(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.’

Digital home working and its sustainability potential: human immobility and the mobilities of stuff

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

By Chris Preist and Dale Southerton.

Despite the huge human and economic costs of the COVID pandemic, many commentators have observed that this disruption – or shock – to our resource-intensive daily lives could offer a catalyst for the great societal transformations necessary to meet the climate emergency.

Radical growth of home working is an oft-cited example. According to Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures 50% of those in employment did some work from home in April 2020. This mainstreaming of home working has been facilitated by the rapid appropriation of digital devices and services into our everyday lives. It has been accompanied by equally rapid development of cultural skills and competencies required to (collectively) use those devices and services in a satisfactory way. And has led to major adjustments in how we work but also how we shop, interact, use our homes, engage with our local communities, learn, care for others and so on.

Home working during the pandemic, March 2020 (image: Simon Evans on flickr)

The question is whether these shifts could lead to systemic environmental gains. Is it an environmental ‘good’ or ‘bad’? As ever with academics, our answer is ‘it’s not straightforward…’, but when viewed from a systemic perspective it does offer an opportunity to re-imagine sustainable ways of life.

When considering the environmental impacts of any technology or practice, understanding will be shaped by the scope of the analysis: what is considered inside the system being studied and what is ignored. A narrow scope, focused only on the technological parts of the system, makes it more straightforward to quantify the results (such as a ‘carbon footprint’ of something) but means missing out the broader implications – such as how any technology interacts with diverse social practices. One approach to this problem is to consider different scopes for analysis that address the direct, indirect and systemic impacts of a technology. We apply this framing to home working to consider some possibilities.

Direct impacts are the environmental costs of constructing, using and disposing of a technology. Engineering methods, such as life cycle assessment (LCA) (or more colloquially, ‘carbon footprinting’) can be used to model the technology’s life cycle, systematically collect the relevant data and then apportion the ‘environmental burden’ to the different applications of that technology. In the case of digital home working, this will include the impacts of manufacturing the equipment used and providing the electricity to keep it operational: both the home laptops and Wi-Fi, but also a share of the networking equipment used to connect workers with their offices and each other, and the data centres used to power the applications they use. Accounting for this ‘hidden materiality’, and the large consumption of energy used by data centres, has led to some fearing that the impacts of digital home working are substantial. Applying University of Bristol models developed for digital services to video conferencing suggests that the truth is somewhere between the two. A ballpark estimate for the climate impact of a one-hour video conference, for example, would be about 50-100g CO2e depending on the setup used – roughly equivalent to driving 400-800m in a typical family car. This suggests that we should not let concerns about the direct environmental impact of digital services put us off a move to home working.

Indirect impacts are the environmental costs of changing social practices related to the digital service. What do people stop doing? What do they start doing? Again, LCA can be used to quantify these – but only if one understands the nature of these changes. Social science insights are essential here, both to identify what changes to practice might occur, and to collect the data to quantify the extent to which they change across diverse populations.

In the case of home working, the most obvious changes to practice are reduction in travel to work and decreases in energy use within workplaces. These two factors will potentially be substantially larger than the direct impacts of technology use – but will be more variable and harder to predict across the population. Reductions in heating and lighting in the workplace were, it would appear, largely offset by rises of domestic energy use (Hook et al., 2020). The most dramatic potential environmental savings are from the sharp reduction in commuting, with the Department for Transport reporting a 60% reduction in private car usage during 2020 and a 90% decline in the use of public transport. But even here we must consider a range of related indirect effects of the apparent immobility of people. During the same period, we witnessed a huge increase in online shopping as people ordered their goods for home delivery. The ONS shows that online retail sales increased from just under 19% of total retail sales in November 2019 to almost 40% within a year. Groceries, clothing, household products and takeaway foods saw the largest growth.

The digital devices and services that allowed us to adapt so quickly to conditions of apparent human immobility also offered the technological affordances and cultural skills necessary for a commensurate growth in the circulation of goods, ordered online and delivered (often as individual items) to the homes of the immobile. Measuring these effects – especially if trying to capture the relative weighting of a trip to the shopping mall to purchase multiple items versus delivery of multiple individual items purchased online – would be necessary to estimate indirect impacts.

Systemic impacts consist of a huge range of elements that shape, and are shaped by, technologies and social practices. In the case of home working, we pick out three core elements: infrastructures, cultures, and modes of provision. To consider the impact and potential of home working we need to recognise the changing home to include the re-purposing of space for home offices and the technologies required, from the high tech (digital devices and networks) to the low tech (desks and storage). Local communities are also changing, and development of local service infrastructures to support mass home working (for example, the re-invention of the local high street) together with a corresponding decline of city-based office infrastructures will be required if home working is to be viable over the longer term. Each of these changes come with their own direct and indirect environmental impacts.

Cultural shifts must also be considered. Workplace cultures of presenteeism, long working hours, the status of private offices, and daily meetings are all challenged by home-working regimes. In addition, the rising use of digital platforms shows signs of fostering modes of provision through informal networks (such as familial and community based) that have, in recent history, been marginalised by the dominance of market modes of provision. Community sharing initiatives (such as food box schemes, local delivery hubs, community stores) coupled with the accumulating practical challenges of privately owned goods (as symbolised by the increasing percentage of domestic space devoted to storing seldomly used consumer goods and the decreasing use of expensive private cars) have been argued to indicate a shift towards collaborative consumption: the rejection of privately owned goods in favour of sharing (Southerton and Warde, forthcoming). While the direct and indirect environmental impacts of such systemic shifts are unknown, the potential to reduce the material flows of goods and reduce the impacts of human mobility are clear.

Thinking in terms of the systemic implications of home working – symbolised by the immobility of people and rising mobility of goods during COVID – is more important than only measuring direct and indirect impacts. As things stand, we are moving in the direction of ‘hybrid’ working, presumably on the grounds of a ‘best of both worlds’ assumption. From a systems level perspective there is a huge risk that we end up with two systems: workplaces and home working. Whether this ends up being the worst of both worlds, layering new resource-efficient systems over old resource-intensive systems, will largely depend on whether debates regarding the post-COVID world takes the opportunity to re-imagine and re-configure the systemic impacts of technology and human practice on the environment (Geels et al., 2015).

Chris Preist is Professor of Sustainability and Computer Systems at the University of Bristol. His research focuses on the environmental impact of digital technology and consumer electronic goods. Dale Southerton is Professor in Sociology of Consumption and Organisation at the University of Bristol. He studies consumption, its role in organising everyday lives and its significance in processes of societal change.

‘Six new home carers near you!’ How digital platforms shape domestic services

By Jing Hiah.

Finding cleaning and child rearing services is easier than ever in many parts of the world. Install an app on your phone and start browsing through hundreds of (female) workers. If you decide not to directly hire their services – perhaps you feel too embarrassed (can’t we take care of ourselves?!) – you’ll be sent reminders by email: ‘Six new home carers near you. Contact them now!’

Domestic service is reportedly the fastest growing sector in the platform or ‘gig’ economy – that is, economic activity facilitated by digital platforms that mediate supply and demand, creating digital marketplaces. Rising demand for home-based care and domestic workers and health professionals (and even virtual nannies during the COVID-19 lockdown) has been prompted by factors including women’s entrance into the paid labour market, longer lifespans and the retrenchment of the welfare state. Platform companies like Care.com, Helpling and Handy have designed digitised infrastructures that connect domestic workers to those wanting their services. This is the focus of my project ‘New mobilities or persistent inequalities’, which I will be researching during my 20-month stay at the University of Bristol.

(Image: Magnet.me on Unsplash)

New mobilities or persistent inequalities?

Paid domestic work can be broadly understood as all tasks conducted in the private household including cleaning, child rearing and care of the elderly. While inequalities and difference in paid domestic work are hotly debated, it has been cited as a quintessential example of ‘invisible work’ due to its poor labour conditions combined with legal disenfranchisement, which make the sector vulnerable to exploitation. Furthermore, the demand for domestic workers is highly gendered, as it is associated with women’s ‘natural’ qualities. Racialisation also plays a part, with some minority groups considered to be better fitted to perform domestic work, and this has intersected with female migration in different parts of the world. Immigration regulations further control the rights and mobilities of domestic workers, whether they have entered on domestic worker, family reunion or other visas, or overstayed.

Anonymised example of an app for finding domestic workers (created by the author)

My project will explore how vulnerabilities and inequalities in domestic work are shaped by digital platforms. The literature so far suggests that these platforms offer some groups of marginalised workers, such as migrants, racialised minorities and workers with familial obligations (often women), new and flexible opportunities to access work. However, there is also growing evidence that platforms contribute to a degradation of employment relations. They do not guarantee minimum wages or income security and they challenge worker organisation. Furthermore, work on surveillance capitalism and visibility regimes has found the digital infrastructures of platforms and the associated online visibilities of workers to cause further inequality in the domestic employment relationship.

So, what about the ‘six new home carers near you’? It’s important to remember that the carers have no idea who ‘you’ are and neither do they know anything about your household. You do all the picking and choosing. This picking and choosing, research shows, is not only based on the profiles of the individuals on the app: employers also often check the broader social media presence of workers, for example on Facebook and Instagram. For some workers it has become a full-time (unpaid) job to perform gender and ethnicity through their platform profiles. Meanwhile, they have no idea about the appearance, relationships or even gender, race, occupation or name of potential employers. Workers therefore often have to give up their privacy, manage their various connected social media profiles and invest in social media skills, which they may be unfamiliar with and certainly don’t get paid for.

Possibilities for ‘good’ platformed domestic work jobs

So today I was trying to get the attention of [the kid the nanny is taking care of] and he was glued to his Switch. I gave him ample warning that we were about to change to a different task and he has 5 minutes left before we move on. He told me no, that he wants to keep [playing] and that he’ll just ask his mom for more time. Imagine my surprise when [their] mom storms out of the room, takes the Switch, and firmly says ‘I never want to hear that again. Nanny is always right and don’t you forget it.’ And just walks away….

This family is definitely my unicorn family, and it was just solidified today that I never want to leave them! I felt so freaking empowered!

(Post on an online nanny support group.)

Inequalities related to paid domestic work have been recognised to be pretty persistent and these inequalities may have become even more serious when mediated by the digital infrastructures of platforms. Yet does that make a job in paid domestic work by definition a ‘bad’ job? The post of the (self-identified) nanny above on an online nanny support group gives us some insight into various aspects of what, according to sociologists of work, makes a job a ‘good’ job – namely a sense of autonomy, control over work activities and social contact (other aspects include income, health and control over work hours).

So, while the employment relationship between paid domestic workers and their employers may be characterized by inequalities, what also matters is the manner in which employers and workers approach these inequalities in their everyday relationships. The various discussions in the online nanny support group show that it is not only important to workers to be treated fairly, but that many employers also do their best to secure fair and good relationships. Since there has been less work done on the perspectives of employers, the aim of my project is to also include their perspectives in my analysis of platformed domestic work. I am looking forward to hearing from employers and workers how they secure fair relationships in platformed domestic labour relations.

Jing Hiah is an Assistant Professor in Criminology at the Erasmus University Rotterdam and a Dutch Research Council (NWO) Rubicon Postdoctoral Fellow. She is visiting the University of Bristol from December 2021 until July 2023 as a guest of MMB and SPAIS. During this time she will be carrying out her study on domestic labour platforms funded by the Dutch Research Council, the Erasmus Trustfonds and an innovation grant of the Erasmus School of Law.

What can we look forward to in 2022?

By Bridget Anderson.

January always feels like a slog. All the chores put off until ‘the New Year’ in expectation that 2022 would never come have mounted up. It’s dark and too cold/not cold enough. Summer feels it will never happen. And COVID, ugh COVID. So, instead, I’m thinking of things to look forward to in 2022.

First, there’s the launch of the ESRC Centre for Sociodigital Futures co-directed by Susan Halford and Dale Southerton. One of the domains of digital practice explored in the Centre is moving. We will be partnering with Goldsmiths and with Forensic Oceanography to research the significance of individual technologies and data analytics in shaping mobilities. We will also look at how the imaginaries, designs, uses and accessibility of digital technologies shape experiences, understandings and regulations of the movement of people and things. This is a new field for us and we’re very excited about developing it further with these fantastic new colleagues.

(Image: Greg Rakozy on Unsplash)

From future to past. There’s a great book coming out that I’ve had the privilege to get a sneak preview of. Global Labor Migration: New Directions (University of Illinois Press) edited by Julie Greene, Eileen Boris, Joo Cheong Tham and Heidi Gottfried, is now in press. It is a wide-ranging collection that looks at global labour mobility from the late 19th century to the present day. And it is truly global, looking at mobility patterns across the world, global empires, intermediaries and migrant labour’s role in anti-colonial resistance. It includes contributions from MMB’s own Katie Bales and Rutvica Andrijasevic, as well as postgraduates doing cutting-edge research. It is a fantastic range of essays that includes: the exploration of how FAIR challenged asylum seekers’ right to work on the basis that the INS has a duty to ‘protect’ US workers from the economic migrant; how assertations of national sovereignty, anti-communism and racist restrictions resulted in moving from migrant labour governance by the ILO to the foundation of the IOM; and how states, through UN mechanisms, have depoliticised migration and underdevelopment even as they have acknowledged a connection between them.

Taking these essays together we can see how the nominal equality of states, whose power, in practice, is deeply unequal, only obfuscates this inequality further – an inequality that has been hewn, resisted and fostered through human movement. Race is occluded by ‘nationality’, and racial hierarchies by hierarchies of poverty and power, but the interconnections between race, nationality and global inequalities are exposed by international migration and the intense efforts to control it. Do take a look at this edited volume when it comes out.

Those of you with an interest in history might want to check out some of the History Department seminars in the coming weeks too. Several are related to migration and mobilities including MMB member Dr Saima Nasar on ‘We Refugees? Discretionary Humanitarism and the Ugandan Asian Expulsion’; Professor Santanu Das (Oxford) on ‘Experience of Sea Voyages in the 20th Century’; and Stephen J. Brooke (York University, Toronto) on ‘Spectacle, Violence and the Ordinary: London’s Political Culture, 1981-86’. Contact the History Department for more details.

Then we have the visit of Professor Nandita Sharma to look forward to. MMB will be hosting Nandita as a Benjamin Meaker Distinguished Visiting Professor for one month from 21st June. Events will include a public lecture where she will discuss how, from the 1950s onward, racism was increasingly considered unacceptable in mainstream politics at the same time as state sovereignty was nearly universally nationalized. Her talk will chart this history to unpack the complexities of the relationship between ideas of race and national sovereignty. As well as her lecture we hope to hold an event in the Watershed Cinema,  and a graduate seminar.

If that feels too far in advance, we have our fireside plotting to look forward to. We will be working with the Brigstow Institute to host a series of conversations at the (de)Bordering plot in Royal Fort Gardens. These will be informal and highly interactive events – with wine! – around a fire. Given it will be outside, we are hoping these plans will not be waylaid by Omicron, though you never can tell.

And if that’s too cold for you we have a new Insights and Sounds series starting in the spring that will bring interviews on the latest in migration and mobilities thinking to you online. In this series we have very varied interviews carried out by different MMB members including our Research Challenge leads, Reading Group co-ordinator and a PhD student in the School of Education. Some of these will fit into our ongoing series on ‘New writing in migration and mobilities’, in which we feature recently published books that take a new angle on the subject through blogs, interviews and events. We are also commissioning a new blog series in partnership with the Cabot Institute on migration and climate change, which will bring together researchers working on these themes from different disciplines across Bristol.

It was very disappointing to have to cancel our Christmas party due to COVID but we will hold an event in early summer to gather everyone together in person again. Until then, enjoy our blogs, interviews and events and do let us know if you would ever like to contribute to our MMB output. Wishing you all a happy and healthy 2022!

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

Parenting through ‘modern technology’: learning from the pandemic

By Candice Morgan-Glendinning and Melanie Griffiths.

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

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

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

The realities of remote communcation

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

Image: Nenad Stojkovic on Flickr

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

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

Virtual grandparents

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

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

Digital fathers

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

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

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

Report launch: ‘Deportability and the Family’

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

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

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