Queer liberalisms and marginal mobility – special issue and interview series

By Mengia Tschalaer.

To live a life in fear of violence, incarceration, torture, excommunication and isolation is a reality for many lesbian, gay, trans*, bi, intersex and non-binary persons worldwide. Homosexuality is criminalized in 77 countries, out of which seven apply the death penalty. According to the UNHCR, the number of persons who flee their country due to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and who qualify for protection as ‘members of a particular social group’ under the 1951 Refugee Convention has increased.

The criminalization of homosexuality has generally decreased over the last two decades, but the rise of populist and authoritarian politics in large parts of Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Russia and Southeast Asia currently fuels anti-LGBTQI+ attitudes and politics. In addition, many of the colonial anti-LGBTQI+ penal laws that up to this day populate constitutional and criminal law legislations in South Asia, the MENA region, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia are currently experiencing a revival in the context of the rise of religious fundamentalism and authoritarianism. Similarly, Europe and North America, two world regions that have so far been associated with their ‘progressive’ views on LGBTQI+ issues, seem to be backtracking by issuing restrictive case laws, exerting violence and expressing fierce opposition to LGBTQI+ anti-discrimination laws.

It is within such politically and socially charged contexts that Fadi Saleh (University of Göttingen), Bridget Anderson (MMB, University of Bristol) and I (City University of New York/University of Bristol) have imagined our special issue on ‘Queer Liberalisms and Marginal Mobility’, which will be published by Ethnic and Racial Studies in 2022. Prior to this, we are all taking part in an interview series this month that covers many of the themes touched on in the papers of the special issue (further details below).

An interview series in April 2021 explores the themes of the special issue

The special issue addresses queer migration through the intersectional lens of queer liberalisms, authoritarianism and marginal mobilities. Globally, LGBTIQ+ rights form an inherent part of human rights discourse and politics. At the same time, this very human rights language is increasingly used by nation-states to defend their borders, control migration flows and intensify discrimination and prejudice against the ‘other’. Queer migration scholarship has therefore maintained a critical approach to such forms of national queer liberalism, which risk marginalizing LGBTIQ+ refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers.

The aim of this special issue is to unpack the tenuous relationship between politics of queer liberalisms and securitization within contested political contexts in the Global South and North by thinking about the ways in which the precarity of ‘marginal mobility’ (Kalčić et. al. 2013) for LGBTIQ+ persons on the move is produced within different (trans-)national contexts. Focusing on the changing mobility dynamics for LGBTIQ+ people on the move in the aftermath of pivotal recent events such as the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015-16, Trump’s presidency and the rise of authoritarianism worldwide, the contributions in this special issue examine the interconnectedness of queer mobilities across and within different geographical contexts.

In so doing, we ask: How has the contentious terrain between political queer liberalisms, the racialization of borders, and (im)migration politics and policies changed? What effects did the recent developments in LGBTIQ+ human rights discourses have on migration and asylum politics, representations and policies? What types of new marginal mobilities have emerged and how can we rethink theoretical and methodological frameworks to these different types of mobility?

To answer these questions, this special issue brings into conversation queer migration scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds (anthropology, political science, sociology, security studies) whose work critically interrogates the many ways those transnational events transformed asylum and migration politics and policies and engages new analytical approaches to better address emerging issues and challenges facing LGBTIQ+ people on the move. In centralizing ‘marginal mobility’ as a concept – nationally and transnationally – this special issue aims to expand the purview of mobilities to include not only border-crossing (United States, Mexico, Germany), but also questions of migration and displacement within a given nation-state (United States) and mobilities within contexts that are often marginalized in academic research on queerness and migration, such as Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. Furthermore, the special issue foregrounds trans and non-binary migrants and refugees’ experiences of marginal mobility, thereby simultaneously challenging the often cis-homocentric and Eurocentric perspectives and views that continue to dominate queer migration scholarship.

For instance, Eithne Luibheid (University of Arizona) and Samuel Ritholz (Oxford University) explore the way in which queer persons in the United States, and particularly those with precarious immigration status, experience marginalization by means of anti-gay and anti-trans legislations, anti-immigration attitudes and policies, the carceral state as well as within families and communities. The papers authored by Fadi Saleh (University of Göttingen) and Razan Ghazzawi (University of Sussex) explore the experiences of Syrian LGBTQI+ persons on the move in the context of the UNHCR-led asylum selection process in Turkey and in the context of the Syrian and Palestinian diaspora in Beirut, Lebanon, respectively.

Martha Balaguera (University of Toronto) and myself are looking at asylum processes as a sexualized system and discuss them as gendered processes that shape LGBTQI+ persons’ experiences seeking asylum and waiting in Mexico and the United States (Balaguera) and Germany (Tschalaer). Ailsa Winton’s (independent researcher) paper takes us to Central America where she examines the manner in which labour precarity shapes mobility of trans women. Meanwhile, the paper authored by Anna Carastathis and Myrto Tsilimpounidi (Feminist Autonomous Center for Research, Athens, Greece) homes in on the question of representation in humanitarian discourse and imagery which, they argue, by and large rely on and portray a heteronormative understanding of vulnerability and pain. Lastly Bridget Anderson (University of Bristol) concludes the Special Issue with an afterword that offers some thoughts on what we can learn from queering the intersection of asylum, citizenship and ‘internal’ mobility.

If you want to get a glimpse into the themes and topics this special issue addresses before its launching in Spring 2022, we warmly invite you to join us for our Queer Liberalisms and Marginal Mobility interview series. This will take place every Friday in April 2021 from 5-6pm GMT (12-1pm EDT). The series is a collaboration between the Barnard Digital Humanities Center and the Barnard Center for Research on Women at Columbia University, the Queer European Asylum Network and Migration Mobilities Bristol.

Mengia Tschalaer is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Political Science at City University of New York and an Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. 

Charting mobilities, intellectual histories and the Black Humanities

By Madhu Krishnan.

The October 2018 issue of the Chimurenga Chronic, originally a quarterly (and now occasional) broadsheet produced by the Cape Town based Chimurenga collective, opens with a two-page spread titled ‘The African Imagination of a Borderless World’ . This title piece is comprised of two texts placed in juxtaposition. The first, a map titled On Circulations and the African Imagination of a Borderless World’, serves as an ad hoc depiction of intellectual, cultural and political networks that spread across the globe, encompassing the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia, tracing the movement of thought, ideas and anticipatory projections of the world across shifting pan-African movements over time. Here, for instance, it is possible to watch as mid-century Pan-Africanism flows into Congolese rhumba, in turn flowing into the post-Bandung Afro-Asian movement, then Marxism, then Cultural Studies and the work of Stuart Hall.

Front cover of the Chronic, October 2018

Accompanying this is a second text, titled ‘The Idea of a Borderless World’ by Achille Mbembe. Here, Mbembe sets his aims – aims which serve as an echo of the rest of the issue – in plain terms, stating his desire ‘to see whether and under what conditions we could re-engineer the utopia of a borderless world, and by extension, a borderless world, since, as far as I know, Africa is part of the world. And the world is part of Africa’. For Mbembe, as for the Chronic more broadly, this attempt, to see and to imagine and, by so doing, to return Africa to its place in the world, of the world and as the world, cannot be decoupled from its longer histories.

These histories are well known: the pillaging of the continent and expropriation of its resources; the colonial interruption; the long-term impact of enslavement and the trafficking of enslaved persons; the parcelling out of the continent amongst imperial powers in Berlin; forced migration, displacement and brain drain. Perhaps less known is the extent to which Africa’s intellectual resources, too, have been blighted by their exploitation under multinational capital and neoliberalisation, including the patenting by pharmaceutical corporations of traditional practices, and sometimes farcical attempts to monetise culture (best characterised, perhaps, by Disney registering to trademark the expression ‘hakuna matata’, a phrase which, incidentally, no Kiswahili speaker would actually say). In sum, as the South African critic Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni argues, the continent’s place in the world can be characterized by its marginalization under the three faces of coloniality: the coloniality of power, the coloniality of knowledge and the coloniality of being.

And yet, there are other ways of conceiving of the continent beyond the commonly-held deficit view, even while recognising the material injustices that it has survived. It is precisely this task that the October 2018 issue of the Chronic partakes in, constituting an intellectual history and cartography of the world from an African centre of origin. Borders, boundaries and entrapments: the trappings of coloniality, on the one hand; versus networks, circulation and flow: the concept of the boundary, the border, not as immutable, impenetrable, but as permeable, evolving and in flux, a radically decolonial mode of knowledge production, on the other. This is a task made all the more urgent given how, as Sylvia Tamale reminds us, ‘colonial intellectualism deliberately denigrated Indigenous oral traditions and wisdom as illegitimate methodologies and tools of storing records’, enabling the perpetuation of the myth of African peoples as outside of history, outside of the world, static and fixed.

The editors of the Chronic position the October 2018 issue as ‘part of an ever growing library that re-images our world beyond so-called progressive discourse on “freedom of movement” and “no borders” against the backdrop of deeply Western individualist thinking’. In this respect, ‘The African Imagination of a Borderless World’ is an exemplar of the kinds of intellectual production that undergirds the larger project of the Black Humanities. This line of intellectual recuperation is one that relies, moreover, on the reconfiguration of the borders and boundaries that are perceived as absolute. By re-constituting an archive of knowledge(s), movements and circulations of understanding, which have been effaced under coloniality, the Chronic participates in the effort to make visible the temporalities, genealogies and modalities that have always arisen from the intellectual and cultural labour of Black and African peoples. This is a kind of knowledge production that travels and is characterised by mobilities and circulations, which defy the rigid topographies of colonialism/coloniality in favour of an ungovernable vision of space and time that is, all the same, productive of a logic of its own.

The Chronic thus provides one small example of the ways in which cultural study and the Black Humanities can offer us ways of understanding intellectual histories and intellectual mappings whose own movements might be unexpected, unorthodox or function outside of the typical boundaries of the academy. Projects like the Chronic, which is one amongst many instances of independent cultural and intellectual production from the African continent and its diasporas, illustrate the urgency of transversal approaches to the archive, to bibliography and to our concept of the library more widely. At the same time, these projects are not merely abstract: to return to Mbembe’s ‘The Idea of a Borderless World’, they speak directly to the African continent’s place in the world and the world’s place within it, with all of the material impact that may have.

Madhu Krishnan is Professor of African, World and Comparative Literature in the Department of English, and Director of the Centre for Black Humanities, University of Bristol.

The front cover of the October 2018 issue of the Chimurenga Chronic is published here with permission of the Chimurenga collective.


Deporting Black Britons: mobility and race-making in the life stories of criminalised ‘deportees’

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

By Luke de Noronha.

My recently published book, Deporting Black Britons: Portraits of Deportation to Jamaica (2020, Manchester University Press), traces the life stories of people who have been exiled from their homes in Britain. The four men who feature most prominently in the book all moved to the UK as children, and lived here for half their lives before being deported. Now in Jamaica, where I met them, they struggle to rebuild and to survive. Importantly, they were all deported because of criminal convictions. Clearly, the deportation of criminalised black men raises urgent questions about the relationship between racism and immigration control in contemporary Britain.

In the book, I try to move beyond arguments that say immigration controls are racist because they are enforced in racially discriminatory ways. More than this, the very terrain in which racial difference becomes meaningful is thoroughly structured by immigration restriction and the legal borders of citizenship. In other words, immigration and citizenship policies work to nationalise and racialise the population and its ‘culture’, defining the nation as a ‘community of value’ through the exclusion of what it is not. Bordering practices do not merely reflect racial hierarchies, then, they (re)make them, and this matters when we try to evaluate what ‘race’ has to do with migration. 

To think in complex ways about the relationship between ‘race’ and migration, I have found it useful to think about mobility – or more precisely differential (im)mobilities, following Mimi Sheller. It bears repeating that racial difference is not reducible to skin colour. Skin colour is not the cause of racial difference but one of its markers, and skin colour difference is made meaningful, and weighed down, by the reality of material inequalities between differently racialised people. These material differences are not only about wealth, but also correspond to who can move, how and with what effects. Thought this way, the government of mobility is central to the processes through which racial categories are produced and reconfigured, given life and social meaning in the present. This does not mean that ‘race’ and mobility are directly correlated. It is not as if those who cannot move are necessarily black, or that those who can are necessarily white, but it does mean that racialised social relations are substantially constituted by relations of mobility.

In my conversations with the men in this book, it became clear that the racialisation of black people in Britain is constituted by the policing of mobility. What are incessant stop and searches, and wider police harassment, for example, if not the surveillance and policing of (black) mobility? In the book, this emerges most sharply in relation to Ricardo’s story, who between the ages of 15 and 18 was harassed almost whenever he left the house, arrested countless times and detained in police stations, always without being charged. As a teenager without a criminal record, he had a personal officer visit him at home, every day, to check up on him. And because of his apparent ‘anti-social behaviour’, and his repeated arrests for robbery, his movements and associations were restricted. The terms of his anti-social behaviour order (ASBO) stated that he could not go to certain areas, especially places where he had been arrested, like West Bromwich town centre in the West Midlands. There were also buses he could not take because the route went through areas he was banned from, and the police gave him a printed map with highlighted pen marking the areas he could and could not enter, the streets he could and could not walk down.

In Jamaica, too, what it means to be black, or to be from ‘the ghetto’, or to be a Jamaican citizen in the world are all constituted by relations of mobility. The distinctions between black, brown and white in Jamaica, and between local and tourist, would not hold for long, or in the same ways, if the organisation of mobility shifted, and if different groups were afforded greater or lesser access to mobility. If Jamaica’s economy was governed not to export single commodities or package tourism, but to nurture liveable lives and ecologies on the island, then racialised social hierarchies would be transformed along with relations of mobility. If, somehow, the majority of black Jamaicans were able to move freely around the planet, not to toil as disposable migrant labour but simply to wander and travel, then it is hard to imagine that they would describe racism and historical injustice in quite the same way. What makes slavery so resonant for so many Jamaicans today is material hardship in the context of restricted mobility and global marginality.

These historical resonances and continuities are important. However, to talk about contemporary relations of mobility in terms of ‘sufferation’ and the afterlives of slavery should not imply that nothing has changed. The point is that ‘race’ is both deeply sedimented and historically emergent, both persistent and mercurial, heavy and yet slick. The challenge is therefore to work out how racial distinctions and hierarchies are made and remade. The relevant point here is that if racial distinctions and hierarchies are always constituted by differential (im)mobilities, then contemporary modes of governing mobility offer a window onto historically specific configurations of race and racism.

As such, it is not simply that the same groups are being immobilised in the same ways and for the same reasons. It remains true that blackness is constituted by particularly violent forms of enforced (im)mobility, but there is also something emergent and new about the contemporary government of mobility. Bordering practices perpetuate colonial inequalities, but they also produce new forms of racial differentiation and injustice – think about the refugee camp, the bordering of the seas and the implementation of enormous biometric databases, for example, and in the UK context think about new policing powers in the context of Covid, and new technologies of identification and surveillance targeting ‘migrants’ and ‘criminals’ (see Stop and Scan, facial recognition, and the Law Enforcement Data Service).

As economic and ecological crises deepen, and increasing numbers of the global poor are deemed surplus to requirements, the demand for bordering everywhere intensifies. In this context, the racist world order gets reconfigured with terrifying consequences, both familiar and novel. For Achille Mbembe, the contemporary border presents a worrying sign of where the world is going, and therefore anti-racism, as the struggle for liveable futures, will increasingly have to contend with bordering practices. This means theorising racism not only in terms of the legacies of European colonialism but also in relation to the present and future of the border.

Luke de Noronha is a Lecturer in Race, Ethnicity and Postcolonial Studies at the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Racism and Racialisation, University College London. He is the author of ‘Deporting Black Britons: Portraits of Deportation to Jamaica’, and producer of the podcast Deportation Discs.

Deporting Black Britons is available from Manchester University Press. To receive 30% off, use the discount code ‘Deporting30’ at checkout.

Moving difference: Brazilians in London

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

By Angelo Martins Junior.

Portuguese version here.

The freedom to move from place to place is a privilege in today’s world, and so ideas about human mobility and human difference are necessarily interwoven. When white people from the global north move around the world they are typically imagined as tourists, gap-year students, business travellers, expatriates and so on, whereas black and brown people from the global south are thought of as ‘migrants’. Their migrancy – the fact that they have moved – is taken to define them, and they are also frequently represented as homogeneous groups. Academics, as well as policymakers, politicians and journalists, often speak of ‘South Asian migrants’ or ‘asylum-seekers’, for example, as though they constitute one, undifferentiated group of people.

Much has been said about how this tendency to homogenise ‘migrants’ connects to racist stereotyping by anti-migrant thinkers (‘They’ are all criminals and rapists, for example). But amongst those who hold a more positive view of migration, it can be associated with more exoticizing stereotypes. In migration scholarship this has sometimes translated into assumptions about ‘migrant communities’ as bound together by a shared experience of movement or common homeland, acting in solidarity to support one another in the country of destination.

(Image: Routledge)

As a Brazilian working and then studying in London, I was struck by the fact that the academic literature that emphasises commonality and solidarity amongst migrants did not speak to my own experience. This observation prompted the research on Brazilians in London on which my book Moving Difference is based. The research involved ethnographic and interview research with men and women who, whilst all being ‘Brazilian migrants in London’, differed in terms of the regions of Brazil they came from, their socio-economic and educational background, and their racialised identities. Their difference moved with them, shaping not only their reasons for migrating and how they navigate different levels of opportunity and constraint to move, but also the ways in which they see and interact with each other in London. However, Britain has its own social and political hierarchies, and in London, my research participants found themselves not only lumped together as ‘Brazilians’ but also lumped in with global south ‘migrants’ in general.

Moving geographically ruptured the racial privilege of many lighter skinned and white middle-class Brazilians, who had never previously felt it possible that they would be perceived as a de-valued inferior Other, as a ‘social problem’. For them, being positioned as a ‘migrant’ implied the possibility of experiencing classed, ‘racial’ and social degradation. Now they had to negotiate their position on two matrices of difference – one ‘here’ in Britain and one ‘there’ in Brazil. While some did reflect critically on these hierarchies and express political solidarity with other migrants, many of my research participants responded by seeking to distance themselves from stigmatised identities ‘here’ and stressing their superior position ‘there’. They were not the real ‘migrants’, they told me, not poor, uneducated, low skilled, ‘illegal’, promiscuous, or criminal like the other Brazilians in London. They did not wish to live amongst the ‘Brazilian community’ in areas of London where real migrants live but rather in areas where there are just ‘beautiful [in other words, white] people speaking English on the street’, where ‘everything is clean and you don’t see rubbish on the floor, or a bunch of ugly, smelly people that make you feel you are in Africa, not in Europe’.

Moving Difference documents the ways in which Brazilians in London negotiate and recreate difference in terms of class, region, gender, ‘race’, ‘culture’ and documental status and examines the connected histories and social imaginaries of ‘race’ and degradation that allow us to make sense of the very visceral racial, classed, gendered and regional disgust expressed by my Brazilian research participants (especially white and lighter skinned middle-class participants) when speaking of their co-nationals and of other migrants and their ‘spaces’. Although their disgust is expressed ‘here’, in London, the feeling has its origins in the colonial presence of Europeans and enslaved Africans ‘there’, in Brazil – a past hat has historically shaped Brazilian projects of ‘race’ and nation as well as continuing to inflect the lives of Brazilians in London today.

After abolition in 1888 Brazil embarked on a whitening project – influenced by eugenic racial assumptions – which incentivised European immigration as way to ‘civilise’ the new nation by ‘improving’ its mixed ‘blood’. This new population of European (and Japanese) migrants was concentrated almost entirely in the south and south-east of Brazil, regions that, since independence, had acquired the central position in the national economy, especially with the production of coffee and, later, industrialisation. At the same time, without access to land or any form of state compensation, an entire class of black and ‘mixed’ people – the formerly enslaved and their descendants – as well as lighter-skinned poor Brazilians (often from the Northeast) have been marginalised both in the configuration of urban space and in the labour market, dealing with daily exclusion, discrimination, degradation and state violence.

Living as ‘sub-citizens’ in the urban poor peripheries and/or slums of the southern cities, they have been used by the middle class and the elite as a cheap, precarious labour force to undertake the most ‘unqualified’ activities – ‘dirty’ and ‘heavy’ activities for men and domestic and sexual labour for women. They are socially imagined as repulsive bodies, blamed by the middle-class and the elite for Brazil’s supposed failure to become fully developed/modern/civilised, and often executed on the streets by the police. As a way to deal with such historical exclusion, Brazilians constantly negotiate racism through hierarchies of colour/hair and class positioning, attempting to distance themselves from any trace of Blackness/poverty that could lead to their identification as a ‘degraded body’.

Today, Brazil’s colonial and racial histories play an important role both in generating the desire to travel and determining whether and how journeys are undertaken. While many Brazilians believe that moving to London will allow them to achieve the material and cultural ideals of a ‘modern’ Western lifestyle that is impossible to attain in ‘not fully modern’ Brazil, the lighter-skinned descendants of European participants in Brazil’s whitening project enjoy greater freedom of movement in Europe and so find it much easier to realise their ambition to move to London. But once in the UK, they find themselves realigned in the constellation of ideas about race, modernity and human worth in such a way as to stand precariously close to those who are socially imagined as disgusting, degraded, uncivilised. Meanwhile, darker skinned/black and working-class Brazilians who do manage to move to London come to perceive that their physical mobility (previously imagined as a straightforward marker of progress and privilege) also carries the threat of social and racial immobilisation: they might be fixed ‘here’ in ways that they are not rigidly contained ‘there’.

Taking the configuration of the social world as a continuum, made of connections, ambivalences and paradoxes, Moving Difference offers a lens on how the global mobile present is connected to the global legacies of the colonial past. The lives of Brazilians in London shed light on how ‘here’ and ‘there’, ‘present’ and ‘past’, are always entwined – creating and recreating racialised inequalities and difference, including unequal access to the privilege of mobility.

Angelo Martins Junior is a Research Associate in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. He is working on the ERC research project ‘Modern Marronage: the pursuit and practice of freedom in the contemporary world’. 

You can purchase Moving Difference: Brazilians in London through the publisher, Routledge, or through your local, independent bookseller.

A paean to judicial (self) restraint: the UK Supreme Court Shamima Begum decision

By Devyani Prabhat.

The Supreme Court has refused permission for Shamima Begum, who left the UK as a 15-year-old British schoolgirl for Syria in 2015, to come back to the UK so that she can effectively challenge the removal of her citizenship (decision dated 26th February 2021; [2021] UKSC 7). Begum was found in a camp in Syria two years back. The Home Secretary removed her British citizenship soon thereafter, arguing that she has eligibility for Bangladeshi citizenship, and would not be left stateless without British citizenship.

Now the unanimous decision of five judges of the Supreme Court is widely reported to be a win for former home secretary Sajid Javid who had stripped Begum of her citizenship. Yet, is it really a vindication of this action? It is important to recognise that the decision of the Supreme Court is not based on a factual assessment of Begum’s case but only on whether she has to be given permission to return to the UK to participate in an effective and fair manner in the immigration appeal. A limited decision, and by no means a final adjudication on Begum’s deprivation of citizenship case, is what is now available for analysis.

Fair trial?

Those who are concerned about fair trial and other human rights are deeply disappointed at the manner in which the decision declares that fair trial is subject to public safety while staying Begum’s appeal in the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC). In para. 135 the Supreme Court, distinguishing itself from the Court of Appeal, observes that “…. if a vital public interest – in this case, the safety of the public – makes it impossible for a case to be fairly heard, then the courts cannot ordinarily hear it”. Applying this to Begum’s situation, the Court suggests that, “[t]he appropriate response to the problem in the present case is for the appeal to be stayed until Ms Begum is in a position to play an effective part in it without the safety of the public being compromised. That is not a perfect solution, as it is not known how long it may be before that is possible. But there is no perfect solution to a dilemma of the present kind”.

Indeed, this is a far cry from a perfect solution. In the coversheet to the judgment, we find a note on which point 3 is: “The steps taken on behalf of the Secretary of State and Her Majesty’s Government to facilitate Ms Begum’s involvement in the deprivation appeal, as described in the Witness Statements of Lauren Cooper dated 12 October 2020 and 5 November 2020, shall be confidential and no party or other person shall publish or disclose the same.” Given that confidentiality, in the interests of national security, permeates each aspect which could potentially relate to the issue of fair trial, we are only given this tantalising glimpse into future possibilities but are unable to gauge what is truly likely to change in Begum’s situation to allay fair trial concerns.

Review standards

Overall, fair trial, which was the mainstay of the Court of Appeal’s decision, is perhaps surprisingly, not the focus of the legal analysis of this decision. The pronouncements on fair trial appear superfluous as the bulk of the case is not about fair trial at all. The complex legal issues in this case are about appropriate applicable standards of review in various courts. Several paragraphs unpack the separate issues which come to the highest court of the land via appeals but through different pathways. Two of the proceedings are brought in the Supreme Court by the Home Secretary but one is brought by Begum in a cross appeal. Some of the proceedings originate in judicial reviews and some in appeals. Some of the proceedings relate to the decision of the Minister to cancel Begum’s citizenship (on a limited aspect) while others are about the refusal of leave to enter (LTE) which is an immigration decision. Begum would require LTE for returning to the UK to challenge her deprivation order so both deprivation and LTE refusal are linked but distinct legal issues. In Begum’s cross appeal the judges were also clear that just because there may be lack of fairness if she is not present in the UK, Begum cannot automatically win her SIAC appeal solely on that basis. This was the weakest element in Begum’s case and perhaps it dragged down the other issues.

Judicial (self) restraint

Despite the permutations and combinations of the pathways, subject matter, and person raising the issues in question, the Supreme Court arrives at a strangely uniform view on judicial oversight over decisions in the area of deprivation matters in all instances. In every consideration it appears the court is of the view that it, or any other court (SIAC, Divisional Court or the Court of Appeal), cannot fully review the Home Secretary’s decision making. What this decision is then, in effect, is not any major pronouncement on right to nationality (or restrictions on it), statelessness (or its cross-links with citizenship), human rights issues (as connected to citizenship) or even on how counter-terrorism matters should be reviewed when there are issues of human rights at stake. Instead, it is a paean to judicial (self) restraint which renders the Supreme Court, and all the other courts with any involvement in this matter of Begum, impotent on the issue of review of ministerial discretion and action through its highly restrictive approach.

In order to justify why an appeal, which ordinarily has a more expansive remit than a judicial review proceeding, cannot adopt a close scrutiny of the deprivation decision, Lord Reed relies on an understanding that a proceeding which is called an appeal is not necessarily one in which an appellate review (full merits review) will always take place (para. 69). Here the subject matter is of critical importance according to Lord Reed. The Supreme Court opines that appeals, such as of the nature in which the SIAC is engaged in, can be restricted by inherent limitations to review powers such as those placed on courts by separation of powers. Courts have to respect executive authority in matters of national security and thereby rely on the discretion of the Home Secretary. Further, the Supreme Court drew on unreasonableness as a standard of review for exercise of ministerial discretion. Unreasonableness is much maligned for its restrictive nature in administrative review, sets a very high bar for any challenge. To use this standard, especially in the context of rights which are of an absolute (or not limited) nature such as Art 2 and Art 3 of the ECHR is a death knell for human rights in the context of national security.

SIAC and review

In the past, SIAC has rarely engaged with full factual analysis, at least in rulings which it makes public. My own research has shown how several human rights issues, such as the right to life, right to be free from torture and right to family life have not been fully evaluated on their merits by SIAC. However, now such issues are even less likely to be agitated in the SIAC as the Supreme Court judges disagreed with the Court of Appeal on the role of the SIAC in national security matters. The Court of Appeal had reminded SIAC that it is an appeals court which should conduct a full review by assessing all the facts in a case itself, rather than relying on the decisions of other courts or bodies. But the Supreme Court decides that the SIAC could not do so in the current instance. Not surprisingly, in this situation, the Home Secretary becomes the sole custodian of the details of decision-making and evidence based on which action has been taken.

No precedent value

Many more legal twists and turns are still likely in Begum’s case but now is an opportune moment to raise a question which is surely relevant: how would any person challenging a ministerial decision in the context of counter-terrorism, where they are excluded from the factual scenario because of national security reasons, gain enough information about the reasonableness or unreasonableness of a ministerial decision or action? The exceptional framing of the case where no particular facts of Begum’s situation are revealed means its applicability to future cases is limited.

It is for this reason that this decision, despite coming from a unanimous bench at the highest court of this land, is unlikely to have much precedent value as it seems very much related to the new circumstances the government is likely to have presented to the court for potentially satisfying fair trial requirements in the future. Such circumstances, not on record for open justice, can hardly be generalisable to other cases where again similar issues may arise. And given the manner in which it leaves fair trial rights hanging, that is the best possible legacy of this case. It is far worse if this case is now cited for its pronouncements on fair trial in future cases.

Devyani Prabhat is a Professor in Law at the University of Bristol Law School with legal practice experience in Constitutional Law. Her recent book, Britishness, Belonging and Citizenship: Experiencing Nationality Law (2018, Policy Press), is available on open access.

This blog post was first published by Verfassungsblog on 3rd March 2021.

National sovereignty and postcolonial racism

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


By Nandita Sharma.

A focus on migration, mobility and ideas of ‘race’ are crucial aspects of nationalist thought and practice. Indeed, today, racism operates through nationalism. Yet, while racism has been largely delegitimised, nationalism has not. The delegitimisation of racism does not mean that it no longer exists. Quite the contrary: racism continues to deform our lives but is not, for the main part, carried out through laws that categorise people into distinct ‘races’ who are singled out for negative, discriminatory treatment. It is common for most people espousing racist views and actions to run away from the label ‘racist’ and, instead, to insist that they are anything but.

Case in point: early on in his presidency, former-US President Donald Trump, in response to questions posed by ITV host Piers Morgan, argued that, ‘I’m the least racist person anybody is going to meet.’ Trump insisted upon this in reference to his re-tweeting of three videos made by a group called Britain First in November 2017. Britain First, whose name is congruent with Trump’s own slogan of ‘America First’, is a fascist political organisation formed in 2011 by former members of the British National Party. Their motto, ‘Britain First: Taking Our Country Back’, is largely aimed at legitimising the violent targeting Muslims living in the UK, many of whom are British citizens. As the Washington Post reported, ‘in the case of these three videos, the intended message seems to be that “Muslims are dangerous people.” But these videos appeared to be selected at random, offered without context or original sourcing, and are months, if not years, old. They depict people who may or may not be Muslim, inflicting harm on people who also may or may not be Muslim.’ It added, ‘this is what propaganda looks like.’

In Britain First’s and Trump’s own ‘America First’ rhetoric, as well as in all its other manifestations, what grounds racism is nationalism. Nationalism spatialises and territorialises ideas of ‘race’ by transforming the land (and water and air) that provides the basis of people’s ability to live into the territory of a nationally sovereign state. While state practices of territorialising land is an integral part of what states do (even when the territory is not always clearly mapped out), nationalism fuels claims that there exists some sort of natural link between a specified group of people (i.e. The People) and a certain specified place. Consequently, each ‘nation’ imagines that it has its own place on earth.

(Image: Duke University Press)

In Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants (2020), I investigate how the current political order of nation-states institutionalises the notion that each ‘people’ has its own place in the world by limiting access to national citizenship and authorised immigration.

This national regime of governmentality, which I term the Postcolonial New World Order, co-opted radical anti-colonial demands and replaced them with demands for national sovereignty. Calls for ‘national self-determination’, I argue, perverted demands for the return of expropriated land and for the freedom of labour from exploitative class relations. Instead of decolonisation, people got the postcolonial rule of nation-states. Nationally sovereign states have not only continued the work of imperial-states to organise the global accumulation of capital, their policies (both ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’) have led to the enormous expansion of such practices. Since the start of the Postcolonial New World Order, more people and more land (and air and water) have been brought into capitalist social relations than ever before. Hardly an inch of our world has been spared. Under the rule of postcolonialism, disparities between the rich and the poor – and between Rich and Poor Worlds – have intensified.

In the Postcolonial New World Order, the national mechanism of limiting rights and entitlements according to one’s citizenship and immigration status not only organises racism but also legitimises it. We live in a system of global apartheid, one that rarely codifies ‘race’ in the law but relies instead on ideas of the ‘right’ of national sovereigns to determine membership in the national political community. There is very little outcry of this legislated system of discrimination and injustice even though, as economist Branko Milanovic (2015) points out, one’s nationality is the single-most consequential factor in predicting how well and for how long one lives. In this postcolonial world of nation-states, who gets to be a ‘national’ – and who does not – is therefore an important and hotly contested site of political struggle. In this sense, anti-immigration politics is a structural component of the Postcolonial New World Order and it takes many guises.

Today, across the world and across the Left-Right political spectrum, nationalism is hardening. For a growing number of people and polities, it is not enough for one to be a citizen (even as citizenship becomes more difficult to obtain or even to keep); one must also be seen to be a member of the Native people of the nationalised ‘soil’. By mobilising a discourse of autochthony (or native-ness), today’s National-Natives contrast themselves against allochthons (or people from someplace else). Because of their association with mobility, the figure of the Migrant becomes the quintessential non-Native and is portrayed as being ‘out of place’. Mobility is not really the issue as people can be made into Migrants regardless of whether they have ever left the nationalised territory under question. What matters is the racist idea of ‘blood’ (now sanitised through terms like ‘indigeneity’ or ‘ancestorship’ or ‘genealogy’). Across the world of nation-states, disputes over land, water, jobs, voting rights, political office and more are being fought over who is and is not a National-Native.

We can see this in the politics of Britain First or America First. Britain First is a political party whose ‘principles’ include a commitment: ‘to preserving our British cultural heritage, traditions, customs and values.’ These, they believe are under threat by ‘immigrants’ (many of whom are, in fact, co-British citizens). Britain First views immigration to be the ‘colonisation of our homeland’, which weakens the Christian ‘foundation of our society and culture.’ A large part of Britain First’s activities appears to be ‘mosque invasions’ where, under the banner of ‘no more mosques’, ‘they confront imams and worshippers, insisting they accept copies of army-issue bibles.’

But it is not only on the far-right that we see such politics. The legal and/or social separation of National-Natives and Migrants animates deadly conflicts around the world from what is widely seen as the world’s latest genocide in Myanmar (formerly Burma) to one of the best-studied examples of recent genocides, the 1994 Rwanda genocide. In both nation-states, the violence is instituted by those constituting themselves as National-Natives fighting threats to ‘national society’ by ‘colonising Migrants.’ In less lethal but still highly consequential fashion, the nationalist politics of autochthony is evident in struggles over who is and is not a member of ‘Indigenous Nations’ in Canada and the US.

Yet, however much nationalists proclaim that whoever they see as their members are ‘equal,’ nowhere is this true. Nevertheless, the nationalist myth that, ‘we are all in it together’ remains the cross-class rationale for national sovereignty. Because there needs to be some reason that ‘we’ members of the ‘nation’ remain unequal, nationalisms rely on racism and sexism to mark those who are said to be the cause of all national miseries. Nationalists maintain that ‘we’ would all be well-off were it not for outsiders ruining ‘our nation’. This is what gives constant life to evermore vociferous anti-migrant policies.

Nandita Sharma is an activist scholar and Professor at the Sociology Department at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. She was invited to be a Benjamin Meaker Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Bristol in 2020 but postponed it due to the Global Covid-19 pandemic.

You can purchase Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants through the publisher, Duke University Press, or through your local, independent bookseller. In the US, Bookshop is a good alternative to Amazon.

MMB good reads on race, nation and migration

A new blog series reframing thinking on movement and racism.

Introduced by Julia O’Connell Davidson and Bridget Anderson.

Not so long ago, many liberal thinkers in countries of the global north were comfortable narrating the story of liberal societies as a romance in which enlightened heroes gradually overcame the forces of barbarism. It was a tale with an emotionally satisfying ‘happily ever after’ ending. But over the past decade, a series of developments and events have seemingly broken with the ending foretold by this version of the story of liberalism. Rather than reflecting a vision of liberal democracies as having evolved into progressive, prosperous, tolerant, stable, unified and safe nations, news feeds in Europe and North America have increasingly presented a picture of chaos and division: neo-Nazis on the march, thousands of migrants and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean and Aegean, many more in squalid makeshift camps in Europe, children in cages at the US-Mexico border, Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, dwindling trust in democratic institutions, the COVID-19 pandemic, the brutal police murder of George Floyd, and the list could go on.

Mural in Roma Sur, Mexico City (image: Alejandro Cartagena on Unsplash).

As a result, many Europeans and North Americans now have a sense that liberal democratic societies are ‘in crisis’. Race and migration figure prominently in political and media debate on this ‘crisis’, but the relationship between the two is contested. Indeed, the idea that popular and political anxieties about migration have anything to do with race is seen as controversial by mainstream thinkers. Those who make the connection are often said to be misrepresenting and seeking to suppress ‘legitimate concerns’ about migration, namely, the kind of concerns that led in 2019 to the European Commission vice president in charge of migration and skilled labour being given the job title ‘protecting our European way of life’. But the relationship is complicated, even for scholars and activists working on questions of migration and mobility who wish to address, rather than sidestep or deny it.

This series of MMB good reads on race, nation and migration features blog posts by the authors of books we believe can contribute to framing our thinking on the relationship between these subjects. It is not a complete or definitive reading list (we hope to add to it over time), but it highlights some works that:

  • theorise the centrality of racialised mobility controls to the current political order of nation states and their ‘people’ (Nandita Sharma, Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants [2020], Radhika Mongia, Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State [2018], Luke de Noronha, Deporting Black Britons: Portraits of Deportation to Jamaica [2020]);
  • explore the intersections of gender and race, and public and private, in the discourses and practices through which ‘citizens’ and ‘Others’ are produced (Rachel Humphris, Home-Land: Romanian Roma, Domestic Spaces and the State [2019], Denise Noble, Decolonizing and Feminizing Freedom: A Caribbean Genealogy [2020]);
  • remind us that histories of colonialism mean that in many cases ‘migrants’ were differently positioned in social hierarchies of class and race before they moved, and their differences move with them (Angelo Martins Junior, Moving Difference: Brazilians in London [2020]);
  • question the idea that there is anything novel about the current ‘crisis’ and associated articulations of racist anti-migrant sentiment and policy (Maya Goodfellow, Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats [2019], Nicholas De Genova, The Borders of ‘Europe’: Autonomy of Migration, Tactics of Bordering [2017], Nadine El-Enany, (B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire [2020]).

Our reading list also includes works that, even though they do not directly engage with migration, we think could help hone analyses of the relationship between race and migration, namely, the theoretical lens on racial liberalism provided by Charles Mills in Black Rights/White Wrongs (2017), and that on race, space, place and belonging offered by Nirmal Puwar in Space Invaders (2004).

We hope you’ll find the blogs, and the books, as illuminating as we do.

Julia O’Connell Davidson is Professor in Social Research in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. She is MMB’s Anti-Racism Strategic Lead and is currently leading the ERC-funded research project ‘Modern Marronage? The Pursuit and Practice of Freedom in the Contemporary World.’


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


Migrant deaths and the impact on those left behind

By Samuel Okyere.

On 28 November 2020, the BBC, Guardian and other media outlets in the UK and elsewhere reported the tragic story of Rasul Nezhad, his wife, Shiva Mohammad Panahi, and their children, Anita and Armin. They were a Kurdish-Iranian family who drowned while attempting to cross the English Channel from France to the UK in search of better lives. Approximately a year earlier, on 23 October 2019, 39 Vietnamese nationals suffered similarly tragic fates when they died through asphyxiation in a refrigerated lorry in which they were being smuggled into the UK.

In both cases government officials, law enforcement officers and some media accounts portrayed the issue primarily as the outcome of malicious traffickers and smugglers and hence the need to stop their operations, severely punish those apprehended and strengthen sea patrols and border checks to prevent perilous crossings. As observed elsewhere, these narratives reflect states’ reluctance to acknowledge the darker side of their border control and immigration policies. Conveniently attributing these tragedies to smugglers and traffickers is an attempt to draw public attention away from the long-standing and ever-expanding body of evidence on the strong causal linkages between, on the one hand, oppressive immigration regimes and border controls and, on the other, irregular mobility and related deaths.

Shipwrecked boats used by migrants are abandoned next to the ‘Lifejacket Graveyard’ on the island of Lesbos, Greece, 2018 (image: Fotomovimiento).

Investigations and accounts by migrants who have crossed or attempted to cross the English Channel, the Mediterranean Sea, US-Mexico border and other border areas show that most people attempting these dangerous journeys with the support of smugglers do so because they are prevented from using regular, safer and often less expensive means. This situation represents a moral and legal outrage that requires urgent redress. Since 2000, data from the IOM’s missing migrants project shows that globally at least 46,000 migrants have died along these perilous routes. Thus far in 2021, at least 75 migrants have already died who need not have. These grim figures only account for those whose deaths are witnessed or whose bodies are found, identified and duly recorded. Many deceased migrants’ bodies remain unidentified, while others go missing during their journeys and their whereabouts remain unknown to their families and loved ones.

I have recently compiled a report for the IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC) as part of this organisation’s efforts to improve public and policy understanding of this issue, with emphasis on the needs of families affected by these tragedies. The IOM GMDAC project involves interviews with families and loved ones of lost or deceased migrants in Spain, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and the United Kingdom: its findings are currently undergoing analysis so cannot be elaborated upon here. However, as lead researcher for the UK arm of the project, an important lesson from this work is that the needs of lost, deceased or missing migrants’ relatives and loved ones are still poorly understood, having been peripheral to migration and rights discussions to date.

The objective of this blog is therefore to shed light on this issue. The existing research shows that families and loved ones of lost and missing migrants or those known to have perished in the course of their journeys endure immense adverse emotional and socio-economic impacts from the often-tragic circumstances of their loved ones’ deaths. Surviving families and loved ones suffer insomnia, extreme anxiety, PTSD and other forms of severe psychological stress as well-illustrated by the testimonies of relatives and friends of the Kurdish-Iranian family and the Vietnamese nationals.

Beyond the emotional and psychological effects, relatives and loved ones also suffer major economic and social impacts. This is because migrants do not always travel in search of better lives and opportunities only for themselves. Many often do so in the hope of being able to support their relatives and loved ones back home through the possibility of sending back remittances or paying for those left behind to join them once they are settled. It is not uncommon, therefore, that families sell their property, contract substantial loans or enter into massive debt agreements to fund these journeys.

Those whose loved ones perish or go missing thus face emotional anguish coupled with the socio-economic and cultural impacts of loans that need repaying, loss of property and other arrangements that were necessitated by the migrant’s journey. In some communities, death certificates or confirmation of death cannot be issued until the deceased’s body has been found. Where this is not possible, spouses who have been left behind (often women) may not be permitted to remarry or access widows’ allowances, inheritance and other rights for which confirmation of their migrant husband’s death is needed. Furthermore, as shown by the accounts of those interviewed after the deaths of the Kurdish-Iranian family and Vietnamese nationals, the media and social commentary on the tragic consequences faced by migrants can risk further traumatising those whose loved ones have suffered such fates. This is largely because many of those affected lack the relevant psychosocial support required to deal with the tragedy of a death or the stress of not knowing what has happened to their relative.

In conclusion, the cases of the Iranian family, the 39 Vietnamese and those of the many other migrants who have suffered these tragic fates once again bring into focus the multifaceted nature of the problems associated with inhumane immigration and border controls. Beyond the obvious distress and pain caused by such deaths and uncertainties about the outcomes of migrant relatives, these cases also produce extensive psychological, social, economic and other impacts on families who are left behind. The effects can be multi-generational in that they can further feed the insecurities that underlie the reasons why people are compelled to undertake these precarious journeys in the first place.

Needless deaths of migrants and any other groups should rightly provoke outrage. So, too, should the living hell foisted on surviving relatives and loved ones whose lived experiences have thus far remained peripheral to media, rights and humanitarian concern. It is expedient that discussions of the problem of migrant deaths and efforts to find solutions focus not only on the deaths and those lost or missing but also on the migrants’ families, loved ones and communities left behind.

Sam Okyere is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol. He has recently compiled a report for the IOM on the needs of families whose loved ones have died or gone missing in the course of migration and he is currently lead researcher for the Ghana arm of the ERC funded project, ‘Modern Marronage: The Pursuit and Practice of Freedom in the Contemporary World’.  

Collective learning in the struggle for migrant justice

A guest blog by Akram Salhab from Migrants Organise.

Last week, the British media began a discussion that revealed the extent to which a hatred of migrants now dominates the national agenda. In the midst of a coronavirus pandemic with hundreds dying every day and Britain leading the world in mortality and infection rates, the BBC began discussing whether or not, at some future date, Britain should consider closing its borders to countries with low vaccination rates.

This discussion highlights the function that attacks on migrants serve within the strategies of Britain’s elite: the identification of a mythical enemy to justify brutal politics and to draw anger away from those responsible for the poverty and failing public services now endemic in Britain. The response to this by certain individuals and organisations of a progressive mindset has been to put out an alternative narrative in the media by attempting to replace dehumanization with stories of integration, positive community relations and solidarity. But can this alone really adequately confront the enormous swing to the right that Britain is undergoing? Given the extent to which the rot has set in in public discourse, attitudes and policies, what realistically would it take to overturn the current status quo?

The migrant justice movement

In approaching these questions we need not start from scratch. In a previous generation, migrants and ‘BAME’ communities were confronted with a British state that, having brought them into the country, then decided they were surplus to the labour requirements of the country’s manufacturing. The acceleration of anti-migrant legislation from the 1960s onwards, paralleled by the rise of the far-right in the streets, was aimed at limiting numbers of migrants and creating violent, hostile conditions for those already living here in order to encourage them to leave. Then, as now, migrants provided an easy scapegoat for a government wreaking havoc on all working-class communities. 

To these divisive and inhumane policies, communities in Britain responded in remarkable and innovative ways. Black self-help initiatives were established related to every part of community life, self-defence committees responding to attacks by the far-right were set up and, in the absence of a trade union movement willing to take up their cause, migrant/black communities established their own workers associations that went on strike and won significant victories. All this took place against a backdrop of global anti-colonial struggle that connected struggles at home with those taking place globally. The varied modes of organising, the different models and approaches put forward, and the unification of very different struggles within broad coalitions, joint action and ad hoc committees provide a wealth of ideas for how to organise to confront our current dilemmas. 

Members of Migrants Organise and other supporters protest against the enforcement of in-person reporting for asylum seekers by the Home Office during the national lockdown, 2020 (image: Migrants Organise)

The most obvious lesson is that, given the current balance of forces, only the organisation of communities in the form of a movement can muster the power necessary to confront existing challenges, and achieve dignity and justice. Such a movement would need to address two central issues: how to build popular organisations with a presence in communities; and how to unite these organisations – together with associations, unions and justice campaigns – in common action.  

Efforts are already underway through the creation of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM) Charter, which articulates the demands and principles to guide a migrant justice movement. The Charter’s ideas were manifested in a recent nationwide mobilisation, in October 2020, under the banner of Solidarity Knows No Borders with events held in more than 20 locations around the country. A recent video from the weekend of action documents the moves being made towards the creation of a wider migrant justice movement.

Although this is a positive start, it is only a beginning. An effective movement can only emerge once urgent questions of justice and organisational approach are understood and debated collectively. These issues are complex and require the engagement of a large range of migrant rights organisations, community groups, activists, racial justice campaigns, trade unions and progressive politicians. We need to think seriously about how to overcome the divisions between us and build a unified movement. 

Solidarity knows no borders

To support this process, Migrants Organise has initiated the webinar series ‘Solidarity Knows No Borders’, which will run from January to April this year. The first session, ‘The Power of the Migrant Vote’, looked at the role of migrant communities in the recent US elections. Organisers from the US spoke about the long-term, grassroots community organising that built the base from which states such as Arizona and Georgia swung in favour of the Democratic Party. 

The next webinar, The Struggle for Migrant and Racial Justice in Britain: Lessons from History, is on 18th February at 6pm and will look at examples from migrant and BAME organising that are relevant to present political work. Everybody is welcome to join this and future events in the series. If you have ideas for other webinars please get in touch.

Akram Salhab is the Advocacy and Campaigns Officer at Migrants Organise, a platform where refugees and migrants organise for power, dignity and justice.


Hanna Ahmed: obituary

By Natasha Carver.

(Image: Imanol Villota and MDM)


My friend Hanna Ahmed, who has died aged 34 of lymphoma, was a community volunteer, a campaigner against female genital mutilation (FGM), and a victim-support worker in Bristol.

Hanna was born in Dubai to Somali parents, her father working in the oil industry. Like many Somalis her family had migrated to the Gulf region to take up the opportunities of the booming 1980s economy there, but they were forced out in the downturn following the 1991 Gulf war. Aged 10, Hanna’s first migration was to war-torn Somalia, where she and her family lived for three years until her father was able to raise sufficient funds to send his wife and children to seek safety in the UK. They were never to see him again; he died shortly afterwards.

Hanna was 14 when she arrived in the UK, her family settling in east London. She attended only one year of school, which she found difficult because she could not speak much English.

She did her GNVQs at sixth-form college, and on leaving education in 2004 married Ahmed Hassan, a taxi-driver, and moved to Bristol. She was soon occupied raising their children, and her interaction as a parent with the UK’s schooling system pushed her into an active community role.

From 2011 she was a member, volunteer, support worker and ultimately trustee of Refugee Women of Bristol, supporting those newly arrived in the UK. I met her there, then later worked closely with her at Bristol Somali Forum, for which Hanna was secretary from 2015. There, Hanna’s reputation as a kind yet dynamic person grew as she helped people with everything from recalcitrant landlords to school exclusions and prison visits. Each day she volunteered as a listener, translator, support worker and, above all, as someone to stand in your corner and make sure your voice was heard and your rights upheld.

In 2015 she trained as a community health advocate with the anti-FGM organisation Forward, and her expertise on safeguarding and children’s emotional wellbeing was sought widely. She became a governor at City Academy, an inner-city school serving a diverse community, from March 2018 and also worked at Stand Against Racism and Inequality (2018-19).

As well as attending to individuals’ needs, Hanna helped organise Somali cultural days and helped shape the celebratory, all-welcome grand iftar in the inner-city Easton area of Bristol in 2019. Perhaps her most audacious move was to find funding for a coachload of Bristol-based Somali families to camp at the Tribe of Doris festival; it was so successful that it became a yearly activity.

She never forgot what it was like to be a refugee, and her experience, coupled with a wonderful sense of humour, made Hanna the best kind of community worker and volunteer. She was a compassionate and committed champion of the underdog, who was not afraid to challenge those in power or call out injustice wherever she found it.

She is survived by Ahmed, their four children, Tariq, Maryam, Reem and Bushra, two sisters and two brothers.

Natasha Carver is a Lecturer in International Criminology in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. She is co-ordinator of the MMB research challenge Bodies, Borders, Justice.

This obituary originally appeared in The Guardian on 18th January 2021. It is republished here courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd.

Please consider donating to this fundraiser to support Hanna’s four young children.