Immigration Otherwise: taking the Mapping Immigration Controversy project into schools (Part 2)

In the last of three posts updating on the afterlife of the Mapping Immigration Controversy research project, we discuss the process of exploring our research findings with school pupils through a drama project, Immigration Otherwise.

By Yasmin Gunaratnam


The flows between research and teaching and getting a new project off the ground take time. The snail’s paced cycle of social research—making connections with research partners, negotiating roles, drafting proposals for funding, ethics committee submissions, recruiting participants, fieldwork, analysis and writing up—affects the development of projects like Immigration Otherwise, not least in how the original research can date relatively quickly. In our case, immigration control had continued to dominate media coverage, gaining more rather than less public attention in the wake of Brexit.

Even though Vaken had taken place in 2013, Vaken and the “Go Home” vans resurfaced in media coverage of the Windrush cases at the beginning of 2018, symbolic of the government’s hostile environment policies. Although the young people were in primary school at the time of the campaign and had never heard of the Go Home vans, most were aware of contemporary immigration debates and the demonising of migrants and refugees in media and popular narratives. Yet, their knowledge of immigration was patchy, gained mostly from social media. Many felt confused rather than informed by political debates, media reporting and immigration vocabulary. One of the first ice-breaking exercises that actREAL devised was an activity in which we were asked to define common terms— “immigrant”, “asylum seeker”, “right to remain”. Misunderstandings and a lack of knowledge about the meaning of different words, even the most familiar, were apparent. “I didn’t even know what the word “immigrant” meant”, one young person told us at the end of the project.

Because immigration is an emotionally charged subject, shot-through with racialised inclusions and exclusions, it falls under what methodologists call a “sensitive topic”; a subject that is threatening to think about and discuss. The games, activities, role-play and on-going post-workshop de-briefings provided more opportunities than conventional social science methods to move between distance and closeness to personal experience and opinions. The interview extracts as short scenarios often led to the sharing of personal experience and feelings.


Counter-performing research

What seemed to make a difference to the young peoples’ understanding of immigration politics was that the script was based on research; real people talking about their lives and describing a spectrum of situations, feelings and opinions. “I just don’t think you can fully understand how complicated life is for immigrants unless you hear all the different voices”, one young person said in their reflection on the project.

Being “real” did not stop play or the subverting of the research materials however, especially with figures of authority. Border agents were improvised as comic and conniving Men In Black persona in the Oxford performance. In Coventry, the border was a menacing, masked and aggressive presence.

There were times when we felt uncomfortable with the re-staging of interview extracts and how contextual meaning and detail could be lost. The narrative of a British National Party (BNP) supporter, hostile to migrants was a parodied and reductive portrayal early on in the workshops. As it turned out, the young people were not aware of where the extract had come from and did not know what the BNP was. At another point, the performance of a refugee talking about her terror when caught up in a Vaken immigration check at a railway station lost its emotional tones and nuance. Observing some of the workshops and the rehearsing of the different scripts meant we could offer context to some of the narratives. We did not want to replicate and reinforce an “original”. Rather we wanted to keep in mind the emotional economies that Vaken played to and incited while allowing the young people to explore and experiment with the creative impulses, free-associations and inchoate thoughts and feelings sparked by the empirical materials.

The matter of how the research was conceived and for what purpose is where the tides between activism and the extensions of research became most palpable. The sampling and curation of research materials, their locating within socio-economic contexts and the extent to which these various shapings were taken up, teased out, avoided, changed or resisted, affected how the research travelled and the ebbs and flows from the initial political impetus of the MIC research (to archive, track and make accountable the impact of aggressive government anti-immigration campaigns). Hearing the words of research participants re-storied by the young people brought new empirical insights and questions, not least in how to respond to the troublesome openness of qualitative research.

In our 2017 book about the MIC research, we thought of Operation Vaken as a manifestation of what Shirin Rai has categorised as “political performance”; activities designed by governments to convince and persuade audiences of a particular political stand. In Vaken we saw a performance aimed at convincing certain publics that the government was getting tough on immigration control. A toughness that was heavily reliant on the literal mobilisation of xenophobic and racist hate speech.

For Rai, political performance is inherently unstable. It is open to disruption through misrecognition, misreading and counter-performance. In Immigration Otherwise, counter-performance became a doubled performance in which the young people played with and restaged our countering of Vaken, producing a sort of counter-counter performance. As we begin to analyse and produce different materials from the project—scripts, lesson plans, images, evaluation data, interviews and focus groups—sharing them more widely with schools, we are keen to explore how social research and creative methods can contribute to imaginaries of immigration otherwise.

Immigration Otherwise: taking the Mapping Immigration Controversy project into schools (Part 1)

In the second of three posts updating on the afterlife of the Mapping Immigration Controversy research project, we discuss the process of exploring our research findings with school pupils through a drama project, Immigration Otherwise.

By Yasmin Gunaratnam

Over the past year Hannah Jones and I have been working with Ida Persson and Vanessa Hughes from actREAL (a company using theatre to engage publics with academic research), taking findings from the Mapping Immigration Controversy (MIC) study into two secondary schools in Oxford and Coventry.1 The new project “Immigration Otherwise”, uses creative and performance methods to further extend the MIC research, with the aim of finding out how immigration is understood and matters in the lives of young people, families and schools. We have also been interested in what methodological insights an iterative, participatory reanimating of research materials and dispersed analysis might offer.

The MIC team was already using materials from the study in our university teaching, influenced by feminist, queer and critical race methodological discussions. Feminist and queer research often exists “at the thresholds of ‘research’ ‘public pedagogy’ and ‘activism’”, Renold and Ringrose (2019) believe. It is a mixture that they think of as the “‘more-than” of research, a longstanding concern in Black, indigenous and feminist of colour research. Drawing from the work of philosopher Brian Massumi, Renold and Ringrose have worked with artistic and craft methods to produce “dar(t)a” as data informed by the arts, as “an explicit intervention to trouble what counts as social science data and to foreground not only the value of creative methodologies but also the speculative impact of art-ful practices”.

For us, there were varied layers to the “dar(t)a” created with the consent of young people, parents/carers and schools in Immigration Otherwise. The artistic elements of the project were woven into the research materials through scripting, drama workshops, set design and performance. The process of developing a generic script for the performances took place over months, with Hannah and I identifying interview and ethnographic extracts, images and social media messaging that we felt captured the many impacts of the government’s immigration 2013 campaign “Operation Vaken”. We shared these with actREAL and Ida Persson developed the materials into drafts of a script, which was revised several times, largely through email exchanges. A final script was then workshopped with the year 9 and 10 students in 10 weekly sessions, with on-going improvisation that produced two different public performances in each school.

The pedagogical facets of the project moved in varied, sometimes unanticipated directions. Practically, the project was very much reliant on the time and commitment of the schools’ drama teachers. The teachers recruited young people to the project and stayed after school with them at each of the workshops. They also accompanied young people to an exchange day at Warwick University, where the two groups met each other for the first time and watched each other’s performances (the day was also organised to provide an opportunity for students to learn more about university life).

The accompaniment of the project by the teachers—what felt akin to ethnographic observing of what the young people were doing, how their thinking developed, how the script and performances evolved—created space for reflection on how academic research might be incorporated into teaching. Teachers told us that they had thought immigration a too complex and controversial topic to be taught with this age group of students, but the project had changed their views. They had also rarely (Coventry) or never (Oxford) used academic research in the classroom.

“Watching how Year 9 have engaged with this idea of immigration could probably be a move forward for us and could be something that we implement into the curriculum”,  “I would definitely consider using academic research in my teaching in the future”, “I would really like to use research in future to challenge students and open their minds to topical issues that may affect them either directly or indirectly” were some of the comments from the teachers, gathered through an independent evaluation by Mita Pujara. Mita used a blend of arts-based and qualitative and quantitative methods to generate baseline data with students and staff, as well as in evaluations at the mid-way point of the project and at the final performances (which included audience evaluations).

An image of the back of a student's head, with the text 'Drama is a good way of getting people involved and their ideas across. Not everybody is a learner by sitting in front of the board and being told facts. A lot more people learn by physical action an discussing it with people who have a totally different opinion to you.'

Image by Mita Pujara


In observing the workshops and learning from the evaluation methods and findings, I was motivated to renew more creative approaches in my teaching. But there are differences between the vulnerabilities in participating in activities as 14-15 year olds in a school drama community and at university. There are fewer opportunities for play and reverie in university social science teaching and these types of activities are not always a positive experience for students with disabilities and/or who have anxiety. Certain university students can also be more assertive in identifying and voicing what they don’t want to do. At the same time, learning necessarily involves risking oneself and being vulnerable.

In her research on feminist classrooms, Pereira (2012) has identified the challenge for teachers of responding to the “didactic discomfort” that can be “triggered directly or indirectly by the material covered and/or methods deployed in a course, and is perceived by teachers (and often also by the students themselves) as an experience that can enable or generate learning.” (p.129). The positive potential of didactic discomfort is threatened, Pereira believes, by the neo-liberal imperatives that drive Higher Education in Europe. Recognising these dynamics, the demands on time and the emotion work that responding to didactic discomfort entails and how these demands are unevenly distributed in academia, prompted me to re-examine how I teach; an outcome of the project’s creative methods that was unanticipated.

1. Both schools are in Cities of Sanctuary and have been evaluated as “Good’ by Ofsted. The school in Oxford was almost three times the size of the Coventry school, with twice the number of students from “minority ethnic” backgrounds.

Check back for further reflections on what we learned from working with young people in this way, in tomorrow’s post.


From racist vans to racist tweets

As Donald Trump ‘plays the race card’ to distract from his brutal immigration regime, we look back at the parallel politics of racism and immigration control in the UK, and how this is playing out for young people growing up in the Hostile Environment for immigration.

By Hannah Jones.


Images of the four Congresswomen attacked by Trump, clockwise from top left: Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez

Images of the four Congresswomen attacked by Trump, clockwise from top left: Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

As you will likely have seen by now, Donald Trump bought himself headlines again with his tweets over the weekend which, among other things, told four US Congresswomen to ‘go back’ to ‘the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came’. In the UK, Prime Minister Theresa May ‘condemned’ the US President’s words as ‘completely unacceptable’ (via her spokesperson). But she, like many US politicians and the two candidates to be the next UK Prime Minister, refused to call Trump’s racist statements racist. It is hardly surprising, since, as many pointed out, Theresa May herself was responsible for what quickly became dubbed (also on Twitter) the ‘racist van’ which the Home Office used to tell Londoners to ‘Go Home or Face Arrest’.

The USA and the UK have different contexts of race and immigration politics – but the implications of being told to ‘go home’ are pretty much the same. They are, as Ilhan Omar, one of the Congresswomen, pointed out in response, the politics of white nationalism. The slur is used by the speaker to claim ownership of a place and question the target’s right to be there – and it is traditionally used by white racists. Telling someone to ‘go home’ or ‘go back to where they came from’ is not about accuracy – it doesn’t matter to Trump or people like him that the four Congresswomen are US citizens, and all but one were born in the USA. It doesn’t matter to them that in the USA, the land was stolen by Europeans from indigenous people of the Americas, or that black people were brought to the USA in chains and against their will by Europeans. It doesn’t matter to them that in the UK, the majority of British people of colour are there because their ancestors came from lands colonised by the British as part of a British Empire. The justice or truth of calling a place ‘home’ is not what they care about; it is a way of devaluing and excluding people racialised as lesser human beings.

When Theresa May’s Home Office launched the Go Home van and associated campaigns that publicised ‘tough’ immigration controls, they denied accusations of racism. Mark Harper, Home Office minister at the time, insisted the campaigns were simply about asking people without the right to be in the UK to leave and said he found accusations of racism ‘astonishing’. As the Mapping Immigration Controversy project team has previously written, perhaps he would have been less astonished if had the experienced or understood the legacy of racism and its entanglement with immigration and border control.

The purpose of the Go Home van and associated campaigns was, as we have shown, to demonstrate to voters that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government was tough on immigration, buying into and escalating the fear and hatred of ‘others’ fomented by the publicity given to Nigel Farage MEP. There appeared to be no qualms about the ways that migration control is entangled in race politics. Though the UK government was able to argue on technicalities that their Go Home van approach was aimed at people without the legal right to be in the UK, their publicity tactics were not expected to be effective at limiting irregular migration. Rather, they predictably sent a message of suspicion which works to increase harassment of people racialised as non-white and non-British.

Of course, Trump’s intervention comes amidst controversy about border control. As the Congresswomen have pointed out, the attention focused on his personal attacks have distracted from their own campaigns about the horrific conditions in US border detention sites and a weekend of planned immigration raids. Similarly, in the UK, the bold language of the Go Home van which gained much more attention than the ongoing, everyday violence of racialised border controls in our streets, workplaces, healthcare, welfare and education.

Our research traced the effects of the UK Home Office’s public campaigns about immigration control, including the Go Home van, between 2013 and 2015. The story didn’t end then. In this new updated video, you can hear a flavour or our research findings and our reflections on how this research is relevant to controversies up to 2019.

In two further posts to follow, you can read about how we have been continuing to explore and develop responses to the politics of immigration control, in work with schools and theatre practitioners actREAL, to find out what it is like growing up in the era of the Hostile Environment.

Home: coming and going

By Hannah Jones

Last night the English football team lost a semi-final game in the World Cup. Apparently, this was the most-watched television event in the UK since the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympic Games in 2012. In the days preceding the game, national media seemed to be entirely taken over by it – almost every guest on Radio 4’s Today programme was asked about the game, from the Colombian ambassador to (many) childhood friends of Gareth Southgate, the team’s manager. Three times in just over a week, I heard the BBC’s lead political journalists interviewing English guests with partners from other countries about which team they or their children would support in the World Cup as they watched it at home (‘will you need to be in separate rooms?’). Each time it was treated jovially and amicably but why was this reminder of the Tebbit Test even relevant in what Southgate himself described as a diverse ‘modern England’ represented by his team?

coming or going home

Stuart Hall wrote of a ‘multicultural drift’ in Britain. Rather than a deliberate policy of ‘multiculturalism’ (such policies incidentally never having existed in the UK at a national level, despite the frequent announcement of their failure), multicultural drift describes how it simply became normal, boring even, to live with people who look different or came from different parts of the world. Over time, that is, people in Britain as elsewhere became more used to ethnic diversity as everyday. And this was represented nowhere more prominently than in the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony, that televisual event even bigger than the World Cup semi-final, which featured, among other things, workers’ political resistance, suffragettes, the NHS – and Empire Windrush representing the arrival of Commonwealth citizens from the Caribbean as central to British history and identity.


This triumph of spectacular conviviality and an alternative set of ‘British values’ (of struggle, change, and interconnection) to those announced by government as under threat, was followed only a year later by the wake-up call of the Go Home van. Outside the level of spectacular communications, entrenchment of immigration controls in law and institutional practice and indefinite detention for administrative infractions continued. While Britain had become increasingly cosmopolitan – in its dictionary definition of ‘familiar with and at ease in many different countries and cultures’, it had simultaneously become more fearful, and this was embodied nowhere more clearly than in the performance of Home Secretary/Prime Minister Theresa May.


As we wrote the final revisions to the ‘Go Home?’ book manuscript in June 2016, the UK really did seem at ‘breaking point’, but not in the way that MEP Nigel Farage’s Leave poster of that week was intended to suggest. The Brexit referendum campaign still raged, and a remain-campaigning MP was murdered in the street by a man shouting ‘Britain First’, the name of a far-right racist and anti-immigration movement which associates itself with Farage’s UKIP, which itself in turn is credited with shifting the ‘centre’ ground of British politics both to create the Brexit vote itself, and before that inspiring the increasing ‘get-tough’ displays by the Home Office of which the Go Home van formed a part.


This July 2018 week’s news seems emblematic of where we are, five years on from the Go Home van, two years from the Brexit vote. In Westminster and in the media establishment there is a consensus that ‘the people’ voted for Brexit – and in doing so, a rejection of both internationalism and migrants – though the result was in fact a very slender majority of what was basically a 50/50 split, and was followed by the 2017 general election which resulted in a minority government, now dependent on Northern Irish DUP votes while the Northern Irish border has emerged as one of the most intractable – and for some reason, completely unanticipated – questions about how Brexit could work. Scotland did not vote in a majority for Brexit, and the First Minister continues to press for a further independence referendum in the light of Brexit negotiations. There is less than a year until the UK leaves the EU and apparent constitutional chaos, as only this week did ‘a plan’ emerge, immediately followed by the resignation of both the Brexit Secretary and the Foreign Secretary. But never mind, perhaps football would be ‘coming home’ (to England, whose media often forgets it is only part of the Britain being riven by Brexit).


What seems to be ‘coming home,’ aside from the defeated team, are the reverberations of Britain’s colonial history. This can be understood as what Paul Gilroy has termed ‘postcolonial melancholia,’ the failure to properly contemplate the real history of empire’s cruelties and loss. The result is a persistent illusion that ‘greatness’ is a birthright of ‘the British’ – and when this greatness is not delivered for the majority of the population, a feeling of being cheated which tends to be directed at the ‘un-British’. In recent politics, this has been channelled into the problems of capitalist scarcity and competition, re-enforced by austerity policies, being blamed on the shadowy figure of ‘immigration’. This is also a gendered melancholia, one expression of it exploding after World Cup defeats in increased domestic violence.


It is notable that in his resignation letter, the Foreign Secretary claimed that the current Brexit ‘plan’ means the UK is ‘truly headed for the status of colony – and many will struggle to see the economic or political advantages of that particular arrangement’. No irony was signalled from this man whose own plans for post-Brexit Britain apparently included an ‘Empire 2.0’ in which Britain would be ‘re-entering the Commonwealth’. There is no recognition from this self-styled ‘historian’ that Britain’s prosperity has been entwined with that of Commonwealth countries and their populations since British forces invaded and colonised swathes of the world. Britain (not just the England football team) would not exist in its current form without the violent histories of colonisation and resistance to it. But the British Empire is no more – and it is not for the former Foreign Secretary to decide when to ‘enter’ or ‘leave’ those territories; Britain has to get used to asking for permission to enter others’ homes, rather than simply taking away others’ permission to enter Britain.


The failure to re-imagine the various meanings of ‘home’ and how home might be shared rather than owned or controlled, lie at the heart of the politics of contradictory nationalism which are now playing out.


Today, the ubiquitous white flag crossed with blood-red is being forlornly removed from cars, shops, houses and bodies; the over-excited news anchors might remember that there is more to Britain than England (never mind football); the replacement Brexit and Foreign Secretaries will have to resume negotiating a reality in which ‘the public’ apparently want to control where non-Brits call home but maintain their own rights to free movement and trade. The World Cup will remain out in The World. And the idea of Britain as home seems to increasingly narrow for all of us who live here and make it home, including those many of us who thought that being part of the world was a good thing, that it was possible to make a home without bricking up all the doors, and that part of doing so might lie in recognising and understanding both the mistakes and triumphs of the past.

Windrush and Go Home: the whittling away of both rights and responsibility

By Hannah Jones


It is some time since we added to this blog, as our research on the Go Home van and the hostile environment culminated in a book published a year ago, which we have been encouraging people to read – including by making it available as a free ebook. Yet it doesn’t seem that Theresa May has read or learnt from it.

The experiences of the ‘Windrush generation’ in having their status as British citizens entitled to basic protections questioned does not come as a surprise, given this could be predicted by close readers of the Immigration Act 2014 which set out ways in which there would be automatic suspicion of all people seeking to receive healthcare, rent a home, open a bank account, or earn a living – with penalties not just for those doing this ‘illegally’, but also for those doing the checking should they get it wrong. This means shifting the responsibility for checking often complex settlement status to unqualified and inexperienced people in every walk of life, which complements moves across government which have whittled away at skilled, experienced staff with institutional memory and replaced them with inexperienced, overworked and underpaid, often temporary, staff with less professional nous and more demanding targets to reject requests for help – whether in immigration services, welfare offices, or decision-making on healthcare – inevitably resulting in an increasing number of misplaced refusals of entitlements.

Not surprising, but still upsetting, angering, shameful. More surprising, perhaps, is that this has eventually made national headlines over successive days. Environment Secretary and Brexit Leave campaigner Michael Gove claims this is due to a more compassionate attitude following Brexit, claiming:

“The truth is that the Brexit vote allowed the British people to say ‘Look, we’ve taken back control, we can now determine what migration policy is in our interests and we can combine both what’s in our economic interests with proper humanity.’ And the really striking thing now is that Britain has the most liberal attitude towards migration of any European country. And that follows the Brexit vote.”

This is an outstanding and extraordinary piece of nonsense, fake news, or what might in other times be called ‘a lie’.

As many have noted in past days, the current shameful treatment of British citizens who arrived in the UK at the invitation of the British government to (re)build national institutions after the Second World War is part of a long-term set of laws, policies and practices which the current Prime Minister’s officials named themselves as a ‘hostile environment’. Perhaps this was read, charitably, by some as an environment that would be hostile to only those who ‘broke the rules’; hostile in a fair way. This seems to be the view of Tony Smith, a head of the UK Border Force, who argued that ‘you need an identity management strategy if you are going to have a hostile environment. You can’t have one without the other’. What he means here is that an ID card system with unique personal identifiers (as exists in many European countries) enables a more effective exclusion of people without the correct papers from the institutions of everyday life. In that sense, a hostile environment can be much more effective in targeting specific groups because systems are in place. Indeed, this – civil liberties issues – was one of the reasons for strong opposition to a comprehensive ‘identity management system’ when proposed by recent UK governments. Without such a system, however, a hostile environment is certainly possible; it consists of an ‘environment’ of suspicion and threat that can encompass anyone at any time – even someone with settled status whose documents are unavailable, even someone born in the UK with parents with legal status, even someone who has no immigration history in their family but works for a bank or rents out a home.

This is why our research project looked not expressly at the laws and policies that constitute a hostile environment (though these came into it) but at the effects of government communication campaigns on immigration. These have consistently aimed to emphasise threat – both of (illegal) immigration (to settled communities) and of immigration control (to those deemed to be ‘in the UK illegally’). They emphasise toughness – which links nicely with an assumption of guilt rather than innocence in assessing the claims of the Windrush generation. Our research suggested this emphasis on threat in government communications did little to reassure people; in fact, the visibility of tough immigration control measures appeared to make a significant proportion of people more concerned, rather than more reassured – including people who did want immigration to be controlled in a tough way. In one interview with a community support worker in Bradford, we heard that:

“you talk to people and they say … “Are we going to be allowed to stay here?” this is third generation, they’ve contributed, you know. There’s this sort of slight feeling with what’s going on, you know, not necessarily the neighbours, but with the rhetoric.”

This was one of the most striking and disturbing moments of our research. Alongside accounts of mistrust of government messages and communications (from those who feared immigration and for those at the sharp end of immigration control) and experiences of mistreatment by immigration control services, the idea that life-long British citizens, born in Britain of British parents, would feel their ability to stay in their country of citizenship was under threat was chilling. But this was just a sense of threat rather than a real threat – right?

What we are seeing now, and what has stemmed from legislation passed during our study (and, as we found, emerging from previous policies of both Labour and Conservative/Coalition governments) is that this is far from outlandish. In fact it has been happening to people for some time, but it is only very recently that this has been recognised as a problem more widely. Recognised to the extent that Bob Kerslake, someone who held one of the most senior roles in the civil service, was moved to compare the current situation to that of Nazi Germany.

Kerslake’s warning has of course been dismissed as extreme or ‘rather silly’ by people such as Nick Clegg. While Clegg may claim he was always against the hostile environment, and voted against some legislation, he continued in post as Deputy Prime Minister as his government introduced both the Go Home vans and the Immigration Act 2014, which provided the legal measures to back up the hostile environment. No-one is claiming that the current situation in the UK is the equivalent of the extremes of Nazi rule; the government is not systematically murdering people in their millions. But we do have indefinite detention of racialised groups of people. We do have a situation in which specific elements of participation in society – including the right to work and the right to rent housing – are being denied to groups of people. People are being removed from their country of citizenship without warning. Regulations to remove rights have been put in place in the full knowledge that the records that would have helped people to prove their citizenship had been destroyed. There is widespread uncertainty and fear. Members of society from all walks of life are being required to participate in restricting and regulating the rights of others, with penalties if they do not participate. There is certainly nothing silly about being seriously concerned about any of this.

We must not be distracted by Westminster politics from the real suffering caused by immigration control. But it is important to ask what has happened to democratic accountability when government ministers and the Prime Minister can claim that they were unaware of (and therefore not responsible for) actions taken under their authority. This is particularly worrying when the same politicians have presided over the removal of skills, expertise, autonomy and resources from front-line services and decision-makers. But we should also be concerned about how long it has taken for these abuses to reach widespread public attention – what has happened to the local investigative journalism that might have once held our democracy more closely to account by piecing together stories like this? What has happened to the national institutions of civil society that are seemingly unable to get attention from national media?

There is a seeming wilful ignorance which is perpetuated by statements such as that of Guy Verhofstadt that a ‘bureaucratic nightmare’ must be avoided for EU nationals in the UK, given the ‘warning’ of the Windrush scandal. Many EU nationals have been applying for British citizenship in the shadow of Brexit, and have already experienced the ‘bureaucratic nightmare’ of having to prove continuous residence and evidence of all exits and entries to the country over the last 5 years, in order to do so. This retrospective need to provide documentation without expecting it to be required is hard enough. Imagine having to do it as someone who had lived in the country for decades.

Britain invaded and colonised countries around the world. Later, it encouraged people from those countries – British subjects as a result of that colonisation – to come to work in Britain when labour was needed. Most were subject to ongoing racism, both structural and personal. In the intervening years, through hard-fought struggles, racism has become less acceptable; Britain began to accept itself as a nation of many ethnicities and cultures. But stronger equalities laws have not dismantled the underlying colonial logics at the heart of British society. As we found in the Mapping Immigration Controversy research, as in our everyday lives, belonging will always remain more fragile for those marginalised by historic processes of racialisation. Like the welfare state or the NHS, anti-racist progress is a struggle to build but much easier to dismantle.


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 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.