Breaching two worlds: seeing through borders in Calais

The first of four MMB blogposts exploring the material and symbolic infrastructure of border regimes in the port city of Calais.

By Bridget Anderson.

As we walked around Calais, one of the group remarked ‘It’s just like The City & the City!’ She was spot on. In his novel The City & the City (2009), China Miéville describes a murder investigation that takes place in what, from the outside, looks like one city, but is for its residents two, Besźel/Ul Qoma, which occupy the same space. From childhood, citizens of one are taught to ‘unsee’ the residents, buildings and events of the other. Ignoring or accidentally forgetting this separation is called ‘breaching’, a crime worse than murder. Calais is a manifestation of this hallucinatory dystopia. It is both seaside town and bidonville, both tourist trap and migrant hub. The seaside town markets itself with a certain irony (maybe particularly appreciated by a British sensibility) as ‘Calaisfornia’. In the shopping mall that borders Calais’ Channel Tunnel terminal there is an escape room called the Prison Island adventure game. The escape room backs onto the border police station and an immigration detention centre. To comfortably inhabit Calais(fornia) it is necessary to see past exclusion and violence, and to accept brutal immigration enforcement as a minor inconvenience.

The escape room, Prison Island adventure game, backing onto the border police station by the Eurotunnel (image: Emma Newcombe)

In July 2023, the MMB team, Challenge leads and Leverhulme Visiting Professor Victoria Hattam, of the New School for Social Research, visited Calais. We were guided by a long-term activist and researcher who has been working in the town for over ten years. It was his knowledge and experience that enabled us to commit a ‘breaching’ and see the gaps between the cities. Calais(fornia) is crosshatched (Miéville fans will catch the analogy) with fences and barbed wire. For Calais(fornia) visitors, they enclose random spaces: running along both sides of a long, thin strip of disused yard; closing off a space under a bridge; enclosing a small piece of land in front of some residential flats. Indeed, the randomness helps invisibilise the practice: there is nothing of note here, nothing exciting or dangerous that is guarded by these fences, just concrete and grass. But breaching enabled us to see these spaces were once hubs where people on the move gathered, hosting community kitchens, they were meeting and distribution points, places where people could sleep. In January 2015, when people were forcibly evicted from the centre of Calais and pushed to the outskirts of the city, the spaces they vacated were enclosed to ensure that they could not be used again. The fences can be read as maps of struggles against deportation and eviction.

An area where migrants once camped is now fenced in for ‘wilding’ and conservation with all access prohibited (image: Nariman Massoumi)

These evictions were the origin of the so-called Jungle* as people were pushed to a piece of land that had been a neglected dump for city rubbish, toxic waste and dredgings from the port expansion (Van Isacker 2022). This became the gathering point for people attempting to cross from France to the UK and was a constant source of dispute for the two governments. In October 2016, the French Government destroyed the encampment completely and declared the area subject to ‘ecological restoration’ and ‘landscape reconquest’. It was converted into a nature reserve, with the UK Home Office a key investment partner. The topography was changed to make it attractive to waterfowl but impossible for humans to camp on, and anti-intrusion features made it difficult for humans to traverse. ‘Fort Vert’ was transformed into a reserve where the citizens of Calais could ‘reconnect’ with nature and where the endangered native species Liparis Loeselii fen orchid could flourish. This would mean the space could achieve designated status in France’s ‘National Restoration Plan’. The then UK Immigration Minister was delighted, describing the project as facilitating a ‘return to nature’ and as preventing the return of migrants to the area (Rullman 2020). This eerily silent space is a different form of enclosure. But it is haunted by its recent past: the police access road, the fences around the motorway, the graffiti under the bypass declaring ‘No Border No Nation’ and, in a nod to Calais(fornia), ‘Maybe this whole situation will just sort itself out…’. People on the move today are banished largely to the inhospitable territory of the outskirts, with no easy access to basic necessities like water, food or shops.

Graffiti under the bypass (image: Emma Newcombe)

Calais(fornia) is curiously manicured and carefully landscaped. Flowers and grasses abound, but bushes have been uprooted as they provide shelter. We roamed freely around Calais(fornia), and about halfway through our walk we arrived at the town hall, a striking red brick and stone building constructed in the early twentieth century and surrounded by well-tended flower beds and grass. One of the group took a photograph of us as we sat down and opened our map to decide next steps. To sit freely should not be taken for granted. After the eviction of 2016 the authorities announced a policy of ‘zero point de fixation’, moving people on within hours to ensure that there is no possibility of informal settlements, destroying tents and goods in processes known as ‘cleaning’. As part of this policy green spaces which could be potential resting spaces are littered with boulders to prevent people from lying down or gathering. As we walked past one such space, I wondered what purposes future archaeologists might attribute to these out-of-place rocks that must have taken such efforts to move and that make public spaces so horribly ugly and unusable. A form of worship? A collective project that builds community? Will such cruelty and racism be imaginable?

Boulders by the canal prevent groups from resting on the grass there (image: Nariman Massoumi)

We, the breachers, both sat and moved freely. The thousands of people on the move who attempt to breach the national border that separates Britain and France enjoy no such possibility. To be able to inhabit Calais(fornia) and to see Calais is indeed a privileged position. But I left feeling the importance of not being paralysed or silenced by that acknowledgment of privilege. Rather, having seen, we now have a responsibility to speak.

* There are in fact many ‘jungles’ around Calais, but this site is the one most strongly associated with the word.

Bridget Anderson is the Director of Migration Mobilities Bristol (MMB) and Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship in the School for Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol.

Other MMB blogs and projects connected to this post include the (de)Bordering plot, a space for exploring the politics of immigration and the environment through planting, which contains a Hearth modelled on shelters in the Calais ‘Jungle’. See also Travis Van Isacker’s post on ‘Environmental racism in the borderland: the case of Calais’ analysing how the French and UK governments have created a hostile environment for migrants trying to cross the Channel from Calais.

Imperial denaturalisation: towards an end to empire

By Colin Yeo.

As the British empire gradually remodelled itself into a British nation state over the course of the twentieth century, it was inevitable that problems would arise. There was no masterplan or strategy on how to achieve change and successive governments tended to react rather than plan. Nowhere was this more evident than in the process of redefinition of membership of the emerging nation state.

Until as late as 1 January 1983, all citizens of all Commonwealth countries were, according to British law, British subjects. This had been the legal regime at common law, before British subjecthood was put on a partially statutory basis by the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1914. It remained the legal regime when the British Nationality Act 1948 became law.

(Image: Markus Spiske on Unsplash)

What the 1948 legislation did change was the constitutional nature of British subjecthood. Until then, British subject status derived from a person’s place of birth and a direct relationship of allegiance to the crown. In future the question of who was or was not a British subject would effectively be decided by the legislatures of independent Commonwealth countries. In the United Kingdom and its colonies, the legislature was the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the local citizenship within the Commonwealth was citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies.

Both before and after the 1948 legislation, a British subject was free to enter and reside in Britain. At least, that was the legal position. In practice, informal barriers to entry and residence were used to try to interfere with the rights of some racialised subjects. In the case of Bhagwan [1972] AC 60, about alleged illegal entry by British subjects, Lord Diplock held in the House of Lords that a British subject ‘had the right at common law to enter the United Kingdom without let or hindrance when and where he pleased and to remain here as long as he liked.’

This is arguably not quite correct as it was more of a freedom than a right, given that aliens (meaning everyone not a British subject) had historically also been free to enter and live in the United Kingdom. As the legislation of the twentieth century was to show, it was a freedom that could be curtailed for aliens and subjects alike.

The right to enter and reside in a country is one of the fundamental rights of membership of that country, whether labelled subjecthood or citizenship. But the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 removed that right from a wide range of British subjects. The separation of rights of entry and residence from nationality law status was further cemented by legislation in 1968, 1969 and 1971. British subject status was then formally terminated by the British Nationality Act 1981 with effect from 1 January 1983.

This process is not traditionally classed as ‘denaturalisation’, a term usually reserved in modern usage for involuntary loss of formal nationality status on an individualised basis by means of administrative action. On this traditional understanding, denaturalisation is seen as exceptional, albeit to have undergone something of a revival in recent years. Withdrawal of rights of entry and residence from colonial peoples should nevertheless be considered denaturalisation by the central imperial power. With significant caveats, the process was comparable to massive scale denaturalisation by legislative means by certain states in the early to mid-twentieth century.

It might be said that the whole point of independence is to achieve a new citizenship of a new state, which might necessarily involve shrugging off the yoke of the old subjecthood. Such ‘denaturalisation’ might be considered not just consensual but actively sought, rather than imposed involuntarily. But there are two major flaws with asserting that this process was benevolent.

First, the British had hitherto felt free to enter and reside in many countries around the world and in the process repatriated much of the wealth of those countries to Britain and gained a considerable leg up in international trade, in industrial, economic and social infrastructure and more, as Nadine El-Enany argues in (B)ordering Britain. Unilateral withdrawal of access to this bounty quite understandably seemed rather unreasonable to many colonial subjects, who were attracted to live and work in the part of the empire that had overwhelmingly benefited from the imperial project.

For others, the loss of the right of entry to and residence in Britain was far more than an abstract and as-yet unrealised benefit. Those colonial subjects who had already moved from their original colony of residence to another were routinely denied the right to re-enter or reside — or at least reside with dignity and rights of citizenship — in their new country of residence. The East African Asians are one such group, for example. They were denied the right to live as full and active citizens in their country of residence: some were also denied formal citizenship and some were forcibly expelled.

Many of those British subjects who moved from colonies to the United Kingdom, later dubbed ‘the Windrush generation’, form another such group. It is thought that a very considerable (but unknowable) number were later denied re-entry to the United Kingdom following temporary absences abroad, for example. Others were later excluded from formal British citizenship status by complex and paid-for registration requirements when nationality law was later reformed. Later, some were denied effective citizenship rights by the suite of hostile environment laws brought into force since the late 1980s.

For those affected by these laws this felt a lot like denaturalisation, and with good reason. ‘I don’t feel British. I am British. I’ve been raised here, all I know is Britain,’ Paulette Wilson told journalist Amelia Gentleman in 2017. ‘What the hell can I call myself except British? I’m still angry that I have to prove it. I feel angry that I have to go through this.’ Wilson was not in fact a British citizen according to law, although she was able very belatedly to obtain leave to remain as a foreign national before she died in 2020. This was not before she had been rendered homeless, denied welfare benefits and health care and even detained for deportation at the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre. Her situation and her feelings of betrayal and estrangement were very far from unique.

Denaturalisation is not a novel or new phenomenon in British law. The involuntary loss of rights occurring as imperial citizenship was withdrawn first de facto then eventually de jure was a prolonged and, for some, ongoing episode of denaturalisation.

Colin Yeo is a barrister, writer, campaigner and consultant specialising in immigration law. He founded and edits the Free Movement immigration law blog and is an Honorary Researcher at the University of Bristol with MMB. His latest books are Welcome to Britain: Fixing our Broken Immigration System (2020) and Refugee Law (2022). We will be posting a second blogpost by Colin on denaturalisation in the autumn.

Previous MMB blogposts by Colin include ‘The hostile environment confuses unlawful with undocumented, with disastrous consequences.‘ You can also hear Colin discussing the UK Nationality and Borders Bill in an MMB webinar in 2021 here.

If you enjoyed this post you may also be interested in Nandita Sharma’s posts, ‘A tale of two worlds: national borders versus a common planet‘, and ‘National sovereignty and postcolonial racism.’

Disablement and resistance in the British immigration system

By Rebecca Yeo.

The distinction between deserving and undeserving individuals has always been core to immigration policy in the UK. However, the hostility and restrictions directed at those framed as ‘undeserving’ has steadily increased. The recently introduced Illegal Migration Bill takes these restrictions to a new level to include detaining and preventing new arrivals from even claiming asylum. The need to build effective opposition has never been more urgent. With this goal, it is important to consider the inequities of the current system, possible alternative approaches to resistance and the barriers that must be addressed.

The disabling impact of immigration controls

In 2012, then-Home Secretary Theresa May stated her aim to create a hostile environment. Subsequent legislation (Immigration Act, 2014; Immigration Act, 2016) was explicitly designed to restrict access to such necessities as housing, financial support and sense of safety. These policies prevent people from meeting their human needs. As one Disabled woman subject to asylum restrictions said to me: ‘If they are torturing someone they can’t expect that person to be okay.’ The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) acknowledges that ‘immigration control measures which deny access to services, can increase vulnerability.’ The result is to disable people with existing impairments, as well as to create new impairments. Immigration policy is actively and deliberately disabling.

Mural created with Disabled people subject to immigration controls, led by artist Andrew Bolton, see disabilitymurals.org.uk (Photograph: Mark Simmons)

Compassion in immigration policy

The hostility of immigration policy has always been combined with expressions of compassion. In her speech to the Conservative Party conference in October 2015, while setting out measures to create a hostile environment, Theresa May also proclaimed: ‘Let Britain stand up for the displaced, the persecuted and the oppressed. For the people who need our help and protection the most.’ Similarly, current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak asserts that he is ‘balancing’ his pledge to ‘stop the boats’ with assertions that ‘the UK remains a safe haven for the most vulnerable.’ Even the UK-Rwanda partnership includes a clause to allow for resettlement of some of ‘the most vulnerable’ refugees from Rwanda to the UK. This may be considered a welcome alternative to hostility. However, as the ICIBI asserts, Home Office efforts to identify ‘vulnerable individuals is a test not just of its competence but also of its capacity for compassion.’ Expressions of compassion towards ‘vulnerable’ individuals are not used to contest, but to reinforce, the legitimacy of hostility towards others.

A social model approach

Insights from the Disabled people’s movement could help focus resistance against the disabling impact of immigration policy. In 1976, the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation argued it is ‘society which disables.’ This principle was developed by disabled sociologist Michael Oliver, among others, to replace the individual approach of the charity model with what became known as the social model of disability. This approach calls for collective responsibility to address the disabling impact of inequities faced by people with impairments. A similar approach could focus on resisting the disabling restrictions imposed on people subject to immigration controls. Without negating the emotional and physical pain inherent in many forms of impairment, or in being forced to flee one’s home, effective resistance must challenge the socially constructed, and therefore changeable, injustices. A social model of immigration could bring together the Disabled people’s movement, people subject to immigration controls and allies of both, to build solidarity and collective resistance to the restrictions and inequalities of assumed human value, which underpin current injustices.

The barriers to change

It is meaningless to assert the need for a social model of immigration without acknowledging the barriers. Restricted access to services and support is a central tool of immigration policy. Barriers to change are not, however, exclusively at the level of the state.

Lived experience

Manjeet Kaur paints part of the mural that represents her experience: ‘The wheelchair is chained… I feel restricted by the UK Border Agency, I am not free to do anything.’
(Photograph: Andrew Bolton.)

The social model of disability was developed by Disabled people rather than charitable organisations. However, when people are struggling for immediate survival, there is little capacity to lead resistance. As activist Manjeet Kaur explained to me just months before she died, in the face of immediate struggles as a Disabled asylum seeker, ‘I don’t have the energy… I myself am in a floating boat, I can anytime fall down.’ The capacity for solidarity from the wider Disabled people’s movement is reduced by lack of information and individual struggles in the context of an ever more punitive welfare state. The mantra of the Disabled people’s movement ‘nothing about us, without us’ is as valid as ever, however, the solidarity of allies has never been so important.

Voluntary sector

The asylum voluntary sector may be the obvious source of solidarity. However, rather than seeking advice and collaboration from the Disabled people’s movement, all too often asylum voluntary sector organisations have endorsed Home Office and local authority initiatives towards individuals considered ‘vulnerable’ as if this approach is better than nothing. Of course, some compassion is better than none, but these initiatives adopt a regressive individualistic approach to disability. Like most progressive ideas, the social model of disability and associated concepts have been widely co-opted and distorted to remove demands for systemic change. This risks undermining key struggles of the Disabled people’s movement, including demands for the services and support necessary for independent living as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People. A broad-based movement of solidarity is needed to focus on addressing causal injustices.

Public response

Collective resistance is further hampered by lack of public concern. Response to the COVID-19 pandemic exposes how publicly acceptable it is to treat some lives as disposable. The majority of people who have died from COVID are Disabled. Yet public response to this knowledge is not to take collective responsibility to reduce the risk, but instead to remove precautions and leave the responsibility with individuals. The result is to exclude anyone concerned about infection from public space, with at least #Forgotten500k facing the fourth year of lockdown.

Widespread disregard for the value of certain lives may increase the barriers to effective action but if current inequalities are socially constructed the issue is not whether change is possible but how it can be achieved. Systemic change may appear unrealistic, but as author and disability activist Ellen Clifford writes: ‘We have no choice. The stakes have become too high’.

Rebecca Yeo is completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Bristol on refining and promoting a ‘social model of asylum’ as a tool to transform responses to disability and forced migration in the UK. Her work draws on her involvement in the Disabled people’s movement and what she has learned from disabled people seeking asylum.

A recording of Rebecca’s webinar, ‘A social model of asylum: disablement and resistance in the British asylum system,’ is available here. This was part of a webinar series co-hosted by MMB and GRAMNet on ‘The Health of Migrants and the Right to Health.’ A recording of MMB’s emergency discussion on the 2023 Illegal Migration Bill can be watched here.

Previous post by Rebecca Yeo: ‘The power of collaborative art in research for social change,’ 8th March 2022.

Many Turkish people in Europe are worse off than those who stayed at home

New writing on migration and mobilities – an MMB special series

By Şebnem Eroğlu.

Many people migrate to another country to earn a decent income and to attain a better standard of living. But my recent research shows that across all destinations and generations studied, many migrants from Turkey to European countries are financially worse off than those who stayed at home.

Even if there are some non-monetary benefits of staying in the destination country, such as living in a more orderly environment, this raises fundamental questions. Primarily, why are 79% of the first-generation men who contributed to the growth of Europe by taking on some of the dirtiest, riskiest manual jobs – like working in asbestos processing and sewage canals – still living in income poverty? There is a strong indication that the European labour markets and welfare states are failing migrants and their descendants.

A Turkish barbers’ shop in Scotland (image: byronv2/Flickr)

In my recent book, Poverty and International Migration (2022), I examined the poverty status of three generations of migrants from Turkey to multiple European countries, including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands. I compared them with the ‘returnees’ who moved back to Turkey and the ‘stayers’ who have never left the country.

The study covers the period from the early 1960s to the time of their interview (2010-2012), and draws on a sample of 5,980 adults within 1,992 families. The sample was composed of living male ancestors (those who went first were typically men), their children and grandchildren.

For my research, the poverty line was set at 60% of the median disposable household income (adjusted for household size) for every country studied. Those who fall below the country threshold are defined as the income poor.

Data for this research is drawn from the 2000 Families Survey, which I conducted with academics based in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands. The survey generated what is believed to be the world’s largest database on labour migration to Europe through locating the male ancestors who moved to Europe from five high migration regions in Turkey during the guest-worker years of 1960-1974 and their counterparts who did not migrate at the time.

It charts the family members who were living in various European countries up to the fourth generation, and those that stayed behind in Turkey. The period corresponds to a time when labourers from Turkey were invited through bi-lateral agreements between states to contribute to the building of western and northern Europe.

The results presented in my book show that four-fifths (79%) of the first-generation men who came to Europe as guest-workers and ended up settling there lived below an income poverty line, compared with a third (33%) of those that had stayed in the home country. By the third generation, around half (49%) of those living in Europe were still poor, compared with just over a quarter (27%) of those who remained behind.

Migrants from three family generations residing in countries renowned for the generosity of their welfare states were among the most impoverished. Some of the highest poverty rates were observed in Belgium, Sweden and Denmark.

For example, across all three generations of migrants settled in Sweden, 60% were in income poverty despite an employment rate of 61%. This was the highest level of employment observed for migrants in all the countries studied. Migrants in Sweden were also, on average, more educated than those living in other European destinations.

My findings also reveal that while more than a third (37%) of ‘stayers’ from the third generation went on to complete higher education. This applied to less than a quarter (23%) of the third generation migrants spread across European countries.

Returnees did well

Having a university education turned out not to improve the latter’s chances of escaping poverty as much as it did for the family members who had not left home. The ‘returnees’ to Turkey were, on the other hand, found to fare much better than those living in Europe and on a par with, if not better than, the ‘stayers’.

Less than a quarter of first- and third-generation returnees (23% and 24% respectively) experienced income poverty and 43% from the third generation attained a higher education qualification. The money they earned abroad along with their educational qualifications seemed to buy them more economic advantage in Turkey than in the destination country.

The results of the research should not be taken to mean that international migration is economically a bad decision as we still do not know how impoverished these people were prior to migration. First-generation migrants are anecdotally known to be poorer at the time of migration than those who decided not to migrate during guest-worker years, and are likely to have made some economic gains from their move. The returnees’ improved situation does lend support to this.

Nor should the findings lead to the suggestion that if migrants do not earn enough in their new home country, they should go back. Early findings from another piece of research I am currently undertaking suggests that while income poverty considerably reduces migrants’ life satisfaction, there are added non-monetary benefits of migration to a new destination. The exact nature of these benefits remains unknown but it is likely to do, for example, with living in a better organised environment that makes everyday life easier.

However, we still left with the question of why migrants are being left in such poverty. Coupled with the findings from another recent study demonstrating that more than half of Europeans do not welcome non-EU migrants from economically poorer countries, evidence starts to suggest an undercurrent of systemic racism may be acting as a cause.

If migrants were welcome, one would expect destination countries with far more developed welfare states than Turkey to put in place measures to protect guest workers against the risk of poverty in old age, or prevent their children and grandchildren from falling so far behind their counterparts in Turkey in accessing higher education.

They would not let them settle for lower returns on their educational qualifications in more regulated labour markets. It’s also unlikely we would have observed some of the highest poverty rates in countries with generous welfare states such as Sweden – top ranked for its anti-discrimination legislation, based on equality of opportunity.

Overall, the picture for ‘unwanted’ migrants appears to be rather bleak. Unless major systemic changes are made, substantial improvement to their prospects are unlikely.

Şebnem Eroğlu is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Bristol. Her research focuses on poverty and household livelihoods, and on the economic behaviour, success and integration of migrants. Her recent book, Poverty and International Migration: A Multi-Site and Intergenerational Perspective (2022) is published by Policy Press.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Access to healthcare: human right or civil liberty?

By Ella Barclay.

A right to health is enshrined in many international agreements, indicating the perceived importance of wellness and accessible healthcare for the development and flourishing of individuals (UDHR, Art. 25:1; ICESCR, Art. 12.1; CEDAW, 12:1; CRC, Art. 24:1). Despite this, one of the main sites of immigration control targeted within the UK’s ‘hostile environment’ is the NHS, with the healthcare rights of undocumented migrants being largely compromised following the implementation of the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts. Such policies constitute an intentional appeal to the public perception of migration as a strain on the UK’s public services. In framing these individuals as ‘criminals’ or ‘deviants’, it is far easier to justify their restriction of rights. However, the nation-state’s freedom to deny access to such rights for undocumented persons leads us to question whether these supposedly universal rights may actually be mere civil liberties.

The National Health Service (Charges to Overseas Visitors) Regulations (2015) introduced NHS charges for all those not ‘ordinarily resident’  within the UK, despite the NHS constitution outlining that access to care should be based on clinical need, not an individual’s ability to pay. To be ‘ordinarily resident’ one must reside within the UK voluntarily, legally and with the intention of remaining for a prolonged period (DHSC, 2022). Healthcare providers establish the charging eligibility of patients through a screening process, involving questions about residency and migrant status. If an individual is found to be eligible for NHS charges, this information will be passed onto that NHS trust’s Overseas Visitor Manager (OVM), who will pursue them for payment. Crucially, the actions of the OVM are dependent on the information gathered by healthcare providers, meaning the administrative burden and moral responsibility effectively fall on clinical staff.

(Image: Hush Naidoo Jade Photography on Unsplash)

While primary care, including emergency services, GP registration and vaccinations, is always free of charge and cannot be denied to any individual, all other care is chargeable at a rate of 150%, which must be paid before treatment can be provided. Maternity care constitutes an exception to this policy, defined as ‘immediately necessary’, meaning individuals are not required to pay prior to receiving care but are instead billed after the fact. If an individual is unable to pay for their care after receiving it, their residency status will be shared with the Home Office, thereby alerting immigration officers to the potentially undocumented status of the patient.

Many scholars have argued that this practice of data-sharing conflicts with the NHS’s Caldicott Principles, which emphasise confidentiality and privacy in the interests of both the individual and the institution (Papageorgiou et al., 2020; Reynolds and Mitchell, 2019; Robinson et al., 2018). However, where undocumented migrants in the UK are presented as criminals and their mere existence presented as a threat to state security, this violation of an inherent NHS value is seemingly justified. More specifically, the principles of the Data Protection Act (2018) can be revoked where withholding data is seen to place public interests at risk. Withholding data is therefore seen to hinder effective immigration control: in other words, these individuals are considered not to have a right to privacy (Crépeau and Hastie, 2015; Kulakiewicz et al., 2022; Van Durme, 2017). Once the Home Office has been notified that an individual is residing without the correct authorisation, not only can they choose to deport the individual, they can also keep such ‘deviance’ on record, which will be taken into consideration if the undocumented individual were ever to apply for a visa. This forces undocumented individuals into a ‘rights trap’; they must either incriminate themselves to receive the safe care they are owed under international legislation or go without healthcare they may dearly need (Gentleman, 2018; Hermansson et al., 2020).

Although the impact of such policies on the wellbeing of migrants is well-documented (DOTW, 2017; Hamada et al., 2021; Pellegrino et al., 2021; Westwood et al., 2016), restricting the accessibility of healthcare for a substantial portion of our population has further-reaching consequences. Even where primary services may be free of charge, threats of data-sharing prevent undocumented individuals from exercising their rights to such care, which undermines public health and herd immunity (BMA, 2021; Bulman, 2020; Weller and Aldridge, 2019). Similarly, the deterrent effect of charging policies costs the NHS more than the initial price of providing treatment to all. De Jong et al. (2017), Jones et al. (2019) and WHO (2018) report that undocumented persons are often hospitalised for longer after pregnancy and for otherwise treatable illnesses as a result of their decisions not to seek care due to fears of detection. Preventative care is not only more effective but also more cost-efficient than remedial care, indicating that current policies are not only discriminatory and detrimental to individual and public wellbeing, but also counterproductive for the NHS and the economy (McHale and Speakman, 2020; Norris, 2022).

Charging those not ‘ordinarily resident’ for healthcare also has a serious impact on the NHS. The British Medical Association (2019) reports that a large proportion of healthcare staff find their workload to have increased significantly following the implementation of charging policies. Similarly, NHS staff are working outside of their billed hours to provide informal help to undocumented migrants, as they are not able to support them fully within appointments. This support ranges from signposting and advocacy to financial support and even forging documents (Feldman et al., 2019).

Documenting the far-reaching impacts of this hostile environment policy exposes the irrationality of charging practices, and denying this human right in the name of securitisation sets a dangerous precedent for nation-states’ treatment of vulnerable persons. The UK cannot be said to be upholding their pledges to international legislation when individuals residing within its borders are unable to access basic healthcare. Where international policies can be manipulated and shaped to fit a nation-state’s own agenda we must question who can hold these states accountable, and who will protect the rights of our undocumented populations.

Ella Barclay is a first-year PhD student in Sociology at the University of the West of England. Her research takes an ethnographic approach to understand the experiences of pregnancy, labour and early motherhood for undocumented migrant women within the UK’s hostile environment. Ella completed the MSc in Migration and Mobility Studies at the University of Bristol in 2020 and is an MMB Alumni Ambassador.

‘An asylum ban’: why the Illegal Migration Bill must be stopped

By Bridget Anderson.

The Athenian Laws introduced by Draco c. 621 BCE were said to be written not in ink but blood. This government’s Illegal Migration Bill currently going through the UK Parliament, is draconian. It is aimed at people who arrive irregularly – people who the government calls ‘illegal migrants’, but who might better be described as illegalised migrants. There is not some pre-existing category of illegal people who migrate, rather people are illegalised by borders and thereby rendered vulnerable to state and personal power.

The Bill places a duty on the Home Secretary to make arrangements to remove people who do not arrive via state approved routes (backdated to 7th March 2023) and who have not come directly from the country they are fleeing. The Home Secretary also has a duty to rule their asylum and certain human rights claims inadmissible. Because they are ruled inadmissible rather than refused there is no right of appeal. These people will be permanently banned from claiming asylum and from the removal protections of the Modern Slavery Act. They are an ‘ineligible person’ meaning they will never be eligible for any form of legal status or citizenship, or legal entry to the UK and neither will their family members including children yet to be born.

(Image: UnSplash)

People falling under this legislation will likely be detained for 28 days, which can be extended if the Secretary of State believes there is a ‘reasonable prospect’ of removal. There are three options for where they will be removed to. If they are from EEA countries or Albania they will be returned to their country of origin. If they are not from those states, they will not be returned to their country of origin, but, if there is an appropriate returns agreement, to the country which they left before coming to the UK. However, UK geography means this is likely to be France, so this is not currently an option. (In her response to the Bill suggesting the Labour Party’s direction of travel, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper made it clear that negotiating a returns agreement with France and other European countries would be a Labour Government priority). Non-EEA/non-Albanian nationals will therefore be sent to other states listed in the schedule of the Bill (note some of those listed are deemed appropriate only for men). The list includes Rwanda. As yet, there are no removal agreements with any of the other countries on that list.

The Bill’s preface acknowledges that its provisions may not be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. It is likely to be not compliant with the Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings, and the UN Refugee Agency has asserted that it is in breach of the Refugee Convention:

‘The legislation, if passed, would amount to an asylum ban – extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the United Kingdom for those who arrive irregularly, no matter how genuine and compelling their claim may be, and with no consideration of their individual circumstances’ (UNHCR, 7 March 2023).

The UK is effectively slamming the country shut to all those fleeing war and persecution, regardless of their circumstances. This is an end to the asylum system as we know it. Asylum seekers do not typically fly to the UK directly from their countries of origin – not least because years of carrier sanctions have closed that possibility. Most apply via the UK’s in-country application process having made long and dangerous journeys through several other countries. Should this Bill become law, the principal means of being granted refugee status will be via specific government-approved routes. The Bill requires that the Home Secretary set an annual cap on the numbers of people entering through these so-called ‘safe and legal routes’. The UK government may have set out ‘legal’ routes, but they are not necessarily ‘safe’. The MoD recently had to apologise for telling applicants to the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme (ARAP), which relocates MoD approved Afghans at risk of reprisals for working with the UK government in Afghanistan, that their documents needed to be approved by the Taliban to be successful.

There has been a chorus of criticism directed at the Bill. The opposition Labour Party is leading the charge with claims that it is unworkable and will not achieve the objectives of stopping the ‘small boats’. Human rights organisations, charities, religious groups and some lawyers are also challenging the ethics of the Bill – ‘cruelty without purpose’ as the Archbishop of York described it. Sections of the commentariat argue that whether it achieves its aims is a secondary issue (see, for example, The News Agents 2023; Dunt 2023). As Colin Yeo’s helpful analysis of the Bill puts it: ‘It is wishful thinking in legislative form.’

This is performance and the government is looking for a pre-election ‘wedge issue’. The Bill is cunningly drafted in such a way as to make legal challenge both difficult and limited. But challenged it will be, and we can anticipate more attacks on ‘lefty lawyers’ scapegoated for making unworkable legislation well, unworkable. The Explanatory Notes to the Bill set out the number of asylum claims (74,751 in 2022) in clause 9, followed by the ballooning cost of the asylum system (now £3 billion annually) in clause 10. But the cost of the system is not rising simply because of increasing numbers of claims, and there is no reason to think that this legislation will reduce costs.

Meanwhile, it is worth pausing to reflect on the irreparable harm to thousands of people that will be done by this performance piece. Forcible removals of desperate people will require systematic and institutionalised violence. The Home Office has said that ‘Using force on children in family groups may, unfortunately, be necessary if a family is resisting removal.’ There will be a new category of ‘ineligible person’ begging on our streets, permanently shut out of labour protections and services, and this status will be passed on from parents to children. It is estimated that there are over 200,000 undocumented children in the UK, many of whom were born here. This Bill will significantly add to this long-term undocumented population. Should a future government not repeal this Bill large numbers of people will be consigned to illegality, with all the vulnerability and potential for abuse that entails, for their entire lives.

Claims of unworkability sidestep the question of whether workability is desirable. Do we want removal agreements so that people can be efficiently sent to countries with which they have absolutely no connection? Sustained pressure must be put on the Labour Party, should it come to Government, to commit to repealing the entirety of this Bill and to mitigating the harms it will have already done. At a minimum this would mean regularising and expediting the asylum claims of all those caught up by the Bill wherever in the world they may be. This is not only because it is a vicious attack on the rights of people seeking to enter the UK, but it is also an attack on our shared futures. It attacks the rights of future children, and anyone who falls in love with them or wants to work with them or otherwise wishes to spend time with them in the UK. It undermines the global refugee regime. It will create a super exploitable workforce. It will exacerbate divisions in an already divided country. We are already seeing an increase in the criminalisation of those deemed to be assisting undocumented migrants, and more burdensome documentary checking required across employers and the public sector, with all of the racism that stokes. As the undocumented population increases, arguments for ID cards will sound more reasonable. The current government is good at three-word slogans. I have one for them: Stop The Bill.

Bridget Anderson is Director of Migration Mobilities Bristol and Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol.

Further resources for understanding the impact and ramifications of the Illegal Migration Bill can be found on our webpage here, and a recording of our online emergency discussion about the Bill on 31st March can be seen here.

The ‘Rwanda Solution’: using Australia’s playbook

By Juan Zhang.

On 19th March, 2023, British Home Secretary Suella Braverman caused yet another controversy during her two-day visit to Kigali, Rwanda, with a photo of her laughing at the building site of future housing intended for asylum seekers to be deported from the UK to Rwanda. This visit drew new criticism from both mainstream and social media, which continued to challenge the Rwanda deportation scheme and the associated Illegal Migration Bill that could potentially violate both the Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Publicity for the Australian Government’s Operation Sovereign Borders, aimed at stopping all maritime arrivals of asylum seekers, 2013 (image: Wikimedia Foundation)

This controversial deportation scheme, seen as the Conservative government’s ‘vanity project’, faced strong public condemnation and resistance since it was first announced in April 2022. Observers at the time already pointed out the uncanny similarities between the UK-Rwanda deal and the Australian ‘stop the boats’ policy with its infamous offshore processing scheme. It seems that Australia’s past mistakes and systematic failures at ‘stopping the boats’ for at least two decades offer no deterrence to the UK to pick up the same playbook, when the UK Home Office takes Australia’s harsh zero-tolerance approach as an example of achievement instead of a hard lesson to be learned (see Gleeson 2021, Tubakovic, Murray and Matera 2023).

The Australian offshore asylum programme, introduced in 2001 as the ‘Pacific Solution’ to unauthorised immigration by the Howard Coalition government, targeted people entering Australian waters via ocean crossings and arriving by boat. This programme was closed in 2007 by the Labour government (under Kevin Rudd), but revived again in 2012 as ‘Pacific Solution Mark II’ with a hard-line approach to ‘stop the boats’ (see Bakshi 2020 for a full account). The suffering and inhumanity found in Australia’s offshore detention programme caused worldwide concern and criticism on how Australia ‘privileged migration deterrence goals over human rights considerations’, and how it deliberately normalised ‘moral disengagement from the pain and suffering of people in detention’ for populist political gains (see Barnes 2022). It is therefore bewildering to see such a notorious policy, known for being ‘cruel, costly and ineffective’ for 20 years (Gleeson and Yacoub 2021), now being embraced by the UK government as inspiration for how to manage asylum seekers. The Melbourne-based organisation Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) expressed a profound sense of concern to the Australian broadcaster SBS:

‘It’s appalling that, despite a decade of cruelty that has led to severe harm, death, compensation pay-outs by the government, third-country deals, medical transfers, and international notoriety, the Australian model has influenced global policy.’  

There are already extensive reports and analysis that question whether the UK can actually ‘stop the boats’ with its adapted Australian model (for example, Gleeson 2021, Koser 2022). Apart from the legal obstacles the UK has to deal with, different political as well as geographical contexts also suggest that the Rwanda deportation plan is unlikely to proceed smoothly or result in the same kind of outcome as seen in Australia. Moreover, the ‘Rwanda Solution’ – if we can call it that – provokes deeper concerns over legacies of imperialism, colonialism and entrenching patterns of global inequalities. It is effectively outsourcing border control in a way that perpetuates forced displacement, instituting a form of structural violence that holds life in a ‘permanent state of injury outside any realms of protection and political intelligibility’ (Phipps and Yohannes 2022). The Rwanda scheme has already caused toxic social and political divisions both within the UK and beyond before any individual could be sent on a deportation flight. But the government remains determined despite challenges coming from all fronts. Braverman’s Rwanda tour at this moment seems particularly tone deaf to the wider public debate demanding a compassionate and more ethical process with regard to unauthorised Channel crossing.

Whether the UK manages to ‘stop the boats’ when (and if) the Rwanda scheme is in full play remains to be seen. But this much is clear – the number of people crossing the English Channel on small boats has continued to increase in 2022, despite stern messages that the UK will ‘detain and deport you’. These boat arrivals are played up in the current corrosive narratives on the UK’s state of emergency caused by migrant illegality and compromised border security. The Rwanda solution, then, seems very much like a production of ‘xenophobic spectacle’ (Koram 2022) that distracts the public from deeper problems and crises at home. Braverman seems optimistic that, with this visit, the deportation flights between the UK and Rwanda will take off by summer 2023, when legal loopholes and courtroom battles are finally settled. By then, the public is led to believe, all problems with the small boats will magically disappear. But this short-term, single-minded agenda on deportation and offshore processing creates nothing more than a tunnel vision approach that Australia has tried and failed. What gives the UK government the conviction that the Rwanda solution will deliver a better result?   

Juan Zhang is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Bristol. Her research explores borders and transnational migration with particular interest in Asian borderlands, migrant im/mobilities and transnationalism, cross-border cultural politics and China. She is the co-ordinator of the MMB research challenge, Bodies, Things, Capital.

For more information about the 2023 Illegal Migration Bill see the list of resources on our webpage.

No Recourse to Public Funds: The Big Issue tackles vulnerability to NRPF in Bristol

By Paula Gombos.

The Big Issue is a street magazine founded 30 years ago that tackles homelessness and social exclusion in the UK. It also supports individuals to earn an income by selling the magazine, and there are more than 50 active sellers in Bristol. A significant proportion of these vendors are Romanian Roma, many of who are subject to ‘NRPF’ rules. NRPF stands for ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ meaning they are not eligible for many benefits, including Universal Credit, Social Fund payments, Housing Benefit and social housing and education. It is usually associated with asylum seekers and non-EEA (European Economic Area) citizens. However, European migrants too can be affected, usually while they are waiting for the Home Office decision on their application to the EU Settlement Scheme, or if they have not applied in time for Settled Status or Indefinite Leave to Remain.

In early 2022 the Big Issue was given a small grant from the University of Bristol’s ESRC-funded Everyday Integration project to investigate the consequences of NRPF from the perspective of our essential frontline workers. We also wanted to see how we can take steps locally to ensure better support and inclusion for people who fall under NRPF rules. In December we published our report on the project, ‘How Can Big Issue Sellers With or Vulnerable to NRPF Build a Good Life in Bristol’. Here I introduce its key points.

Big Issue jacket worn by a vendor in Birmingham
(Images: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery on Flickr)

We were very happy to be supported throughout the process by Migration Mobilities Bristol (MMB) and ACH. MMB Director Bridget Anderson first helped us to identify our research question and methods and potential ethical issues. We then held a vendor engagement workshop in our Big Issue Bristol office. Vendors participated in a set of activities and discussed their motivations for moving to the UK, their values and aspirations and the accessibility of services to them. We then devised an interview schedule to explore what participants felt made a ‘good life’, and the barriers that stop them from moving towards this. Together we explored options and used Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the Bristol Model to facilitate a dialogue with participants. Finally, we held conversations with other agencies who work with NRPF migrants in Bristol.

The research was small scale, working with ten Big Issue sellers aged between 38 and 60, nine from the Romanian Roma community (three women and six men), and one male Jamaican national. It found that anxieties about housing, personal safety and sustenance had significantly negative effects, and the NRPF condition exacerbated these, making vendors feel disempowered. Their responses showed how it leaves people destitute and unmotivated. Some people end up begging or turning to alcohol and substance misuse, which affects their mental health and general wellbeing. However, together with a range of Bristol based organisations, we came up with ideas that could significantly improve their quality of life.

At a national level, Big Issue argues that the NRPF condition should be scrapped and policies changed so people can secure suitable accommodation, become economically active and be able to access mainstream benefits. We hope that Bristol City Council will play an active role in supporting this demand. However, the project focused mainly on the significant steps that can be taken locally, including funding for services that work with NRPF and support for issues including employability, education, immigration and alternative housing options. More specifically the participants suggested:

  • Improving English skills and learning how to read and write.
  • Accessible employment for people with limited numeracy, literacy, digital skills or for people in poor health.
  • Having a voice and being actively involved in local decision-making processes.
  • Advocacy and legal representation at a local level.
  • Better care and triage system within local provisions.
  • Regular access to interpreters when attending appointments at local services.
  • Less prejudice and less bureaucracy for individuals with very little documentation.
  • Safer, cleaner and more suitable housing provisions.
  • Better protection and safety from Bristol police.
  • ‘City work platform’ – daily jobs for the City Council, such as cleaning, recycling and gardening, distributed amongst rough sleepers to help them contribute to the city and solve anti-social behavior.

These are some of the ways of building local support for individuals with or vulnerable to NRPF, which would positively impact their lives in the city. Housing, in particular, is a priority for safety, wellbeing and civic engagement.

Besides the obvious need for improved local support and changes to national policies, we must remember that our vendors want to be seen and heard, and to have a sense of accomplishment and purpose in their lives. The Big Issue will carry on fighting against social exclusion and poverty and we pledge to continue supporting the most marginalised and vulnerable people in the community. But all of us living in Bristol are responsible for making this city a better place for others.

Paula Gombos is a Sales and Support Worker and Vendor Data Lead for the Big Issue Bristol. She is also a certified Romanian community interpreter and translator for community projects. The full Big Issue report ‘How Can Big Issue Sellers With or Vulnerable to NRPF Build a Good Life in Bristol’ can be read here.

Working with the Colombian Truth Commission on illegal drug economies

By Mary Ryder.

In June 2022 the Colombian Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition launched its final report, Hay Futuro Si Hay Verdad: Hallazgos y Recomendaciones (There is a Future if There is Truth: Findings and Recommendations). This was the culmination of three and half years of work investigating the causes and consequences of decades of armed conflict in the country, developing a wide-ranging set of recommendations to support the transition to peace.

Colombia’s Truth Commission had a hugely ambitious mandate and introduced a number of innovations, including working with pedagogy as an operational pillar, integrating feminist methodologies, exploring the mobilities of drugs and money in the conflict, and collecting testimonies beyond the borders of the nation. It faced myriad political challenges and ran throughout the global pandemic. The release of its final report and its acceptance by Colombia’s new President, Gustavo Petro, renew prospects for peace in the country and signal the enormous responsibility for Colombian society to widely acknowledge the truths the final report presents and work towards its recommendations.

‘There is a Future if There is Truth’ (image: Colombian Truth Commission)

Colleagues from the Department of Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American Studies and the School of Education at the University of Bristol have been working with the Colombian Truth Commission since its inception, supporting the innovative work described above. Funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the University of Bristol and support from the MEMPAZ and EdJAM projects have enabled the development of gender-sensitive methodologies for collecting testimonies and the collection and transcription of thousands of testimonies from women and LGTBQI+ people affected by conflict. Commissioners Alejandra Miller, who led the Commission’s innovative work on gender, and Carlos Beristain, who led its work collecting testimonies from Colombians in exile, both visited the university in 2019, as did members of the pedagogy and gender working groups (see more here).

Along with another University of Bristol doctoral researcher, Laura Hankin, I have worked closely with the Truth Commission throughout its operation. Here I reflect upon the key role of the drugs working group, to which I contributed, and the importance of understanding the complex relationship between the movement of drugs – and of capital generated by the illegal trade – and the armed conflict in Colombia.

Drugs in the Truth Commission

The Colombian Truth Commission is the first in the world to meaningfully investigate the role of illegal drug economies in an armed conflict, and to dispute the continuation of UN conventions on international drug prohibition by recognising their damaging and counter-productive impact on Colombia’s transition from war to peace.

Drug economies were central to the Commission’s mandate, which explicitly called for an investigation into the relationship between Colombia’s armed conflict and the cultivation of illegal crops, the production and commercialisation of illegal drugs, and the laundering of assets derived from drug trafficking.

The team responsible for this work sought to expand upon existing literature and research that has tended to reduce illegal drugs-trafficking to a means of financing Colombia’s armed conflict, and to contest a longstanding political discourse that blames illegal drugs-trafficking as the source of all problems in Colombia. A deliberate choice was made to focus not just on drugs-trafficking but on understanding the dynamics of regional drug economies – of which trafficking is just one part – and how these interact with the conflict. We also took a broad view of who is involved – from citizens, police, guerrilla and paramilitary groups to politicians and local authorities – who is benefitting from them, and who is suffering because of them.

For more than three years we delved into the Truth Commission’s archives to explore the regulations and controls that different armed groups in Colombia held over drug production, trafficking and consumption in the regions under their control; the conflation of counter-insurgency efforts with counter-drug policy efforts, and the militarisation of state-citizen relations in these regions; the impact of forced eradication and aerial spraying of glyphosate on campesinos, different ethnic groups and on the movement of money in Colombian territories; and campaign financing and the corruption of politics and public institutions through incomes from the illegal drug trade, among other dynamics.

The Commission’s findings reveal a complex web of entangled networks, comprised of political, armed and civilian members involved in the production, supply or use of illegal drugs, which varied widely across the different regions of Colombia and at different moments of the armed conflict. The report describes how the circulation of drugs became a means of accumulating wealth and power for these different actors, which generated violence on Colombian society and caused corruption in many institutions and politics.

Another key conclusion of the final report is that Colombia’s traditional political conflict was exacerbated and degraded by the punitive, prohibitionist ‘war on drugs’. Drug prohibition criminalised anyone involved in the production, supply or use of illegal drugs, which stigmatised their behaviour as ‘wrong’ or ‘immoral’ and in turn justified acts of violence against them. For example, systematic human rights violations were exercised against drug users by armed actors as a mechanism to gain acceptance among the wider population, many of whom deemed it a valid and desirable way to deal with people considered ‘disposable’, ‘flawed’ and ‘dangerous’.

The ‘war on drugs’ also resulted in the transformation of the armed forces, whose attention was diverted from citizen protection to destroying coca fields and drug laboratories and pursuing drugs-traffickers, often against the will of many rural communities whose livelihoods depended on illegal crop production. These prohibitionist policies not only failed to shut down these illegal economies, but they played a key role in scaling up the violence.

The Commission’s recommendations for the non-repetition of violence state that Colombian leaders must now recognise how drug economies have penetrated the country’s culture, economy and politics and how the global ‘war on drugs’ is continuing to drive its armed conflict in the present. In particular, it recommends that the new Colombian government leads and promotes an international debate to reform drug policy in cooperation with the United States and to move toward legal regulation. The report is unequivocal that this change is urgent and necessary to eliminate one of the key structural drivers of conflict in the country.

The work discussed above is presented in chapter 6 of the final report Hay Futuro Si Hay Verdad and in three case studies which expose, first, the repression and stigmatisation of coca-growing farmers in the armed conflict, second, the militarisation of Colombia’s Macarena region under the logic of the ‘war on drugs’, and third, the victimisation of people using drugs.

Mary Ryder is a PhD student in the School of Education at the University of Bristol. Her research explores how Colombians’ experiences and memories of conflict have been shaped by counter-drug and security policies. She is broadly interested in drug policy reform, transitional justice and memory within the context of conflict and peace.

Bad intentions: the UK government and migrants

By Ryan Lutz.

At the MMB postgraduate workshop in July, ‘How Not to Think Like a State,’ visiting scholar Nandita Sharma talked to us about the throughlines of her research. One of these, in particular, gripped me: ‘Anti-immigrant sentiments,’ she said, ‘are used as the basis for fascism.’

I am a migrant PhD student in the UK studying migrant integration and how local-level organisations and the City Council in Bristol resist the draconian policies of the UK government, such as the 2021 Nationality and Borders Bill and 2016 Policing and Crime Act. Despite the government’s policies, the council and local organisations in Bristol are striving to provide a safe and welcoming environment for migrants. The city has a long history of fighting against oppression and racism, including the Bristol Bus Boycotts of 1963, the St Paul’s uprisings of the 1980s, the toppling of the Colston statue in 2020 and the Kill the Bill uprisings of 2021. Additionally, Bristol attracted many migrants from colonised countries during the post-colonial period, meaning there is a history of migrants and ethnic minorities in the city who have been a part of integration services and have successfully built their lives here.

Mural in St Pauls, Bristol (image: Gioconda Beekman on Flickr)

At the beginning of my journey as a PhD student, I thought migrant integration could undercut or potentially combat the use of anti-immigrant sentiment as a vehicle for fascism. Given my lived experience with immigration, nationalism and racism in the United States, I assumed that a lack of exposure led people and the systems they created to be hostile towards outsiders. Through our discussions with Nandita in the postgraduate workshop, my worldview was challenged and complicated in the best possible way.

Historically, integration has been seen as equal access to resources, acquisition of national languages and active participation in society. But this approach rarely asks how migrants experience integration as individuals and fails to question what ‘society’ is and at what spatial or ideological level migrants are integrating. In somewhere like Bristol, where 15% of the population is born outside the UK and 22% self-identify as nonwhite, a wide array of socio-economic realities co-exist. Despite its affluent city centre, Bristol has some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country and ranks 341 out of 348 for inequalities experienced by ethnic minorities.

I had always known that integration was a very political issue. Still, through the workshop with Nandita, I began to see how the anti-immigrant rhetoric is now in fact co-opting the integration process in the UK: at a base level, integration plays a crucial role in problematising migrants as others. It situates migrants as apart from the rest of a population, needing to integrate into one unified host society even though, in a country like the UK, there is no single harmonious society to integrate into. The rhetoric that migrants must adapt, integrate and adopt British values places all the blame and burden onto them. And it fails to take into account all of the structural barriers and inequalities they have to navigate daily. Through the increasingly restrictive national immigration policies passed in the UK, integrating becomes more of a pipedream for migrants each year.

The UK government has been described as an ‘iron rod welfare system‘ when it comes to migrants: they either fall foul of it and are deported or receive legal status and comprehensive social rights. However, the ability to gain that legal status and integrate into a new community has become increasingly circumscribed under the Conservative government – now in power since 2010.

Anti-immigrant sentiments have been an integral part of the fabric of the UK since its inception. In recent decades it has become enshrined in laws such as the 1987 Immigration (Carriers’ Liability) Act, which extended document and border checks to airlines and other carriers, making it their responsibility to keep people out who fell on the wrong side of the iron rod. More recently, the UK government has criminalised seeking asylum from within the UK, awarded more funding to Immigrant Detention Centres and extended the length of time migrants can be held in these centres through the Nationality and Borders Bill. The most recent examples are the Manston migrant centre, which has been described as a zoo by inhabitants, and the firebombing of an immigration processing centre in Dover, which was driven by far-right ideologies. Meanwhile, the Conservative government introduced the Rwanda Plan earlier this year, which has had a host of negative externalities for migrants such as restricting their access to claim asylum, taking away their agency to work or where to live once they are in the system, and making the hostile environment worse.

I wholeheartedly agree with Nandita that, at a national level, the UK completely fits her view of anti-immigration as a base for fascism. But given Bristol’s progressive and radical past, I wanted to believe that there was more than just a harmful system at play. Bristol goes beyond other UK cities with its Refugee and Asylum Seeker Inclusion Strategy, run by the City Council. And there is a robust system of migrant and refugee welfare charities that make up the Bristol Refugee and Asylum Seeker Partnership. These organisations offer services that help to fill the gaps left by the iron rod welfare system of the UK government.

The workshop with Nandita raised many questions about the current Conservative government’s everyday functioning. Namely, as the UK moves further and further towards solidifying its borders and making life as a migrant here a traumatising experience, is the vital work of the migrant organisations in Bristol actually enabling the government’s lack of response? Early research has shown that the government’s anti-immigrant policies increase the workload for charities, which prevents them from campaigning. So now my question is, does this integration work by city-wide collaborations in Bristol help the migrant community? Or are the harmful policies of the national government too much for local welfare systems to overcome?

Overall, the workshop with Nandita was extraordinarily thought-provoking and challenged some of the romantic views I held about the function of government. Most importantly, though, it raised questions about the function of my research as a PhD student and the best path forward for an equitable immigration system.

Ryan Lutz is a PhD Student in Social Policy at the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol.