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 -

Migrants arriving on the Island of Lampedusa in August 2007. Sara Prestianni / noborder network –

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.”


Ordinary People

By Hannah Jones

On a Friday back in February, Kirsten and I attended the Detention Forum annual social event, which was in the form of a discussion ‘salon’, focusing on the question “what is immigration enforcement doing to us?”. There was a great turnout for an event confronting such a grim issue on a Friday evening. Many of those in attendance had also spent the day discussing immigration detention too, as part of the Forum’s campaign for a limit on the amount of time that people can be kept in immigration detention (the UK is the only European country where this can be indefinite).

Detention Forum Salon February 2015. L-R Ben du Preez, Aderonke Apata, Hannah Jones, Kirsten Forkert, Harley Miller, Ian Dunt, Eiri Ohtani. Photo courtesy of The Detention Forum.

Detention Forum Salon February 2015. L-R Ben du Preez, Aderonke Apata, Hannah Jones, Kirsten Forkert, Harley Miller, Ian Dunt, Eiri Ohtani. Photo courtesy of The Detention Forum.

We had been asked to share some of our findings as a way of kicking off the panel discussion. It was a lively discussion, and while there wasn’t much chance for the audience to engage with the debate in the room, several people there did make comments through Twitter (see #DFSalon for a taste of this). One comment in the discussion which seemed to resonate very strongly was the need to confront how immigration enforcement is no longer just about passport checks at the border, or even just uniformed officers patrolling the streets. Landlord checks being piloted in the West  Midlands mean all private landlords are charged with verifying the immigration status of any prospective tenant, under threat of fines, and it seems many are already making decisions based on guesswork. NHS staff are being asked to request proof of immigration status from patients, when they could be spending time on healthcare. Universities – and ‘even’ prestigious private schools – are  being required to report to the Home Office on the attendance of overseas students, with some setting up ‘immigration offices’ within the university and many going over and above the legal requirements, in fear of having their ability to host lucrative international students taken away. While university staff may try to avoid this – and to try avoid breaking the law on discrimination – by abiding by their union’s guidance and applying any such checks to all students, the consequences of missing a ‘monitoring point’ cannot be the same for UK and EU students as they may be for non-EU students, who risk being deported. Some of these instances of everyday passport control may be shocking, but also note that it has become unremarkable that employers now ask for a passport before issuing a contract of employment. In the case of employment, this is asked of everyone; in many of these other cases, it is likely that only those who ‘seem like’ they may not have citizenship or entitlement will be asked to prove they belong.

This takes us back to another key point raised at the Salon. Journalist Ian Dunt, who was also on the panel, made a strong argument for the need for news and comment stories to be ‘relatable’, that is, in order to care about an issue, or even read to the end of an article, readers should be able to see that it could happen to them or someone close to them. The example was given of another panellist at the event, Harley Miller. As she outlined in her presentation to the Salon, her encounter with Home Office Immigration Enforcement happened suddenly and was shocking to her, those around her, and the many people who picked up and followed her story as it went viral online. As an Australian previously married to an EU citizen, who had lived in the UK for many years on a perfectly legal visa and working in a highly skilled profession for the NHS, her life was turned upside down when the Home Office refused to renew her visa and her status in the UK – her home – became ‘illegal’. For Dunt, this story is one that ‘ordinary people’ can relate to, because they can identify with Harley and imagine themselves in her position, much as the campaign group BritCits has taken off as the clampdown on immigration rules increasingly affect all British citizens who might want to marry someone from outside the EU.

This raises interesting questions when we look at some of the results of our national survey[1] on reactions to immigration enforcement measures among the general population. When we asked people who were aware of Immigration Enforcement branded vans on UK streets how they felt about seeing these vans, 31% of people said they felt reassured that the government was taking action against illegal or irregular immigration. 28% said it made them concerned that some people are being treated with unnecessary suspicion. And 16% said it made them think that illegal or irregular immigration might be more widespread than they had realised. This suggests that, like many of the measures the government is using to demonstrate ‘toughness’, these vans barely reassure more people than they worry – and they actually increase worry among a significant number of people who see them.
Enforcement van graph

But then look at the breakdown between the reactions of white majority respondents, and ethnic minority respondents, to that question. More ‘white’ respondents (34%) were reassured than for the population as a whole. And far fewer ethnic minority respondents (21%) were reassured by these vans. This was reversed for those who were concerned that the vans may indicate that some people were being treated with unnecessary suspicion – only 25% of white respondents thought this, but 36% of ethnic minority respondents. That is, ethnic minority respondents were much  more likely to see the enforcement vans as a stunt, but also as a stunt that could result in unfair treatment. Ethnic minority respondents were also much more likely to be aware of these vans (23%) than white respondents (16%).

This suggests that there may well be a connection between being able to see oneself in a situation, and how one reacts to it. That ethnic minority respondents were so much more likely than white people to worry about people being treated with unfair suspicion as a result of more high visibility immigration enforcement raids may well have something to do with their experience of being unfairly treated with suspicion in similar situations. As one of our focus group respondents told us,

“people can’t tell who is legal or illegal and they make judgements based on your appearance, sometimes that changes when they hear your accent”

So what do people mean when they say ‘ordinary people’? Aderonke Apata, who also talked about her experience at the Detention Forum Salon, is an ‘ordinary person’ too. Actually, she’s extraordinary in many ways – her survival and her campaigning, and her recognition as a role model attest to that. But she is also ordinary in that her main demand is ‘I want to be who I am’. In order to survive, she had to flee the country she lived in, survive the murders of many people close to her, endure immigration detention in the UK where she also experienced homophobic harassment, and sleep on the streets to avoid deportation to a country where she would be punished for her homosexuality with up to 14 years in prison. She is continuing to appeal her asylum case after the most recent ruling on her case by a High Court Judge on the basis that he did not believe she is a lesbian, despite her providing evidence of her relationships with women. It might be hard for many people in the UK to imagine that series of events happening to them. But maybe they could imagine themselves or someone they know being persecuted for their sexuality. And maybe it doesn’t take such a great leap to see the connections between that, and Aderonke’s experience.

Ian Dunt argued that the politicians, journalists and decision makers still tend to be middle class white men who will identify more with ‘people like them’ (as London Mayor Boris Johnson’s statements on UK-Australian immigration seem to attest). But there is nothing particularly ‘ordinary’ about politicians, journalists and decision makersIsn’t it time that campaigners, commentators and others recognise that ‘ordinary people’ are not made in the image of the London elite, but have lives and experiences that are complex, diverse, and that can allow for identification with and care for people in all sorts of situations – including immigration detention?

And time too for journalists, campaigners, and even social researchers to start to recognise that many ‘ordinary people’ have been on the sharp end of immigration enforcement for a long while?

Ordinary people are not just subject to immigration enforcement, they are also increasingly being required to enact it. What is this doing to all of ‘us’?

[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.

Hands and Chants: bodies and borders at a protest at Yarl’s Wood

It’s a blustery and sunny day. As the protesters snake along the side of a field, Yarl’s Wood comes into view. Yarl’s Wood is tucked away out of sight on the edge of a business park outside Bedford. To one side a motorway, on the other green fields. Two perimeter fences stand between the protest and the detention centre. As we approach the end of the track, the volume of the protest increases (‘Shut it down! Shut it down!’) and we see hands sticking through the windows. The windows must barely open, the hands and arms can only squeeze through up to the elbow. On the right, an orange scarf is waved. In two of the windows I can make out figures of women but either the windows are mirrored or the light is such that the hands are all we can see of most of the people inside. After a while, alongside our own chanting, we can hear noise coming from inside. There is a ‘shushing’ among the crowd and a chant of ‘freedom’ from within becomes audible.

Photo by Geraldine Smith

Photo by Geraldine Smith

Travelling across London to get to my coach to the demo, I had been reading ‘Death and the Migrant’ by Yasmin Gunaratnam. It is a beautiful and urgent piece of writing about the coming together of migration histories and end of life care in the bodies and experiences of dying migrants. The book reflects on the interactions between people at the end of their lives and those who care for them. In Yasmin’s book there are fumblings, moments where palliative care workers get it wrong, often through being worried about causing offence to someone due to worries about cultural differences. But the book also uncovers moments where new ways to alleviate or grasp suffering come out of interaction and negotiation at the borders of bodies and of life and death.

What kind of exchange is our waving and chanting across the border fences at Yarl’s Wood? What does it do? It is an expression of solidarity and an attempt to bridge a border with bodies, through physical gestures and making noise. It relies on volume because the gap between the groups is so wide. It is a highly-charged affective and emotional event that resonates differently in our bodies, according to what side of the fence we are on and our previous experiences. There are tears at the fence. Some on the demonstration side know what it is like to be kept inside this place. Earlier in the day Lydia Besong, from Women Asylum Seekers Together, spoke about what it meant to revisit Yarl’s Wood where she had previously been detained. She described being able to ‘smell the place in the air ‘. For those of us who have not experienced the horrors of detention, this moment of hearing voices and seeing hands brings for a moment a different kind of connection to the suffering inside.

Photo by Geraldine Smith

Photo by Geraldine Smith

Carrying out the ‘Mapping Immigration Controversy’ research project has involved examining how the border is brought into everyday spaces, from the hospital waiting room to the street, through anti-immigration campaigns and resonate differently, through bodies in place and time. It has involved sitting down with people who have been scared by these campaigns for a variety of reasons – their experiences of detention or racism, or because their fears of immigration have been exacerbated. Our focus groups were often highly emotional events. They were characterised by powerful stories of fear and anxiety, and by bodies shaking with rage or blinking back tears. The project is now coming to a close and we have the challenge of communicating our findings back in a way that conveys some of this embodied experience of the border in everyday life.

A gust unfixes a placard from its stick and it blows across the cornfield, away from Yarl’s Wood. I recognise it from a workshop carried out with women asylum seekers and the choir I am in. This is another alliance characterised by both fumbling and moments of connection and solidarity. The cardboard sign reads ‘we are all human’. The choir walks back to the bus.

Bread and Roses, Aspiration and Dreams

By Sukhwant Dhaliwal

Photo Credit: 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.