Bread and Roses, Aspiration and Dreams

By Sukhwant Dhaliwal

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Ryan Rodrick Beiler

At the heart of General Election post mortems is a struggle over the direction of the Labour Party. MPs (and architects of days gone by) are tugging left and right in a desire to determine its onward journey. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has been quick to re-iterate what he sees as the ‘necessary’ ideological focus – to capture the centre ground by appealing to the ‘hard working people’ of Britain as well as the business and finance sector. His (widely contested) answer to Labour’s post-electoral quandary lies in committing the Labour Party to a politics of aspiration and fiscal discipline. Aspiration is understood largely in economic terms:

“Hard-working families” don’t just want us to celebrate their hard work; they want to know that by hard work and effort they can do well, rise up, achieve. They want to be better off and they need to know we don’t just tolerate that; we support it.

But what does the renewal of this ‘aspiration’, ‘achievement’ and ‘fiscal discipline’ mantra mean for the future of immigration? There are no direct noises around this as yet but we do know that, as Will Davies has explained, New Labour previously:

(made) a macro-economic case for immigration – that it is a net positive for both public finances and economic growth… a broadly neoliberal type of justification, submerging rights-based arguments within the logic of open markets…

Recent discussions seem to emphasise indirect references to immigration, as an adjunct to the material concerns of ‘hard working families’. The realisation that the scale and diversity of votes for UKIP were drawn from dissatisfied Labour Party voters as well as from  the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats has met with a response that connects the material anxieties of those ‘hard working families’ and questions of ‘race’, nationalism and belonging. This is where immigration resurfaces as a bogeyman. No longer just a focal point for direct racism, it is also part of the collateral damage that politicians expect to encounter in order to regain the trust and votes of those ‘hard working people’. Theresa May and David Cameron hastened these connections – they pitched their arguments for the Immigration Act 2014 by conjuring up an image of a migrant reaper, undeniably illegal, lingering around and blighting the lives of those hard working, labouring families. Anti-immigrant sentiment (and its links with racism) is re-presented as a pragmatic response to popular concerns. Examples are to be found in May’s repeated references to people out there somewhere that think it is ‘unfair’ that others continue to be in the country when they have no ‘right’ to be here. As Kirsten Forkert pointed out, this is part of a now ‘common narrative’ that projects the political party as the vanguard of an electorate that have thus far been ignored. These silenced/ignored people are frequently referred to in generic terms as ‘the hard working people’.

ad_165619435The most direct challenge to the representation of immigration as antithetical to the interests of ‘hard working families’ has been to emphasise the contribution that immigrants have made to the British economy. More recently, the Movement Against Xenophobia (MAX) effectively transported this challenge onto a poster campaign – known by its twitter hashtag #IAmAnImmigrant. This comprises photographs of 15 people from different occupational backgrounds introducing themselves and declaring themselves to be immigrants. The immense popularity of the campaign is evidenced by the fact that over £50,000 was raised within a matter of weeks through crowd funding and led to the posting of 440 images billboards across the underground and 550 at rail stations across the country. Thousands of people have subsequently used the hashtag to retweet photographs of these posters.

According to the Movement Against Xenophobia (MAX), the purpose of the campaign has been to emphasise the positive benefits of migration:

Migrants make a substantial contribution to the economy, enrich Britain’s culture and improve the standard of its public services. The multicultural and prosperous Britain that exists today has been created through generations of immigration and accepting refugees, this is not recognized in the mainstream public discourse about immigration and asylum.

There is no doubting the value of this kind of argument and the distinct appeal of the images – they personalise immigration, moving it away from the numbers game to a level of familiarity. Cost benefit analyses are replaced with the individual testimonies of people whose families at some point migrated into the country and are likely involved in improving the quality of your daily life – there’s a nurse, a fireman, a trade union representative, a barrister.

Similarly, at a recent public meeting on immigration, a member of the audience proposed that we should all, any of us that have histories of migration, walk out of our workplaces, schools, universities and community centres in order to demonstrate the hugely significant contribution that migrants make. The likelihood being that many workplaces, businesses, welfare services, emergency services, would come to a standstill. And indeed the shutdown of Chinatown in 2013 certainly proved the symbolic power of such a move as the bustle of central London life ground to a halt and engulfed in an eerie silence as restaurants and businesses closed and their proprietors and workers came out on to the street to state their opposition to immigration raids.

These are types of economic arguments – all the posters depict independent, productive and aspirational people. The walk outs are about the withdrawal of labour and business. The people involved are infact a part of that mass of ‘hard working people’ that the government claims to represent. As such, these forms of resistance potentially utilise the same frame that has enabled the likes of UKIP to co-opt ethnic minorities by reframing the immigration debate as a distinction between good and bad citizens. But who will give voice to those migrants that are not deemed to be deserving of our sympathies, the people that are damned for being destitute, for getting involved in prostitution, for smoking, drinking and for becoming dependent on drugs? Unfortunately, this is something that needs to be addressed. Across the six local areas that comprise the case studies of the Mapping Immigration Controversy project, we have been struck by the degree to which people are distinguishing between good and bad migrants, between those that deserve our empathy and those that are considered a burden, that trigger hostility, disgust and a desire for distance, those considered to be undeserving migrants. And all manner of unwelcome developments in the local area – brothels, crime, alcoholism – became pinned to ‘illegal immigration’ even it was never clear whether those that expressed these feelings new the immigration status of the people they referred to.

Owen Jones recently proposed that, rather than allow the right wing to define aspiration for us, we could shift our understanding of it away from the neo liberal pre-occupation with blaming the individual and instead think of aspiration as a social good that involves people finding common cause with others. Aspiration could be part of a progressive language that institutes policies that will improve the lot of groups of people, particularly those at the bottom of the ladder, rather than individuals. In this sense, we become responsible for other people’s prosperity. This is a welcome shift away from projecting the less prosperous as lacking aspiration. But Jones’ better life is still framed in economic terms, for instance as a demand for better wages. Can this re-invention of aspiration ever really tackle the problem of xenophobia that lies at the heart of the immigration debate and leads local people to assume that immigration is an adjunct to crime, destitution, and substance misuse?

As was pointed out at a public meeting on immigration in Southall, reclaiming aspiration may not enable us to forge the kinds of social relations and norms that effectively challenge the levels of disgust that local people have started to express towards others that they deem to not be economically productive or socially valuable. And aspiration cannot embrace nor counter the scale of social cleansing that is now going on across the country.

We may need to reach for something more esoteric – Rita Chadha’s poetic words at a recent public meeting may carry the potential to lift us out of this neo liberal trap:

It’s not just about highlighting the contribution that migrants make, immigration is a dream – who am I to tell someone they don’t have the right to dream?

Migrant stories are not necessarily linear accounts of educational and economic uplift. Migration stories are often hampered by setbacks. And dreams are not always economically productive. Sometimes dreams are not even viable. If you have ever booked a flight to travel abroad without having to show your bank details and a long term plan for economic betterment, then you should be able to imagine that there are millions of others around the world that want to do that too. We need to find new arguments that defend that right to dream, that defend Rose Schneiderman’s call for roses as much as for bread.

Are you sleeping soundly?

By Roiyah Saltus

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do women think? A view from Ealing/Hounslow

By Sukhwant Dhaliwal

Southall Black Sisters protest against immigration enforcement raids in Southall, July 2013

Southall Black Sisters protest against immigration enforcement raids in Southall, July 2013

As the Labour Party’s Pink Bus gets on its merry way, there is growing speculation about how women will vote at the General Election and what we know about their main concerns. A poll conducted by TNS BMRB for BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour found that immigration was number 4 in the top 5 concerns for the women that were polled (it was number 3 of the top five concerns for men). A little more insight is provided by extracts from a focus group session they conducted with six women from Bexley Heath in south east London. One gets the sense that they view immigration as a problem but, other than a passing reference to border controls and the impact of global elites on London’s house prices, there is little detail about what specifically or how immigration concerns them. In fact some of the interviewees in our research suggested that references to immigration are more of a proxy for other grievances, particularly concerns about the economy, access to housing and welfare support. And our own surveys have found, it’s difficult to capture, statistically, the multiple things that are meant when people say they are concerned about immigration.

Moreover, renewed debates about intersectionality should act as a timely reminder that women do not speak with one voice and that the increasing hardline on immigration could be understood differently by women depending on the way that they experience multiple axes of power at any one time. It could be the case that the women that most acutely feel the impact of the Home Office’s immigration campaigns are from ethnic minorities and particularly (but not only) those subject to immigration controls. It is not clear how many of the Bexley Heath focus group participants were from minority communities but we worked closely with our west London community partners, Southall Black Sisters, to facilitate two focus groups with a total of 15 women of Asian, African, and Caribbean descent. The two groups comprised a mix of British nationals, those that have been resident in Britain for a considerable period of time, those that recently gained leave to remain in the UK, and also a number of women that are awaiting news of applications or appeals. Their comments offer new insights into the ways in which women might be concerned about immigration and also how this may feature for women as an electoral issue.

Image of immigration enforcement raid circulated on Twitter, July 2013, used in our focus group.

Image of immigration enforcement raid circulated on Twitter, July 2013, used in our focus group.

The west London focus group participants were shown a set of four images, each depicting a different Home Office immigration campaign or recent tactic. For each image, we asked them to discuss the following:

  • What does this picture bring to mind?
  • Have you always felt this way?
  • How do you think this impacts on how you live your life?
  • How do you think this impacts on community relations in your area?

The discussions were emotional; they talked openly about the visceral experience of immigration in their lives and the lives of people they know. There was an overwhelming sense of fear and stress. Even those that had gained leave to remain in the UK expressed anxiety about being stopped at transport hubs. One such woman panicked when she saw UK border agency officers and dogs at the exit barriers of a London train station. She became so nervous that she turned away from the exit barriers and jumped on a train. In this panic, she boarded the wrong train and when she eventually reached home she stayed indoors for some time because of a fear that her leave to remain might be revoked.

Furthermore, this restriction on movement could impact on women’s ability to access the places of support that they need to deal with their circumstances and effectively respond to the immigration system such as getting to women’s organisations, support groups that are vital for their ability to stay strong during these stressful periods, and lawyers that could help ensure that they have access to the right information. For a subsection of the population where mental health, suicide and self-harm have been reported as disproportionately high, it’s alarming to hear how women’s mental health is being impacted by these campaigns. In fact two women provided examples of migrants that had committed suicide.

News coverage of Prime Minister 'beds in sheds' immigration raid, image used in our focus group.

News coverage of Prime Minister ‘beds in sheds’ immigration raid, image used in our focus group.

Many of the women at the Ealing/Hounslow focus groups were concerned about the way that Home Office tactics are stigmatising immigration claimants as criminals and dehumanising them. One woman likened immigration raids in the UK to the stealth tactics of armed robbers in Nigeria, while another woman said that it reminded her of the way that stray dogs are entrapped and captured in India. Connected to this were concerns that local people are informing on each other and that suspicion within communities has grown.

News coverage of immigration enforcement raids in Southall, used in our focus group

News coverage of immigration enforcement raids in Southall, used in our focus group

A number of women talked about feeling ‘provoked’, ‘harassed’, ‘threatened’ and targeted. They felt angered by what they saw as a threat to the personal security, stability, and freedom of movement of their friends and others within their minority communities. And racism and racial profiling featured as a strong aspect of their concerns, of the sense that their communities, their particular friends and families are being targeted.

In most part it was felt that the Home Office immigration campaigns don’t reveal or enable a proper discussion of the real life stories behind the images. For a state that frequently claims to be the harbinger of rights (particularly of women’s and children’s rights), equalities and freedoms, far too little is being said about the struggles of those that are impacted by these publicity campaigns.

The women that participated in Radio Four’s poll and focus group seemed to display a great deal of cynicism about elections and politicians. Our findings from the Ealing/Hounslow focus groups indicate something similar but for very different reasons. The BME women from Ealing/Hounslow were cynical about the use of immigration as a way to please a particular section of the electorate. If their view of the use of immigration in the run up to the May 2014 elections is anything to go by, politicians would do well to bear in mind that for some people these immigration campaigns are doing more to reinforce the view that their ethnic minority vote is less important to politicians than the white majority vote.

Immigration control, racism and public opinion

By Gargi Bhattacharyya

In the week before Christmas a mixed crowd gathered outside the Home Office, once again chanting ‘I can’t breathe’. The protest, to mark International Migrants Day and to continue weekly demonstrations against the ending of any UK contribution to the EU search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean, this time also met to protest against the not guilty verdict in the trial of G4S officers charged with the murder of Jimmy Mubenga.

In the weeks before London had seen large protests in response to the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson (outside the US embassy) and the killing of Eric Garner during his arrest (a die-in the Westfield shopping centre). Echoing the massive protests across the US, the solidarity slogans moved from ‘Hands up don’t shoot’ to ‘I can’t breathe’.

These two killings – only two among so many deaths in custody across the US and beyond – reignited a movement of global protest against state racism and violence. Even the UK media condemned the unaddressed racism of US society, apparently without a trace of irony or self-awareness.

The death by asphyxiation of Jimmy Mubenga, on the other hand, has drawn little reflection on the continuance of UK state racism and its consequences. Although Mubenga died while being restrained by three G4S guards charged with overseeing his deportation and despite the testimony of other witnesses on the plane that he repeatedly shouted that he could not breathe for as long as thirty minutes before becoming silent, this death was not seen as a racist killing in the manner of Ferguson or New York. No broadsheets printed pictograms depicting the whiteness of G4S guards and the blackness of those facing deportation. Despite the explicitly racist text messages found on the phones of two of the accused, the trial judge did not allow this material to be known to the jury. In effect, this disallowed any informed consideration of the role of racism in Jimmy Mubenga’s death.

In so doing, this trial mirrors the much-repeated official line on immigration control in the UK – that this has nothing to do with racism. This assertion has characterised almost all mainstream political debate. If, by some temporary accident of conscience, any murmur of concern is voiced about the racist treatment of migrants, party machines must be mobilised immediately to reassert that immigration control has nothing to do with racism and that those who are concerned about levels of immigration are not, and could not be, racists.

In our examination of Home Office immigration campaigns, this concerted quarantining of discourses of racism from discussion of immigration control appears to have influenced popular understanding. However, the pretence that these two logics are separate and unrelated can raise some irresolvable tensions.

We commissioned Ipsos MORI to survey a representative sample of 2424 adults in the UK about their knowledge of and attitude to Home Office campaigns about immigration.[1] When asked about overt instances of racial profiling, a majority expressed concern. We asked how people viewed reports that immigration checks in public places such as stations were being targeted on the basis of skin colour. In response:

  •  60% of people felt that it was fairly or very unacceptable for immigration officers to carry out checks on the basis of someone’s skin colour.
  • 24% had no opinion either way on this issue.
  • Only 14% considered it acceptable.
  • 45% of ‘non-white’ and 42% of ‘white’ respondents found this ‘very unacceptable’
  • 10% of ‘non-white’ and 19% of ‘white’ respondents found this ‘fairly unacceptable’

In addition, 229 of the 928 who gave a further response to the question about racial profiling explicitly cited racism or discrimination as the reason for disagreeing with this practice. Others said that the practice was wrong or unfair, but did not name racism or discrimination.

Another set of responses disagrees with the alleged practice but cites practical considerations – skin colour is no guide to immigration status; Britain is a multicultural society and those with a right to be here come in many colours; white people, too, can be illegal.

Only a handful of responses argued that the approach of racial profiling was desirable, citing the difficulty of performing this difficult job (of undertaking immigration checks) or a belief that irregular migrants were less likely to be white.

The considerable agreement that we found in relation to the undesirability of ethnic profiling is much harder to discern in relation to other aspects of Home Office campaigns.

Firstly, we found that quite small proportions of respondents were aware of any of the campaigns in question. Even the infamous ‘Go Home’ vans had registered with only 26% of respondents. Yet among those who were aware of any Home Office campaign, reactions were mixed. As can be seen in the summary below, even the relatively popular initiatives such as warning signs about eligibility for NHS treatment and changes in the signage and uniforms at passport control points also occasion concern about cultures of suspicion for between 13 and 19 per cent of respondents. The attempts to grab headlines through ‘Go Home’ vans or tweets caused concern about cultures of suspicion for a third of respondents.

Home Office activity Proportion aware of this initiative Of those who are aware, those who feel ‘reassured that the government is taking action against irregular/illegal immigration’ Of those who are aware, those who feel ‘concerned that some people are being treated with unnecessary suspicion in everyday situations’
‘Go Home’ vans 26% 28% 34%
Tweets from the Home Office 6% 22% 33%
Journalists accompanying on immigration raids 13% 31% 26%
Signs in NHS premises 20% 41% 19%
Border branded signs 31% 41% 18%
Uniforms for passport control staff 23% 41% 13%
Immigration enforcement branded vans 18% 31% 28%

 

Respondents were far more likely to express concern about people being targeted on the basis of skin colour than about any other initiative.

A question outlining the threatening and militarised approach of immigration raids and asking about how respondents might feel if they witnessed such a raid in their neighbourhood revealed greater levels of agreement with the initiative when the survey included greater detail about the threatening manner of raids.

On Home Office raids for suspected illegal immigrants, officers may arrive in teams, wearing flak jackets. Following questioning, immigration officers may make arrests and take suspected illegal immigrants away in a van or other vehicle. How would you feel if you saw an immigration raid on suspected illegal immigrants going on in your local area?
Feel it is a necessary measure to help tackle irregular/illegal immigration in the UK 31%
Reassured that the government is taking action against irregular/illegal immigration 29%
Feel it is a necessary measure to help tackle irregular/illegal immigration in your local area 28%
Concerned that people may be unnecessarily arrested 13%
Concerned about the show of force in your local area 10%
(Respondents could choose more than one of the options in response)

Without the explicit warning that practices such as raids might target people on the basis of skin colour or accent, respondents appeared to be unconcerned about the potential racism and discrimination of such practices of immigration control. However, when invited to consider eye-witness reports that people were targeted by skin colour in immigration checks, significant numbers expressed concern. Quarantining talk of racism has the effect of silencing concerns about the racist and violent impact of everyday immigration control. At worst, such a quarantining can make it seem as if violent restraint leading to death falls under the heading of a ‘necessary measure to tackle irregular/illegal immigration’.

As Frances Weber has explained, carefully and eloquently, racist texts on the phones of two of the three G4S guards on trial formed an important component of the context of the Jimmy Mubenga case.

Without access to this contextual information, the jury were unable to see the killing as a symptom of a wider racist process or to register the abuse and violence of the G4S guards. Without sight of the explicitly racist views held by the accused, perhaps the jury was able to consider Jimmy Mubenga’s death as an accidental and unfortunate by-product of the necessary measure of immigration control. Disconnecting consideration of racism from any discussion of immigration control extends this effect, reducing each instance of racist terror into another necessary measure. Yet our research suggests that the public do not support overtly discriminatory practices of immigration control if they are given an opportunity to consider its racist context. It may seem counter-intuitive in the current climate, but perhaps proponents of migrant rights should return our energies to re-coupling debates about racism and immigration.

[1] All statistical data in this article is based on a face-to-face survey conducted for Mapping Immigration Controversy project by Ipsos MORI, 15 Aug-9 Sept 2014, with nationally representative sample of 2424 adults.

 

Immigration and the collapse of statistical reason

By Will Davies

This week saw the publication of new economic evidence from University College London (UCL), suggesting that immigration from within the EU benefited the Britain’s public finances to the tune of £20bn between 2001-2011. The report made headlines across much of the media, including the BBC. At a time when migration has been constantly in the news, for reasons to do with UKIP and the government’s withdrawal of support for the Mediterranean migrant rescue operation, the pro-migration economic argument almost seemed to have arrived from a different political epoch.

The macro-economic case for immigration – that it is a net positive for both public finances and economic growth – was integral to New Labour’s tacit, occasionally explicit, support for high levels of immigration. This was a broadly neoliberal type of justification, submerging rights-based arguments within the logic of open markets, as the European Commission has done as well. This was accompanied by a sense of economic realism, that employers would not countenance any drastic political interventions in international labour markets.

What is now better understood, however, is that appeals to statistics or to some apparent economic reality (such as ‘globalisation’) have the opposite of the desired political effect. It is not simply that they do not persuade those who are skeptical of immigration’s benefits; they can result in increased antipathy.  Focus groups carried out by British Future show that when presented with evidence for macro-economic benefits, people will often respond that the statistics are biased, that they are based on inadequate knowledge of who has really entered the country, and that these numbers are being used to justify the political ambitions of policy elites. Such data incites quasi-conspiracy theories, that the government is concealing the truth, sometimes leading respondents to become even more paranoid about immigration. By contrast, qualitative forms of evidence – photographs and anecdotes of ‘successful’ integration of immigrants – are met with a far more positive response.

Senior politicians now understand this far better, which is why few of them have tried to advance any statistical or economic arguments in defense of immigration for some years now. Despite the fact that they have little real power to reduce immigration to the UK significantly (at least for the time being), they tend to avoid explaining the positive economic consequences of this. Instead, the Home Office engages in carefully-managed communications and branding exercises, which seek to convince the public that they are enforcing regulations and borders as forcefully as possible. This includes the controversial twitter campaign of 2013, in which raids on shops by the (then named) UK Border Agency were photographed and tweeted.

Aside from the copious political controversies that surround immigration policy, there is a deep divide between ways of understanding the world at work here, which partly explains why different sides of the debate speak past each other. Those who are fearful of immigration (which includes those whose political careers are based on reassuring those who are fearful of it) are not simply unimpressed by arguments that look at aggregate effects; they are often hostile to this way of understanding the world in itself. The notion that Britain ‘as a whole’ or the economy ‘as a whole’ benefits from something is deemed insulting by someone who wants recognition for them in particular, their high street in particular, their local labour market in particular. Without seeking to justify recent Home Office communications strategies, those strategies cannot be fully understood without grasping something of this schism which cuts deep within contemporary political rationality.

Immigration may be the space in which this conflict now plays out. But, arguably, it derives from a more wide-ranging aspect of New Labour’s political strategy and statecraft, which was characteristic of what Colin Crouch has termed ‘post-democracy’. The sense that centralized experts will ‘deliver’ outcomes to a population, who will experience those outcomes in a subjective, consumerist fashion, discounted the possibility of politics as the discovery of shared languages, the identification of shared social reality, which allows the view from the centre and the view from the periphery to come into some sort of alignment.

Simply put, post-democracy leads elites and citizens to speak different languages and to know society in different ways. Elites then find themselves seeking to ‘reconnect’ with the public, by trying to second guess their concerns and desires. See, for example, the over-generous platform provided to UKIP by the BBC, which speaks of anxiety on the part of liberal elites that they are out of touch with what non-London, non-graduates might be thinking.

The populist, anti-utilitarian, anti-statistical turn is something that both the New Left and the romantic Right have been party to over the years, and is now manifest in Blue Labour efforts to revitalize the first wave of the New Left. Offering even more statistics and economics is likely to play into the hands of racist communitarianism, or at least to exacerbate the sense of powerlessness by that vast majority of people who do not view the world via aggregates. Hence, the question of what type of qualitative evidence might now be used to rebuild a defence of immigration and of multiculturalism is an urgent one, not least because democracy is defeated if common languages are no longer possible.

All of this is frustrating for economists, such as Jonathan Portes, who have mobilized an impressive array of economic data behind a broadly liberal position. Portes has also won a number of twitter spats with right-wingers who he has shown to be manipulating statistics. There are no doubt far more economists under the radar across Whitehall who look at current political rhetoric and communications strategies in despair. But the current split in ways of thinking and understanding the world needs to be taken seriously, and demands new ways of understanding the importance of the particular or the local, without that translating automatically into illiberal politics.

Infectious fear – telling immigration stories

By Yasmin Gunaratnam

Writing in The Times on the 18th October, Matthew Parris began his column by inviting us into a fictitious encounter between the prime minister and a voter:

“PM: Now, sir: what would you say is your biggest concern for our country?

VOTER: Immigration from Eastern Europe.

PM: How do you think it harms us?

VOTER: Parts of Britain are being swamped. In some places our schools and social services just can’t cope. The indigenous population are being elbowed aside for housing, hospital treatment and things like that.”

Parris went on to suggest that contemporary concerns and resentment of ‘foreigners’ tell us something important about the circulation of difficult feelings such as fear and anxiety.

I did not need a leap of the imagination to grasp Parris’ argument. In the summer, as part of locality-based qualitative research for the Mapping Immigration Controversies project, I interviewed UKIP and BNP supporters in the outer London Borough of Barking and Dagenham; a borough that has been feeling the impact of inexorable socio-economic decline. Like the voter in Parris’ imagined encounter, I was told about unemployment, shrinking public services, overburdened primary health care and unaffordable housing – all seen as caused by immigration. This is a borough where ethnic minority residents have grown from approximately a quarter in 2001 to just over half in 2011. Of all London boroughs, Barking & Dagenham has the highest proportion of working age adults (14%) with an illness or disability that limits their daily activities.

In one group interview with three BNP supporters, I found myself in a similar scenario to Parris’ fictive prime minister. In a reversal of traditional interview conventions, I was put on the spot with a question that members of the group were eager that I answer. Do I think it’s fair to let migrants into the UK without a health check? As if the question was too abstracted, they brought it closer to home. Literally. “So if I walked into your house knowing that I’ve got TB and you’ve got children and I’m coughing, do you think that’s fair to you, then?, Joe asked. In the ensuing discussion, the conversation slipped seamlessly between the subjects of migrants, disease and criminality:

Joe: … if somebody walks into my home knowing that they’ve got TB and they’re coughing and spluttering all over the place, I would hoof them out straightaway, once I found out they’d got TB, everybody can have a cough, but if they’ve got TB and know about it and they’re coming to this country, that’s like coming into our home.

Ann: Yeah.

Joe: This is our home, isn’t it?

Fred: It’s like putting a paedophile next to you when you know you’ve got two young daughters and they know, but you don’t know, but when you find out you’ll be the first one to moan, won’t you, because if you don’t there’d be something wrong with you.

Joe: Yes.

Ann: A lot of the undesirables are here.

Yasmin: Do you mean here particularly in Dagenham?

Ann: All over the country.

Fred: All over the country.

Ann: All over the country.

Joe: Everywhere’s got the same problem.

Ann: Like I say there are rapists, there are child molesters, just the scum of the earth.

Joe: Thieves and vagabonds.

The group’s invitation, to first imagine the threat of disease invading the (assumed) healthy intimacy of my home and then a paedophile living close-by, was highly charged, even though the connections to migrants in each scenario are not the same. What joined the dots of the rapid-fire listing of undesirables that followed – paedos, rapists, child molestors, thieves and vagabonds – is that they are all disgusting ‘scum of the earth’, or what the sociologist Imogen Tyler has called ‘revolting subjects’. For Tyler, the damage of the authoritative immigration rhetoric and imagery used by politicians, policymakers and the media is not only that certain vulnerable groups are demonised. It is also that feelings of insecurity and threat that circulate at times of economic hardship are encouraged and endorsed through cultural representations. Reworking the idea of Julia Kristeva’s abjection, Tyler makes a compelling case for how the figures of the ‘national abject’, including migrants, become: “ideological conductors mobilized to do the dirty work of neoliberal governmentality. They are symbolic and material scapegoats, the mediating agencies through which the social decomposition effected by market deregulation and welfare retrenchment are legitimized.” (p.9)

The ways in which migrants become the repositories of our fear does not remain the same, of course. The associations, narratives and metaphors that circulate in immigration stories are constantly shifting, even though certain themes endure. A study by the Migration Observatory of 58,000 news items about migrants, immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers in UK newspapers between 2010-12, found a prevalence of aquatic imagery. Examples included:

“MPs called on the PM to deploy ‘all necessary steps’ to stop the flood of migrants and their families, currently enough to fill ‘eight new cities’. (Tabloid)

The influx of migrants has put more pressure on public transport and led to more congestion. (Tabloid)

Transitional restrictions were imposed to prevent the kind of influx of migrants seen when Poland joined the EU. (Mid-market)”

More recently, it has been the symbolic connections between immigration, disease and criminality that are coming to the fore. On the 9th October, as polls were closing in two English by-elections, a story began to emerge of an interview Nigel Farage, leader of the UKIP, had given to Newsweek Europe. “Ukip want to control the quantity and quality of people” that come to the UK, Farage is reported to have told Newsweek.Farage HIV image

What did Farage mean by quality? With reference to Arnis Zalkalns, who is the key suspect in the murder of the British teenager Alice Gross, Farage was emphatic. “It’s simple. That Latvian convicted murderer shouldn’t have been allowed here.” Free-associating with earlier comments made by the interviewer about HIV, Farage went on to say that those allowed into Britain should include “people who do not have HIV”.

News of the interview spread quickly through broadcast and social media (a Storify sample of twitter responses can be found here). The HIV comments were front-page news in The Guardian on Friday 10th October – “Keep HIV positive migrants out of Britain, Farage says” – and continued to occupy news bulletins some days later. Farage’s views were countered by HIV charities, MP’s, health care professionals and the public. Rosemarie Gillespie, chief executive at the HIV charity, the Terrence Higgins Trust, told the tabloid newspaper the Daily Mail, “In bracketing those living with the condition with murderers and suggesting there is no place for them in his vision of Britain, Mr Farage has stooped to a new level of ignorance. He should be ashamed.”

The reemergence of the entangled metaphors and associations between migrants, criminals and disease has no doubt gathered impetus from other sources. Jonathan Freeland has recently identified what he believes to be a reductive and fear-inducing ‘pincer movement’ of anxieties about the Ebola virus and Isis. “Each time one advances, the space for the other expands” Freeland writes. He might well have been writing about the relationships between experiences of political and economic disenfranchisement and anti-immigrant sentiment. What we will be following as our project develops is the extent to which the plot lines of immigration narratives evolve, how they are taken up and how they are disrupted.

Mobile Solidarities – The Right to Remain Conference

By Yasmin Gunaratnam

Over a hundred people filled the small community hall that hosted the Right to Remain (RtR) conference in Bethnal Green on the 6th September. Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool, Newcastle and Slough were some of the areas that I managed to note down at the opening of the event, as people called out with their affiliations to warm applause. Our welcome from the organisers was accompanied by a forewarning “We’re going to hear how horrible things are”.  And we did, not least the news of the death of Rubel Ahmed in Morton Hall detention centre, which was announced towards the end of the day.

It’s an especially difficult time for migrants and those working on migrant rights campaigns these days. The interviews that we have been carrying out over the past few months, as a part of the Mapping Immigration Controversies project, have been showing the unfolding effects of creeping anti-migrant rhetoric and policy initiatives. The ‘hostile environment’ for undocumented migrants that Theresa May announced as a part of Image of Right to Remain Conference. Photo by Francis Ngale.the Immigration Act has become palpable, extending from increasingly inhumane care in detention centres to the proliferating of border controls. Migrants who are here legally have been telling us that they are feeling undermined and insecure. Other British citizens have been turning for reassurance to political parties such as the UKIP and the BNP, because in their minds it seems that migrants are at the root of all social problems, from housing, to social unrest, to access to GPs and crime. “They have got it made, these illegal immigrants”, a UKIP voter told me in a focus group in East London a few weeks ago. “They have got us over a barrel and we let them do it”.

Under the theme of ‘Solidarity in a hostile environment’, the idea behind the RtR conference was to help and inspire migrants rights campaigners, by sharing case study examples, tactics and experiences. The conference began with presentations from Frances Webber, a former immigration and human rights barrister; Saira Grant, Legal and Policy Director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, and Rita Chadha, Chief Executive of Ramfel (Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London).

Frances Webber drew attention to the huge contemporary erosion of rights for migrants, characterised as she saw it, by a culture of ‘depraved indifference’, a term that comes from US criminal law. Mean Image of Right to Remain Conference. Photo by Francis Ngale.spiritedness combined with self-righteousness was what was emerging, a version of British values that Frances urged the conference to resist. “Let’s reject British values. What I’d like to see is human values”.

Saira Grant’s focus was the Immigration Act, which spans six Whitehall departments, covering legal practice, bail rights, increased immigration enforcement powers and access to public services. According to the Home Office, the Act “is focused on stopping illegal migrants using public services to which they are not entitled, reducing the pull factors which encourage people to come to the UK for the wrong reasons, and making it easier for the Home Office to remove people who should not be here”. The right to appeal against immigration decisions has been severely curtailed and Saira spoke about the piloting of the new landlords scheme that will begin in the West Midlands in December. The scheme will mean that landlords have the right to check the immigration status of potential tenants and could face a fine of up to £3k if they rent to undocumented migrants.

Given this harsh climate, how should organisations and campaigners work with the Home Office, if at all? This was the question that Rita Chadha tackled. Using examples from Ramfel’s recent monitoring of Operation Centurion, Rita described how the Home Office had tried to engage with Ramfel in the implementation of Operation Skybreaker. Rita suggested that we should get involved in Neighbourhood Partnerships. Perhaps, most surprising of all, was the advice “befriend your local police officers”. In Rita’s experience, the police can be relatively supportive to migrant rights organisations. In Barking and Dagenham, local police had agreed to training in signposting migrants to support services.

After a delicious lunch of rice and vegetables, there were two group work sessions in which we were organized into six small groups, whose membership changed with each session. The groups were facilitated Image of Right to Remain Conference. Photo by Francis Ngale.to help us share ideas and positive outcomes from our respective work. In each group we read and discussed an allotted case study from a small booklet of practical examples compiled by RtR. My group discussed the Noela Claye campaign, coordinated by Women Against Rape (London). During the discussion a mother told us about her how she had supported her son while he was held in an immigration detention centre and someone from Glasgow’s Unity Centre described their practice of ‘signing support’ where members who have to report to the Home Office check in with Unity first, in case they are detained. Some people in the group wondered aloud about whether a campaign might have detrimental effects for a case. Frances Webber believed the opposite and stressed the importance of “bringing the community into the court room.”

It was in the intimacy of the lively discussions in these small groups that it was possible to see some of the larger workings of how the normalization of everyday injustices is turned into a visible political issue/controversy. This happens as people gather around a human plight and set up of transnational, transcultural and trans-urban communication networks and infrastructures through which ideas, outrage, care and resources can flow. These ways of mobilising dissent brought to mind the political theorist Vicki Squire’s concept of ‘mobile solidarities’, through which care, support and citizenship claims are thickened as they move between and across human and geographical networks. Mobile solidarities with those whose presence is insecure and endangered, can be spontaneous and fleeting, but they can also be nurtured and substantiated through on-going effort, dialogue, attentiveness and shared learning.

What struck me about the case studies that we were offered was that they included campaigns that had failed to achieve a successful outcome. For example, another case we were invited to discuss was that of Isabella Acevedo, who had worked as a cleaner for the former immigration minister Mark Harper. “It may be surprising to include an example when the person was forcibly removed from the UK” our case studies booklet stated, “but it’s important to remember that the fight does not necessarily end when someone is removed, and we must look at what has been learnt by the campaign and what has been left behind and may help others in the future”.

More often than not campaigning work is marked by frustration, forced compromises and failure and it was valuable to see these aspects of social and political life recognised. Such work – interpreting and articulating counter narratives, mediating discursive chasms, listening to marginal voices, tending to hurt and injury, Image of Right to Remain Conference. Photo by Francis Ngale.tolerating uncertainty and not-knowing – seem vital in encouraging the improvisations that are necessary for sustaining our ‘mobile solidarities’. As the geographers Graham and Thrift (2007) have pointed out, despite its origins in failure and fault, in improvisation there is always hope: “Improvisation allows the work of maintenance and repair to go on when things may seem bleak and it takes a whole series of responses, from simple repetition (such as trying it again) through to attempts to improve communication so as to be clear exactly what the problem is, through disagreement over causes, through to complex theorizing, responses which are often the result of long and complex apprenticeships and other means of teaching…” (p.4).

Note

All photos by Francis Ngale