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

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 -

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.