Are you sleeping soundly?

By Roiyah Saltus

The 2007-8 economic crisis, and the dominant policy response of austerity brought about measures that have led to drastic reductions to social welfare and the wide-ranging impact of this on increasing numbers of people.  History has shown that during economic recessions and downturns a version of the blame game opens up and since the latest economic crisis there has been an ongoing attack on the welfare state in Britain and on the recipients of its services that is without parallel since the establishment of the welfare state at the end of the Second World War. Shaped by the intersections of social identifiers such as class, ethnicity, gender, and immigration status, people and groups already facing marginalisation and social exclusion are finding themselves under increasing pressure. What this study has revealed is that the routine crises and precarity that for some underpins the austerity agenda has long been an established part of the lives of those living under UK immigration regimes.

A key element of this are the  powerful negative representations of migrants, and the places they inhabit, that are presented in statistics and in media, which often remain fixed long after the realities they purport to describe have changed (if they were ever a ‘reality’ in the first place).  Such representations and messaging can have a considerable negative impact. Many of the participants in our study are finding themselves increasingly addressing not only the social, political and economic inequalities of life under immigration regimes but also the real material impact of their perceived exclusion from the preoccupations and reassurances given to those considered to be part of the body politic. Who’s addressing  the routine crises and precarity of their lives that the austerity agenda is working to so exacerbate?

The film we recently launched as part of our study touches briefly but profoundly on some of the experiences of the participants, including the following recollection from a focus group participant in Cardiff:

 Then my child was like three months old when my husband was taken.  They came into my house.  They said they came in 4am.  I was sleeping with the kids.  I was naked.  They came to my bed room.  Opened my door, I was deep asleep.  They saw me sleeping.  They went back to see my sitting room, they had their coffee in my sitting room.  They had their coke in my sitting room.  It was just like their own place.  Then five a.m. they came back.  They tapped me.  Opened my eyes.  People in my house.  My children were sleeping.  Everybody woke up.. They hand cuffed his dad and he was put at the back of their van.   What, what I really want to ask today.  Do they even think about the children? 

What is evident is that although the Go Home campaign can be understood as a public performance aimed at reassuring those perceived to be troubled by immigration, the fear it also sought to engender went beyond those who may have had irregular status, with second generation migrants also becoming fearful that they were being targeted. Our research also reveals that government communications have to be understood within the wider context of routinized, localised displays of strength that many witness or become involved in, for instance during dawn raids and surprise removals. The aim to instil public reassurance can work to exacerbate domestic, localised fear and anxiety that for some is part and parcel of the immigration process. For some the aggressive nature of the campaign was twinned with these displays of force in private, domestic spaces where children and partners watch their loved ones being forced into vans, and from where others had just missed being “taken”. Fear and other emotions (anger, incredulity, frustration) were not just felt more widely, but perceived on a collective level and variously embodied on a personal, domestic level.

This study is nearing its final months of funded activity. The preliminary findings are available, and the work of bringing together the findings remains ongoing. The film provides further context and an additional layer of understanding. For sure, papers, reports and conferences will be forthcoming. But for me what will remain for a long time coming is the thought of strangers occupying a space a family has come to call home, spending time in that space before awakening the family to remove a member. We live in a country where this is commonplace.  How do we sleep soundly?

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