Digital home working and its sustainability potential: human immobility and the mobilities of stuff

Special series on Migration, Mobilities and the Environment, in association with the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

By Chris Preist and Dale Southerton.

Despite the huge human and economic costs of the COVID pandemic, many commentators have observed that this disruption – or shock – to our resource-intensive daily lives could offer a catalyst for the great societal transformations necessary to meet the climate emergency.

Radical growth of home working is an oft-cited example. According to Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures 50% of those in employment did some work from home in April 2020. This mainstreaming of home working has been facilitated by the rapid appropriation of digital devices and services into our everyday lives. It has been accompanied by equally rapid development of cultural skills and competencies required to (collectively) use those devices and services in a satisfactory way. And has led to major adjustments in how we work but also how we shop, interact, use our homes, engage with our local communities, learn, care for others and so on.

Home working during the pandemic, March 2020 (image: Simon Evans on flickr)

The question is whether these shifts could lead to systemic environmental gains. Is it an environmental ‘good’ or ‘bad’? As ever with academics, our answer is ‘it’s not straightforward…’, but when viewed from a systemic perspective it does offer an opportunity to re-imagine sustainable ways of life.

When considering the environmental impacts of any technology or practice, understanding will be shaped by the scope of the analysis: what is considered inside the system being studied and what is ignored. A narrow scope, focused only on the technological parts of the system, makes it more straightforward to quantify the results (such as a ‘carbon footprint’ of something) but means missing out the broader implications – such as how any technology interacts with diverse social practices. One approach to this problem is to consider different scopes for analysis that address the direct, indirect and systemic impacts of a technology. We apply this framing to home working to consider some possibilities.

Direct impacts are the environmental costs of constructing, using and disposing of a technology. Engineering methods, such as life cycle assessment (LCA) (or more colloquially, ‘carbon footprinting’) can be used to model the technology’s life cycle, systematically collect the relevant data and then apportion the ‘environmental burden’ to the different applications of that technology. In the case of digital home working, this will include the impacts of manufacturing the equipment used and providing the electricity to keep it operational: both the home laptops and Wi-Fi, but also a share of the networking equipment used to connect workers with their offices and each other, and the data centres used to power the applications they use. Accounting for this ‘hidden materiality’, and the large consumption of energy used by data centres, has led to some fearing that the impacts of digital home working are substantial. Applying University of Bristol models developed for digital services to video conferencing suggests that the truth is somewhere between the two. A ballpark estimate for the climate impact of a one-hour video conference, for example, would be about 50-100g CO2e depending on the setup used – roughly equivalent to driving 400-800m in a typical family car. This suggests that we should not let concerns about the direct environmental impact of digital services put us off a move to home working.

Indirect impacts are the environmental costs of changing social practices related to the digital service. What do people stop doing? What do they start doing? Again, LCA can be used to quantify these – but only if one understands the nature of these changes. Social science insights are essential here, both to identify what changes to practice might occur, and to collect the data to quantify the extent to which they change across diverse populations.

In the case of home working, the most obvious changes to practice are reduction in travel to work and decreases in energy use within workplaces. These two factors will potentially be substantially larger than the direct impacts of technology use – but will be more variable and harder to predict across the population. Reductions in heating and lighting in the workplace were, it would appear, largely offset by rises of domestic energy use (Hook et al., 2020). The most dramatic potential environmental savings are from the sharp reduction in commuting, with the Department for Transport reporting a 60% reduction in private car usage during 2020 and a 90% decline in the use of public transport. But even here we must consider a range of related indirect effects of the apparent immobility of people. During the same period, we witnessed a huge increase in online shopping as people ordered their goods for home delivery. The ONS shows that online retail sales increased from just under 19% of total retail sales in November 2019 to almost 40% within a year. Groceries, clothing, household products and takeaway foods saw the largest growth.

The digital devices and services that allowed us to adapt so quickly to conditions of apparent human immobility also offered the technological affordances and cultural skills necessary for a commensurate growth in the circulation of goods, ordered online and delivered (often as individual items) to the homes of the immobile. Measuring these effects – especially if trying to capture the relative weighting of a trip to the shopping mall to purchase multiple items versus delivery of multiple individual items purchased online – would be necessary to estimate indirect impacts.

Systemic impacts consist of a huge range of elements that shape, and are shaped by, technologies and social practices. In the case of home working, we pick out three core elements: infrastructures, cultures, and modes of provision. To consider the impact and potential of home working we need to recognise the changing home to include the re-purposing of space for home offices and the technologies required, from the high tech (digital devices and networks) to the low tech (desks and storage). Local communities are also changing, and development of local service infrastructures to support mass home working (for example, the re-invention of the local high street) together with a corresponding decline of city-based office infrastructures will be required if home working is to be viable over the longer term. Each of these changes come with their own direct and indirect environmental impacts.

Cultural shifts must also be considered. Workplace cultures of presenteeism, long working hours, the status of private offices, and daily meetings are all challenged by home-working regimes. In addition, the rising use of digital platforms shows signs of fostering modes of provision through informal networks (such as familial and community based) that have, in recent history, been marginalised by the dominance of market modes of provision. Community sharing initiatives (such as food box schemes, local delivery hubs, community stores) coupled with the accumulating practical challenges of privately owned goods (as symbolised by the increasing percentage of domestic space devoted to storing seldomly used consumer goods and the decreasing use of expensive private cars) have been argued to indicate a shift towards collaborative consumption: the rejection of privately owned goods in favour of sharing (Southerton and Warde, forthcoming). While the direct and indirect environmental impacts of such systemic shifts are unknown, the potential to reduce the material flows of goods and reduce the impacts of human mobility are clear.

Thinking in terms of the systemic implications of home working – symbolised by the immobility of people and rising mobility of goods during COVID – is more important than only measuring direct and indirect impacts. As things stand, we are moving in the direction of ‘hybrid’ working, presumably on the grounds of a ‘best of both worlds’ assumption. From a systems level perspective there is a huge risk that we end up with two systems: workplaces and home working. Whether this ends up being the worst of both worlds, layering new resource-efficient systems over old resource-intensive systems, will largely depend on whether debates regarding the post-COVID world takes the opportunity to re-imagine and re-configure the systemic impacts of technology and human practice on the environment (Geels et al., 2015).

Chris Preist is Professor of Sustainability and Computer Systems at the University of Bristol. His research focuses on the environmental impact of digital technology and consumer electronic goods. Dale Southerton is Professor in Sociology of Consumption and Organisation at the University of Bristol. He studies consumption, its role in organising everyday lives and its significance in processes of societal change.

A tale of two worlds: national borders versus a common planet

By Nandita Sharma.

We live in a world whose political organisation in no way corresponds with the way we live our lives. This is true ecologically. It may be a cliché but it is plainly evident that the Earth’s atmosphere is not divided by national boundaries. Greenhouse gases cause the same degree of global warming no matter where they are produced. It is also true economically. Living beings are tied to one another through a cycle of capitalist production and consumption, one given force by past and present practices of expropriation and exploitation. It is also true socially. We are both attached and reliant to people and other living beings outside of whatever national boundaries we find ourselves in.

Yet, we have a political system of nation-states that divides us from each other on the basis of nationality. We have nation-states that claim land and air and water as their sovereign territory, that claim people, other animals and plants as theirs, that claim to have the exclusive power to determine who enters their national space and under what conditions. The consequences of this system are enormous. Which of the world’s nation-states one is a citizen of matters. The economist Branko Milanovic has argued that, today, almost three-quarters of global inequality is due to one’s national citizenship. As such, nationals in a Rich World nation-state are provided with what he calls a ‘citizenship rent’.

Nicosia, 2019 (Image by Ittmust on flickr)

Now, national citizenship matters because nation-states across this international system limit its obtainment. As Benedict Anderson pointed out in his book, Imagined Communities (1983), the national organisation of society is one in which the political community is always imagined as a limited community. Because no nation encompasses all the world’s people, nor wants to, immigration and citizenship controls become crucial technologies for nation-making (and nation-maintaining) strategies. They are also key technologies for implementing a racist global apartheid, which, like the South African apartheid of the mid-to-late-20th century, is based on citizenship.

The process of nationalising state sovereignty and putting in place an exclusionary regime based on national citizenship began in the Americas in the 19th century. By the 1960s, the national form of state sovereignty had become the dominant form. It is at this point that we can say that a new global order emerged, one that I call the Postcolonial New World Order.

Postcolonialism is not to be confused with decolonisation. Instead, postcolonialism marks the end of the political legitimacy of imperial-state sovereignty and the beginning of the hegemony of national forms of state sovereignty. In a postcolonial system of governance, people across the world are defined as part of separated ‘nations’ and ruled through the combined operations of nation-state sovereignty, international bodies and the global circulation of capital.

After the Second World War, with astonishing speed, the near-global space of imperial-states was mostly nationalised. Between 1945 and 1960 alone, three dozen new nation-states in Asia and Africa were granted either a restricted autonomy or outright independence from empires. In the 1960s, the two most powerful imperial-states entering the Second World War —the British and the French—lost the vast majority of their global empires and nationalised the sovereignty of their imperial metropoles. Like the other nation-states formed before them, each marked their newfound national form of sovereignty with new citizenship and immigration controls.

For those colonised people who did not obtain ‘their own’ national territorial sovereignty, the demand for it continues to define their struggles. For many who identify – and have been identified – as Hawaiians or Mohawks, Armenians or Kurds, Palestinians or Kashmiris, their anti-colonial struggles are often framed as struggles for ‘national liberation’. It is thus clear that in the Postcolonial New World Order being a member of a nation in possession of territorial sovereignty is the thing to be(come). This is not an accident.

In its 1945 founding charter, the UN enshrined the recognition of the right of national self-determination as the bedrock of international law. That is, those people who could successfully claim to being a ‘nation’ were recognised as having the right to national sovereignty. All those people who either did not want to organise themselves as ‘nations’ or could not convincingly do so were regarded as ‘minorities’. Hostility to these ‘minorities’ and to those people who moved from one nationalised territory to another – that is, migrants – was bred in the bone of the UN charter. With its declaration of the rights of nations to self-determination, it would not and could not – account for the rights of all those people who were not the People of the nation – in other words, those who were seen to be ‘people out of place’. The UN Charter thus stood in stark contrast to how many people actually lived, and certainly in stark contrast to the reality of the immediate post- Second World War experience of mass movement of people.

It is important to consider that contrary to the rhetoric of national liberation, or of the bromides of the United Nations, this world of nation-states did not represent a challenge to the social relations of imperialism. Instead, a postcolonial world of nation-states worked to contain the revolutionary and liberatory demands of people to abolish the practices most closely associated with imperialism – expropriation, exploitation and social denigration.

Moreover, the new international system provided the institutional structures – and the legitimised force of coercive state action – for capitalist social relations to expand, which they did to a scale and scope previously unimagined. This expansion occurred through – not against – the nationalisation of states, sovereignty, territory and subjectivities. Claiming to have liberated people, postcolonialism liberated capital instead. This postcolonial reality is poignantly captured by a proverb from the area now known as Turkey: ‘When the axe came into the woods, many of the trees said, “At least the handle is one of us”.’

Yet, support for nationalism and for nation-states remains hegemonic across the Left-Right political spectrum. National sovereignty continues to be seen as the last bastion of resistance against ‘foreign’ incursions. In fact, everywhere on our planet, nationalist politics are hardening. The postcolonial politics of forging – and legislating – separations between ‘citizens’ and ‘migrants’ are both expanding and intensifying in uncanny ways.

This can be seen in the resurgence of the idea of ‘native-ness’. Under the rule of imperial-states, the status of ‘native’ marked the status of colonial subjects. Far from disappearing when colonised ‘natives’ become independent ‘nationals’, it is becoming clear that in nationalist politics today, the idea that there is one group of people who are the ‘true’ members of the ‘nation’ has become increasingly popular. This group is regarded as the ‘national-natives’.

While the already limited criteria of national belonging have developed around the figure of the ‘true’ – that is, ‘native’ – member of the ‘nation’, at the same time, there has been an expansion of the term ‘coloniser’. Borrowing the imperial meaning of ‘natives’ as colonised people, those who are ‘national-natives’ see themselves as having been ‘colonised’ by ‘migrants’.

Such rhetoric is no trifling matter. Instead, it informs some of the most violent acts of our time: the expulsion of ‘Asians’ from Uganda in the 1970s, the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the ongoing persecution, expulsion and killings of Rohingya people in Myanmar. Unmasking and defanging the bogeyman of ‘foreign-ness’ that is ripe in all nationalist and nativist politics is, I believe, a critical aspect of the goal of making a world that reflects the needs, desires and connections between all of life on our shared planet.

Nandita Sharma is Professor in Sociology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. She is an activist scholar interested in human mobility, the state category of ‘migrant labour’, nation-state power, ideologies of racism, sexism and nationalism, processes of identification and self-understanding, and social movements for justice.

In June and July, Nandita will be hosted by MMB as a Bristol Benjamin Meaker Distinguished Visiting Professor. She will be giving a public lecture in Bristol on 29th June entitled ‘Are Immigration Controls Racist? Lessons from History’. Find out more and register here.

Previous MMB blogposts by Nandita include ‘National sovereignty and postcolonial racism‘ and ‘From “social distancing” to planetary solidarity‘.

Migration, mobilities and the ecological context

Special series on Migration, Mobilities and the Environment, in association with the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

By Jane Memmott.

Migration can make you happy. When I see the first swifts arrive in the spring, I stop in my tracks and smile broadly at all and everyone. I have to restrain myself from telling people walking down the street that ‘they’ are back. Swifts are one of the wonders of the world – they make Concorde look clunky, they hurtle down streets in towns screaming wildly at dusk seemingly just for the fun of it, and scientists have calculated that the distance they fly over their lifetime is equivalent to flying to the moon and back seven times!

Pineapple lily (Eucomis pole-evans)

Migratory species like swifts have two homes and they are generally well regarded in both places. It’s a bit more touch and go whether alien species are welcome or not, and highly context dependent. For example, we deliberately introduce species from all around the world into our gardens without qualm – looking out the window onto my front garden, I’ve got honey bush and pineapple lilies from South Africa, dahlias from Mexico, a hebe from New Zealand, devil’s tobacco from Chile and foxgloves from seed collected down the road! In contrast, my local nature reserves are doing their best to remove rhododendron, cotoneaster and Himalayan balsam.

Context really is key here. Thus, gardens are grown for colour, relaxation, fruit, vegetables, and art (and I consider gardening as much of an art as a science) and they are highly managed and artificial habitats. In fact, they are increasingly considered as outdoor rooms in the media, and no one worries what countries their botanical furniture is from. In contrast, nature reserves are usually more natural settings where we want to capture natural patterns and processes, so there is an expectation that the species present should be native. And there is good evidence that while most alien species are harmless, some species (approximately 1%) can be very damaging to the environment and the economy.

Dahlia (Bishop of Llandaff)

Migration is about mobility, and mobility is a key part of the scientific process. Thus, universities are ecosystems which provide intellectual homes to academics from all over the world. My own department is home to scientists from Africa, Germany, Brazil, Switzerland, Brazil, Italy and China and those are just the people I’ve bumped into over the last few days. COVID has put a bit of a spanner in the works on the mobility front, but mobility is so key to business that academics have quickly found other ways to be mobile. For example, in my own research group, we have been running a large project in a remote part of Nepal entirely by Zoom for the last two years. But, by dint of the internet and some incredible UK staff and amazing project partners in Nepal, we have trained field staff in ten remote villages in the Himalayas to collect diet data for both bees and villagers, using protocols that would have been very new to them. The data is then uploaded by the field staff to the internet and arrives on the computers the other side of the world as if by magic.

Honey bush leaves (Melianthus major)

Mobility is such a large part of a scientist’s life that when it goes wrong it can feel shocking. I’ve had two encounters with mobility of scientists being blocked, one involving myself, another a visiting scientist. Mine was, I suspect, a straightforward random immigration check, but it did leave me rather shaken. I was travelling to Canada for the first time and got taken out of the queue and then grilled for 30 minutes on the nature of my visit. I was giving a plenary talk at a conference and had fortunately remembered to print out my letter of invitation. Unfortunately, I hadn’t actually read it for six months and so I probably did sound a bit suspicious. They did eventually let me in and it was an excellent trip thereafter. The second time was when a restoration ecologist from Latin America, who was visiting my research group for six months, went to Spain with his family for a weekend and upon return his whole family was issued with deportation papers. There is something deeply shocking about seeing the hostile environment process in action, especially when mobility is simply part of normal academic interchange. After some high-level work by an international lawyer this too was fixed. Restoration ecology is much more of a long-term process, but the restoration of mobility was much faster in this instance, if a lot more stressful.

Devil’s tobacco (Lobelia tupa)

Migration and mobility are everyday events in the environment. They can be natural such as the return of swifts each year, or they can be assisted such as the reintroduction programmes for species that have become extinct in the UK. One of the biggest reintroduction success stories is the red kite, a bird that you are almost guaranteed to see now if you drive down the M4 motorway or look out of the train window from Didcot to London. These are big and very beautiful predatory birds – imagine a paprika coloured swallow with a 6ft wingspan! My last few Saturdays have been spent driving from Bristol to a hospital in Hampshire to visit a sick relative and one of the things that has made this less stressful is counting the red kites along the motorway. Last Saturday was a 12-kite day, my highest count yet.

To end, migration, mobility and the environment are inextricably linked. There is both natural and human assisted movement of species in the environment. Species can be both welcome and unwelcome depending on the context. It’s complicated, but it’s the everyday bread and butter of ecologists around the world. With alien plants bringing colour and bizazz to our gardens and swifts bringing happiness as they return to their second homes in the UK, there is a lot to like about migration and mobility in the environment.

Jane Memmott is Professor of Community Ecology in the School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol. Her research interests include pollination ecology, invasion ecology, biological control and restoration ecology. In each case she considers how ecological networks can be used as a tool to answer environmental questions.

Images are all the author’s own.

Previous MMB blogposts on ecosystems and nonhuman migrations include ‘Creating hospitable environments – growth on the (de)Bordering plots’ by Paul Hurley and Charli Clark.

How water stress impacts on migration

Special series on Migration, Mobilities and the Environment, in association with the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

By Anita Etale.

In 2015, Ioane Teitiota and his family were deported from New Zealand to the Pacific island nation of Kiribati. His asylum application had been based on the grounds that water, due to sea level rise, had made the island uninhabitable in various ways: there was a shortage of clean drinking water; the available habitable land had decreased, which had led to increased insecurity because of violent land disputes; and the main activity, subsistence farming, was impeded.

Water has always had a major influence on where we live. Whether drawing us to new locations or forcing us from existing ones, water has always been intricately connected to the movement of people. As soon as it was possible to navigate the wide-open sea, water facilitated exploration to new lands. Later, being on these wide, open seas offered hope to millions fleeing world wars, presenting a somewhat invincible fortress protecting them from persecution, suffering and premature demise. More recently, the drowning of at least 27 men, women and children attempting to make the crossing from France to England brought into sharp focus how some things have not changed since those world wars: many are still crossing seas to flee persecution, suffering and premature demise.

In recent times, it is increasingly recognised that climate change will be a significant driver of migration. Island states such as Tonga and Micronesia already have negative net migration rates and projections are that stressed freshwater resources and water-related extreme events (such as floods) will drive more migration from island states because of food insecurity and habitat loss. Some states are already purchasing land to relocate citizens, as this is considered the only reliable adaptive response. By 2014, Kiribati had purchased 6,000 acres of forest land from Fiji: ahead of the UN climate summit that year, Anote Tong, Kiribati’s president at the time, said that buying land abroad was the way to ensure ‘migration with dignity’. Meanwhile, 6,000 km to the east, the world’s ‘first environmental refugees’ were already setting up new homes in Bougainville, an autonomous island of Papua New Guinea. They had left islands that were becoming increasingly uninhabitable as sea water ingress led to shortages in arable land and clean drinking water.

It is debatable, however, whether the islanders migrating to Bougainville are indeed the world’s first group of people forced to leave their ancestral lands due to climatic changes. Lake Chad, in west Africa was once the sixth largest inland water body, with an open water area of 25,000 km2 in the 1960s. By the 1980s, over 90% of the lake had been lost due to decreased precipitation, sparking significant internal and international migration. By 2015, more than 71,000 people from Nigeria and North Cameroon had moved towards the lake’s receding shores. As the ever-growing numbers scrambled for a portion of the limited water resources to farm, water their livestock and maintain their livelihoods, violence erupted that led to further migration out of the region. With limited non-agricultural skills and no source of capital to engage in alternative livelihood strategies the situation for these people is extremely precarious.

These two case studies challenge the narrative that climate change will drive migration in the future. They show that it already does. The situation is only likely to get worse as more regions of the world are affected, and yet, the impact of water crises on migration is not well documented.

Environmental migrants

No legal definition exists to date, for people on the move due to environmental drivers. However, the International Organisation for Migration put forward the following definition in 2007:

‘… persons or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.’
(IOM, 2007:1)

Water scarcity is bound to be a major driver of migration given that 17 countries, home to 25% of the global population, are already experiencing water stress (see Figure 1). The poorest of the global population will be the most adversely affected, but, without the necessary resources, they are also the least able to leave their homelands to seek livelihoods elsewhere. It is therefore unlikely that the world will see waves of impoverished ‘water refugees’ crossing oceans and landing on the shores of wealthy nations. The World Bank estimates that residents of poor countries are four times less likely to move than residents of middle-income countries. But their inability to move will severely impact their chances of survival.

Figure 1: Predicted global water stress between 2030 and 2040 (Image: OpenStreetMap)

Conceptualising water as a driver of migration

Water has always been both a push and pull factor for migration: places with adequate sources will attract migrants while diminishing reserves have the opposite effect. To assess the interconnection between water and migration, a 3D model encompassing water quantity, water quality and water-related extremes has been suggested (see Figure 2). Deterioration of water quality – for example, resulting from chemical contamination or increased salinity – will push people away from habitats due to adverse health impacts. Increased salinity can also significantly impact food security, leading to out-migration. The third factor, water extremes – such as floods or droughts – impact both quality and quantity, but their impact on the nature of migration (whether it is temporary or permanent) depends on how frequently these events occur.

Figure 2: Three-dimensional framework conceptualising the links between water and migration (Image: Nagabhatla et al., 2020).

Which way forward?

It is important to acknowledge the ways in which water migration results in unfair outcomes both for those with means to escape water-scarce areas and those without. In developing countries, wages of workers who move from rural to urban areas due to drier climates may be up to 3.4% lower than that of a typical immigrant – a significant amount for those already on a very low income. For those unable to leave their water-scarce homes, diminished food security and loss of income from agriculture present significant blows to already disadvantaged communities.

In urban areas water supplies are also under threat from climate change. Doing nothing could prove extremely costly to local and global economies, both increasing involuntary migration and severely impacting on communities without resources to fund migration. It is therefore crucial to invest in infrastructure and policies that enhance resilience within cities as well as rural areas. Water recycling, rainwater harvesting and incentives for efficient water use are tools that can be employed to this end. Evidence shows that while people may initially be resistant to using recycled water, their willingness increases when all available options are weighed up.

Finally, protecting livelihoods at the place of origin needs to be a key strategy for addressing water-induced population movement. In rural areas climate-smart agriculture can help towards reducing the vulnerability of communities and their livelihoods to diminished water resources. In Senegal, for example, high yielding, early maturing and drought resistant varieties of sorghum, millet, cowpeas and groundnuts are being developed as an adjustment to the shorter rain seasons. Traditional varieties required at least 120 days and plenty of rain to harvest, but new varieties require less than 110 days and can withstand two to three week stretches without rain. Instead of giving up farming therefore, farmers can stay on their lands and farm in ways that are adaptable to water scarcity and a variable climate.

Anita Etale is a Research Associate at the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Bristol. Her research focuses on finding sustainable materials for water treatment using sustainable resources as well as the environmental and social implications of water stress on communities. Anita is MMB’s Early Career Representative.

You can find out more about this blog series and read previous posts on the Migration, Mobilities and the Environment webpage.

The politics of climate justice, migration and mobility

Special series on Migration, Mobilities and the Environment

Migration Mobilities Bristol (MMB) and the Cabot Institute for the Environment bring together researchers from across the University of Bristol to explore connections between movement and the environment from a multi-disciplinary perspective. These diverse approaches highlight the importance of developing frames that incorporate both migration and environment, and in so doing benefit our understandings of both. Here, the directors of MMB and the Cabot Institute introduce the blog series.

By Bridget Anderson and Guy Howard.

Migration is often mobilised to illustrate the enormity of the challenge of climate change. Some Small Island States in the Pacific, for instance, may become uninhabitable with sea-level rise. Highly vulnerable countries in South Asia, including Bangladesh and the Maldives, may see large proportions of their populations forced to move because of sea-level rise, floods and salinisation of water. US climate envoy John Kerry recently fuelled fears of a future where food production collapse would force a ‘hundred million people’ to move. His comments strongly implied that even those of us who imagine we are protected from the frontline of climate change will be faced with the challenges of ‘climate refugees’ in their millions.

Seven Sisters Park flooded, 2020 (image: Peter Castleton on flickr)

Kerry’s remarks were heavily criticised, but this is not to deny that there is a connection between the world’s ecosystems and environment and human movement. It is easiest to causally relate environmental factors to migration in situations of ‘rapid onset disasters’ – destructive events that occur suddenly, such as typhoons or floods. In these situations, people move to survive, but often to a place of safety a short distance away, and they return to rebuild homes and lives once the emergency has abated. But many environmental changes are taking place over periods spanning two or three generations. ‘Slow onset’ environmental change can be a primary or contributing factor to deteriorating socio-economic conditions – increasing periods of drought, or crop yields declining rather than collapsing, for instance. In these circumstances, migration can be an important way to diversify income streams. Environmental change may also contribute to shifts in land usage and land ownership, which again may result in migration.

Declining resources can also prevent people from moving, especially when resources are slowly depleted over a generation or more. Limited access to capital can force people into illegal or exploitative migration or lead them to delay moving until forced to do so in an unplanned way – perhaps because of a rapid onset disaster that they no longer have the resilience to cope with.

The challenges faced by people who don’t move may become more severe when combined with conflict. For example, in Somalia, armed conflict has hindered the movement of pastoralists, who would otherwise relocate as a response to drought. It has also limited the possibilities of humanitarian organisations to assist them. Human mobility and environmental change are deeply interconnected but need to be understood systemically not simplistically if we are work towards climate justice.

Understanding the relationship between migration and environmental change in a more holistic and integrated way has important policy implications. For example, economic factors can mean that people migrate to places of environmental instability as well as migrating from places of environmental instability. Currently 55% of the world’s population lives in cities, and it is forecast that by 2050 this will increase to nearly 70%; nearly 60% of forcibly displaced people move to urban areas (World Bank, 2020). Many cities are extremely vulnerable to future environmental change, and already experience high temperatures, sea level rise, water stress and threats to health. Rural to urban migrants are often especially vulnerable, as they tend to move to neighbourhoods with high population density that are prone to environmental risks – think of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, or the slums of Dhaka, Nairobi and Mumbai.

In these contexts, migrants, whether rural-urban or international, can be represented as an environmental problem in themselves. The movements of the poor are also represented as a root cause of problems: migration destroys carbon sinks, ‘environmental refugees’ put pressure on already scarce resources and services and so on. Rather than seeing the interconnections of human movement and climate change, the risk is that the politics of climate and the mobility of the poor – that is, ‘migration’ – are framed as oppositional. As a result, in wealthy countries we are seeing increasing tensions between politics of the environment and politics of migration, as illustrated by John Kerry’s remarks.

It is critical, then, to recognise the complexity of the connections between (human) movement and ecosystems. This new blog series, co-published by MMB and the Cabot Institute for the Environment, draws attention to some of these connections and raises questions for further research to help us understand in more depth the relationship between movement and the environment, and its political significance. The contributions in the series approach this relationship from many angles, ranging from the role of water access in shaping migration to debates around the status of the ‘environmental refugee’. One analyses the environmental footprint of home working versus office working to explore the sustainability potential of our increasing immobility. Others focus on animals and plants on the move: we have writing on the ecological context of bird migrations and on the hyper-mobility of the European eel. Meanwhile, other posts look at the movement of goods and how humans locate themselves in, and move through, landscapes of extraction and risk. In bringing together such diverse topics we hope this series will encourage new conversations about the connections between migrations, mobilities and environments.

Bridget Anderson is Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship at the University of Bristol, and Director of Migration Mobilities Bristol. Guy Howard is Global Research Chair Environmental and Infrastructure Resilience at the University of Bristol, and Director of the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

UK-Rwanda refugee deal: first thoughts

By Miranda Butler.

The UK-Rwanda memorandum of understanding on asylum processing is now available. It sets out the terms of the agreement between the countries at a high level but provides some insight into how this scheme is supposed to work.

Before removal

Importantly, the UK has committed to undertaking an ‘initial screening’ of asylum seekers. How this will compare to current asylum screening interviews is yet to be seen but it is clear that the UK is intended to identify vulnerabilities and inform the Rwandan authorities about them.

Given the well-recognised shortcomings of such Home Office screenings, including the widespread failures to identify serious mental and physical health problems as well as trafficking victims and torture survivors, there are serious questions about how effective this expedited system will be. 

Many new arrivals need legal advice and expert evidence to demonstrate their vulnerabilities to the Home Office’s satisfaction. I anticipate a swift legal challenge if there is no automatic right to such assistance for those facing removal to Rwanda.  

Merely raising an asylum claim at the initial screening will not be enough to prevent removal: the Nationality and Borders Bill, when passed, will make such claims inadmissible. Human rights claims may be enough to prevent removal but this will no doubt lead to numerous urgent out-of-hours judicial review applications, as undesirable as that is for all involved. 

Under paragraph 3.2, Rwanda has to approve all transfer requests prior to relocation. This may well add delay and uncertainty to the process. It also means that the system is fundamentally discretionary, open to advocacy and political pressure on both sides. 

Unsurprisingly, the UK will make the removal arrangements:

6.1 The United Kingdom will arrange the Relocated Individual’s transport to Rwanda and will ensure that all the necessary authorisations have been obtained from the relevant authorities of the United Kingdom, any countries of transit and Rwanda in relation to the traffic of commercial or chartered flights or other means of transport.

6.2 The United Kingdom will assume responsibility for the safe transportation of Relocated Individuals to Rwanda by aircraft, including the provision of escorts as necessary.

So decisions about whether someone is fit to fly will be made (and challengeable) in the UK. Again, practitioners will want to know whether and how they will be able to take instructions on challenges like this. 

After removal

Those removed in Rwanda will be accommodated (apparently for free) by the Rwandan government. Rwanda has agreed to provide accommodation that is ‘adequate to ensure the health, security and wellbeing’ of those relocated. The MoU stipulates that asylum seekers brought to Rwanda will not be detained in this accommodation (although the Home Office’s own changing narrative about whether asylum seekers are detained in the Napier and Penally camps raises questions about the genuine liberty of those removed).

8.2 A Relocated Individual will be free to come and go, to and from accommodation that has been provided, at all times, in accordance with Rwandan laws and regulations as applicable to all residing in Rwanda.

There is nothing specific in the agreement about those removed being able to access healthcare, financial support, or other services. Nor does it explain whether asylum seekers will be able to work. These are pressing questions which, even at a high level, we might have expected the parties to agree — especially as Rwanda does not provide universal healthcare free at the point of use. 

Rwanda also agrees to treat those relocated in accordance with the Refugee Convention and with ‘international standards’. The UK government insists this agreement is compatible with the Refugee Convention which, if correct, means there’s little to stop Rwanda sending asylum seekers to another third country. This sort of high-level agreement depends on a sustained commitment to human rights in both countries, which sadly is not reflected in reality.

Those relocated should have access to legal assistance in Rwanda throughout their asylum claim:

Rwanda will ensure that…

9.1.2 each Relocated Individual will have access to an interpreter and to procedural or legal assistance, at every stage of their asylum claim, including if they wish to appeal a decision made on their case…

But the MoU does not state whether such legal assistance will be free, nor does it stipulate any minimum requirements.

Those recognised as refugees in Rwanda will be granted the same level of support and accommodation in the country as they had while their claim was being processed. There is no clear time limit on their entitlement to support and nothing about other conditions of stay. 

Those refused asylum may be returned to their countries of origin or can try to obtain permission to stay some other way under Rwandan immigration laws, if possible.

Rwanda agrees to take all reasonable steps to return people to the UK if the British authorities are obliged to do so:

11.1 Following a request made by the United Kingdom, Rwanda will take all reasonable steps in accordance with international human rights standards to make a Relocated Individual available for return to the United Kingdom should the United Kingdom be legally obliged to facilitate that person’s return.

Clearly the Home Office anticipates at least the possibility of UK courts making ‘bring back’ orders

Under paragraph 16 of the agreement, the UK has agreed to resettle a portion of Rwanda’s ‘most vulnerable refugees’. This raises the question of how we can be confident that Rwanda can care for vulnerable asylum seekers being sent from the UK. It reflects the surreal and inhumane two-tier system the Home Office is creating: performative cruelty for those arriving in the UK without permission, justified by some limited and restrictive routes for resettled refugees.

This is against both the spirit and the letter of the Refugee Convention. 

Grounds for concern already

Whichever country is involved, offshoring is legally unjustifiable and reflects the broader failure on the part of the Home Office to comply with the requirements of international law to welcome refugees regardless of their method of entry.

Nevertheless, the choice of Rwanda is concerning given its history of human rights violations, including towards asylum seekers. Only last year, the UK expressed concern over ‘continued restrictions to civil and political rights and media freedom’ in Rwanda, noting allegations of extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody and torture. It recommended that the Rwandan government ‘screen, identify and provide support to trafficking victims, including those held in Government transit centres’. That such a recommendation is necessary does not bode well for the commitment enshrined within the MoU to support trafficking victims sent from the UK.

It remains to be seen how the MoU will be reflected in policy and practice, but there is good reason to be concerned about the legality of this agreement and the impact it will have on vulnerable asylum seekers. No doubt there will be both individual and systemic legal challenges to this offshoring plan, brought by hardworking, underpaid legal aid lawyers who — far from being ‘politically motivated’ — know the human cost of government illegality.

Miranda Butler is a barrister at Landmark Chambers practising in all areas of immigration, with a particular focus on asylum and human rights.

This post was originally published by Free Movement on 14th April 2022.

The cure or the cause? The impact of medical tourism on global health inequality

By Ella Barclay.

Migration motivated by the improvement of one’s health is not a new phenomenon. Nineteenth-century doctors around the world prescribed visits to foreign spas to improve wellbeing and London’s Harley Street was one of many internationally renowned centres for medical care. Despite this, there has been a recent boom in such movement, with individuals increasingly opting to access care beyond their state borders (Morgan, 2010). This phenomenon, termed ‘medical tourism’, has developed into a globalised industry, with states now viewing healthcare as a commercialised product. Various destinations have chosen to profit from this trend, even marketing themselves as ‘international healthcare capitals’ (Hanefeld et al., 2014). However, concerns have been raised regarding the actual value of this phenomenon, with many questioning whether this growing market is helping or hindering global equality.

Medical tourism as the cure

Contrary to the assumption that the healthcare industry thrives in economically developed countries, the rise of medical tourism has been described as a case of ‘reverse globalisation’ (Connell, 2013), shifting power and wealth back into less economically developed states (LEDCs). These destinations have embraced the commercialisation of international medical care, offering up affordable treatment to citizens of, typically, more economically developed states who wish to travel abroad for their procedures and simultaneously experience the tourist aspects of these ‘exotic’ destinations (Johnson et al., 2010). Funnelling large sums of their state budget into this sector, LEDCs have profited greatly from this phenomenon, with medical migrants contributing significantly to the medical and tourist sectors.

(Image: Annie Spratt on Unsplash)

The growth of this industry within LEDCs also counters the effects of ‘brain drain’, by creating jobs within the healthcare sector (Oberman, 2013). Where the mass migration of medically trained individuals to Western states was previously the norm, leading to labour shortages within native states, the rise of medical tourism in LEDCs has created many new healthcare centres, offering highly paid jobs to citizens (Cohen, 2011). This again boosts the state’s economy by allowing for a ‘return investment’ in their residents; the individuals who are trained within (and, therefore, funded by) the state remain within that territory to ‘give back’ to the economy. Here, one could argue that Western states will suffer from labour shortages as we heavily rely on this migrant workforce. However, as people increasingly seek treatment abroad, the strain on state resources will be simultaneously alleviated. Subsequently, the wait time for elective treatments within national systems will be reduced, thereby benefiting medical tourists and residents alike.

Lastly, with the growth of the global market for any commercialised good comes competition and innovation (Lee et al., 2011). Each state wants to offer the newest and best treatment to its high-paying customers, thereby continually funding medical research, technology development and infrastructure, to ensure they are the go-to medical tourist destination. This ongoing competitiveness has hastened medical advancements over the past two decades and greatly improved the quality of healthcare available globally.

Medical tourism as the cause

The novelty of this phenomenon means the medical tourism market is not well regulated. Although the quality of care provided by verified clinics is improving, there are no regulations in place to prevent unqualified and illegitimate clinics from targeting foreign patients. Defined by critics as ‘rogue medical tourism’ (Hunter and Oultram, 2010), individuals offer impossibly cheap treatments, exploiting the naivety and frugality of medical migrants by allowing non-medical staff to carry out procedures in unsanitary and inadequate surroundings. This aspect of medical tourism not only causes harm to the individual but also re-asserts the strain on their home healthcare system, as they will inevitably want to address any ‘botched’ treatments within their own country.

International clinics may also offer treatments that are illegal in other states, such as euthanasia or stem-cell research (Higginbotham, 2011). The availability of these treatments could be seen to enhance autonomy, however, there remains a question of where the line can be drawn concerning treatment that is seen as unethical in one state yet permitted and even promoted in another. Evidently, claims of ‘enhanced quality of healthcare globally’ by proponents of medical tourism are debatable.

Similarly, there is a question of whether this supposedly high-quality healthcare benefits all persons, or simply the elite few who can enjoy the luxury of medical tourism. Having recognised the potential economic value of this industry, state funding currently prioritises healthcare efforts that serve foreign, wealthy patients, as these yield a profit. More money is put into the development of the luxury provision of healthcare, than into the necessary provision of healthcare to impoverished persons; in an effort to harness the full potential of medical tourism, states are neglecting the wellbeing of their own citizens (Bookman and Bookman, 2007). Not only are these individuals denied access to this high-quality care due to their inability to pay, but they also lack basic health rights, such as access to sanitation and clean water, highlighting the need to invest in this lower sector of care provision, not de-fund it. This constitutes a ‘dual medical system’, in which the standard of care available is dependent on one’s socioeconomic status, thereby increasing healthcare inequalities within the state (Manna et al., 2020). Although medical tourism may reverse the effects of globalisation by placing wealth back in the hands of LEDCs, on a national scale the growth of this industry makes the disadvantaged worse off. Claims that this phenomenon is benefiting LEDCs when inequality within these states only grows are misinformed.

Conclusion

Medical tourism may have the potential to benefit global health inequality, but the current over-investment into this sector is exacerbating the already compromised health of those worst-off, creating a dichotomy within the provision of healthcare. To view health as a commercialised product rather than a human right is to ignore the importance of access to healthcare for basic wellbeing and growth. Until this inequality is addressed, and a basic level of care is provided to all within and across states, it is both misguided and unethical to invest in a global industry that favours luxury over human rights.

Ella Barclay is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of the West of England. Her research focuses on the sexual and reproductive rights of undocumented migrants within the UK’s hostile environment and involves ethnographic research with migrant mothers in Bristol. Ella completed the MSc in Migration and Mobility Studies at the University of Bristol in 2020 and is an MMB Alumni Ambassador.

Vicarious strength: friends and befriending in UK immigration detention

By Joel White.

‘We use the word friend here. Not client, or service user. Not asylum seeker, or refugee. We try to say friend.’

These were the words that stuck with me most after a volunteer training at the Unity Centre, a drop-in space for people going through the asylum and immigration system in Glasgow. Years later, during 12 months of ethnographic research with people navigating this system across the city, I found myself returning to such ideas of friendship, thinking specifically about how people who had been through immigration detention drew on such ideas in navigating their ‘detainability’.  

I asked my friend Alyssa, who I met at Unity Centre, about this and she told me:

You know, in Yarlswood [an Immigration Removal Centre, in England], I didn’t know about the Unity Centre. But without fail twice a week I’d get a call from them. I didn’t know these people. I can say that. They would ask: ‘How am I? How are things?’ They listened to what I had to say. For me, that was important. People from Church would call too and come to visit.

So, you know, for me, friendship means strength in the struggle, but vicariously. Vicarious support. If [you are inside and] two people get deported, nobody has any strength at all. But if we are outside, we are here, we are caring, you get … I don’t know what to call it … like … vicarious strength?

Balloons at a protest at Dungavel House Immigration Removal Centre, South Lanarkshire, 2017
(image: Joel White)

Friendship was a key idea and practice for a range of people I met during my fieldwork, spanning from the kind of politically levelling and vicariously binding vision of ‘the friend’ we see above, to more codified forms of ‘befriending’, particularly in the context of NGO detention visiting groups. Linking all these visions of friendship was a focus on the political importance of relationality, a sense of building commitment and trust as a way to meet and resist the violence of the British border regime.

From the outset, I tried to link this to a methodological question about doing research in such a system: is it possible to be a good ‘friend’ through academic work? Can research on migration join in building ‘vicarious strength’? Or is friendship necessarily outside such remits, and what would that say about academic notions of consent, participation and ethics?

Humanitarian kinship

Considering friendship as a methodological as well as theoretical issue meant focusing on how people I worked with interpreted being a ‘friend’, rather than the somewhat limited anthropological writing on the topic. Friendship has been a key topic in activist and migrant solidarity writing for some time – linking to ideas of affinity, anarchist ethics, mutual aid and antiracist organising tactics. One popular zine I encountered during my fieldwork drew on Foucauldian and Queer ideas of relationality to talk about friendship as a ‘destabilizing, empowering, desubjectifying process’, a way to examine possibilities for collectivity and revolutionary change.

Another book that was popular with activists I got to know through places like the Unity Centre asked: ‘If capitalism works by dismembering transformative relationships, can friendship be revalued as a radical, transformative form of kinship?’ Such work raises questions about the granular task of building interpersonal connection and solidarity within a system that is deeply racialized and gendered. This, in turn, expands and augments questions about academic ethics processes and positionality, pushing researchers to consider if and how they are sharing in the struggles of those they get to know. 

Many NGO groups also theorized friendship in particular ways, with groups that visit detention across the UK often framing this in terms of ‘befriending’. Such initiatives worked to create interpersonal bonds across complex forms of difference, and though on face value they were more codified – through trainings, ‘visitor packs’, mentorships and audits – NGO visiting often ended up being fairly improvised and loose in its own way.

I met a large range of detention ‘visitors’, including a significant number who had been through detention themselves, who approached the question of ‘befriending’ in widely different ways. Many saw themselves as part of a tradition of  ‘welcome’ and ‘sanctuary’ (see also Darling, 2010) that drew on what Tom Kemp calls a ‘mythology of British hospitality’: this linked to a history of often Quaker-led prison visiting and reform initiatives that considered friendship as doing ‘God’s will’. Others brought religiosity to their visiting in a more overt sense, as a Christian duty, while some used visiting to get experience while studying or in the middle of their own struggles for the ‘right to work’. For some this was a directly personal and familial thing, as one woman told me:

I didn’t know there was a detention centre here [in Scotland], but my son was detained down south and was removed to Zimbabwe. I’d visited him in England and realised how long people were there.

Seeing him closed away from the world, it really hurt me […] I’ve seen what my son went through and I’d like to give as much support as I can to people who are in detention. And it’s my passion to help people who are in need.

So, I decided it was good to do that here. I felt like I needed to visit people in detention because I know what they go through.

Through my research I came to consider initiatives like detention visiting as part of a broader trend towards what I call humanitarian kinship – forms of humanitarianism that focus on interpersonal connection as a way to ‘do good’. Narratives of ‘befriending’ aim to transform the moral subjectivities of both visitor and ‘detainee’, with the latter clearly positioned as suffering ‘victim’ in certain ways. As the quote above shows, however, this was often blurry and complex.

While it’s tempting to treat activist and radical notions of ‘friendship’ in opposition to the humanitarian kinship of ‘befriending’, both involve efforts to incorporate groups of people in a community of relatedness, conditioned by the racialized violence of the UK border regime. By attempting to methodologically share in the ethics of friendship used by the people we meet, ethnographers can expand and question our ideas of consent, accountability and participation.

Joel White lives in Glasgow and is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. He completed a PhD at the end of 2021 entitled, ‘Holding Space: Friendship, Care and Carcerality in the UK Immigration Detention System’.

‘Six new home carers near you!’ How digital platforms shape domestic services

By Jing Hiah.

Finding cleaning and child rearing services is easier than ever in many parts of the world. Install an app on your phone and start browsing through hundreds of (female) workers. If you decide not to directly hire their services – perhaps you feel too embarrassed (can’t we take care of ourselves?!) – you’ll be sent reminders by email: ‘Six new home carers near you. Contact them now!’

Domestic service is reportedly the fastest growing sector in the platform or ‘gig’ economy – that is, economic activity facilitated by digital platforms that mediate supply and demand, creating digital marketplaces. Rising demand for home-based care and domestic workers and health professionals (and even virtual nannies during the COVID-19 lockdown) has been prompted by factors including women’s entrance into the paid labour market, longer lifespans and the retrenchment of the welfare state. Platform companies like Care.com, Helpling and Handy have designed digitised infrastructures that connect domestic workers to those wanting their services. This is the focus of my project ‘New mobilities or persistent inequalities’, which I will be researching during my 20-month stay at the University of Bristol.

(Image: Magnet.me on Unsplash)

New mobilities or persistent inequalities?

Paid domestic work can be broadly understood as all tasks conducted in the private household including cleaning, child rearing and care of the elderly. While inequalities and difference in paid domestic work are hotly debated, it has been cited as a quintessential example of ‘invisible work’ due to its poor labour conditions combined with legal disenfranchisement, which make the sector vulnerable to exploitation. Furthermore, the demand for domestic workers is highly gendered, as it is associated with women’s ‘natural’ qualities. Racialisation also plays a part, with some minority groups considered to be better fitted to perform domestic work, and this has intersected with female migration in different parts of the world. Immigration regulations further control the rights and mobilities of domestic workers, whether they have entered on domestic worker, family reunion or other visas, or overstayed.

Anonymised example of an app for finding domestic workers (created by the author)

My project will explore how vulnerabilities and inequalities in domestic work are shaped by digital platforms. The literature so far suggests that these platforms offer some groups of marginalised workers, such as migrants, racialised minorities and workers with familial obligations (often women), new and flexible opportunities to access work. However, there is also growing evidence that platforms contribute to a degradation of employment relations. They do not guarantee minimum wages or income security and they challenge worker organisation. Furthermore, work on surveillance capitalism and visibility regimes has found the digital infrastructures of platforms and the associated online visibilities of workers to cause further inequality in the domestic employment relationship.

So, what about the ‘six new home carers near you’? It’s important to remember that the carers have no idea who ‘you’ are and neither do they know anything about your household. You do all the picking and choosing. This picking and choosing, research shows, is not only based on the profiles of the individuals on the app: employers also often check the broader social media presence of workers, for example on Facebook and Instagram. For some workers it has become a full-time (unpaid) job to perform gender and ethnicity through their platform profiles. Meanwhile, they have no idea about the appearance, relationships or even gender, race, occupation or name of potential employers. Workers therefore often have to give up their privacy, manage their various connected social media profiles and invest in social media skills, which they may be unfamiliar with and certainly don’t get paid for.

Possibilities for ‘good’ platformed domestic work jobs

So today I was trying to get the attention of [the kid the nanny is taking care of] and he was glued to his Switch. I gave him ample warning that we were about to change to a different task and he has 5 minutes left before we move on. He told me no, that he wants to keep [playing] and that he’ll just ask his mom for more time. Imagine my surprise when [their] mom storms out of the room, takes the Switch, and firmly says ‘I never want to hear that again. Nanny is always right and don’t you forget it.’ And just walks away….

This family is definitely my unicorn family, and it was just solidified today that I never want to leave them! I felt so freaking empowered!

(Post on an online nanny support group.)

Inequalities related to paid domestic work have been recognised to be pretty persistent and these inequalities may have become even more serious when mediated by the digital infrastructures of platforms. Yet does that make a job in paid domestic work by definition a ‘bad’ job? The post of the (self-identified) nanny above on an online nanny support group gives us some insight into various aspects of what, according to sociologists of work, makes a job a ‘good’ job – namely a sense of autonomy, control over work activities and social contact (other aspects include income, health and control over work hours).

So, while the employment relationship between paid domestic workers and their employers may be characterized by inequalities, what also matters is the manner in which employers and workers approach these inequalities in their everyday relationships. The various discussions in the online nanny support group show that it is not only important to workers to be treated fairly, but that many employers also do their best to secure fair and good relationships. Since there has been less work done on the perspectives of employers, the aim of my project is to also include their perspectives in my analysis of platformed domestic work. I am looking forward to hearing from employers and workers how they secure fair relationships in platformed domestic labour relations.

Jing Hiah is an Assistant Professor in Criminology at the Erasmus University Rotterdam and a Dutch Research Council (NWO) Rubicon Postdoctoral Fellow. She is visiting the University of Bristol from December 2021 until July 2023 as a guest of MMB and SPAIS. During this time she will be carrying out her study on domestic labour platforms funded by the Dutch Research Council, the Erasmus Trustfonds and an innovation grant of the Erasmus School of Law.

Brexit, COVID and stay/return narratives amongst Polish migrants in the UK

By Magda Mogilnicka.

Following EU enlargement in 2004, Polish migrants quickly became the largest migrant population in the UK. Since the Brexit referendum in 2016, however, the Office for National Statistics has documented a decline in the Polish population by around a quarter. A further drop in numbers was noticeable after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the estimated population of Polish citizens at the end of 2020 at 691,000 compared with 818,000 in 2019. Both the rise and the fall in numbers have been widely understood in terms of Poles as economic migrant workers and their contributions to the economy. But how do Polish migrants themselves reflect on their presence in the UK? In 2021 I carried out a research pilot study to learn more about the impact of COVID and Brexit on Polish people living in Bristol, and whether they are currently considering leaving or staying in the UK.

Since the referendum there has been a surge in British citizenship and EUSS scheme applications made by EU citizens, which demonstrates that concerns around Brexit and the pandemic have driven some EU citizens to take actions to anchor themselves in British society. However, recent media debates have focused on the return of many EU citizens to their countries of origin, which has been understood as an exodus that will affect the British economy. Commentators have pointed at Brexit and the pandemic as contributing factors in these individuals’ decision to leave, and the impact of these events on a rise in hate crime towards them, being made to feel unwelcome and uncertainties around their future.

Although many Polish people are leaving, it is unclear how many of them have also secured EU Settlement Scheme status or applied for British citizenship. The current return migration should not, therefore, be seen as a definite, long-term departure. Neither should their potential relocation back to the UK be interpreted as a long-term stay. In other words, the Brexit or COVID related changes in status and mobility are not fixed.

Polish grocery store in Plymouth, UK, 2015 (image by Chris on Flickr)

Polish migrants in my pilot research study clearly voiced their anxieties about their future in the UK. In 2021 I interviewed 15 Polish workers employed in a variety of sectors, such as hospitality, the NHS, food distribution, supermarkets and the public sector. The project explored how Brexit and COVID were affecting their everyday lives. This led to discussions about the possibility of returning to Poland.

At the time of the study, Brexit was overshadowed by COVID-19.However, the respondents readily shared memories of the vote to leave the EU five years earlier. Above all they described a feeling of disappointment and betrayal.

Most participants knew of someone who had already left the UK and were sympathetic towards the decision. The returns were perceived as a loss for the British industries, as stated by a female participant Edyta: ‘Watching all those construction sites in our neighbourhood, I thought to myself: “Who is gonna work here?” (…) Poles are leaving, escaping (…) because it doesn’t pay off for them anymore (…). So, who is gonna work here?’ Similarly, Marta noticed that Polish people might be better off financially in Poland: ‘The British pound is not as strong a currency as 15 years ago. We cannot save as much anymore.’

Other respondents also reproduced the discourse of Poles’ economic contributions as migrants. One of them, Ania, claimed that the UK is already experiencing a shortage of labour force: ‘They say: “immigrants are taking jobs away!” Now farmers cannot find anyone to work so what jobs are we taking away?’ Some suggested that British people would eventually regret their decision to leave the EU as they are losing an essential labour force. These narratives draw on the stereotype of a hardworking Polish migrant and reproduce the sense of validity and usefulness of Poles in Britain as migrant workers rather than citizens deserving to be here.

Although the participants justified other migrants’ decisions to leave, they themselves had no intention to do so in the near future. Interestingly, the narratives about staying also constructed Polish citizens as migrant workers. A notion of their irreplaceability has led some to believe that their position in the UK is secure, as expressed by Monika: ‘They won’t kick us out – they need immigrants, Brexit is just an economic stage in their country’s history, I don’t take it personally.’ Similarly, Marcin claimed: ‘I’m not scared of losing my job. I will find another one easily.’ Over the years, Poles have earned a good reputation as a ‘hard-working’ migrant group. As Marta stated: ‘One of my customers said to me: I voted Brexit but have nothing against Polish migrants. They work hard.’ Although Brexit continues to have serious consequences for EU migrants’ mobility, the participants were convinced that their legal status was secure. Their stay narratives – similarly to their return ones – constructed Polish people as migrant workers in British society.

By contrast, the participants expressed their sense of belonging to Poland through nostalgic memories about family, friends and places. These feelings had been intensified by the pandemic. The sudden travel ban following the start of COVID-19 made it impossible for them to see their families, which led some participants to seriously consider leaving the UK for good. They rethought their values and the importance of their families, as seen in Ania’s reflection: ‘I’m the only child, my parents miss me. They are 80 and 79, I don’t know for how much longer I will have them.’ Marta’s memories of Poland expressed deep nostalgia: ‘I miss Poland so much. I miss gardens, parks, people, everything!’ This romanticised picture was reinforced by Monika: ‘I miss four seasons (…) I feel like I’m missing out on so much by being here.’

My respondents rationalised other Polish people’s decisions to leave as a financially more secure option and as a loss to the British economy, but they talked about their own potential return in terms of an emotional connection to Poland, which was missing from their narratives about the UK. Those who expressed a sense of belonging to the UK talked about it in terms of their local links to neighbourhoods, workplaces and mortgage commitments, or having children who feel more at home in the UK than in Poland.

Their stay and return narratives therefore reproduced dominant discourses in UK society that identify Poles as migrant workers whose value is measured in economic terms. In other words, they are seen as economic actors rather than as citizens – an issue for many migrant groups. Their narratives are also in dialogue with broader media and political discourses in the UK that construct them as the racialised East European Other – that is, cheap, low-skilled economic migrants praised for their hard work, but also facing political hostility and racism. These discourses position them below the white British majority in hierarchies of belonging. And yet, as seen in my participants’ responses, many Polish migrants today point to the UK’s labour shortages resulting from Brexit and the pandemic and use this to re-negotiate their identity as economic workers ­that once again need to be appreciated.

Magda Mogilnicka is a Lecturer in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Relations, University of Bristol. Her PhD thesis, ‘Lived diversities of conditional citizens: Poles’ encounters with difference in Britain’, investigated everyday ambivalent experiences of learning to live with diversity in the context of British national hierarchies of belonging.