Researching Western privilege in Dubai: a conversation with Saba A. Le Renard

New writing on migration and mobilities – an MMB special series

This is an edited version of an interview with Saba A. Le Renard in Jadaliyya* about their recent book Western Privilege. Work, Intimacy, and Postcolonial Hierarchies in Dubai (Stanford University Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write the book?

Saba A. Le Renard (SLR): When I was doing my PhD fieldwork about the transforming femininities of young Saudi women fifteen years ago, I was shocked by the stereotypical discourses many French residents I met there held on Saudi people. After finishing my PhD, I started working on the statuses, self-identifications, and practices of Western passport holders, first in Saudi Arabia and then in Dubai. During the courses I had followed in Middle East studies, the statuses of Western passport holders had never been a topic, despite many of this group occupying dominant positions in firms and various administrations of the region. My research started with a willingness to question this status, to make ‘Westerner’ the object rather than the implicit subject of knowledge.

In Dubai, as in many places of the world, having or not having a Western passport produces a clear split. Having one facilitates passage across national borders and represents an important differentiator and ranking criterion within the globalised job market, though how and how much one benefits from it differ, notably, depending on one’s position in gender, class and race hierarchies. The book explores how men and women, white and non-white Western passport holders inhabit the privileged status of ‘Westerner.’ It shows how they perceive Dubai’s social order differently depending on their trajectories, and how they nevertheless participate in reproducing it, for instance by implementing salary differentiation when recruiting, or by routinely racialising other inhabitants, described as ‘locals,’ ‘Arabs,’ Filipinos’ or ‘Indian.’ 

J: What particular topics, issues and literatures does the book address? 

SLR: First, the book contributes to what could be called a postcolonial turn in studies of the Arabian Peninsula, breaking with the longstanding tendency to ignore the imperial history of the region. In this book, I study Westerners not only as privileged migrants but also as local elites, playing a role in the perpetuation of nationality, race, class and gender hierarchies. I deconstruct the discourse presenting Westerners in the Arabian Peninsula as outsiders, having no role in the perpetuation of inequality; this belief is central, I argue, to the construction of their privileged subjectivities. For instance, some parents I interviewed told me that Dubai was great with young kids as it is very practical to have a live-in nanny, but that they planned to leave when their kids would become teenagers, because they did not want the latter to ‘see’ such blatant social injustice. I analysed this need to distance themselves from Dubai’s social order while benefitting from it as a salient element of distinctive Western subjectivities. 

Second, the book aims to contribute to race and migration studies. In the last decade, several authors have criticised the lack of attention for privileged migrants in migration studies. Postcolonial approaches of expatriation, which have shown how whiteness is transformed through migrations, have been very useful to understanding the distinctive subjectivities of Western residents in Dubai. The originality of my approach lies in my choice to compare the trajectories, practices and discourses of white and non-white Western passport holders. It enabled me to identify the specificity of whiteness as a privileged status among Western passport holders (because whiteness, in practice, does remain a privileged position among them), and to make visible the trajectories of non-white Western passport holders that benefit, to a lesser extent, from Western privilege, while also facing forms of stigmatisation and marginalisation. Beyond this, the similarities and contrasts between the two groups reveal how Dubai’s neoliberal discourse on multiculturalism, combined with the use of whiteness in the city’s branding, impact racial categories and produce conditional and limited inclusions. Such reflection echoes works on neoliberalism, multiculturalism and selective inclusions in other contexts, especially the United States and some European countries.

Third, the book is grounded on gender and sexuality studies; it documents how the formation of Westerners as a social group interlocks race, class, gender, sexuality and nationality. Postcolonial feminism as well as intersectionality are important inspirations for such approach. I argue that beside professional aspects, Western distinction lies on specific forms of heteronormativity. On the one hand, Western, white, upper-class couples, in spite of a clear labour division among spouses, identify with gender equality and women’s emancipation in contrast with ‘others’ represented as oppressed or sexist, or as frustrated sexual predators. On the other hand, single Westerners often long for serious, authentic relations, which they present as impossible in Dubai. Many associate authentic love with the West and Westerners, in contrast to Dubai’s so-called materialism and superficiality. By analysing specific models of heteronormativity among Western residents and how they participate in making boundaries between them and ‘others,’ I hope this book brings a contribution to Middle East feminist studies, which have been developing postcolonial and queer approaches in the last decades. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

SLR: I hope people interested in the Middle East, in race and migration studies, and in gender and feminist studies will read the book. I think it could help question how Western researchers position themselves while in the field, and also nourish the wider discussion that is currently developing about racialisation in the region.

Since the book is also inspired by race and migration studies and gender and sexuality studies focused on other contexts, I hope it will interest people working in these fields beyond the Middle East. While Dubai has an awful reputation among many intellectual bourgeoisies, some Western passport holders experience it as less racist than their home societies (for instance, France or the United States) and many women consider its streets as more secure than their home cities. As these two elements suggest, Dubai is an interesting society to better understand transnational racial formations, structural racism, gender regimes and the policing of public spaces—impacting gender, race, class, sexuality and nationality hierarchies.

Saba A. Le Renard is a Researcher in Sociology at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Paris. They are currently researching the place of ‘Westerners’ in the multinational professional worlds of Riyadh and Dubai. You can see them interviewed about their book Western Privilege in a forthcoming recording for MMB Insights and Sounds 2022.

* This interview has been edited and republished here with kind permission of Jadaliyya, the independent ezine produced by the Arab Studies Institute. The original, longer version, published in November 2021 and including an excerpt from Western Privilege, can be found here. Please note that Saba’s book was published under a first name that they no longer use.

Researching best practice in supporting refugee and migrant entrepreneurs

By Udeni Salmon and Ann Singleton.

Since January 2021 the University of Bristol has been collaborating with ACH in a research project to bring about social and economic change for refugees and migrants in the UK’s South West and West Midlands. ACH is a social enterprise that works to empower these groups to lead self-sufficient and ambitious lives. Here, we show how the university and this dynamic social enterprise have been working together to understand and support the experience of refugees and non-EU migrants trying to set up businesses in this country.

Entrepreneurship among refugees and recently arrived migrants

Entrepreneurship has long been viewed by policymakers in the UK as a means by which refugees and migrants can achieve economic independence in their new country of residence. In doing so, they create jobs, contribute to urban regeneration and introduce new cultural trends to society. While successful refugee entrepreneurs are held up as aspirational models, the reality is that newly arrived refugees generally lack the capital, social networks and knowledge of the regulatory and tax regimes required to start a new business. Furthermore, refugees experience trauma from their journey, anxiety from being kept apart from their families and uncertainty about establishing a life in the UK.

The Migrant Business Support (MBS) project is led by ACH and works with West of England Combined Authority and two of us from the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol – Ann Singleton (Strategic Policy Lead for MMB) and Udeni Salmon (Research Associate). The project consists of seven business consultants across Birmingham and Bristol, which include two graduates of the recent MSc in Migration and Mobility Studies. MBS investigates the experience of refugees and non-EU migrants who are attempting to navigate this early stage of setting up their own business, and the extent to which innovative forms of business support can assist them.

The known problems with business support include the fragmented and passive nature of business support agencies, which are locally provided but privately constituted. A unique feature of this initiative is that the West of England Combined Authority, through the West of England Growth Hub, is working proactively to address these challenges – as a partner in the MBS project and with other key outreach projects across the region. Many business support agencies have failed to engage with business owners who are not white, male or in tech-centric businesses. They are also reluctant to get involved in the risky pre-start stage of a business, when business plans may not be completed, the business concept may be unviable and the potential entrepreneur could still decide to remain in paid employment. Finally, start-up capital is hard to obtain for newly arrived potential entrepreneurs who have no credit history, inherited wealth or existing assets in the UK.

Shalini Sivakrishnan (left) and Eloise Clemmings (right), graduates of the MSc in Migration and Mobility Studies, at a project promoting the MBS project

The MBS project: a new approach to entrepreneurship support

Projects are needed that take a more innovative approach to business support for refugee and migrant entrepreneurs. In his recent MMB blogpost, David Jepson describes how ACH and the MBS project take a distinctive attitude to supporting migrant entrepreneurship. MBS developed out of ACH’s experience in Bristol and the West Midlands working with partners to either improve or establish host society services to meet the needs of refugees. MBS is funded by the European Commission and will provide up to 500 third-country nationals living in the UK with intensive, bespoke business support to start, stabilise or grow their businesses between 1st January  2021 and 31st December 2022. ACH’s business consultants and volunteer mentors will deliver individual, bespoke interactions to help their refugee and migrant clients to establish their own business. The University of Bristol team aims to understand how ACH’s project is distinctive in supporting its client base and how the ACH approach can provide insights to inform best practice and improved policy development across the UK.

What makes the MBS offer different?

Having conducted more than 30 interviews with MBS clients, staff and stakeholders, we have found that MBS has distinct advantages to standard business support programmes. First, MBS consultants provide advice and support for their clients’ wider needs, including addressing problems that are impacting clients’ mental and physical health. Advice and support are provided not only for their business plans, but also for housing, health, language lessons and family reunion. ACH’s expansive approach provides clients with the peace of mind to focus on setting up their business.

Second, ACH advisors see employment as a valuable alternative to, or steppingstone towards, entrepreneurship. Employment in a chosen industry gives clients valuable experience, which helps get their business off to a more stable and informed start. Finally, MBS consultants are recruited specifically for their personal experience of being from a migrant family, being a migrant themselves or setting up their own business. Such shared characteristics enable them to build trust quickly and establish credibility with clients who find it harder to relate to the typical ‘white’, English male business advisor.

MMB graduate members involved in the AHC project

Shalini Sivakrishnan and Eloise Clemmings are two MBS advisors who graduated from the University of Bristol’s MSc in Migration and Mobility Studies in 2021. Their approach has been to start from the individual need and develop programmes accordingly. Unlike standard business support organisations, Shalini and Eloise have been pro-active in going out into the local area, meeting people and encouraging them to take advantage of their support. They have also developed programmes that go beyond the narrow remit of traditional business advice.

‘[On the MSc] I learned how organisations that claim to provide services for refugees and migrants may end up disempowering the service users,’ said Shalini. ‘That was a monumental lecture for me and has shaped my work at ACH.’ Recognising that Afghan mothers were depressed being stuck with their children all day in small hotel rooms, she started an Afghan Women’s sewing group. While the group has seeded the idea of starting up a sewing business, it has also been a safe space for the women to talk, share problems and host additional support sessions, such as a visit from a mental health counsellor.

Eloise has also found that the MSc greatly informed her work on the MBS project: ‘It gave me a wider understanding of the numerous challenges faced by migrants and refugees. My dissertation focused on the “production of illegality” – how governments across the globe, create the conditions and categories that label individuals as ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’. Now, in my current role, I refer back to this to create new projects that are not only shaped by refugees and migrants themselves, but which are actually accessible to them.’

Next step for the project

The next step for our project is to provide a report for ACH, stakeholders and the funders. We hope this report will contribute to the scarce literature on refugee and migrant entrepreneurship in the UK and will inform policymakers on the importance of taking an informed, collaborative and holistic approach for supporting refugee and migrant entrepreneurs.

Udeni Salmon is a Research Associate Policy in the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol, and Ann Singleton is Reader in Migration Policy in the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol, and MMB Policy Strategic Lead. 

This project has been part funded by the European Union Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund: ‘Making management of migration flows more efficient across the European Union.’ The above text reflects the authors’ views only and not those of the European Commission or the UK Responsible Authority (UKRA). In addition, neither the European Commission nor the UKRA is liable for any use that may be made of the information contained above.

‘African Apocalypse’: the imperial violence behind today’s migration

By Bridget Anderson.

‘What angers me most is he chased away our grandparents… and now we have no food. Every child we bring into the world suffers. They must leave to find work and food for us. Some kids never come home. We just get news of their death. So you can see why we are so angry with this man.’

As she says these words, Batoula Adamou points down to the grave beneath her of French colonial commander Paul Voulet, whose notorious 1899 invasion of what is now Niger was one of imperialism’s most violent episodes. This scene in the town of May Jirgui comes towards the end of ‘African Apocalypse, a BBC documentary on colonial violence, which MMB was thrilled to host at the Arnolfini in July, in association with the University of Bristol’s Department of Film and Television and PARC along with Afrika Eye, and supported by Deputy Vice-Chancellor Judith Squires.

Batoula Adamou, resident of May Jirgui, in ‘African Apocalypse’ (Image: © LemKino Pictures 2020)

From the perspective of western policy makers, migration is almost always seen as a standalone issue, a case of force and freedom, push and pull. But for poor people in the global South migration is very often entangled with colonial histories and ongoing legacies that have bestowed vast inequalities and poverty.

‘African Apocalypse’ presents a journey by British-Nigerian poet-activist Femi Nylander across the Sahel of Niger in the footsteps of Captain Voulet. It soon becomes a People’s History of Colonialism as Nylander and director Rob Lemkin pass through town after town, village after village where residents, young and old, retain vivid collective memories of the day the ‘Whites’ came and the slaughter they brought, even though it was 120 years ago.

Our screening was the UK theatrical premiere of the Hausa language version of the film. As director Rob Lemkin explained in his live introduction to the film, this version was seen by more than eight million people in Niger and Nigeria when Kano-based Arewa 24 TV broadcast it every Sunday evening through February and March of 2022.

A powerful array of panellists, chaired by Peninah Achieng, included one of the film’s participants, Nigérien cineaste Amina Weira (live by Zoom from Niger’s capital Niamey), the noted filmmaker and scholar Imruh Bakari and one of the Colston Topplers and a member of #GladColstonsGone, Luke Wentworth. Luke’s account of Bristol’s history leading to a moment of upsurge found a telling connection with the Nigérien graveside anger that ends the film. The Colston statue stood as an insult to many in the local community for decades. By contrast, the grave of Voulet, which dominates the town square in May Jirgui, has produced bitter resentment among local residents for generations. In a pre-recorded conversation, May Jirgui Deputy Mayor Mahamane Salissou Issa told the Bristol audience how his town has been deprived of infrastructure since the colonial period.

A lively discussion followed the film screening, in which Ade Olaiya, a Member of the International Network of Scholars and Activists for Afrikan Reparations and UNESCO Inclusive Policy Lab Expert, spoke of the need for international civil society – including NGOs in the UK and Bristol – to support the people of Niger’s demands for reparations. He cited recent developments in the international reparations movement, including the launch in 2021 of the UK’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Afrikan Reparations and HR 40 in the USA. Rob Lemkin updated the audience on initiatives at the UN where the filmmakers have worked with the affected communities and lawyers to bring the matter to the attention of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion of Truth and Justice.

Abdelkader Mossi, secretary of the Collectif des Nigériens de la Diaspora (around a dozen Nigeriens had come from London for the premiere) spoke of how important it is for Nigeriens to see their history more widely known and recognised. He spoke about his organisation, which connects Nigeriens in Britain, France and across Europe. He emphasized the importance of the fierce resistance of Nigeriens to the 1899 invasion and his hopes that this may be the beginning of a new type of relationship with France and Europe. Mossi also spoke of the vital role the Nigerien diaspora in Britain and Europe has to play in influencing positive developments.

The screening took place shortly after a public protest in Bristol against the British government’s policy of deporting migrants to Rwanda. Several in the Arnolfini audience came on from that event. One was Alimamy Bangura, a Sierra Leonean refugee living in Manchester. Alimamy spoke of the deep impact the film made on him, and the importance of recognising colonial violence and domination as the essential precursor to today’s global problems of inequality. He is now working through his organisation RAPAR (Refugee and Asylum Participatory Action Research) to bring ‘African Apocalypse’ to Manchester later this year.

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

African Apocalypse filmmakers wish to acknowledge the support of BERTHA FOUNDATION.

The bifurcated migration lexicon and trend-defying trajectories

New writing on migration and mobilities – an MMB special series

By Rose Jaji.

The migration lexicon has consolidated itself around an either/or rather than both-and schematic in which categories resulting from a binary classification of regions and countries have acquired unquestioned normativity. This normativity is evident in what can be termed a regionalised division of migration labour. Binary classifications portray mobile people and the spaces involved in their mobility in mutually exclusive terms, exemplified by the classification of countries as either sending or receiving rather than as both sending and receiving. This occurs in a broader context in which the global South is depicted as the antithesis of the global North. A predictable outcome of this is the alignment of motivations for migration with regions of origin and destination, which can be seen in the dubious and regionalised distinction between expatriates and economic migrants. This reflection is based on my research on migration from the global North to Zimbabwe.

The bifurcated migration lexicon has a blind spot for trend-defying trajectories towards destinations that do not conform to the conventional destination profile built around economic and political stability, high ranking on global economic, development and governance indices and high ranking on the Global Passport Power Rank. When trained on countries that conform to this profile, the migration studies lens zooms in on conspicuous immigration from which these countries acquire the label ‘receiving countries’ in the classificatory binary. This renders invisible non-conforming destinations that are unquestioningly named as sending countries because they are associated with economic decline, political instability, low ranking on global indices, low positions on the Global Passport Power Rank and visible emigration that often contributes to terms such as ‘exodus’, ‘flood’ and ‘influx’.

The bifurcated migration lexicon is apparent in the way in which different motivations are attributed to North-South and South-North trajectories, which is due to perception of the regions as antithetical and lacking in internal heterogeneity. This conceals internal contradictions and leads to regions being aligned with specific drivers of migration along with a corresponding regionalisation of verbs and nouns in the migration vocabulary. As a result, people moving to the global North are identified as economic migrants and asylum seekers/refugees while those moving to the global South are named expatriates and lifestyle migrants. The hostility experienced by the former comes from their depiction as beneficiaries who arrive to receive and earn. In contrast, the hospitality extended to the latter derives from their portrayal as benefactors who arrive to help and spend. The South-North trajectory is accordingly depicted as involving migration (needed but unwelcome) whereas the North-South trajectory is presumed to comprise mobility (wanted and welcome) (Anderson 2017; Castles 2010; Faist 2013). Mobile people supposedly move because of desire and choice while those who migrate seemingly do so out of compulsion, which gives their movement a tragic aspect. This feeds into the subtle but evocative distinction between travelling and fleeing as well as into the invisibility of travelers compared with the conspicuousness of economic migrants and refugees. The term travelling comes to embody self-sufficiency and the norm while flight becomes the anatomy of helplessness, the anomalous and even dangerous (Jaji 2020).

The dichotomous naming of mobilities based on their trajectories and presumed motivations leads to different mobility opportunities, which are considered more desirable or less so depending on how the mobile people and the places they come from are categorised. This is symbolised by how passports function as nationalised and politicised text inscribed on mobile people’s bodies (Jaji 2020). Passport rankings determine elevation of social status (Pogonyi 2018) or demotion depending on how the passport is ranked. Differential naming of mobile people creates varying opportunities for inclusion in the global economy; favourable immigration policies are created for highly skilled migrants while low-skilled migrants and refugees encounter exclusionary policies (Castles 2013).

The binary classifications that constitute the migration lexicon obscure migration trajectories and motivations that transgress the normative or orthodox. This transgression is exemplified by migration from the global North to Zimbabwe, a country that appears in migration studies as a homogenised sending country. However, Zimbabwe defies dominant narratives by straddling boundaries between the sending, receiving and transit categories. As a destination country for North-South migration, Zimbabwe demonstrates that the normative and conventional can be found in the aberrant; the periphery is not necessarily without a core. The country also blends the diverse and contradictory, thus transgressing the either/or and projecting the both-and schematic.

Zimbabwe, a country with low rankings on GDP, IHDI, Governance and Human Security indices, projects the hallmarks of a sending country at the same time as it deviates from the linear and unidirectional migration of the sending-receiving country binary. As a sending, receiving and transit country, it defies essentialist categorisation of countries through occupying a non-binary space. It also challenges bifurcated labelling of mobile people as either economic migrants or asylum seekers/refugees because it generates mixed migration (Crush, Chikanda and Tawodzera 2015). As a country in dire straits offering opportunities for upward social mobility to migrants from affluent parts of the world, the country shakes the stability and consistency with which the nation-state framework conceptualises migration, space and trajectories thus illustrating the limitations of using the nation-state as a framework for studying and understanding migration.

Trend-defying trajectories warrant a review of the bifurcated migration lexicon, which renders such mobilities obscure and trivial. They call for critical reflection on the nation-state’s reductionist conceptualisation, categorisation and interpretation of contemporary human mobility. Trend-defying trajectories towards a boundary-transgressing destination demonstrate the mutual mediation of the nation-state and individual motivations evident in transnational activities. They challenge reductionist tendencies inherent in essentialist binary categorisations. This calls for a nuanced conversation that addresses commonalities in motivations that cut across the North-South and sending-receiving divides. Categories need to emerge from inherent aspects of mobilities rather than artificial differences engendered by regionalised power relations.

Rose Jaji is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Zimbabwe and Senior Researcher at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability, Bonn. Her research areas of interest are migration/refugees, conflict and peacebuilding. Rose’s most recent book is Deviant Destinations: Zimbabwe and North to South Migration (2019, Rowman and Littlefield), which she discusses in an interview with Sarah Kunz for MMB Insights and Sounds 2022.

Race and nation in an era of postcolonialism: notes from a Bristol Benjamin Meaker Professorship

By Bridget Anderson.

In June–July 2022 we were delighted to host Professor Nandita Sharma from the University of Hawai’i as a Bristol Benjamin Meaker Distinguished Visiting Professor. It was a productive month for MMB as we kept her busy with a range of events that got us all thinking more about postcolonial nationalist ideologies, decentring the ‘foreign’ and liberating movement. This blogpost is the first of a series that reflects on the discussions arising during Nandita’s visit.

Fresh off the plane Nandita participated in the MMB workshop ‘Divisive Solidarities’, where UoB staff and students discussed how to counteract public narratives that cast some people as more deserving than others of sympathy and support. As part of this workshop she facilitated a group discussion on humanitarianism and its possibilities and limitations.

The main event of Nandita’s visiting professorship was her public lecture ‘Are Immigration Controls Racist? Lessons from History. We had a great turnout despite the stormy weather, with about half the audience coming from outside the University – thanks in part to our collaboration with Bristol Ideas. Nandita discussed how, following the Second World War, there was a wide-scale effort to delegitimise racist ideologies by demonstrating that ‘race’ was socially and historically constructed. This ran alongside the nationalisation of state sovereignty, which led to the proliferation of immigration and border controls. Nationalist ideologies were rendered not only legitimate but practically mandatory in politics, leading to the normalisation of distinctions between Nationals and Migrants.

In her beautifully illustrated talk Nandita charted this history to understand the relation between racism and nationalism, and how it is organised, practised and resisted in an era of postcolonialism. The discussant, Dr Maya Goodfellow, author of Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats (2020), followed Nandita’s talk with an exploration of the connections between racism and immigration controls in the UK and beyond. We will be publishing Maya’s contribution as a blogpost later this year. If you missed the public lecture, you can now watch a recording of it here:

The public lecture was sponsored by SPAIS, who also hosted a departmental seminar with Nandita on ‘Decolonisation and mobility: decentring the “foreign” and liberating movement.’ In this she explored how class relations are sidelined when anti-colonial struggles come to be seen as largely about the achievement of national territorial sovereignty. Postgraduate researchers also had the chance to engage with Nandita in a more informal workshop setting. They discussed their research in light of her previous talks and learned more about her own research trajectory. A grant from the Faculty of Social Sciences and Law meant we could continue the conversation over dinner – a great opportunity for MMB’s cross-faculty network of PGRs (do get in touch if you would like to join).

It wasn’t only talks and seminars. Nandita and I continued to develop a proposal for an edited volume, Hydra Rising!, which takes as its starting point The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (2000) by historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker. This book examines the making of the Atlantic world from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries from the standpoint of those dispossessed of their common lands in Europe, Africa and the Americas, as well as the motley crew of sailors, slaves, pirates, labourers, market women and indentured servants whose ideas about freedom and equality forever changed history. It shows the genealogy of the deep structural violence that orders our contemporary world and, perhaps most importantly, the resources that we can draw on to challenge it.

Hydra Rising!, by re-animating the specific set of revolutionary politics of the Hydra for our time, sails the same waters navigated by Linebaugh and Rediker by focussing on the new, revolutionary bodies, subjects and subjectivities forming as people struggle for freedom. By luck, our co-editor Cynthia Wright, from York University in Toronto, was also in the UK and visited Bristol for a day’s workshop to develop the project, along with our other contributors who joined us online. We were delighted that Peter and Marcus also attended, and we were able to have a very productive conversation. We will submit the proposal for the edited collection before the end of the year – watch this space!

Nandita and I ventured outside of Bristol too and both of us spoke at the Radical History School of the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival, organised by the Trades Union Congress (TUC). This year’s theme was ‘Migration’ and we’re delighted to have been invited to speak at next year’s School on the theme of ‘Protest’. While Nandita was in Bristol MMB also held a screening and panel discussion of the film African Apocalypse, which explores the colonial violence and legacies behind today’s migration from West Africa. We will be publishing a blogpost on this later in the autumn.

We are very grateful to the Benjamin Meaker Distinguished Visiting Professorship Scheme for enabling Nandita’s visit and giving us the opportunity to introduce her ideas and inspirations to new people, inside and outside the University of Bristol. As one anonymous reviewer of MMB’s recent events wrote:

I found Nandita’s public lecture particularly inspiring and thought provoking. It has encouraged me to think more deeply about the connections between states, nationalism, racism and capitalism. The framing of “home/class-state rule” has been really useful for me in pulling together these connections and helping me, following Nandita, in imagining and articulating alternatives that lie beyond the nation state.’

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

Previous MMB blogposts by Nandita Sharma include: ‘A tale of two worlds: national borders versus a common planet‘ (May 2022), ‘National sovereignty and postcolonial racism‘ (March 2021) and ‘From “social distancing” to planetary solidarity‘ (July 2020).

Religious encounter and identity formation among international students  

By Lin Ma.

Studies of religion and migration tend to focus on how faith and beliefs travel with migrants, especially in the case of religions that are purposefully spread by their adherents. However, the story differs with my recent doctoral research on identities of Chinese international students who explore or convert to biblical evangelicalism in the UK.

International students stand out among other migrants for their chosen transient and temporary status. Unlike refugees – whose basic rights are often violated and institutionally denied – the choice of international students to migrate for educational purposes is often welcomed by host countries. Anglophone universities are among the oldest institutions to receive foreign students. And yet all international students are not equal, and some have more opportunities available to them than others. Of all these opportunities, why would Chinese international students favour a biblical, Christian identity in the UK?

(Image: Daniel Morton on Unsplash)

There has been growing awareness of the conversion of overseas Chinese people to Christianity. Since the 1980s, the number of Chinese Christians has increased steadily, along with the academic interest. In the US, where scholarship in this field first emerged, Fenggang Yang documented a ‘mass conversion’ of Chinese immigrants to Christianity. I was fascinated by this religious conversion of adults to a fundamentalist identity – one that they alleged to be more important than all others. More intriguingly, exposed to the same setting, why do some convert but others not?

Based in the UK, I did not observe a ‘mass’ conversion of Chinese to Christianity but rather the influence of colonial legacies in drawing people towards this church. Hong Kong Chinese are the backbone of established ethnic Chinese congregations in the UK, with active but separate evangelical outreach programmes aimed at Mandarin-speaking Chinese students and students-turned professionals.

To reach these international students, British evangelical Christians actively present their church as a way of accessing British culture, practising English and integrating into local communities (Ma 2021). Such depictions are especially appealing to Chinese international students whose participation in local society is compromised by their linguistic and cultural differences. Consequently, even though Christian proselytisers want to evangelise indiscriminately, they are much more likely to succeed with particular types of international students. 

The UK has been seen as ‘exceptionally secular’ in comparison with the ‘exceptionally religious’ US (Berger et al. 2008) but to the Chinese, the white-majority Anglophone culture of both overrides their religious differences. As I have recently shown (Ma 2021), two thirds of the Chinese students I surveyed when they had just arrived in the UK had thought that ‘Britain is a Christian country’ and that ‘Most British people are Christians’. Indeed, such perceptions were shared by those Chinese students who sought out and participated in local Christian settings.

Most of the Chinese international students I spoke to or interviewed came from the People’s Republic of China, where Christianity has never been coupled with politics as it has been in the West. Nor has China had a good record of human rights and religious freedom. Nonetheless, none of the students saw themselves as victims of limited religious choice before coming to the UK. Some had had a Christian upbringing or prior Christian encounters, but all insisted that they only became true believers after they came to study in Britain.

Following six months of multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork at biblical, evangelical settings – including churches and faith-based organisations on and around university campuses in the UK – I recruited over 30 Chinese students for life-story interviews. Half of the students were self-identified Christian converts, and half were not converted. Had those who converted been seeking to become religious in the first place? Or how did their educational mobility to the UK intensify a search for this faith?

It became clear that in China students are taught that the cultural core of the West is Christianity. This is especially reflected by students majoring in globally oriented subjects – such as English language and literature, international business and cultural studies. As such, they were encouraged by their Chinese tutors and seniors to learn about Christianity. Is this an Asian construct of the West? Evidence suggests that within the religious landscape in the West, a Christian hegemony succeeded in defining Western culture this way, and that the image was accepted by those outside. My research found that contemporary encounters between different peoples continue to reflect this legacy.

The presence of these nonconverts in evangelical settings suggests that these Christian spaces provide more for overseas Chinese students than just religious support. In the context of a ‘white’ Anglophone university where not all international students have an equal footing, the Christian organisations have helped Chinese students settle into their British surroundings. All of my interviewees acknowledged the kindness, care and conversational space that Christians had provided for them. Their subjective sense of crisis often accompanied their intellectual interest in the Western culture core. In addition to attending language and culture events tailored for international students, their requests at the prayer sessions frequently unveiled their struggle to fit in, to belong, and to deal with an unfamiliar academic environment. Prayer content ranged from dealing with mentors who neglected their emails to loan agencies’ delayed responses, which could jeopardise their visa status.

When local Christian support addressed students’ requests, it was linked to the theological belief in a divinely ordained intervention. Such experience gave strength to those who had felt disempowered following their migration to the UK. Their intense desire for a just, omnipotent being to oversee their lives reflected the moments of helplessness they experienced in the UK when injustices – such as personal and institutional racism – were directed towards them. For converts, the power and love of a supreme being made them feel valued and validated, something they struggled for in the higher education context.

My research sits across studies of religion, migration and internationalised higher education. Within religious studies it challenges the crude secularisation thesis that, in modern society, people walk away from religion. It also challenges higher education studies that recognise the privileges of international students but do not consider universities as a place for cultivated religious identities, especially for those situated on the margin. Equally, migration studies, though acknowledging religious claims of migrants, shrink from a rigorous examination of how and why religious belief can become a significant part of the migration experience and shape the decisions that migrants make. In using a decolonial epistemology my thesis initiates a necessary conversation between these fields and unveils the liminal space in which individuals, with both their privileges and vulnerabilities, come to navigate new identities in the global arena.

Lin Ma is a Lecturer in Sociology at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol. Her doctoral research examines the role of Christianity in the globally constructed identities of Chinese international students in Britain.

Institutional encounters by non-citizens in the Nordic welfare state – a dialogue

By Valter Sandell-Maury and Liselott Sundbäck.

How is access to the Nordic welfare state services navigated and negotiated by non-citizens? What is the role of social workers and other street-level bureaucrats when delivering these services? As two PhD students exploring the contemporary welfare state regimes in Finland and Sweden, we ask how migration policy is created and delivered by social workers and other state employees on the ground. Our aim with this blogpost is to elaborate on emerging questions about the Nordic welfare states. We chose to write the post as a dialogue, highlighting the similarities and differences in our approaches. Valter comes from a social work stance and Liselott from a social policy one.

Valter: The Nordic welfare state model has been characterised as universalist and comprehensive. The residence-based model is widely understood as egalitarian in the sense that it does not overtly distinguish between citizens and legally residing non-citizens in terms of social welfare entitlements. However, obtaining legal status does not guarantee a secure position, as immigration law creates different legal statuses, some of which are precarious (Könönen 2018). This suggests that we need to go beyond the dichotomous understanding of inclusion and exclusion of non-citizens in the Nordic welfare state, and towards a graded understanding of the hierarchisation of rights. Goldring and Landolt (2013) picture the residence permit system as comprising ‘chutes and ladders’, where one can climb upwards towards a more secure position or slide downwards to illegality.

Liselott: Yes, I agree, and current migration research also discusses the neoliberal turns and welfare chauvinism within the Nordic welfare state (Keskinen 2016) and shows how bureaucratic violence (Näre 2020) is present in the everyday life of asylum seekers. Within Nordic migration policy accessing services and benefits requires numerous institutional encounters, institutional discourses and a certain form of dependency on the welfare system. Counselling, benefits and services are often tied to interaction with street-level bureaucrats (Lipsky 2010), such as personnel at the employment offices or municipal immigration offices. As Lipsky (2010) suggests, institutions carrying out street-level bureaucracy are to some extent structurally similar despite performing unrelated and diverse work task. It is the action and positioning of these street-level bureaucrats that I am trying to understand better in my research, as well as the trajectory, created through state migration policy, that leads to a form of dependency on both the institutions involved in ‘integration’ work and the actions and discretion of the street-level bureaucrat.

Valter: Social work research sheds light on what kind of challenges these encounters between undocumented migrants and social workers in the Nordic welfare state evoke (Cuadra 2018, Jönsson 2015, Nordling and Persdotter 2021). The tension between social work ethics, emphasizing social justice and equality, and undocumented migrants’ exclusion from social services and rights raises pressing questions about how social workers can assist undocumented clients who turn to social services when in need.

Meanwhile, less scholarly attention has been given to the kind of challenges that different legal statuses among non-citizens produces, as the type of legal status can affect their social entitlements. It is valuable to broaden the picture of how immigration law and controls create challenges for social work practice that go beyond the dichotomous understanding of legally residing non-citizens and undocumented migrants. We should look towards a critical inquiry of how the diversification of legal statuses affects social work practice, and how social workers both reproduce and challenge these inequalities.

Liselott: I believe that the study of institutional encounters as part of migration governance in the Nordic welfare states of Sweden and Finland can benefit from a particular focus on trust and distrust. We know that the level of trust in Nordic states is high among both citizens and recently arrived migrants (Andreasson, 2017; Bäck and Kestilä-Kekkonen 2019; Holmberg and Rothstein, 2020; Nannestad et al. 2013; Pitkänen et al. 2019) but we know little about how trust and distrust is experienced and shaped through what I call the series of institutional encounters present in the everyday life of forced migrants. Multiple institutional meetings are needed to access the welfare state, with regards to guidance, permits and benefits.

What interests me is both a top-down and bottom-up perspective of how trust is enacted in these encounters as narrated by the experiences of both young, forced migrants (as clients) and street-level bureaucrats (as representatives of institutions). In order to understand this better we have to scrutinise the shaping of trust from various angles, such as its characteristics, context, timing and power asymmetries.

While trust is a strong narrative for the Nordic welfare state, I would argue that the notion of trust is also a means of migration governance with street-level bureaucrats striving to create trust in order to steer the migrants towards ‘integration measures’ such as employment and education.

Valter: Likewise, we need to look closely at how social workers actually carry out their role on the ground. Critical social work scholarship has stressed that the ethical principles of social work should work as the guiding star of social work practice. This rallying cry for a de-politicisation of social work is, of course, important as it stresses that social work should stand with the precarious, the poor and the disadvantaged. However, the emphasis on the ethical principles of social work and the portrayal of social workers as social activists rather than street-level bureaucrats risks essentialising them as morally good or as activists by nature. But rather than just focusing on what social workers ‘should do’ (for a critique of social work see Maylea 2021), or how the ethical principles of social work should be followed in practice, it is also important to investigate how social workers use discretion in their work with migrants of precarious status in a way that might reproduce injustices.

Liselott: Exactly, that is also what I see in my research on trust and distrust: the positioning of the social worker, or other street-level bureaucrats, in using their discretion is crucial for trust shaping. Maynard-Moody and Musheno (2000) argue that the street-level bureaucrats’ work is characterised by a dichotomy – they are either an agent of the state or an agent of the citizen. But I would argue that it is much more dynamic than this, with their individual discretion playing a key role in how they position themselves between state and citizen or, when also including non-citizens, the individual. I elaborate on this in more detail in my research on street-level bureaucracy in Finland and Sweden.

So, what we argue is that in order to understand how migration policy is ‘made’ in the contemporary Nordic welfare state more focus needs to be put on the series of institutional encounters between social workers and migrants, and the actions of street-level bureaucrats.

Valter Sandell-Maury is a PhD candidate in social work at Malmö University in Sweden. He is affiliated with the Malmö Institute for Studies of Migration, Diversity and Welfare (MIM) at Malmö University and with The Centre for Research on Ethnic Relations and Nationalism (CEREN) at the University of Helsinki.

Liselott Sundbäck is a PhD student in social policy at Åbo Akademi University in Finland. Her research focuses on forced migration and institutional encounters in Finland and Sweden. She is also a short-term visiting PhD student at the Division of Migration, Ethnicity and Society (REMESO) in Sweden.

MMB works in collaboration with the Malmö Institute for Studies of Migration, Diversity and Welfare (MIM). During March-June 2022, MMB Director Bridget Anderson was based at MIM as the Malmö City Guest Professor in Migration Studies.

Image: Flags in Helsingborg by Lars Strandberg on Flickr.

Engaging with visions of mobilities within the landscape of risk

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

By Thomas O’Shea.

When describing the commercial port land of Felixstowe (fig. 1) as a ‘nerve ganglion of capitalism’, a proto-nostalgic horizon ‘blighted by cargo ships’, Mark Fisher (2006) was describing a vision of the natural’s collision course with the monetary in words that ooze forth from the ascetic expanse he walked us through, right up to the journey’s reposeful end point, the burial ground at Sutton Hoo (fig. 2). Here in this space, the increasingly unseen in today’s world is seen so lucidly that upon listening closer Beowulf’s verses may come rushing forth upon the Deben mists to play amongst the ancient mounds and time-worn grasses.

Figure 1. Felixstowe container port is the largest of its kind in the United Kingdom, a point of arrival and nerve ganglion of capitalism responsible for the distribution of material commodities across the land along established networks of commerce (image: Institution of Civil Engineers).

Figure 2. By contrast, the ‘sunlit planetary quality of serenity’ offered at Sutton Hoo engages with a vision of departure (image: thesuffolkcoast.co.uk). Two different points within a geography that speaks to themes of migration, mobility and the conflict of boundary in space and time.

In a space as innately human as this, the purpose of the city, the urban, and what it means to exist in it becomes overwritten in the victorious verse and rhythm of nature and the environment, yet there is an eeriness inherent in this vision. A sense of disconnection and immobility that is increasingly disassociated with the ever-expanding urban centres across the world. This is a sense that many might argue is, itself, becoming increasingly overwritten through development and, possibly more directly, through proliferating networks of digital visualisation and communication.

More of us are living in urban settings and more of us are moving to them. What drives this flight to the city? The deeper motivations can only be described as, much like the conditions of the British weather, myriad. What this mobilisation and migration looks like is relatively more straight forward to describe: a need for access to resources through labour, coupled with a space in which to live and be at home, to rest. Mirrored perfectly in Fisher’s visions from Felixstowe to Sutton Hoo, a seamless cross section of the Anthropocene. Capturing the stillness afforded by a space so radically different to the city, where the scale of achievement, to simply occupy a space with as much concrete matter as is condensed into the wondrous square miles of London, Birmingham, and Manchester, amongst many others, by comparison to that which does not occupy the vastness of Suffolk is astonishing. Historically, progress for those who have settled in these cityscapes has, in many senses, been assured, simply through an increased likelihood of encountering streams of revenue and capital, or so goes the utopian visions of the upwardly mobile Mondeo Men and Worcester Women.

Loosely this might be described as the enabling of capital progress, however these connections, patterns and trends underpinning, however loosely, such stereotypical visions of city living have become much more distant for most within the current global climate. A crude utilisation of Tobler’s first law of geography would, when coupled with Mark Fisher’s nerve ganglion metaphor, lead us to deduce that those closest to capital, to the contemporary capital markets of the city, are not as readily likely to benefit from this proximity as they might once have. This sense of capital mobility associated with the city is now fundamentally more precarious and is visually very different from that seen in the past, offering the first glimpse of the landscape of risk.

Of course, this form of mobility is not completely linear as the city has long also been associated with a flux of capital mobility represented by a great, and growing, disparity between those operating at the top of the metropolitan hierarchy, in gleaming beglassed monoliths, and those looking up at them from the mosaic of avenues and streets below. This structural and spatial inequality of the cityscape is as symbolic of the urban as it is of the human condition it embodies, where products of value are exchanged for labour and where, as David Harvey explained in Social Justice and The City, ‘capitalism annihilates space to ensure its own reproduction.’ Historically facilitated by barbaric internal mechanisms in the West, from blockbusting and redlining amongst a spectrum of variable living standards that extend from unthinkable to the decadent, urbanisation and urban expansion reassembling the natural spaces in the pursuit of capital will naturally enhance and further facilitate the growth of inequity and thus, further strengthen the boundaries of the risk landscape.

This does come down to a fundamental connection between capital and risk, where risk is largely framed in the context of ‘asset loss’ but the landscape in which it is most acutely observed, where capital value is most apparent, the city, is where it is, and will continue to be, predominant. Harvey concludes his vision on the engagement with political process as fundamental to traversing the forms of inequality and injustice generated and facilitated through ties to this form of ‘development’. Consequent of the unprecedented recent times we have lived in, and now continue to live through, together, the public inquisitions regarding the moral constitution of those responsible for overseeing political processes challenges any desire for engagement. Age old theoretical undercoats of societal constitution and modernity begin to peel away under the searing heat of growing public discontent whilst those at the very zenith continue to profit financially.

The risk landscape is one fraught with conflict and is perpetually in crisis. However, were this crisis to be wholly one of capital, it would affect everyone. Capital and inequity are one facet of the greater conflict the risk landscape has with the environment at large, as even when this crisis is framed in the context of equity, it finds equilibrium in the continuation of the trend that, depending on where you are categorised within the social hierarchy of the city, you will continue to be worse off from here on out and no amount of ‘levelling up’ will bring about a truly positive change to this course. We are beginning to feel this at home, on a personal scale now through a volatile geopolitical landscape, but that doesn’t mean that labour is any less abundant. The boundaries of the risk landscape will continue to expand beyond this and find a continuing but ultimately existential conflict with the natural environment, generating an accelerated form of risk that is much more linear in outcome. The general message related to this is clear: ‘Adaptation of current modes and systems to emergent environmental risk is needed, with further mitigation required to prevent the acceleration of this risk’

The modern human age is liquid, where change and continuity are seen to different degrees and operate at various tempos across time. Were I to define which of the processes discussed throughout this missive are representative of change and continuity, I would posit that the ultimate defining factor of both lie in the hands of nature and not my own. Whilst social categories become redefined through mechanisms closely tied to the city, overwriting of old landscape structures through the proliferation of the urban over time generates a legacy of risk through reparation and over expansion. In appropriating space that is not in the interest of that which inhabits that space, be it the development of floodplains to accommodate homes, the utilisation, or lack, of land due to pollution from past industry, processes of land reclamation, we are clutching at straws. Yet, capital is generated and claimed with little interest for the longevity or safety of those inhabiting these new spaces, asserting a dynamic of equitability for whom exactly?

It is in this dissection of value, its definition and by whom (or what), that the vision of the risk landscape becomes truly material. How these values shift, and to what benefit, must continue to be explored if we are to make a sustainable vision of the city into a liveable environment, equitable for all who will call it home. If our mobility within this exploration could be versed in the cognitive, as Mark Fisher did for us, then we are becoming more aware of the trends that connect the naturally seen and unseen with the landscape of risk. Supporting us in the delineation of what is really of and for us against that which appears to be, revealing what it is to be truly of and for the natural.

Thomas O’Shea is a postdoctoral research associate with the School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol. The primary focus of his research is on developing understanding of the human-water interface with specific interests in the application of social theory, urban and hybrid geographies towards shaping narratives and strategies of sustainability.  

Thinking about the positive value of free movement

By Chris Bertram.

One of the consequences of Brexit is that British people are more limited in their freedom of movement. Whereas previously they could travel, work, retire, settle in other European countries, today the default is that they can only visit the Schengen area for 90 days in any 180-day period and lack rights to work. EU citizens are similarly more limited in what they can do than before, though only with respect to the territory of the UK. (Irish citizens, being part of both the EU and a common travel areal with the UK, are uniquely privileged).

I mention these facts purely as an entrée to my main subject, which is to begin thinking about the positive value of free movement across borders, a topic that is little considered by political philosophers and theorists and is low down the agenda of many politicians, who are more concerned with keeping out the unwanted and security at the border than they are with the liberties of their own citizens to travel, settle, work elsewhere and to associate with people in other countries and of other nationalities than their own. I take it that all of these liberties are valuable to a person and enhance their autonomy for the same reason as the freedom to travel within a country’s borders is valuable.

(Image by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash)

When philosophers and political theorists write about free movement it is mainly in a negative, protective and instrumental register: people need the freedom to escape across borders, to get away from their persecutors or from grinding poverty and lack of opportunity. To be sure, these things are of the greatest importance and the fact that such freedom is denied and that people are penned into unjust regimes and poor lives is the worst aspect of our global mobility regime, but we need to make the positive case for free movement too.

The freedom of movement that mainly rich (and white) people enjoyed before 1914 — as later regretted by such figures as AJP Taylor and Stefan Zweig — was in part supported by the sense that such people had that they were entitled to go about their business without impertinent questioning and impediment from puffed-up officials. The situation today is almost the exact opposite, where border guards have almost unlimited rights to question people about their purposes and to detain and refuse them and where we all approach the passport check as the meekest of sheep, convinced that any sign of disrespect or recalcitrance might cost us our ability to enter a country and perhaps be marked on official records and surveillance systems to cause us problems for the future.

Sparing travellers from impertinent questioning is of small importance though compared to the positive benefits of free movement. Free movement also gives those who have no particular desire to live elsewhere the ability to visit and enjoy the natural and cultural heritage that belongs to humankind as a whole. Why should someone born in Burkina Faso be denied the opportunity ever to visit the Grand Canyon or to see the Mona Lisa, for example? The positive arguments for the value of free movement are going to be mainly about these autonomy-enhancing properties: it simply gives people a wider range of choices for how to make and shape their lives and frees them from the restricted menu that is available in their current location.

What are the counter-arguments going to be? I suspect there will be some who argue that we should hold back on pursuing free movement for some until we can achieve free movement for all. This was an argument put during the Brexit referendum by left-wing opponents of the EU who argued that European free movement is racist, since Europe permits free movement only to the predominantly white citizens of the European Economic Area and yet has a hard external border that keeps out Africans, Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans etc. Of course, the hard external border is wrong, but the idea that we should deny freedoms for some until we can achieve the same freedoms for all also seems unattractive, at least in some cases. So, for example, most states introduced universal male suffrage long before women got the vote, and it was always unjust that women were denied it, but should the earlier extension of the franchise have been resisted on the grounds of this injustice?

It may well be that there is a tension here, though, because when states reach reciprocal agreements to extend the free movement rights of their own citizens, such agreements could include clauses requiring greater control of the movement of people who are not citizens of either contracting state, co-operation on wider immigration control etc. If so, the free movement of some would be bought at the price of limiting the movement of others, and such clauses are both unjust and inimical to the wider aim of promoting free movement.

Freedom of movement also comes, potentially, at a cost to those already in the places that people choose to move to or visit. I’m thinking here not of the familiar arguments that immigrants are bad for wages or whatever (arguments I generally find unconvincing) but rather cases involving not settlement but visiting. If you live in Venice or Barcelona then a high volume of tourists, while welcome for the money they bring, can also make life unbearable in other respects. I think in cases like this the right answer probably lies not in banning people as such, but rather in planning and regulating movement so that everybody who wants to visit has the opportunity to do so, even if they might have to wait until a slot is available.

Other issues are going to include the environmental costs associated with mass travel. If we want to combine the autonomy-enhancing possibilities of free movement with a concern with the planet and greenhouse gas emissions, then we have to develop means of travel that impose low or no carbon costs. In other words, freedom of movement justly pursued, will have to be free movement that does not impose unfair costs on others. There is no good environmental rationale to stop people from walking, cycling or swimming across borders, but other means of transport will need pricing or rationing mechanisms so that travel doesn’t impose unfair costs on others.

There are also barriers to free movement that people, especially younger and able-bodied people, don’t think about all that much. As we grow older (or if we suffer from a disability) it becomes difficult to move or even to visit another country unless you can be reasonably assured that your health care needs will be met there in a way that will not bankrupt you. One of the features of the UK’s Brexit deal was to preserve some reciprocal arrangements on health care, but when people turn 70 the additional insurance they need can still be expensive and can limit the time that they are covered when abroad. So, if we want to promote access to free movement as a human good, then we also have to think about the kind of arrangements that permit those who are not young or able-bodied to travel elsewhere.

Chris Bertram is Emeritus Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at the University of Bristol. He is the author of ‘Do States Have the Right to Exclude Immigrants?’ (2018, Polity Press) and a regular contributor to the Crooked Timber blog.

This post was originally published on the Crooked Timber blog on 3rd April 2022.

Migrants and miners: gender, age and precarious labour in a Tajik resource extractive landscape

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

By Negar Elodie Behzadi.

Migration is both gendered and aged. It is also deeply tied to the emergence of new extractive landscapes around the world, marked by extractive frontiers pushing into already stressed and fragile environments.  The story of the village of Kante in Tajikistan, of its male migrants and its coal miners – men, women and children – illustrates the ways in which multiple forms of precarious labour appear alongside these new landscapes.

The village of Kante, Tajikistan, 2014

In Tajikistan, a landlocked country in post-Soviet Muslim Central Asia, men started migrating seasonally for work following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. In Kante, a village of 1,500 inhabitants on the slopes of the Fann Mountains, 2,000m above sea level, the men gradually began leaving a derelict landscape and a run-down collective tobacco farm. Like most Tajik male seasonal migrants, they left for Russia to find new livelihoods and to escape a country torn by civil war. During the seven years of conflict, which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, men who did not fight travelled as far as the Kamchatka peninsula in search of work. Some Kantegui mountaineers became fishermen. Others went to Moscow, Sverlovsk, Irskuk and other big Russian cities to do ‘mardikor’ (the work of men) on construction sites.

Young boys coming back from the mines with coal bags on donkeys, 2014

When the war ended, some men came back to Kante, only to find destroyed infrastructure, abandoned fields and an uncertain future. So most returned to Russia. In Kante, as in the rest of Tajikistan, migration became a way of life and a rite of passage – every real man in Tajikistan has migrated, provided for his family back home, drunk alcohol in overcrowded compounds, travelled illegally through borders. Some have slept with Russian women, fallen in love, even taken a second Russian wife, leaving a Tajik wife back home (Behzadi, 2019). Life has also changed for those referred to as ‘the left-behind’. Women, children and the elderly live without husbands, fathers or sons for most of the year. Men become absences, photos, voices down the phone, heroic stories, the amount of remittances arriving at the Western Union in the local town.

Unlike villages in the rest of the country, however, Kantegui men have an alternative to migration. The village lies on one of the largest coal reserves in the country. After the fall of the Soviet Union, families started digging up the mountain with pickaxes to extract coal, using donkeys to haul their load. At first, families extracted the coal for subsistence, but later they started selling it on a growing informal market. This coincided with a broader turn to coal as a major source of energy across the country. Following Uzbek/Tajik resource conflicts, Uzbekistan shut off the pipeline providing Tajikistan with gas in 2012/13, leading to a new Tajikistani coal development strategy (Behzadi, 2019). The same year, a formal Sino-Tajik mine was established in the village, which blew up the Southern slope of the mountain with dynamite. The rolling stones and big machinery crushed some of the donkeys of the informal miners and damaged their houses. The company brought in engineers and managers from China and pushed informal miners away.

Map of informal and formal mining areas in Kante, 2018

In 2014, around 300 men from Kante and neighbouring villages worked in the formal Sino-Tajik mine. Most Kantegui miners in the ‘Chinese’ mine were men who had retired from migration, tired of the back and forth between Russia and the village. In their 30s and 40s, these men had nothing to prove anymore – they were the ‘djahon didir’ (those who have seen the world) who had come back to a quieter life (Behzadi, 2019). But the formal mine does not offer jobs to all. Those who do not work for the Chinese carry on splitting their year between labour migration to Russia in spring and summer and informal coal mining in autumn and winter. In 2014, around 500 men were working in the informal mines. The hardship of their labour and the simplicity of their tools contrasted with the relative ease of labour in the Chinese mine. Although less arduous, however, work for the Chinese project is a mixed blessing: precarious contracts, unpaid salaries and difficult relationships with Chinese managers take their toll in other ways. And the trade-off is significant: men who accept work for the Chinese mine know it is threatening the very existence of their village. The Chinese are ‘taking all our coal’, many villagers say, in particular the informal miners. Part of the informal mines have already been destroyed, and they fear that the whole village might follow.

Sino-Tajik mine containers in Kante, 2014

Like migration, extractive labour in mines is gendered and aged. Women and children cannot work in the Sino-Tajik mine, but they do work in informal mines. In the past decade about 20 women have been going mining every day high above the village, and sometimes at night when they know they can go unseen. Some of their husbands, like Nadirah’s (a female miner in her 30s), left the country straight after their wedding and took a second wife in Russia. Now he sends only sporadic remittances. Nadirah goes mining with a friend and her daughter who is 13. Her work is considered ‘ayb’ (shameful) in the village and, as a result, Nadirah is stigmatised and excluded from social networks. But while it is considered unacceptable for women to work underground, it is tolerated for children. Most children start at the age of five, leading the donkey in and out of the coal galleries to the market while their parents extract the mineral on the coalface. ‘Coal,’ says Gulnissar, a mother of a 10-year-old child coal miner, ‘there is only coal in children’s heads today.’

Male seasonal labour migration, the ‘shameful’ work of female miners and the spread of child mining comprise a few of the many precarious forms of labour that emerge in new extractive landscapes around the world. The story of Kante illustrates the fragmentation of societies along gendered and aged lines that occurs in such extractive landscapes. These new extractive frontiers also often emerge in places that are already socio-ecologically stressed, such as in the countries that emerged following the fall of the Soviet Union.  

Negar Elodie Behzadi is a Lecturer in Human Geography at the School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol. She is a feminist political geographer and political ecologist who explores questions of resource extraction and migration in Tajikistan and France. She has also co-directed two ethnographic films on resource extraction in Tajikistan: Komor: Journeys through the Tajik Underground and Nadirah: Coal Woman.

(All images by the author.)