Hysteria and disinterest: accommodating asylum seekers

By Melanie Griffiths.

The UK’s asylum system is in crisis. Despite the government’s rhetoric, this is largely a crisis of the Home Office’s own making. Years of painfully slow decision-making has created a massive backlog of tens of thousands of people. The recent political hysteria around small boats crossing the Channel and the cruel, fear-mongering policies to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, are attempts to distract from these failings. This includes the inhumane – but entirely predictable – crisis of asylum housing, produced as the need for accommodation has outstripped supply. At a time of fervent emotionality around asylum, this blogpost uses one person’s story to focus in on the disastrous impact of the asylum backlog on the UK’s fragmenting portfolio of asylum accommodation. 

Missing in the system

A friend rang me recently in a panic. A worried family in his country of origin was trying to track down a family member missing in the UK. Their son – I’ll call him Daniyal – had disappeared a fortnight previously, hours after arriving looking for safety.

Daniyal had called his family to reassure them he had survived the dangerous Channel crossing and approached the authorities for protection. But immediately afterwards, he had become uncontactable.

Until recently, asylum seekers were generally housed in the community while their claims were decided. Although notoriously inadequate, such housing allowed a degree of ‘normality’ and social connection. But as the asylum backlog has outstripped Home Office accommodation, the picture has altered significantly.

I suspected Daniyal was lost somewhere in the monstrously convoluted and rapidly diversifying asylum housing system. Armed with just his name and GPS coordinates from his last phone call, I started by contacting detention NGOs.

Indefinite detention

For decades, the UK incarcerated people in immigration detention centres principally to remove them from the country. But since 2021, these ‘removal’ centres have been used for initial processing of newly arrived people.

Last year, the UK detained over 16,000 people in immigration detention, costing the taxpayer about £100 million. These prison-like centres detain people with no time limit and are notoriously harmful, with decades of reports documenting traumatisation, ill-health, violence and abuse. Using such sites to isolate and incarcerate people seeking safety reflects systemic mistrust and distaste towards them.

Yarls Wood Detention Centre, Bedford, 2015 (image: EYE DJ on flickr)

Diversified detention

After failing to find Daniyal in the detention estate, I turned to the newly established ‘quasi-detention’ spaces. These include disused military barracks, which have housed new arrivals for ‘processing’ since 2000 and have repeatedly been found to be inadequate and unsafe. Manston Barracks were described as ‘really dangerous’ by the independent inspector of borders, who found severe overcrowding and outbreaks of rare, contagious diseases. Moreover, in 2021, the High Court found the Home Office guilty of employing unlawful practices in holding asylum seekers at Napier Barracks.

Worryingly, such sites are categorised as outside of mainstream immigration detention and thus excluded from the scrutiny of official detention statistics. Holding asylum seekers in manifestly unsafe spaces, outside of the community and exempt from proper accountability, reflects underlying notions of contagion and disgust.

Fragmentation

But if Danyial had already been ‘processed’, he could be housed anywhere in a bewildering web of sites. Since 2020, this includes hotels, at a cost of £8 million a day. Thousands of asylum seekers have been housed in these ill-equipped places, with the international aid budget plundered in the process. Hotel residents suffer isolation, poor food and hygiene, worsening mental health and even deaths. They have become a magnet for xenophobic hatred and violent Far Right demonstrations, which the government has been accused of stoking.

Or Daniyal could be in one of the Home Office’s new mass asylum accommodation sites. This includes Wethersfield, which was opened in 2023 on a former airfield in a remote part of Essex. The last chief inspector of borders described an ‘overwhelming feeling of hopelessness’ there, warning of immediate risk of criminality, arson and violence.

Similarly, the controversial barge the Bibby Stockholm has housed asylum seekers since 2023. It has been plagued with problems since opening, including legionella bacteria in the water system. Residents describe it as overcrowded, claustrophobic, retraumatising and prison-like; remote, inaccessible and heavily securitised. Just weeks after it opened, a man tragically died onboard.

The sites differ, but they are united in forcing people into substandard, segregated living, subjecting them to dehumanising levels of danger, despair, punishment and abandonment.

Criminalisation

Or was Daniyal in prison? I launched a search with the ‘locate a prisoner’ service and rang individual prisons. But without a prisoner number, and with the Roman-alphabet spelling of Daniyal’s name uncertain, I got nowhere.

I then contacted Captain Support, an NGO that supports imprisoned foreign nationals at the prison nearest Daniyal’s last known location. They sent out information requests amongst their contacts. Eventually a prisoner reported seeing someone who might be Daniyal. Through a complex web of care and connection spanning international and domestic scales, we found him.

Daniyal was in prison, but why? With more digging we found that he had been charged with ‘illegal migration’ offences, even though article 31 of the Refugee Convention stipulates that people seeking refuge must not be punished for irregular entry. Increasingly, the government seeks to criminalise people for seeking safety, despite not offering legal alternative routes. Earlier this year, Ibrahima Bah – barely out of his teens – was sentenced to a decade of imprisonment for manslaughter, after the dinghy he was travelling on sank.

Across Europe, refugees rather than governments are being held accountable for increasingly deadly borders (see also the case of the El-Hiblu 3 in Malta). In the UK, the new Illegal Migration Act 2023 not only prosecutes and punishes those entering ‘illegally’ but allows the government to refuse to consider their refugee claims. Daniyal, Ibrahima, the El-Hiblu 3 and countless others are re-categorised from rights-bearing refugees into one of the most emotionally labile folk devils of our times: the deeply hated and feared, and highly racialised, figure of the ‘foreign criminal’.

Indifference

And yet, the UK’s response to Daniyal was also one of apathy and cruel disinterest. After several months imprisonment, Daniyal was given a release day but not told what would happen to him nor where in the housing labyrinth he would be sent. He spent weeks waiting in fearful uncertainty.

When the day came, Daniyal was just released from prison, with nowhere to go. Neither the Home Office nor Probation provided him with any support. The Home Office had a statutory duty to provide Daniyal with accommodation but they simply, and without explanation, did not house him. As an asylum seeker, he was forbidden from working and had no recourse to public funds, including night shelters. So, in the middle of winter and unable to speak English, Daniyal was abandoned into the horrors of indefinite street destitution.

‘A proud history of protecting refugees’?

An enormous human backlog has been created in the UK’s asylum system. The political response has been to punish and isolate those affected, including through crimes of refuge-seeking, a diversifying portfolio of quasi-penal, segregated and unsafe housing and through political spectacles such as deporting people to Rwanda. The government is attempting to distract us with fearmongering and inflammatory diatribe fuelling hate, disgust and mistrust.

And yet, the almost-garish emotionality of the immigration debate exists alongside a dehumanising disinterest. As I argued in a recent article, it is precisely this mix of splenetic emotionality and callous lack of emotion that not only characterises the immigration system but produces it, and paints certain people as degradable, deportable and disposable. How hopeful then, that as the government’s Safety of Rwanda Act is passed and asylum seekers violently bundled into detention centres for removal, we are witnessing a tide of public outrage and resistance, with hundreds of people coming together in emotional acts of empathy and solidarity.

Melanie Griffiths is an Associate Professor at the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham. She works on mobility and immigration enforcement in the UK. This post relates to Melanie’s article in the recent Special Issue of Identities on ‘Affective Control: The Emotional Life of (En)forcing Mobility Control in Europe’, discussed on the MMB blog by Ioana Vrăbiescu and Bridget Anderson. Previous MMB blogposts by Melanie include ‘The freedom to love: mixed-immigration status couples and the UK immigration system’, written with Candice Morgan-Glendinning.

More information about the Captain Support Network can be found here. Donations to a fundraiser for the network can be made here.

Navigating ethical emotions in European migration enforcement

New writing on migration and mobilities – an MMB special series

By Ioana Vrăbiescu and Bridget Anderson.

The European Union represents itself as a global champion of human rights, yet its external borders are marked by hostility, surveillance and death. Despite official claims to equality and that Black Lives Matter, the vast majority of those excluded at the border and within Europe are people of colour. Institutional racism permeates European immigration and asylum systems. This has consequences beyond territorial edges: differential treatment within Europe results in an intricate network of borders that excludes migrants and asylum seekers, but also has consequences for minoritized and otherwise marginalised citizens (Anderson 2024).

Our recent co-edited Special Issue of Identities, ‘Affective Control: The Emotional Life of (En)forcing Mobility Control in Europe’, focuses on the enforcers of these systems: immigration officers, civil servants, police, social workers, legal officials, private companies, NGOs and many others. We start by questioning: What emotions are experienced during the daily work of migration enforcement? What is the relevance of race and gender in the experience of emotions? When and how do state officials erase emotions and claim rationality? How does the state immigration organizational structure, classification and ideology cultivate or repress certain emotions? Bureaucracies are infused with affects, but emotions (and perhaps this is particularly the case when it comes to immigration bureaucracies) are typically regarded as unimportant side effects. When emotions do come to the fore, the focus is on those who are subject to bureaucratic intervention: feeling fear and anxiety about being arrested, detained or deported. In contrast, this collection explores how emotions enable enforcers to make or dispute the ethical sense of their activities and what these emotional responses to immigration controls tell us about the nature of those controls and the contexts within which they operate.

Exit from the port in Calais (image: Pierre Pruvot on flickr)

Emotions in migration studies

This Special Issue explores how police, social workers and individuals make sense of the complex emotions experienced while executing immigration checks. It steps into the uncharted territory of how they manage, accommodate or suppress feelings when surveilling, controlling and recording migrants and enforcing deportations. The emotional challenges public servants face, including feelings of complicity and belonging, shape their behaviour and raise ethical questions about the moral values of those implementing migration policies.

We introduce the concept of ‘ethical emotions’ to elucidate the affective states that emerge where personal views of the world come into tension with organizational and social values. We use it to capture how emotions can (dis)enable people to make sense of the contradictions between the personal and the institutional and what this means for how emotions are negotiated, exhibited and managed in the workplace. Contributors to this Special Issue highlight in particular the intricate relationship between emotions, ethics, organisational structures and racism. Thus, the collection brings together the fields of migration on the one hand and race and ethnic studies on the other, showing the ways in which ethical emotions support patriarchy and institutional racism.

Nationalism, racism and ethical emotions

The legitimacy of immigration controls hinges on claims that they are not racist even as they mobilise to protect national values. In most European bureaucracies, it is acknowledged that overt racism based on skin colour is socially unacceptable. We do not claim that it is in practice unacceptable, and we also emphasise that this relies on a grotesquely oversimplified idea of what racism actually is. Nevertheless, despite these extreme limitations, how to manage ‘not being racist’ on the one hand with enforcing immigration controls on the other is emotionally draining.

Alpa Parmar’s article examines how street-level bureaucrats feel race. She explores the emotive register of police officers and criminal case workers deployed in their occupational roles. Importantly, she includes the complex and contradictory emotions experienced by racially minoritised people in police and migration related roles. Aino Korvensyrjä, like Parmar, explores how race is used to understand and manage social conflict, aid policing and criminalize dissent. Katerina Rozakou, too, foregrounds race in her analysis of the ambiguous feelings of police officers in charge of guarding, surveilling and deporting migrants from Greece, and argues that the culturally significant sentiment of filotimo (love of honour) can require that they perform care for migrants at the same time as consolidating nationalism.

Lisa Marie Borrelli and Corina Tulbure, in different ways, both consider the relationship between the welfare state and immigration enforcement. Borrelli looks at bureaucrats in Switzerland and how those managing welfare and those managing migration control regard – and feel towards – each other and their respective departments. Tulbure’s work is conducted in Barcelona where she examines how social workers select ‘deserving’ social beneficiaries, the emotional toll it takes and how emotions end up justifying exclusions.

Melanie Griffiths shows how feelings and affects are embedded in immigration legislation and in enforcement processes, exploring the workings of what she calls an ‘emotional economy’ that operates at individual and systemic levels. Finally, Ioana Vrăbiescu argues that melancholia is the best concept to explain the complex emotional mix lived by those who manage migrants’ detention centres in France, spaces where emotions are extreme but also denied.

We hope our collection will open new conversations on the working life of immigration policy implementation in Europe. Racialized dynamics, ideological polarization and the securitization of migration generate emotions and affective atmospheres that expose the human and moral cost of the troubled workplace of immigration enforcement. We hope too that they can show us some of the cracks in the façade of the all-seeing, rational state.

Ioana Vrăbiescu is Assistant Professor in Organization Sciences at the Vrije University Amsterdam. She currently works on the role of ethical emotions in migration control apparatus and on the intersection of climate change and human and non-human forced mobility. She is the co-editor of the Special Issue of Identities, ‘Affective Control: The Emotional Life of (En)forcing Mobility Control in Europe’.

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. She is the co-editor of the Special Issue of Identities, ‘Affective Control: The Emotional Life of (En)forcing Mobility Control in Europe’.

Instead of separating thousands more families – rethink UK family migration policies

By Katharine Charsley and Helena Wray.

Last week, new immigration rules were laid before parliament that will force thousands of British citizens and settled residents to live apart from their partner and even their children. This is because the Minimum Income Requirement (MIR) to bring a non-British partner to the UK is going to rise to £29,000 in April, and to £38,700 in early 2025 (the staggering of the increase was announced only after a public outcry).

The MIR has been a source of anguish since it was introduced in 2012, replacing a simpler test of ‘adequate maintenance’. As it has not risen from the original £18,600, it is easy to see why the government would now consider an increase. However, the MIR has already caused family separation and hardship, and the increase will make things worse.

The MIR is inflexible, being concerned with only one question: the income of the UK partner on application. Changes to the household income after entry, regardless of the incoming spouse’s potential contribution, are irrelevant. As a result, a British parent who cares for children, who works part-time or is still in education or training may be unable to meet the MIR even if the family’s financial position would be transformed once their partner joins them. In addition, meeting the MIR is not just a matter of having the right income, but of having it for at least six months, often longer, before the application. People in casualised work, the self-employed or those returning from abroad often find this challenging if not impossible. Exceptions designed to meet the government’s human rights obligations exist, but they are often difficult to obtain and can require expensive legal advice and an appeal.

(Image: Nenad Stojkovic on Flickr)

The benefits of the MIR are unclear. The government’s twin rationales have been to ensure families have financial resources for integration, and to ensure new entrants do not impose a burden on the welfare system. But those on family visas are already ineligible for public funds, and the costs of the 5-year partner visa process now exceed £11,000 – leaving some families struggling to meet basic needs. Indeed, by refusing so many partners, the MIR creates enforced single parents, so it only increases financial hardship and welfare reliance.

The rationale for the new figure is also unclear. The government has not consulted the Migration Advisory Committee (as it did in 2012), and the new MIR is not tied to the full-time National Living Wage (less than £24,000). The only explanation given is that the government wants to link the MIR to the minimum salary for skilled migrant workers. Leaving aside that even the skilled worker minimum has exceptions, this seems arbitrary.  Family migration policy concerns the minimum conditions for allowing citizens and residents to enjoy family life with a non-UK partner. Why should this depend on meeting a criterion set for an entirely different category: skilled migrants coming to the UK for work?

The MIR is discriminatory. The old minimum of £18,600 cannot be met by 20-25% of the UK’s working population, and has always particularly impacted those tending to earn less: women, young people, some ethnic minorities and those outside London and Southeast England. The increase exacerbates this injustice: 40-60% of the working population do not earn £29,000, and the vast majority will be excluded by the higher threshold of £38,700. The government estimates that between 10,000 and 30,000 people will be affected each year, but it could be much higher as UK-EU couples outside the settlement scheme now also come under the immigration rules.

The manner of the introduction of these changes has been cruel. British spouses make major life changes to meet the visa requirements: changing jobs, making difficult choices between caring obligations and working longer hours, or moving back to the UK alone to earn enough to be joined by their family. They make these changes months in advance, enduring prolonged family separation to find work, earn the MIR over six months and then wait for their application to be processed. Increasing the MIR in April, with less than six months’ notice, leaves those who had been assiduously working towards the visa requirements – often at great cost to their family lives – with their plans destroyed.

The UK’s family migration policies are among the most restrictive in the world – a House of Lords Committee found they ‘fail both families and society’. There are many reasons why families need to live together in the UK – which is after all the home of at least one partner – and there is a pile of evidence as to the deep unhappiness, financial stress and loneliness caused by the system, including to children. This will sadly increase once the new MIR applies.

Living in your home with your partner should not be a privilege only for the wealthy. It is time for a total rethink. We have written to the main opposition parties asking them to include a commitment to review the family migration rules in their election manifestos.  

Helena Wray is Professor of Migration Law at the University of Exeter where her research focuses on the regulation of families through immigration law. Her latest monograph, published by Hart in 2023, is Article 8 ECHR, Family Reunification and the UK’s Supreme Court: Family Matters? She is currently working on the ESRC funded Brexit Couples project looking at the impact of the immigration rules on UK-EU couples after Brexit.

Katharine Charsley is Professor of Migration Studies at the University of Bristol. Her work focuses on migration, gender and families, with a particular interest in transnational marriages and relationships. She is PI of the ESRC-funded Brexit Couples project looking at the impact of the immigration rules on UK-EU couples after Brexit.

To learn about the impact of the new Minimum Income Requirement on universities, read Eda Yazici’s recent MMB blogpost, ‘Debordering Higher Education’. And for a previous study on the impact of the UK immigration system on families see Katharine’s blogpost from 2020, ‘Kept apart – couples and families separated by the UK immigration system’.

Debordering Higher Education

By Eda Yazici.

On 4th December 2023, the Home Secretary announced a series of policy changes with the aim of reducing net migration. Among the changes announced was an increase in the general salary threshold for the Skilled Worker Visa from £26,200 to £38,700 a year and an increase in the salary requirement for settled people and British citizens applying to bring their partners to the UK from £18,600 to £38,700. The new threshold, which is higher than the median full-time salary of £35,000, comes at a time of persistent wage stagnation and high inflation.

Salaries in Higher Education (HE) have fallen by 20% in real terms since 2009. For those at the beginning of their academic careers, starting salaries are typically around £37,000 and are often on precarious, short-term contracts. This means that from April – when the new policy is due to come into force – it may not be possible for migrant academic teaching and research staff to begin their careers in the UK. This may make even the unsure footing of a year-long contract a distant possibility.

(Image by Redd F on Unsplash)

Under the current visa regime, applicants for a Skilled Worker Visa must be paid the higher of the going-rate for their occupation code and the £26,200 salary threshold. For example, the current going-rates for a historian and physicist are £25,600 and £32,600 respectively. For PhD graduates, postdoctoral researchers and under 26s, there are discounts of up to 30% in place on the salary threshold or the going-rate (depending on which applies). Eight weeks since the new threshold was announced, however, there is still no clarity on whether these discounts will remain in place from April. It is possible that in-line with the removal of discounts for shortage occupations, discounts for postdoctoral positions will also come to an end. If the 30% discount continues to apply, future postdoctoral researchers and teaching associates will continue to be classed as Skilled Workers. If it does not, early career academics will either be unable to begin their careers in the UK, or, if they completed their PhD in the UK, will have to apply for other, often less secure visa routes, such as the Graduate Visa, which does not have a path to settlement and is also under review.

Whether exceptions are put in place remains to be seen, but what the proposed changes do reveal is the impacts of pernicious and increasingly restrictive immigration policy on Higher Education. It also shows how immigration policy intersects with low pay in the sector. This has implications for how academic workers fight to improve their pay and conditions; the experiences of migrant workers in HE generally; and the experiences of students. The changes above signal the worrying potential of a future of a sector that is increasingly closed to migrant workers and, if wage growth remains stagnant, where academic teaching and research is progressively deskilled and undervalued.

Funding HE

Linked to the changes in the Skilled Worker Visa route are changes that came into force for the Student Visa route in January this year. Also driven by a desire to reduce net migration, it is no longer possible for postgraduate taught students to bring dependents with them to the UK. It is now only possible for Student Visa holders to be accompanied by their dependents if they are on a postgraduate research course. Not only is this racialised – with the highest number of dependent study visas issued to Nigerian and Indian citizens – but also demonstrates the conflict between the government’s determination to reduce net migration at all costs while depending on international students to prop up the unsustainable funding model in HE.

In England, HE is funded in two main ways: through student fees and direct funding. Direct funding separates teaching and research. The 2021-2022 level of funding for teaching in HE was 78% less than it was in 2010 in real terms. Student fees are expected to fund the majority of HE teaching. For so-called ‘home students’, fees were raised to a maximum of £9,250 in 2012. For international students, fees for undergraduate courses are on average £22,000 a year. There is consequently both an incentive to recruit international students – many of whom face racism and inadequate support from their institutions – and a reliance on international students for funding. At present, international student fees make up 21% of British Universities’ total income. This means that if international student numbers were to fall in line with the government’s fixation on net migration, there would be severe consequences for the financial sustainability of HE institutions. Unless the funding model were to change, this would also likely exacerbate wage stagnation and job insecurity in the sector.

The conflicting policy objectives of cutting funding and reducing net migration is indicative of the follies of dogged ideological commitment to nationalism and a small state. The impact of these conflicting policy objectives is also evident in other sectors –  most particularly in health and social care. For academic workers, challenging unjust immigration policy goes hand in hand with improving funding, pay and conditions. This also involves confronting complicity in upholding the hostile environment in the sector.

The hostile environment in HE

The hostile environment suite of policies extends borders into many aspects of everyday life and affects everyone. It determines how people apply for jobs, open bank accounts and rent homes among many other things. The hostile environment increasingly regulates universities. This includes attendance monitoring of students, which puts international students at risk of losing their visas if they miss a certain number of classes; right-to-work checks for all workers including for one-off events; and reporting staff absence among visa holders to the Home Office. The financial dependence on international student fees also means that over-compliance is widespread in the sector because institutions fear losing their licence to sponsor international students. For migrant staff and students, the hostile environment creates a culture of fear that can dissuade people from advocating for change.

For academic workers, particularly those of us who are migration researchers, debordering our institutions is as much about challenging injustice as it is about securing the future of teaching and research. This raises the question of how the deeply interconnected problems of the hostile environment, unsustainable funding models and deteriorating pay and conditions are confronted. It also highlights the importance of not viewing migration as a policy arena in isolation, making it clear that every change to the visa regime affects us all.

Eda Yazici is a Research Associate on the PRIME Project at the University of Bristol. PRIME is an international project that analyses how institutions shape the conditions of migrant labour across Europe. Prior to joining the University of Bristol, she was a Research Fellow on the Open City Project at the University of Warwick, which looked at issues of race, migration and mobility in London. Eda’s PhD research focused on race, place and belonging in the British asylum system.

Reporting Sounds: the lived impact of UK Home Office reporting on the lives of asylum seekers

By Amanda Schmid-Scott.

Forty minutes into the bus journey that takes me from the bustling streets of Bristol’s city centre, through Bishopston and Horfield, and slowly along Gloucester Road, with its vibrant array of independent shops and cafes, we eventually head onto the busy dual carriage way. As we leave the shopfronts and people on foot behind, the bus eventually stops. At the side of the dual carriage way, I disembark and cars rush past at 60 mph. In order to cross to the other side of the road, I am forced to make a run for it when there is a gap in the traffic. I arrive at Patchway police station which, approximately seven miles from central Bristol, is the official immigration reporting centre for the city and the surrounding area. Immigration reporting, often referred to as ‘signing’, is a compulsory requirement for migrants without legal status, including asylum-seekers who are awaiting a decision on their asylum claim. Framed by the Home Office as an administrative procedure, migrants are required to present themselves regularly (usually once a week, or bi-weekly) to one of 13 reporting centres located throughout the UK as a condition of immigration bail.

Today is my first day volunteering with Bristol Signing Support, a group who regularly attends the reporting centre at Patchway to offer practical and emotional support to migrants in what can be a frightening and often isolating experience. This is due to the fact that the Home Office, as well as using reporting appointments as a means of keeping track of the whereabouts of migrants pending legal status, utilise these sites to target potential deportees. This means that each time an individual attends their reporting appointment, they face possible detainment and removal from the UK.

I volunteered with the Bristol Signing Support group for a year from May 2017, and as part of my doctoral research conducted interviews with asylum-seekers subjected to immigration reporting, as well as fellow volunteers and asylum support workers involved in various local community organisations. Over time, I recognised how, alongside the often extreme fear many migrants experience of being detained during their reporting appointments, these sites also impose more surreptitious, mundane forms of harm. Accounts of those subjected to reporting requirements reveals how these often hidden and hard-to-reach reporting sites enforce a continuum of violence, steering migrants towards subjugation, destitution and removal (Schmid-Scott, forthcoming).

Home Office reporting, interactive map (image: Reporting Sounds website)

With funding I obtained during a postdoctoral research fellowship at Newcastle University, I collated a selection of my research interviews to produce Reporting Sounds, an interactive website enabling users to explore the impact of immigration reporting on the lives of asylum-seekers living in the UK. Designed in the form of a map of Bristol, the website combines hand-drawn pen-and-ink illustrations with audio-recorded stories from my field research. These testimonies situate the various harms that are imposed on asylum-seekers in relation to their immigration reporting requirements, invoking the ways in which the impact of reporting affects their everyday lives. These experiences are focused around five individual stories, each indicative of the continuum of violence which constitutes the UK’s asylum process. By centring on their experiences of immigration reporting, these stories connect the administrative systems and sites of UK border control measures with everyday encounters with suffering.

At times, this suffering emerges through more surreptitious and mundane spatiotemporal harms, implicit in the obligation to travel repeatedly to these often remote, difficult-to-access sites, very often for years on end. Mohammed describes requesting to have his reporting schedule reduced – a request that was denied – and how he must pay for the bus to and from his appointments, which is a huge financial burden for those that are already living below the poverty line. Likewise, Hassan recounts not having enough money to pay for the bus fare, and tells the Home Office ‘you can arrest and detain me again’. The inclusion of each individuals’ journey times and travel costs, signalling the proportion of time and money these journeys necessitate, further illuminates the everyday burden regular reporting entails.

Elodie’s story of reporting (image: Reporting Sounds website)

At other times the harms that reporting imposes materialise through the more overt violence of arrest and detainment. Elodie’s experiences of being detained during her reporting appointment, where she suffered a panic attack, point to the danger these sites hold in repeatedly threatening asylum-seekers with potential arrest and detainment. For Mohammed, the fear of being detained affects his sleep prior to signing days; he describes how ‘you never know when you’re coming back’. Samuel also talks of being detained during his reporting appointment within the onsite holding cells and reflects on the shame he felt in being detained ‘as someone who committed a crime’. Bernadette’s account reveals how the threat of being detained is felt beyond the walls of the reporting centre, as she explains: ‘I’m still looking through my window all the time. Between six o’clock and eight o’clock in the morning, that’s what time they normally come.’ As these accounts show, the threat of a possible detainment and subsequent forced removal attempt is intimately felt by individuals, making it an extremely stressful process, and yet one which they must repeatedly engage in, often for years on end.

Samuel’s story of reporting (image: Reporting Sounds website)

Creating an archive

By creating an interactive, auditory web-archive of asylum-seekers’ testimonies, Reporting Sounds sheds light on the relatively unknown border control practice of immigration reporting and provides the opportunity for the public to explore its everyday impact on the lives of asylum-seekers in the UK. As Sara Ahmed’s work has identified, archives are tethered to the question of whose experiences are worth preserving (Ahmed 2006), and through my own attempt at creating an archive of asylum-seekers’ testimonies, this form of data gathering holds space for these otherwise little-known-about and hidden experiences. Using the form of a map to situate their testimonies, and drawing attention to their less-visible sites of impact (that is, the home, the body, the reporting office), imposes a form of ‘counter-mapping’ which, as Craig Dalton and Liz Mason-Deese argue, allows us to challenge and reimagine dominant spatial imaginaries and how certain populations move through these spaces (Dalton and Mason-Deese 2012). While each of these five stories is deeply personal to the individual’s experience of reporting, they are also reflective of the current, contemporary political moment, in which the UK government has placed hostility towards and the removal of asylum seekers at the front and centre of its politics. The last, sixth box is left open for individuals to share their own experiences of reporting.  

In May 2024, I will be hosting an event with Migrants Organise in London, to launch the website and to invite the public to learn more about immigration reporting and the lived experience of asylum. If you would like more information, please get in touch.

Amanda Schmid-Scott is a Lecturer in Criminology at Bristol University. Her research explores the intersections between bureaucracy and violence within border control sites and systems, engaging with feminist theories of violence and resistance to examine how the sites and practices which constitute asylum-seeking are made, negotiated and resisted. She recently completed an ESRC postdoctoral research fellowship at Newcastle University.

Looking for the ‘state’ in statelessness research

By Natalie Brinham.

Eight months after Myanmar’s genocidal violence in 2017, which saw more than a million Rohingyas driven into Bangladesh, 55-year-old Rafique (not his real name) welcomed me into his shelter in a busy section of the refugee camp. He served me tea and asked me to wait – he wanted to show me something important that would explain ‘everything I wanted to know’ about Rohingya statelessness in Myanmar.

After some time, he emerged from behind the blanket that had been hung as a make-shift wall. He placed a metal cash box on the bamboo floor. Opening it with a key, he revealed a stack of papers, cards and photos – tattered ones, faded ones and plastic covered ones. Very carefully, he unfolded and displayed the contents across the length of the floor in front of me and my young Rohingya ‘fixer’. Methodically, he placed them in date order with the oldest closest to him. There were ID cards from his parents, grandparents, uncles, aunties and children – fraying blue and pink ones from the 1950s, white ones for the 1990s and one new turquoise one; registration documents listing every family member from the 1970s to the 2010s complete with crossings out, alterations and comments added by officials; joint-mugshots of the family holding a board with their registration number; repatriation documents from the 1970s and 1990s; and piles of land registration papers going back to the early years of independence in the 1950s.

‘But Uncle,’ said my fixer in amazement, ‘This must be one of the most complete collections in the whole camp! How on earth did you manage to keep hold of all these documents?’

Other Rohingya refugees had told us how their documents had been confiscated, seized, destroyed and burnt by state officials. Rafique explained how he would wrap the papers and cards in plastic, secure them in a metal box and bury them deep underground. Each year for almost 30 years, he would dig them up, rewrap them and bury them somewhere else. His brother was well connected; when authorities demanded he relinquish old ID cards, he would say they were lost and offered bribes of food, farm produce, favours or money.

The word ‘Rohingya’ is pointed out on a household registration list from Myanmar, saved in the camps of Bangladesh for proof of Rohingya identity (image: Natalie Brinham, 2019)

Pointing to the documents in turn, Rafique explained – over three hours – how successive regimes in Myanmar had slowly destroyed Rohingya identity as a group belonging to the Rakhine region of the country. He kept the papers, he said, to evidence Rohingya history in Myanmar. He re-told the stories of belonging of his relatives; three mass expulsions and forced repatriations since independence; slow denationalisation; violent encounters with state authorities. Finally, he talked about his determination to resist the current state ID scheme, which ‘makes Rohingya into foreigners’. Group resistance, he reasoned, was intricately connected to the mass violence, killings and expulsions that had landed him in this refugee camp in 2017. Myanmar, he said, would not be a safe place to return to until Rohingyas were ‘given back’ their citizenship.

Invisible people or invisible states?

At a global level, citizenship has been compared to a giant filing system. Each individual human is assigned at least one nationality and filed ‘according to their return address’ or where they can be deported to. From a statist point of view, stateless people – or people without any legal citizenship – are an aberration in that filing system. They have no return address, so cannot be formally deported or expelled.

Human rights advocates take a different view. Those un-filed people are an ‘anomaly’ in an international rights system that is supposed to apply universally to all humans. It’s impossible for people to realise their rights if no state is responsible for protecting or providing for them. As such, stateless people are often described as legally and administratively ‘invisible’. They struggle to access legal protections, education, healthcare, work and financial services. Further, they are unable to benefit from international development and aid interventions.

Though statist concerns over deportability and human rights concerns over rightlessness seem to be ideologically opposed to one another, proposed solutions to the problems of statelessness often align. Administrative invisibility is generally tackled by proposing more state registration, more documentation, more efficiency, more digitisation and more biometrics. Sustainable Development Goal 16.9, which commits to providing a ‘legal identity for all’ by 2030, has become a rallying cry for international development organisations, refugee and migration management agencies, multinational tech companies and NGOs alike.

Yet, these approaches to statelessness by-pass fundamental issues relating to state abuses of power. State authorities consolidate their power through identification technologies and ID schemes, and can misuse these powers to exclude and expel. Few people in the world are actually completely undocumented. More people lack the right documents to be able to live legally in their homes, move freely within their own country, find regulated work or use banking systems. Other people are wrongly documented/registered by state authorities as foreign. The wrong kinds of registration can make things worse.

Despite being hailed as the harbingers of social inclusion, digital ID schemes can harden the boundaries of citizenship, excluding minorities and making it more difficult for people of uncertain citizenship to function in society. As Rafique’s account shows, the implementation of ID systems can be intricately linked to citizenship stripping and mass atrocities. Analysis of how power functions (differently) in particular states and societies, and how it functions through citizenship regimes and ID systems, is absent in ‘one-size-fits-all’ approaches to delivering ‘legal identities for all’. ID schemes are often misconceived as neutral processes in which sets of biological and/or biographical facts about individuals are recorded. In fact, they are imbued with power and profoundly impact social relations.

In initiatives to lift ‘stateless people’ out of a state of invisibility – to count them and document them – we fail to look properly at the perpetrating states. States are not identical containers that will function once filled up with international policy recommendations, capacity development and technical advice. Rafique’s oral history, which covered a period of 30 years of UN presence in his homelands, tells a story not of the invisibility of stateless Rohingya, but of how international actors have failed to look at the criminal intent of the state relating to their ID schemes and registration processes.

Statelessness studies often grapple with how to research ‘invisible’ populations. It’s equally important to grapple with how and why state violence has been invisibilised in anti-statelessness work. The very best starting point is to listen properly to survivors of state violence. Rafique’s account is just one of many. Rohingyas and many other stateless people are not really ‘invisible’. It’s just that if we look for them through state-tinted lenses, we tend to look right through the structures that were built to incarcerate them.

Natalie Brinham is an ESRC Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Bristol, working with MMB and the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies. Her research project is titled ‘IDs for Rohingyas: Pathways to Citizenship or Instruments of Genocide?’ She was previously a Senior Programme Lead at the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion.

Bad cases make bad law: the unintended consequences of denaturalising bad guys

By Colin Yeo.

The power to denaturalise a British subject on the basis of their behaviour was first introduced by legislation in 1918. With some adjustments, the power remained broadly the same until as late as 2002. Essentially, only a person who had naturalised as British could be stripped of their citizenship and the main grounds for doing so involved disloyalty or disaffection to the Crown, assisting an enemy or proven criminal conduct. These powers were exercised against some German and allied nationals who had naturalised as British but fell into abeyance. The last denaturalisation under this legal regime occurred in 1973.

After 80 years of legal continuity, a period which included a second world war, the Cold War and The Troubles, amongst other external-internal existential security threats, a series of fundamental changes to the law on denaturalisation began in 2002. Why?

The evolution over the last twenty years of British law on denaturalisation — or citizenship stripping — is a case study in bad cases making bad law. The law was changed repeatedly between 2002 and 2006 specifically to enable the government to strip the citizenship of particular high profile individuals.[1] Relatively restrained use was initially made of these new powers, with only those high profile individuals targeted for denaturalisation. A change in government in 2010 introduced changed attitudes to the value and meaning of citizenship. The new government found itself in possession of very considerable discretionary powers and set about making extensive use of them.

The governments and ministers that introduced the initial changes to the law between 2002 and 2006 were relatively restrained in making use of them. The numbers of denaturalisations remained very low until 2010, when there was a change of government and a change of approach. For the incoming government, citizenship was a privilege not a right.

The problem is that when very low legal thresholds for draconian actions are introduced, ministers and civil servants are handed huge freedom of action. Particularly in the field of immigration and asylum law, they are subject to huge political and media pressures. It should be no surprise if they are inconsistent in their use of the very considerable powers with which they have been entrusted by an earlier parliament. It should also be no surprise that unconscious bias asserts itself in these circumstances.

Behaviour-based denaturalisations peaked in 2017 at around the time that the territorial area in Iraq and Syria controlled by the ISIS or Islamic State group was collapsing. British citizens who had associated with the group were looking to escape and return home. The Home Secretary at the time was Amber Rudd, but it is her successor, Sajid Javid, who has provided the most detailed public justification for denaturalisation action.

Speaking on breakfast television about Shamima Begum in 2021, several years after his time as Home Secretary, he claimed that ‘[i]f you did know what I knew, as I say because you are sensible, responsible people, you would have made exactly the same decision, of that I have no doubt.’ Javid retrospectively framed the decision as one involving risk to the British public, essentially.

He has also, however, stated a very different justification for denaturalisation. At a party conference speech in 2018, when he was still Home Secretary, he boasted of expanding use of citizenship deprivation powers to ‘those who are convicted of the most grave criminal offences. This applies to some of the despicable men involved in gang-based child sexual exploitation.’ There is a clear moral dimension to this statement.

A few months later, also in 2018, he discussed the denaturalisation of a group of dual national Pakistani-British men convicted of sexual offences. Pressed on the risk to citizens of Pakistan once they were removed there, Javid he reverted to suggesting it was all a matter of risk, albeit only of risk to the British public: ‘[m]y job is to protect the British public and to do what I think is right to protect the British public.’

More recently, lawyers have reported that denaturalisation action is now being pursued against individuals convicted of human trafficking offences. It is hard to see how removing a person to a country from which they have previously trafficked others reduces risk to either the citizens of that country or the United Kingdom.

The expansion in the use of denaturalisation powers from threats to national security to very serious crimes would have been impossible without the reforms to citizenship deprivation law enacted in 2006 in response to the case of David Hicks. It is not realistically possible to argue that serious sexual offences or human trafficking amount to acts seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the United Kingdom. It clearly is possible successfully to argue that such conduct is sufficient for the Home Secretary to be satisfied that denaturalisation is conducive to the public good. After all, the Rochdale sex offenders lost their legal challenge: Aziz & Ors v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2018] EWCA Civ 1884.

The fact that every known case of behaviour-based denaturalisation involves a Muslim has not gone without comment. There has undoubtedly been a serious threat to public safety from some individuals who are Muslim but it would be entirely unrealistic to suggest that the threat is uniquely posed by Muslims. Denaturalisation has never been pursued against Irish nationalists, adherents of right-wing terror groups, anarchists or other dual foreign nationals representing a threat to national security. It is possible that no such individuals were identified who held dual citizenship and were thus eligible for denaturalisation but this seems inherently unlikely.

The discrimination becomes even more stark when the case of the Rochdale sex offenders is considered. The men who were denaturalised were all Muslim men of Pakistani origin. It seems highly likely there have been many, many other dual nationals who committed sexual and other offences of similar or worse gravity — where seriousness is measured by the length of sentence rather than media judgment — who were never considered for denaturalisation.

The changes made to denaturalisation powers in the 2000s were naive. The government of the day may have intended only judicious, sparing use of citizenship stripping. If so, the scope of those intentions was not reflected in the very wide powers the government conferred on itself and, importantly, on its successors. Subsequent governments have made ever more extensive use of the powers that were conferred on the Home Secretary.

In the process, two tiers of British citizenship have emerged. Those with no foreign parentage are relatively secure in their status because they would be rendered stateless if they lost their British citizenship, meaning the power cannot be exercised against them. But for those who have naturalised or have foreign parentage, British citizenship is now little more than a readily revocable form of immigration status.

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). This post follows a previous one by Colin on ‘Imperial denaturalisation: towards an end to empire.

A longer version of this post was originally published by freemovement.org on 6th February 2023.

Footnote:


[1] See the original, full version of this blogpost on freemovement.org, which includes details of the cases of these high profile individuals, namely Abu Hamza, David Hicks and Hilal Al-Jedda.

Borderscapes: policing within

The fourth in our series of blogposts exploring the material and symbolic infrastructure of border regimes in the port city of Calais.

By Victoria Hattam.

Governments around the globe have been building border walls for decades: Calais is no exception. At least since the Touquet Treaty, the UK government has helped fund the securitization of the Port of Calais through a variety of construction projects. Cement walls, white-mesh-razor-wire fencing, and landscaping are being used to restrict undocumented migrants from crossing from Calais to Dover. Bordering is an expensive business: the House of Commons Research Briefing puts the UK financial commitment to France between 2014 and the 2022/23 financial year at slightly more than GBP 232 million (Gower, 2023). And even this figure, Gower notes, underestimates the total cost as supplemental payments can be found in most years. In 2018, for example, the supplemental payment for Calais bordering was an additional GBP 45.5 million in addition the initial allocation.

Calais white-mesh-razor-wire wall (image: Victoria Hattam, July 2023)

I was fortunate to be able to join an MMB trip to Calais last summer and found even my short trip revealing. I began to see the slippage from walls to landscaping. Intense as border walls, razor wire, and surveillance technologies are, it is the landscape design that has stuck with me. Long after one leaves the border proper, bordering continues. 

Bouldering mobility

Hundreds of large boulders have been placed throughout Calais, packed close together, filling a variety of once open spaces. Small parks, spaces underneath bridges, and even small median strips alongside roadways and city intersections now are occupied by rocks rather than people. The materials of choice are decorative boulders: large rocks, generally 3-5 feet in diameter, irregularly shaped, placed in irregular patterns as if in a natural setting. At times, the boulders are accompanied by an array of ornamental grasses: tall, textured, different shades of pale yellow, browns and greens – a touch of Russian Sage for brighter color. The grasses sway in the breeze contrasting with the immovable boulders. It’s a look. Hardscaping, as landscape designers often refer to it, can be found throughout the city.

Boulders filling public space in Calais
(images: Victoria Hattam, July 2023)

Fixation points, the French government argues, are being unfixed by making it impossible for people on the move to congregate (Pascual et al., 2023: Van Isacker, 2020). One can sit on the boulders, one might even be able to lie down between them, but they are placed tightly together making congregation and encampment difficult. The so called ‘Jungle’ of Calais is not to be repeated. Landscape design is a new frontier of border policing.

After a day of walking the city, it is difficult to distinguish public beautification projects from border policing. Ponds, parks, flowerbeds all make the city greener, but these very same elements are designed to make Calais less hospitable to the undocumented by removing vegetive cover. 

Boulders and walls control movement differently. The recently constructed white-mesh-razor-wire fences are designed to stop undocumented migrants from crossing over to the UK. For walls, movement is the problem. Boulders carry with them a different politics: move along now, do not gather here. For boulder landscaping, it’s the stopping that is threatening. Walls and boulders create a double opposition in which neither moving nor staying in place are permitted. Migrants, as Nandita Sharma (2020) has argued, are those deemed out of place.

Border creep

The turn to landscaping materializes the ways in which border policing is never simply a matter of securing territorial perimeters. Border security bleeds into internal policing (Ngai, 2004). In Calais, and many other cities, a variety of bordering devices can be found within the city limits. Temporary steel fence sections sit on street corners standing at the ready, waiting to be called to action. Heavy metal poles also have been inserted into the middle of the sidewalk diverting and obstructing movement. The poles are not placed alongside footpaths but are inserted right where one might usually walk. Obstruction is everywhere.

The border creeps from territorial edge into the city proper
(images: Victoria Hattam, July 2023)

Aesthetics and politics: what politics do boulders carry?

Living and working in New York City, I am accustomed to highly securitized spaces.  Sidewalks, roads, and buildings are often blocked off, supposedly protected by the deployment of anti-bombing barricades. But New York barricades have a different aesthetic. Rather than natural, irregular, softer boulders, New York City barricades present as manufactured objects: straight lines and crisp edges, often stamped with the New York Police Department initials (NYPD) making clear that this is an official barrier. There is no mistaking NY barricades for landscape features. The barricade of choice is the Jersey Barrier that is materialized both in cement and heavy-duty plastic. Few flowers and grasses are included to soften the look. Security is front and centre.

Jersey Barricades near the United Nations, New York City
(images: Victoria Hattam, October 2023)
Westside Highway, Manhattan, New York City (image: Victoria Hattam, October 2023)

At times, there is a grunge counter aesthetic in New York in which garbage mingles alongside security barriers.

Jersey Barriers were introduced in the 1940s and 50s through Departments of Transportation as devices for minimizing incidental damage during traffic accidents. Over the last 50 years, the barriers have been used in a wide array of policy domains, including deployment by the Department of Homeland Security at the US-Mexico border and by the Department of Defense in Iraq. Traffic management devises have morphed into security objects (Copp, 2018; U.S. Department of Defense, 2006).

The shift from walls to boulders does not diminish hostility towards migrantized people. On the contrary, it extends that hostility inwards. Consider the street alongside Little Island, the newly constructed park that sits just off Manhattan on the Hudson River. Little Island aspires to be a ‘magical place’, but as one enters and exits, there is a sign in big bold letters stipulating that this is an ‘enforcement zone’. Parking and bordering merge. I can no longer easily distinguish one from the other.

Victoria Hattam is Professor of Politics at The New School for Social Research, New York. Her current research focuses on US-Mexico border politics and the global political economy. Victoria is currently a Leverhulme Visiting Professor at the University of Bristol, hosted by MMB. During 2023-24 she is giving numerous workshops, seminars and public lectures at Bristol – read more about her events here.

Other blogposts in our series on Calais include ‘Time and (im)mobility in Calais’ borderlands‘ by Juan Zhang, ‘Breaching two worlds: seeing through borders in Calais‘ by Bridget Anderson and ‘Notes from a visit to Calais‘, a video blogpost by Nariman Massoumi.

The ethics of mapping migrant violence through Mexico

By Sylvanna Falcón.

From October 2021 through to May 2022 undergraduate students from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the University of California, Berkeley, participated in a human rights investigation with Human Rights First (HRF) and El Instituto para las Mujeres en la Migración, AC (IMUMI, The Institute for Migration of Women). Under the direct supervision of university staff, we became part of a binational team (US and Mexico) to track incidents of violence in Mexico affecting non-Mexican migrants, many of whom were asylum seekers, that were being captured online, primarily through news reports or social media posts.

Student researchers used open-source investigation techniques to identify incidents of harms committed against migrants in Mexico. These techniques refer to methodologically accessing publicly available information on the internet, including online news articles, non-governmental or other expert reports, and social media content. For research purposes, the team collated and synthesized this information systemically and went through a process of verification on as many incidents as possible during the research period.

Police vehicle parked in front of a migration encampment in Tijuana, Mexico (image: Barbara Zandoval published on June 19, 2021)

With a primary focus on US President Biden’s administration, which began in January 2021, the students identified more than 400 unique incidents of violence targeting migrants since the start of Biden’s presidency, from reported kidnappings, extortion, and death to allegations of widespread corruption of government officials working alongside drug traffickers. Students recorded all incidents in a shared spreadsheet and tried to verify as many of them as possible. In addition to vetting the source of the information itself, verification meant that students would locate additional online material about a specific incident in order to have more confidence that the incident indeed occurred.

But what to do with all the collection of incidents? How to communicate this information to the general public in an ethical way? What do we gain or lose by depicting migrant violence in a data visualization project? For what purpose, what audience, does this form of documentation serve? Each organization in this partnership had a different purpose for participating in the project. For university students, it was a unique learning experience to systemically collect this kind of online information. HRF, based in the United States, was in need of additional research support to document these cases to put pressure on the US government to change its immigration policies to align with human rights standards and for IMUMI, based in Mexico, the plight of migrant women is their primary focus through advocacy and education efforts.

As we all began to think about the most effective method in which to share this information publicly, the desire to go beyond a text-based report seemed important given the university’s access to various data visualization options. As we agreed to create a digital story and digital map of the incidents, students began to reflect on the ethics of this work, asking pointed questions about the purpose, the desired outcome, and whether or not data visualization results in dehumanization of the migrants. As I navigated these thoughtful queries from students, I encouraged them to acknowledge the various sentiments they felt about the research project itself and about these final deliverables. In the digital report titled ‘Perilous Journeys: Migrants Vulnerable to Violence through Mexico’ they wrote, in part,

Many of us are undergraduate researchers from migrant families with ties to Latin American countries. The cases the team reviewed have evoked feelings of both accomplishment and powerlessness. While proud to help to document the migration-related trauma that is familiar to many of our families and loved ones who have faced migrant-related trauma, our constant exposure to the quantity and severity of these instances is felt on an even deeper emotional and personal level.

Acknowledging their relative privilege by being university students in the United States, the students felt it important to include in the report the following line: ‘As researchers, we cannot stress enough the importance of remaining cognizant of the real names, faces, and lives behind the work we present in this report.’ 

The ethics of visualizing the data remained front and centre during the duration of the project. And the questions of ethics were multi-layered: from knowingly exposing students to graphic material on a regular basis, from understanding that the material could be mis-used if not careful about the presentation, to inadvertently exposing the safety areas for migrants to authorities, and, most importantly, unintentionally dehumanizing the plight of migrants through dots on a map.

In the end, a data visualization project that turned into a digital report conveyed an ideal synergy between text-based information and learning about the incidents on a map so that readers could geographically situate where the reported incidents occurred. The students opted to add different color markings on the map to distinguish incidents and, moreover, to aid people’s understanding that the extent of the problem is throughout the country of Mexico. Both HRF and IMUMI felt this presentation of the research aided them in their own efforts to raise awareness of migrant violence and to call for change.   

Sylvanna Falcón is an Associate Professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Trained as a sociologist, Professor Falcón is the founder and director of the Human Rights Investigations Lab at UC Santa Cruz. She is a visiting scholar at the University of Bristol, hosted by MMB, from October to December 2023.

Expatriate: why we need to study migration categories

New writing on migration and mobilities – an MMB special series

By Sarah Kunz.

My new book Expatriate: Following a Migration Category explores the postcolonial history and politics of the category expatriate. It asks what expatriate has been taken to mean in different places and times. How has it been employed and shaped by political and economic projects? Specifically, how has the expatriate been entangled in the mid-century political decolonisation of European colonial empires and the concomitant rise of the USA and the Soviet Union as new world powers? The book looks at what the changing category reveals about how multinational corporations have exerted and defended their power across such geopolitical ruptures, and how they have participated in building a racialised and gendered global economy. It explores how the expatriate has reflected and reproduced social inequality in migration and mobility, not least in access to mobility and its assigned value. Finally, it asks what insights might the history and present of the category expatriate hold for our understanding of the ongoing coloniality of migration and its study?

Expatriate engages such questions as it follows the category through three sites of its articulation. In each of these it explores the situated histories of the category’s making and contestation, and its remaking and lived experience. From these three sites the book also thinks about the politics of migration more broadly.

Choosing sites was not easy – the category expatriate has numerous sites of articulation. This book first follows it to Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Nairobi is the perfect place to study expats, I was told repeatedly and with emphasis during my research. Nairobi is a young city and from its inception has been a transnational city, a city of migrants. Its creation as an imperial centre and its ongoing role as an economic and political hub have thus been bound up with migrations ranging from the highly privileged to those experiencing various forms of oppression and exploitation. As I learned, the category expatriate has been a central feature of these migration regimes and thus participated in the making of urban space and, indeed, the nation.

The second site I visited was the Expatriate Archive Centre (EAC) in The Hague, an archive dedicated to documenting worldwide expatriate social history. The archive grew out of a project by ‘Shell wives’ to document their lives on the move with Royal Dutch Shell, one of the 20th century’s most powerful multinational corporations. At the EAC I learned about how the expatriate is effective today as a category that helps us make sense of migration histories. I also learned how a foremost multinational corporation has (re)created the racialised and gendered management of its business empire throughout the 20th century through the skilful deployment and interpretation of migration.

The third site of this study is the academic field of international human resource management (IHRM) literature. Recognising knowledge production as a social practice situated within specific socio-political contexts allows studying it as an archive of these social contexts. Approaching IHRM literature as such meant reading it against but also along its grain to reveal the political nature of ostensibly technical writings on labour rotation in multinational corporations. Academic writing emerged as involved in the hierarchical ordering of human movement and labour not least by systematically erasing political conflict and struggle from its accounts and replacing it with cultural explanations. 

The book works on the epistemological premise that as categories travel and change, their journeys offer useful analytical gateways to examine broader social changes and shifting power geometries. If migration categories are socially produced, then examining their production is a fruitful research strategy to explore not only the category itself but also the social processes that produced it. Thus, following the expatri­ate allows investigating both the category and its role in the postcolonial politics of migration and mobility.

Following a category means following the term spatially and historically, textually and in everyday lived experience. It also means following up on its uses and effects and thinking about what might follow: how to move beyond difficult categories and articulate a more just politics of migration.

The book shows the expatriate to be a malleable and mobile category of shifting meaning and changing membership; a contested category, as passionately embraced by some as it is rejected by others; and a sometimes surprising category, doing unexpected work with undetermined outcomes. Yet, throughout its conceptual meanderings and the disputes over its meaning, the expatriate proves consistently central to struggles over inequality, power and social justice.

I found that categories like expatriate, and migrant, are central to the gendered and racialised politics of mobility precisely because of their useful conceptual multiplicity and malleability. However, this also means that the relationship of the category expatriate to racial and gender categories is not given, never automatic and rarely straightforward. Tracing this always shifting and contested relationship is exactly the analytical task.

The expatriate has much to teach us about the category migrant, too. Migration is today often equated with the South-North movement of the global poor, and the contemporary migrant habitually positioned as vulnerable and exploited. Many people, of course, do move from the souths of this world to its norths. Many of them struggle, experience violence and exploitation. Yet, if these dimensions come to define the condition of the migrant as such we are creating a homogenised and essentialised figure that risks mystifying socially constituted experiences with specific histories. That which becomes seen as a normal, even natural, part of being a migrant too easily goes unquestioned, even becomes unquestionable. The matter in need of explaining becomes the supposed explanation. Ultimately, this not only limits our understanding of how social inequality is produced, but also limits our ability to imagine and realise a more socially just future.

Further, the migrant as already poor and exploited renders invisible those migrants that in no way struggle but benefit from and advance contemporary power formations, also through their migrations. Imperial state and corporate projects always rely on the migration of their most privileged avatars – and they rely on the framing of these mobilities as altogether different than the mobilities of those who are being scapegoated and criminalised. In this sense, migration categories are core to today’s cognitive legitimisation of an unequally bordered world.

The book thus joins calls for re-orienting our analytical habits from employing categories like expatriate and migrant towards studying them. Attending to categories’ multiply inflected uses and ambiguities, even in scholarship, is instructive. Doing so does not mean determining whether expatriates are migrants and which type thereof, but asking how, in particular instances, they are positioned as different or the same and with what effects and what this allows us (not) to see. In other words, the question becomes what the stakes are of arguments about expatriates (not) being migrants or being a particular type thereof.


Sarah Kunz is a Lecturer at the Department of Sociology, University of Essex, and an Honorary Researcher with MMB. Before joining the University of Essex this year she was a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. Sarah’s research explores privileged migration, the postcolonial politics of migration categories and knowledge production on migration, the historical relationship between mobility and racism, corporate managerial migration, and the commodification of citizenship. Her new book, Expatriate: Following a Migration Category (2023), is published by Manchester University Press.

See also Sarah’s previous MMB blogpost, ‘From imperial sugar to golden passports: the Citizenship Industry’, which explores the rise of ‘investment migration’.