Intimate state encounters: Brexit, European Roma and contested home-lands

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

By Rachel Humphris.

Brexit and the UK’s relationship with the European Union foregrounds questions of identity, nationhood and who is included or excluded. For those identified as ‘Roma’ these are perennial questions as purported ‘European citizenship’ made little difference to their position as Europe’s enduring ‘internal Other’, who have never and cannot ‘belong’ (Sardelić 2019). Roma are always positioned ‘in’ but never ‘of’ Europe. Often overlooked in histories of modern Europe, Roma have been enslaved, forcibly settled and sterilised, suffered state kidnap, and targeted during the Holocaust. Their current experiences continue to reveal the force of stigmatization and racialisation embedded in society, law and governance.

I came to a partial understanding of these experiences through spending 14 months living in Luton, UK, with ‘Romanian Roma’ families (a bureaucratic category used by frontline workers) with the aim of exploring migration, statecraft, race and urban marginalisation. Luton has suffered the brunt of ‘austerity localism’, post-welfare reforms, rising xenophobia, and the dehumanizing ‘hostile environment’ created to make living in the UK so difficult that migrants ‘self-deport’.

I observed the gendered and racialized effects of the hostile environment as migrant households were the subject of ubiquitous value judgements, targeted surveillance and an imposed racialized exceptionalism tending toward differential treatment premised on mythical assumptions (Stewart 2012). For example, mothers were judged on the food they ate, whether their front garden was tidy, the other people in the house (particularly men) who were not part of the ‘nuclear family’ and the disorienting rhythms of the domestic space, which did not map onto prevailing norms of domesticity, intimacy and intensive mothering. While these mothers have a particular experience, these processes are based in deep histories of surveillance and disciplining of the racialized and classed urban poor (Picker 2017).

However, I was also acutely aware that the frontline workers conducting home visits were themselves caught in the entanglements of a retreating welfare state and securitised migration apparatus. Casting aside the usual binary of social care/social control, these observations made me attend to the manifestations of ambivalence and uncertainty for migrant mothers and frontline workers. I shifted my emphasis from ‘state acts’ to ‘state encounters’ to open up the processual and relational quality of how states are made in practice and to account for emplaced and embodied positions of all social actors.

So while frontline workers determine the fate of new migrant families (potentially causing their deportation or state kidnap) they are themselves often racialized mothers, subject to migration control and invested in proving themselves as ‘good citizens’ resonating with Cohen’s (1999) notion of ‘advanced marginalisation’. They must negotiate their way through a complex, constantly shifting and messy terrain of migration policies, border policing and surveillance. They must reconcile these duties with their professional commitment to an ethics of care, often taking on work well beyond their formal role and the hours that they are paid (through processes of New Public Management they are employed in short-term, target driven, precarious contracts at the lowest end of the local state). They carry with them enormous and contradictory burdens, responsibilities and anxieties with the fate of new migrant families and their futures at times in their sole hands.

These intimate state encounters are one instance where decisions about who belongs and who deserves discretionary extra support rests on the strange and unsettling mingling of established categories. These citizenship decisions emerge at the intersection of public and private, formal and informal, political and personal. Drawing inspiration from Mbembe’s observations of colonial governance (2001: 28), this research showed that governing political belonging through the home space does more than confuse the public and private: it depends on and reproduces that confused space to ensure the continual reproduction of marginalisation based on raced, classed and gendered hierarchies.

As critical race, gender and queer scholars have long pointed out, the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is most fundamentally drawn in the intimate sphere. From British imperialism to the present day, racialized relations have come to be shaped and governed through intimacy (McClintock 1995; Stoler 1995). My work has tried to draw a line from these debates to the role of the family and the domestic in the contemporary UK state and how they relate to conceptions of nationhood, identity and belonging today.

The stories of new migrant mothers and those tasked to govern them are not often heard. Legal migration statuses are proliferating and becoming more precarious. Brexit seems unlikely to reverse the trend. Austerity is still biting hard and likely to continue in the current context of a stagnating economy and casualties of COVID-19. The privatisation of services is carrying on apace creating complex relationships in frontline provision.

Marginalised families, like the Roma in Luton, are more likely than ever to fall through the gaps or become subject to bordering, sometimes from those who have the best of intentions but work in a harsh and broken system. In this context, the most mundane everyday actions in the home become crucial for how families can secure a safe status in the home-land. This research raises fundamental questions about the types of homes – and the type of home-land – we want and what we need to change to achieve them.

Rachel Humphris is a Lecturer in Sociology and Politics at Queen Mary University of London. She is a political ethnographer whose research and teaching focuses on immigration and citizenship, urban governance, gender and race.

Home-Land: Romanian Roma, Domestic Spaces and the State (2019) is available from Bristol University Press.

Racism and the UK’s immigration system

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

By Maya Goodfellow.

‘Hard Brexit,’ Labour’s Andy Burnham warned a few months after the EU referendum result in 2016, would ‘turn Britain into a place it has never been: divided, hostile, narrow-minded.’ This is a theme that has persisted since the initial aftermath of the referendum; some of the people most vocally opposed to Brexit seem to assume that this country will become or is becoming a hostile and racist place for migrants. This erases a whole history of racist and racialising thinking on immigration. My book, Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats (2020, Verso) seeks to challenge this thinking, partly by showing how race and racism have long impacted and been produced by policy.

The UK’s hostile environment did not start with Brexit nor did it begin with the sets of policies introduced through the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts. Saying this does not mean arguing that there are no distinct, significant impacts of these more recent and punitive forms of ‘immigration control’. People are being denied access to healthcare, housing and work, their data being shared between different government departments if they cannot show they have the ‘right’ documentation to be in the UK. Even in the middle of a global pandemic, the hostile environment has largely continued.  

But to imply that these policies were fundamental ruptures that made once ‘liberal’ and welcoming Britain into a place it had never been before is to ignore recent history. Britain has long been a hostile environment for migrants and people racialised as a threat.

Though it is rarely engaged with or properly understood in the public domain,  there is much work examining the UK’s immigration histories. From the racist policies of the Sixties and Seventies, which were concerned with restricting the ability of people of colour from former colonies and colonies to come to this country, through to the way people were treated when they arrived. Racism and immigration policy are inseparable in so many ways.

But too often it is assumed that this relationship is mostly a relic of the past, or only discernible in deeply damaging but seemingly rare cases like the Windrush scandal. This is partly to do with how race and racism are understood: as largely isolated to individual acts, where racist sentiment is overtly expressed. In this telling, it is divorced from the material and the structural realities.

With this narrow understanding of racism as a jumping off point, the role of race in immigration policy and rhetoric is also obscured in how the debate is constructed. It is thought that anti-immigration attitudes rose during the New Labour years because the government ‘let too many people in’ without the consent of the public. Here, dislike of immigration tends to be thought of as a natural reaction to too many people of a ‘certain kind’ coming into the country. When particular groups of migrants arrive, the argument goes, they bring with them ‘cultural change’, which threatens a fabled and supposedly stable, unified British culture. This, then, produces racism and xenophobia. It is thought that to have a ‘cohesive’ society there needs to be more focus on common values and traditions, rather than social and economic emancipation. The only way to address this is to reduce immigration, in particular by reducing the number of racialised people entering the country.

This relies on a specific form of racialised thinking, which in the Eighties was dubbed the ‘new racism’. In the years preceding, ideas about ‘culture’ had really come to the forefront of the immigration debate (though it certainly wasn’t a new concept and has older roots). We can see it is about race by understanding that it is based on the thinking that particular ‘traditions’ are based on biological or ancestral difference. So too, such thinking goes, is the desire to defend those very traditions against so-called outsiders. Such an understanding and production of difference is often at the heart of conceptualisations of race.

If you look a little closer at the New Labour years, you find one of many problems with how the ‘culture’ argument is understood. As well as being deeply racialised, it is not as if anti-immigration politics flourished all on its own: it was cultivated by the Conservatives, the British National Party and eventually the UK Independence Party. New Labour were reproducing this thinking too. Almost from the get go they were anti-asylum, perpetuating stereotypes and implementing restrictive legislation. This was largely on the basis that some people were pretending to be seeking asylum and came to the UK because of so-called ‘pull factors’.

New Labour never significantly challenged the racialised thinking that some groups were a threat to the UK. Instead, they reproduced it in their own specific way: those who were Muslim or thought to be Muslim, for instance. It is against this backdrop that New Labour became increasingly critical of immigration more broadly. So the ‘cultural’ arguments against immigration are both deeply racialised and historically and politically produced; they are not some natural inevitability.

There is no rosy liberal past, then, where processes of racialisation were insignificant or rejected. Understanding this is key not only to making sense of the ways race is produced and operates in policy now but to forging a new, better world together.

Maya Goodfellow is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute. Her research looks at the relationship between capitalism, racism and immigration. 

Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats (2020) is available from Verso with a 40% discount. 

Queer liberalisms and marginal mobility – special issue and interview series

New writing on migration and mobilities – an MMB special series

By Mengia Tschalaer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Luke de Noronha.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke de Noronha is a Lecturer in Race, Ethnicity and Postcolonial Studies at the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Racism and Racialisation, University College London. He is the author of ‘Deporting Black Britons: Portraits of Deportation to Jamaica’ (2020), and producer of the podcast Deportation Discs.

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

Luke has also featured in the MMB Insights and Sounds 2021 series, talking to Bridget Anderson about ‘What does Blackness have to do with deportation?

Moving difference: Brazilians in London

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

By Angelo Martins Junior.

Portuguese version here.

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

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

(Image: Routledge)

As a Brazilian working and then studying in London, I was struck by the fact that the academic literature that emphasises commonality and solidarity amongst migrants did not speak to my own experience. This observation prompted the research on Brazilians in London on which my book Moving Difference (2020) is based. The research involved ethnographic and interview research with men and women who, whilst all being ‘Brazilian migrants in London’, differed in terms of the regions of Brazil they came from, their socio-economic and educational background, and their racialised identities. Their difference moved with them, shaping not only their reasons for migrating and how they navigate different levels of opportunity and constraint to move, but also the ways in which they see and interact with each other in London. However, Britain has its own social and political hierarchies, and in London, my research participants found themselves not only lumped together as ‘Brazilians’ but also lumped in with global south ‘migrants’ in general.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can purchase Moving Difference: Brazilians in London (2020) through the publisher, Routledge, or through your local, independent bookseller.

National sovereignty and postcolonial racism

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


By Nandita Sharma.

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

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

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

(Image: Duke University Press)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can purchase Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants (2020) through the publisher, Duke University Press, or through your local, independent bookseller. In the US, Bookshop is a good alternative to Amazon.

Nandita also featured on the MMB Insights and Sounds 2021 series, talking to Bridget Anderson about ‘What do immigration controls have to do with Empire?

MMB good reads on race, nation and migration

A new blog series reframing thinking on movement and racism.

Introduced by Julia O’Connell Davidson and Bridget Anderson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Home and sense of belonging among Iraqi Kurds in the UK

By Ali Zalme.

All too often we are forced into assumptions and caricatures of a particular group that fail to expose nuanced experiences of the members of that group. My new book, Home and Sense of Belonging among Iraqi Kurds in the UK (Lexington Books, 2020),is an effort to voice out lived experiences of an uncharted immigrant community – that of Iraqi Kurds in the UK. It looks at their different generational experiences in the context of transnational family life, with particular regard to their sense of home and belonging.   

The book is also about my own journey searching for identity. As a Kurd I never belonged to Iraq where we were persecuted, discriminated against and subject to genocide. And as a Hawrami speaker I have not always been relaxed about my Kurdishness and have often felt like an outsider –a minority within a minority. This book is an attempt to understand a complex diaspora in which many people find it difficult to belong. Among the voices of individuals from Iraqi Kurdish communities here in the UK my voice is also present.

As an interpreter and community organiser working closely with Kurdish families and individuals in Bristol and other major cities, I have long considered questions about home and belonging. One project I was involved in was establishing a Kurdish supplementary school or so-called Sunday school to help Kurdish children learn their mother tongue. That particular experience and my contacts with Kurdish families led to my master’s dissertation on cultural identities among diasporic communities. In particular, I was interested in ideas about the physical home in the UK and the imagined ancestral home among the Kurdish second-generation in Bristol (Zalme 2011). I continued to work and extend my research with the Kurdish community during my PhD, on which this book is based. 

Kurds in Bristol protest against the Turkish military operation in Afrin, Syria, in January 2018
(image: Ali Zalme)

As a first-generation Kurd in Britain I am interested in the differences and similarities between parents and children, and between me (as a male researcher) and my female participants, in our understandings of home and belonging. In addition to my gender and generational identity, my linguistic background as a Hawrami speaker was highly relevant to my fieldwork. Being Hawrami and having grown up in an environment in Iraqi Kurdistan where Kurdish-Sorani speakers were dominant (and this is still the case in the diaspora) has often made me question who I am and where I belong.

In the diaspora I have tended to involve myself in many activities to support the Hawrami, which was not always possible in Kurdistan. There the hegemonic nationalist ideology situated all Kurds as a unified people regardless of the ‘trivial’ narratives relating to ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities. In Britain, this disjuncture between my lived experience of being born and raised a Hawrami and the culture of others in the UK Kurdish community has remained acute. In examining my own sense of home and belonging and that of my participants, this book pays close attention to the diversity of the Kurdish diaspora and introduces the notion of a diaspora within a diaspora. By concentrating on Iraqi Kurds, it shows how identities formed back home in Iraqi Kurdistan have had a significant impact on the community in the UK.

A Kurdish family protest in Bristol against the Turkish military operation, January 2018 (image: Ali Zalme)

This book challenges the prevalent essentialist and nationalist approach to research of diasporic communities. Instead of providing generalisations about whether the younger generation will follow their parents or take a different route, my findings suggest a more complex picture about the degree of parental power and political interest. The life stories of different members of Kurdish immigrant families show that they are each negotiating the making of new homes on a daily basis. A great number of my participants have suggested that most members of diasporic communities are family orientated and tend to establish a new home in the UK while erasing the other due to these family commitments.

My research has also shown that Kurdish women are more independent in exile than those living in Kurdistan, and yet they maintain their ethnic identity and have strong affiliations with the Kurdish question (that is, the nationalist project of the nation-building process). New challenges and new opportunities face Kurdish women here in the UK as they find themselves living between two contrasting cultures. As a result, their concept of ‘home’ is highly complex: many vividly express their frustration regarding the patriarchal culture at home in Iraq, but at the same time they struggle to integrate into a British society that gives them greater independence. Instead, they live in an imaginary home that is neither quite here nor there but somewhere in-between. My book concludes that we need to be more focused on the particularity of Kurdish cases and avoid homogenisation with respect to Kurdish diaspora studies in the UK.     

Ali Zalme has a PhD in Sociology from the University of the West of England. He is a freelance researcher interested in migration, identity and belonging with a particular focus on the Middle East and the Kurdish diaspora.

Are transnational marriages bad for integration?

By Sarah Spencer

The belief that marriage partners from less developed countries are bad for ‘integration’ is firmly held by European policy makers. With pressure to curb immigration, that concern has conveniently justified raising the bar for spouses to enter.

Marriage Migration and Integration (2020) interrogates that assumption with substantial evidence from an ESRC-funded study on transnational marriages in two of the largest minority communities in the UK: Pakistani Muslims and Indian Sikhs. Negative discourses focus on Muslim marriages in particular – hence the value of the comparison the study provides.

Led by Katharine Charsley (University of Bristol) in collaboration with Oxford colleagues, the study uncovered the first clear evidence of a fall in the number of transnational marriages in both groups. Yet around half British Pakistani Muslims and a quarter of British Indian Sikhs currently have partners from the Indian subcontinent.

Coined a ‘first generation in every generation’, the assumption is that the new family member, with less egalitarian social norms, drags social progress back from modern values; and that they are individuals whose lack of education and skills will impede their own integration and that of their partner and future children.

Yet the evidence supporting that assertion is limited; and uses problematic notions of ‘integration’, a concept rightly subject in recent years to severe critiques. This study used a ‘whole society’ concept and new definition of integration that recognises the crucial role played by the opportunities and barriers individuals face, and the differing pace and impact of integration processes across different spheres of life. The ways in which experiences in one sphere, such as employment, impact on others is a constant theme in the substantial analysis of the Labour Force Survey and qualitative interview data which form the backbone of the book.

A wedding couple hold hands in Lahore (photo: Kahdija Yousaf)

Writing about integration is like untangling a complicated knot—identifying the strands and teasing apart their relationships to each other. Pulling one strand or another first will expose particular sets of inter-relationships in a different order. In this case, to disentangle the impact of transnational marriage among other factors, the study explored the trajectories of a unique sampling of sibling pairs: couples in which both partners are UK born or raised and transnational couples where one partner came to the UK as an adult. The research design focused on families in which both couples could be found.

Exploring experiences in employment, education, extended family living, social networks and participation in community life, along with gender roles and belonging, the findings not surprisingly reveal a diversity of experiences that include – but also significantly depart from the simplistic characterisations of the trope.

Debunking myths

  • While some migrant wives take on a domestic role, many are keen to, and do, engage in the labour market. While some migrant spouses prefer to speak their first language, English is also often used. Language use is varied and contextual.
  • Transnational marriage can reinforce patriarchal gender expectations, but can lead to greater autonomy for a British woman, releasing her from the expectations faced when in-laws are close at hand. Her husband, moreover, is reliant on her for local knowledge and support.
  • Transnational marriage is associated with higher rates of extended family living, assumed to be a marker of patriarchal traditionalism; but it also brings benefits: sharing expenses helps compensate for low incomes and allows saving for investment in property and business.
  • Significant proportions of migrant spouses have post-secondary education, but can face barriers to translating educational capital into labour market outcomes. The workplace can be an important source of social contacts; but for wives not in work networks can nevertheless expand through their children’s school, language classes and community groups.
  • Retaining an identity with the country of origin does not inhibit full engagement in the UK. A sense of national identity, however, does not always come with participation in other spheres, and can be inhibited or reverse following experiences of discrimination.
  • Crucially, some experiences are not the result of transnational marriage at all but of the couple’s stage in their life course: marriage leading, as for others, to new roles and responsibilities including child-rearing. Reliance on family, a narrowing of social networks, lack of time for further education or civic participation, reflect a stage in the life course here, not migration.

Spouses face similar challenges to other migrants, but they have one advantage – a family who can provide knowledge, support and connections. Most migrant husbands find work through family contacts. Families’ resources and attitudes are, however, not uniform. For newcomers, information, signposting and support to reduce reliance on relatives for awareness of opportunities would help, as would more flexible opportunities to access language classes.

The irony of a simplistic portrayal of transnational marriage is that it reinforces the negative stereotypes that are themselves a barrier to integration. It should be possible to address gender inequality, and advocate services, without denigrating the family practices of entire ethnic groups. Instead of finger-pointing at newcomers, we could focus on unlocking the assets people bring – the under-use of migrants’ educational qualifications for instance – and the benefits of facilitating the full participation of all residents in the country’s economic, social, cultural and political life.

Sarah Spencer is Director of Strategy and a Senior Fellow at the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS), University of Oxford, and was Director of the Global Exchange on Migration and Diversity until 2019. This post was first published by COMPAS on 06/06/2020 following the publication of Marriage Migration and Integration (2020).