Hysteria and disinterest: accommodating asylum seekers

By Melanie Griffiths.

The UK’s asylum system is in crisis. Despite the government’s rhetoric, this is largely a crisis of the Home Office’s own making. Years of painfully slow decision-making has created a massive backlog of tens of thousands of people. The recent political hysteria around small boats crossing the Channel and the cruel, fear-mongering policies to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, are attempts to distract from these failings. This includes the inhumane – but entirely predictable – crisis of asylum housing, produced as the need for accommodation has outstripped supply. At a time of fervent emotionality around asylum, this blogpost uses one person’s story to focus in on the disastrous impact of the asylum backlog on the UK’s fragmenting portfolio of asylum accommodation. 

Missing in the system

A friend rang me recently in a panic. A worried family in his country of origin was trying to track down a family member missing in the UK. Their son – I’ll call him Daniyal – had disappeared a fortnight previously, hours after arriving looking for safety.

Daniyal had called his family to reassure them he had survived the dangerous Channel crossing and approached the authorities for protection. But immediately afterwards, he had become uncontactable.

Until recently, asylum seekers were generally housed in the community while their claims were decided. Although notoriously inadequate, such housing allowed a degree of ‘normality’ and social connection. But as the asylum backlog has outstripped Home Office accommodation, the picture has altered significantly.

I suspected Daniyal was lost somewhere in the monstrously convoluted and rapidly diversifying asylum housing system. Armed with just his name and GPS coordinates from his last phone call, I started by contacting detention NGOs.

Indefinite detention

For decades, the UK incarcerated people in immigration detention centres principally to remove them from the country. But since 2021, these ‘removal’ centres have been used for initial processing of newly arrived people.

Last year, the UK detained over 16,000 people in immigration detention, costing the taxpayer about £100 million. These prison-like centres detain people with no time limit and are notoriously harmful, with decades of reports documenting traumatisation, ill-health, violence and abuse. Using such sites to isolate and incarcerate people seeking safety reflects systemic mistrust and distaste towards them.

Yarls Wood Detention Centre, Bedford, 2015 (image: EYE DJ on flickr)

Diversified detention

After failing to find Daniyal in the detention estate, I turned to the newly established ‘quasi-detention’ spaces. These include disused military barracks, which have housed new arrivals for ‘processing’ since 2000 and have repeatedly been found to be inadequate and unsafe. Manston Barracks were described as ‘really dangerous’ by the independent inspector of borders, who found severe overcrowding and outbreaks of rare, contagious diseases. Moreover, in 2021, the High Court found the Home Office guilty of employing unlawful practices in holding asylum seekers at Napier Barracks.

Worryingly, such sites are categorised as outside of mainstream immigration detention and thus excluded from the scrutiny of official detention statistics. Holding asylum seekers in manifestly unsafe spaces, outside of the community and exempt from proper accountability, reflects underlying notions of contagion and disgust.

Fragmentation

But if Danyial had already been ‘processed’, he could be housed anywhere in a bewildering web of sites. Since 2020, this includes hotels, at a cost of £8 million a day. Thousands of asylum seekers have been housed in these ill-equipped places, with the international aid budget plundered in the process. Hotel residents suffer isolation, poor food and hygiene, worsening mental health and even deaths. They have become a magnet for xenophobic hatred and violent Far Right demonstrations, which the government has been accused of stoking.

Or Daniyal could be in one of the Home Office’s new mass asylum accommodation sites. This includes Wethersfield, which was opened in 2023 on a former airfield in a remote part of Essex. The last chief inspector of borders described an ‘overwhelming feeling of hopelessness’ there, warning of immediate risk of criminality, arson and violence.

Similarly, the controversial barge the Bibby Stockholm has housed asylum seekers since 2023. It has been plagued with problems since opening, including legionella bacteria in the water system. Residents describe it as overcrowded, claustrophobic, retraumatising and prison-like; remote, inaccessible and heavily securitised. Just weeks after it opened, a man tragically died onboard.

The sites differ, but they are united in forcing people into substandard, segregated living, subjecting them to dehumanising levels of danger, despair, punishment and abandonment.

Criminalisation

Or was Daniyal in prison? I launched a search with the ‘locate a prisoner’ service and rang individual prisons. But without a prisoner number, and with the Roman-alphabet spelling of Daniyal’s name uncertain, I got nowhere.

I then contacted Captain Support, an NGO that supports imprisoned foreign nationals at the prison nearest Daniyal’s last known location. They sent out information requests amongst their contacts. Eventually a prisoner reported seeing someone who might be Daniyal. Through a complex web of care and connection spanning international and domestic scales, we found him.

Daniyal was in prison, but why? With more digging we found that he had been charged with ‘illegal migration’ offences, even though article 31 of the Refugee Convention stipulates that people seeking refuge must not be punished for irregular entry. Increasingly, the government seeks to criminalise people for seeking safety, despite not offering legal alternative routes. Earlier this year, Ibrahima Bah – barely out of his teens – was sentenced to a decade of imprisonment for manslaughter, after the dinghy he was travelling on sank.

Across Europe, refugees rather than governments are being held accountable for increasingly deadly borders (see also the case of the El-Hiblu 3 in Malta). In the UK, the new Illegal Migration Act 2023 not only prosecutes and punishes those entering ‘illegally’ but allows the government to refuse to consider their refugee claims. Daniyal, Ibrahima, the El-Hiblu 3 and countless others are re-categorised from rights-bearing refugees into one of the most emotionally labile folk devils of our times: the deeply hated and feared, and highly racialised, figure of the ‘foreign criminal’.

Indifference

And yet, the UK’s response to Daniyal was also one of apathy and cruel disinterest. After several months imprisonment, Daniyal was given a release day but not told what would happen to him nor where in the housing labyrinth he would be sent. He spent weeks waiting in fearful uncertainty.

When the day came, Daniyal was just released from prison, with nowhere to go. Neither the Home Office nor Probation provided him with any support. The Home Office had a statutory duty to provide Daniyal with accommodation but they simply, and without explanation, did not house him. As an asylum seeker, he was forbidden from working and had no recourse to public funds, including night shelters. So, in the middle of winter and unable to speak English, Daniyal was abandoned into the horrors of indefinite street destitution.

‘A proud history of protecting refugees’?

An enormous human backlog has been created in the UK’s asylum system. The political response has been to punish and isolate those affected, including through crimes of refuge-seeking, a diversifying portfolio of quasi-penal, segregated and unsafe housing and through political spectacles such as deporting people to Rwanda. The government is attempting to distract us with fearmongering and inflammatory diatribe fuelling hate, disgust and mistrust.

And yet, the almost-garish emotionality of the immigration debate exists alongside a dehumanising disinterest. As I argued in a recent article, it is precisely this mix of splenetic emotionality and callous lack of emotion that not only characterises the immigration system but produces it, and paints certain people as degradable, deportable and disposable. How hopeful then, that as the government’s Safety of Rwanda Act is passed and asylum seekers violently bundled into detention centres for removal, we are witnessing a tide of public outrage and resistance, with hundreds of people coming together in emotional acts of empathy and solidarity.

Melanie Griffiths is an Associate Professor at the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham. She works on mobility and immigration enforcement in the UK. This post relates to Melanie’s article in the recent Special Issue of Identities on ‘Affective Control: The Emotional Life of (En)forcing Mobility Control in Europe’, discussed on the MMB blog by Ioana Vrăbiescu and Bridget Anderson. Previous MMB blogposts by Melanie include ‘The freedom to love: mixed-immigration status couples and the UK immigration system’, written with Candice Morgan-Glendinning.

More information about the Captain Support Network can be found here. Donations to a fundraiser for the network can be made here.

Navigating ethical emotions in European migration enforcement

New writing on migration and mobilities – an MMB special series

By Ioana Vrăbiescu and Bridget Anderson.

The European Union represents itself as a global champion of human rights, yet its external borders are marked by hostility, surveillance and death. Despite official claims to equality and that Black Lives Matter, the vast majority of those excluded at the border and within Europe are people of colour. Institutional racism permeates European immigration and asylum systems. This has consequences beyond territorial edges: differential treatment within Europe results in an intricate network of borders that excludes migrants and asylum seekers, but also has consequences for minoritized and otherwise marginalised citizens (Anderson 2024).

Our recent co-edited Special Issue of Identities, ‘Affective Control: The Emotional Life of (En)forcing Mobility Control in Europe’, focuses on the enforcers of these systems: immigration officers, civil servants, police, social workers, legal officials, private companies, NGOs and many others. We start by questioning: What emotions are experienced during the daily work of migration enforcement? What is the relevance of race and gender in the experience of emotions? When and how do state officials erase emotions and claim rationality? How does the state immigration organizational structure, classification and ideology cultivate or repress certain emotions? Bureaucracies are infused with affects, but emotions (and perhaps this is particularly the case when it comes to immigration bureaucracies) are typically regarded as unimportant side effects. When emotions do come to the fore, the focus is on those who are subject to bureaucratic intervention: feeling fear and anxiety about being arrested, detained or deported. In contrast, this collection explores how emotions enable enforcers to make or dispute the ethical sense of their activities and what these emotional responses to immigration controls tell us about the nature of those controls and the contexts within which they operate.

Exit from the port in Calais (image: Pierre Pruvot on flickr)

Emotions in migration studies

This Special Issue explores how police, social workers and individuals make sense of the complex emotions experienced while executing immigration checks. It steps into the uncharted territory of how they manage, accommodate or suppress feelings when surveilling, controlling and recording migrants and enforcing deportations. The emotional challenges public servants face, including feelings of complicity and belonging, shape their behaviour and raise ethical questions about the moral values of those implementing migration policies.

We introduce the concept of ‘ethical emotions’ to elucidate the affective states that emerge where personal views of the world come into tension with organizational and social values. We use it to capture how emotions can (dis)enable people to make sense of the contradictions between the personal and the institutional and what this means for how emotions are negotiated, exhibited and managed in the workplace. Contributors to this Special Issue highlight in particular the intricate relationship between emotions, ethics, organisational structures and racism. Thus, the collection brings together the fields of migration on the one hand and race and ethnic studies on the other, showing the ways in which ethical emotions support patriarchy and institutional racism.

Nationalism, racism and ethical emotions

The legitimacy of immigration controls hinges on claims that they are not racist even as they mobilise to protect national values. In most European bureaucracies, it is acknowledged that overt racism based on skin colour is socially unacceptable. We do not claim that it is in practice unacceptable, and we also emphasise that this relies on a grotesquely oversimplified idea of what racism actually is. Nevertheless, despite these extreme limitations, how to manage ‘not being racist’ on the one hand with enforcing immigration controls on the other is emotionally draining.

Alpa Parmar’s article examines how street-level bureaucrats feel race. She explores the emotive register of police officers and criminal case workers deployed in their occupational roles. Importantly, she includes the complex and contradictory emotions experienced by racially minoritised people in police and migration related roles. Aino Korvensyrjä, like Parmar, explores how race is used to understand and manage social conflict, aid policing and criminalize dissent. Katerina Rozakou, too, foregrounds race in her analysis of the ambiguous feelings of police officers in charge of guarding, surveilling and deporting migrants from Greece, and argues that the culturally significant sentiment of filotimo (love of honour) can require that they perform care for migrants at the same time as consolidating nationalism.

Lisa Marie Borrelli and Corina Tulbure, in different ways, both consider the relationship between the welfare state and immigration enforcement. Borrelli looks at bureaucrats in Switzerland and how those managing welfare and those managing migration control regard – and feel towards – each other and their respective departments. Tulbure’s work is conducted in Barcelona where she examines how social workers select ‘deserving’ social beneficiaries, the emotional toll it takes and how emotions end up justifying exclusions.

Melanie Griffiths shows how feelings and affects are embedded in immigration legislation and in enforcement processes, exploring the workings of what she calls an ‘emotional economy’ that operates at individual and systemic levels. Finally, Ioana Vrăbiescu argues that melancholia is the best concept to explain the complex emotional mix lived by those who manage migrants’ detention centres in France, spaces where emotions are extreme but also denied.

We hope our collection will open new conversations on the working life of immigration policy implementation in Europe. Racialized dynamics, ideological polarization and the securitization of migration generate emotions and affective atmospheres that expose the human and moral cost of the troubled workplace of immigration enforcement. We hope too that they can show us some of the cracks in the façade of the all-seeing, rational state.

Ioana Vrăbiescu is Assistant Professor in Organization Sciences at the Vrije University Amsterdam. She currently works on the role of ethical emotions in migration control apparatus and on the intersection of climate change and human and non-human forced mobility. She is the co-editor of the Special Issue of Identities, ‘Affective Control: The Emotional Life of (En)forcing Mobility Control in Europe’.

Bridget Anderson is the Director of Migration Mobilities Bristol (MMB) and Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship in the School for Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. She is the co-editor of the Special Issue of Identities, ‘Affective Control: The Emotional Life of (En)forcing Mobility Control in Europe’.

Chilean exile in the UK: music, memory and the making of futures

By Simón Palominos Mandiola.

In 2023, Chileans worldwide marked the 50th anniversary of the 1973-1990 civilian-military dictatorship, which aimed to dismantle decades of progress in wealth redistribution, cultural development and democratisation in Chile. Alongside arrests, torture and murders, exile became a widespread repressive tactic, with over 200,000 individuals forced to leave, significantly altering migration patterns. This, combined with restricted immigration policies based on a narrative of national security, resulted in Chile experiencing a negative migration rate for the first time in the history of national records. Exile, a tragedy marked by state aggression, led to family separation and uncertainty in foreign lands.

The concept of exile, along with migration, understands individuals as bound within national borders, often portraying migrants as anomalies in their new societies. This prevailing national lens in social sciences introduces the epistemological bias of methodological nationalism, limiting interpretations of mobility. Scholars such as Nina Glick Schiller and others advocate for a transnational approach, highlighting the re-creation of societies of origin in new environments. Alternatively, John Urry proposes a focus on mobilities, prioritising movement over fixed points. Understanding migration within regimes of mobility that promote, force or hinder mobility, as described by Glick Schiller and Noel Salazar, acknowledges the power dynamics affecting movement. This mobility paradigm underscores politics, economics and culture in reshaping human migration. The arts, notably music, also significantly influence this phenomenon.

Thousands of Chileans found refuge in Latin American and European countries during the dictatorship. Musical artists such as Isabel and Ángel Parra, Patricio Manns, Quilapayún, Inti-Illimani and Illapu, among other members of the New Chilean Song movement, found asylum in countries such as France, Germany, Sweden and Italy. In these countries, solidarity movements emerged involving artists, activists and workers who collaborated with local trade unions, intellectuals and political parties. Drawing from Chilean culture, particularly music, poetry and gastronomy, this solidarity movement fostered a sense of belonging and garnered European support. The movement established an international network, facilitating artist circulation and making the Chilean political situation visible in Europe.

Promotional brochure for the Inti-Illimani concert in Bristol, 1984 (Source: Carmen Brauning personal archive)

During this time, around 3,000 Chilean refugees arrived in the United Kingdom. In October 2023, at the University of Bristol, we came together with three members of this Chilean community residing in the UK to explore how musical practice serves as an exercise of memory that shapes new futures. Language specialist Carmen Brauning and photographer Luis Bustamante shared the solidarity work they have carried out in Hull and Bristol since arriving in the UK in 1974 through a grant from the World University Service. In 1983 Carmen and Luis organised a concert in Bristol with the group Quilapayún and in 1984 another concert with the group Inti-Illimani.

The organisation of the concerts proved to be challenging due to the diverse experiences of mobility and political strategies of the Chilean community in Bristol. Despite the challenges, the events provided a way not only to keep a connection with Chile, but also, crucially, to portray the resilience of the community in the UK. Stefano Gavagnin et al. have suggested that these community organisations carry out supportive activities for other more crucial ones in the musical field, such as musical performance itself. However, I agree with Ignacio Rivera-Volosky that these organizations are part of musical, identity and political performance in both Chile and the UK. In this sense, the concerts in Bristol mark the end of what we can call the period of the ‘closed suitcase’, of the hope of a prompt return to Chile, and inaugurate the period of the ‘open suitcase’. From there, the Chilean community, now also British, had to face the challenge of their own uncertain future and that of their children in the UK with courage. To this day, Luis uses his camera to portray social movements in Europe and Latin America. Meanwhile, Carmen has taught at the University of Bristol, and she continues welcoming international students and inspiring future artists and researchers.

Another speaker at our event was Mauricio Venegas-Astorga. A musician inspired by the New Chilean Song movement, Mauricio arrived in the UK in 1977. He has collaborated with Chilean and British artists in groups such as Incantation and Alianza, and with British composer Richard Harvey and Australian guitarist John Williams, among others. Mauricio’s music blends Latin American and European folk influences, incorporating elements from the Western canon and electronic music. His compositions avoid essentialist portrayals of origin, focusing instead on narratives of movement and transformation. Thus, the artist’s work creates a new space in which the experience of exile, migration and identities – inhabited both in Chile and the UK – can coexist.

Poster for the sixth Voces Festival in 2023, organised by Quimantú (Source: Quimantú)

Since 1981 Mauricio has led the group Quimantú, which comprises members from Latin America and Europe. Through the group he fosters a diverse musical landscape and promotes cultural exchange through educational programmes and festivals. Examples of this are the Ethnic Contemporary Classical Orchestra (ECCO), composed of children and young people of various nationalities, and the Voces Festival, created to give space to Latin American artists living in the UK. Through the use of different musical languages and instrumentation, the work of Mauricio, Quimantú and ECCO contributes to erasing borders and creating a collective musical experience. Their work helps us imagine a society in which we recognize differences without building hierarchies. Earlier this year I recorded an interview with Mauricio, along with Quimantú members Laura Venegas-Rojas and Rachel Pantin, where we delve deeper into their mobile experience and the significance of their work. You can listen to our conversation here.

Carmen, Luis and Mauricio’s stories are just a few among many. Numerous individuals and organizations strive to preserve memory and address contemporary issues in Chile, the UK and beyond. Examples include the El Sueño Existe festival in Wales, the media outlet Alborada, Bordando por la Memoria project, and the Chile Solidarity Network. Their efforts illustrate how remembering reshapes the experiences of Chilean and British communities in the UK within the unequal mobility regime established by exile. Memory is not merely a transnational re-creation of Chile but a recognition of past and present experiences, shaping future narratives beyond exile. Through music, arts and culture, memory guides us in envisioning new futures.

Simón Palominos Mandiola is a PhD student at the Department of Music, University of Bristol and the MMB Early Career Representative. His research addresses the narratives, representations and performances of migrant music in Chile. Simón has previously written for the MMB Latin America blog on ‘The limits of interculturality: migration and cultural challenges in Chile‘.

(Im)mobility in Buenos Aires (1929-2023)

By Jo Crow.

I travelled to Buenos Aires, Argentina, in November 2023 to research the First Conference of Latin American Communist Parties, a key transnational meeting that took place in 1929. I also presented my work at the Universidad de San Andrés, thanks to an invitation from the head of its History postgraduate programme Dr Eduardo Zimmermann, and met with Dr Gimena del Rio Riande, President of the Argentine Association of Digital Humanities, who has made critical contributions to global debates in this dynamic and burgeoning field.   

I thought a lot about mobility and movement (or lack of it) on this trip. Immigration at Buenos Aires Ezeiza International Airport was quick and easy for me. The immigration officer politely asked about the purpose of my trip and was intrigued by my interest in Argentine history. We spent longer talking about the latter than we did about where I was staying or how long my stay would be. I wondered if such a swift and friendly border-encounter was enabled by my whiteness, academic title and British passport. I tried to picture what the process was like for the international delegates arriving in Argentina (by land or sea) for the Conference of Latin American Communist Parties nearly a century earlier. They may well have experienced class- and race-based barriers. Their biggest problem, however, was probably party-political affiliation: many delegates represented illegal and persecuted Communist Parties and travelled to Buenos Aires incognito, crossing borders without Argentine and other state authorities knowing.

Statue of Nicolás Avellaneda, President of Argentina (1874-1880), in the main square of Avellaneda (author’s photograph, 2023)

The conference’s main discussion sessions took place in the premises of the Avellaneda district committee of the Communist Party of Argentina (PCA) (Jeifets and Jeifets, 2023). When I first started researching this transnational meeting, I imagined Avellaneda as a peripheral space, an industrial suburb on the remote outskirts of Buenos Aires. But, in fact, it is one of the most important municipalities of Buenos Aires Province – just as it was a hundred years ago. In the 1920s, it had not just one, but two major football stadiums. It was also home to the Central Produce Market, Argentina’s largest wholesaler, as well as major textile mills, meat-packing plants and grain-processing centres.

I walked from central Buenos Aires to Avellaneda to find the building of the PCA’s district committee. I also walked around central Buenos Aires, looking for the offices of La Correspondencia Sudamericana, the official mouthpiece of the South American Secretariat (SSA) of the Communist International, which organised the 1929 conference together with the PCA. The SSA was set up in 1925 with its headquarters in Buenos Aires, and the address of its magazine was printed on the front cover: first on Calle Estados Unidos, then, by the time of the conference, on Avenida Independencia (see images below). Both are major thoroughfares traversing this port city. Whilst many delegates at the conference represented Communist Parties (or SSA-affiliated parties) that were banned and operated underground elsewhere on the continent, the PCA and the SSA were functioning relatively openly. Being able to visit the offices where the SSA published its magazine in the 1920s and hearing the clamour of the space and watching people move through it helped me to appreciate how much the Communist Party was beginning to become part of everyday life in Buenos Aires in that period.

La Correspondencia Sudamericana No. 2, April 1926
La Correspondencia Sudamericana No. 16, August 1929

But the Argentina of 1929 was very different to the Argentina of today. In the early twentieth century, it ranked among the ten richest economies in the world (Scobie, 1971; Rock, 1993). In the twenty-first century, Argentina is routinely viewed as part of the ‘developing world’, ‘Third World’, or ‘Global South’ (Beattie, 2009). Its current inflation crisis and expanding recession – one in a succession of economic crises in modern Argentine history – have made headlines around the world. In the early twentieth century, by contrast, millions of people from Europe – especially from Italy and Spain – migrated to Argentina in search of a better life. The country was home to the largest number of immigrants after the United States. Now it is experiencing a wave of emigration to Europe and North America, as it did in in the early 2000s. This option is not available to all, however. More than 50% of the population are living in poverty (Calatrava, 2024) and don’t have the means to travel to the Global North.

The economic crisis is one of the reasons that right-wing libertarian Javier Milei won the presidential elections in November 2023; the election was the day I flew home from Buenos Aires. Since taking power, Milei has introduced ‘shock therapy’ reforms and issued a sweeping (and, according to some Argentine judges, unconstitutional) presidential decree deregulating vast swathes of the economy. This response to economic turmoil – standstill or, indeed, shrinking of the economy – impacts public cultural institutions, research institutes and universities enormously. Some recently appointed staff have been dismissed, many of those with job ‘security’ have seen their salaries suspended, and funding for doctoral scholarships has been slashed (see the recent article in Nature: ‘Despair’: Argentinian researchers protest as president begins dismantling science).

Just before leaving Argentina, I met with Gimena del Rio Riande, Researcher at CONICET (Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas) and Director of the Digital Humanities Lab at the IIBICRIT (Instituto de Investigaciones Bibliográficas y Crítica Textual). We spoke about the economic crisis and people feeling trapped. We also spoke about the state of the field of Digital Humanities – the huge potential for doing exciting research (for example, having on-line access to medieval texts and being able to read them as a full corpus in new ways) but also the limitations and problems, not least the emphasis on ‘thinking big’, which sometimes risks sidelining the concrete detail, the specifics of our primary source materials, or the focused questions (about people, places or texts) that interest us as individual researchers. Large-scale, multi-partner teams can move things on at a tremendous pace, but individual interventions and viewpoints can get lost, overlooked or stuck within these.

We also discussed the linguistic and social inequalities bound up in a field that continues to be dominated by the Anglophone world and often depends on expensive infrastructures. Dr del Rio Riande has published extensively in both English and Spanish on some of these issues (for example, Global Debates in the Digital Humanities, Digital Humanities Quarterly, and ¿En qué lengua citamos cuando escribimos sobre Humanidades Digitales?). We hope to welcome her here to the School of Modern Languages and MMB in the summer, to give a talk on Digital Humanities in Latin America and lead a workshop on open research practices.          

Jo Crow is Professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Bristol and Associate Director (Research Development) of MMB. Her current research investigates the production of knowledge and circulation of ideas about race through four international congresses in twentieth-century Latin America. Her latest book is Itinerant Ideas: Race, Indigeneity and Cross-Border Intellectual Encounters in Latin America (1900-1950) (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022). Read more about it in Jo’s previous MMB blogpost, ‘Roots and routes: debating indigenous rights in twentieth-century Latin America.’

Instead of separating thousands more families – rethink UK family migration policies

By Katharine Charsley and Helena Wray.

Last week, new immigration rules were laid before parliament that will force thousands of British citizens and settled residents to live apart from their partner and even their children. This is because the Minimum Income Requirement (MIR) to bring a non-British partner to the UK is going to rise to £29,000 in April, and to £38,700 in early 2025 (the staggering of the increase was announced only after a public outcry).

The MIR has been a source of anguish since it was introduced in 2012, replacing a simpler test of ‘adequate maintenance’. As it has not risen from the original £18,600, it is easy to see why the government would now consider an increase. However, the MIR has already caused family separation and hardship, and the increase will make things worse.

The MIR is inflexible, being concerned with only one question: the income of the UK partner on application. Changes to the household income after entry, regardless of the incoming spouse’s potential contribution, are irrelevant. As a result, a British parent who cares for children, who works part-time or is still in education or training may be unable to meet the MIR even if the family’s financial position would be transformed once their partner joins them. In addition, meeting the MIR is not just a matter of having the right income, but of having it for at least six months, often longer, before the application. People in casualised work, the self-employed or those returning from abroad often find this challenging if not impossible. Exceptions designed to meet the government’s human rights obligations exist, but they are often difficult to obtain and can require expensive legal advice and an appeal.

(Image: Nenad Stojkovic on Flickr)

The benefits of the MIR are unclear. The government’s twin rationales have been to ensure families have financial resources for integration, and to ensure new entrants do not impose a burden on the welfare system. But those on family visas are already ineligible for public funds, and the costs of the 5-year partner visa process now exceed £11,000 – leaving some families struggling to meet basic needs. Indeed, by refusing so many partners, the MIR creates enforced single parents, so it only increases financial hardship and welfare reliance.

The rationale for the new figure is also unclear. The government has not consulted the Migration Advisory Committee (as it did in 2012), and the new MIR is not tied to the full-time National Living Wage (less than £24,000). The only explanation given is that the government wants to link the MIR to the minimum salary for skilled migrant workers. Leaving aside that even the skilled worker minimum has exceptions, this seems arbitrary.  Family migration policy concerns the minimum conditions for allowing citizens and residents to enjoy family life with a non-UK partner. Why should this depend on meeting a criterion set for an entirely different category: skilled migrants coming to the UK for work?

The MIR is discriminatory. The old minimum of £18,600 cannot be met by 20-25% of the UK’s working population, and has always particularly impacted those tending to earn less: women, young people, some ethnic minorities and those outside London and Southeast England. The increase exacerbates this injustice: 40-60% of the working population do not earn £29,000, and the vast majority will be excluded by the higher threshold of £38,700. The government estimates that between 10,000 and 30,000 people will be affected each year, but it could be much higher as UK-EU couples outside the settlement scheme now also come under the immigration rules.

The manner of the introduction of these changes has been cruel. British spouses make major life changes to meet the visa requirements: changing jobs, making difficult choices between caring obligations and working longer hours, or moving back to the UK alone to earn enough to be joined by their family. They make these changes months in advance, enduring prolonged family separation to find work, earn the MIR over six months and then wait for their application to be processed. Increasing the MIR in April, with less than six months’ notice, leaves those who had been assiduously working towards the visa requirements – often at great cost to their family lives – with their plans destroyed.

The UK’s family migration policies are among the most restrictive in the world – a House of Lords Committee found they ‘fail both families and society’. There are many reasons why families need to live together in the UK – which is after all the home of at least one partner – and there is a pile of evidence as to the deep unhappiness, financial stress and loneliness caused by the system, including to children. This will sadly increase once the new MIR applies.

Living in your home with your partner should not be a privilege only for the wealthy. It is time for a total rethink. We have written to the main opposition parties asking them to include a commitment to review the family migration rules in their election manifestos.  

Helena Wray is Professor of Migration Law at the University of Exeter where her research focuses on the regulation of families through immigration law. Her latest monograph, published by Hart in 2023, is Article 8 ECHR, Family Reunification and the UK’s Supreme Court: Family Matters? She is currently working on the ESRC funded Brexit Couples project looking at the impact of the immigration rules on UK-EU couples after Brexit.

Katharine Charsley is Professor of Migration Studies at the University of Bristol. Her work focuses on migration, gender and families, with a particular interest in transnational marriages and relationships. She is PI of the ESRC-funded Brexit Couples project looking at the impact of the immigration rules on UK-EU couples after Brexit.

To learn about the impact of the new Minimum Income Requirement on universities, read Eda Yazici’s recent MMB blogpost, ‘Debordering Higher Education’. And for a previous study on the impact of the UK immigration system on families see Katharine’s blogpost from 2020, ‘Kept apart – couples and families separated by the UK immigration system’.

Obstacles and aspirations: stories from young refugees in the UK education system

By Jáfia Naftali Câmara.

Refugee Stories: Education: Obstacles and Aspirations‘ draws on findings from my doctoral research project on young refugees’ educational experiences in the UK. The study investigated how young refugee people and their families have encountered the education system while considering the implications of living as refugees in England. Young refugee people’s right to education is enshrined in British law; however, the UK has no specific educational policy for them.

Invisibilizing practices add to the silence around their experiences and needs. ‘Refugee Stories’ tells young refugees’ and families’ stories to amplify their voices and shine a light on the social and material conditions they experience.

How ‘Refugee Stories’ was born

Cover of ‘Refugee Stories’ (illustration by ARC Studios in collaboration with participants and Jáfia Naftali Câmara)

I volunteered as an English as an Additional Language (EAL) tutor to young refugees at a secondary school in the South of England. I also volunteered at local organizations advocating for refugee people and fundraising to facilitate their access to phones and internet at home. Through volunteering, I built connections with three families who expressed interest in participating in my research. While most research tends to be school-based, I focused on working directly with families to understand how they encountered England’s education system. Particularly, I was interested in how policy meets lived experience. The mothers often asked me to help their children with their homework or to help them access technology to continue remote schooling. I maintained contact with families and provided support when they needed it throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns implemented in England.  

As part of my methodology, I enacted an ethics of care by trying to mitigate some of the challenges they endured. Refugee families, including asylum seekers, may have limited access to resources and technology at home. Therefore, remote schooling was very challenging for them because they did not have reliable access to computers, phones and internet, and they also struggled to pay for data for their cell phones. As part of my research and commitment to support them, I tried to highlight their hardships and amplify their voices, as in this article, I co-wrote with Maria, a mother seeking asylum who participated in the study.   

Creating ‘Refugee Stories’ with families to highlight their experiences and perspectives was essential to my methodology and ethics of care. My approach to critical ethnography was to go beyond simply observing and interviewing participants but also to try and address some of the hardships that families experienced. In addition to providing schoolwork and English language support, I facilitated one family’s access to a laptop and a phone, books and art supplies for all the young people, data for their phones and access to extra-curricular activities such as football lessons. I dedicated time weekly to helping one family use their new laptop and new software needed for their schooling, including MS Teams, sending emails, creating Word and PowerPoint files and attaching files to email messages. When their schooling shifted online, young people were expected to know how to do those tasks, but some had never done it before.  

Page from ‘Refugee Stories’ (illustrations by ARC Studio in collaboration with participants and Jáfia Naftali Câmara)

As a migrant from a working-class family from the so-called ‘global south’, I understood some of the challenges that the families lived through. We developed a connection of mutual care. The mothers often cooked meals and invited me to have lunch or dinner with them. One mother baked a cake for my birthday, and their children wrote me Christmas cards and ‘thank you’ notes. ‘Refugee Stories’ was part of my methodological approach to amplify young people’s and their families’ perspectives and experiences and communicate research findings beyond academia. It was an art-science collaboration to make research findings more accessible. For example, the young people chose their pseudonyms, the appearance of their characters and what they wanted to highlight to readers. ‘Refugee Stories’ was funded by the University of Bristol’s Temple Quarter Engagement Fund, allowing me to involve families in creating the zine and pay them an honorarium for their time. 

Using ‘Refugee Stories’ for teaching and learning  

I am interested in learning how educators and students may find the zine useful for their practices. I point to a few goals I have for how this zine may support learning in classrooms:  

I adopt anti-colonial and anti-racist perspectives. The zine prompts us to consider how education can acknowledge the UK, EU and US colonial histories and imperialism that permeates today, including the militarization of borders and the criminalization of migration. Colonial histories and imperial violence need to be acknowledged in education systems. 

The zine could lead to discussions on what causes people to leave their homes, migration histories, how refugees are created, and the challenges they experience trying to find safety. For example, Muhammad, a young Iraqi man portrayed in the zine, often talked about the history of Iraq and the US invasion of his country. Muhammad also highlighted that his history classes mainly studied Europe and World War II. While interesting, he wanted more history about the world, including Mesopotamia. Muhammad’s reflections indicate the need to challenge the Eurocentric nature of curricula in Western countries – what knowledge(s) and histories are erased? Whose voices are silenced?   

The zine can provide resources that connect to students’ realities. I learned from my research that curriculum content is often disconnected from young people’s realities. A young man from Eritrea in secondary school discussed that he had to annotate Shakespeare’s poems while learning to write for the first time in his third language, English. His teacher was aware that he struggled but was not aware why he faced difficulties to follow her instructions. She had no idea about his previous experiences, including that he had never been taught how to write. Resources like this one can offer mirrors of students’ own experiences, while offering windows for other students into refugee students’ lives.  

The zine can support educators in understanding the knowledge refugee students bring to the classroom. Schools may view refugee learners through a deficit-based lens and focus on what they ‘lack’: insufficient English language proficiency, no ‘formal education’, limited schooling or viewing learners through a lens of ‘trauma’. Young refugee learners bring essential knowledge(s) and different ways of knowing, being and doing. They may still be learning English but often speak or understand various languages. As demonstrated in ‘Refugee Stories’, young people are resourceful and active agents in creating their networks, helping their parents learn the language and their new country’s systems, and studying independently. England is very institutionally monolingual. Talking to the young people who participated in the study, I learned that some educators might have deficit-based views of families who speak their first language at home rather than English, thinking that the young people may struggle to learn English because they speak other languages at home. In this study, some young people were influenced by that and often stopped using some of their languages to prioritize speaking in English more often. ‘Refugee Stories’ could be used to discuss various themes such as language and multilingualism, migration and colonialism. 

I welcome your thoughts on these issues and how you may use ‘Refugee Stories’ for teaching and learning. 

READ THE COMIC HERE

Jáfia Naftali Câmara is a Brazilian scholar and Research Fellow at the Centre for Lebanese Studies, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. She received her PhD from the University of Bristol with a thesis on ‘Refugee Youth and Education: Aspirations and Obstacles in England’. She is currently undertaking a study on education in emergencies focusing on Brazil and other Latin American countries. 

This blogpost was originally published by the Harvard Graduate School of Education REACH programme (Research, education and action for refugees around the world) under the title ‘Refugee Stories: Education: Obstacles and Aspirations.’

Debordering Higher Education

By Eda Yazici.

On 4th December 2023, the Home Secretary announced a series of policy changes with the aim of reducing net migration. Among the changes announced was an increase in the general salary threshold for the Skilled Worker Visa from £26,200 to £38,700 a year and an increase in the salary requirement for settled people and British citizens applying to bring their partners to the UK from £18,600 to £38,700. The new threshold, which is higher than the median full-time salary of £35,000, comes at a time of persistent wage stagnation and high inflation.

Salaries in Higher Education (HE) have fallen by 20% in real terms since 2009. For those at the beginning of their academic careers, starting salaries are typically around £37,000 and are often on precarious, short-term contracts. This means that from April – when the new policy is due to come into force – it may not be possible for migrant academic teaching and research staff to begin their careers in the UK. This may make even the unsure footing of a year-long contract a distant possibility.

(Image by Redd F on Unsplash)

Under the current visa regime, applicants for a Skilled Worker Visa must be paid the higher of the going-rate for their occupation code and the £26,200 salary threshold. For example, the current going-rates for a historian and physicist are £25,600 and £32,600 respectively. For PhD graduates, postdoctoral researchers and under 26s, there are discounts of up to 30% in place on the salary threshold or the going-rate (depending on which applies). Eight weeks since the new threshold was announced, however, there is still no clarity on whether these discounts will remain in place from April. It is possible that in-line with the removal of discounts for shortage occupations, discounts for postdoctoral positions will also come to an end. If the 30% discount continues to apply, future postdoctoral researchers and teaching associates will continue to be classed as Skilled Workers. If it does not, early career academics will either be unable to begin their careers in the UK, or, if they completed their PhD in the UK, will have to apply for other, often less secure visa routes, such as the Graduate Visa, which does not have a path to settlement and is also under review.

Whether exceptions are put in place remains to be seen, but what the proposed changes do reveal is the impacts of pernicious and increasingly restrictive immigration policy on Higher Education. It also shows how immigration policy intersects with low pay in the sector. This has implications for how academic workers fight to improve their pay and conditions; the experiences of migrant workers in HE generally; and the experiences of students. The changes above signal the worrying potential of a future of a sector that is increasingly closed to migrant workers and, if wage growth remains stagnant, where academic teaching and research is progressively deskilled and undervalued.

Funding HE

Linked to the changes in the Skilled Worker Visa route are changes that came into force for the Student Visa route in January this year. Also driven by a desire to reduce net migration, it is no longer possible for postgraduate taught students to bring dependents with them to the UK. It is now only possible for Student Visa holders to be accompanied by their dependents if they are on a postgraduate research course. Not only is this racialised – with the highest number of dependent study visas issued to Nigerian and Indian citizens – but also demonstrates the conflict between the government’s determination to reduce net migration at all costs while depending on international students to prop up the unsustainable funding model in HE.

In England, HE is funded in two main ways: through student fees and direct funding. Direct funding separates teaching and research. The 2021-2022 level of funding for teaching in HE was 78% less than it was in 2010 in real terms. Student fees are expected to fund the majority of HE teaching. For so-called ‘home students’, fees were raised to a maximum of £9,250 in 2012. For international students, fees for undergraduate courses are on average £22,000 a year. There is consequently both an incentive to recruit international students – many of whom face racism and inadequate support from their institutions – and a reliance on international students for funding. At present, international student fees make up 21% of British Universities’ total income. This means that if international student numbers were to fall in line with the government’s fixation on net migration, there would be severe consequences for the financial sustainability of HE institutions. Unless the funding model were to change, this would also likely exacerbate wage stagnation and job insecurity in the sector.

The conflicting policy objectives of cutting funding and reducing net migration is indicative of the follies of dogged ideological commitment to nationalism and a small state. The impact of these conflicting policy objectives is also evident in other sectors –  most particularly in health and social care. For academic workers, challenging unjust immigration policy goes hand in hand with improving funding, pay and conditions. This also involves confronting complicity in upholding the hostile environment in the sector.

The hostile environment in HE

The hostile environment suite of policies extends borders into many aspects of everyday life and affects everyone. It determines how people apply for jobs, open bank accounts and rent homes among many other things. The hostile environment increasingly regulates universities. This includes attendance monitoring of students, which puts international students at risk of losing their visas if they miss a certain number of classes; right-to-work checks for all workers including for one-off events; and reporting staff absence among visa holders to the Home Office. The financial dependence on international student fees also means that over-compliance is widespread in the sector because institutions fear losing their licence to sponsor international students. For migrant staff and students, the hostile environment creates a culture of fear that can dissuade people from advocating for change.

For academic workers, particularly those of us who are migration researchers, debordering our institutions is as much about challenging injustice as it is about securing the future of teaching and research. This raises the question of how the deeply interconnected problems of the hostile environment, unsustainable funding models and deteriorating pay and conditions are confronted. It also highlights the importance of not viewing migration as a policy arena in isolation, making it clear that every change to the visa regime affects us all.

Eda Yazici is a Research Associate on the PRIME Project at the University of Bristol. PRIME is an international project that analyses how institutions shape the conditions of migrant labour across Europe. Prior to joining the University of Bristol, she was a Research Fellow on the Open City Project at the University of Warwick, which looked at issues of race, migration and mobility in London. Eda’s PhD research focused on race, place and belonging in the British asylum system.

Reporting Sounds: the lived impact of UK Home Office reporting on the lives of asylum seekers

By Amanda Schmid-Scott.

Forty minutes into the bus journey that takes me from the bustling streets of Bristol’s city centre, through Bishopston and Horfield, and slowly along Gloucester Road, with its vibrant array of independent shops and cafes, we eventually head onto the busy dual carriage way. As we leave the shopfronts and people on foot behind, the bus eventually stops. At the side of the dual carriage way, I disembark and cars rush past at 60 mph. In order to cross to the other side of the road, I am forced to make a run for it when there is a gap in the traffic. I arrive at Patchway police station which, approximately seven miles from central Bristol, is the official immigration reporting centre for the city and the surrounding area. Immigration reporting, often referred to as ‘signing’, is a compulsory requirement for migrants without legal status, including asylum-seekers who are awaiting a decision on their asylum claim. Framed by the Home Office as an administrative procedure, migrants are required to present themselves regularly (usually once a week, or bi-weekly) to one of 13 reporting centres located throughout the UK as a condition of immigration bail.

Today is my first day volunteering with Bristol Signing Support, a group who regularly attends the reporting centre at Patchway to offer practical and emotional support to migrants in what can be a frightening and often isolating experience. This is due to the fact that the Home Office, as well as using reporting appointments as a means of keeping track of the whereabouts of migrants pending legal status, utilise these sites to target potential deportees. This means that each time an individual attends their reporting appointment, they face possible detainment and removal from the UK.

I volunteered with the Bristol Signing Support group for a year from May 2017, and as part of my doctoral research conducted interviews with asylum-seekers subjected to immigration reporting, as well as fellow volunteers and asylum support workers involved in various local community organisations. Over time, I recognised how, alongside the often extreme fear many migrants experience of being detained during their reporting appointments, these sites also impose more surreptitious, mundane forms of harm. Accounts of those subjected to reporting requirements reveals how these often hidden and hard-to-reach reporting sites enforce a continuum of violence, steering migrants towards subjugation, destitution and removal (Schmid-Scott, forthcoming).

Home Office reporting, interactive map (image: Reporting Sounds website)

With funding I obtained during a postdoctoral research fellowship at Newcastle University, I collated a selection of my research interviews to produce Reporting Sounds, an interactive website enabling users to explore the impact of immigration reporting on the lives of asylum-seekers living in the UK. Designed in the form of a map of Bristol, the website combines hand-drawn pen-and-ink illustrations with audio-recorded stories from my field research. These testimonies situate the various harms that are imposed on asylum-seekers in relation to their immigration reporting requirements, invoking the ways in which the impact of reporting affects their everyday lives. These experiences are focused around five individual stories, each indicative of the continuum of violence which constitutes the UK’s asylum process. By centring on their experiences of immigration reporting, these stories connect the administrative systems and sites of UK border control measures with everyday encounters with suffering.

At times, this suffering emerges through more surreptitious and mundane spatiotemporal harms, implicit in the obligation to travel repeatedly to these often remote, difficult-to-access sites, very often for years on end. Mohammed describes requesting to have his reporting schedule reduced – a request that was denied – and how he must pay for the bus to and from his appointments, which is a huge financial burden for those that are already living below the poverty line. Likewise, Hassan recounts not having enough money to pay for the bus fare, and tells the Home Office ‘you can arrest and detain me again’. The inclusion of each individuals’ journey times and travel costs, signalling the proportion of time and money these journeys necessitate, further illuminates the everyday burden regular reporting entails.

Elodie’s story of reporting (image: Reporting Sounds website)

At other times the harms that reporting imposes materialise through the more overt violence of arrest and detainment. Elodie’s experiences of being detained during her reporting appointment, where she suffered a panic attack, point to the danger these sites hold in repeatedly threatening asylum-seekers with potential arrest and detainment. For Mohammed, the fear of being detained affects his sleep prior to signing days; he describes how ‘you never know when you’re coming back’. Samuel also talks of being detained during his reporting appointment within the onsite holding cells and reflects on the shame he felt in being detained ‘as someone who committed a crime’. Bernadette’s account reveals how the threat of being detained is felt beyond the walls of the reporting centre, as she explains: ‘I’m still looking through my window all the time. Between six o’clock and eight o’clock in the morning, that’s what time they normally come.’ As these accounts show, the threat of a possible detainment and subsequent forced removal attempt is intimately felt by individuals, making it an extremely stressful process, and yet one which they must repeatedly engage in, often for years on end.

Samuel’s story of reporting (image: Reporting Sounds website)

Creating an archive

By creating an interactive, auditory web-archive of asylum-seekers’ testimonies, Reporting Sounds sheds light on the relatively unknown border control practice of immigration reporting and provides the opportunity for the public to explore its everyday impact on the lives of asylum-seekers in the UK. As Sara Ahmed’s work has identified, archives are tethered to the question of whose experiences are worth preserving (Ahmed 2006), and through my own attempt at creating an archive of asylum-seekers’ testimonies, this form of data gathering holds space for these otherwise little-known-about and hidden experiences. Using the form of a map to situate their testimonies, and drawing attention to their less-visible sites of impact (that is, the home, the body, the reporting office), imposes a form of ‘counter-mapping’ which, as Craig Dalton and Liz Mason-Deese argue, allows us to challenge and reimagine dominant spatial imaginaries and how certain populations move through these spaces (Dalton and Mason-Deese 2012). While each of these five stories is deeply personal to the individual’s experience of reporting, they are also reflective of the current, contemporary political moment, in which the UK government has placed hostility towards and the removal of asylum seekers at the front and centre of its politics. The last, sixth box is left open for individuals to share their own experiences of reporting.  

In May 2024, I will be hosting an event with Migrants Organise in London, to launch the website and to invite the public to learn more about immigration reporting and the lived experience of asylum. If you would like more information, please get in touch.

Amanda Schmid-Scott is a Lecturer in Criminology at Bristol University. Her research explores the intersections between bureaucracy and violence within border control sites and systems, engaging with feminist theories of violence and resistance to examine how the sites and practices which constitute asylum-seeking are made, negotiated and resisted. She recently completed an ESRC postdoctoral research fellowship at Newcastle University.

Invisible: domestic workers’ commutes in Latin America

By Valentina Montoya Robledo and Rachel Randall.

Read the Spanish version here.

Domestic workers make up one in every five working women in Latin America, totalling approximately 13 million individuals. In recent decades, a significant transformation has occurred as many domestic workers have shifted from living in their employers’ homes to commuting daily from their own residences due to rapid urbanization processes. Latin America became the most urbanized region in the world in 2014. By 2020, 83% of domestic workers in Colombia, for example, resided in their own homes. Their precarious earnings and the fact that more than 80% of them are informal workers, however, have forced them to live in city outskirts. Both their homes and the households where they work often lack proper connections to public transport as well as pavements for pedestrians, making their lengthy commutes both time consuming and expensive.

(Image: from Invisible)

This shift has led to extensive commuting times across Latin America, with domestic workers’ journeys reaching up to seven hours per day in Bogotásix hours in Lima, five hours in São Paulo (Montoya Robledo, forthcoming) and three and a half hours in smaller Colombian cities like Manizales. According to Bogotá’s 2015 Mobility Survey, domestic workers have the longest commutes among all urban occupations in Colombia. In many countries they also allocate a significant portion of their income to cover transport costs: 36% in Lima, for example, and 28% in Medellín. During these prolonged journeys, domestic workers often face racial discriminationgender-based violencecommon crime and road safety concerns.

These hardships not only risk domestic workers’ safety but also hinder their access to a range of opportunities from education to leisure to political participation. And yet, local governments in Latin America frequently overlook their situation. The Invisible Commutes project was set up in 2019 to shed light on this critical issue, starting with a documentary about domestic workers’ concerns, which was expanded into a transmedia project in 2020. Collaborating with musician and cultural manager Andres Gonzalez and filmmaker Daniel Gomez, the project aims to raise awareness not only among scholars but also the general public and mobility experts about domestic workers’ limited Right to the City in Latin America.

Invisible Commutes uses various media to depict domestic workers’ expensive, violent and lengthy commutes in order to advocate for their Right to the City. The project includes short audio segments featuring their testimonials, which focus on their experiences when commuting and their perspectives on mobility infrastructure projects. It includes a section on the maps that domestic workers have drawn of their commutes. The project also produces opinion pieces and journal papers, and engages in academic, civil society and local government discussions. Recognized in 2023 as a ‘Remarkable Feminist Voice in Transport’ by Tumi and Women Mobilize Women, Invisible Commutes is a comprehensive effort to address transportation injustice for millions of women.

Filming for the Invisible Commutes documentary, Invisible, has taken place over an extended period, beginning in 2019 with a focus on Reinalda Chaverra, a domestic worker based in Medellín. In 2022 filming continued in Bogotá with domestic worker Belén García. In 2023, Invisible Commutes was awarded funds by Migration Mobilities Bristol to complete the documentary short and hold a workshop with the Afro-Colombian Union of Domestic Workers (UTRASD) in Medellín.

The workshop explored how domestic workers themselves want to see their commutes represented on screen and enabled their voices to feed into the form and content of the final documentary. This was crucial for us because, despite a recent upsurge in Latin American films that focus on domestic worker protagonists, almost none depict the workers’ lengthy and challenging commutes. It is widely acknowledged that these films tend to be made by directors whose perspectives are more closely aligned with those of employers, rather than employees. They often dramatize the dynamics of employer-employee relationships within employers’ homes by taking live-in domestic workers as their protagonists, as is the case, for example, of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018) and Anna Muylaert’s The Second Mother (2015). In reality, hourly paid roles are becoming more popular than live-in forms of domestic work, as this report focusing on Brazil also shows. When we talked about the lack of visual representations of domestic workers’ commutes at the workshop, one participant explained that it is not convenient for employers to acknowledge the long, challenging and costly journeys that their employees have to undertake because it raises the question of how these commutes should be compensated.

As a starting point for our discussion, we watched clips from the film Roma, which focuses on domestic worker Cleo. Set in the early 1970s in Mexico City, Cleo’s story is strongly inspired by the real experiences of Liboria Rodríguez who was employed by director Alfonso Cuarón’s family when he was a child. Although Roma risks reinforcing a narrative in which its protagonist is both celebrated as, and relegated to, the status of a surrogate member of her employer family, the way the film dwells on Cleo’s gruelling routine maintaining an extensive house and supporting her employers’ four children sparked strong affective responses among the workshop’s participants. Some addressed the negative implications this kind of workload has for managing to exercise or relax, while others reflected on the impact it has for workers’ relationships to their own loved ones, namely their children.

Many of the insights that fed into Invisible were, nonetheless, provoked by the participants’ reflections on the differences between their experiences commuting and those depicted in one of the only Latin American films that focuses on this topic. Rodrigo Moreno’s Réimon (2014) traces the lengthy journeys undertaken by its protagonist Ramona, an hourly-paid cleaner who commutes on public transport from her home on the outskirts of Buenos Aires to her employers’ upmarket apartments in its centre. Like Roma, Réimon also dwells on the details of Ramona’s work and routine. One workshop participant praised the grace and elegance that characterises Ramona’s portrayal: she is always nicely dressed and well presented. The importance of this became clear as multiple participants spoke about how the distance that they need to walk across difficult terrain to catch initial transport links means they are forced to arrive at work with unclean clothes, suffer rude comments from other commuters, or take a cloth with them to try and wipe off the dirt. The dignity of Ramona’s depiction resonated with UTRASD members who shared experiences of having been denigrated by others due to their occupation and discriminated against on the basis of their race.

One participant also noted that Ramona does not appear to feel afraid walking through the city in the dark of the early morning, while the participant herself has often feared being attacked. Ohers attested to how common it is to be sexually harassed or assaulted on public transport. Another participant observed that Ramona is shown getting a seat on the train, while the buses they catch are so full at peak times that they must always stand.  

In response to these challenges, Invisible concludes with the changes that UTRASD members themselves would make to improve domestic workers’ experiences commuting to their employers’ homes. These include: building more public bathrooms in stations and across the city; introducing women-only carriages; giving domestic workers preference in queues at peak times; and subsidising public transport for domestic workers or introducing forms of transport specifically for them. The final three proposals would likely require individuals to register formally as domestic workers, which would be a positive given the challenges that widespread informality brings across the sector.

We hope that the documentary encourages policy makers and urban planners to take up their proposals and continue hearing what they have to say.

Invisible (Valentina Montoya Robledo, Daniel Gómez Restrepo and Andres Gonzalez Robledo 2024) will have its UK premiere at the University of Bristol on 31 January 2024.

Valentina Montoya Robledo is a Senior Researcher in Gender and Mobility at the Transport Studies Unit (TSU) at the University of Oxford. She directs the transmedia project Invisible Commutes on domestic workers’ commuting experiences. Her most recent paper is ‘That is why users do not understand the maps we make for them’: Cartographic gaps between experts and domestic workers and the Right to the City.

Rachel Randall is Reader in Latin American Studies at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL). Her book, Paid to Care: Domestic Workers in Contemporary Latin American Culture is published this month by the University of Texas Press. It explores the struggles of domestic workers in Latin America through an analysis of films, texts and digital media produced with them or inspired by their experiences. The book is available now with a 30% discount using the code UTXM30 by ordering online in the UK and Europe and in the US and Latin America

Further MMB blogposts about domestic workers in Latin America include Rachel’s post on ‘Domestic workers and COVID-19: Brazil’s legacy of slavery lives on,’ and ‘The dangers of staying home: lockdown deepens inequalities in Brazil,’ by Fernanda Mallak, Isabela Vianna Pinho and Thalles Vichiato Breda.

Migration and mobilities research: making connections for social justice

By Bridget Anderson.

Happy New Year all. Let’s hope that 2024 brings more peace and justice than 2023. We need it. It is difficult to be hopeful in the face of the ongoing Gaza horror, more needless (and nameless) deaths in the Mediterranean and Channel, the fall out from the Illegal Migration Act, and the anticipated Rwanda legislation. All these speak to the concerns of many MMB members. Not only migration and asylum policy, but state violence, exclusion, citizenship, nationalism, mobility and immobility, leaving and staying put and, related to all of these, the protean nature of racism.

Many of us believe that it is our academic responsibility to speak truth to power and leverage our analysis to affect transformation. But in reality the transformation has been travelling in the opposite direction to the one demanded by evidence and analysis. Over the past 20 years there has been a proliferation of migration research, Masters’ courses, conferences, journals, centres and networks, particularly in the rich world. Our understanding of human movement and the tools we use to analyse it have undoubtedly improved hugely. So why is it that law and policy are so determinedly taking us in the opposite direction, and we seem to be marching away, not only from justice, but from simple common sense? Anyone who is interested in this kind of question would do well to read Christina Boswell’s work. In her book The Political Uses of Expert Knowledge: Immigration Policy and Social Research (Cambridge 2009) she explains that the usual explanations for the disconnection between policy and research (political pressure; institutional incapacity/lack of resources on the part of government and other research users; abstraction/irrelevance on the part of research producers) are correct but insufficient. She argues that research and expertise also lend credibility, meaning that they serve two important functions for government policymakers. The first is a legitimizing function, creating confidence that decisions are well founded. The second is a substantiating function, supporting already existing policy choices and preferences.

Importantly, the legitimizing and substantiating functions of research are powerful but are not helpful if we seek a significant change in policy direction. To be transformative, scholarly research requires partnership with non-academic actors and to contribute to pressures for change these actors are exerting on state policymakers. MMB members are working with others to rise to this challenge. We have many examples, but just to pick two. Katharine Charsley and Helena Wray’s research UK-EU couples after Brexit works with key campaigning and support organisations to intervene in policy debates on the issues in the family migration regime. Ann Singleton, MMB Policy Strategic Lead, has been working with ACH to use expertise from refugees’ lived and learned experience to develop new small businesses, and models for support that facilitate integration. MMB also co-organises seminars with ACH, bringing together practitioners, policymakers and academics. The most recent seminar took education as its theme, and participants included Rob Sharples from the School of Education discussing his research on post-16 education and the Bristol Plan for Migrant Learners. Do let us know if you want support finding community partners, developing funding ideas with them or featuring collaborations on the MMB website.

Importantly, research does not have to have an immediate impact to make a difference. MMB’s tagline is ‘new thinking on people and movement’ and this also requires ‘slow science’. Longer term, research can build different understandings of migration – for example, through connecting it with movement of the more-than-human, including goods, data, animals and plants; through putting it into a richer historical context that sees how movement shapes our worlds; and through analysing and making accessible the power of representation. All of this requires multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches whose ‘pathways to impact’ are not necessarily easily traceable, but which help us to think differently and hone tools for the future. We are very pleased that Bristol University Press will be publishing a volume with us that advances this kind of thinking and are planning to develop this work in the coming years.

Thinking differently also needs international partnerships, and this is particularly true for thinking differently about movement. MMB research often is not only shaped by international borders but stretches across them. We have already learned much from the initial visit by Victoria Hattam from the New School for Social Research who joined us as a Visiting Leverhulme Professor for two months in 2023. Her second, longer visit will start in February 2024. Do come to the MMB welcome drinks on 6th February to learn more about our plans with her, which include public lectures, a workshop on visual representation, seminars on race and mobility, political economy and cross-border production, and a PGR discussion group.

Developing and nurturing these partnerships is a priority for MMB in the next two years. We are delighted that Jo Crow, Professor of Latin American Studies in the Department of Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, has joined us as Associate Director (Research Development) to take the lead in developing this aspect of MMB’s work. We are particularly interested to learn about the research agendas of potential partnerships to facilitate long-term collaboration, funded and unfunded, so do let us know if you have any ideas. We are keen to support project and network development, big or small. Partnerships, within and outside the university, local, national and international, lend new perspectives, energy and creativity. Let’s harness that to build a more just world in 2024.

Bridget Anderson is Director of Migration Mobilities Bristol (MMB) and Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship in the School for Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol.