Brexit Response 1: On the mis/uses of Sunderland as Brexit symbol

by Emma Jackson

Sunderland.jpg

Picture from Right to Remain

On election night I always proudly watch as my hometown is first to declare. First to declare and always Labour, although the worrying UKIP proportion at the last election should have been a warning sign. In the referendum, though, Sunderland has taken on a different kind of symbolism. ‘Did you know it was Sunderland that threw the markets on Thursday night?’ my colleague tells me afterwards (61% Leave, 39% Remain). Later in the day I find myself in tears at a story about a neo-Nazi display at a school I used to walk past on the way to primary school, and that many of my friends attended. The story concerned an event that happened in October but it had a visceral impact on me. I think because seeing these displays on the streets where you grew up ‘hits home’ but also because over the last few weeks my hometown has become shorthand for stories of ‘the state of the nation’ in troubling ways. In short, Sunderland is being used as a marker of a narrative about Brexit as a protest vote by deindustrialised white working class people – who are then set in contrast to a metropolitan multicultured elite. The reality is that both Sunderland and white working class people are more complicated than that. And that by focusing in on Sunderland as representing this situation other stories are left out.

 

That Sunderland voted ‘Leave’ was not a surprise. There had been a flurry of pieces on Sunderland before the referendum. As Gary Younge has pointed out, journalists have headed into the North of England and ‘anthropologised the British working class as though they were a lesser evolved breed from distant parts, all too often portraying them as bigots who did not know what was good for them.’ If a simplistic story about a disenfranchised white working class is what you are looking for then you can find this in Sunderland. In a New York Times piece (yes, even the New York Times is sending journalists to Sunderland) a young man called John is interviewed:

“We’re segregated from the south, and the north is a barren wasteland,” he said, wearing a heavy black leather jacket with metal studs despite the summer heat. “It’s us against them.”

“The E.U. is a mystery to us,” he added. “We’ve never heard about it up here.”

‘This depressed northern city is like ground zero for the Brexit movement’ begins a piece in The Irish Times

Sunderland as location and representative of working class loss has also been explored in Grayson Perry’s programme ‘In the best possible taste’.

I do not want to trivialise the feelings of disconnect expressed through these accounts or the portrayals of post-industrial neglect that they point towards. Sunderland has been repeatedly clobbered, its shipyards and mines closed down and now it is part of one of the regions bearing the brunt of the Government cuts. If you live in a city that is a Labour stronghold (so you can’t vote the Conservatives out) and suffering from disinvestment, cuts and disillusionment with the council (see for example the wranglings over the use of the Vaux brewery site) then I can see how voting Leave does feel like exerting some kind of control or sending a message to those in power. And these are the kinds of stories that run through these newspaper accounts of Sunderland. But, and there is always a but, that is not the whole story.

Firstly, this tight focus on the deindustrialised white working class (lumped all together as a group without considering how whiteness is constructed and groups incorporated and excluded over time, see also Satnam Virdee’s excellent book) as the Brexit story misses state, elite and middle class forms of racism which may be institutionalised, more polite, or less visible. It focuses on vocal expressions of xenophobia without probing what Paul Gilroy calls ‘post-colonial melancholia’, a longing for the glory days of prosperity and ship-building that are tied up with histories of empire. It reaffirms a key argument of the Leave campaign, which as Akwugo Emejulu has argued, was the promotion of a story of ‘white victimhood’ rather than interrogate the logic and effects of austerity:

‘a key argument of the campaign was that the ‘working class’ (who were unquestionably assumed to be white) were suffering under the burden of mass immigration, which transformed the culture of their neighbourhoods and put undue strain on public services.’

Furthermore, it misses complex stories of racism and resistance that exist in places like Sunderland. The far right has tried many times to gain ground in Sunderland, and the North East more widely. Attempting to capitalise on the dispersal of asylum seekers to Sunderland and in the wake of the murder of Peyman Bahmani in 2003, an asylum seeker living in the city, the BNP tried to whip up support and contested every ward in the city that year – but failed to win any seats. And much earlier than this in the 1990s, and on a more anecdotal level of resistance, I remember my friend’s mam not only telling a BNP canvasser where to go, but chasing him down the garden path. At this time, I was part of an anti-racist youth group that used to go and demonstrate against the BNP across the North East. In 2012, a spate of demos by the EDL et al were held in Millfield, the area I grew up in, against a mosque being built – and were met with fierce resistance.

I heard more everyday and recent accounts of racism and resistance in Sunderland described by Anoop Nayak in a recent talk – if you are interested in the inter-relationships of race and class in the North East of England then read his work because this is based on years of research in the region. Racism is a real and continuing problem in the city and Anoop’s most recent work focuses on young Bengali people in Sunderland (and another coastal area in the North East). There is a small but well-established Bengali community in Sunderland whose experiences I have not seen included in these discussions of Sunderland as the epitome of ‘Leave’. The expansion of the University has also impacted on the ethnic make-up of Sunderland. The city is putting forward a City of Culture bid and has a lively music and arts scene (with many key figures coming from the ‘white working class’), best represented by the Pop Recs shop/gig space/almost community centre. I suppose what I am saying is that Sunderland is more complex, or that there are other Sunderlands. There are other predominantly working class cities too, that do not mirror these voting patterns: Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow.

In our project ‘Mapping Immigration Controversies’ we examined how anti-immigration campaigns intervened in specific places. For example, in Glasgow, in the run-up to the independence referendum, the ‘Go Home’ campaigns were interpreted as an English/Westminster intervention in a more caring Scotland. Alongside encounters with racism and xenophobia we heard of resistance and support. If we are trying to understand the voting patterns across the UK, and if we are to challenge new iterations of old racisms, then it is crucial to examine the different kinds of spatial and social histories in which the referendum intervened. The metropolitan elite/regional whiteworkingclass division is just too simplistic to help us do that work. Meanwhile, I suspect journalists looking for a post-referendum state of the nation snapshot will continue to visit Sunderland’s tattoo parlours and hair salons. What effect will this have on the city, I wonder? And what effect on our understandings of racism and class?

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Photograph by Hannah Jones

Is Theresa May a threat to a cohesive society?

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

Theresa_May_visits_Olympic_Park_2011 - refugees welcome here

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph by Hannah Jones

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

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

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

By Yasmin Gunaratnam and Hannah Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Hannah Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Roiyah Saltus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hannah Jones, University of Warwick

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

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

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

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

Going too far

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stirred into action

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

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

Rise up: a
Reuters/Leonhard Foeger

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Conversation

Hannah Jones is Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick

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

Do fences reinforce what it means to be human?

By Hannah Jones

Migrants arriving on the Island of Lampedusa in August 2007. Sara Prestianni / noborder network - http://www.flickr.com/photos/noborder/2495544558/

Migrants arriving on the Island of Lampedusa in August 2007. Sara Prestianni / noborder network – http://www.flickr.com/photos/noborder/2495544558/

Over the summer, national attention has been drawn to the ‘migrant crisis’ at the border between Britain and France. With at least 3,000 people living in temporary accommodation in Calais while they await a decision on whether they will be allowed to stay in France, many are also trying to cross the channel to the UK – risking their lives as they do so. This has been going on for many months – but came to a head over the summer as disruption was also caused by strikes by transport workers in French ports.

The UK government response has been to identify the people trying to come to Britain as a threat, and to make ever-escalating promises to keep them away. Having already spent £7 million on fences and security on the French side of the border, the Home Secretary is today signing a deal with the French government to invest further in security, including through a jointly run “command-and-control centre” to further “target criminals who smuggle migrants into France”. This follows the Prime Minister’s comments that characterised people crossing the Channel as a “swarm” while expressing “every sympathy with holidaymakers who are finding access to Calais difficult” in response to the death of a man trying to enter the Channel Tunnel. Meanwhile the Labour MP Keith Vaz declared that the French government should “deport [migrants] back to their countries” – despite all the talk of ‘illegal immigration’, it is rarely mentioned that this in itself would contravene international law if the people being deported were in danger in their countries of origin.

Newspaper coverage repeatedly discusses how the “migrant crisis” is of much larger magnitude in other countries of Europe – the German government estimates it will receive 800,000 asylum applications by the end of the year while nearly 50,000 migrants entered Greece by sea in the one month of July 2015, and 90,000 have entered Italy so far in 2015. 2,000 people have already died in the Mediterranean this year trying to enter Europe; 3,279 died in 2014. By contrast, the numbers of people successfully entering Britain through the Channel Tunnel are in the low hundreds. Yet the government’s emphasis remains on the entry of migrants to Britain as a threat which must be tackled with ever tougher measures.

Our research demonstrates that this ever-increasing “toughness” on migration only increases fear and anxiety. This is true for people who think migration is too high; for people who are concerned about the well-being of migrants; and for people who are migrants themselves, or feel that others will see them as such. Yet the tough talk continues, not only at Calais, but also seen over the summer in the government announcement of increased measures to make sure public service workers speak English, alongside drastic cuts to English language teaching which is already unable to cater to the number of people who desperately wish to learn or improve their English. Government policies on being “tough” not only increase anger and fear without reassuring a worried public, but they appear to lead to increased harassment of ethnic minority British citizens and settled migrants, while there is no evidence that such measures actually reduce any of the problems associated with the migration crisis.

20150620_171719Our research also showed that government campaigns demonstrating “toughness” on immigration have produced new waves of activism to counter them. This can also be seen in reactions to the situation at Calais and across Europe, with increasing number of ordinary people arranging journeys to support people in the camp at Calais, comments by the Bishop of Dover, and calls for support for refugees from senior figures in Britain’s Jewish community.

Our research showed complex attitudes about immigration control across the country, which do not easily map onto the widespread assumption that the majority of British people are hostile to migration as a whole, or to people seeking refuge. We were told by migrants who had come to Britain, that they wanted to come because of the “British values” of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs which this government continues to celebrate. If the government is serious about such values, perhaps it might consider taking the lead of the cyclists taking help to people in need, and the Bishop of Dover’s call to “rediscover what it is to be a human, and that every human being matters.”