Linking up public policy and research: the case of migration

By David Jepson.

From the Policy, Politics and Practice blog series.

How do public policy interventions come about and how are they delivered? What are the respective roles of researchers and those who design and deliver programmes including politicians, public officials, civic society and the media? I have thought about these questions for decades and there is no better area to explore them than migration.

In recent years, conflict, instability, economic inequality and a natural desire for people to seek better lives has continued to drive migration. The Syrian civil war, the Brexit referendum, post-COVID labour market shortages, conflict in Afghanistan, the crackdown in Hong Kong as well as the current appalling violence in Ukraine are just a few recent examples of events leading to further migration towards the UK. The media has heightened the visibility of this movement, which has in turn generated public policy responses at the national and local level – from both state and NGO sectors – within a pressurised and divisive framework.

In this context journalists produce emotive images of migrants, politicians express strong concern over figures so long as they’re in the headlines, and researchers write articles that are often too focused on methodology, too caveated and too long to be easily useable by policy makers and practitioners. Meanwhile local government and NGO providers deliver schemes that draw on past models in which outcomes can be easily quantified – funders tend to support programmes that can easily be measured. They often rely on a loosely researched evidence base that is supported by previous direct experience and anecdotal information. These drivers of media and politics have tested the policy development framework to the limit and beyond.

ACH, a social enterprise based in Bristol and the Midlands, takes a different approach by drawing on grassroots experience to inform research and policy development nationally and internationally. We offer resettlement and integration support for refugee and migrant communities through providing housing, careers advice training and support for migrant entrepreneurship. We reject a top-down perspective to ‘integration’ that prioritises assimilation and instead focus on individual aspiration. We work with around 3,000 people a year on the ground in Bristol, Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Coventry. We employ some 80 staff from a wide variety of backgrounds, many with direct lived experience of the migration and refugee system themselves. Our approach is always to deliver support that is tailored to the needs of different communities and individuals.

ACH’s resettlement and integration support model for refugee and migrant communities (image: ACH)

A specific example is the Migrant Business Support scheme, which aims to directly assist 500 none-EU migrant businesses in the West of England and West Midlands over a two-year period. Funders (in this case the EU) tend to monitor inputs and outputs rather than evaluate longer term impact. Migrant businesses can generate employment, income and social capital for communities otherwise excluded. However, there is often an a priori assumption that it is a good thing for individuals to set up their own business and become entrepreneurs – that it will always generate employment, income and social value for communities that need it. And there is an assumption that support will reduce the risks and enhance the success and social impact of these businesses. But is this the case?

Enterprise and entrepreneurship can certainly create opportunities for some, but such aspirations may also reflect barriers to other employment opportunities, forcing people into small business and self-employment. For businesses that are high risk or offer very low returns it may lead to greater precarity and put people’s housing, access to public services and even migration status in jeopardy. Enterprise ambitions among migrants may also reflect the need for self-employment status as a cost-saving device, bringing all the risks but few of the benefits of entrepreneurship. Of course, different cohorts of migrants have very different situations, which also need to be assessed. For example, the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, Hong Kong BNO, Afghan citizens and Ukrainian citizens all have diverse demographic characteristics, migration journeys and resettlement pathways. This will affect their means of business development.

The links ACH has developed over the past few years with Migration Mobilities Bristol (MMB) are an attempt to bridge this gap between research, policy development and delivery in order to help deliver business support and other schemes more effectively. For example, we have built an evaluation element into the Migrant Business Support programme led by Ann Singleton, MMB’s Policy Strategic Lead, and Udeni Salmon from the School for Policy Studies, which will generate an evaluation framework to go beyond the usual counting of inputs and outputs.

We have also organised a very successful online seminar series, chaired by MMB Director Bridget Anderson, which regularly attracts more than 60 participants. This has brought together researchers and a range of participants from local government and the community sector in a positive way. Our most recent event in April, for example, explored housing and migration by drawing on the experience of Alex Marsh, an expert on the housing market, Hannah Little from CRISIS, which is doing pioneering work in tackling homelessness, and ACH CEO Fuad Mahamed.

The ACH support team runs an arts and crafts session with their tenants (image: ACH)

Through MMB we have also been partners in the Everyday Integration project, led by Jon Fox and funded by the ESRC. This research has enabled thinking about precarity, which has reinforced our approach to migrant employment that ensures pathways into long-term and sustainable work. Working with the Big Issue we have jointly initiated action research with the Romanian Roma community in the UK, largely overlooked in narratives about equality. This project will especially focus on vulnerability to No Recourse to Public Funds and how this might be mitigated at the local level.

Finally, we are elaborating a research proposal on Polish and Romanian migrants with Magda Mogilnicka from the School of Sociology, Politics and International Relations, which could have major implications not only for social inclusion but also for the labour market. It raises issues about the relationship between people as economic actors and as citizens drawing on ACH experience and Magda’s previous research.

These are small but important steps to connect up cutting-edge research on migration with the development of policy and delivery of support to promote better lives. This needs to become an iterative and sustainable process beyond the ad hoc, yet valuable, activities we have undertaken so far. This will not only enhance the role of both researchers and practitioners but will also make more effective use of public money and, most importantly, improve the well-being of migrant communities who contribute so much to the city of Bristol.

David Jepson is a Director and Policy Adviser at ACH. His work relates to labour market and economic development opportunities for refugees and migrants, including building better links to employers, businesses and development organisations, as well as local authorities and other stakeholders.

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.

The politics of climate justice, migration and mobility

Special series on Migration, Mobilities and the Environment

Migration Mobilities Bristol (MMB) and the Cabot Institute for the Environment bring together researchers from across the University of Bristol to explore connections between movement and the environment from a multi-disciplinary perspective. These diverse approaches highlight the importance of developing frames that incorporate both migration and environment, and in so doing benefit our understandings of both. Here, the directors of MMB and the Cabot Institute introduce the blog series.

By Bridget Anderson and Guy Howard.

Migration is often mobilised to illustrate the enormity of the challenge of climate change. Some Small Island States in the Pacific, for instance, may become uninhabitable with sea-level rise. Highly vulnerable countries in South Asia, including Bangladesh and the Maldives, may see large proportions of their populations forced to move because of sea-level rise, floods and salinisation of water. US climate envoy John Kerry recently fuelled fears of a future where food production collapse would force a ‘hundred million people’ to move. His comments strongly implied that even those of us who imagine we are protected from the frontline of climate change will be faced with the challenges of ‘climate refugees’ in their millions.

Seven Sisters Park flooded, 2020 (image: Peter Castleton on flickr)

Kerry’s remarks were heavily criticised, but this is not to deny that there is a connection between the world’s ecosystems and environment and human movement. It is easiest to causally relate environmental factors to migration in situations of ‘rapid onset disasters’ – destructive events that occur suddenly, such as typhoons or floods. In these situations, people move to survive, but often to a place of safety a short distance away, and they return to rebuild homes and lives once the emergency has abated. But many environmental changes are taking place over periods spanning two or three generations. ‘Slow onset’ environmental change can be a primary or contributing factor to deteriorating socio-economic conditions – increasing periods of drought, or crop yields declining rather than collapsing, for instance. In these circumstances, migration can be an important way to diversify income streams. Environmental change may also contribute to shifts in land usage and land ownership, which again may result in migration.

Declining resources can also prevent people from moving, especially when resources are slowly depleted over a generation or more. Limited access to capital can force people into illegal or exploitative migration or lead them to delay moving until forced to do so in an unplanned way – perhaps because of a rapid onset disaster that they no longer have the resilience to cope with.

The challenges faced by people who don’t move may become more severe when combined with conflict. For example, in Somalia, armed conflict has hindered the movement of pastoralists, who would otherwise relocate as a response to drought. It has also limited the possibilities of humanitarian organisations to assist them. Human mobility and environmental change are deeply interconnected but need to be understood systemically not simplistically if we are work towards climate justice.

Understanding the relationship between migration and environmental change in a more holistic and integrated way has important policy implications. For example, economic factors can mean that people migrate to places of environmental instability as well as migrating from places of environmental instability. Currently 55% of the world’s population lives in cities, and it is forecast that by 2050 this will increase to nearly 70%; nearly 60% of forcibly displaced people move to urban areas (World Bank, 2020). Many cities are extremely vulnerable to future environmental change, and already experience high temperatures, sea level rise, water stress and threats to health. Rural to urban migrants are often especially vulnerable, as they tend to move to neighbourhoods with high population density that are prone to environmental risks – think of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, or the slums of Dhaka, Nairobi and Mumbai.

In these contexts, migrants, whether rural-urban or international, can be represented as an environmental problem in themselves. The movements of the poor are also represented as a root cause of problems: migration destroys carbon sinks, ‘environmental refugees’ put pressure on already scarce resources and services and so on. Rather than seeing the interconnections of human movement and climate change, the risk is that the politics of climate and the mobility of the poor – that is, ‘migration’ – are framed as oppositional. As a result, in wealthy countries we are seeing increasing tensions between politics of the environment and politics of migration, as illustrated by John Kerry’s remarks.

It is critical, then, to recognise the complexity of the connections between (human) movement and ecosystems. This new blog series, co-published by MMB and the Cabot Institute for the Environment, draws attention to some of these connections and raises questions for further research to help us understand in more depth the relationship between movement and the environment, and its political significance. The contributions in the series approach this relationship from many angles, ranging from the role of water access in shaping migration to debates around the status of the ‘environmental refugee’. One analyses the environmental footprint of home working versus office working to explore the sustainability potential of our increasing immobility. Others focus on animals and plants on the move: we have writing on the ecological context of bird migrations and on the hyper-mobility of the European eel. Meanwhile, other posts look at the movement of goods and how humans locate themselves in, and move through, landscapes of extraction and risk. In bringing together such diverse topics we hope this series will encourage new conversations about the connections between migrations, mobilities and environments.

Bridget Anderson is Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship at the University of Bristol, and Director of Migration Mobilities Bristol. Guy Howard is Global Research Chair Environmental and Infrastructure Resilience at the University of Bristol, and Director of the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

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.

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.

Collateral damage: the implications of border restrictions on practitioners working with refugee populations

By Vicky Canning.

The acknowledgement that asylum systems across Europe are ‘hostile environments’ for migrant groups has increased in academic and practitioner consciousness, particularly in the aftermath of the 2015 refugee reception crisis. However, although the impacts of socio-political hostilities on migrants are well documented, little has been written about the implications of border restrictions on practitioners working with refugee populations. In recent years I have led a research project that expands the focus of hostilities to consider the variable impacts of intensified bordering practices on this group.

Based on qualitative research across Britain, Denmark, and Sweden (2016–2018), the project highlights that increasingly restrictive or punitive approaches to immigration have had multiple negative effects on practitioners in this sector. This has potential for longer term negative impacts on the practitioners themselves, but also – importantly – on refugee populations who require various forms of legal aid, or social and psychological support. The working conditions of practitioners is often reflected in the standard of care that they are able to offer. Vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue are two of the most commonly cited problems. Importantly, and as this blog addresses, this research indicates that practitioners are facing new and serious problems working in this area, many of which are direct outcomes of the intensification of Northern European border regimes. 

(Image: Jannik Kiel on Unspalsh)

Emotional and workplace impacts on practitioners

Interviews with practitioners indicate that increasingly restrictive or punitive approaches to immigration have had multiple effects on those working in this sector. One stark issue highlighted by lawyers, psychologists, detention custody officers and support workers is that they felt their ability to effectively perform their own role well has been compromised. Some indicated increasing levels of stress and, in Sweden in particular (a strong state centric welfare model), a decreased faith in state and state decisions. Terms such as ‘powerless’ and ‘stress’ were included in practitioners’ responses to questions about the impacts of escalated harms in asylum – in particular, when they felt they could support people seeking asylum while being held in an indefinite state of uncertainty or crisis.

Keeping up to date with the workings of the asylum process is increasingly difficult at a time when laws and policies are changing regularly, thus affecting the rights or welfare entitlements that people seeking asylum can access. This is particularly difficult for practitioners who are working with refugee groups to provide humanitarian assistance, as they find themselves in positions where they are implementing laws they cannot agree with. Those working with survivors of trauma or sexual violence raised concerns about their client’s inability to focus on therapy or integration programmes due to risk of dispersal or other illnesses getting worse. People seeking asylum can be more concerned with pressing issues arising in the immediate future, such as the threat of homelessness, fear of detention or deportation, or concern for family and friends still residing in areas of conflict or migrating across borders.

The trend towards disempowerment

Practitioners also highlighted feelings and experiences ranging from sadness or upset to disempowerment and hopelessness. People working in a deportation centre in Denmark felt dismay at the lack of clarity regarding the expectations of their role and that their participation did not always have a positive impact:

‘I had days when I went home thinking that today I was definitely a part of the problem, not the solution, today my presence here was a band aid at best but the patient’s haemorrhaging and I’m not actually doing what I’m supposed to be doing.’

In some places, the limits to the support that practitioners are able to provide are not only affected by economic resources but also managerial and policy decisions on what is or is not allowed. As one nurse in an immigration detention centre reflected, ‘You want to do more than you are allowed; you are not allowed to.

The emotional effects of seeing people living in avoidable and degrading circumstances are also clear. Many felt that cuts to staffing or services reduced their ability to offer adequate support, as one women’s support worker in Scotland indicated, ‘It really is crippling ‘cause we can’t meet the needs. Literally turning people away every day who are in crisis, so that is awful.’ Shortly after this interview, in 2016, the interviewee contacted me to say their role had been removed. To date, it has not been replaced.

Breaking trust

Finally, this research found that impacts on practitioners are exacerbated by increasing mistrust between people seeking asylum and governmental and non-governmental organisations, particularly in the UK and Sweden. For others, the emotional impacts of witnessing the degradation of people seeking asylum were palpable, as a social worker in the North West of England suggests:

‘Sometimes we need to separate our feelings away from the client, but for the first time since I have worked in this field I felt as if I was about to cry when I went to the hospital because I’ve never seen somebody who has been neglected by the system like this woman I came across, because you don’t treat people like this, this is unacceptable in 21st century Britain’.

Practitioners often alluded to a loss of faith in humanitarianism in their respective states. One torture rehabilitation director remarked that, ‘they’re testing this unfortunately, a social experiment, how far they can get with their whip’, while a barrister in London questioned the rationale of governmental agendas, asking ‘Even if you accept the premise that migration is a problem and needs to be reduced, why don’t you wait to see what the last set of bad laws did before you bring in the next of the bad laws?

In Sweden, a typically state centric nation, the impacts of this increasing mistrust were strengthened with the introduction of the REVA Project – a collaboration between Swedish Police, the Migration Agency and prison service that targets people suspected of living illegally in Sweden in order to speed up detection and deportation – which has received subsequent criticism for racism (see Barker 2017).

Migrant groups and practitioners are therefore left in precarious positions: anyone without documentation or who is awaiting the outcome of an asylum claim may be subject to arrest and possible detention or deportation, while some practitioners simultaneously lose faith in governmental agendas and face reduced capacity to undertake their role due to external pressures.

In the UK, the Nationality and Borders Bill, now in the House of Lords for readings after being debated for only nine minutes in the House of Commons, will inevitably continue this trend, creating an ever more hostile environment towards migrants and in which practitioners working with refugee populations have to operate, a trend I have previously critiqued as degradation by design.

Vicky Canning is a Senior Lecturer in the School for Policy Studies (SPS), University of Bristol. Her research focuses on the rights of women seeking asylum and support for survivors of sexual violence and torture across NGOs and migrant rights organisations, and on mitigating border harms. A longer version of this blogpost was published by SPS on 17th December 2021.

The freedom to love: mixed-immigration status couples and the UK immigration system

By Melanie Griffiths and Candice Morgan-Glendinning.

‘If you are a British citizen then falling in love with someone who is not British isn’t allowed to happen, basically.’

In the last decade, a series of changes to immigration policy have significantly affected the family lives of people living in and coming to the UK. These have restricted not only the private lives of immigrants but also thousands of British citizens, with implications for their wellbeing, prosperity and sense of national identity.

Shifting policy

A wide spectrum of changes to family migration rules were introduced in July 2012. This included dramatic increases to the minimum income required by Britons seeking to bring a foreign spouse to the UK, to a figure well above the minimum wage. There were also changes to the entry requirements for family members and lengthened probationary periods, as well as increased – but unevidenced – suspicion over so-called ‘sham marriages’.

As well as affecting the arrival and settlement of foreign family members, concurrent policy changes have curtailed the relationships of people already in the UK. In particular, Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to respect for one’s private and family life) became considered increasingly controversial and suspect. The response has been to make drastic changes to the interpretation of Article 8 and the threshold needing to be met by families, particularly in removal and deportation cases.

Deportability and the family

ESRC-funded research conducted at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol examined the lived impact of these policy changes on mixed-nationality families in the UK. Led by Dr Melanie Griffiths, the project ‘Deportability and the Family’ worked with 30 couples consisting of foreign national men with insecure immigration status and their British partners and/or children. Qualitative research with these couples was combined with policy analysis, observation of deportation and other immigration appeals, and interviews with representatives from the state, NGO and legal sectors.

The couples varied enormously, including in terms of the men’s nationality, ethnicity and immigration status. Some did not have immigration status (for example, by over-staying a visa or entering the UK unlawfully), others had time-limited visas, were in the asylum system, had been refused entry to the UK or were facing removal/deportation. The British citizens ranged from underprivileged to professional home-owners.

Despite the diversity, the families were united by their experience of the immigration system. For the British nationals, in particular, it was a shock to find the Home Office involved in such an intimate part of their lives; questioning, scrutinising and threatening their relationship choices. It was painful discovering that their citizenship does not entail the automatic right to have their families in the UK. As the Immigration Directorate Instructions state, Article 8 ‘does not oblige the UK to accept the choice of a couple as to which country they would prefer to reside.’

This blog post illustrates the lived reality of the immigration and Article 8 policy changes by examining three case studies, showing that despite their different circumstances, British citizens are being directly harmed by immigration rules that they are exempt from.

A deported partner

Aarash (all names are changed) arrived in the UK when he was a teenager and went to school here. But he became unlawfully present when his leave expired. He and his British partner Anna have been together nearly two years and had an Islamic marriage. As a British citizen, Anna assumed that once they married, Aarash would have the right to remain. As they were preparing his immigration application, Aarash was picked up by the police and taken to immigration detention. Both suffered enormously from his detention and the threat of deportation. ‘I just felt like I was losing him, you know. My whole world came crashing down, every single thing, all my happiness.’

Despite Anna’s tenacious fight for her husband’s freedom, the Home Office rejected their human rights claims. Their Islamic marriage was not recognised and the length of their relationship carried little weight. The long, expensive legal fight left Anna exhausted, with huge debts and feeling betrayed by her government.

‘I just looked at all of this and I said, you know what, I’m done.  I am not going to keep fighting the UK government.  If they don’t want him here I don’t want to be here.’ Anna sold all her possessions to raise enough money to leave the UK to be with Aarash. She did not consider it a choice, but the only way she could be with her husband.

Overseas applications

Emma and her husband James have been together nearly a decade and have two children. James has been in the UK for 15 years; initially on a student visa but later as an overstayer.  They assumed that Emma’s good job coupled with their marriage and children would entitle James to be able to regularise his stay but this was far from straightforward.

As a professional, Emma earned enough for a spousal visa, but the Home Office insisted James leave the UK and his family to apply. Although he left voluntarily and paid for his own flight, at the airport James was handcuffed by immigration officers in front of his crying wife and small children and escorted to the plane by officers. The short period of separation they envisaged lasted many months, as his applications were refused, the validity of their relationship questioned, and ever more evidence and money demanded.

Emma was shocked at her family’s treatment, especially the damage that the Home Office was prepared to do to their young British children. They regressed in behaviour and developed attachment problems. Emma could not even comfort them that their daddy would be home soon, because she did not know when, or if, he would be allowed to return.

Time-limited visas

Ivy was teaching abroad when she met Aran and fell in love. They got married and had two children and eventually wanted to return to the UK for the children’s education. But when they began to apply for a spousal visa, Ivy realised that she could not meet the high income threshold whilst working in Aran’s country, where salaries were much lower. They made the decision to return to the UK with Aran on a 6-month visit visa so she could find work to meet the income threshold whilst he looked after their children.

Ivy was lucky enough to find a job quickly in the UK, but she had to work long hours to earn enough for the visa and hardly saw her family. She worried incessantly about losing her job or not earning enough each month.

As Aran’s visit visa came to an end, they faced his having to leave the UK. This was a disaster. Not only for their young children, who would abruptly and indefinitely lose their main caregiver, but for Ivy’s ability to earn enough for the spousal visa. She faced having to quit her job to look after their children, ending her chances of securing a spousal visa. She felt let down by her government and torn between her children’s education and need for their father present.

Citizens betrayed

The British citizens interviewed for this project had wildly different experiences and backgrounds, but all found themselves fighting their own government for autonomy over their family and private lives. They faced harm to their physical and mental health, lost savings, became indebted and were unable to freely decide how to organise their careers and families. All felt that their citizenship was weakened as a result of falling in love with a foreign partner.

The UK’s immigration system routinely questions and dismisses mixed-nationality relationships, pushing citizens into having to choose to live in separate countries, live precarious lives in the UK or leave their country in order to keep their families together, leaving Brits feeling subjugated from their citizenship, judged and unwanted.

Melanie Griffiths is a Birmingham Fellow in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham. Candice Morgan-Glendinning is an independent social researcher with a particular interest in immigration, human trafficking and modern slavery policy.

This post was first published by PolicyBristol on 20th July 2021. The report from the ‘Deportability and the Family’ project was launched in June 2021 and can be downloaded from the project webpage along with the PolicyBristol policy briefings and other outputs. You can also watch the webinar launch, chaired by Shami Chakrabati CBE and with speakers including Melanie Griffiths, the NGO Bail for Immigration Detainees, Sonali Naik QC from Garden House Chambers and Ace Ruele, a London-born actor and father who is being threatened with removal.

Melanie and Candice’s previous MMB blogpost ‘Parenting through ‘modern technology’: learning from the pandemic‘ also draws on research in this report and questions the Home Office’s claim that family life can be sustained through virtual means for those separated by UK immigration policies.

Bilateral agreements as a tool to facilitate movement of people after Brexit

By Diego Acosta.

With the conclusion of the Brexit transition period on 31 December 2020, the free movement of people between the UK and the 27 member states of the EU and Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland came to an end. Some of the millions of EU nationals in the UK and British nationals in the EU are already suffering the consequences of this drastic curtailment of rights. The present moment is propitious to explore ways to govern and facilitate migration between the two parties. Although an EU-wide agreement with the UK that ensures free movement remains the ideal solution, it is currently unrealistic. This calls for an evaluation of possible alternatives.

Bilateral agreements on the free movement of people represent such an alternative. Bilateral agreements on free movement of people are defined as those adopted by two countries – or a regional organization and a country – that widely regulate several aspects of entry, stay, rights during residence and protection from expulsion for nationals of each party in the territory of the other. Social security, recognition of qualifications or avoidance of double taxation might be integrated into these agreements or may constitute separate acts, the same as political rights.

Image by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash

Bilateral agreements are a regular occurrence at the global level. Numerous examples can be mentioned such as the agreements between Australia and New Zealand, Argentina and Brazil, Russia and Belarus, or India and Nepal to mention a few. At European level they are also common and, most importantly, legal under EU norms. For example, the UK and Ireland have the Common Travel Area (CTA). Indeed, in light of Brexit, a 2019 Memorandum of Understanding reaffirms the status that British and Irish citizens enjoy in each other´s territory. This comprises the possibility to move freely, reside, work and vote in local and national elections, as well as equal treatment on education, social protection, housing and healthcare. In turn, Andorra has signed bilateral agreements with France, Portugal and Spain. These grant Andorrans a very similar treatment to EU citizens, while French, Spanish and Portuguese nationals are offered a privileged status in Andorra.

Spain should be the first candidate for a post-Brexit bilateral treaty concluded between the UK and an EU member state. Spain is the most important EU destination for British emigrants and the fourth most important globally after Australia, the US and Canada. As of 31 December 2020, 381,448 British were migrants residing in Spain, making it the third-largest migrant population after Romanian and Moroccan nationals. According to some estimates, if short-term British migrants are included (e.g. those who only spend a number of months in Spain each year), the total could reach a million. In turn, the UK is the most important migrant destination globally for Spanish nationals. Roughly 185,000 Spanish nationals were living in the UK in 2020, making it the fifth-largest migrant group from the EU, excluding Ireland. In addition to these numbers there are many more living between both countries. Moreover, Spain and the UK have already signed a reciprocal agreement to secure the right of their respective citizens to vote and stand in local elections.

As for the content of such possible agreement, I would suggest that the status quo established in the Withdrawal Agreement represents the departing point for any future bilateral engagement. This would allow an easier transition from the pre-Brexit situation and reinstatement of the former rights in terms of entry, residence, work and study. At the same time, an agreement between both Spain and the UK should provide the same rights to both parties and establish perfect reciprocity. That said, bilateral negotiations could be flexible to, for example, recognise the high number of UK retirees in Spain, or the significant number of Spanish nationals who move to the UK to work. This could lead to rules granting a privileged treatment when it comes to access to the labour market by, for example, removing the requirement of employment sponsorship and the general salary threshold that now applies in the UK, or to special rules for gaining residence for retirees.

The UK withdrawal from the EU has led to a drastic loss of rights for millions of EU and British citizens, including free movement. While politically difficult in the present scenario, multiple bilateral agreements between the UK and individual member states could offer a realistic solution to those EU countries with large migration flows to and from the UK. European institutions should acknowledge that bilateral agreements on the free movement of people are currently in use, both in Europe and elsewhere, and are aligned with EU law. They should also respect member states’ competence in this sensitive area. Spain and the UK could be the first states to explore this alternative, which is already in place in any case between Ireland and the UK.

Diego Acosta is Professor of European and Migration Law at the University of Bristol. He recently published the report ‘After Brexit: Could bilateral agreements facilitate the free movement of persons?‘ with the European Policy Centre.

This post was first published by Encompass in September 2021.

The ‘New Plan for Immigration’: a further curtailment of rights

By Nadine Finch.

Over the past three decades I have linked my practice as a human rights lawyer in the UK with research and policy development in the migration field and I will draw on this experience in my new role as an Honorary Senior Policy Fellow in the School for Policy Studies at Bristol. It will take the totality of this experience, and more, to address the formidable challenges posed by the immigration legislation recently proposed by the UK government. The New Plan for Immigration needs to be placed in the context of repeated attacks on ‘activist lawyers’ and plans to limit the discretion of judges in immigration and asylum appeals and to reduce their powers in judicial review.

It is not just international law norms that are not respected in the wake of Brexit. There is also a growing disregard for the parts of the UK’s unwritten constitution that assign the judiciary a role, as important as that of the executive and parliament, when it comes to domestic law. The enormity of the possible consequences for migrants and the professionals who support and assist them is still not fully comprehended by many in civil society. The gradual and disparate extension of the ‘Hostile Environment’ over the past three decades has been mitigated to some extent by local authorities and legal challenges and this has lulled many into a false sense of security that there are certain lines that will not be crossed. As have the continuing invitations to take part in consultations and working groups.

The UK has legislated to control immigration on numerous occasions since 1905, when the Aliens Act first gave responsibility for matters concerning immigration and nationality to the Home Secretary. The very fact that responsibility was allocated to this particular minister indicated a belief that it was imperative to ‘protect’ existing British residents from those seeking to enter from abroad. Since then, on many occasions, legislation has been introduced – and supported by the mainstream media – to protect the ‘majority’ from migrants who are perceived to be seeking employment and support, to which they are not entitled, and who are said to be responsible for a varying degree of criminality. In the populist climate following Brexit and the repudiation of the human rights norms underpinning much EU law, these claims can be more blatant and fact-free.

(Image: DDP on Unsplash)

The main targets for this legislation can be refugees and migrants fleeing from civil war and economic and social degradation, which is rooted in the history and economic policies of the very states in which they are compelled to seek protection. Attempts have previously been made to deter asylum seekers from accessing protection but the main principles underpinning the 1951 Refugee Convention have been honoured. The New Plan for Immigration is in many ways a radical departure.

The Immigration Rules relating to this New Plan do not provide a safe and legal route for an asylum seeker to enter the UK as a refugee. A person seeking international protection cannot seek sanctuary and assistance at a UK diplomatic post abroad. Instead, they can only apply for asylum once they have reached the UK’s home territory. Some individuals do manage to circumvent this restriction by initially entering as a student or a visitor. But this is only possible if they can meet a series of onerous financial and evidential conditions before leaving their own state. A person fleeing persecution is unlikely to have the economic resources, the freedom of movement or the time to do so. In addition, if they mention a fear of persecution in their application for a student or visitor visa it will be refused as they will not be able to show that they will return to their country of origin after their limited leave to enter and remain as a student or visitor. But if they do not mention it, this failure will damage the credibility of any subsequent refugee claim.

Therefore, asylum seekers have to employ whatever means are available to enter the UK, whether on flights and Eurostar trains or dinghies to the southern and eastern seaboards of England. In response, the Government has funded defensive walls and fences in northern France, posted immigration officers in airports in many states abroad and is now patrolling the Channel. An individual travelling alone is unlikely to be able to penetrate these defences: this is a major factor that has led to their need to employ smugglers to assist them to enter the UK. The emergence of these ‘criminal networks’ is better characterised as a response to the barriers faced by refugees than a reason for their arrival.

If adults do manage to enter, but illegally, and are deemed to have passed through or have a connection with a safe third country, any application for asylum is deemed inadmissible and they will face removal. If they cannot be removed, and even they are found to be entitled to international protection, they will only be given a lesser and temporary form of protection, will have no recourse to public funds unless they are destitute and their immediate family members will not be permitted to join them. This creation of a two-tier system for international protection does not meet the requirements of the Refugee Convention and has been severely criticised by UNHCR.  

It is also planned to set the test for qualifying for international protection at a significantly higher level than that recommended by UNHCR in its Handbook. In a series of seminal cases the UK’s highest court has also recognised the severe challenges facing asylum seekers asked to provide evidence of detention, torture or ill-treatment, when their persecutor is a repressive regime, witnesses and family members may have been killed or imprisoned and they may have fled without any possessions, let alone documents, to prove their case. An individual’s ability to provide evidence will also be curtailed by the fact that on arrival they will be transferred to proposed reception centres or camps. This will limit their access to legal advice and representation as well as medical and other expert reports. It is also likely to increase any trauma previously experienced in their countries of origin and during their journeys and render them less capable of providing a cogent account of their persecution. 

It is still not clear whether these centres and camps will accommodate any children accompanying adult asylum seekers, as was the case in the 1990s before it was accepted that the detention of children in such circumstances breached the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, children wrongly assessed as being adults will be detained. It is also likely that proposed changes to the age assessment process will increase the risk of mistakes being made. In particular, the proposal to establish a National Age Assessment Board staffed by social workers, contracted to the Home Office, would remove the process from the direct oversight of local authorities who have the training and skills to maintain necessarily robust and regulated child protection processes.

The core elements of the New Plan were included in the Queen’s Speech on 11 May 2021 and it is expected that the proposed bill will have its Second Reading before the parliamentary summer recess. It is likely that much of the detail of the Plan will not be on the face of the Bill but that the Government will give itself wide regulatory powers. This will be addressed in a policy briefing that I am writing on the Plan and the Bill, which will be published by Policy Bristol in the autumn.

Nadine Finch is an Honorary Senior Policy Fellow in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. Her primary areas of research and policy development relate to children on the move in the UK and Europe. She is also an associate at Child Circle in Brussels. Between 1992 and 2000 she was a barrister at 1 Pump Court Chambers and then Doughty Street Chambers and from 2000 she was a barrister at Garden Court Chambers.

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.