'Take More Refugees' sign at demonstration next to the Ritz Hotel. Photograph by Hannah Jones.

“Is it fair though?” – Researching racism, class and immigration

By Yasmin Gunaratnam and Hannah Jones

What is becoming known as the “refugee crisis” is unleashing a series of contradictory, sometimes erratic, feelings and actions across Europe’s nations. As lorries at Hungary’s border with Croatia spew out more razor wire fencing, refugees and migrants have been filmed walking across unguarded Slovenian borders. Closer to home, the latest opinion polls suggest a splitting of views in how we should respond. While 4 out of 10 people in the recent BBC Newsnight poll of 1,000 British adults, thought that Britain should allow in more refugees, opinions seem to be divided along class lines. Fifty-four per cent of those who were classified as middle class were in favour of more refugees, compared with 24% of people classified as working class. There are also worries that resentment against asylum seekers and refugees is at boiling point among some white working class communities, already stigmatised and squeezed by virulent austerity measures. Will Enoch Powell’s 1968 prophesy materialise as our housing estates implode and foam Tiber-like with blood or will there be more convoys to Calais?

In between these extremes what is clear is that migration is being talked about more energetically – on street corners, in shops, on the news – than it has been for decades. Our research has suggested that attitudes towards immigration are always complex and layered and that policy makers are very much influenced by public opinion. But what role might social research play in current events? What responsibilities do we have as researchers, at a time when there are greater calls for research to engage the public?

In the face of a pull towards certainties, and to the hardening of hostilities between groups under threat, the ethical bottom line for sociologists is the maxim, “first, do no harm”. This can mean taking care that how we present our research does not add to ethnic, class and gender oppressions, and equally, avoiding  a well-meaning shrug and a response of “It’s complicated”. The “sociological imagination”, as C Wright Mills conceptualised the ability to relate “public issues’ to “private troubles” seems as vital a touchstone as ever in how we might negotiate the ethical and political challenges of research on immigration. At its best, sociology takes seriously the personal, everyday struggles and inconsistencies of individuals; but it does this while also keeping in mind the larger structural forces that shape those everyday struggles and give them meaning. And while sociologists might maintain their own ethical and political positions, and aim to make these transparent when doing research, this does not mean condemning or championing the actions, views or feelings of the people they work with or study, especially when these views risk symbolic violence or inciting further antagonism towards other vulnerable people. As those working with psychosocial methods have pointed out, in qualitative research there can be layers of conscious and unconscious exchanges between researchers and participants and it is important to go “beneath the surface” of what is said. As Sasha Roseneil has also argued, this work of analysis often entails recognising “the uncomfortable fact that sociologists probably often produce analyses which are not congruent with their subjects’ own self-identifications.” (p. 865)

In our research, we have met participants whose views we disagree with. But our roles as researchers has been to listen attentively and try to understand how those views were reached, and why; and what the consequences of those views are in individual lives and within wider scales.

One research participant in Barking and Dagenham in the East End of London, who told us that he voted for the far-right British National Party in the last election, felt that “immigrants” were getting preferential treatment in the borough. He was clearly angry and upset about this. He asked ‘Is it fair?’. Would you, he asked the researcher directly, invite someone with TB into your home when you had small children? Isn’t that what the government is doing when it allows people to enter the country who might have TB, he asked? The implication was that “immigrants” are coming into our home (the nation) and are not only abusing our hospitality but are also threatening the health of the nation.

These are not the kind of research encounters in which there is a “right” answer. The researcher could of course decline to answer – to turn the questions back on the participant, refuse to participate oneself. But might such a stance of hiding behind the distancing “objectivity” of a certain model of research, be to fall back into a hierarchy of research relationships that as feminist researchers we imagine ourselves to have rejected? The researcher could enter into a conversation with the research participant – providing “facts” about the actual amounts of state help given to those who arrive into the UK with TB – but this recourse to “facts” not only ignores the emotional content of the question, but it can also reinforce other divides – the researcher as a figure of authority who always already knows best. And whether or not this might be a productive conversation or even change the participant’s mind (unlikely), it does not take us much closer to understanding what is happening in this encounter.

The matter of how a researcher might respond to such uncomfortable questions in the moment are difficult to plan for. But there is also the medium and longer-term response of the researcher. How do we think about this exchange as it lingers? Is it written off as too difficult or painful to think about and analyse? Is it used as evidence of ‘whiteworkingclassracism’? Is it taken and reported as face-value evidence to demonstrate why immigration is damaging, since whether or not the man’s assertions about unfair state allocations are true, he thinks they are? We often see all of these reactions in public debate, particularly in the work of figures that receive excessive media coverage by offering soundbite certainties.

But shouldn’t social researchers work a bit harder at their analysis? We don’t need to dismiss the stories and views of research participants as untrue, or spiteful. We don’t have to agree with them, either. What we can do is to try and understand and follow the path of their reasoning and logic, and also look beyond it, and offer another perspectives: that it does not have to come down to zero-sum relationships about whether government/society decides to support British people in need, or refugees. That encouragement to think this way comes directly from political rhetoric and media coverage. That in desperate situations, people often seek to blame and scapegoat those in an even weaker position. And rather than developing narratives in which the poorest British-born population are positioned in opposition to people born overseas but living in destitution in the UK, we might consider, as Bridget Anderson’s work suggests, how these groups are subjected to state power in similar ways.

One of the campaigners for migrant rights who we interviewed told us that she saw parallels between the ways that systems of asylum seeker support are run, and changes to the regular welfare system. It is hard not to draw this conclusion if we look at some of the parallels: on and off since 1999, asylum seekers in Britain were not given any cash to live on. Instead they were given special vouchers or cards to spend at supermarkets on specific items. In 2012, both Labour and Conservatives were involved in discussions about applying a similar system to social security payments for benefits claimants, to avoid ‘irresponsible spending’ on items such as alcohol. Following the 1999 Asylum and Immigration Act, a system of dispersing asylum seekers across the UK was introduced, in order to more evenly spread numbers across the country and reduce their concentration in London and the southeast. In the Home Swap Scheme of 2011, council tenants in London have been encouraged to swap their homes for cheaper tenancies outside London, and a number of other policies have combined to systematically encourage council tenants to leave London – the ‘bedroom tax’; the benefits cap; and organised schemes for dispersal including during redevelopment of housing. Asylum seekers who are refused refugee status, or do not comply with rules attached to their status, are ‘without recourse to public funds’, meaning they are not able to receive help from the NHS, education or any public services, including money for food – while they are also not allowed to work. The application of ‘benefits sanctions’ has increased dramatically in recent years, meaning that people on benefits who do not meet requirements set by the DWP (often spurious or arbitrary) can be denied access to welfare payments.

If this list of the parallels between the ways in which people seeking refuge in the UK and people living on the lowest incomes are treated is not enough to suggest there might be space for solidarity, we might look to the rhetoric of both government and the press. The “Go Home” van and other campaigns encouraging individuals to report on people they think might be “illegal immigrants” echoes advertising from the DWP asking people to report on others who they think may be making false benefit claims. The language of “scroungers” echoes the language of “swarms”, both threatening the lives of “decent” people.

When we hear the voices of those asking “Is it fair” that they are treated this way, in comparison with others, we need to take their questions and their experiences seriously. But this does not mean dismissing the experiences of others, or the larger questions of power that lead to feelings of injustice in the first place.

'Take More Refugees' sign at demonstration next to the Ritz Hotel. Photograph by Hannah Jones.

Advertisements

Is the UK Prime Minister just emulating Australia’s inhumane refugee policies?

By Hannah Jones

British Prime Minister David Cameron today announced that the UK will “resettle up to 20,000 Syrian refugees” in the next five years. He makes clear that this is a direct response to widespread public expressions of support for refugees, including a sudden shift in the sympathies of media coverage, and statements from key institutional figures such as the Archbishop of Canterbury. It has been widely noted that the government position seems to be a U-turn from less than a week earlier, when it was reported that the Prime Minister insisted that the UK should “not take any further refugees from the war-torn Middle East”.

But how much of a shift has been made in government policy – and how much is this about managing public opinion rather than radical changes in approaches to immigration and asylum? Our research has demonstrated that for at least a decade, UK immigration policy has been guided by perceived public opinion, rather than economic, social, legal or ethical arguments. It’s just that until recently – this week – the perception of UK public opinion on immigration has been that it is simple – that people think there is too much immigration and it needs tougher controls.

However, both quantitative and qualitative research suggests that opinion has always been more mixed on this. Most people’s views on immigration cannot be summed up by a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer to the question ‘Are there too many immigrants in Britain?’. People have long held more nuanced views – or more confused, depending on your perspective. Who is meant by ‘immigrant’? Does a view on ‘immigrants’ in general apply to people one knows personally? What about different opinions on people from different parts of the world, who have come for different reasons, who have been in the UK for shorter or longer periods of time? Many people asked in a survey if there are too many immigrants in Britain have more to say on the subject than that they ‘agree’ or not.

The political and media debate this week has been taken by surprise by measures of public opinion other than polls – activism big and small, signing of petitions, demonstrations, pledges of physical and financial support, offers of shelter in people’s own homes. What the Prime Minister’s statement to the House of Commons demonstrates though – beyond a commendable shift to become at least somewhat more humanitarian – is an attempt to close down the debate. Politicians and the media quickly narrowed their discussion to Syrian refugees. While a large proportion of people seeking refuge in Europe at the moment are fleeing Syria, they are joined by people from many other countries suffering civil war and human rights abuses – such as Afghanistan, Eritrea and Sudan.  Are we to suppose that the public support does not include them too?

We hear a lot from politicians about how Britain should emulate Australia’s immigration policy.  This is usually taken to refer to their points system for highly skilled migrants (which the UK has in fact had since 2008). However, a direct comparison can also be made to what the Prime Minister is proposing. Australia is one of the countries taking the most refugees through the UN resettlement programme.  But this is coupled with their campaign to ‘Turn Back the Boats’: a military operation dragging boats of desperate people back into the ocean, contravening international law.  It also involves deporting people attempting to seek refuge in Australia to extra-territorial detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island, where the Australian government has been accused by the UN of torture. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott headed off public concern about drowned bodies washing up in Australia by his combination of Turn Back The Boats and an argument that people seeking refuge this way were ‘queue-jumpers’ who should wait in line in UN camps, resulting in an out-of-sight, out-of-mind solution where people are held indefinitely in horrific conditions. Sound familiar?

Anyone who knows about the chaos of circumstances that lead people to seek refuge will know that forming an orderly queue is not so straightforward. And if you want to know why people are desperate enough to take such dangerous journeys with their children, instead of following the ‘proper channels’, then you have not looked beyond the tragic image of Aylan Kurdi to find out how he came to be washed up on the beach. His family applied for asylum in Canada.  They were turned down.

People in the UK and across the world were moved to action by the image of Aylan, and they have confounded political and media assumptions about limited views on immigration. The question now is, will people in Britain be pacified by the Prime Minister’s promises? If so, the outcome of this moment could be the UK moving closer to the ‘Australian immigration policy’ which does nothing for the people who are already here, seeking our help.

Demo "Gleiche Rechte für alle" (Refugee-Solidaritätsdemo) am 16. Februar 2013 in Wien

Beyond ‘standing ready’ – The humanitarian migrant crisis should spur the Welsh Government to get its house in better order

By Roiyah Saltus

Over the summer, the increasing humanitarian crisis as thousands of people move through Europe seeking sanctuary, safety and safe passage has led to sustained media attention.  The International Organization for Migration (IOM) stated that  350,000 migrants have crossed  the Mediterranean this year (107,500 arriving in July alone), in search of sanctuary and safety in Europe, landing on the shores of Greece, Italy, Spain and Malta and then many moving on to other European countries.  In the UK the most recent figures have revealed that net migration to the UK reached 330,000 in the year to March making it a record high – though only a small proportion of this number were seeking asylum (25,771 applications in the year ending 2015 – not all of which will be granted) with the majority made up of EU migrants, and international students. The IOM  recorded 1,819 deaths en route to Italy in the first half of 2015. The recent image of a toddler found face down on a beach not far from the Turkish tourist resort of Bodrum immediately trended on twitter under the hashtag #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik (humanity washed ashore). The little boy’s name is Aylan, who drowned along with his five-year-old brother Galip and their mother, Rihan. Their father, Abdullah Kurdi, survived.

As a humanitarian crisis, increasing calls are being made by countries such as Germany, Italy and France for “fair distribution” of refugees throughout the EU. With this has come calls for the creation of a European refugee agency and increased focus on the proposed rights-based European agenda on migration that seeks to address root causes behind irregular migration, save lives, strengthening common asylum policy and re-visioning the role migration play in light of the demographic challenges facing many EU countries. Jean Asselborn who holds the  EU presidency said in a recent report that all EU countries should have the capacity to absorb refugees, and moreover that “(T)he EU’s values must be valid through the union. No-one can say we don’t want Muslims or blacks,” he told German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung referring to comments made Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who stated last week that refugees threatened to undermine the continent’s “Christian roots”.

Hungary is one of the main migrant entry points to the European Union, receiving more than 156,000 this year alone. A razor wire, 13 feet tall  border fence along 175 km of the southern border with Serbia has been erected, and this week authorities shut down Budapest’s main train station, effectively stopping hundreds trying heading for  Austria and Germany.  They are not alone in taking a tough stance. Fences have been erected in areas of Spain and also at Calais with the support of the UK Government. With this has come calls from nationalist movements across Europe not to support the crisis, the proposed mandatory quotas, and a hardening attitude towards immigration, often linked to the religion and culture of those fleeing their countries of origin.  In this humanity is lost. Perhaps that is why Czech police authorities  chose to  identify 200 refugees by writing identification numbers on their arms.

Irish Naval personnel from the LÉ Eithne (P31) rescuing migrants as part of Operation Triton.

Photography by Irish Defence Forces, shared under a Creative Commons Licence https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LE_Eithne_Operation_Triton.jpg

The UK Government’s response has been in keeping with their long-standing need to project a tough stance again immigration. The Prime Minister’s  recent defence of using the word ‘swarm’ to describe people crossing the Mediterranean and his  insistence that “We need to… break the link between getting on a boat in the Mediterranean and getting the right to settle in Europe” underpins the standing Home Office policy to be seen to be tough on immigration, to do as the Home Secretary Theresa May has been for years: create a hostile environment for irregular migrants through the introduction of new laws and anti-migration campaigns. ‘Go Home’: Mapping Immigration Controversy (MIC), a recently completed ESRC funded study exploring the impact of Home Office campaigns that I was involved in found no evidence that UK  government communications about immigration and enforcement are based on research about ‘what works’ in managing immigration. The only research evidence policy makers mentioned to us was privately commissioned research on managing public opinion about immigration, particularly among those worried that immigration is ‘out of control’. Policy makers told us that their research and advice indicate demonstrating toughness is the way to reassure public worries about immigration and that both government and campaigners deliberately avoided quoting social and economic research within public debates on immigration. Government campaigns on immigration provoked or increased anger and fear, among irregular migrants, regular migrants, and non-migrants, including people opposed to immigration. The latter told us they that the government campaigns were ineffective ‘theatre’. The finding that hard-hitting government publicity on immigration seemed to provoke new waves of pro-migrant activism seems to be borne out in more recent campaigning against the seeming reticence of the UK Government to respond to the humanitarian crisis.  In the study we found that anger and outrage was translated into online and street-based activism, including of people who had not been engaged in activism before.

The position pushed by the UK Government works on many levels. It divorces the current crisis from the part the West has played in the global wars and instability that is driving people to take such risks and it works to subsume the international conventions governing those fleeing prosecution by labelling them all ‘illegal migrants’. The lengths people are going to secure safety and sanctuary are in this context deemed  ‘irresponsible’ rather than desperate.  In Wales, Monmouth Conservative MP David Davies seems to be echoing such sentiments stating in his recent debate with Anna Nicholl, chair of the Welsh Refugee Council that people are  “risking their lives to come here because they see something at the other end.” Acknowledging the restrictions placed on Wales in this matter, First Minister  Carwyn Jones this week said that Wales is ready to play in this humanitarian crisis,  stating that the Tory Government  “urgently need to rediscover some backbone and their moral compass”.  Giving his support to Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper’s call to accept 10,000 refugees would indeed be a good start. What is also needed is a close look at the refugees already living in Wales and what could be done to better support them.

In our research we heard that many people had come to the UK because of ideals often promoted as ‘British values’ – such as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs. Their experience since arrival called into doubt the existence of these values in Britain. This was the case for those living in England as well as those living in Cardiff. The position of the UK Government is of their making and one they seem unable to put aside in the face of a growing alarm by the British public who increasingly see the crisis as a humanitarian one where the response should and must be to help. Wales has always prided itself on doing things differently.  Wales doesn’t need to wait to help those seeking sanctuary and safety; there are those already here in need of the Government’s support and perhaps now is the time to not only ‘stand ready’ but also to review the situation of those already here.

Public opinion on the refugee crisis is changing fast – and for the better

Hannah Jones, University of Warwick

Something is changing in Europe. Desperate people are still arriving on its borders and on its shores, as they have been for months and years. But something is changing in the way they’re being received.

The tone of the public reaction is shifting fast. We’re starting to hear less about the threat posed by these people and more about the “unbearable” sight of a three-year-old boy washed up, dead, on the shore of Turkey, and everything it implies.

European leaders continue to say that taking in more refugees will not solve this crisis, and that the rules of the Schengen zone “must be respected”. But they appear to be out of step with changing public feeling.

Increasing numbers of people across Europe are offering support to displaced people in large and small ways. They are signing online petitions, sending money, visiting the camps in Calais, joining protests, and even offering shelter in their own homes.

Going too far

Two years ago, Britain’s coalition government ramped up its attempts to talk “tough” on migration. As part of a group of researchers, I have been working since then to identify the effects of this tough rhetoric on public opinion and on people’s lives.

Government advisers told us that the British public simply will not listen to facts and figures on immigration; that the public is worried that immigration is a threat, and the government has to be seen to be acting on that threat.

But what our research found is that rhetoric about ever-tougher measures to control migration does not reassure people – in fact, whatever people’s position on immigration, such measures can make them more fearful.

People who see migration as a threat told us they see government publicity as pure theatre. It can never be tough enough; there can never be enough fences or guards. People who feel targeted by measures to control immigration, whether they are immigrants or not, feel increasingly unwelcome, excluded, and unable to function normally in their own homes.

We also found that the tough rhetoric and action by the government – promising to control “swarms” of people, publicising raids and enforcement measures – have led to increasingly vocal activism opposing them.

The “Go Home” vans and public raids seen in Britain over the summer of 2013 mobilised people to gather both in the streets and online to counter Home Office enforcement, and to show solidarity with the people affected.

This drew in people who had not been active in politics before, for example the BritCits group, which was organised to support British citizens with non-EU partners threatened with separation by new immigration rules.

Stirred into action

This summer, we are seeing much more vivid pictures of the mass movement of people that bring home just what it means. The focus is back on borders, and not on enforcement on our streets.

But this stage of the crisis has stirred a similar impulse to the one we identified in our research. Across Europe, ordinary people are now offering their homes, their money, their time, and their support to those in desperate need. It seems that it has taken the unbearable image of Aylan Kurdi to have this recognised as a public outcry.

Rise up: a
Reuters/Leonhard Foeger

But desperate images of people drowning or close to drowning – including children – have been out there for a good while. The figures for the numbers of people drowned trying to seek shelter in Europe were well known.

There are constant reminders that, compared to the number of displaced people in the world as a whole, the numbers trying to enter the UK are tiny. And people across the UK were responding to this with both feeling and action.

This crisis is not new. For years, people have been dying crossing borders and seeking sanctuary. They have been living in desperate, destitute conditions in the UK and other “advanced countries” after they are refused asylum. They have been held without charge for indefinite periods in the prison-like conditions of detention centres, unable to return to their country of origin but unable to remain in their “host” country too.

And for years, the bulk of the media, most politicians, and a majority of the public have ignored these stories. But whatever it’s taken to get here, this is beginning to feel like a turning point.

20,000 people took to the streets of Vienna on September 1 to demonstrate their support for refugees, just days after a similar march in Dresden. And on the morning of September 3, a petition on the British Parliament’s website hit 100,000 signatures, enough to require a debate in Parliament on increasing the number of people granted refuge in the UK. A few hours later, it was at nearly 200,000.

What happens next depends on ordinary people’s empathy and will to action, and on the courage and ethics of our political leaders.

The Conversation

Hannah Jones is Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.