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

By Valter Sandell-Maury and Liselott Sundbäck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Flags in Helsingborg by Lars Strandberg on Flickr.

Thinking about the positive value of free movement

By Chris Bertram.

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

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

(Image by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What protections are available to people displaced by climate change?

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

By Kathryn Allinson.

Climate change will impact all our lives in the coming years and many people will experience extreme events due to climate  change resulting in displacement, both internally and across international borders. This has become the reality for some already within low-lying archipelago islands within the South Pacific, such as Tuvalu and Kiribati. Despite the certainty of increased climate change-related displacement, there is still no specific frameworks which protect those moving for climate related reasons (see a detailed discussion here).

The site of the village of Tebunginako, Kiribati – relocated due to severe coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion (image: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia

Are people displaced by climate change refugees?

Under Article 1(A) of the 1951 Refugee Convention, climate-related displacement does not constitute grounds for international protection. I will take the essential elements of Article 1(A) in turn. First, a refugee must have crossed an international border, whereas climate-related displacement is expected to be predominantly internal.

Second, a refugee must have a well-founded fear of persecution. Persecution requires an egregious violation of human rights, which is assessed in light of the nature of the right and the severity of the violation (see here for further discussion). It also requires that the fear of persecution must be well-founded – this does not require certainty – but it must not be far-fetched and should be based upon both an objective assessment of the likelihood of persecution and the subjective nature of the individual’s fear (see Chan v Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, 1989). Climate change is unlikely to fulfil this requirement despite the detriment it can have on an individual’s access to human rights. It is unlikely to meet the severity threshold even in relation to socio-economic rights and, as McAdam (2016) highlights, it is difficult to identify a ‘persecutor’ that the refugee fears; instead, many refugees are likely to be moving to states that are major greenhouse gas contributors.

Third, persecution must be related to a reason given by the Convention of ‘race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion…’ The impacts of climate change do not discriminate. Even if an individual did establish persecution based upon an egregious socio-economic rights violation caused by climate change, they would need to argue that this affected them because of their membership of one of these groups. At best, an individual could argue that a government had consciously withheld assistance to address the impacts of climate change to a specific group, amounting to persecution (see here) but the group must be connected by an immutable characteristic (Applicant A v Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, 1997), not just the impact of the climate change.

Courts have firmly established that the Refugee Convention does not protect victims of natural disasters, slow-onset degradation, poor economic conditions or famine – even when the country of origin is unable or unwilling to provide protection (Canada (Attorney General) v Ward, 1993; Horvath v Secretary of State for the Home Department, 2001). UNHCR has echoed this in its own discussions of how to respond to climate-related displacement (see here and here).

What protections are available to people displaced by climate change?

A response to climate-change related displacement must therefore be sought through other international legal mechanisms. In 2009, the UN Human Rights Council recognised under resolution 10/4 that there is a ‘core inter-linkage between human rights and climate change’ such that those displaced by climate change would be able to rely on the obligations outlined in the ICCPR and the ICESCR. In particular, this would include state’s non-refoulment obligations as the cumulative effect of socio-economic harms can amount to inhumane and degrading treatment such that an individual cannot be returned to such conditions (see Sufi v Elmi, 2011). However, courts may require an immediacy to the rights violation such that future fear of climate-related impacts is insufficient grounds to provide protection from return (see AF(Kiribati), 2013).

In the specific situation of small island states whose territory is threatened by climate change, the law relating to statelessness may also be able to provide some protection and a remedy (see the 1954 Statelessness Convention; Rayfuse 2009). UNHCR has a mandate to prevent and reduce statelessness enabling them to work with states to respond, including coordinating international cooperation, providing protection and resettlement. However, issues concerning when a state will have ceased to exist under international law remains unsettled. For example, for a state to be recognised by international law, Article 1 of the Montevideo Convention requires a permanent population, territory, government and capacity to enter international relations (see Lauterpacht, 1944, and Crawford, 2007, for further discussion). However, there is a lack of clarity on when these criteria will cease to be fulfilled. The problem that international law has grappled with until now has been when new states are formed, not when existing ones have disappeared. As a result, it is unclear when protection for stateless persons of ‘disappeared’ states will be triggered.

There are also regional frameworks that provide broader protections to displaced people, beyond the narrow 1951 definition. In particular, the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration both contain provisions relating to ‘events seriously disturbing public order’, which could be taken to include the events resulting from the effects of climate change. These are both non-binding instruments, whereas Article 5(4) of the Kampala Convention is within a binding instrument and explicitly includes protection for those affected by climate change:

 ‘States parties shall take measures to protect and assist persons who have been internally displaced due to natural or human made disasters, including climate change.’

This focusses protection on internally displaced individuals and ensures that signatory states are required to provides protection and assist those displaced by climate change.

The Kampala Convention is largely based upon the UN Guiding Principles on internal displacement which, under Principle 6(d), outlines that internal displacement is prohibited including in the context of disasters. The principles then provide a framework for states to respond to internal displacement, including that resulting from disasters. The extension of human rights protections to those fleeing climate change is echoed in the Global Compact on Migration, which calls for humanitarian visas for people migrating due to natural disasters and climate change (see objective 2 and 5), as well as similar commitments in the Sustainable Development Goals. Such a response to climate-change related displacement is required under the commitments of Article 14(f) of the Cancun Adaptation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This aims to enhance understanding, coordination and cooperation with regard to climate change induced displacement…’ These instruments represent moves by the international community to consolidate existing legal frameworks to respond to climate-change related displacement. However, they are not binding treaty law. They demonstrate political commitments not legal obligations. It is evident that, outside the Africa region, mechanisms for protecting individuals from climate-change related displacement are often non-binding and ad-hoc.

The future of climate-related displacement

The term ‘climate refugee’ is conceptually flawed. Such individuals will not constitute refugees for the term ignores the complex causation involved in any displacement, let alone that related to climate change, which in itself is a multi-causal phenomenon. Whilst human rights law, the law relating to statelessness and regional arrangements do provide for some protections to individuals displaced by climate change, these approaches remain disparate and uncoordinated. A lack of clarity can lead to legal loopholes that are abused by states to limit protections.

To respond to this complexity, there are calls for a separate framework for cross-border climate migrants. Commitments within the Global Compact on Migration and the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the Cancun Agreement, represent attempts by the international community to start to coordinate and elucidate protection for climate-related displacement. However, much more must be done to ensure clarity on the personal, material and temporal scope of protections and obligations for climate change-related displacement.

Kathryn Allinson is a Lecturer in Law, University of Bristol Law School. Her research concerns the establishment of state responsibility for breaches of international law focussing on the interaction of human rights and humanitarian law in relation to displacement, and the protection of socio-economic human rights during conflict.

For more on climate change and displacement see the MMB blog by Ignacio Odriozola about at a landmark decision by the United Nations Human Rights Committee on people seeking international protection due to the effects of climate change: Climate-change displacement: a step closer to human rights protection.

Learning from the past: a humanitarian response to Ukrainian refugees in Sweden

By Pieter Bevelander

Currently many West European countries and more East European societies are meeting the flow of refugees from war-torn Ukraine with openness and great solidarity. In Sweden 34,000 Ukrainians had officially sought asylum status by 30th April but many more had crossed over the border by this date. The Migration Studies Delegation (DELMI), an independent government committee of which I am a board member, has looked closely at what we have learned from past refugee experiences in Sweden in order to inform policy makers today. This post is primarily based on our research and recommendations.

At the moment, in many European countries there is quite wide public support for new arrivals from Ukraine, but how this will look if the war is prolonged and numbers continue to increase is uncertain. There are several factors that might break the consensus here in Sweden as well as in other countries, including employment and housing issues and whether support is at the national or local level. Moreover, if the EU attempts to impose a system to redistribute refugee numbers, it risks leading to new tensions and negatively impacting on public opinion. Notably, the so-called Visegrad countries, which were strongly opposed to redistribution of refugees in 2015/16, are now the main recipients of people displaced from Ukraine. How Hungary reacts to the war and its consequences will be of particular interest.

Support for Ukraine (image by Anastasiia Krutota on Unsplash)

At the same time, conditions today are very different to 2015. Most importantly, EU Member States have decided to activate the Temporary Protection Directive for the first time for Ukrainian refugees. In Sweden this means that those covered by the Directive are subject to a special process that grants a residence permit only a few days after the application has been registered. This gives them the right to work, access to basic healthcare, schooling for children and some financial assistance. This simplified process means it is possible to get different types of integration processes started quickly.

The purpose of the Directive is to provide temporary protection. At the same time, previous experience tells us that those who come to Sweden are likely to settle here. Many new arrivals from Ukraine are well placed to establish themselves in the Swedish labour market. They are well educated, speak English and have worked in industries that are currently experiencing labour shortages. In these cases, digital tools and services can facilitate matching between newcomers and employers. For those who do not have the same level of education and skills, however, investment is needed before they can enter the Swedish labour market.

Recognising that Ukrainians are likely to stay in Sweden, Swedish decision-makers should, firstly, prioritise policy initiatives that support labour market entrance for refugees from Ukraine. Previous refugee reception also shows that it is important to get started with integration quickly. Secondly, Swedish decision-makers should ensure that refugees are given easy access to information about Swedish society.

A distinguishing feature of the Ukrainian refugee group is that the majority of those entering Sweden are women and children, meaning a prerequisite for establishment and integration in Sweden is access to school and preschool. Thirdly, then, Swedish decision-makers should enable children from Ukraine to access school and preschool full time immediately. This is important for children and also necessary for their mothers to be able to work.

The Temporary Protection Directive gives Ukrainians the right to move freely within the EU. This is positive but also creates a political dilemma. As we saw in 2015, refugees, understandably, may be more attracted to states that offer more generous reception conditions. A fourth focus for Swedish decision-makers should therefore be on labour market integration. This means more people can support themselves and, as taxpayers, contribute to common needs.

Sweden and other donor countries’ support for Ukrainian refugees risks undermining the world’s ability to support others fleeing equally heinous situations. The OECD Development Assistance Committee allows its members to count the first 12 months of refugee reception costs as aid. This was agreed following 2015/16 when just over a third of Swedish development assistance was directed to refugee reception in Sweden (approximately SEK 30 billion over two years – the Swedish ODA budget was temporarily allowed to exceed 1% of GNI in 2015).

Europe is now facing its largest mass displacement since World War II. After only four weeks, more than twice as many had fled Ukraine than the 1.3 million people who entered the EU in 2015. Some forecasts suggest that there may be as many as 12 million Ukrainian refugees in the near future to the EU. If this is financed by making maximum settlements from existing development assistance budgets there is a risk that European development aid to the rest of the world will collapse – and this during a year that, even before the Ukrainian refugee crisis, saw escalating humanitarian needs in the wake of the pandemic and more people fleeing their home countries than ever before.

Sweden, like the rest of the world, needs to realise that 2022 is an exceptional year that requires exceptional efforts, even outside Swedish and European borders. Therefore, the final and fifth priority for Swedish decision-makers should be the development aid budget and their support for those caught up in crises such as Syria/Lebanon, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, in order to prevent even more people from being forced to flee. The exceptional circumstances motivate us to invest resources in both war refugees and aid. It is not only in the interest of Sweden but also of humanity. Our solidarity knows no other boundaries than those we set ourselves.

Pieter Bevelander is Director of the Malmö Institute for Studies of Migration, Diversity and Welfare (MIM) and Professor in International Migration and Ethnic Relations at the Department of Global Political Studies, Malmö University, Sweden. MMB Director Bridget Anderson is currently City of Malmö Visiting Professor of Migration Studies at MIM.

A tale of two worlds: national borders versus a common planet

By Nandita Sharma.

We live in a world whose political organisation in no way corresponds with the way we live our lives. This is true ecologically. It may be a cliché but it is plainly evident that the Earth’s atmosphere is not divided by national boundaries. Greenhouse gases cause the same degree of global warming no matter where they are produced. It is also true economically. Living beings are tied to one another through a cycle of capitalist production and consumption, one given force by past and present practices of expropriation and exploitation. It is also true socially. We are both attached and reliant to people and other living beings outside of whatever national boundaries we find ourselves in.

Yet, we have a political system of nation-states that divides us from each other on the basis of nationality. We have nation-states that claim land and air and water as their sovereign territory, that claim people, other animals and plants as theirs, that claim to have the exclusive power to determine who enters their national space and under what conditions. The consequences of this system are enormous. Which of the world’s nation-states one is a citizen of matters. The economist Branko Milanovic has argued that, today, almost three-quarters of global inequality is due to one’s national citizenship. As such, nationals in a Rich World nation-state are provided with what he calls a ‘citizenship rent’.

Nicosia, 2019 (Image by Ittmust on flickr)

Now, national citizenship matters because nation-states across this international system limit its obtainment. As Benedict Anderson pointed out in his book, Imagined Communities (1983), the national organisation of society is one in which the political community is always imagined as a limited community. Because no nation encompasses all the world’s people, nor wants to, immigration and citizenship controls become crucial technologies for nation-making (and nation-maintaining) strategies. They are also key technologies for implementing a racist global apartheid, which, like the South African apartheid of the mid-to-late-20th century, is based on citizenship.

The process of nationalising state sovereignty and putting in place an exclusionary regime based on national citizenship began in the Americas in the 19th century. By the 1960s, the national form of state sovereignty had become the dominant form. It is at this point that we can say that a new global order emerged, one that I call the Postcolonial New World Order.

Postcolonialism is not to be confused with decolonisation. Instead, postcolonialism marks the end of the political legitimacy of imperial-state sovereignty and the beginning of the hegemony of national forms of state sovereignty. In a postcolonial system of governance, people across the world are defined as part of separated ‘nations’ and ruled through the combined operations of nation-state sovereignty, international bodies and the global circulation of capital.

After the Second World War, with astonishing speed, the near-global space of imperial-states was mostly nationalised. Between 1945 and 1960 alone, three dozen new nation-states in Asia and Africa were granted either a restricted autonomy or outright independence from empires. In the 1960s, the two most powerful imperial-states entering the Second World War —the British and the French—lost the vast majority of their global empires and nationalised the sovereignty of their imperial metropoles. Like the other nation-states formed before them, each marked their newfound national form of sovereignty with new citizenship and immigration controls.

For those colonised people who did not obtain ‘their own’ national territorial sovereignty, the demand for it continues to define their struggles. For many who identify – and have been identified – as Hawaiians or Mohawks, Armenians or Kurds, Palestinians or Kashmiris, their anti-colonial struggles are often framed as struggles for ‘national liberation’. It is thus clear that in the Postcolonial New World Order being a member of a nation in possession of territorial sovereignty is the thing to be(come). This is not an accident.

In its 1945 founding charter, the UN enshrined the recognition of the right of national self-determination as the bedrock of international law. That is, those people who could successfully claim to being a ‘nation’ were recognised as having the right to national sovereignty. All those people who either did not want to organise themselves as ‘nations’ or could not convincingly do so were regarded as ‘minorities’. Hostility to these ‘minorities’ and to those people who moved from one nationalised territory to another – that is, migrants – was bred in the bone of the UN charter. With its declaration of the rights of nations to self-determination, it would not and could not – account for the rights of all those people who were not the People of the nation – in other words, those who were seen to be ‘people out of place’. The UN Charter thus stood in stark contrast to how many people actually lived, and certainly in stark contrast to the reality of the immediate post- Second World War experience of mass movement of people.

It is important to consider that contrary to the rhetoric of national liberation, or of the bromides of the United Nations, this world of nation-states did not represent a challenge to the social relations of imperialism. Instead, a postcolonial world of nation-states worked to contain the revolutionary and liberatory demands of people to abolish the practices most closely associated with imperialism – expropriation, exploitation and social denigration.

Moreover, the new international system provided the institutional structures – and the legitimised force of coercive state action – for capitalist social relations to expand, which they did to a scale and scope previously unimagined. This expansion occurred through – not against – the nationalisation of states, sovereignty, territory and subjectivities. Claiming to have liberated people, postcolonialism liberated capital instead. This postcolonial reality is poignantly captured by a proverb from the area now known as Turkey: ‘When the axe came into the woods, many of the trees said, “At least the handle is one of us”.’

Yet, support for nationalism and for nation-states remains hegemonic across the Left-Right political spectrum. National sovereignty continues to be seen as the last bastion of resistance against ‘foreign’ incursions. In fact, everywhere on our planet, nationalist politics are hardening. The postcolonial politics of forging – and legislating – separations between ‘citizens’ and ‘migrants’ are both expanding and intensifying in uncanny ways.

This can be seen in the resurgence of the idea of ‘native-ness’. Under the rule of imperial-states, the status of ‘native’ marked the status of colonial subjects. Far from disappearing when colonised ‘natives’ become independent ‘nationals’, it is becoming clear that in nationalist politics today, the idea that there is one group of people who are the ‘true’ members of the ‘nation’ has become increasingly popular. This group is regarded as the ‘national-natives’.

While the already limited criteria of national belonging have developed around the figure of the ‘true’ – that is, ‘native’ – member of the ‘nation’, at the same time, there has been an expansion of the term ‘coloniser’. Borrowing the imperial meaning of ‘natives’ as colonised people, those who are ‘national-natives’ see themselves as having been ‘colonised’ by ‘migrants’.

Such rhetoric is no trifling matter. Instead, it informs some of the most violent acts of our time: the expulsion of ‘Asians’ from Uganda in the 1970s, the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the ongoing persecution, expulsion and killings of Rohingya people in Myanmar. Unmasking and defanging the bogeyman of ‘foreign-ness’ that is ripe in all nationalist and nativist politics is, I believe, a critical aspect of the goal of making a world that reflects the needs, desires and connections between all of life on our shared planet.

Nandita Sharma is Professor in Sociology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. She is an activist scholar interested in human mobility, the state category of ‘migrant labour’, nation-state power, ideologies of racism, sexism and nationalism, processes of identification and self-understanding, and social movements for justice.

In June and July, Nandita will be hosted by MMB as a Bristol Benjamin Meaker Distinguished Visiting Professor. She will be giving a public lecture in Bristol on 29th June entitled ‘Are Immigration Controls Racist? Lessons from History’. Find out more and register here.

Previous MMB blogposts by Nandita include ‘National sovereignty and postcolonial racism‘ and ‘From “social distancing” to planetary solidarity‘.

UK-Rwanda refugee deal: first thoughts

By Miranda Butler.

The UK-Rwanda memorandum of understanding on asylum processing is now available. It sets out the terms of the agreement between the countries at a high level but provides some insight into how this scheme is supposed to work.

Before removal

Importantly, the UK has committed to undertaking an ‘initial screening’ of asylum seekers. How this will compare to current asylum screening interviews is yet to be seen but it is clear that the UK is intended to identify vulnerabilities and inform the Rwandan authorities about them.

Given the well-recognised shortcomings of such Home Office screenings, including the widespread failures to identify serious mental and physical health problems as well as trafficking victims and torture survivors, there are serious questions about how effective this expedited system will be. 

Many new arrivals need legal advice and expert evidence to demonstrate their vulnerabilities to the Home Office’s satisfaction. I anticipate a swift legal challenge if there is no automatic right to such assistance for those facing removal to Rwanda.  

Merely raising an asylum claim at the initial screening will not be enough to prevent removal: the Nationality and Borders Bill, when passed, will make such claims inadmissible. Human rights claims may be enough to prevent removal but this will no doubt lead to numerous urgent out-of-hours judicial review applications, as undesirable as that is for all involved. 

Under paragraph 3.2, Rwanda has to approve all transfer requests prior to relocation. This may well add delay and uncertainty to the process. It also means that the system is fundamentally discretionary, open to advocacy and political pressure on both sides. 

Unsurprisingly, the UK will make the removal arrangements:

6.1 The United Kingdom will arrange the Relocated Individual’s transport to Rwanda and will ensure that all the necessary authorisations have been obtained from the relevant authorities of the United Kingdom, any countries of transit and Rwanda in relation to the traffic of commercial or chartered flights or other means of transport.

6.2 The United Kingdom will assume responsibility for the safe transportation of Relocated Individuals to Rwanda by aircraft, including the provision of escorts as necessary.

So decisions about whether someone is fit to fly will be made (and challengeable) in the UK. Again, practitioners will want to know whether and how they will be able to take instructions on challenges like this. 

After removal

Those removed in Rwanda will be accommodated (apparently for free) by the Rwandan government. Rwanda has agreed to provide accommodation that is ‘adequate to ensure the health, security and wellbeing’ of those relocated. The MoU stipulates that asylum seekers brought to Rwanda will not be detained in this accommodation (although the Home Office’s own changing narrative about whether asylum seekers are detained in the Napier and Penally camps raises questions about the genuine liberty of those removed).

8.2 A Relocated Individual will be free to come and go, to and from accommodation that has been provided, at all times, in accordance with Rwandan laws and regulations as applicable to all residing in Rwanda.

There is nothing specific in the agreement about those removed being able to access healthcare, financial support, or other services. Nor does it explain whether asylum seekers will be able to work. These are pressing questions which, even at a high level, we might have expected the parties to agree — especially as Rwanda does not provide universal healthcare free at the point of use. 

Rwanda also agrees to treat those relocated in accordance with the Refugee Convention and with ‘international standards’. The UK government insists this agreement is compatible with the Refugee Convention which, if correct, means there’s little to stop Rwanda sending asylum seekers to another third country. This sort of high-level agreement depends on a sustained commitment to human rights in both countries, which sadly is not reflected in reality.

Those relocated should have access to legal assistance in Rwanda throughout their asylum claim:

Rwanda will ensure that…

9.1.2 each Relocated Individual will have access to an interpreter and to procedural or legal assistance, at every stage of their asylum claim, including if they wish to appeal a decision made on their case…

But the MoU does not state whether such legal assistance will be free, nor does it stipulate any minimum requirements.

Those recognised as refugees in Rwanda will be granted the same level of support and accommodation in the country as they had while their claim was being processed. There is no clear time limit on their entitlement to support and nothing about other conditions of stay. 

Those refused asylum may be returned to their countries of origin or can try to obtain permission to stay some other way under Rwandan immigration laws, if possible.

Rwanda agrees to take all reasonable steps to return people to the UK if the British authorities are obliged to do so:

11.1 Following a request made by the United Kingdom, Rwanda will take all reasonable steps in accordance with international human rights standards to make a Relocated Individual available for return to the United Kingdom should the United Kingdom be legally obliged to facilitate that person’s return.

Clearly the Home Office anticipates at least the possibility of UK courts making ‘bring back’ orders

Under paragraph 16 of the agreement, the UK has agreed to resettle a portion of Rwanda’s ‘most vulnerable refugees’. This raises the question of how we can be confident that Rwanda can care for vulnerable asylum seekers being sent from the UK. It reflects the surreal and inhumane two-tier system the Home Office is creating: performative cruelty for those arriving in the UK without permission, justified by some limited and restrictive routes for resettled refugees.

This is against both the spirit and the letter of the Refugee Convention. 

Grounds for concern already

Whichever country is involved, offshoring is legally unjustifiable and reflects the broader failure on the part of the Home Office to comply with the requirements of international law to welcome refugees regardless of their method of entry.

Nevertheless, the choice of Rwanda is concerning given its history of human rights violations, including towards asylum seekers. Only last year, the UK expressed concern over ‘continued restrictions to civil and political rights and media freedom’ in Rwanda, noting allegations of extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody and torture. It recommended that the Rwandan government ‘screen, identify and provide support to trafficking victims, including those held in Government transit centres’. That such a recommendation is necessary does not bode well for the commitment enshrined within the MoU to support trafficking victims sent from the UK.

It remains to be seen how the MoU will be reflected in policy and practice, but there is good reason to be concerned about the legality of this agreement and the impact it will have on vulnerable asylum seekers. No doubt there will be both individual and systemic legal challenges to this offshoring plan, brought by hardworking, underpaid legal aid lawyers who — far from being ‘politically motivated’ — know the human cost of government illegality.

Miranda Butler is a barrister at Landmark Chambers practising in all areas of immigration, with a particular focus on asylum and human rights.

This post was originally published by Free Movement on 14th April 2022.

Vicarious strength: friends and befriending in UK immigration detention

By Joel White.

‘We use the word friend here. Not client, or service user. Not asylum seeker, or refugee. We try to say friend.’

These were the words that stuck with me most after a volunteer training at the Unity Centre, a drop-in space for people going through the asylum and immigration system in Glasgow. Years later, during 12 months of ethnographic research with people navigating this system across the city, I found myself returning to such ideas of friendship, thinking specifically about how people who had been through immigration detention drew on such ideas in navigating their ‘detainability’.  

I asked my friend Alyssa, who I met at Unity Centre, about this and she told me:

You know, in Yarlswood [an Immigration Removal Centre, in England], I didn’t know about the Unity Centre. But without fail twice a week I’d get a call from them. I didn’t know these people. I can say that. They would ask: ‘How am I? How are things?’ They listened to what I had to say. For me, that was important. People from Church would call too and come to visit.

So, you know, for me, friendship means strength in the struggle, but vicariously. Vicarious support. If [you are inside and] two people get deported, nobody has any strength at all. But if we are outside, we are here, we are caring, you get … I don’t know what to call it … like … vicarious strength?

Balloons at a protest at Dungavel House Immigration Removal Centre, South Lanarkshire, 2017
(image: Joel White)

Friendship was a key idea and practice for a range of people I met during my fieldwork, spanning from the kind of politically levelling and vicariously binding vision of ‘the friend’ we see above, to more codified forms of ‘befriending’, particularly in the context of NGO detention visiting groups. Linking all these visions of friendship was a focus on the political importance of relationality, a sense of building commitment and trust as a way to meet and resist the violence of the British border regime.

From the outset, I tried to link this to a methodological question about doing research in such a system: is it possible to be a good ‘friend’ through academic work? Can research on migration join in building ‘vicarious strength’? Or is friendship necessarily outside such remits, and what would that say about academic notions of consent, participation and ethics?

Humanitarian kinship

Considering friendship as a methodological as well as theoretical issue meant focusing on how people I worked with interpreted being a ‘friend’, rather than the somewhat limited anthropological writing on the topic. Friendship has been a key topic in activist and migrant solidarity writing for some time – linking to ideas of affinity, anarchist ethics, mutual aid and antiracist organising tactics. One popular zine I encountered during my fieldwork drew on Foucauldian and Queer ideas of relationality to talk about friendship as a ‘destabilizing, empowering, desubjectifying process’, a way to examine possibilities for collectivity and revolutionary change.

Another book that was popular with activists I got to know through places like the Unity Centre asked: ‘If capitalism works by dismembering transformative relationships, can friendship be revalued as a radical, transformative form of kinship?’ Such work raises questions about the granular task of building interpersonal connection and solidarity within a system that is deeply racialized and gendered. This, in turn, expands and augments questions about academic ethics processes and positionality, pushing researchers to consider if and how they are sharing in the struggles of those they get to know. 

Many NGO groups also theorized friendship in particular ways, with groups that visit detention across the UK often framing this in terms of ‘befriending’. Such initiatives worked to create interpersonal bonds across complex forms of difference, and though on face value they were more codified – through trainings, ‘visitor packs’, mentorships and audits – NGO visiting often ended up being fairly improvised and loose in its own way.

I met a large range of detention ‘visitors’, including a significant number who had been through detention themselves, who approached the question of ‘befriending’ in widely different ways. Many saw themselves as part of a tradition of  ‘welcome’ and ‘sanctuary’ (see also Darling, 2010) that drew on what Tom Kemp calls a ‘mythology of British hospitality’: this linked to a history of often Quaker-led prison visiting and reform initiatives that considered friendship as doing ‘God’s will’. Others brought religiosity to their visiting in a more overt sense, as a Christian duty, while some used visiting to get experience while studying or in the middle of their own struggles for the ‘right to work’. For some this was a directly personal and familial thing, as one woman told me:

I didn’t know there was a detention centre here [in Scotland], but my son was detained down south and was removed to Zimbabwe. I’d visited him in England and realised how long people were there.

Seeing him closed away from the world, it really hurt me […] I’ve seen what my son went through and I’d like to give as much support as I can to people who are in detention. And it’s my passion to help people who are in need.

So, I decided it was good to do that here. I felt like I needed to visit people in detention because I know what they go through.

Through my research I came to consider initiatives like detention visiting as part of a broader trend towards what I call humanitarian kinship – forms of humanitarianism that focus on interpersonal connection as a way to ‘do good’. Narratives of ‘befriending’ aim to transform the moral subjectivities of both visitor and ‘detainee’, with the latter clearly positioned as suffering ‘victim’ in certain ways. As the quote above shows, however, this was often blurry and complex.

While it’s tempting to treat activist and radical notions of ‘friendship’ in opposition to the humanitarian kinship of ‘befriending’, both involve efforts to incorporate groups of people in a community of relatedness, conditioned by the racialized violence of the UK border regime. By attempting to methodologically share in the ethics of friendship used by the people we meet, ethnographers can expand and question our ideas of consent, accountability and participation.

Joel White lives in Glasgow and is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. He completed a PhD at the end of 2021 entitled, ‘Holding Space: Friendship, Care and Carcerality in the UK Immigration Detention System’.

Brexit, COVID and stay/return narratives amongst Polish migrants in the UK

By Magda Mogilnicka.

Following EU enlargement in 2004, Polish migrants quickly became the largest migrant population in the UK. Since the Brexit referendum in 2016, however, the Office for National Statistics has documented a decline in the Polish population by around a quarter. A further drop in numbers was noticeable after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the estimated population of Polish citizens at the end of 2020 at 691,000 compared with 818,000 in 2019. Both the rise and the fall in numbers have been widely understood in terms of Poles as economic migrant workers and their contributions to the economy. But how do Polish migrants themselves reflect on their presence in the UK? In 2021 I carried out a research pilot study to learn more about the impact of COVID and Brexit on Polish people living in Bristol, and whether they are currently considering leaving or staying in the UK.

Since the referendum there has been a surge in British citizenship and EUSS scheme applications made by EU citizens, which demonstrates that concerns around Brexit and the pandemic have driven some EU citizens to take actions to anchor themselves in British society. However, recent media debates have focused on the return of many EU citizens to their countries of origin, which has been understood as an exodus that will affect the British economy. Commentators have pointed at Brexit and the pandemic as contributing factors in these individuals’ decision to leave, and the impact of these events on a rise in hate crime towards them, being made to feel unwelcome and uncertainties around their future.

Although many Polish people are leaving, it is unclear how many of them have also secured EU Settlement Scheme status or applied for British citizenship. The current return migration should not, therefore, be seen as a definite, long-term departure. Neither should their potential relocation back to the UK be interpreted as a long-term stay. In other words, the Brexit or COVID related changes in status and mobility are not fixed.

Polish grocery store in Plymouth, UK, 2015 (image by Chris on Flickr)

Polish migrants in my pilot research study clearly voiced their anxieties about their future in the UK. In 2021 I interviewed 15 Polish workers employed in a variety of sectors, such as hospitality, the NHS, food distribution, supermarkets and the public sector. The project explored how Brexit and COVID were affecting their everyday lives. This led to discussions about the possibility of returning to Poland.

At the time of the study, Brexit was overshadowed by COVID-19.However, the respondents readily shared memories of the vote to leave the EU five years earlier. Above all they described a feeling of disappointment and betrayal.

Most participants knew of someone who had already left the UK and were sympathetic towards the decision. The returns were perceived as a loss for the British industries, as stated by a female participant Edyta: ‘Watching all those construction sites in our neighbourhood, I thought to myself: “Who is gonna work here?” (…) Poles are leaving, escaping (…) because it doesn’t pay off for them anymore (…). So, who is gonna work here?’ Similarly, Marta noticed that Polish people might be better off financially in Poland: ‘The British pound is not as strong a currency as 15 years ago. We cannot save as much anymore.’

Other respondents also reproduced the discourse of Poles’ economic contributions as migrants. One of them, Ania, claimed that the UK is already experiencing a shortage of labour force: ‘They say: “immigrants are taking jobs away!” Now farmers cannot find anyone to work so what jobs are we taking away?’ Some suggested that British people would eventually regret their decision to leave the EU as they are losing an essential labour force. These narratives draw on the stereotype of a hardworking Polish migrant and reproduce the sense of validity and usefulness of Poles in Britain as migrant workers rather than citizens deserving to be here.

Although the participants justified other migrants’ decisions to leave, they themselves had no intention to do so in the near future. Interestingly, the narratives about staying also constructed Polish citizens as migrant workers. A notion of their irreplaceability has led some to believe that their position in the UK is secure, as expressed by Monika: ‘They won’t kick us out – they need immigrants, Brexit is just an economic stage in their country’s history, I don’t take it personally.’ Similarly, Marcin claimed: ‘I’m not scared of losing my job. I will find another one easily.’ Over the years, Poles have earned a good reputation as a ‘hard-working’ migrant group. As Marta stated: ‘One of my customers said to me: I voted Brexit but have nothing against Polish migrants. They work hard.’ Although Brexit continues to have serious consequences for EU migrants’ mobility, the participants were convinced that their legal status was secure. Their stay narratives – similarly to their return ones – constructed Polish people as migrant workers in British society.

By contrast, the participants expressed their sense of belonging to Poland through nostalgic memories about family, friends and places. These feelings had been intensified by the pandemic. The sudden travel ban following the start of COVID-19 made it impossible for them to see their families, which led some participants to seriously consider leaving the UK for good. They rethought their values and the importance of their families, as seen in Ania’s reflection: ‘I’m the only child, my parents miss me. They are 80 and 79, I don’t know for how much longer I will have them.’ Marta’s memories of Poland expressed deep nostalgia: ‘I miss Poland so much. I miss gardens, parks, people, everything!’ This romanticised picture was reinforced by Monika: ‘I miss four seasons (…) I feel like I’m missing out on so much by being here.’

My respondents rationalised other Polish people’s decisions to leave as a financially more secure option and as a loss to the British economy, but they talked about their own potential return in terms of an emotional connection to Poland, which was missing from their narratives about the UK. Those who expressed a sense of belonging to the UK talked about it in terms of their local links to neighbourhoods, workplaces and mortgage commitments, or having children who feel more at home in the UK than in Poland.

Their stay and return narratives therefore reproduced dominant discourses in UK society that identify Poles as migrant workers whose value is measured in economic terms. In other words, they are seen as economic actors rather than as citizens – an issue for many migrant groups. Their narratives are also in dialogue with broader media and political discourses in the UK that construct them as the racialised East European Other – that is, cheap, low-skilled economic migrants praised for their hard work, but also facing political hostility and racism. These discourses position them below the white British majority in hierarchies of belonging. And yet, as seen in my participants’ responses, many Polish migrants today point to the UK’s labour shortages resulting from Brexit and the pandemic and use this to re-negotiate their identity as economic workers ­that once again need to be appreciated.

Magda Mogilnicka is a Lecturer in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Relations, University of Bristol. Her PhD thesis, ‘Lived diversities of conditional citizens: Poles’ encounters with difference in Britain’, investigated everyday ambivalent experiences of learning to live with diversity in the context of British national hierarchies of belonging.

The power of collaborative art in research for social change

By Rebecca Yeo.

On Human Rights Day, 10th December 2021, a mural on the wall of Easton Community Centre was officially opened. It brings together and promotes messages from Deaf, Disabled and asylum-seeking people living in the Bristol area. The collaborative process of creating the mural is the latest in a series of projects facilitated by artist Andrew Bolton and myself, including work in Bolivia and in the UK. In this most recent project in Easton we specifically sought to bring together the Disabled people’s movement and people with experience of the UK immigration system, as well as to develop creative means of engagement during the pandemic.

‘Disability and migration: a mural for social change’, Easton Community Centre, Bristol, 2021 (image: Mark Simmons)

My research focuses on responses to disability and forced migration in the UK (Yeo, 2015, 2017, 2019, 2021). Within this, I investigate and seek to reduce the barriers separating the asylum sector and the Disabled people’s movement – there is considerable overlap in the experiences of people in both. Many asylum seekers, for example, experience severe mental distress or have other impairments. However, with this mural we were not only working with asylum seekers who identify as Disabled but with a wider section of both groups to build an understanding of the similarities and differences in their experiences.  

The mural conveys key messages of the hopes and struggles faced by asylum seekers and Disabled citizens. Some people contributed images and others used words to explain what they wanted the world to understand. Andy, the mural artist, worked with each person to include elements of their ideas or images in the overall design. Some people helped to paint the mural background directly onto the wall. Others painted their contributions onto wooden boards, which were then varnished and fixed to the wall. Alongside the painting, each person was invited to contribute to a short film, explaining their messages in their own words.

This collaborative and creative research approach brought together people whose voices are rarely heard in the mainstream media. The images highlight that the asylum system itself is actively and deliberately disabling, but the mural also makes clear that these injustices are not inevitable. The top of the mural is divided into three rainbows: on the left, a colourful rainbow represents visions for how things could be; in the middle, the rainbow has more muted colours, representing things changing for better, or worse; and on the far right, a grey rainbow represents the worst injustices. 

At the start of the first rainbow, a chain of interconnected people provide help and solidarity to each other (left). However, the University of Bristol’s Student Disability and Accessibility Network explained how this chain of support has been made increasingly fragile through underfunding, and how responses to COVID have been pulling it apart.

Together with many other Disabled people, students expressed their relief when, during lockdown, university lectures along with many public events became accessible from home. They hoped that lockdown might increase empathy and commitment to long-term provision for people who need remote access. However, Lizzy Horn, a woman who has been largely housebound for the last 13 years described her frustration when, after the first lockdown, the need for remote access was again sidelined. She contributed this Haiku:

Gaze from my window,
The world moves on once again,
I am left behind.

Meanwhile, people seeking asylum described the disabling effects of government policy. Under the colourful rainbow, a group of people chat happily. But in the centre, under the fading rainbow, one man stands with his backpack after leaving a house (below). On the right, the same man is homeless, crouching in a bush. Without food, shelter or hope for the future, he explained that asylum policy had caused him to ‘lose [his] mind’. A uniformed officer and a suited man stand together ignoring the homeless man. These figures represent immigration officers and politicians as well as those in academia, local government and beyond who collude with the police and government policy rather than risk speaking out against injustice.

Three stages of homelessness

Above this, a series of cages hang from the sky bring together experiences of asylum seekers and Disabled citizens. People from both groups talked about feeling trapped and being unable to move on in their lives. In the first cage (right), under the muted rainbow, a wheelchair user is surrounded by confusing information from social and mainstream media. The socially constructed nature of the cage is highlighted by having a second image of the same wheelchair user under the brightly coloured rainbow, but this time sitting in a comfortable pagoda, able to engage with and contribute to the world (see cage image above).

The middle cage (below) contains a Deaf person with their arms out signing ‘Where?’ In front of the cage there is a hand with the words, ‘Where is the interpreter?’ This image from Lynn Stewart Taylor is the symbol for the campaign that she established in response to government failure to provide British Sign Language interpreters for public health announcements about COVID. As with many images in this mural, the image is also very relevant to a wider population: government announcements about the pandemic have routinely been provided only for English language speakers. The final cage holds a dead canary, evoking the historical practice of taking canaries into mines to warn of gas leaks. This mural warns that urgent action is needed to save lives. 

Next to the final cage there is a drawing of Kamil Ahmad, a Disabled asylum seeker who was murdered in Bristol in 2016. The image is repeated from his contribution to a mural in 2012 – it depicts him holding his head in despair at the injustices caused by the Home Office. The mural is dedicated to him, in a quest to build solidarity and prevent further injustices. 

The mural enabled participants to claim a space in a public setting and raise awareness of their experiences of marginalisation. The images and messages will also be submitted to the United Nations as part of this year’s shadow report from Deaf and Disabled people. The UN uses this report, alongside an official government submission, to assess how the UK is meeting its obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People. This is the first time that the experiences of asylum seekers have been included in the shadow report.

In these ways, this mural is intended not just to convey people’s experiences but also to contribute to change. The key message is that if we work together it is possible to build a better world and extend the colourful rainbow to include everyone. It calls for solidarity between the asylum sector, the Disabled people’s movement and allies – as one contributor put it, ‘togetherness is strength’.

Rebecca Yeo is an ESRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School for Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol. Her research focuses on refining and promoting a social model of asylum as a means to transform responses to disability and forced migration in the UK.

All images by Rebecca Yeo and Andrew Bolton except where indicated.

Environmental racism in the borderland: the case of Calais

By Travis Van Isacker.

The hostile environment has been shorthand for the United Kingdom’s border regime since it was coined in 2012 by the then-Home Secretary, Theresa May. Originally describing a socio-political environment within the UK designed to make life impossible for people unable to prove their immigration status, it has since been extended to the country’s extraterritorialised borderlands, Calais especially. As the concept travelled, its scope was expanded to include the urban and natural environments that also work to segregate migrants, drive them from the city and frustrate their journeys to Britain.

But what makes environments hostile? Calais is not naturally an especially inhospitable place, nor is it uniformly hostile to all human life. Rather, it has been made hostile for the racialised migrants who are neglected, injured and all too often killed there as a result of the border. That this state-mandated violence occurs to sustain an unequal global distribution of mobility rights and privileges for differentially racialised people means Calais’ hostile environment might best be understood as one of environmental racism.

Aftermath of destruction at Zone du Virval, across from Calais’ hospital, to prevent re-settlement by migrants, 22 October 2021 (image: author’s own)

Environmental racism is a concept typically associated with environmental rather than mobility injustice. Recently, however, it has been expanded in ways which help to unpack the racism, border violence and destruction of migrants’ living spaces in Calais. Willie Jamaal Wright (2018) argues that destroying the environments that Black communities inhabit cannot be understood separately from racist physical violence against Black people. For him ‘environmental racism includes the mutual devaluation of Black bodies and the[ir] spaces’ and is expressed through the ‘mutual malformation of people and environments’. Wright also points out that environments are not only destroyed as a route or corollary to the elimination of racialised people but become weaponised in the violent processes that do so. Thus, we can understand environmental racism as the destruction as well as instrumentalisation of environments to enact racist violence.

Classic studies of environmental racism focus on how communities of colour in the United States are overwhelmingly targeted for dumping waste and locating polluting industries. Calais has its own examples of this. Most notable is La Lande, a former landfill lying in the shadows of the Tioxide and Graftech chemical factories that became home to ‘The Jungle’ in 2015 with the eviction of all other camps and squats in the city. La Lande was a toxic and hazardous site, scattered with harmful waste caused by years of illegal fly-tipping, and that was a designated Seveso area ‘subject to an increased risk of chemical accident hazard’ (Statewatch, 2020). The air quality was particularly bad and held a sour tang. Frequently this was punctuated by the burning of lachrymogenic gas fired by police, illustrating that life in the Jungle not only had to survive ‘slow violence’, as residents’ bodies absorbed pollutants and endured neglect, but the open assault of state agents.

French riot police tear gas a group of Jungle residents demonstrating on the motorway, 20 August 2015 (image: Calais Migrant Solidarity)

Since the Jungle’s destruction in October 2016, the camps that migrants create in and around Calais have been mercilessly evicted and destroyed every day, even during blizzards. People’s warm clothes and sleeping bags are confiscated or intentionally soiled by police and city workers in the process. Their goal, in addition to preventing camps from becoming visible or attaining any material durability, is to keep migrants exposed to the elements so they decide themselves to leave Calais and abandon their attempts to reach the UK. Calais’ meteorological conditions – the rain, wind and cold – are thus put to work perpetuating deterrent border policies by inflicting misery and enforcing hardship upon those made to live rough in the city.

Criticism from NGOs led to these destructions being rhetorically rebranded ‘cleanings’. Racialised migrants, already constructed as dirty and contaminated through a racist imaginary, are scapegoated for polluting the environments in which they live, in turn justifying the relentless attacks on their homes in the name of environmental protection. Maria Hagan (2019) writes that these operations in fact do more damage as the slashed tents and spoiled belongings are ‘left on site or thrown into puddles or ponds nearby, not only polluting the environment but making it less liveable for the displaced’. The cleaning euphemism, while intending to downplay the violence of constantly evicting and destroying migrants’ homes, in fact betrays the racism behind these operations when it becomes clear that they are intended to clean the sites of people, not their waste.

A ‘cleaning’ operation close to Calais’ Fort Nieulay, 13 January 2022 (image: Paula Saura).

Despite daily evictions, migrants continue re-establishing camps in the same locations each day. Recently the city started using a new tactic to try and prevent re-settlement: the total destruction of the natural environments in which camps are located. Especially in areas too large to be fenced off (as already so many sites in Calais have been), excavators and bulldozers raze the land, cut down trees, and mulch the shrubbery following evictions. Destroying these environments denies migrants the modicum of shelter and privacy the scrub provided, rendering them hypervisible to police and fully exposed to the elements.

Reflecting other borderlands, the cold and violent seas of the English Channel have recently become both border agent and medium of conveyance for people’s irregular journeys. For decades its hazards presented a natural barrier to crossings, but the intense securitisation of lorry parks, the Eurotunnel terminal and ferry-port over recent years has left navigating this narrow but dangerous marine passage in overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels the only choice available to most. The increased exposure to hypothermia and death by drowning are not natural hazards of such journeys, but rather consequences of the racist border regime that prevents illegalised travellers from safely cruising on ferries or gliding through underwater tunnels like the rest of us.

These examples of environmental racism in Calais’ borderlands illustrate how the border harms the city’s environment while making it harmful to racialised migrants. However, the concept of environmental racism also draws attention to the social, cultural and political environment of racism through which border violence is generated and justified. Recognising racism as environmental – in the words of Christina Sharpe (2017) forming ‘the totality of our environments… the total climate’ – demands that our critiques extend beyond a focus on the hostility of borderlands to address the racist politics at their root if we are to abolish them and cultivate something new.

Travis Van Isacker is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton. This year he will be joining Migration Mobilities Bristol as a Postdoctoral Researcher in the ‘Moving’ domain of the ESRC Centre for Sociodigital Futures. This post was adapted from elements of his doctoral thesis ‘Counter-mapping citizenship: bordering through domicide in Calais, France’ (2020).