Organising against fear: migrant nannies and domestic workers during COVID

New writing on migration and mobilities – an MMB special series

By Maud Perrier

Migrant nannies and domestic workers were largely absent from mainstream feminist commentary during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as from public discussion of childcare. In the UK broadsheets, most of the media coverage of the childcare crisis during this time was dominated by stories of working mothers’ struggles to manage caring for children and working from home. The unequal division of labour between men and women, and fears about women’s stalled careers and promotion gaps in the near future, were the main sources of middle-class feminist anxiety. As Veronica Deutsch argues the middle-classes expertise as orators of their own suffering along with pandemic-induced nationalism combined to position migrant nannies as out of reach from public sympathy.

(Image: Félix Prado on Unsplash)

The depiction of the pandemic as representing the ‘death of the working mother’ reproduced a white liberal feminist analysis that simultaneously privileged individual professional success and invisibilised these women’s reliance on paid childcare. At the same time the demand for live-in nannies as a safe option increased substantially and there was mounting evidence globally that domestic workers faced heightened restrictions on their movements and ability to see their families, and that many faced unemployment, homelessness and death after catching the virus at work. Two years on from the start of COVID, how can we centre the experiences of migrant and racialised minority nannies’ who organised during the pandemic to shift how we think about solidarity and care between women across ‘race’ and migration status?

Between October 2020 and February 2021, I carried out interviews with nanny organisers through two worker-led grass-roots organisations – one with migrant nannies in the UK and the other with nannies and domestic workers in the US – to learn how their organising changed during the pandemic. The Boston-based organisers belong to the Matahari Women Workers’ Centre, a medium-sized long-established organisation, but the London Nanny Solidarity Network was only established during COVID. The Nanny Solidarity Network was set up to respond to the destitution that migrant nannies in West London faced during the pandemic and within a few weeks was delivering English-language training, mutual aid, welfare support and immigration/employment legal advice to more than 100 members.

Across both sites, my interviewees reported that for many nannies in their organisations their relationships with parent-employers significantly worsened during the pandemic and were characterised by increased fear and vulnerability. Nannies recounted stories of employers breaking lockdown rules and not following social-distancing regulations. One interviewee was asked to come into work after her employer’s family returned from a trip abroad without following quarantine rules. Another was asked to look after a friend’s child without considering the heightened risk of transmission for the nanny. Anastancia Cuna, a well-known domestic worker organiser, aptly describes these situations as employers capitalising on the economic conditions of the pandemic.

To fight this climate of fear, the Domestic Employers Network successfully developed resources to empower workers to navigate this increased vulnerability – for example, COVID contracts and guidance about safe working, which workers could use to hold their employers to account. The conversation guide includes the discussion of procedures adopted to reduce exposure when someone tests positive, as well as transport and entering work routines. It also includes a section recommending that employers commit to higher rates of pay during the pandemic and agree to give nannies paid time off for sickness or for relatives’ sickness. These documents form an important part of the organisation’s praxis empowering workers to refuse to give in to fear. The resources suggest quite a different story about how to negotiate deepening divisions during the pandemic, which highlights the importance of formal legal frameworks in building solidarity. At a time when few governments offered any formal protection for these workers, a last resort was to appeal to employers’ consciences about their legal responsibilities.

The pandemic put on hold the well-documented organising that is historically carried out by nannies in public parks across the globe, as well as their shame demonstrations outside employers’ homes. But organisations like the Nanny Solidarity Network and Matahari Women Workers’ Center developed methods to continue building worker power virtually through online assemblies. They also managed the distribution of state aid in the US via the National Domestic Workers Alliance and in the UK through mutual aid. But interviewees emphasised that temporarily becoming a cash assistance organisation proved challenging at times as it contradicted their aim of building worker power. Online spaces of sociality were also vital sources of community survival for unemployed workers throughout and beyond the pandemic in both countries.

Pre pandemic, discussions of teachers’ and childcare workers’ strikes assumed that solidarity between parents and teachers and between lecturers and students would act as a strategic wedge in labour relations, which neoliberal senior managers underestimated at their peril. Jane McAveley describes these ties as the ‘ace up the sleeve’ of care workers who can mobilise their ties to the community to their advantage in such disputes. My research showed that while nannies in the UK and the US may not be able to count on such direct community solidarity, they have developed alternative techniques of building allyship and community within a hostile environment.

Scholars and activists have long been calling for more intimate organising in feminised sectors whereby the relational ties between caregivers and care-receivers are leveraged to secure gains from employers and governments. What these nannies’ voices suggest is that the question of intimacy with whom needs to be much more at the centre of this discussion post pandemic. This requires careful consideration if more worker-led migrant organisations are to join coalitions with low-income parents and low-paid childcare workers – such as the Care that Works coalition – which are powerful enough to hold states to account for their disappearing act.

Maud Perrier is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. Her research focuses on care workers’ organising, social reproduction theory, motherhood and maternal workers, socialist feminist movements in UK, North America and Australia. Her most recent book is Childcare Struggles, Maternal Workers and Social Reproduction (Bristol University Press, 2022). A recording of the book launch with MMB Director Bridget Anderson is available here.

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

By Pieter Bevelander

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

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

Support for Ukraine (image by Anastasiia Krutota on Unsplash)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Nandita Sharma.

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

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

Nicosia, 2019 (Image by Ittmust on flickr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UK-Rwanda refugee deal: first thoughts

By Miranda Butler.

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

Before removal

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

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

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

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

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

Unsurprisingly, the UK will make the removal arrangements:

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

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

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

After removal

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

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

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

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

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

Rwanda will ensure that…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grounds for concern already

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

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

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

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

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

Vicarious strength: friends and befriending in UK immigration detention

By Joel White.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humanitarian kinship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Vicky Canning.

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

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

(Image: Jannik Kiel on Unspalsh)

Emotional and workplace impacts on practitioners

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

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

The trend towards disempowerment

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

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

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

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

Breaking trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Environmental racism in the borderland: the case of Calais

By Travis Van Isacker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mobility and mobilization – narrating injustices

New writing on migration and mobilities – an MMB special series

By Hager Ben Driss.

Stephen Greenblatt defines ‘mobilizers’ as ‘agents, go-betweens, translators, or intermediaries’ (Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto p. 251) and contends that their function as contact facilitators should be included in mobility studies. This concept of mobilization serves as an ethical lever of my new edited volume Mobilizing Narratives: Narrating Injustices of (Im)Mobility (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2021). But how can editing a book be considered an act of mobilization? The answer is contingent on one’s conception of editing. Editing, in my opinion, is based on mobility, a dynamic intellectual movement between the editor and authors. The editor’s role is to synchronize writing motions and rally texts to serve a purpose. From this perspective, I am more of a mobilizer than a mere assembler of papers, because I was able to raise the attention of several scholars and rally interest to current mobility injustices.

This book explores the dynamic interplay between (im)mobility, injustice and narration. Its chief objective is to foreground the continua and connections at the heart of mobility and immobility as well as justice and injustice. While my conception of the whole book is informed by Mimi Sheller’s seminal Mobility Justice (2018), I opted to utilize ‘(Im)Mobility’ and ‘Injustice’ as key words in the title. Using parentheses to separate immobility from mobility is not only a typographical device to foreground immobility, but also a mode to highlight the visual and phonetic inseparability of the two terms. As for advancing the term ‘injustice’, I am mainly indebted to Judith N. Shklar’s compelling text The Faces of Injustice (2005), as well as to Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice (2007). In the collection’s introduction, I provide a working definition of (im)mobility injustice inspired by Fricker’s definition of epistemic injustice:

I call (im)mobility injustice the wrong done to someone in their capacity as an (im)mobile agent, and thus in a capacity essential to human life. Such an injustice occurs when someone’s movement or stasis are damaged. Therefore, we might say that this injustice is caused by prejudice in the economy of (im)mobility. This (im)mobility deficit damages the subject’s humanity to the extent that they are degraded qua (im)mobile subjects, and they are degraded qua humans.

Mobilizing Narratives: Narrating Injustices of (Im)Mobility seeks to fill a gap in mobility research. The volume sustains an emphasis on pressing the boundaries of mobility studies to the realm of literary studies, as well as attempting to create spaces for debate and exchange between literature, sociology and other related fields. It maintains the aim to reflect on the reciprocal exchange between (im)mobilities and narrative practices. Literary production has the capacity to gauge the power of discourses undergirding (im)mobility injustices. The book adds a new intervention in the field of mobility studies. Its focus on (im)mobility and injustice is reinforced by foregrounding the capacity of literature to marshal emotions and values. It is also attentive to the power of narratives to mobilize a sustained critique of uneven (im)mobility.

The volume takes up the task of politicizing motion and inertness by answering one of the pressing questions raised in relation to mobility and immobility injustice: Who enjoys a full claim to (im)mobility and who is denied this right? The eight chapters that constitute this book address coerced movement and stasis in conjunction with travel, immigration, identity, colonization, gender and environment. They engage in a text-based approach within a deliberate move to synchronize mobility studies and literary studies. Through diverse lenses of analysis, they demonstrate that (im)mobility is not mere motion or stasis; it is an apparatus of power. Like any other product, (im)mobility justice is differentially and unequally distributed.

While the rationale behind this collection is to bring attention to the injustices associated with various forms of (im)mobility, it also maintains the goal of enhancing a collective consciousness, accountability and redress, hence mobilization. The book’s ultimate objective is to advance (a)kinetic ethics, or the ethics of (im)mobility. Shklar’s philosophy of injustice provides us with a comprehensive understanding of the ethical issue at the heart of uneven (im)mobility: ‘To have no idea of what it means to be treated unjustly is to have no moral knowledge, no moral life’ (p. 15). Research into (im)mobility is fundamentally a venture to ethicize as well as politicize movement and stasis.

Hager Ben Driss is Associate Professor at the University of Tunis. Her research centers on postcolonial and gender studies. She is editor of Knowledge: Trans/Formations (2013), Women, Violence, and Resistance (2017), and Mobilizing Narratives: Narrating Injustices of (Im)Mobility (2021).

Hong Kongers at the borders of ‘Global Britain’

By Michaela Benson.

Since it opened on 31 January 2021, the designated route for Hong Kongers to settle in the UK—the Hong Kong BN(O) visa (HK BN(O))—has received 64,900 applications. The presentation of this route to settlement in the UK as ‘bespoke’ indicates that this is an exception to ordinary immigration controls. In what follows, I argue that the presentation of the HK BN(O) visa as the poster child for current Conservative Government’s self-proclaimed ‘fair and generous’ approach to immigration—an apparent exception to the ‘Hostile Environment’—functions discursively to demonstrate that ‘Global Britain’ has fulfilled the Brexit mantra of ‘taking back control’ of its borders. However, my analysis extends beyond this to consider how these provisions relate to the ambiguous status of the Hong Kongers in Britain’s nationality law, and the longer history through which they were transformed from citizens to migrants. In this way, I explore how the UK’s contemporary citizenship-migration nexus reproduces the logics and legacies of colonialism to offer new sightlines on the coloniality of ‘Global Britain’. 

Exceptional circumstances, bespoke visas

The bespoke provisions for the Hong Kongers were introduced as part of a package of exceptional measures that the UK Government had taken in light of their perception that the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ solution had been breached by the imposition of national security law in Hong Kong SAR (special administrative region). Presented as offering a safe haven to some of the residents of Britain’s so-called ‘last colony’ and receiving a remarkable level of cross-party and cross-house support, the exceptions to ordinary immigration controls to a named population in light of political oppression and instabilities seems laudable.

Citizens take to the streets in Hong Kong to protest against the breach of the One Country, Two Systems solution (image: Jonathan van Smit on Flickr)

Available to those with a continuing tie to the UK through their status as British Nationals (Overseas), the HK BN(O) visa has relatively favourable terms of settlement in contrast to standard visa routes. For those applying to enter the UK through this route there is no requirement for a minimum or guaranteed income; funds have been set aside to establish ‘Welcome hubs’ intended to support the integration of Hong Kongers; and there are concessions in place to allow those on a low income to apply for benefits to meet housing need, essential living costs and child well-being.

This is the first ‘bespoke’ scheme launched since the end of the Brexit transition period, pre-empting the UK’s New Plan for Immigration in March 2021. It is likely that there will be more to follow. Notable is the way that this has been narrated, signposting the removal of freedoms from the Hong Kongers as driving the UK’s response. In other words, this is a moral commitment to providing humanitarian support. Indeed, at the time of writing Home Secretary Priti Patel MP was using similar narratives to justify the government’s proposal to resettle 20,000 Afghan refugees. And while there are urgent questions to be asked about the deterioration of human rights since the imposition of National Security Law in Hong Kong, within which the emergence of the HK BN(O) visa is caught up, it is also important that we consider the significance of this bespoke visa in the emerging context of ‘Global Britain’ and its borders.

‘Global Britain’ and its borders

The HK BN(O) visa emerged in the context of far-reaching immigration reform introduced in the wake of Brexit. Legislation that repealed EU Freedom of Movement Directives and extended immigration controls to EU citizens seeking to enter the EU after 31 December 2020 was additionally used as a vehicle to shepherd in a new plan for immigration. This plan foregrounded the benefits of controlled and circumscribed immigration to the British state and economy. It privileged an image of the ‘good migrant’ who, whether through skill—narrowly defined by level of education—or income, might contribute to the success of ‘Global Britain’.

Home Secretary Priti Patel MP has repeatedly claimed that the provisions offered to the Hong Kongers are evidence of the current Conservative Government’s ‘fair and generous’ approach to immigration and a longstanding commitment to offering sanctuary for those who have had their liberty and freedoms curtailed. In the context of Brexit, framed around ending freedom of movement and Britain ‘taking back control’ of its borders, offering this bespoke route is an outward demonstration that ‘Global Britain’ can now pick and choose which migrants it wants, offering them special conditions as it deems fit. Understood in this way, the bespoke visa may reinforce a politics of migration that pitches the ‘deserving’ or ‘good migrant’ against those judged as undeserving, as fraudulent, as no good for Britain.

The work of exception

In what follows, I provide further context to the emergence of the bespoke visa reflecting on earlier transformations in the status and rights of the Hong Kongers in British legislation, notably their shift from full imperial citizens to the ambiguous legal status on which the current visa rests. The 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act first introduced restrictions on their rights to migrate and settle in the UK. Nominally citizens, at the UK’s borders they were remade as migrants. In 1981 their rights – diminished through immigration legislation – were institutionalised in nationality law, with their new status as British Dependent Territories citizens (BDTC) naming them as belonging to Britain but not part of it. Hong Kong—remaining a colony until 1997—and its people were anachronistic in the context of a state prematurely claiming its post-imperial credentials and building a national polity. Following the conclusion of the Sino-British negotiations on the future of Hong Kong, their status was given a new, unique moniker: British Nationals (Overseas).

Ambiguity has long been a characteristic of Britain’s migration-citizenship nexus and has been institutionalised into its legal forms. But centring these exceptional statuses in our analyses and locating them in their longer histories shows that the production of exception has long been part of the system. The already-exceptional BN(O) status, an afterlife of empire, has been re-infused with meaning and made fit for purpose in this political moment. The continuity of exception—albeit to different ends—speaks to a longer political project of bordering that stretches from Britain’s decolonisation to the present day. The continuing differentiation at the heart of Britain’s nationality legislation is a reminder that colonial logics and legacies structure the contemporary citizenship-migration nexus.

In this way, the coloniality of ‘Global Britain’ and its borders becomes all the more visible as we think about the bespoke HK BN(O) visa in the context of Britain’s new immigration plan, its longer history of legal relationship to the people of Hong Kong (and the erosion of their rights) and the exception and ambiguity of its political projects of bordering, past and present.

Michaela Benson is Professor in Public Sociology at Lancaster University and Co-I on the ESRC-funded project Rebordering Britain and Britons after Brexit (MIGZEN). She works on migration, citizenship and belonging and most recently has been focussing on Britain’s relationship to its emigrants and overseas citizens at moments of major political transformation including Brexit and decolonisation. 

This blogpost draws on her article Hong Kongers and the coloniality of British citizenship from decolonisation to ‘Global Britain’, published in the journal Current Sociology and draws on research supported by a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship (MD19\190055).

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

By Diego Acosta.

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

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

Image by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

This post was first published by Encompass in September 2021.