Across the waters: Caribbean mobilities, itineraries, histories

By Orlando Deavila Pertuz and Bethan Fisk.

What stories are told about the Caribbean? What do these narratives exclude? How can we broaden the story? And how can we teach a wider vision of the Caribbean to students of all ages and wider publics?

Orlando Deavila Pertuz from the Instituto Internacional de Estudios del Caribe at the Universidad de Cartagena, Colombia, joined us at the University of Bristol in November 2023 to share his work on internal migration in Caribbean Colombia and take part in a workshop centred on how we tell stories about the Caribbean. Orlando’s perspective demonstrates the importance of including Latin American and mainland Caribbean mobilities, histories and cultural production to how we think about the region.

Orlando Deavila Pertuz shared his research on rural to urban migration from the former maroon community of Palenque, in Caribbean Colombia, to the city of Cartagena. Palenqueros, who speak their own creole language, experienced a profound racialisation with lack of access to employment and housing, and created enclaves and endogamous communities apart from the mainstream society, leading to the creation of what Deavila Pertuz calls the ‘first racial-based movements in Cartagena during the 1980s’. His work details the place of race in the production of urban space and how race guided the life experience of the rural migrants that flocked the city’s peripheries during the twentieth century.

Old city walls, Cartagena de Indias, Colombia (image: Justin Sovich on flickr)

Bridging the gap: stories from the Greater Caribbean

The Colombian Caribbean shares a common history with the islands and continental territories of the Caribbean basin. This is a history marked, mostly, by processes including colonialism, transatlantic slavery, the presence of imperial powers, the permanent flow and exchange of people, cultures, capital and goods, and, more recently, the contradictory effects of tourism development. Cartagena (or Cartagena de Indias) is a key site for understanding African diasporic and Caribbean history. The city was the centre of the Spanish American slave trade for two centuries, the colony’s most important port, home to the Inquisition with jurisdiction over the whole region, and a major place of afrodescendiente political mobilisation in Colombia’s nineteenth-century revolutionaries wars, independence and beyond. Black mobilities during and after slavery have long connected the long northern coast of South America to the islands of the Caribbean archipelago. Indeed, the Caribbean was fundamental to Colombia’s independence. When Spanish royalists defeated Simon Bolívar during the early years of the war of independence, he found asylum in the British colony of Jamaica and later in Haiti. The Republic offered ships and weapons to Bolívar so he might resume the struggle for independence. However, by the twentieth century, Colombian elites had turned their back on the Caribbean.

While nineteenth-century architects of the nation sought to de-Caribbeanise the newly named ‘Atlantic’ coast, it continued to be shaped by movements and cultural flows from and between the islands throughout the twentieth century, through labour migration—most notably West Indian workers for the United Fruit Company including Marcus Garvey—to the popularity of baseball and boxing. Deavila Pertuz asks, how do we make a history of Colombia as part of the Greater Caribbean? How do we bridge the gap that Colombian elites created since the nineteenth century?

Caribbean stories across borders

The Instituto Internacional de Estudios del Caribe, founded in 1993, has been at the forefront of the academic endeavour of reintegrating the northern coast of South America into conceptions of and studies of the Caribbean. One of the key reasons for meeting was a workshop to collectively think through how we can have broader stories about the Caribbean across borders, whether those be boundaries of empire, language or discipline, and within academia, educational institutions and beyond.

With an eye to thinking about how we can broaden understandings of the Caribbean in diverse educational settings, Deavila Pertuz traced the pioneering work of the Instituto in the creation of teaching materials. Materials included school primers entitled ‘Afrodescendants in Cartagena: A Story To Be Told’ (2011) matched with archival documents from the Centro de Documentación para la Historia y la Cultura de los Afrodescendientes en el Caribe Colombiano (CEDACC) (the Centre for Documentation of the History and Culture of the Afrodescendants in the Colombian Caribbean). Its purpose is to facilitate access for local researchers, teachers and students to archival sources held in the General Archive of the Nation in Bogotá and the General Archive of the Indies in Seville. Once established, CEDACC facilitated the creation of new knowledge, not only about the city’s history but also about these historical processes, such as the slavery, independence and colonialism that the northern coast of Colombia shared with the Greater Caribbean. In order to make this content accessible to a wider audience, the Instituto produced a CD collection with key sources of transcribed archival documents. In 2013, it also launched a short documentary series called ‘Cartagena: piel de cimarrones’, exploring histories of slavery, independence, cultural production and the experiences of Afro-Colombian women.

Towards broader Caribbean stories

The workshop in Bristol was concluded with an interdisciplinary roundtable discussion from colleagues in Anthropology, Education, English and HiPLA (Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American Studies), along with local teachers and some brilliant year nine students. Some crucial collaborations emerged which form the basis of a future project that will bring together community groups, schools and teachers to co-produce resources for teaching a multilingual, multi-imperial and multi-ethnic history of the early modern Caribbean.

Bethan Fisk is Lecturer in Colonial Latin American History in the Department of Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American Studies at the University of Bristol. Her research focuses on slavery, cultural geographies and the production of knowledge by people of African and indigenous descent in Colombia and the African diaspora.

Orlando Deavila Pertuz is Assistant Professor at the Instituto Internacional de Estudios del Caribe at the Universidad de Cartagena, Colombia. As a social and urban historian his work focuses on the history of the development of tourism, the informal city and the construction of race and ethnicity in modern-day Colombia.

‘We’ll double your change!’ The materiality and mobility of cash in contemporary Argentina

By Juan Luis Bradley.

In January 2024, the Central Bank of Argentina (BCRA) announced that two new, higher denomination banknotes (ARS10,000 and ARS20,000) would be placed into circulation by the summer. The rift between the value to be printed on these notes and the highest denomination note currently available at the time of writing (ARS2,000) points to the stark inadequacy of the country’s cash in even the most mundane of everyday transactions for items whose prices have been hit by rapid rates of inflation. Consequently, the movement of cash in Argentina is characterised by obstacles arising from the very form of the cash itself. This struck me on the first day of a visit to Buenos Aires in March this year, when I found that what I had considered to be a substantial sum of pesos remaining from my last trip (in 2022) would buy me only two to three items at a local supermarket. To my further chagrin, I did not have my passport with me meaning I was unable, as a foreigner, to pay for my purchases by card. I thus had to return the items one by one until I could pay off the balance, resulting in a long queue behind me and many pointed stares.

Wads of 100 peso notes, bearing the image of Eva Perón, accumulated in change by the author in late 2022. Each note is now worth scarcely one pence (photo: author’s own, March 2024).

The main objective of my trip to Buenos Aires was to witness the everyday mobility of cash under the presidency of Javier Milei, who came to power in December 2023. Milei’s promotion of libertarian economics, currently slashing funding for national cultural bodies such as the national film agency (INCAA), is frequently justified by the argument that there is no money following the excesses of previous administrations, and that a financial ‘chainsaw’ is required to cut expenditure. More generally, however, the status of cash in Argentina has long been linked to notions of instability and inadequacy. As a virtual tour of the national numismatic museum confirms, frequent, recurring inflationary episodes from the 19th century onwards have resulted in the rapid devaluation of banknotes, leading on many occasions to the adoption of a new currency worth a thousand times the previous iteration.

In such conditions, demand for US dollars as a more stable means of investment has been high, often infamously stored under mattresses and outside the national economy. To combat this, the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015) administration restricted US dollar purchases from 2011 to 2015, prompting middle- and upper-class protests and encouraging informal, illegal money exchanges, whose agents operate with a more advantageous rate known as the ‘blue dollar’ (Sánchez 2017; Perelman 2021). The Kirchner and the later Alberto Fernández (2019-2023) governments attempted to remedy this by adopting differential dollar rates available to certain individuals at certain times, though this resulted in a plethora of rates (among them the ‘Qatar dollar’ and the ‘Coldplay dollar’) fostering a lingering atmosphere of low confidence in the value of the Argentine peso.  

My interest in money in Argentina stems from what I would describe as a resistant materiality in everyday cash. Given the persisting need to engage with large quantities of banknotes, whether pesos or dollars, many Argentines and foreigners alike are faced with the daily challenges of carrying, handling, counting, storing and hiding what are effectively pieces of paper (an example of these challenges is depicted in Pedro Mairal’s 2016 bestseller The Woman from Uruguay, translated by Jennifer Croft). Once I had settled into my accommodation in Buenos Aires, I set out to collect some pesos I had wired myself. This has been a common route used by foreigners to profit from juicier exchange rates and avoid card and withdrawal fees. Nonetheless, this option does involve several risks, notably the length of queuing times, the potential lack of cash to dispense and the possibility of theft on the journey home. Surprisingly on this occasion, however (and despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary), I did not face a long queue at the branch, perhaps owing to a recent measure offering foreign cardholders a much better exchange rate aligned with the financial market rate, lessening the pull of informal exchange houses for tourists in Argentina.

Once I had confirmed my identity, the agent proceeded to feed a large number of banknotes through a counting machine. Back in 2022, I was caught out by the sheer sum of the notes I would receive, leading to an uncomfortable walk back to the hotel with my jacket stuffed full of cash. This time, while armed with a large bag, I still found the piles of banknotes difficult to calculate, meaning I would always prefer to carry much more than necessary to the shops. Receiving change was also often troublesome: cashiers would often ask me for one note back to reduce the total number of notes returned, but most notes were of so little value that they did nothing but clog up my wallet. At one point, when I was owed 10 pesos in change (less than 1 pence), I was instead offered a voucher redeemable for 20 if I shopped with the supermarket again. While the voucher proclaimed excitedly that my change would be doubled, the scale of that doubling was much less exciting.

Thankfully, my trip also allowed me to think about things other than cash, with highlights including the annual conference of the Argentine Association of Audiovisual and Film Studies, an excellent Borges-themed production at the Teatro San Martín, and a productive discussion with several students of Dr Valeria Llobet at the Universidad de San Martín. However, as stormy weather delayed my return flight by 24 hours, I couldn’t help reflecting on how my daily experiences with money in Argentina challenged the common associations of currency with the purely abstract and symbolic, particularly in those countries, such as the UK, where cash payments are dwindling. Rather than thinking of money solely as a neutral, universal equivalent – the ‘colourless tool’ described by Georg Simmel in his landmark The Philosophy of Money – the case of Argentina prompts me to consider cash as a thoroughly material obstacle to be navigated not just mentally, but physically.

Juan Luis Bradley is a PhD researcher at the Department of Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, University of Bristol. His research explores depictions of the everyday materiality of money in Argentine literature and cinema from the 1990s to the present, with a focus on the affective implications of Argentine money in crisis for those who negotiate it.

For other recent MMB blogposts on Argentina read Jo Crow’s post on ‘(Im)mobility in Buenos Aires (1929-2023)‘.

Bodies, things, capital – intersections in our research themes

By Juan Zhang.

As co-ordinator of the MMB Research Challenge ‘Bodies, Things, Capital’ I have been reading our recent blogs under this theme and am struck by the range and depth of the projects. They cross many contexts, disciplines and research fields, and engage with critical debates around (in)justice, vulnerability, borders and the politics of (im)mobility. From Jo Crow’s personal reflections on the broader implications of economic and social immobility in Argentina through a historical lens to Julia Morris’ poetic account on the damaging politics of ‘value extraction’ through offshore asylum processing in the Republic of Nauru; from Rebecca Yeo’s critiques on the disabling impact of the UK’s immigration control measures to Şebnem Eroğlu’s observation of the long-lasting generational poverty among Turkish migrants in Europe, these blogs provoke thoughtful discussions and raise fundamental questions about the politics of movements through bodies, things and capital. These accounts challenge us to think more critically about the multiple intersections of personal experiences, structural inequalities, infrastructural barriers, historical legacies, and geopolitical shifts on both local and global scales. These reflections and scholarly engagements are central to our research at Migration Mobilities Bristol.

(Image: Eddie Aguirre, UnSplash)

Bodies

Bodies are intimate sites of encounter – with borders, checkpoints, institutions, infrastructures, policies, biases and discriminatory politics. It is pertinent to recognise the ways in which migrant bodies are intersectionally positioned within and across systems, and this positioning is influenced by various factors including gender, class and race, as well as immigration status (legal or illegal), moral claims (deserving or underserving), and capacities (shaped by disability or other forms of vulnerability). The blogs also prompt us to consider the colonial and contemporary contexts that influence how bodies are perceived and treated.

Julia Morris’ ethnographic work on asylum and extraction, for example, compares the extractive logic in both Nauru’s mineral and asylum processing industries. The colonial legacy of phosphate mining in this island nation finds an uncanny reiteration of a ‘hyper-extractive assemblage’ in modern-day outsourced asylum processing centres, lending particular ‘political, economic and moral values to the global asylum industry’. In this context, the bodies of asylum-seekers become a kind of resource, exploited and commodified in a way not that different from processing phosphate. At the same time, Nauruans themselves are depicted by global media campaigns and refugee activists as ‘savages’ of cruelty, a racialised and stigmatised image rooted in colonial-era stereotypes.

In other blogs under my Research Challenge theme, critical discussions also extend to how migrant bodies are judged based on an (often) arbitrary assessment of ability and the perceived deservability, which influence decisions on vital matters such as access to social services and support, and family reunification in the UK. When bodies encounter policies and perceptions in these intertwined realms, it provides an impetus for urgent scholarly interventions in popular politics, especially at a moment when ‘one in five Britons say that immigration is one of the top issues facing the country’, and the UK’s Rwanda plan continues to stir controversy and deepen socio-political divisions.    

Things

Things offer another analytical engagement with materialities, spatialities and temporalities in migration, through which social relations and identities are shaped and evolved. Things can be objects (for example, passports, visas, maps and tickets) and systems (for example, policies, rules, processing facilities, services), as well as larger transnational bodies (for example, activist groups and NGOs) and infrastructures (for example, media, national services, and cross-national agreements). Things can be physical and metaphorical, and they highlight how movements intersect with broader contexts of trade, exchange and securitisation. Borders are a good example of things – they can be barriers or productive pathways, depending on who (and what) is crossing them. Offshore processing centres in Nauru become de facto maritime borders for Australia, where immigration control is outsourced and externalised. The Jungle in Calais demonstrates another case in point of externalised bordering, where no safe passage is provided by design, in order to deter migrant crossing into the UK. Things such as tents, makeshift dwellings, and temporary shelters are targeted by the French border police to enforce a ‘no fixation’ rule, preventing people on the move from establishing a sense of stable connection to the city and forcing them to move on or go into hiding.

Apart from borders, urban transport infrastructure offers another interesting take on things, where domestic workers in Latin America, predominantly women, struggle with long commuting hours and concerns for discrimination and crime. While public transport allows workers to travel to their employers’ homes, it is woefully inadequate in terms of providing efficient and reliable services or a safe space for female workers to be comfortable with their daily commute. Essential infrastructures such as public transport are things inherently gendered and classed, as they mediate movements and mobilities in highly embodied and differentiated ways.

Capital      

Capital emerges as another compelling common thread that brings together reflections on value, differentiation and the infrastructuralisation of ‘extractive politics’ through the control and channelling of local and global flows of humans, resources, knowledge and policy frameworks. It is curious to see how the example of offshore asylum processing in Nauru gains instant ‘political capital’ in the UK, when top decision makers use it as a success model to justify sending asylum seekers to Rwanda as a winning solution. The income-tested immigration rule in the UK also effectively monetises the right to family reunification, turning a universal right into a kind of money game, where the right to bring family to the UK comes with a hefty price tag of £29,000, an income the majority of the working population do not earn. This approach reflects a transactional view on migration, where people are either regarded as assets or liabilities to the capital system, rather than human beings with intrinsic social and familial rights. Even for those who have successfully migrated, like the Turkish migrants in Europe described by Şebnem Eroğlu, structural inequalities and systemic racism create barriers for them to transfer social and cultural capital in meaningful ways, thereby limiting their opportunities to capitalise on these resources for a better life. These cases demonstrate how migration policies and individual lives are impacted by a profound ‘capital logic’, where extractive politics are normalised to maximise accumulation and sideline fundamental ethical considerations.

Multimodal methodologies

In addition to tracing conceptual connections around bodies, things and capital in these blogs, I have also noted the development of multimodal methodologies, particularly creative and art-based methods focusing on participatory designs and artistic interventions. These approaches have effectively bridged the gap between academic research, public engagement and activism. Other innovative methods, including data visualisation and participant mapping techniques, open up possibilities for experimenting with data collection and analysis. Sylvanna Falcon and her team, for example, use data visualisation techniques to map violence against migrants in Mexico while cautioning against the dehumanisation of migrants who disappear into ‘datasets’. Robledo and Randall’s Invisible Commutes project utilises short audio segments to document experiences of daily commutes by domestic workers, as well as their perspectives on critical mobility infrastructure in the city. The incorporation of migrant voices lends a significant feminist perspective to issues of transport justice.

This Research Challenge has brought diverse researchers and their perspectives and methods together, a kind of assembling of bodies, things and capital in its own right. There is clear potential for developing collaborations and innovating strategies of research practice and intervention in the future, as this Research Challenge brings forward MMB’s commitment to informing academic and public dialogues on migration and mobilities across disciplines and borders.

Juan Zhang is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Bristol. Her research focuses on transnational cultural politics in and out of China, and Chinese mobilities across different cultural and social spheres. She is the Co-ordinator of the MMB Research Challenge Bodies, Things, Capital.’

Why do we use the term ‘irregular migration’ and can it be translated?

By Edanur Yazici and Bridget Anderson.

The term ‘illegal immigration’ is often used in discussions about immigration but is widely agreed to be pejorative, misleading, and stigmatising by scholars, refugee and migrant groups, and across the third sector. Instead, ‘irregular migration’ has become the preferred term, especially in Europe. However, this term can be confusing and unclear – especially when translated into different languages, as we are doing in our work with the PRIME Project to understand employers’ use of migrant labour.

As one employer told us: ‘I can’t give an answer to this, I don’t know. I just don’t know the difference between regular and irregular.’

This post looks into how we define irregular migration in different contexts and examines the challenges and insights gained from translating the term into five languages in a survey of employers.

(Image: Shutterstock)

Surveying employers: defining irregularity

Choosing and defining a term is political, and what is chosen might not always be clear to everyone. There is increasing recognition that ‘who counts as a migrant’ is very uncertain: is a ‘migrant’ defined by their citizenship, how long they’ve stayed in a place, or their intentions to remain? In addition, in migration studies, there’s an increasing recognition of the critical role race plays in how we understand migration. This perspective considers how border policies and practices contribute to the construction of racial identities. Additionally, it emphasises that the term ‘migrant’ itself acts as a form of racialisation.

This uncertainty around the term migration, as well as its association with race, is compounded by the term ‘irregularity’ and other frequently used descriptors such as ‘illegal’, ‘undocumented’ and ‘sans papiers’. These descriptors, including ‘irregularity’ (the term we adopt in PRIME) do not describe a fixed category. They are instead ambiguous, contested, and exist on a spectrum. Types and degrees of irregularity are continuously shaped and reshaped by various stakeholders, including policymakers, migrants, and employers.

The PRIME Project is working to explore how national and sector-specific institutions shape employers’ engagement with migrant labour. As a part of this we are conducting a survey of employers to find our about their labour needs. Before launching the survey, we ran a three-stage pilot. We used the pilot to understand how employers think about migration and what terms make the most sense to them. All pilot respondents employ migrant workers and most of them have contributed to national-level policy debates on migration. Piloting the survey highlighted key issues with terminology and translation. Below, we describe what the pilot asked employers about and how employers understood the terms chosen.

How do employers understand the term ‘irregular migration’?

To start with, we need to understand what employers think about when they describe ‘irregular migration’ and how they understand irregularity.

Our pilot survey asked respondents to tell us who they thought would be categorised as ‘irregular’ and gave them a list of descriptions such as ‘a worker who entered the country illegally’ and ‘a worker who is an asylum seeker.’ Of the pilot respondents, all but one said that they didn’t know.  

We revised the question to ask who they would ‘describe as an illegal migrant’ (with the caveat that ‘defining who is an “illegal migrant” can be complicated’), and this was considered much more accessible.  While more readily understood, the decision to use terminology that has been rejected as stigmatising poses its own set of ethical and definitional challenges. In particular, it raises the question of how migration scholars communicate their ethical and political standpoints to audiences who may not always share their preferred terminology when conducting research.

Who is a citizen?

To analyse factors shaping how and why employers recruit (irregular) migrant workers, we also need to understand how and why they employ non-migrant workers. To do this, we need to understand how employers think about different categories of citizenship and belonging. Different national assumptions about this became evident in the translation.

UK

In the UK English language version of the survey we piloted, we asked: ‘Do you find it difficult to recruit workers with British citizenship?’. All pilot respondents reacted negatively to this phrasing, variously suggesting that we use ‘domestic workers’, ‘workers within the UK’, or ‘national workers’ instead. One respondent suggested PRIME might distinguish between ‘native British citizens’ and ‘British citizens who are foreigners’.

We reformulated the question to ask: ‘Do you find it difficult to recruit British workers?’. This particular wording reveals the different ways that migration status and race intersect. Who, for example, are respondents likely to imagine when asked about ‘British workers’ and what alternative assumptions would have been made if we had decided to use ‘national worker’ or ‘domestic worker’ – each with their own particular nativist underpinnings?

Sweden

The term ‘Swedish workers’ (Svenska arbetstagare) presented a problem for the survey in Sweden. One pilot respondent suggested re-phrasing the question to ask about ‘workers born in Sweden who speak Swedish as their mother tongue’. This suggested re-phrasing carries assumptions about place of birth and linguistic ability as intrinsically related to ‘Swedishness’. Swedish official categories add another layer of complexity, particularly for comparative international research. Official terms used by state actors in Sweden are: ‘foreign background’ (a person born outside of Sweden or born in Sweden with two foreign-born parents) and ‘Swedish background’ (a person born in Sweden with one or two parents also born in Sweden). Foreignness, birth, and background each point to how the state and official agencies relate to race, migration, and citizenship, each with distinct implications for how irregularity is conceptualised across different national and sectoral contexts. 

The terms Austrian/Italian/Polish workers were not problematic, but the term ‘migrant worker’ raised queries.

Who is a ‘migrant’ worker?

Poland

In Polish, ‘migrant worker’ was translated into ‘foreign worker’ rather than ‘migrating’ or ‘migrant’ worker. In Polish ‘foreign worker’ (pracownicy cudzoziemscy) is more readily understood and the alternative ‘migrant worker’ risks being confused with ‘migrants’, which some interpret as non-citizens and others interpret as Polish citizens who have returned to Poland having been migrant workers in other countries.

Italy

As in Polish, in Italian, ‘migrant worker’ was translated to ‘foreign workers’ (stranieri/e). This was preferred because it is the term used by the Italian Statistical Institute. As in the Swedish context, the adoption of state-sanctioned terminology has implications for conceptualising ‘migrantness’ and ‘foreignness’. These differing conceptualisations are exposed by translation. In this way, the process of translation itself becomes a site of data collection.

Austria

Decisions made about translation and what they communicate about national and institutional contexts are also evident in word choice. In the Austrian context, three variations of the German for ‘migrant workers’ were piloted before settling on a term (migrantische Arbeitskräfte – which roughly translates to migrant worker) that respondents would feel relatively comfortable with.

Looking forward and implications for research

Translation highlights how we attempt to strike a balance between familiarity for respondents and accuracy and ethics for researchers. It opens up questions about the constraints and limitations of methodological nationalism, current academic orthodoxy, and the way the vernacular shapes how we think and know.  

Designing, translating, and piloting the PRIME Employer survey has helped us think through some of these challenges. As we move forward with data collection and analysis and later use survey findings to begin qualitative data collection, we will no doubt encounter barriers and opportunities when conceptualising (ir)regularisation and researching the intersection of race and migration status.

As the study progresses, we will continue to reflect on what our linguistic and methodological choices mean for how we understand and ask for irregularity. We will interrogate what has informed our choices and question how respondents have reacted to them.

Can you help us connect to employers?

The PRIME Employer survey is open until July for employers and labour providers in Austria, Italy, Poland, Sweden, or the UK working in any of the following sectors:

  • agriculture and food processing;
  • older adult care;
  • restaurants; and
  • waste management and recycling sectors.

If you know an employer in the categories above who would be willing to share their experience, please ask them to complete the survey here:

In English | In German | In Italian | In Polish  | In Swedish

Edanur Yazici is a Research Associate on the PRIME Project based in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol.

Bridget Anderson is Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship at the University of Bristol, co-PI of the PRIME Project and Director of Migration Mobilities Bristol.

Hysteria and disinterest: accommodating asylum seekers

By Melanie Griffiths.

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

Missing in the system

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

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

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

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

Indefinite detention

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

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

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

Diversified detention

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

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

Fragmentation

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

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

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

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

Criminalisation

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

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

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

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

Indifference

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

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

‘A proud history of protecting refugees’?

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

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

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

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

Navigating ethical emotions in European migration enforcement

New writing on migration and mobilities – an MMB special series

By Ioana Vrăbiescu and Bridget Anderson.

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

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

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

Emotions in migration studies

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

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

Nationalism, racism and ethical emotions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Simón Palominos Mandiola.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jo Crow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Katharine Charsley and Helena Wray.

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

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

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

(Image: Nenad Stojkovic on Flickr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jáfia Naftali Câmara.

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

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

How ‘Refugee Stories’ was born

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

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

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

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

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

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

Using ‘Refugee Stories’ for teaching and learning  

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

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

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

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

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

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

READ THE COMIC HERE

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

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