drive south of San Antonio, Texas. 

It’s an expansive, solid white structure surrounded by multiple layers of barbed wire. Karnes is windowless – and removed from the view of anyone inside are the surrounding rolling fields of swaying green grass. White clouds float in the sky, yet no one inside would see how they stretch to the horizon.

To me, this windowless, lifeless fortress said to all of those people inside, “I have no windows and this is deliberate. You might be here in the US, but this system will do everything in its power to never permit you to stay.  We won’t even let you see what is beyond these walls. Imagine what might be out there. What your life might be like. We’ll never let you have it. Don’t even think about it. You’re here but you don’t exist to us.”


On the morning of February 25, 2017, one of my contacts from the Chin ethnic community in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia called me about an immigration raid that had happened at an apartment complex in the middle of the night. When I arrived, the residents were still in shock. 

Between 50 and 100 immigration officers and police arrived last night,” one told me. “They went from one apartment to the other asking to see everyone’s documents. It went on from 2am to 3am. At least 100 people were arrested.”

I was introduced to a man whose nephew had been arrested. He said, “We live with fear of being arrested. We live with fear all the time.”

He walked me up one floor, knocked on a door and a man let us into the apartment. He took me to one of the rooms and pointed at a large hole in the ceiling. He told me the story of a young woman who managed to evade the raid, but was injured.

“She was staying in this small room,” he said. “They were banging on the door to the apartment downstairs. Eventually, they broke the door and then broke the doors to many of our apartments. She was so scared of being arrested she climbed up into the ceiling and hid there until they left. After they left, she fell through the ceiling.”


“I came from a place where we had no freedom,” he said. “Everything in our life was controlled by others. Here, I came for freedom, but we are controlled and controlled again. People think, ‘You are living for free. You have a house. You don’t have to work. You’re getting everything for free.’ But they don’t know the truth of how we are suffering in this situation.”

Originally from Burma, he is a Rohingya and has lived in the Netherlands for more than seven years. All of his asylum claims have been denied. He and his family have lived in a ‘family location’ centre for the past three years.

“Everyday at 9am, the people here have to line up in front of the office just to report and get stamped,” he said. “We report daily. ‘Here I am. Here is my card. I am not going anywhere. I’m still alive.’  When I line up, I feel like it’s a prison. Mentally, you become sick day by day.”

We spent several hours together. When I left, we exited the ordinary looking gate to the ‘family location centre’ and I asked to take his photograph. From the outside, this place where he stood and where other families seeking asylum have been placed, didn’t look like a detention center. However, with all the rules, restrictions, monitoring and control imposed upon them, it was just another form of detention dressed up as something more humane.


I met a woman in her thirties. She was an asylum seeker from Guatemala and she shared her story with me on a cold winter afternoon. Her beautiful newborn baby girl was sleeping peacefully on the bed in her small apartment outside Denver, Colorado.

“My husband drove around the block and ICE [US Immigration and Customs Enforcement] stopped him. It was 5:30 in the morning. It was difficult for my family to tell me and I couldn’t describe what was going on in my head. I was eight months pregnant.”  

“I knew it would be hard for him to be locked away,” she said. “Then they told him he would be deported without seeing the baby, but she was born early. There was one time I could go and see him, but there was no time. He was so happy, just being able to see her through the glass. We only had 15 minutes. 

“I dressed her in a bright pink onesie. She was really beautiful and she looked at him. After the visit, he called and said he would call later that night. He didn’t call. He was moved to Arizona. Then he was deported. I didn’t hear from him for five days. When he called, he was back in Guatemala.”


In European countries like Greece, sites of immigration detention take on many forms: a facility next to a metropolitan airport, an ordinary looking police station.

Several hours’ drive from the city of Thessaloniki, tucked away in the mountains of northern Greece in the mostly abandoned town of Paranesti, a man from Pakistan looked at me and said, “I don’t know why I have been in here so long.”

His fingers were clenching the high metal fence that confined him in what can only be described as an open-air prison camp. The detention center was located deep inside a military barracks in this remote mountain location. Totally out of sight.   


Immigration to the US often focuses on the Mexican border. And what happens in the interior of the country, in the central and Midwestern states, is often overshadowed.

What many people often don’t know as they drive through the expansive rolling farmlands of Iowa, Kansas or Nebraska, or through the charming town squares with their libraries and county courthouses and small family-run businesses in Ohio, Indiana, Missouri or Wisconsin, what I didn’t even know, is that dozens of sheriff departments and county jails in these states earn millions of dollars by renting out bed space in their jails to ICE for the detention of immigrants.

One young woman described the detention of her mother after a traffic stop on a remote country road in Ohio. She and her three siblings, all US-born citizens, were trying to make sense of what had happened and what was next.

“When we got to the jail, she sounded like she was giving up. She said, ‘Just let me get deported.’ We told her that we can’t. We’re going to fight for her. Do whatever it takes. We’re going to help fight through.”

You can explore the Seven Doors project here or follow the project on Instagram: @immigrationdetention. With the support of the ISRF, Greg has also been conducting a major project on the Rohingya. You will be able to read more about that project, including an extended interview between Greg and the ISRF’s Dr Lars Cornelissen, on our website – and in our Bulletin – soon.