What is the message of Hungary? Reflections on refugees, referendums and resistance


By Linda Nagy

Recently Hungary has been featured more frequently in international news media due to the country’s response to the increasing influx of refugees and migrants. The Hungarian government’s harsh legislation, the razor-wire fence and police violence at the borders as well as the xenophobic billboard campaign as part of the ‘National Consultation on Immigration and Terrorism’ in 2015 have led to many headlines and much critique.

The latest political development in this regard was the October 2, 2016 referendum initiated by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his governing right-wing Fidesz party on the mandatory resettlement quota. Although referendums are usually celebrated as the pinnacle of democracy, what makes the Hungarian case controversial was not only the government’s campaign leading up to the referendum but also its reception of the outcome.

A few months prior to the referendum the government started a campaign urging the public to answer ‘no’ to the question: ‘Do you want the European Union to order the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens to Hungary without the consent of the National Assembly?’. The main rhetoric of the campaign was to ‘Send Brussels a message’, implying the European Commission, whose policymakers proposed the idea of resettling refugees in the member states of the EU along with a financial aid package intended to contribute to the integration of refugees to the given host country. The Hungarian government’s position is clear, it rejects this proposal and is doing everything in its power to gain public support for its views beginning with placing hundreds of billboards across the country with messages such as:

  • ‘Did you know that the Paris attacks were carried out by migrants?’
  • ‘Did you know that there has been a major increase in harassment against women in Europe since the beginning of the migration crisis?’
  • ‘Did you know that nearly one million migrants want to come to Europe from Libya only?’
  • ‘Did you know that more than 300 people died in terrorist attacks in Europe since the beginning of the migration crisis?’

Seeking to maintain public attention, the campaign kept utilising more and harsher statements and as the date of the referendum came closer one could hardly escape this ubiquitous propaganda. It was not only visible in the form of billboards in public spaces, but also as posters on the sides of public transport, as images in newspapers and as adverts in between television and radio broadcasts. The £8.5 million of public money spent on the campaign even allowed the government to send out a letter to each citizen eligible to vote with a specific request: ‘Do not let others decide on your behalf, we ask you to vote no on 2 October!’ as well as an 18 page-long detailed pamphlet highlighting that ‘we have the right to decide who we want to live with’; ‘immigration puts Europe’s future at risk’; ‘illegal migration increases terror threat’ and ‘mandatory resettlement endangers our culture and habits’.

The exaggerated level of fear and threat manifests in a paranoia which is useful for the government to legitimise its restrictive policies and practices. Besides the publicity campaign the recruitment of 3000 ‘border-hunters’ was launched who will join police and army forces in patrolling the borders and keeping out asylum seekers. Claiming to inform Hungarians about these alleged threats, the campaign instead invites terrorism into the discourse, is alarming and provoking while further reinforcing xenophobia, intolerance and hate. Refugees arriving from war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan suffer a backlash precisely because they are identified with the threats that they are trying to escape. Without acknowledging their refugee identities, dignity and agency, referring to them as ‘illegal migrants’ and criminalising them as potential terrorists the campaign portrays them as threats to the security, economic welfare and cultural identity of the Hungarian nation and Europe. Let us not forget that refugees crossing Hungary today are walking on the footsteps of nearly 200,000 Hungarian refugees fleeing in 1956.

However, it cannot be assumed that these views are received homogeneously across the public. Despite the strong anti-refugee rhetoric of the government and its supporters, there is a counter-discourse emerging which challenges this hostile position on the grounds of solidarity and human rights. Hungarian NGOs started a counter-campaign urged the public to boycott the referendum by either not attending or casting an invalid vote by ticking both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ on their ballots and thus making the referendum a failure. The ‘Magyar Kétfarkú Kutya Párt’, a fringe political party placed billboards and posters in public spaces with satirical statements such as ‘Did you know that there is a war in Syria?’ ; ‘Did you know that people are not stupid?’ and the opposition also encouraged people to ‘Stay at home, stay in Europe!’ on 2 October.

The majority of Hungarians indeed either stayed away or gave an invalid answer to an unclear, misleading question — the actual EU proposal would mean the resettlement of 1,294 refugees to Hungary and the quota system was suggested in the first place to ease the weight on border states of the EU. As a result, the referendum was invalid given that the number of valid votes did not reach the 50% threshold with only 41.32%. Even though the referendum is not legally binding due to the low turnout, the government and its supporters still celebrated the outcome as a victory based on the 98% of those taking part backing the government’s standpoint, rejecting the EU plans. The government tries to communicate the invalid referendum as a success with some follow-up billboards stating that ‘We have sent a message to Brussels: 98% NO to the mandatory settlement quota’, the production of which cost another £3 million and benefitted the allies of the government, certain media and advertising firms. An extension of the government’s agenda, gaining even more control of the media was the shutting down of ‘Népszabadság’, one of the leading daily newspapers in the country, also known for criticising Orbán and his government as well as the quota referendum.

For some, staying away came with a significant risk given that in certain rural regions, especially those with a Fidesz leadership, the dependence on government support and the fear of austerity pressured people into voting. Although silence is often considered as agreement with a particular political standpoint, it is not necessarily the case. Silence and ignorance can be regarded as resistance too as actively choosing to be ignorant and resisting that way requires a certain level of engagement and is not the same as not caring at all or assuming that one is not affected by political issues entirely.

In a country with an ethnically homogenous population, where phrases such as ‘Roma crime’ have been present in the political vernacular for decades along with systemic racism and the marginalisation of ethnic minorities, coupled with the rise of right-wing radicalism it comes hardly as a surprise that the tactic of the government is to mobilise masses around exclusion. It seems to me that this system thrives on division, its interest is to uphold current inequalities and hierarchies in order to maintain power. This aim is served by keeping the public eye on the refugee and migration issue, steering away attention from other socio-economic problems in the country’s healthcare and education systems among others. It is both controversial and ironic that the government is so vocal about rejecting economic migration while there is an ongoing out-migration from Hungary for economic reasons.

However, a reason for hope is the various modes of resistance, the counter-actions by individuals, communities and organisations withstanding the government’s agenda, refusing to be homogenised as complicit in this process: people boycotting the referendum by not showing up, or casting an invalid vote; people taking to social media posting their invalid ballots with messages on them expressing their disagreement; NGOs working on helping refugees and migrants to integrate, on educating the public and advocating for rights. These show that there are ways of resistance even within this system, that there is political discussion, engagement and action diverging from the campaign’s intentions.

These anti-refugee and anti-migrant sentiments are definitely not confined to Hungary but have parallels across Europe and the USA. Although the inimical position of the Hungarian government and its supporters to refugees have been widely condemned abroad, a conscious resistance from within is the first step towards systemic change which is why it is so important. It must be realised that this fear mongering rhetoric and these hostile attitudes are truly dangerous, they divide and polarise, poking larger and larger holes in the very fabric of social cohesion that will have repercussions for people on both sides of the Hungarian borders.

Linda Nagy graduated from the University of Warwick in 2016 with a BA in Sociology specialising in Cultural Studies.


The Protective State: Theresa May and the revenge of the Home Office

By Will Davies

The revenge of the Home Office

One of the tasks we faced during the Mapping Immigration Controversy research was to get inside the mindset of the Home Office and its officials, in an effort to understand how things had reached such a dire juncture. This was methodologically difficult, but involved some off-the-record conversations with various civil servants past and present.

A powerful image emerged of a department that had become embattled over a long period of time. In a ‘neoliberal era’, in which national borders were viewed as an unwelcome check on the freedoms of capital and (to a lesser extent) labour, and geographic mobility is treated as a crucial factor in productivity and GDP growth, the Home Office became an irritant for Treasury and BIS officials, with its obsession with ‘citizenship’ and security. Clearly there has been an ideological conflict within Whitehall for some time, regarding the appropriate role of the state towards markets and citizens, but which has been masked thanks to a succession of highly prominent, very ambitious Chancellors pushing primarily economic visions of Britain’s place in the world. One can imagine the resentment that would brew amongst Home Secretaries and Home Office officials, as they are constantly represented as the thorn in the side of Britain’s ‘economic competitiveness’, year after year.

Beyond this, there is a more subtle sense in which the Home Office occupies a different position vis a vis the public, which sometimes translates into class politics. Home Secretaries are often moved by the plight of those who are defenceless in society: children such as Baby P, the elderly people plagued by rowdy teenagers on their estates, the victims of Harold Shipman (whose suicide apparently tempted then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, to “open a bottle“). Often, these people are defenceless because they are powerless, and they are powerless because they are poor, less well educated and culturally marginalised. And yet they are still British, and deserving of the state’s defence. One former Home Office official I spoke to suggested to me that the Home Office has long been identified as the voice of the working class inside Whitehall, and feels looked down on by Treasury and Downing Street Oxbridge elites. This person compared the ethos of the Home Office to that of Milwall fans: “No-one likes us, we don’t care”.

Home Secretaries view the world in Hobbesian terms. The world is a dangerous and frightening place, in which vulnerable people are murdered, assaulted and blown up, and these incidents are a result of state failure. What’s worse, lawyers and Guardian readers (who are rarely the victims of these events) then criticise the state for trying harder to prevent these tragedies through surveillance and policing.

I suspect that many Home Secretaries have developed some of the above symptoms, including (or maybe especially) Labour ones. Blunkett and John Reid were both shaped by it. However Theresa May’s long tenure (6 years) and apparent comfort at the Home Office (often a political graveyard) suggests that these symptoms may have become more pronounced in her case or meshed better with her pre-existing worldview. This includes a burgeoning resentment towards the Treasury, George Osborne in particular (who she allegedly sacked with the words “go away and learn some emotional intelligence”), and the ‘Balliol men’ who have traditionally worked there. In making sense of Theresa May’s extraordinary speech at Conservative Party Conference yesterday, the first thing we need to do is put it back in the context of her political experience. For her, the first duty of the state is to protect, just as Thomas Hobbes argued in 1651, and this comes prior to questions of ‘left’ and ‘right’.

Looking after people

The ‘protective state’ that May was outlining was of a state that looks after people. This is very different from the neoliberal state, whose job was characterised by Peter Mandelson, Bill Clinton and other Third Wayers in the 1990s as ‘steering not rowing’. The target political audience of the neoliberal politician was always the ‘hard-working family’. This imagined unit had ‘aspiration’ and wanted to ‘get ahead’. They needed the state to keep interest rates low (on the assumption that they want to own assets) and otherwise maintain a ‘level playing field’ so they can reap the rewards of all that apparent hard work. Clearly most people cannot be conceived of as entrepreneurs in a neoliberal society, although the ‘sharing economy’ is now belatedly pushing that original Thatcherite dream much more deeply into the fabric of society. But they are nevertheless exerting themselves in order to become something better – richer, happier, healthier etc. They are optimisers, just as economists assume.

May has replaced ‘hard working families’ with ‘ordinary people’, which includes the ‘working class’. She says she wants the Tories to be the party of ‘working people’, though it no longer sounds as if these people are looking for much improvement, growth or change. Faced with the unknown, they are more likely to retreat than to found a start-up. They need looking after. This means that the necessities of life (health, energy, housing) must be kept affordable, and threats must be kept at bay. The role of the state is to prevent change in general, on the assumption that it is likely to be undesirable, than to initiate or facilitate it. Clearly, in an age of political and economic crises, the ‘protective state’ must develop a very clear idea of who is to be looked after and who is to be rebuffed…

The state that looks after people (its own people) is not quite the same as the state that cares for people, of the sort that was developed in Britain after World War Two. If May wanted to push care to the centre of her vision, this would mean a new politics of welfare, one which used fiscal policy to respond to basic social and physical needs. Needs are things we all have by virtue of our humanity, not our identity. A care-oriented state pursue a far-reaching, cultural reversal of the Osbornite, neoliberal condemnation of welfare-recipients. In fairness, there have already been signs that the more punitive end of recent welfare policies will be abandoned. It will be interesting to see how much more there is to come in that regard. But for the time being, it sounds as if the May government is going to listen to the fears and demands of its particular people, rather than seek to map and meet the needs of humans in general.

Protection… and protectionism?

Economic liberals are already nervous that the new British Prime Minister is a protectionist. Outside of her Home Office brief, there are signs that her thinking – and that of her policy advisor, Nick Timothy – departs from the Thatcherite, neoliberal consensus in key ways. Abandoning Osborne’s austerity targets and declaring war on tax evaders are signs that the financial sector and very wealthy can no longer view the Conservative Party as their tool. Timothy’s vision of ‘Erdington conservatism‘ (named after a working class area of Birmingham) imagines the state intervening in the economy, to defend the interests of the immobile against the mobile, for reasons that liberals will never really understand because they’ve probably never experienced hardship. Resonances with ‘Blue Labour’ and ‘Red Toryism’ have been widely noted.

There is obviously no contradiction between social conservatism and economic protectionism: both are hostile to the fluidity, cosmopolitanism and perceived snobbery of liberalism. Theresa May’s comment at this week’s Conservative Party conference, “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere,” was pitched as much at bankers as at leftwing intellectuals. Whether it was also a ‘dog whistle’ regarding refugees probably depends on what breed of dog you are. Marine le Pen certainly didn’t disagree. But if anything, it was the Thatcherite effort to weld social conservatism to economic liberalism that was contradictory – as Stuart Hall famously diagnosed [pdf] at the outset – and not this latest turn towards economic interventionism. This latest reconfiguration of conservatism could ultimately be a more sustainable one even than Thatcher’s.

We currently have no idea what her actual intentions are in this respect, just as we have no very clear idea of how actively she would like to police the boundaries of ‘British citizenship’. In all likelihood, the two agendas – the economic and the nationalist – will emerge in tandem, just as we got a hint of with the suggestion that companies be forced to list their foreign workers. Prejudice in society is far more plausible when it is also pursued in the economy. The reason German neoliberals (or ordoliberals) of the 1930s and 40s were so hostile to cartels and monopolies was not because they saw them as necessarily inefficient, but because they viewed them as a necessary precondition of the Nazi political economy: non-market economies can be more easily requisitioned in the service of political goals. By contrast, competitive markets perform a liberal function, because they offer a blockage to the social and political ambitions of interventionist leaders. Without suggesting any direct analogy here, if neoliberalism is indeed now over, we should remain aware of the various new social and cultural opportunities this offers the state, and not only the new economic ones. Protectionism (of indigeneous industries and workers) is never simply an economic policy, but involves clear statements of who is in and who is out.

The European Union was founded partly around ordoliberal principles, hence the inclusion of anti-trust and anti-State Aid provisions in the Treaty of Rome. Member states are simply not allowed to ‘pick winners’ and defend ‘national champions’ or look after those that have greater claims to indigeneous economic rights (though the application of these rules has been variable). This European post-nationalism is what Brexit was pitted against. May and Timothy therefore have far greater legal and political opportunity to pursue a protectionist agenda, now that Britain is on its way out from that ordoliberal framework. If May was a secret Brexiter, one can understand why. The question is to what extent any of the grave fears of the ordoliberals will be realised as a result of Britain’s withdrawal from the ordoliberal framework.

Post-class Conservatism

Britain is a more unequal society than it’s been since World War Two. Class is a powerful determinant of the lives people lead. However, one reason why May’s ‘protective state’ has become possible and necessary is that class doesn’t perform quite the same cultural and political role in sustaining the status quo that it did prior to neoliberalism, and certainly not as it did prior to the 1960s. One thing that Brexit demonstrated, which May is clearly keen to exploit, is that cultural divisions no longer map tidily onto economic ones. Working class lives are buffetted by change, including the changes represented by immigration, but New Labour only ever invited people to embrace even more change. Traditional and aristocratic middle classes have not been in the driving seat of British politics for over 30 years, as financial elites and nihilistic investment funds exploited the modernistic exuberance of fin de siecle Britain, London especially. I heard it said that Thatcher wanted a society of people like her father, but produced a society of people like her son.

Clearly May wants to change that. But the new cultural coalition that she aims to represent – of working class Brexiters, pensioners, Daily Mail readers and traditionalists- scarcely holds together as a single identifiable group. Nor are the boundaries around these identities very clear cut. I’ve no doubt that they may aggregate into a fearful electoral resource, which could yield May a big majority in 2020. But it is quite another thing for the state to actively intervene to look after these people, when historically it was the job of cultural institutions, ties, networks and communities to preserve their way of life, for all the reasons pre-Thatcher conservatives celebrated. To wed a Burkean ideal of community to a Hobbesian ideal of the protective state is problematic and potentially dangerous. The difficulty for Burkean conservatives today is that neoliberalism destroyed the resources on which ‘little platoons’ depend and thrive, meaning that tacitly understood conventions and rituals are now to be reintroduced by the very thing that conservatives traditionally wanted to avoid depending on, namely the modern state. The gaping hole in Blue Labour and Red Tory agendas was always the question of state-craft: what exactly will the state do to promote ‘faith, flag and family’?

A danger lies in the fact that the state is going to have to start performing the acts of conservative discrimination that historically were performed via cultural capital and softer forms of power. An example of how deranged this can look lies in Nick Timothy’s suggestion that work visas only be granted to foreign students of Oxbridge and Russell Group universities: the dull snobbery of a General Melchett-type, with scant understanding of the modern world, risks being translated into government policy. Equally, where the state starts to intervene in ways that are culturally or nationally biased, policy-makers will find that snobbery or chippiness work perfectly well when vocalised in the pubs of Dorset, the op-ed pages of the Daily Mail or the working men’s clubs of Scarborough, but start to feel far more troubling when converted into the heavy-handed, printed word of the statute book.

Whose values?

It sounds as if the ‘protective state’ is ready to discriminate, and won’t be ashamed to admit it. It will discriminate regarding good and bad economic activity; it will discriminate between good and bad migrants; it will discriminate between good and bad ways of life. May is not afraid of trying to sort the wheat from the chaff. This may be why grammar schools symbolise something important for her, regardless of the evidence pitted against them. In that respect alone, there is continuity with neoliberalism, which sought to divide ‘winners’ from ‘losers’ in a range of different tests and competitive arenas.

The key difference from neoliberalism is that the latter uses rivalry itself to identify the worthy. The neoliberal state offers no view on what a good company or school or artist looks like. Instead, it uses rankings, contests and markets in order to discover what rises to the top. The question that any neoliberal or liberal might now want to ask is this: on what basis do you distinguish the worthy from the unworthy, Theresa May? Are we now simply to be driven by the contingency of biography, where Timothy is fuelled by the anger he felt as a lower middle class boy in the early 1990s, or May is guided by the example of her Anglo-Catholic clergyman father? Is the fact that liberals haven’t experienced being the victim of regular petty crime or a failing school now going to be the main basis for ignoring them?

Politicians have always used cultural tropes in order to build popularity and even hegemony. Thatcher spoke a nationalist, militarist language, while doing considerable harm to many institutions and traditions of Britain. Blair had his football, coffee mug and badly-fitting jeans. Conservatives have often struggled to find a coherent post-Blair cultural scheme, alternating between fake displays of liberalism (Cameron’s huskies) and the embarassing reality of their party base. Right now, however, it seems as if the small symbols are no longer merely semiotic in nature. Matters of nationality and cultural tradition no longer seem like window-dressing: once the state is offering to look after some of us, but not all of us, how one looks, talks, behaves and learns might come to be the most important political issue of all.

This post originally appeared on the PERC Blog http://www.perc.org.uk/project_posts/the-protective-state/ on 6th October 2016

Photograph by Hannah Jones

Is Theresa May a threat to a cohesive society?

Theresa May, the Home Secretary, says that “cohesion” is “impossible” with high levels of migration. This is factually wrong. This kind of statement is itself a threat to a peaceful society in which everyone can live safely and well.

Theresa_May_visits_Olympic_Park_2011 - refugees welcome here

May says it is difficult for services to cope with needs imposed by greater immigration, and that immigration places a burden on the lowest paid (British) workers. This is the opposite of what research evidence shows us. Stretched services, and fractured communities, are the result of government policies that reduce support to people and areas that are most in need. And government rhetoric such as May’s can encourage scapegoating and fear.

May claims migration is to blame for cutting people off from opportunity, work, and for reductions in incomes for the lowest paid. Economic research from the LSE in 2015 shows no evidence that changes in the numbers of migrants affects the proportion of young people not in education, employment or training. Areas that experienced the largest rise in the number of migrants “experienced neither larger nor smaller rises in native-born unemployment.” Meanwhile, May’s government is cutting tax credits for the lowest paid families, and continues to make British jobseekers and disabled people destitute through welfare cuts. This destitution is government policy, not a result of migration. Many people who have moved to Britain are facing similar, and worse destitution every day.

The government definition of ‘cohesion’ is a society in which there is a common vision and sense of belonging by all communities; a society in which the diversity of people’s backgrounds and circumstances is appreciated and valued; a society in which similar life opportunities are available to all; and a society in which strong and positive relationships exist and continue to be developed in the workplace, in schools and in the wider community. Blaming immigration for stretched public services and low wages, without any evidence to support these assertions, threatens all of these aspects of society.

detailed research report by a government advisory body looked at the impacts of migration on social cohesion and concluded that:

“on the basis of both insufficiently robust measures and our headline finding that shows new immigration has no significant impact on local neighbourhood cohesion, it would be wise for policymakers to focus on deprivation rather than migration in setting policy on cohesion and integration”.

Our research has shown that tough talk on immigration from government actually increases fear among people already worried about immigration as a threat, people who are people who are sympathetic to migrants, and migrants themselves. This cannot be good for ‘cohesion’ or for a healthy society.

Photograph by Hannah Jones

The evidence demonstrates that it is not immigration that is threatening the lives and institutions of people in Britain, but government policies which undermine ordinary people’s security and living standards. The Prime Minister has reiterated his pledge to reduce net migration – i.e. the number of people entering the country, minus the number leaving. Perhaps he will be pleased then with reports of high numbers of NHS-trained doctors applying to leave the UK, arguably as a result of this government’s changes to NHS working conditions . What is the impact of that on cohesion, Mrs May?

'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.

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.