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.

Forced labour in supply chains: missing links between industrial and sexual labour

New writing on migration and mobilities – an MMB special series

By Rutvica Andrijasevic.

I was in the midst of fieldwork researching the working conditions of migrant workers in the electronics industry in Central and Eastern Europe when the press ran the story about Serbian workers working and living in slavery-like conditions in Slovakia. Various articles in Serbian press, culminating with the report of a journalist who worked undercover in the Samsung Slovak factory, denounced the latter for treating workers like slaves without any rights. These reports were corroborated by the Belgrade-based NGO Anti Trafficking Action (ASTRA), which explained that the exploitation and violation of rights of Serbian workers in Slovakia is widespread not only in electronics but also in automobile and food industries.

Despite being in possession of formal contracts issued by temporary work agencies that recruited them in Serbia, workers were the subject of fraud and deception with respect to pay, working time, health insurance and social security contributions. They were locked into contracts whereby they were liable to pay damages to the employer if they left or switched employers during the probation period. If workers did not work or were fired, they had to pay for the accommodation themselves and were required to leave the dormitory immediately. In case of irregularities, workers were unclear whom to contact as they worked at plant in Slovakia but were recruited by a Serbian agency, signed a contract with a Hungarian agency and then were paid by a Slovak agency.

Overall, as Tonia Novitz and myself discussed in a recent article, this is a workforce trapped within a labour engagement that they have entered voluntarily but found difficult to exit, tied into a contract with a particular employer, under the threat of a financial penalty and/or non-payment of wages, subject to illicit deductions from pay, vulnerable to deportation, risking homelessness because of tied accommodation, isolated by geography and language, and distant from any meaningful legal protection. The case of Serbian workers in Slovakia exemplifies, as we have argued elsewhere, a regulatory failure of the current legal and corporate regulatory matrix to protect workers and prevent the conditions in which unfree labour can thrive.

What struck me in the Serbian-Slovak case was the similarity between Serbian workers’ working and living conditions and those of migrant women in the sex industry that I have researched in the past. Tellingly, it was the NGO ASTRA, with expertise in assisting the ‘victims’ of human trafficking, that took upon themselves the task of drawing policy makers’ attention and demanding that the government protects the rights of Serbian workers.

Yet, while on the ground there seems to be quite strong parallels between exploitation of migrant workers in the electronics assembly and those in the sex industry, academic literature draws strong lines of demarcation between the two groups of migrants. In fact, the scholarship on unfree labour in supply chains that studies industrial labour and that on human trafficking that examines sexual exploitation are separate and distinct bodies of research.

I suggest that what links the sectors of industrial and sexual labour is not only similarities of forms of control over migrant workers but also legal classification of their work. As I explain in my recent article ‘Forced labour in supply chains: Rolling back the debate on gender, migration and sexual commerce’, the separate treatment of sexual and industrial labour exploitation both by researchers and in law and policy has inadvertently posited sexual labour as the ‘other’ of industrial labour. Consequently, this separation has obfuscated how the legal blurring of boundaries between industrial and service labour is engendering new modalities of the erosion of workers’ rights that are increasingly resembling those typical of sex work.

It is perhaps understandable that scholars of unfree labour in supply chains discount debates on human trafficking, as they do not want to get caught up in vehement discussions over whether sexual labour constitutes economic activity or violence against women. Yet, to do so is to overlook the large body of work on human trafficking by migration, post-colonial and transnational feminist scholars who have shown the interdependency between sexual labour, industrial labour and broader economic development. It is also to overlook the fact that unfree labour pivots on forms of control and exploitation, whether by employers or the states, that are embedded in normative assumptions about gender and sexuality.

This is the image at the back of the business card of a workers’ dormitory in Slovakia, where some of the migrant workers mentioned in the opening paragraph were housed. The image is striking for its overtly sexualised overtones. The shape and the colour of the dress and the inviting and provocative bodily position bring up an immediate association with women working in a strip club rather than in an assembly plant. Dormitories, located in the proximity of assembly plants, merge the productive and reproductive spheres in order to enable employers to extend control from the factory floor to workers’ sleeping and living quarters, thus extracting additional value from workers’ ‘private’ lives. The overtly sexualised overtones of the image remind us, time and time again, that gender and sexuality shape both production arrangements and social relations of reproduction so as to enable labour’s enrolment into regimes of capital accumulation.

It is my suggestion that researchers concerned with understanding and eradicating forced labour from supply chains should look at the critical literature on trafficking for sexual exploitation to understand both the mechanisms that employers use to confine workers and the ways in which capital mobilizes difference to extract value from labour. Sexualizing of labouring bodies is, after all, the very condition for the expansion of transnational capital.

Rutvica Andrijasevic is Associate Professor in International Migration and Business at the University of Bristol. Her current research investigates the globalisation of Chinese firms and how ‘Chinese’ modes of production and management are engendering new migration flows in Europe.

The UK–Philippine trade in nurses: is it ever ethical?

By Megan Anjeri Buxton.

Funding for home-grown nurses has been steadily declining in the UK since the 1980s. The last nail in the coffin came in 2016 when the bursary for nursing students was entirely scrapped. As a result, we have a graduation rate of 27 nurses per 100,000 people. Hardly enough to meet the demands of a generally unhealthy and ageing population – and that’s before the pandemic hit. Practicing nurses are also rightfully fed up with poor employment conditions and low pay and they are leaving in droves. The NHS needs 50,000 more nurses and is looking towards the Philippines to fill a lot of this gap.   

Currently, there are 40,000 Filipino nurses working in the UK, a staggering number that results from an arrangement made between the UK and Philippine governments. Established in 2003, this bilateral agreement provides the UK with Filipino nurses, and the Philippines with compensatory funds from the UK as well as remittances from their overseas workforce. Despite this agreement being purportedly a ‘win-win’, the increasing ‘industrial-complex’ that has come to characterise the trade in nurses is sucking the Philippines dry.  

A nurse in full PPE during the COVID-19 pandemic (image: Ömer Yıldız on Unsplash)


For the UK, relying on overseas healthcare personnel is hardly new. Since the NHS came into being in 1948 it has been staffed by workers from the Commonwealth who nursed a nation recovering from war back into health. The UK has a habit of poaching nurses from nations who are most in need. In the past both Ghana and South Africa have condemned the part the UK played in their severe nurse shortages. Similarly, in 2014 the most targeted countries for recruitment to the UK were Spain, Portugal and Italy, each of which were suffering from devastating economic crises.  

Looking abroad for nurses is not surprising for a nation that is founded on the extraction of resources from elsewhere for its own convenience. The financial costs of recruiting an overseas nurse are only ten per cent of what it would cost the UK to train its own. Overseas nurses are also ‘ready-made’, with seven years of training replaced by only the few weeks it takes to recruit one. The externalisation of costs is a sign of the commodification of nurses who are viewed not as humans providing essential healthcare but as goods to be bought and sold.   

The ethics of recruitment  

Although managed by the Philippines Overseas Employment Agency (POEA), the export-led model in the nursing field in the Philippines has led to increasing private-sector involvement. Many nursing schools, or ‘migrant institutions’, train nurses specifically to go overseas. Because they are profit driven many schools have enrolled students far beyond capacity, jeopardising the quality of training. Schools often have business deals with licensure exam review centres. There have been instances where schools have bribed officials from the Professional Regulation Commission of Nursing to leak exam questions. Such corruption has resulted in a system of nurse training that follows industry models. Profit seeking has compromised the quality of care and nurses themselves have been transformed into a mass-produced commodity.   

Within the sector more and more schools have been established that cater only for the export market. This means that the syllabus does not match the needs of healthcare in the Philippines, and that skills become specialised towards western diseases and illnesses. In fact, some recruitment companies that operate internationally have amalgamated with nursing schools, streamlining the export process. As a result, not only is the Philippines losing nurses, but doctors are re-training as nurses and also leaving the country. The Philippines has half the amount of nurses and ten times fewer doctors per capita than does the UK. Over the past decade hundreds of hospitals have closed and the mortality rate has increased to the level it was 30 years ago. For Jaime Galvez-Tan, previously the Executive Director of the National Institutes of Health in the Philippines, this phenomenon is less an example of ‘brain-drain’ than of ‘brain-haemorrhage’.  

In the UK certain measures have been put in place to ensure that recruitment practices remain ethical. The 1999 Department of Health guidelines state that compliance with its code of practice ‘minimises harm to the health and care systems of countries of origin’. The industry in nurse recruitment that has resulted from the bilateral arrangement between the UK and the Philippines appears to fall far short of these guidelines. The ethics of the recruitment agencies – who also follow a profit-based business model – are not dependable when the sector is not regulated by a government body.

Having a code of practice suggests that the UK government should monitor agency recruitment carefully. But a study of NHS Trusts found that few had any information on recruitment activity and most had none at all. A long chain of outsourcing and sub-contracting – from companies involved in initial training to ones that market emigration opportunities, to those that guide nurses through the visa application process, to companies that arrange travel and English Language Tests – makes it difficult to keep track of the specific activities involved in recruitment. The monitoring process for the code of practice is not sufficient to deal with these complexities. It simply ‘encourages’ health and social care organisations to respond to surveys capturing international recruitment activity and to share information on any known breaches of the code of practice. The agencies themselves are only sent an email every two years asking them to ‘confirm their compliance with the principles of the code of practice’ and to supply two referees to confirm that they use the agency and that it complies with the code of practice.

The pandemic has further highlighted the questionable ethics of Filipino nurse employment in the UK. Nurses come to the UK on a Tier-2 visa, which makes their ability to legally reside in the UK dependent on them being in employment. Without a job, their legal residence is withdrawn. As a result, many Filipino nurses have felt under pressure by management to work extra shifts and work in COVID wards as they feel they ‘owe’ the hospital for allowing them to enter and reside in the UK. This has likely contributed to the disproportionately high number of Filipino NHS nurses who have died from COVID. A letter to parliament from the Filipino UK Nurses Association points out that of the 50 Filipino nurses who died last year almost 40 were in a high-risk category and should have been allowed home to shield. 

Overall, then, a picture is painted of a trade agreement that is creating a fatal imbalance in the distribution of nurses between the UK and Philippines. It has led to a training industry that values profit over education, a recruitment industry that is left largely unmonitored and a work environment in the UK that puts Filipino nurses at risk. From origin to destination each leg in this chain is unethical.

Megan Anjeri Buxton is a student on the MSc Migration and Mobility Studies at the University of Bristol.

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

By Nadine Finch.

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

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

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

(Image: DDP on Unsplash)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Britain as the spoils of empire

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

By Nadine El-Enany.

My parents travelled from Egypt to Britain in 1977, moving from London to Exeter, a city in the South West of England, in 1978. For my parents, Exeter was a place they felt fortunate to have found, an idyll far from the noisy, crowded streets of Cairo. They made Exeter their home. Yet 40 years later, when my father retired, a neighbour asked him when he would be going back to Egypt.  Still, my parents are the lucky ones. They came to Britain on an aeroplane, study visas in hand. They did not have to travel by boat, or in the back of a lorry risking their lives.

‘Bordering Britain’ is not only the centuries long legal and political process that my recent book traces: it is also a mindset. Hanging over my parents will always be the assumption that their life in Britain is contingent and temporary. Immigration law teaches white British citizens that Britain and everything within it is rightfully theirs. ‘Others’ are here as guests. I challenge this by showing how British immigration and nationality law is an extension of British colonialism. I argue that Britain’s borders, articulated and policed via immigration laws, maintain the global racial order established by colonialism, whereby colonised peoples are dispossessed of land and resources. Britain is not only bordered, but also racially and colonially ordered, through the operation of immigration control.

Britain would not be the wealthy, plentiful place that it is without its colonial history. Colonialism and slavery were key to its industrialisation and the growth of its capitalist economy (see Draper 2008; Inikori 2002; Williams 1944). Wealth derived from British slave-ownership has helped to enrich and sustain elite institutions, individuals and families and has sewn inequality deep into the fabric of British society (see Dorling and Tomlinson 2019). Britain’s healthcare system, welfare state, transportation infrastructure, cultural and educational institutions, though battered and unequally accessible, are nevertheless colonially derived.

As colonial populations fought the British from their territories, British lawmakers fast abandoned the myth of imperial unity and equality and moved to introduce controls targeted at racialised colonial subjects and Commonwealth citizens. Through the concept of patriality the 1971 Immigration Act had made whiteness intrinsic to British identity. Only patrials, those born in Britain or with a parent born in Britain, had a right of entry and stay in Britain. In 1971 a person born in Britain was most likely (98%) to be white (see Owen 1995). The 1981 Act continued this process of racial exclusion by constructing British citizenship on the foundation of patriality, tying citizenship to the right of entry and abode (Karatani 2002:185). A territorially distinct Britain and a concept of citizenship that made Britishness commensurate with whiteness made it clear that Britain, the landmass and everything within it, belongs to Britons, conceived intrinsically as white. The 1981 Act was an act of appropriation, a final seizure of the wealth and infrastructure secured through centuries of colonial conquest.

Understanding Britain as a contemporary colonial space serves to partially collapse the distinction between settler and non-settler colonial contexts. While it is now an accepted argument in critical scholarship that settler colonialism is ongoing and structural (for example, Coulthard 2014), the same critique has not been applied to non-settler forms of colonialism, which are considered to have ended. Yet, the border drawn around the spoils of British colonial conquest via immigration and nationality law amounts to colonial theft. Due to mainstream understandings of property as being fixed and immovable in space and time, theft via the passing of immigration controls can be difficult to conceptualise (see Cooper 2013; Keenan 2015). Colonial dispossession not only determined the contemporary distribution of material wealth, but also radically altered subjectivity in the sense of what people desire, consider themselves as entitled to and understand themselves to be (Fanon 1986). Theft of intangibles such as economic growth, life chances, psyches and futures occur in all colonial contexts, settler or otherwise.

The effect of the 1981 Act along with changes to immigration law was to put the wealth of Britain, gained via colonial conquest, out of reach for the vast majority of people racialised through colonial processes. Immigration law not only serves as the means of obstruction of movement – it is also the means through which legal status is granted. Regimes of legal status recognition whereby British authorities determine entitlement to citizenship, settlement and refugee status serve to legitimise the claim that colonial wealth belongs behind Britain’s borders, only to be accessed with permission.

Similar to the way in which indigenous people in Canada and Australia must submit to the rules and evidentiary standards of those colonial legal systems in order to be recognised as having enforceable rights to land (for example, Mabo and Others vs Queensland 1992), those with ancestral, geographical and personal histories of British colonialism who wish to access stolen colonial wealth and resources in Britain must submit to the rules and evidentiary standards of British immigration law. In this way the vast majority of racialised people are prevented from accessing Britain and its wealth in part through the operation of internal and external borders, produced and enforced through law.

The traditional acceptance of legal categories as defined in international and domestic law in and outside academia has the effect of concealing law’s role in producing racialised subjects and racial violence. It further impedes an understanding of law as racial violence. Addressing the historical contingency and artificiality of legal categories, the violence in their production and ongoing material effects allows us to understand how Britain remains colonially and racially configured. It also helps to mitigate against a liberal politics of recognition and opens the way for the development of emancipatory and reparative discourses and strategies for migrant solidarity and racial justice.

Legal status does not alter the way in which racialised people are cast in white spaces as undeserving guests, outsiders or intruders – as here today but always potentially gone tomorrow. Immigration law is, after all, the prop used to teach white British citizens that what Britain plundered from its colonies is theirs and theirs alone. Understanding that immigration law is an extension of colonialism enables us to question Britain’s claim to being a legitimately bordered, sovereign nation-state. If we, as critical scholars and activists, can imbibe a counter-pedagogy to that of immigration law and bordering, one which rejects the violence of legal categorisation and paves the way for a more empowering, redistributive and radical politics of racial justice, we can begin to work our way towards new strategies for organising collectively in the service of anti-racism and migrant solidarity. We should not wait for the law to rule on our entitlement to colonial spoils. A Britain understood as the spoils of empire already belongs to us.

Nadine El-Enany is Reader in Law at Birkbeck School of Law and Co-Director of the Centre for Research on Race and Law. She researches migration and refugee law and one of her current research projects focuses on questions of race and justice in death in custody cases. (B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire (2020) is available from Manchester University Press.

A longer version of this blog post was originally published by Manchester University Press on 6th November 2019.

(de)Bordering the human and non-human worlds

By Bridget Anderson.

In October 2016 the French authorities evicted more than a thousand people from their shelters in the Calais ‘Jungle’. This had become a hub for people seeking to cross the Channel to come to the UK, and a focus of solidarity and rights activism. It was to be replaced with a nature reserve. Who can object to the restoration of an ecosystem, symbolised by the re-establishment of endangered native species? To uncovering and nurturing back to life the seeds of the Liparis loeselii, the endangered fen orchid, dormant under 60 years of detritus and topsoil? The subsequent Fort Vert nature reserve is now a resting ground for migrating birds but designed so it provides no shelter for migrating humans. Calais has been a point of tension between England and France for centuries, yet today the UK Border Force is a partner in this ‘projet de territoire’.

The Liparis Loeselii orchid, now growing on the site of the Calais ‘Jungle’ (image: orchidsworld on flickr)

The ‘natural world’ is often imagined as pre-political, as a kind of innocent space that must be conserved and protected from human beings. Yet environmental issues are bound up with power, domination and forms of violence that cannot escape politics. Moreover, at the same time as being pre-political, ‘nature’ is also imagined as national – think about national parks, the claiming of iconic national animals and the determination to stamp out ‘invasive species’. Fort Vert is incorporated into France’s ‘National Restoration Plan’.

The interface between environment and human mobility is likely to become increasingly politically fraught. There is growing anxiety about ‘environmental refugees’ and the consequences that environmental change will have for mobility to rich countries. This raises extremely important questions for the politics of migration and global justice. It also demands that we think carefully about the language used in environmental and migration justice. The pollution and destruction that people are seeking to escape compounded by racism easily becomes associated with them. Migrants are routinely seen to scurry, scuttle, sneak and swarm. It is legitimate to respond to vermin through the creation of a ‘hostile environment’.

These metaphors pass unremarked into press coverage. We often hear the language of insects and vermin, low down on the animal phyla, invading not the national territory but the national home. One insect is trivial, of no consequence, but they travel in swarms, so just one is likely to presage millions. Unlike beasts of burden, these are not perceived as productive animals. They are strongly associated with human waste and thrive in the places we try to forget: sewers, empty lots, derelict buildings, mountainous landfills. In the same way that vermin serve as a reminder of ecosystems of dirt and waste that are thrown up by and live on the by-products of production, so the people at the borders of Europe and those whose bodies wash up on Mediterranean beaches are part of the ecosystems of global economic, social and political relations, and the living histories of colonialism and patriarchy – ecosystems that many would rather forget.

Fort Vert exemplifies the ‘green washing’ of border enforcement. It is vitally important to be able to think about environmental justice, sustainability and mobility justice together, rather than as a zero-sum game. A pristine national space is a fantasy, but that does not mean it is not important to act on environmental destruction, climate change and migration justice: rather, it is important to act on them together. This demands analysis and mutual learning, and universities are an important space to facilitate these conversations. At Bristol, MMB has been working with the Brigstow Institute and two fantastic artist/gardeners, Charli Clark and Paul Hurley, to develop a living lab where we can observe, debate and learn from the multiple mobilities that are part of our worlds. (de)Bordering explores ideas of the native, the natural and concepts of place, and how they feature in the politics of environment and ecology and the politics of migration and mobility.  

The (de)Bordering project is set in the University of Bristol’s Royal Fort Gardens and comprises two plots planted up to attract migrants and welcome weeds and out-of-place plants. The summer garden, for example, has different thistle species and mallow, ideal for the painted lady butterfly to lay its eggs on and for its caterpillars to pupate. The painted lady migrates to and from North Africa. Cow parsley, summer ragwort and lady’s bedstraw will attract insects such as the marmalade hoverfly, an aphid-eating pollinator that arrives in its billions in the summer months. They are food for swifts and swallows.

A painted lady butterfly, migrating to the UK from North Africa, feeds on a thistle as planted in the (de)Bordering plot (image: hedera.baltica on flickr)

The winter friendly garden will be stocked with berries and seeds from hawthorn and ivy – the food of fieldfares and redwings – and from elder and dogwood – beloved of blackbirds and robins. Did you know that while most robins in the UK scarcely leave their ‘territory’, some (mainly female) ones fly to southern Spain in the winter? Those that stay put are in turn joined by robins from Scandinavia escaping the severe winter up north. We hope both long-term residents and those passing through will enjoy the rosehip and blackthorn they will find on our plot.

There are also two structures being built in this space. One is a hide, where two people will be able to observe insect life, and the other, larger structure is a space for debate, modelled on the shelters in the Calais ‘Jungle’ from which people were evicted. We hope that both will enable us to learn from the ways that people co-exist with and in our world, and how we can co-exist better. We will be completing it and making a firepit on 28th June, finishing with poems and stories around the fire. Come and join us then!

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

Bridget would like to thank Professor Miriam Ticktin and acknowledge the organisers and participants of the conference ‘Invasive Others’, held on 20th-21st April 2016 in the New School for Social Research, New York, for the conversations that helped her develop these ideas. Those wanting to know more might be interested in the special issue of Social Research that was dedicated to the conference papers.