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.

 

Who’s being ignored when politicians claim they are “listening to concerns about immigration”?

A common narrative underpinning many current debates on immigration is that voters’ concerns about immigration were once ignored, but are now being “listened to” by politicians.

Across the political spectrum, politicians are now claiming they’re listening to those previously ignored voters, in particular around the Rochester and Strood by-election, which saw UKIP gain its second MP. Nigel Farage claimed that the key to the by-election success was that ‘we listened to people.

UKIP Campaign In Rochester Before Upcoming By-election

In a speech on 18 November outlining plans to curb in-work benefits to EU migrants who have been in the country for less than two years, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves said that “I also believe that we have to listen to the real concerns that people have about how immigration is being managed”.

Rachel Reeves

On 28 November, David Cameron’s speech (which proposed denying in-work benefits to EU migrants in the country for less than four years – twice as long as the Labour proposal), stated that “And to the British people I say this: I share your concern and I am acting on it”.

Screen-Shot-2014-11-28-at-10.38.10

The narrative of the previously ignored voter who must now be listened to is the flipside of equally common assertion that “we don’t talk about immigration” because it supposedly disrupts some sort of liberal, politically correct consensus (presumably made up of those who “don’t listen”)– and that by doing so politicians and commentators can present themselves as courageous contrarian populists (Gavin Titley takes this apart in How to Write a Racist Anti-Racist Article). Cameron alluded to this in the Europe speech as well: “It’s time we talked about this properly.

It is not difficult to imagine how this “silent majority” of previously ignored voters is being imagined and constructed: UKIP supporters, or potential UKIP supporters (frequently described as “left behind”, a characterisation which also frames them as being ignored)—who, in the current divisive political climate, have come to stand in for the general public. This fits in with a commonsense narrative where, as John Grayson puts it, racist or xenophobic views are simply held by the electorate, and then politicians claim to give them voice, in this case, by assertions that they are listening. However, these repeated assertions of “listening “ both ignore and obscure the concerns of another group of people:  the migrants themselves, whose rights and access to public services are directly affected by these policy initiatives (the very policies which are formulated to show that politicians are “listening”). According to the campaign organisation Migrant Voice, only 12% of news articles on immigration actually quote a migrant.

The focus groups we carried out with migrants and ethnic minority British citizens reveal how high-profile immigration campaigns make them feel unwelcome.  One focus group participant in Birmingham said that that the “Go Home” van made him feel that he would never belong to British society.

That makes me feel paranoid of the general British public, to be honest with you, when I saw it on the news… It makes me feel like no matter what happens, what my outcome is, I will never fit in and become a British citizen, yeah, because of this “Go home” van because it’s reminiscent of back in the days when they used to be blatantly racist towards people. 

Another focus group participant in Barking and Dagenham described how the vans were interpreted as telling people to “go home”, regardless of their circumstances or immigration status:

It was more personal and it’s like, you know, people took it personally, you don’t know my circumstances, but yet you tell me to go home and it was quite bad, that’s how people felt it.

In Ealing and Hounslow, a second-generation Asian focus group participant made comparisons to the 1970s, and remarked that the state is doing the same work today that the skinheads did then.

Commenting on the immigration debate in the media, a focus group participant in Coventry said that:  I never read an article or even a small subject or article in the newspaper saying a single positive thing about immigration. The stereotypes of the “bogus asylum seeker” or the migrant as “scrounger” who was taking advantage of the British taxpayer were both frequently brought up by focus group participants in terms of how migrants were being represented in the media.

benefits

Our research shows that by attempting to reassure one particular section of society, by showing that they are “listening”, politicians are ignoring the concerns of others, alienating them, and in some cases removing their rights and access to public services. As the 2015 election approaches and the immigration debate intensifies, this leads to questions about whether migrants are actually even considered to be part of the public, particularly if the general public is increasingly being framed as the “silent majority” who hold anti-immigration views, and who must be continually reassured that politicians are listening (and what will finally make them satisfied that they are being “listened to”?).  Campaigns such as Migrants’ Rights Network’s Our Vote, as well as the Operation Black Vote challenge these sorts of narratives, through arguing that there are others whose concerns matter too.

Immigration and the collapse of statistical reason

By Will Davies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infectious fear – telling immigration stories

By Yasmin Gunaratnam

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

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

VOTER: Immigration from Eastern Europe.

PM: How do you think it harms us?

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

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

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

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

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

Ann: Yeah.

Joe: This is our home, isn’t it?

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

Joe: Yes.

Ann: A lot of the undesirables are here.

Yasmin: Do you mean here particularly in Dagenham?

Ann: All over the country.

Fred: All over the country.

Ann: All over the country.

Joe: Everywhere’s got the same problem.

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

Joe: Thieves and vagabonds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘That was in London, not here’: Talking anti-immigration campaigns and belonging with asylum seekers and refugees in Glasgow

‘All the rules you are using here in Scotland … the Home Office, their rules, they are getting them from England.’

It is the eve of the Scottish Independence Referendum and I’m analysing a transcript of a focus group that I conducted this summer with asylum seekers and refugees in Glasgow for our project ‘Mapping Immigration Controversy’. As part of our research we are conducting focus groups with various groups in cities across the UK to map the impact of anti-immigration campaigns. The discussion, based in the offices of our research partners Positive Action in Housing, was wide-ranging. People talked about poor housing provision, about being treated badly by the Home Office, about being separated from loved ones, about the indignities of destitution. It was an emotionally charged morning, there were expressions of anger, frustration and loss, and some of hope. There were also complex feelings expressed about belonging and home. This came out in reflections on the ‘Go Home’ posters that were circulated in the summer of 2013 on vans and in Home Office registration centres in Glasgow and London. As one woman from Zimbabwe commented ‘I’ve been here for 13 years, now they are saying ‘go home’. Where am I going to start off?’

I’m trying to untangle some of these feelings and stories about nation, city and home, loss, dislocation and injustice amidst the noise of the referendum build-up outside. Most, if not all, of the participants in this group will not have a vote tomorrow.

There was a general feeling among the group that Glasgow was a friendly place, that people here were accepting and that although there was racism, it was better than other places. People talked about living in areas that were stigmatised and said that although others thought these were bad places, for them this was home. One woman said ‘people say Ibrox is a dangerous place to be, but to me I have never experienced that. I have been in that same place. For more than three years I have stayed in Glasgow, so it is like my birth home.’ Another woman reflected on her experiences in a different Scottish city:

‘People in Glasgow they are good, and it is changing my life, and to know what is wrong, what is good, because when I was in [Scottish City] there were a few asylum seekers, and you can’t even come out to say to people, “I’m an asylum seeker” it’s like you are danger to people. It was hard to come out, but here in Glasgow I am happy.’

As the first UK city to accept dispersed asylum seekers from London, Glasgow has a well-developed, though under-funded, infrastructure of groups fighting for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. This activist network was drawn on to explain why Glasgow was different (‘there is a big anti-racism campaign, and I think today evening there is a meeting in STUC about arranging a demonstration…’). Other cities in England and Scotland and other countries (particularly Spain and France) were used as unfavourable comparisons. Notably, when people had experienced racism within Glasgow this was blamed on the Home Office and the media (‘don’t blame the people out there, blame the Government’). However, a caution on comments that suggested racism was declining in the city was raised by a man who asked the others ‘If you are being positive about racism, why are we talking about “go home”?’

It was striking that in the ensuing discussion of the ‘Go Home’ campaign, the Home Office was cast as a UK imposition on Scotland. Some of the group had seen the posters in person at the Home Office registration but one man was adamant that this had not happened in Glasgow, ‘It’s not here that happened, it’s not in Scotland but that happened in London’. This echoes discourse about the ‘Go Home’ campaign coming from the Scottish National Party. While the campaign was condemned by all political parties in Scotland, as I noted in a previous blog, the SNP have drawn on this campaign to highlight how UK policy on asylum and immigration is not in keeping with Scottish attitudes or the proposals for immigration and asylum in the White Paper on independence, which include the closing of Dungavel Detention Centre. Thus an unwelcoming UK is held up against a welcoming Scotland and a promise of a fairer society to come. The White Paper on Independence explicitly draws on the ‘Go Home’ campaign:

‘One of the major gains from independence for Scotland will be responsibility for our own immigration policy. Currently immigration is a reserved matter, and the Westminster Government’s policy for the whole of the UK is heavily influenced by conditions in the south east of England. Westminster has also adopted an aggressive approach to immigration, asylum seekers and refugees, culminating in the recent controversy over advertisements to tell people to leave the UK and “go home”.’

These proposed changes for the future of asylum and immigration policy in Scotland are also part of a wider discussion on Scottish nationalism and Scottishness as an inclusive identity. A recent study found that almost all ethnic minority groups in Scotland were more likely to claim a Scottish identity in Scotland, than an English identity in England. Scottish Asian people such as MSP Humza Yousaf have been central to the Yes campaign and to some degree the SNP seems to have been successful in managing to put forward an inclusive version of Scottishness, although as Nasar Meer rightly cautions in a nuanced article on the subject ‘Politicians love to be photographed next to ethnic minorities in kilts’.

The argument that Scotland needs migration in the face of a declining population pre-dates the referendum and local government in Glasgow has also put forward a pro-migration approach. But for those in the focus group an independent Scotland represented a welcome change in asylum policy and chance for Scotland to free itself from the Home Office. At the end of our discussion, talk turned to the referendum. ‘I know you are originally from England’ said one man to me ‘I’m not racist [laughs] but no problem, I am going to be honest with you. The problem is the government [in] England is very, very, very bad … This is why I am going to say “yes” if I have [the] right to vote.’

All of the group agreed that they would vote ‘Yes’ if they had a vote. This is just one focus group that is part of a much bigger set of discussions taking place throughout Scotland. These are voices that are seldom heard and who are excluded from the democratic process but who will be greatly affected by what follows. As one woman put it:

‘We are the ones who actually want this change, we want this change more, because of what they’ve written in the White Paper about closing down the detention centre, about reforming the Home Office here in Glasgow. As refugees and asylum seekers we want that.’