Maritime mobility and literary culture: ‘Hamlet’ off the coast of Sierra Leone

By Laurence Publicover.

In 1607 three East India Company (EIC) ships set off on the company’s third voyage, aiming to break into the lucrative spice trade dominated by Portugal for the previous century. As the first to reach mainland India, this voyage has clear significance for histories of globalization and English (later British) imperialism. But it is also of interest to literary historians, as it provided the occasion for the first recorded performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Or at least, it might have done – the documentary evidence leaves plenty of room for doubt. In any case, this (possible) performance of Hamlet off the coast of what we now call Sierra Leone, perhaps before an African audience, is good to think with. It might, for example, prompt us to consider how Shakespeare’s works became both a tool for imperialism – his plays have found a prominent place in colonial curricula, including in India – and a means by which colonial subjects could ‘speak back’ to the imperial centre through adaptation and reinterpretation. If Shakespeare is a global playwright, then it seems apt that the earliest performance record we have of Hamlet – perhaps his most important play – relates not to London, but to a voyage that helped shape global history.

All this is very enticing. But as someone who works across Shakespeare studies and oceanic studies, I am also interested in this episode for other reasons. To borrow Hamlet’s words, what might have been ‘the purpose of playing’ during an EIC voyage?

‘A fleet of East Indiamen at Sea’ by Nicholas Pocock, 1803 (image: Wikimedia Commons)

The idea that literary culture shapes maritime culture – and vice versa – sits at the heart of Shipboard Literary Cultures: Reading, Writing, and Performing at Sea, a volume of essays I have edited with the social historian Susann Liebich (University of Heidelberg). Currently in production at Palgrave Macmillan, the book examines the literary cultures of vessels ranging from a man-of-war anchored off the coast of Plymouth during the English Civil War (1642-51) to the container ships that traverse our oceans today. Individuals explored within specific chapters include anxious migrants on the three-month ‘Australia run’ from England, a young girl on her father’s whaleship, troops travelling from New Zealand to Europe to fight in the First World War, and American college students circumnavigating the globe aboard the ‘Floating University’ around a decade later.

Our contributors demonstrate how, in their various ways, these seafarers came to terms with their situation through ‘literary’ strategies: by putting on plays, producing newspapers or circulating reading materials as a way of building morale and a sense of community; and through private acts of reading and diary-writing that, among other things, helped maintain mental health and personal identity in the extraordinary circumstances occasioned by sea travel.

If mariners really did perform Hamlet off the coast of Sierra Leone in 1607, then this was not, in fact, the most significant way in which literary culture shaped the third EIC voyage. When floundering in mid-Atlantic and on the point of returning to England for fresh supplies, EIC officers decided instead to seek provisions on the West African coast after reading about Sierra Leone in Richard Hakluyt’s compendium of voyage narratives, The Principal Navigations (1589). What was this book – which includes narratives of mythical as well as actual voyages – doing on board? Did someone bring it along for just such an eventuality? Or was this the re-purposing of a book carried for other reasons?

Front page of The Principal Navigations by Richard Hakluyt (1589) (image: Wikimedia Commons)

If Hamlet was performed, then we must assume the seafarers were carrying a copy of the play, too: either the shorter 1603 version, or the longer 1604 version more familiar to us today. Was this copy similarly repurposed – carried as personal reading material, but transformed into a performance text when the need arose? And what was that need, exactly?

Some scholars have argued that the performance of Hamlet was designed to establish closer relations with the rulers of what was, for the EIC, a strategic stopping-off point on the journey around Africa. Given that plays were often performed before ambassadors in early modern London, this certainly seems feasible. But it is also possible that Hamlet was staged for the benefit of the English crew: as more than one contributor to Shipboard Literary Cultures argues, theatrical performance at sea could provide a welcome distraction – even a necessary release valve – for those cooped up together on a long voyage.

Over the next year I will be advising on The Hamlet Voyage, a project developed by the director Ben Prusiner that considers the wider resonances of the EIC voyage. The play, which is being written by Rex Obano and features puppetry directed by the Delhi-based Anurupa Roy, will be performed aboard The Matthew – a replica of the ship in which John Cabot crossed the Atlantic in 1497 – at the 2022 Bristol Harbour Festival.

We are interested in how the 1607 voyage points forward to the British colonization of India; we wish also to explore the fact that, only a few decades earlier, an English ship had carried enslaved people from Sierra Leone to the Caribbean (this was the voyage read about in The Principal Navigations). Sierra Leone was later to become a key node in the triangular trade.

In these ways, then, the 1607 voyage asks us to reflect on the history and the legacy of British imperialism. But it also asks us to think about the wider experience of crossing oceans. What is it like to head towards an unknown destination, losing sight of land for weeks at a time? What, in such circumstances, might help us assuage our fear, or our boredom? What might help us build relationships with those sharing our experience? What might help maintain a connection with home?

Different conditions of voyaging will, of course, determine the answers to these questions. But across different centuries, cultures and vessel types, literary activity – and perhaps especially communal performance – has helped people cope with the hardships and perils of maritime mobility. Studying the records of such activities can help us imagine the experiences of those who crossed oceans in the past; and in turn, it may help us overcome the ‘seablindess’ that – alongside other factors – prevents us from thinking about those who cross them today.

Laurence Publicover is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Bristol and the MMB Graduate Studies Strategic Lead. His research focuses on Shakespeare and other English Renaissance dramatists and on the relations between humans and oceans. Shipboard Literary Cultures: Reading, Writing, and Performing at Sea is forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan.

Top tips on how to apply for a PhD – from an MMB Alumni Ambassador

By Ella Barclay.

Applying for a PhD in the UK can be an incredible opportunity to connect with scholars, focus your research ideas and challenge yourself along the way, regardless of the outcome. Having gone through the process in the past year I’ve learned that it’s an exciting experience but also a very steep learning curve. So, in an attempt to help the next wave of students, I’ve compiled a list of tips that I wish I’d known at the start of my journey. If you’re particularly interested in doing a PhD on migration and mobilities at Bristol, then these tips build on the advice on the MMB doctoral studies webpage.

Top tip 1: Funding applications are often separate from the PhD course application

To anyone who has anything to do with PhDs this may seem obvious, but it took me a long time to figure it out! Put simply, applying for a PhD at a UK university is only half the battle for most candidates, as this often does not include funding. For example, if you want to apply for a funded PhD at the University of Bristol, you need to complete the university’s online application and then apply separately to one of the relevant funding bodies.

Inevitably, there will be a crossover between the supporting documents for each application, but you should tailor the statements towards the specific institution or funding body. With this in mind, I would recommend not applying to too many universities, as you want to make sure you put enough time into each application and produce your best work. It is also worth noting that you cannot apply twice to some doctoral partnerships, so you may want to avoid applying to multiple universities in the same region.

Importantly, PhD course deadlines may be in July, for an October start, but funding deadlines often fall in January. Work backwards from the funding deadline and ensure that your university application is completed before this, to give you plenty of time to discuss your proposal with your supervisor.

Top tip 2: Contact prospective supervisors whose research interests align with yours

Finding a potential supervisor can seem daunting, but it is typically a requirement for PhD applications. Building a connection with your prospective supervisor allows you to create a focused and persuasive application, so finding someone who shares your research interests is essential. There are a few ways to go about this. First, if any of the core writers on your prospective research topic are PhD supervisors, reach out to them! Second, use contacts you already have, such as lecturers or personal tutors, as they may have recommendations. Finally, think about what is important to your research: if a university has access to useful archives, look through the profiles of available PhD supervisors at that institution and find one whose interests align with yours.

In your first email to a supervisor, briefly introduce yourself and your proposed research; they will appreciate the assertiveness! Remember, you will be working with this supervisor throughout your PhD and therefore these interactions are as much for them to learn about you as they are for you to learn about them.

Top tip 3: Consider the 1+3 PhD, even if you already have a Masters

This was a big question for me when thinking about what kind of PhD to apply for. The main difference between a typical +3 or +4 award, in comparison to a 1+3 award, is that the former consists of just the PhD, whereas the latter includes an associated Masters course.

Many funding bodies have a list of postgraduate degrees that they view as having sufficient emphasis on research skills, thereby preparing students to dive straight into a PhD on a +3 or +4 award. However, if your course is not on this list, then you may be encouraged to do the 1+3 qualification. This should not be viewed as a setback, but rather as a chance to develop your research skills and ease into the PhD life.

Top tip 4: Interviews are a great opportunity to showcase your proposed research

If you have been offered an interview then the institution has faith in both you and your proposal and simply wants to see this in action. As such, the interviewers are not trying to catch you out, but rather are allowing you to outline your research and explain why you are a worthy candidate.

You will often be asked to give a short presentation about your work, your suitability and why you think you will be an asset to the institution. Importantly, the interviewers will have already read your application so don’t just recite your written proposal or go into excessive detail; they will ask for more information if they need it. Additionally, consider not using a PowerPoint presentation. As well as avoiding potential tech issues, not using slides allows the interviewers to see you speak about your research with enthusiasm and confidence. The more you engage with the panel the better.

For the question portion of the interview, it is always worth talking to your prospective supervisor beforehand, as they will have an idea of what questions may come up. But most commonly interviewers want to discuss your contribution to the field. Understanding where your research fits in the landscape of existing literature and its potential influence in both academic and non-academic spheres is essential to any PhD application.

You will also be encouraged to ask questions at the end of the interview, which is a great way to show interest and enthusiasm. Also, if you forgot to mention something in your presentation, then you should add it here. Again, this is welcomed.

Top tip 5: Believe that you can do it!

It wouldn’t be a list of top tips without one clichéd point! That being said, this is an essential part of the process: applying for a PhD is challenging and there is no room for self-doubt. Whether it be in your personal statement or final interview, you need to show the panel that you are more than capable of carrying out your research and creating an impact.

If you’ve got to the stage where you are handing in an application or attending an interview, you have the support of both your supervisors and your referees. All these people believe that you are capable of succeeding in this exciting challenge, and you should feel the same!

Ella Barclay is an MMB Alumni Ambassador and graduated from the MSc in Migration and Mobility Studies at the University of Bristol in 2020. She is currently working at North Bristol Advice Centre before starting her PhD at the University of West England researching the sexual and reproductive rights of undocumented migrants in the UK’s hostile environment.

(Images: Hannah Wei and Ran Berkovich on Unsplash.)

The ‘New Plan for Immigration’: a further curtailment of rights

By Nadine Finch.

Over the past three decades I have linked my practice as a human rights lawyer in the UK with research and policy development in the migration field and I will draw on this experience in my new role as an Honorary Senior Policy Fellow in the School for Policy Studies at Bristol. It will take the totality of this experience, and more, to address the formidable challenges posed by the immigration legislation recently proposed by the UK government. The New Plan for Immigration needs to be placed in the context of repeated attacks on ‘activist lawyers’ and plans to limit the discretion of judges in immigration and asylum appeals and to reduce their powers in judicial review.

It is not just international law norms that are not respected in the wake of Brexit. There is also a growing disregard for the parts of the UK’s unwritten constitution that assign the judiciary a role, as important as that of the executive and parliament, when it comes to domestic law. The enormity of the possible consequences for migrants and the professionals who support and assist them is still not fully comprehended by many in civil society. The gradual and disparate extension of the ‘Hostile Environment’ over the past three decades has been mitigated to some extent by local authorities and legal challenges and this has lulled many into a false sense of security that there are certain lines that will not be crossed. As have the continuing invitations to take part in consultations and working groups.

The UK has legislated to control immigration on numerous occasions since 1905, when the Aliens Act first gave responsibility for matters concerning immigration and nationality to the Home Secretary. The very fact that responsibility was allocated to this particular minister indicated a belief that it was imperative to ‘protect’ existing British residents from those seeking to enter from abroad. Since then, on many occasions, legislation has been introduced – and supported by the mainstream media – to protect the ‘majority’ from migrants who are perceived to be seeking employment and support, to which they are not entitled, and who are said to be responsible for a varying degree of criminality. In the populist climate following Brexit and the repudiation of the human rights norms underpinning much EU law, these claims can be more blatant and fact-free.

(Image: DDP on Unsplash)

The main targets for this legislation can be refugees and migrants fleeing from civil war and economic and social degradation, which is rooted in the history and economic policies of the very states in which they are compelled to seek protection. Attempts have previously been made to deter asylum seekers from accessing protection but the main principles underpinning the 1951 Refugee Convention have been honoured. The New Plan for Immigration is in many ways a radical departure.

The Immigration Rules relating to this New Plan do not provide a safe and legal route for an asylum seeker to enter the UK as a refugee. A person seeking international protection cannot seek sanctuary and assistance at a UK diplomatic post abroad. Instead, they can only apply for asylum once they have reached the UK’s home territory. Some individuals do manage to circumvent this restriction by initially entering as a student or a visitor. But this is only possible if they can meet a series of onerous financial and evidential conditions before leaving their own state. A person fleeing persecution is unlikely to have the economic resources, the freedom of movement or the time to do so. In addition, if they mention a fear of persecution in their application for a student or visitor visa it will be refused as they will not be able to show that they will return to their country of origin after their limited leave to enter and remain as a student or visitor. But if they do not mention it, this failure will damage the credibility of any subsequent refugee claim.

Therefore, asylum seekers have to employ whatever means are available to enter the UK, whether on flights and Eurostar trains or dinghies to the southern and eastern seaboards of England. In response, the Government has funded defensive walls and fences in northern France, posted immigration officers in airports in many states abroad and is now patrolling the Channel. An individual travelling alone is unlikely to be able to penetrate these defences: this is a major factor that has led to their need to employ smugglers to assist them to enter the UK. The emergence of these ‘criminal networks’ is better characterised as a response to the barriers faced by refugees than a reason for their arrival.

If adults do manage to enter, but illegally, and are deemed to have passed through or have a connection with a safe third country, any application for asylum is deemed inadmissible and they will face removal. If they cannot be removed, and even they are found to be entitled to international protection, they will only be given a lesser and temporary form of protection, will have no recourse to public funds unless they are destitute and their immediate family members will not be permitted to join them. This creation of a two-tier system for international protection does not meet the requirements of the Refugee Convention and has been severely criticised by UNHCR.  

It is also planned to set the test for qualifying for international protection at a significantly higher level than that recommended by UNHCR in its Handbook. In a series of seminal cases the UK’s highest court has also recognised the severe challenges facing asylum seekers asked to provide evidence of detention, torture or ill-treatment, when their persecutor is a repressive regime, witnesses and family members may have been killed or imprisoned and they may have fled without any possessions, let alone documents, to prove their case. An individual’s ability to provide evidence will also be curtailed by the fact that on arrival they will be transferred to proposed reception centres or camps. This will limit their access to legal advice and representation as well as medical and other expert reports. It is also likely to increase any trauma previously experienced in their countries of origin and during their journeys and render them less capable of providing a cogent account of their persecution. 

It is still not clear whether these centres and camps will accommodate any children accompanying adult asylum seekers, as was the case in the 1990s before it was accepted that the detention of children in such circumstances breached the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, children wrongly assessed as being adults will be detained. It is also likely that proposed changes to the age assessment process will increase the risk of mistakes being made. In particular, the proposal to establish a National Age Assessment Board staffed by social workers, contracted to the Home Office, would remove the process from the direct oversight of local authorities who have the training and skills to maintain necessarily robust and regulated child protection processes.

The core elements of the New Plan were included in the Queen’s Speech on 11 May 2021 and it is expected that the proposed bill will have its Second Reading before the parliamentary summer recess. It is likely that much of the detail of the Plan will not be on the face of the Bill but that the Government will give itself wide regulatory powers. This will be addressed in a policy briefing that I am writing on the Plan and the Bill, which will be published by Policy Bristol in the autumn.

Nadine Finch is an Honorary Senior Policy Fellow in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. Her primary areas of research and policy development relate to children on the move in the UK and Europe. She is also an associate at Child Circle in Brussels. Between 1992 and 2000 she was a barrister at 1 Pump Court Chambers and then Doughty Street Chambers and from 2000 she was a barrister at Garden Court Chambers.

Britain as the spoils of empire

Race, nation and migration – the blog series reframing thinking on movement and racism.

By Nadine El-Enany.

My parents travelled from Egypt to Britain in 1977, moving from London to Exeter, a city in the South West of England, in 1978. For my parents, Exeter was a place they felt fortunate to have found, an idyll far from the noisy, crowded streets of Cairo. They made Exeter their home. Yet 40 years later, when my father retired, a neighbour asked him when he would be going back to Egypt.  Still, my parents are the lucky ones. They came to Britain on an aeroplane, study visas in hand. They did not have to travel by boat, or in the back of a lorry risking their lives.

‘Bordering Britain’ is not only the centuries long legal and political process that my recent book traces: it is also a mindset. Hanging over my parents will always be the assumption that their life in Britain is contingent and temporary. Immigration law teaches white British citizens that Britain and everything within it is rightfully theirs. ‘Others’ are here as guests. I challenge this by showing how British immigration and nationality law is an extension of British colonialism. I argue that Britain’s borders, articulated and policed via immigration laws, maintain the global racial order established by colonialism, whereby colonised peoples are dispossessed of land and resources. Britain is not only bordered, but also racially and colonially ordered, through the operation of immigration control.

Britain would not be the wealthy, plentiful place that it is without its colonial history. Colonialism and slavery were key to its industrialisation and the growth of its capitalist economy (see Draper 2008; Inikori 2002; Williams 1944). Wealth derived from British slave-ownership has helped to enrich and sustain elite institutions, individuals and families and has sewn inequality deep into the fabric of British society (see Dorling and Tomlinson 2019). Britain’s healthcare system, welfare state, transportation infrastructure, cultural and educational institutions, though battered and unequally accessible, are nevertheless colonially derived.

As colonial populations fought the British from their territories, British lawmakers fast abandoned the myth of imperial unity and equality and moved to introduce controls targeted at racialised colonial subjects and Commonwealth citizens. Through the concept of patriality the 1971 Immigration Act had made whiteness intrinsic to British identity. Only patrials, those born in Britain or with a parent born in Britain, had a right of entry and stay in Britain. In 1971 a person born in Britain was most likely (98%) to be white (see Owen 1995). The 1981 Act continued this process of racial exclusion by constructing British citizenship on the foundation of patriality, tying citizenship to the right of entry and abode (Karatani 2002:185). A territorially distinct Britain and a concept of citizenship that made Britishness commensurate with whiteness made it clear that Britain, the landmass and everything within it, belongs to Britons, conceived intrinsically as white. The 1981 Act was an act of appropriation, a final seizure of the wealth and infrastructure secured through centuries of colonial conquest.

Understanding Britain as a contemporary colonial space serves to partially collapse the distinction between settler and non-settler colonial contexts. While it is now an accepted argument in critical scholarship that settler colonialism is ongoing and structural (for example, Coulthard 2014), the same critique has not been applied to non-settler forms of colonialism, which are considered to have ended. Yet, the border drawn around the spoils of British colonial conquest via immigration and nationality law amounts to colonial theft. Due to mainstream understandings of property as being fixed and immovable in space and time, theft via the passing of immigration controls can be difficult to conceptualise (see Cooper 2013; Keenan 2015). Colonial dispossession not only determined the contemporary distribution of material wealth, but also radically altered subjectivity in the sense of what people desire, consider themselves as entitled to and understand themselves to be (Fanon 1986). Theft of intangibles such as economic growth, life chances, psyches and futures occur in all colonial contexts, settler or otherwise.

The effect of the 1981 Act along with changes to immigration law was to put the wealth of Britain, gained via colonial conquest, out of reach for the vast majority of people racialised through colonial processes. Immigration law not only serves as the means of obstruction of movement – it is also the means through which legal status is granted. Regimes of legal status recognition whereby British authorities determine entitlement to citizenship, settlement and refugee status serve to legitimise the claim that colonial wealth belongs behind Britain’s borders, only to be accessed with permission.

Similar to the way in which indigenous people in Canada and Australia must submit to the rules and evidentiary standards of those colonial legal systems in order to be recognised as having enforceable rights to land (for example, Mabo and Others vs Queensland 1992), those with ancestral, geographical and personal histories of British colonialism who wish to access stolen colonial wealth and resources in Britain must submit to the rules and evidentiary standards of British immigration law. In this way the vast majority of racialised people are prevented from accessing Britain and its wealth in part through the operation of internal and external borders, produced and enforced through law.

The traditional acceptance of legal categories as defined in international and domestic law in and outside academia has the effect of concealing law’s role in producing racialised subjects and racial violence. It further impedes an understanding of law as racial violence. Addressing the historical contingency and artificiality of legal categories, the violence in their production and ongoing material effects allows us to understand how Britain remains colonially and racially configured. It also helps to mitigate against a liberal politics of recognition and opens the way for the development of emancipatory and reparative discourses and strategies for migrant solidarity and racial justice.

Legal status does not alter the way in which racialised people are cast in white spaces as undeserving guests, outsiders or intruders – as here today but always potentially gone tomorrow. Immigration law is, after all, the prop used to teach white British citizens that what Britain plundered from its colonies is theirs and theirs alone. Understanding that immigration law is an extension of colonialism enables us to question Britain’s claim to being a legitimately bordered, sovereign nation-state. If we, as critical scholars and activists, can imbibe a counter-pedagogy to that of immigration law and bordering, one which rejects the violence of legal categorisation and paves the way for a more empowering, redistributive and radical politics of racial justice, we can begin to work our way towards new strategies for organising collectively in the service of anti-racism and migrant solidarity. We should not wait for the law to rule on our entitlement to colonial spoils. A Britain understood as the spoils of empire already belongs to us.

Nadine El-Enany is Reader in Law at Birkbeck School of Law and Co-Director of the Centre for Research on Race and Law. She researches migration and refugee law and one of her current research projects focuses on questions of race and justice in death in custody cases. (B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire (2020) is available from Manchester University Press.

A longer version of this blog post was originally published by Manchester University Press on 6th November 2019.

(de)Bordering the human and non-human worlds

By Bridget Anderson.

In October 2016 the French authorities evicted more than a thousand people from their shelters in the Calais ‘Jungle’. This had become a hub for people seeking to cross the Channel to come to the UK, and a focus of solidarity and rights activism. It was to be replaced with a nature reserve. Who can object to the restoration of an ecosystem, symbolised by the re-establishment of endangered native species? To uncovering and nurturing back to life the seeds of the Liparis loeselii, the endangered fen orchid, dormant under 60 years of detritus and topsoil? The subsequent Fort Vert nature reserve is now a resting ground for migrating birds but designed so it provides no shelter for migrating humans. Calais has been a point of tension between England and France for centuries, yet today the UK Border Force is a partner in this ‘projet de territoire’.

The Liparis Loeselii orchid, now growing on the site of the Calais ‘Jungle’ (image: orchidsworld on flickr)

The ‘natural world’ is often imagined as pre-political, as a kind of innocent space that must be conserved and protected from human beings. Yet environmental issues are bound up with power, domination and forms of violence that cannot escape politics. Moreover, at the same time as being pre-political, ‘nature’ is also imagined as national – think about national parks, the claiming of iconic national animals and the determination to stamp out ‘invasive species’. Fort Vert is incorporated into France’s ‘National Restoration Plan’.

The interface between environment and human mobility is likely to become increasingly politically fraught. There is growing anxiety about ‘environmental refugees’ and the consequences that environmental change will have for mobility to rich countries. This raises extremely important questions for the politics of migration and global justice. It also demands that we think carefully about the language used in environmental and migration justice. The pollution and destruction that people are seeking to escape compounded by racism easily becomes associated with them. Migrants are routinely seen to scurry, scuttle, sneak and swarm. It is legitimate to respond to vermin through the creation of a ‘hostile environment’.

These metaphors pass unremarked into press coverage. We often hear the language of insects and vermin, low down on the animal phyla, invading not the national territory but the national home. One insect is trivial, of no consequence, but they travel in swarms, so just one is likely to presage millions. Unlike beasts of burden, these are not perceived as productive animals. They are strongly associated with human waste and thrive in the places we try to forget: sewers, empty lots, derelict buildings, mountainous landfills. In the same way that vermin serve as a reminder of ecosystems of dirt and waste that are thrown up by and live on the by-products of production, so the people at the borders of Europe and those whose bodies wash up on Mediterranean beaches are part of the ecosystems of global economic, social and political relations, and the living histories of colonialism and patriarchy – ecosystems that many would rather forget.

Fort Vert exemplifies the ‘green washing’ of border enforcement. It is vitally important to be able to think about environmental justice, sustainability and mobility justice together, rather than as a zero-sum game. A pristine national space is a fantasy, but that does not mean it is not important to act on environmental destruction, climate change and migration justice: rather, it is important to act on them together. This demands analysis and mutual learning, and universities are an important space to facilitate these conversations. At Bristol, MMB has been working with the Brigstow Institute and two fantastic artist/gardeners, Charli Clark and Paul Hurley, to develop a living lab where we can observe, debate and learn from the multiple mobilities that are part of our worlds. (de)Bordering explores ideas of the native, the natural and concepts of place, and how they feature in the politics of environment and ecology and the politics of migration and mobility.  

The (de)Bordering project is set in the University of Bristol’s Royal Fort Gardens and comprises two plots planted up to attract migrants and welcome weeds and out-of-place plants. The summer garden, for example, has different thistle species and mallow, ideal for the painted lady butterfly to lay its eggs on and for its caterpillars to pupate. The painted lady migrates to and from North Africa. Cow parsley, summer ragwort and lady’s bedstraw will attract insects such as the marmalade hoverfly, an aphid-eating pollinator that arrives in its billions in the summer months. They are food for swifts and swallows.

A painted lady butterfly, migrating to the UK from North Africa, feeds on a thistle as planted in the (de)Bordering plot (image: hedera.baltica on flickr)

The winter friendly garden will be stocked with berries and seeds from hawthorn and ivy – the food of fieldfares and redwings – and from elder and dogwood – beloved of blackbirds and robins. Did you know that while most robins in the UK scarcely leave their ‘territory’, some (mainly female) ones fly to southern Spain in the winter? Those that stay put are in turn joined by robins from Scandinavia escaping the severe winter up north. We hope both long-term residents and those passing through will enjoy the rosehip and blackthorn they will find on our plot.

There are also two structures being built in this space. One is a hide, where two people will be able to observe insect life, and the other, larger structure is a space for debate, modelled on the shelters in the Calais ‘Jungle’ from which people were evicted. We hope that both will enable us to learn from the ways that people co-exist with and in our world, and how we can co-exist better. We will be completing it and making a firepit on 28th June, finishing with poems and stories around the fire. Come and join us then!

Bridget Anderson is the Director of MMB and Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. She leads the online course Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship: The MMB Online Academy 2021.

Bridget would like to thank Professor Miriam Ticktin and acknowledge the organisers and participants of the conference ‘Invasive Others’, held on 20th-21st April 2016 in the New School for Social Research, New York, for the conversations that helped her develop these ideas. Those wanting to know more might be interested in the special issue of Social Research that was dedicated to the conference papers.

Parenting through ‘modern technology’: learning from the pandemic

By Candice Morgan-Glendinning and Melanie Griffiths.

Research being launched on 8th June, which looks at the impact of immigration policies on UK families, found that Home Office decision makers routinely argue that family life can be adequately sustained by virtual means. The COVID-19 pandemic provides lived insight into the reality of such claims.

For the majority of us, the pandemic has been a time of social distance and isolation. Digital platforms have proven invaluable in helping us stay connected with friends and family. But although Zoom quizzes, Houseparty socials and FaceTime coffee breaks were initially enthusiastically adopted, over time these forms of communication have dropped away. It has become increasingly apparent that they do not replace real-life contact, particularly with children, older relatives and lovers.

Yet, even before the pandemic, indefinite physical separation from loved ones was a lived reality for thousands of families as a result of the UK’s strict immigration system. For them, a common refrain from the Home Office is the assertion that meaningful parental or partner relationships can be adequately maintained from abroad ‘through the use of modern technologies’. That is no longer an abstract line. Many of us have battled with ‘modern technologies’ for over a year in an attempt to remain socially connected, giving us insights into the realities of sustaining virtual family lives.

The realities of remote communcation

Our ESRC-funded project ‘Deportability and the Family’, conducted at the University of Bristol, examined the lived impact of the UK’s immigration system on families facing a member’s removal from the country. The claim that a parent – especially fathers – can provide adequate parenting remotely from overseas is often made by the Home Office in immigration decisions and upheld at the immigration tribunal at appeal.

Image: Nenad Stojkovic on Flickr

From our interviews, reviews of decision letters and observations of appeals, it seemed that little consideration is given to the realities of this statement. We saw no consideration, for example, of the costs and practicalities of ensuring decent internet access and equipment, the complexity of coordinating meetings across time zones and work and school obligations, or of the developmental needs, patience and concentration of young children. The difference between material and virtual contact, and children’s needs for physically present parents are played down or ignored, with the focus instead squarely on the ‘public interest’ of an effective immigration system.

It is quite possible that the widespread reliance upon ‘modern technologies’ for maintaining social networks during the COVID-19 pandemic will be used by future immigration decision-makers as evidence that family life can be maintained virtually. To explore people’s real-life experiences during the pandemic, we spoke to five sets of grandparents about trying to stay connected to young grandchildren during lockdown.  

Virtual grandparents

All the grandparents expressed their joy at being able to see their grandchildren virtually at a time when physical visits were prohibited. However, all quickly pointed out that it was nonetheless a poor substitute for face-to-face contact. Interactions were hard work and relied upon a parent being physically present with the child to keep them interested and engaged. The grandparents reported finding it harder than normal to communicate. Screen-based exchanges, with little possibility of connecting through touch, toys or books work poorly with children still developing language or communicating in non-verbal ways.

Rather than participating in their grandchildren’s lives, the grandparents said they felt like observers – a digital version of a grandparent, detached from reality. They found it hard to express their love, leading to fears that the children would feel abandoned. And after the calls were over, the grandparents were left feeling emotional and frequently even more distant than before. They were struck by competing emotions: wanting to see their grandchildren but dreading how empty they would feel afterwards. ‘Modern technology’ offered some connection but was no replacement for physical contact.

Digital fathers

The experiences of these grandparents during the COVID-19 lockdown echo those reported by parents separated from their children by the immigration system. Virtual interaction distances as well as connects. Fathers watch their babies grow up on video, in some cases never having held them physically. They are reliant upon partners to make time for the interactions and work to keep the children’s interest, both as distractable small children and as older children with lives of their own. If relationships break down, such requests may be too much to ask from ex-partners.

As one mother said of her children’s father: I dont think you can really co-parent over the phone. Theres only so much talking you can do. They need to see him. They need to feel him. They need to touch him. And they can’t do that through video calls and WhatsApp. It just doesn’t compare.

As with the grandparents, the fathers in the study reported time moving quickly in virtual family-life. Birthdays and developmental milestones are missed. They struggle to co-parent effectively; unable to respond properly to situations, missing details of their children’s lives, hindered from helping with homework and school or social problems. Digital family interactions are painful, and as with the grandparents, leave separated parents feeling even more alone afterwards.

Report launch: ‘Deportability and the Family’

A virtual interaction is just that. A vision. A picture of a loved one. What is consistent across the narratives of those separated from children – be it by immigration rules or the pandemic – is the pain of these interactions; the inability to connect with the person at the other end in a meaningful way. A screen cannot replace physical interaction, touch and play. It does not help with childcare, bath or bedtime. But whilst those distanced by COVID-19 lockdowns know the separation is time limited, for those separated by borders and immigration rules, the reliance on virtual contact is indefinite, sometimes forever. And as years go by, relationships, patience and memories fade. The pain can become too much to continue persevering.

The report from this project is being launched on an online webinar at 4pm on 8th June 2021, in collaboration with the NGO Bail for Immigration Detainees. Please join us for this event and discussion with speakers including Sonali Naik QC and a parent with direct experience of these issues. For more details please visit the event page. The report itself will be available after 8th June from here.

Melanie Griffiths conducted this research while at the University of Bristol, but is currently a Birmingham Fellow in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham. She works on mobility and immigration enforcement in the UK. Candice Morgan-Glendinning is an independent social researcher with a particular interest in immigration, human trafficking and modern slavery policy.

Race and the making of migration regimes

Race, nation and migration – the blog series reframing thinking on movement and racism.

By Radhika Mongia.

Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State (2018) is an investigation into the history of state control over migration. At the heart of the book are two main questions: first, what histories can we chart of the increasing and incremental state control over migration that culminate, by the early decades of the twentieth century, in a state monopoly over migration? Second, what can these histories tell us about state formation, inter-state relations, state sovereignty and modern subject constitution? The book considers colonial Indian migration from about 1834, when Britain abolished slavery in its plantation colonies, up to about 1914, when, with the onset of World War I, the world confronted a new geopolitical reality. In less than a century, we see profound transformations in the logics, rationales, institutions and legal forms of state control over mobility.

My book shows that racial thinking was absolutely central to these logics and rationales. Traversing a diverse array of British colonial formations, including India, Britain, Mauritius, the Caribbean, Canada and South Africa, it examines the relational processes, across these varied sites, that produced a state monopoly over migration. This monopoly, accompanied by the ‘nationalisation’ of migration, is an integral part of a fundamental shift in the twentieth century from a world composed of empire-states to a world composed of nation-states.

To appreciate the kinds of shifts that occurred between approximately 1834 and 1914 we should note three important facets of the nineteenth-century system of Indian indenture, provoked by the abolition of slavery: first, that to meet the labour demands of the plantocracy state intervention to regulate Indian indenture was directed at facilitating, not prohibiting, the movement. Second, state intervention regulating indenture was authorised as a limited and temporary exception to the then-prevalent principle of free movement. Instituted to guard against charges of a second slave trade, this exception was justified by a racialised and paternalistic desire to ‘protect’ the Indians and the formerly enslaved Africans. Moreover, even as Indian migration to the plantation economies was regulated, other, far larger, streams of Indian migration occurred outside the ambit of state control. In other words, through most of the nineteenth century, the state oversaw and controlled Indian migration only in the exceptional case of the erstwhile slave colonies. Third, that this change, despite its exceptional status, nonetheless expanded the purview of state authority, or sovereignty, in terms of mobility. It thus constituted a remaking of the terms and limits of sovereign authority.

Each of these three facets would become points of contention in the twentieth century with regard to controlling Indian and, more broadly, Asian migration to white-settler colonies within and beyond the British empire – ranging from Canada, South Africa and Australia to Argentina and the United States. First, the overwhelming concern now was with restricting rather than facilitating migration, requiring a thorough revamping, indeed abandonment, of the principle of free movement. Second, in the new circumstances, the earlier rationale of protection justifying intervention was unavailable; new discourses of protection needed to be mobilised. And third, a completely new understanding of sovereignty, conceived in specifically racialised-national terms, emerged. This understanding would generate a decisive shift in the logics of migration control, from state regulation of migration in exceptional cases (like indenture) to state regulation in all cases. This shift yielded our current verity, of a (national) state monopoly over migration as an unquestioned element of state sovereignty.

Indian Migration and Empire shows that myriad varieties of racial thinking saturated and structured the making of migration regimes. For instance, the nineteenth-century transformations to the limits and purview of state sovereignty, impelled by the movement of indentured labour to the slave plantation colonies, were overtly subtended by notions of race understood in the temporal, developmentalist register of ‘stages of civilisation’. By contrast, in the early twentieth century, the ascendance of notions of liberal equality and of rights-bearing subjects would make a civilisational understanding of race less available and migration law would reflect and provoke new forms of racial thinking. Thus, we see in migration law and practice transmogrifications that displace race thinking to fashion novel understandings of liberal equality, through the conduits of culture, religion and nationality.

Racial discrimination in immigration was implemented through a host of mechanisms such as the imposition of a ‘head tax’; the prescription of education/literacy tests; specifications regarding identity documents; precise regulations regarding the trajectory of voyages; and ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ of compromises between states on imposing restrictions on emigration. The mechanisms deployed were occasioned by context-specific social, political and economic conditions that spoke to and utilized differing – sometimes conflicting – legal logics and justifications. Often, certain mechanisms, such as the education/literacy tests would, as Marilyn Lake has shown, circulate and be adopted and adapted at a range of disparate sites, from the US to South Africa to Australia.

But perhaps the most enduring technology of racial exclusion to emerge in this period – which was subsequently thoroughly standardized and globalized – was the modern passport. In analysing the decade-long debate over Indian migration to Canada in the early twentieth century (Chapter 4), I show how the seemingly neutral category of ‘nationality’ came to operate as a proxy for race and how this relation was enduringly encapsulated in the development of the modern passport. The emergence of the modern passport, as it took shape to resolve the conundrum of how to prohibit the migration of Indians to Canada, without naming race, would result in a profound remaking of state sovereignty and the inter-state system in specifically national terms. Such reconfigurations would apply an enormous pressure on the framework of empire and on the globe-spanning category of ‘British subject’, contributing to their fissuring, fragmentation and eventual dissolution. These reconfigurations would also dispense entirely with the principle of free movement and bring all migration under state control.

Nowadays, it is taken as an incontrovertible fact that a defining element of the modern (nation) state is the authority to control migration. A historical investigation reveals that this is a very recent aspect of the state and of state sovereignty; it also reveals that the regulation of colonial migrations played a critical part in bringing about the transformations that yielded this outcome. In other words, the book seeks to denaturalise the current dominant view that controlling migration, particularly by restricting entry, is an uncontested and immemorial aspect of the state. Instead, it details the myriad complex processes through which migration, race, nation and state have come to be so tightly intertwined.

Radhika Mongia is Associate Professor of Sociology at York University, Toronto. Her current research concerns recent changes in Indian citizenship law. Radhika’s book, Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State (2018) is available from Duke University Press.

Intimate state encounters: Brexit, European Roma and contested home-lands

Race, nation and migration – the blog series reframing thinking on movement and racism.

By Rachel Humphris.

Brexit and the UK’s relationship with the European Union foregrounds questions of identity, nationhood and who is included or excluded. For those identified as ‘Roma’ these are perennial questions as purported ‘European citizenship’ made little difference to their position as Europe’s enduring ‘internal Other’, who have never and cannot ‘belong’ (Sardelić 2019). Roma are always positioned ‘in’ but never ‘of’ Europe. Often overlooked in histories of modern Europe, Roma have been enslaved, forcibly settled and sterilised, suffered state kidnap, and targeted during the Holocaust. Their current experiences continue to reveal the force of stigmatization and racialisation embedded in society, law and governance.

I came to a partial understanding of these experiences through spending 14 months living in Luton, UK, with ‘Romanian Roma’ families (a bureaucratic category used by frontline workers) with the aim of exploring migration, statecraft, race and urban marginalisation. Luton has suffered the brunt of ‘austerity localism’, post-welfare reforms, rising xenophobia, and the dehumanizing ‘hostile environment’ created to make living in the UK so difficult that migrants ‘self-deport’.

I observed the gendered and racialized effects of the hostile environment as migrant households were the subject of ubiquitous value judgements, targeted surveillance and an imposed racialized exceptionalism tending toward differential treatment premised on mythical assumptions (Stewart 2012). For example, mothers were judged on the food they ate, whether their front garden was tidy, the other people in the house (particularly men) who were not part of the ‘nuclear family’ and the disorienting rhythms of the domestic space, which did not map onto prevailing norms of domesticity, intimacy and intensive mothering. While these mothers have a particular experience, these processes are based in deep histories of surveillance and disciplining of the racialized and classed urban poor (Picker 2017).

However, I was also acutely aware that the frontline workers conducting home visits were themselves caught in the entanglements of a retreating welfare state and securitised migration apparatus. Casting aside the usual binary of social care/social control, these observations made me attend to the manifestations of ambivalence and uncertainty for migrant mothers and frontline workers. I shifted my emphasis from ‘state acts’ to ‘state encounters’ to open up the processual and relational quality of how states are made in practice and to account for emplaced and embodied positions of all social actors.

So while frontline workers determine the fate of new migrant families (potentially causing their deportation or state kidnap) they are themselves often racialized mothers, subject to migration control and invested in proving themselves as ‘good citizens’ resonating with Cohen’s (1999) notion of ‘advanced marginalisation’. They must negotiate their way through a complex, constantly shifting and messy terrain of migration policies, border policing and surveillance. They must reconcile these duties with their professional commitment to an ethics of care, often taking on work well beyond their formal role and the hours that they are paid (through processes of New Public Management they are employed in short-term, target driven, precarious contracts at the lowest end of the local state). They carry with them enormous and contradictory burdens, responsibilities and anxieties with the fate of new migrant families and their futures at times in their sole hands.

These intimate state encounters are one instance where decisions about who belongs and who deserves discretionary extra support rests on the strange and unsettling mingling of established categories. These citizenship decisions emerge at the intersection of public and private, formal and informal, political and personal. Drawing inspiration from Mbembe’s observations of colonial governance (2001: 28), this research showed that governing political belonging through the home space does more than confuse the public and private: it depends on and reproduces that confused space to ensure the continual reproduction of marginalisation based on raced, classed and gendered hierarchies.

As critical race, gender and queer scholars have long pointed out, the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is most fundamentally drawn in the intimate sphere. From British imperialism to the present day, racialized relations have come to be shaped and governed through intimacy (McClintock 1995; Stoler 1995). My work has tried to draw a line from these debates to the role of the family and the domestic in the contemporary UK state and how they relate to conceptions of nationhood, identity and belonging today.

The stories of new migrant mothers and those tasked to govern them are not often heard. Legal migration statuses are proliferating and becoming more precarious. Brexit seems unlikely to reverse the trend. Austerity is still biting hard and likely to continue in the current context of a stagnating economy and casualties of COVID-19. The privatisation of services is carrying on apace creating complex relationships in frontline provision.

Marginalised families, like the Roma in Luton, are more likely than ever to fall through the gaps or become subject to bordering, sometimes from those who have the best of intentions but work in a harsh and broken system. In this context, the most mundane everyday actions in the home become crucial for how families can secure a safe status in the home-land. This research raises fundamental questions about the types of homes – and the type of home-land – we want and what we need to change to achieve them.

Rachel Humphris is a Lecturer in Sociology and Politics at Queen Mary University of London. She is a political ethnographer whose research and teaching focuses on immigration and citizenship, urban governance, gender and race.

Home-Land: Romanian Roma, Domestic Spaces and the State (2019) is available from Bristol University Press.

Racism and the UK’s immigration system

Race, nation and migration – the blog series reframing thinking on movement and racism.

By Maya Goodfellow.

‘Hard Brexit,’ Labour’s Andy Burnham warned a few months after the EU referendum result in 2016, would ‘turn Britain into a place it has never been: divided, hostile, narrow-minded.’ This is a theme that has persisted since the initial aftermath of the referendum; some of the people most vocally opposed to Brexit seem to assume that this country will become or is becoming a hostile and racist place for migrants. This erases a whole history of racist and racialising thinking on immigration. My book, Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats (2020, Verso) seeks to challenge this thinking, partly by showing how race and racism have long impacted and been produced by policy.

The UK’s hostile environment did not start with Brexit nor did it begin with the sets of policies introduced through the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts. Saying this does not mean arguing that there are no distinct, significant impacts of these more recent and punitive forms of ‘immigration control’. People are being denied access to healthcare, housing and work, their data being shared between different government departments if they cannot show they have the ‘right’ documentation to be in the UK. Even in the middle of a global pandemic, the hostile environment has largely continued.  

But to imply that these policies were fundamental ruptures that made once ‘liberal’ and welcoming Britain into a place it had never been before is to ignore recent history. Britain has long been a hostile environment for migrants and people racialised as a threat.

Though it is rarely engaged with or properly understood in the public domain,  there is much work examining the UK’s immigration histories. From the racist policies of the Sixties and Seventies, which were concerned with restricting the ability of people of colour from former colonies and colonies to come to this country, through to the way people were treated when they arrived. Racism and immigration policy are inseparable in so many ways.

But too often it is assumed that this relationship is mostly a relic of the past, or only discernible in deeply damaging but seemingly rare cases like the Windrush scandal. This is partly to do with how race and racism are understood: as largely isolated to individual acts, where racist sentiment is overtly expressed. In this telling, it is divorced from the material and the structural realities.

With this narrow understanding of racism as a jumping off point, the role of race in immigration policy and rhetoric is also obscured in how the debate is constructed. It is thought that anti-immigration attitudes rose during the New Labour years because the government ‘let too many people in’ without the consent of the public. Here, dislike of immigration tends to be thought of as a natural reaction to too many people of a ‘certain kind’ coming into the country. When particular groups of migrants arrive, the argument goes, they bring with them ‘cultural change’, which threatens a fabled and supposedly stable, unified British culture. This, then, produces racism and xenophobia. It is thought that to have a ‘cohesive’ society there needs to be more focus on common values and traditions, rather than social and economic emancipation. The only way to address this is to reduce immigration, in particular by reducing the number of racialised people entering the country.

This relies on a specific form of racialised thinking, which in the Eighties was dubbed the ‘new racism’. In the years preceding, ideas about ‘culture’ had really come to the forefront of the immigration debate (though it certainly wasn’t a new concept and has older roots). We can see it is about race by understanding that it is based on the thinking that particular ‘traditions’ are based on biological or ancestral difference. So too, such thinking goes, is the desire to defend those very traditions against so-called outsiders. Such an understanding and production of difference is often at the heart of conceptualisations of race.

If you look a little closer at the New Labour years, you find one of many problems with how the ‘culture’ argument is understood. As well as being deeply racialised, it is not as if anti-immigration politics flourished all on its own: it was cultivated by the Conservatives, the British National Party and eventually the UK Independence Party. New Labour were reproducing this thinking too. Almost from the get go they were anti-asylum, perpetuating stereotypes and implementing restrictive legislation. This was largely on the basis that some people were pretending to be seeking asylum and came to the UK because of so-called ‘pull factors’.

New Labour never significantly challenged the racialised thinking that some groups were a threat to the UK. Instead, they reproduced it in their own specific way: those who were Muslim or thought to be Muslim, for instance. It is against this backdrop that New Labour became increasingly critical of immigration more broadly. So the ‘cultural’ arguments against immigration are both deeply racialised and historically and politically produced; they are not some natural inevitability.

There is no rosy liberal past, then, where processes of racialisation were insignificant or rejected. Understanding this is key not only to making sense of the ways race is produced and operates in policy now but to forging a new, better world together.

Maya Goodfellow is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute. Her research looks at the relationship between capitalism, racism and immigration. 

Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats (2020) is available from Verso with a 40% discount. 

The permanent ‘crisis’ of the borders of ‘Europe’

Race, nation and migration – the blog series reframing thinking on movement and racism.

By Nicholas De Genova

The borders of Europe seem to be the site of a protracted crisis. The fires that devastated the scandalously overcrowded Moria detention camp on 9 September 2020 on the Greek island of Lesvos, which summarily displaced upwards of 13,000 migrants and refugees including small children, who were then left abandoned to sleep on roadsides, signal only one of the most dramatic recent flashpoints of an endemically dismal predicament of misery and despair. Notably, whatever the precise circumstances that caused them, the fires arose in a context of draconian yet woefully insufficient sanitary measures associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. On a global scale, the pandemic has thus exposed the inherent contradictions of state power and its (in)capacities to manage the public health emergency. The recourse to curfews, mass quarantines, and more or less severe forms of social ‘shutdown’ or ‘lockdown’ has likewise served to legitimate and bolster a predictably insular governmentality of ‘national’ or ‘European’ quarantine, manifest above all in border closures that only exacerbate the public health crisis by rendering the health and wellbeing of some categories of non-citizens’ bodies expendable, and thereby relegating some human lives to a debased status of disposability.

Since its very implementation in 2015, the EU’s ‘hotspot’ mechanism for migrant and refugee reception and detention has been a very prominent instance of the indefinite coercive immobilization of human mobility. The hotspots’ premier function in practice has been the preemptive rejection and containment of migrants and refugees at the borders, whereby the EU-ropean border regime operationalizes a more or less permanent state of exception. In this respect, therefore, the borders of Europe are not merely the site of an ostensible ‘crisis’ that intrudes upon ‘Europe’ from outside, bringing to its doorstep all the proverbial bad news of the world as embodied in a motley crew of ‘unwanted’ (illegalized) migrants and refugees. No. Instead, the borders of Europe are a means for producing and sustaining a permanent sociopolitical condition of ‘crisis’ that mediates the rejection, illegalization and prospective expulsion of the great majority of migrants and refugees who arrive.

From their very inception, the hotspots by which EU-rope sought to manage the mass influx of migrants and refugees in 2015 were deployed to lend credence to the spectacle of a purported ‘crisis’ that appeared to command  ‘emergency’ measures. Yet, even that ‘refugee crisis,’ which was speedily re-branded as the by-now infamous ‘migrant crisis,’ had itself been preceded by one maritime disaster after another, year after year, as overcrowded and unseaworthy boats carrying migrant and refugee border-crossers capsized or were otherwise shipwrecked in the Mediterranean. Indeed, for more than two decades, the persistent fortification of the borders of Europe has made the crossing more perilous and ever more potentially lethal.

The vast majority of migrants and refugees seeking to remake their lives in ‘Europe’ arrive from places formerly colonized by European powers (or in any case, places otherwise deeply implicated in centuries of European imperial projects). Likewise, the vast majority of ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’ who perish as a consequence of the policing of the borders of ‘Europe’ are people who come to be racialized as non-white and ‘non-European’. When the EU-ropean border regime systematically generates and predictably cultivates the conditions of possibility for the mass death of Black and Brown people, what else can it mean, then, other than that the borders of ‘Europe’ are an apparatus for the postcolonial reconfiguration of a global regime of white supremacy? The borders of Europe thus emerge a premier site for staging the unfinished business and open-ended struggles of our shared postcolonial condition.

This helps to explain why and how the mere term ‘migration’ serves in the European context as a discursive proxy for the antagonisms of race. Official disavowals of the legitimacy of ‘race’ and sanctimonious repudiations of racism undermine a frank confrontation with the historical and contemporary realities of European colonial and postcolonial racism as an ongoing and unresolved affair. This notorious and increasingly futile European evasiveness around questions of race — even as virtually every public debate over ‘migration’, or ‘refugees’ or ‘integration’ is inevitably saturated with racial significance — thus infuses and perverts the very possibility of an honest reckoning with the questions of what ‘Europe’ is or could be in the future, or who is or can be counted as ‘European’.  This is the complex that I call the ‘European’ Question.

In a book that I edited, The Borders of ‘Europe’: Autonomy of Migration, Tactics of Bordering (Duke University Press, 2017) the contributing authors and I investigate a variety of examples of the bordering tactics of ‘Europe’ as reaction formations to the elementary human exercise of a freedom of movement that is not granted by any authority. In this manner, we emphasize the primacy of human mobility — what we and other critical scholars call the autonomy of migration — as an incorrigible subjective force enacted in practice, prior to all the tactics and technologies for imposing and policing borders. The research engages various moments leading up to and culminating in the so-called ‘crisis’ of 2015-16, but also excavates a variety of episodes that earlier instigated analogous invocations of a ‘crisis’ at Europe’s borders, which have always tended to signify first and foremost a crisis of control.

As the events of last year verify anew, the European border regime cannot cease to be convulsed by ‘crisis’, because it is a reaction formation dedicated to controlling a force that is elemental and incorrigible within any apparatus of state power. The exercise of our freedom of movement — objectively speaking, in defiance of any border, the police, the law and the state, and even at the risk of our very lives — is an assertion of the primacy of our human needs. In this way, these perennial struggles over human mobility that provoke an effectively permanent ‘crisis’ of the border are expressions, in practice, of a desire and a demand for another way of life. And they gesture, however humbly, toward a horizon where another world is possible.

Nicholas De Genova is Professor and Chair of the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Houston. As an anthropologist, geographer and social theorist he studies migration, borders, race, citizenship and labour.

The Borders of ‘Europe’: Autonomy of Migration, Tactics of Bordering is available from Duke University Press.