Research in extraordinary times

Bridget Anderson introduces our new blog series, Letter from Afar, in which we invite colleagues from across the world to tell us about their life and work in times of COVID-19. Answers welcome!

Dear Friends,

I hope you are well – COVID-19 has turned that platitude into a genuine wish – I truly hope you are well.

I am writing with news from a virtual Bristol. In fact, I’m writing from Newport in South Wales, where I’m staying with my elderly parents who are particularly vulnerable at this time. Right now in the UK we are being strongly discouraged from going outside other than to shop for necessities and take an hour’s exercise. As I write we’re seven weeks into lockdown, and it’s proving tough. It’s tough enough for me, and I’m in the privileged position of having access to a garden. I keep thinking of people in flats with toddlers and teenagers. Like in many other countries, domestic violence is on the rise. We need some pushback on the assumption that home is a safe place. But others don’t have a home to go to. It’s particularly difficult for migrants who have ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ (NRPF) as one of their visa conditions, or who are undocumented or asylum seekers. The Government has advised Local Authorities to (temporarily) house everyone including NRPF people, but it is not clear where the money will come from.

The University of Bristol has shut all offices so we can’t access books and papers, and we are all adjusting to working from home. There are clearly financial fears and the vulnerabilities of precarious working in the sector have been exposed. Budgets have been frozen and staff laid off: similar processes are happening at other universities.

There are also consequences for research, as I’m sure you too are experiencing. Together with colleagues Jon Fox, Therese O’Toole, David Manley and Natalie Hyacinth I was about to start fieldwork on the Everyday Integration project in Bristol. We were going to deploy innovative methods including flash focus groups on buses and Uber rides, none of which are possible now. At a time of ‘social distancing’ we are actively being told to ‘dis-integrate’ for our own health. We are re-thinking how to proceed, perhaps by observing the period of ‘re-integration’ that we are all going to have to go through when we emerge from lockdown. ‘Integration’, whatever was meant by that term, is going to look very different now. Yet at the same time connections between us are being revealed (who knew we would be connected to a bat in Wuhan – talk about a butterfly flapping its wings!) and new ways of connecting are being forged. I’m on a mission to change the language from ‘social distancing’ to ‘physical distancing’, for we are not socially distant at all.

In the UK, as in many places, the pandemic is also revealing the crucial role that migrants play in our societies – disrespected ‘low skilled’ workers have turned into ‘key workers’ and many of them are migrants. So focussed have we been on the impact of migrant workers as an abnormal phenomenon that affects an otherwise normal labour market, that the politics has missed the fact that in some sectors migrants are normal and are needed to keep things ‘normal’. But at the same time as being key to socio-economic life, migrants are marginalised in state responses to the crisis. If you missed the EUI webinar on this then you could take a look at the recording here. These discussions are important as we need to be prepared for the tsunami of nationalism that appears to be building. Did you see that a couple of days ago in Australia there was a call for migration restrictions?

It is worth reflecting on how some of our experiences are a pale reflection of what migrants have endured for years. It is partly to do with separation from loved ones – I can’t bear speaking to the children by Skype when all I want to do is hug them – but it is also to do with time. We are inhabiting a kind of ‘precarious migrant time’ – stuck in a permanent temporariness that makes thinking about the future very difficult.

I don’t want to fall for the ‘we are all in it together’ kind of line, given how this virus is exposing gross inequalities that are, quite literally, sickening. But we do need to build our intellectual and affective community so we can learn from and support each other. So here I am, writing a letter, and hoping to hear back from you.

In solidarity and with affection,


Bridget Anderson is Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship at the University of Bristol and Director of Migration Mobilities Bristol.

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