The permanent ‘crisis’ of the borders of ‘Europe’

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

By Nicholas De Genova

The borders of Europe seem to be the site of a protracted crisis. The fires that devastated the scandalously overcrowded Moria detention camp on 9 September 2020 on the Greek island of Lesvos, which summarily displaced upwards of 13,000 migrants and refugees including small children, who were then left abandoned to sleep on roadsides, signal only one of the most dramatic recent flashpoints of an endemically dismal predicament of misery and despair. Notably, whatever the precise circumstances that caused them, the fires arose in a context of draconian yet woefully insufficient sanitary measures associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. On a global scale, the pandemic has thus exposed the inherent contradictions of state power and its (in)capacities to manage the public health emergency. The recourse to curfews, mass quarantines, and more or less severe forms of social ‘shutdown’ or ‘lockdown’ has likewise served to legitimate and bolster a predictably insular governmentality of ‘national’ or ‘European’ quarantine, manifest above all in border closures that only exacerbate the public health crisis by rendering the health and wellbeing of some categories of non-citizens’ bodies expendable, and thereby relegating some human lives to a debased status of disposability.

Since its very implementation in 2015, the EU’s ‘hotspot’ mechanism for migrant and refugee reception and detention has been a very prominent instance of the indefinite coercive immobilization of human mobility. The hotspots’ premier function in practice has been the preemptive rejection and containment of migrants and refugees at the borders, whereby the EU-ropean border regime operationalizes a more or less permanent state of exception. In this respect, therefore, the borders of Europe are not merely the site of an ostensible ‘crisis’ that intrudes upon ‘Europe’ from outside, bringing to its doorstep all the proverbial bad news of the world as embodied in a motley crew of ‘unwanted’ (illegalized) migrants and refugees. No. Instead, the borders of Europe are a means for producing and sustaining a permanent sociopolitical condition of ‘crisis’ that mediates the rejection, illegalization and prospective expulsion of the great majority of migrants and refugees who arrive.

From their very inception, the hotspots by which EU-rope sought to manage the mass influx of migrants and refugees in 2015 were deployed to lend credence to the spectacle of a purported ‘crisis’ that appeared to command  ‘emergency’ measures. Yet, even that ‘refugee crisis,’ which was speedily re-branded as the by-now infamous ‘migrant crisis,’ had itself been preceded by one maritime disaster after another, year after year, as overcrowded and unseaworthy boats carrying migrant and refugee border-crossers capsized or were otherwise shipwrecked in the Mediterranean. Indeed, for more than two decades, the persistent fortification of the borders of Europe has made the crossing more perilous and ever more potentially lethal.

The vast majority of migrants and refugees seeking to remake their lives in ‘Europe’ arrive from places formerly colonized by European powers (or in any case, places otherwise deeply implicated in centuries of European imperial projects). Likewise, the vast majority of ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’ who perish as a consequence of the policing of the borders of ‘Europe’ are people who come to be racialized as non-white and ‘non-European’. When the EU-ropean border regime systematically generates and predictably cultivates the conditions of possibility for the mass death of Black and Brown people, what else can it mean, then, other than that the borders of ‘Europe’ are an apparatus for the postcolonial reconfiguration of a global regime of white supremacy? The borders of Europe thus emerge a premier site for staging the unfinished business and open-ended struggles of our shared postcolonial condition.

This helps to explain why and how the mere term ‘migration’ serves in the European context as a discursive proxy for the antagonisms of race. Official disavowals of the legitimacy of ‘race’ and sanctimonious repudiations of racism undermine a frank confrontation with the historical and contemporary realities of European colonial and postcolonial racism as an ongoing and unresolved affair. This notorious and increasingly futile European evasiveness around questions of race — even as virtually every public debate over ‘migration’, or ‘refugees’ or ‘integration’ is inevitably saturated with racial significance — thus infuses and perverts the very possibility of an honest reckoning with the questions of what ‘Europe’ is or could be in the future, or who is or can be counted as ‘European’.  This is the complex that I call the ‘European’ Question.

In a book that I edited, The Borders of ‘Europe’: Autonomy of Migration, Tactics of Bordering (Duke University Press, 2017) the contributing authors and I investigate a variety of examples of the bordering tactics of ‘Europe’ as reaction formations to the elementary human exercise of a freedom of movement that is not granted by any authority. In this manner, we emphasize the primacy of human mobility — what we and other critical scholars call the autonomy of migration — as an incorrigible subjective force enacted in practice, prior to all the tactics and technologies for imposing and policing borders. The research engages various moments leading up to and culminating in the so-called ‘crisis’ of 2015-16, but also excavates a variety of episodes that earlier instigated analogous invocations of a ‘crisis’ at Europe’s borders, which have always tended to signify first and foremost a crisis of control.

As the events of last year verify anew, the European border regime cannot cease to be convulsed by ‘crisis’, because it is a reaction formation dedicated to controlling a force that is elemental and incorrigible within any apparatus of state power. The exercise of our freedom of movement — objectively speaking, in defiance of any border, the police, the law and the state, and even at the risk of our very lives — is an assertion of the primacy of our human needs. In this way, these perennial struggles over human mobility that provoke an effectively permanent ‘crisis’ of the border are expressions, in practice, of a desire and a demand for another way of life. And they gesture, however humbly, toward a horizon where another world is possible.

Nicholas De Genova is Professor and Chair of the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Houston. As an anthropologist, geographer and social theorist he studies migration, borders, race, citizenship and labour.

The Borders of ‘Europe’: Autonomy of Migration, Tactics of Bordering is available from Duke University Press.

 

Queer liberalisms and marginal mobility – special issue and interview series

By Mengia Tschalaer.

To live a life in fear of violence, incarceration, torture, excommunication and isolation is a reality for many lesbian, gay, trans*, bi, intersex and non-binary persons worldwide. Homosexuality is criminalized in 77 countries, out of which seven apply the death penalty. According to the UNHCR, the number of persons who flee their country due to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and who qualify for protection as ‘members of a particular social group’ under the 1951 Refugee Convention has increased.

The criminalization of homosexuality has generally decreased over the last two decades, but the rise of populist and authoritarian politics in large parts of Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Russia and Southeast Asia currently fuels anti-LGBTQI+ attitudes and politics. In addition, many of the colonial anti-LGBTQI+ penal laws that up to this day populate constitutional and criminal law legislations in South Asia, the MENA region, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia are currently experiencing a revival in the context of the rise of religious fundamentalism and authoritarianism. Similarly, Europe and North America, two world regions that have so far been associated with their ‘progressive’ views on LGBTQI+ issues, seem to be backtracking by issuing restrictive case laws, exerting violence and expressing fierce opposition to LGBTQI+ anti-discrimination laws.

It is within such politically and socially charged contexts that Fadi Saleh (University of Göttingen), Bridget Anderson (MMB, University of Bristol) and I (City University of New York/University of Bristol) have imagined our special issue on ‘Queer Liberalisms and Marginal Mobility’, which will be published by Ethnic and Racial Studies in 2022. Prior to this, we are all taking part in an interview series this month that covers many of the themes touched on in the papers of the special issue (further details below).

An interview series in April 2021 explores the themes of the special issue

The special issue addresses queer migration through the intersectional lens of queer liberalisms, authoritarianism and marginal mobilities. Globally, LGBTIQ+ rights form an inherent part of human rights discourse and politics. At the same time, this very human rights language is increasingly used by nation-states to defend their borders, control migration flows and intensify discrimination and prejudice against the ‘other’. Queer migration scholarship has therefore maintained a critical approach to such forms of national queer liberalism, which risk marginalizing LGBTIQ+ refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers.

The aim of this special issue is to unpack the tenuous relationship between politics of queer liberalisms and securitization within contested political contexts in the Global South and North by thinking about the ways in which the precarity of ‘marginal mobility’ (Kalčić et. al. 2013) for LGBTIQ+ persons on the move is produced within different (trans-)national contexts. Focusing on the changing mobility dynamics for LGBTIQ+ people on the move in the aftermath of pivotal recent events such as the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015-16, Trump’s presidency and the rise of authoritarianism worldwide, the contributions in this special issue examine the interconnectedness of queer mobilities across and within different geographical contexts.

In so doing, we ask: How has the contentious terrain between political queer liberalisms, the racialization of borders, and (im)migration politics and policies changed? What effects did the recent developments in LGBTIQ+ human rights discourses have on migration and asylum politics, representations and policies? What types of new marginal mobilities have emerged and how can we rethink theoretical and methodological frameworks to these different types of mobility?

To answer these questions, this special issue brings into conversation queer migration scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds (anthropology, political science, sociology, security studies) whose work critically interrogates the many ways those transnational events transformed asylum and migration politics and policies and engages new analytical approaches to better address emerging issues and challenges facing LGBTIQ+ people on the move. In centralizing ‘marginal mobility’ as a concept – nationally and transnationally – this special issue aims to expand the purview of mobilities to include not only border-crossing (United States, Mexico, Germany), but also questions of migration and displacement within a given nation-state (United States) and mobilities within contexts that are often marginalized in academic research on queerness and migration, such as Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. Furthermore, the special issue foregrounds trans and non-binary migrants and refugees’ experiences of marginal mobility, thereby simultaneously challenging the often cis-homocentric and Eurocentric perspectives and views that continue to dominate queer migration scholarship.

For instance, Eithne Luibheid (University of Arizona) and Samuel Ritholz (Oxford University) explore the way in which queer persons in the United States, and particularly those with precarious immigration status, experience marginalization by means of anti-gay and anti-trans legislations, anti-immigration attitudes and policies, the carceral state as well as within families and communities. The papers authored by Fadi Saleh (University of Göttingen) and Razan Ghazzawi (University of Sussex) explore the experiences of Syrian LGBTQI+ persons on the move in the context of the UNHCR-led asylum selection process in Turkey and in the context of the Syrian and Palestinian diaspora in Beirut, Lebanon, respectively.

Martha Balaguera (University of Toronto) and myself are looking at asylum processes as a sexualized system and discuss them as gendered processes that shape LGBTQI+ persons’ experiences seeking asylum and waiting in Mexico and the United States (Balaguera) and Germany (Tschalaer). Ailsa Winton’s (independent researcher) paper takes us to Central America where she examines the manner in which labour precarity shapes mobility of trans women. Meanwhile, the paper authored by Anna Carastathis and Myrto Tsilimpounidi (Feminist Autonomous Center for Research, Athens, Greece) homes in on the question of representation in humanitarian discourse and imagery which, they argue, by and large rely on and portray a heteronormative understanding of vulnerability and pain. Lastly Bridget Anderson (University of Bristol) concludes the Special Issue with an afterword that offers some thoughts on what we can learn from queering the intersection of asylum, citizenship and ‘internal’ mobility.

If you want to get a glimpse into the themes and topics this special issue addresses before its launching in Spring 2022, we warmly invite you to join us for our Queer Liberalisms and Marginal Mobility interview series. This will take place every Friday in April 2021 from 5-6pm GMT (12-1pm EDT). The series is a collaboration between the Barnard Digital Humanities Center and the Barnard Center for Research on Women at Columbia University, the Queer European Asylum Network and Migration Mobilities Bristol.

Mengia Tschalaer is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Political Science at City University of New York and an Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. 

Charting mobilities, intellectual histories and the Black Humanities

By Madhu Krishnan.

The October 2018 issue of the Chimurenga Chronic, originally a quarterly (and now occasional) broadsheet produced by the Cape Town based Chimurenga collective, opens with a two-page spread titled ‘The African Imagination of a Borderless World’ . This title piece is comprised of two texts placed in juxtaposition. The first, a map titled On Circulations and the African Imagination of a Borderless World’, serves as an ad hoc depiction of intellectual, cultural and political networks that spread across the globe, encompassing the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia, tracing the movement of thought, ideas and anticipatory projections of the world across shifting pan-African movements over time. Here, for instance, it is possible to watch as mid-century Pan-Africanism flows into Congolese rhumba, in turn flowing into the post-Bandung Afro-Asian movement, then Marxism, then Cultural Studies and the work of Stuart Hall.

Front cover of the Chronic, October 2018

Accompanying this is a second text, titled ‘The Idea of a Borderless World’ by Achille Mbembe. Here, Mbembe sets his aims – aims which serve as an echo of the rest of the issue – in plain terms, stating his desire ‘to see whether and under what conditions we could re-engineer the utopia of a borderless world, and by extension, a borderless world, since, as far as I know, Africa is part of the world. And the world is part of Africa’. For Mbembe, as for the Chronic more broadly, this attempt, to see and to imagine and, by so doing, to return Africa to its place in the world, of the world and as the world, cannot be decoupled from its longer histories.

These histories are well known: the pillaging of the continent and expropriation of its resources; the colonial interruption; the long-term impact of enslavement and the trafficking of enslaved persons; the parcelling out of the continent amongst imperial powers in Berlin; forced migration, displacement and brain drain. Perhaps less known is the extent to which Africa’s intellectual resources, too, have been blighted by their exploitation under multinational capital and neoliberalisation, including the patenting by pharmaceutical corporations of traditional practices, and sometimes farcical attempts to monetise culture (best characterised, perhaps, by Disney registering to trademark the expression ‘hakuna matata’, a phrase which, incidentally, no Kiswahili speaker would actually say). In sum, as the South African critic Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni argues, the continent’s place in the world can be characterized by its marginalization under the three faces of coloniality: the coloniality of power, the coloniality of knowledge and the coloniality of being.

And yet, there are other ways of conceiving of the continent beyond the commonly-held deficit view, even while recognising the material injustices that it has survived. It is precisely this task that the October 2018 issue of the Chronic partakes in, constituting an intellectual history and cartography of the world from an African centre of origin. Borders, boundaries and entrapments: the trappings of coloniality, on the one hand; versus networks, circulation and flow: the concept of the boundary, the border, not as immutable, impenetrable, but as permeable, evolving and in flux, a radically decolonial mode of knowledge production, on the other. This is a task made all the more urgent given how, as Sylvia Tamale reminds us, ‘colonial intellectualism deliberately denigrated Indigenous oral traditions and wisdom as illegitimate methodologies and tools of storing records’, enabling the perpetuation of the myth of African peoples as outside of history, outside of the world, static and fixed.

The editors of the Chronic position the October 2018 issue as ‘part of an ever growing library that re-images our world beyond so-called progressive discourse on “freedom of movement” and “no borders” against the backdrop of deeply Western individualist thinking’. In this respect, ‘The African Imagination of a Borderless World’ is an exemplar of the kinds of intellectual production that undergirds the larger project of the Black Humanities. This line of intellectual recuperation is one that relies, moreover, on the reconfiguration of the borders and boundaries that are perceived as absolute. By re-constituting an archive of knowledge(s), movements and circulations of understanding, which have been effaced under coloniality, the Chronic participates in the effort to make visible the temporalities, genealogies and modalities that have always arisen from the intellectual and cultural labour of Black and African peoples. This is a kind of knowledge production that travels and is characterised by mobilities and circulations, which defy the rigid topographies of colonialism/coloniality in favour of an ungovernable vision of space and time that is, all the same, productive of a logic of its own.

The Chronic thus provides one small example of the ways in which cultural study and the Black Humanities can offer us ways of understanding intellectual histories and intellectual mappings whose own movements might be unexpected, unorthodox or function outside of the typical boundaries of the academy. Projects like the Chronic, which is one amongst many instances of independent cultural and intellectual production from the African continent and its diasporas, illustrate the urgency of transversal approaches to the archive, to bibliography and to our concept of the library more widely. At the same time, these projects are not merely abstract: to return to Mbembe’s ‘The Idea of a Borderless World’, they speak directly to the African continent’s place in the world and the world’s place within it, with all of the material impact that may have.

Madhu Krishnan is Professor of African, World and Comparative Literature in the Department of English, and Director of the Centre for Black Humanities, University of Bristol.

The front cover of the October 2018 issue of the Chimurenga Chronic is published here with permission of the Chimurenga collective.


Deporting Black Britons: mobility and race-making in the life stories of criminalised ‘deportees’

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

By Luke de Noronha.

My recently published book, Deporting Black Britons: Portraits of Deportation to Jamaica (2020, Manchester University Press), traces the life stories of people who have been exiled from their homes in Britain. The four men who feature most prominently in the book all moved to the UK as children, and lived here for half their lives before being deported. Now in Jamaica, where I met them, they struggle to rebuild and to survive. Importantly, they were all deported because of criminal convictions. Clearly, the deportation of criminalised black men raises urgent questions about the relationship between racism and immigration control in contemporary Britain.

In the book, I try to move beyond arguments that say immigration controls are racist because they are enforced in racially discriminatory ways. More than this, the very terrain in which racial difference becomes meaningful is thoroughly structured by immigration restriction and the legal borders of citizenship. In other words, immigration and citizenship policies work to nationalise and racialise the population and its ‘culture’, defining the nation as a ‘community of value’ through the exclusion of what it is not. Bordering practices do not merely reflect racial hierarchies, then, they (re)make them, and this matters when we try to evaluate what ‘race’ has to do with migration. 

To think in complex ways about the relationship between ‘race’ and migration, I have found it useful to think about mobility – or more precisely differential (im)mobilities, following Mimi Sheller. It bears repeating that racial difference is not reducible to skin colour. Skin colour is not the cause of racial difference but one of its markers, and skin colour difference is made meaningful, and weighed down, by the reality of material inequalities between differently racialised people. These material differences are not only about wealth, but also correspond to who can move, how and with what effects. Thought this way, the government of mobility is central to the processes through which racial categories are produced and reconfigured, given life and social meaning in the present. This does not mean that ‘race’ and mobility are directly correlated. It is not as if those who cannot move are necessarily black, or that those who can are necessarily white, but it does mean that racialised social relations are substantially constituted by relations of mobility.

In my conversations with the men in this book, it became clear that the racialisation of black people in Britain is constituted by the policing of mobility. What are incessant stop and searches, and wider police harassment, for example, if not the surveillance and policing of (black) mobility? In the book, this emerges most sharply in relation to Ricardo’s story, who between the ages of 15 and 18 was harassed almost whenever he left the house, arrested countless times and detained in police stations, always without being charged. As a teenager without a criminal record, he had a personal officer visit him at home, every day, to check up on him. And because of his apparent ‘anti-social behaviour’, and his repeated arrests for robbery, his movements and associations were restricted. The terms of his anti-social behaviour order (ASBO) stated that he could not go to certain areas, especially places where he had been arrested, like West Bromwich town centre in the West Midlands. There were also buses he could not take because the route went through areas he was banned from, and the police gave him a printed map with highlighted pen marking the areas he could and could not enter, the streets he could and could not walk down.

In Jamaica, too, what it means to be black, or to be from ‘the ghetto’, or to be a Jamaican citizen in the world are all constituted by relations of mobility. The distinctions between black, brown and white in Jamaica, and between local and tourist, would not hold for long, or in the same ways, if the organisation of mobility shifted, and if different groups were afforded greater or lesser access to mobility. If Jamaica’s economy was governed not to export single commodities or package tourism, but to nurture liveable lives and ecologies on the island, then racialised social hierarchies would be transformed along with relations of mobility. If, somehow, the majority of black Jamaicans were able to move freely around the planet, not to toil as disposable migrant labour but simply to wander and travel, then it is hard to imagine that they would describe racism and historical injustice in quite the same way. What makes slavery so resonant for so many Jamaicans today is material hardship in the context of restricted mobility and global marginality.

These historical resonances and continuities are important. However, to talk about contemporary relations of mobility in terms of ‘sufferation’ and the afterlives of slavery should not imply that nothing has changed. The point is that ‘race’ is both deeply sedimented and historically emergent, both persistent and mercurial, heavy and yet slick. The challenge is therefore to work out how racial distinctions and hierarchies are made and remade. The relevant point here is that if racial distinctions and hierarchies are always constituted by differential (im)mobilities, then contemporary modes of governing mobility offer a window onto historically specific configurations of race and racism.

As such, it is not simply that the same groups are being immobilised in the same ways and for the same reasons. It remains true that blackness is constituted by particularly violent forms of enforced (im)mobility, but there is also something emergent and new about the contemporary government of mobility. Bordering practices perpetuate colonial inequalities, but they also produce new forms of racial differentiation and injustice – think about the refugee camp, the bordering of the seas and the implementation of enormous biometric databases, for example, and in the UK context think about new policing powers in the context of Covid, and new technologies of identification and surveillance targeting ‘migrants’ and ‘criminals’ (see Stop and Scan, facial recognition, and the Law Enforcement Data Service).

As economic and ecological crises deepen, and increasing numbers of the global poor are deemed surplus to requirements, the demand for bordering everywhere intensifies. In this context, the racist world order gets reconfigured with terrifying consequences, both familiar and novel. For Achille Mbembe, the contemporary border presents a worrying sign of where the world is going, and therefore anti-racism, as the struggle for liveable futures, will increasingly have to contend with bordering practices. This means theorising racism not only in terms of the legacies of European colonialism but also in relation to the present and future of the border.

Luke de Noronha is a Lecturer in Race, Ethnicity and Postcolonial Studies at the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Racism and Racialisation, University College London. He is the author of ‘Deporting Black Britons: Portraits of Deportation to Jamaica’, and producer of the podcast Deportation Discs.

Deporting Black Britons is available from Manchester University Press. To receive 30% off, use the discount code ‘Deporting30’ at checkout.

Moving difference: Brazilians in London

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

By Angelo Martins Junior.

Portuguese version here.

The freedom to move from place to place is a privilege in today’s world, and so ideas about human mobility and human difference are necessarily interwoven. When white people from the global north move around the world they are typically imagined as tourists, gap-year students, business travellers, expatriates and so on, whereas black and brown people from the global south are thought of as ‘migrants’. Their migrancy – the fact that they have moved – is taken to define them, and they are also frequently represented as homogeneous groups. Academics, as well as policymakers, politicians and journalists, often speak of ‘South Asian migrants’ or ‘asylum-seekers’, for example, as though they constitute one, undifferentiated group of people.

Much has been said about how this tendency to homogenise ‘migrants’ connects to racist stereotyping by anti-migrant thinkers (‘They’ are all criminals and rapists, for example). But amongst those who hold a more positive view of migration, it can be associated with more exoticizing stereotypes. In migration scholarship this has sometimes translated into assumptions about ‘migrant communities’ as bound together by a shared experience of movement or common homeland, acting in solidarity to support one another in the country of destination.

(Image: Routledge)

As a Brazilian working and then studying in London, I was struck by the fact that the academic literature that emphasises commonality and solidarity amongst migrants did not speak to my own experience. This observation prompted the research on Brazilians in London on which my book Moving Difference is based. The research involved ethnographic and interview research with men and women who, whilst all being ‘Brazilian migrants in London’, differed in terms of the regions of Brazil they came from, their socio-economic and educational background, and their racialised identities. Their difference moved with them, shaping not only their reasons for migrating and how they navigate different levels of opportunity and constraint to move, but also the ways in which they see and interact with each other in London. However, Britain has its own social and political hierarchies, and in London, my research participants found themselves not only lumped together as ‘Brazilians’ but also lumped in with global south ‘migrants’ in general.

Moving geographically ruptured the racial privilege of many lighter skinned and white middle-class Brazilians, who had never previously felt it possible that they would be perceived as a de-valued inferior Other, as a ‘social problem’. For them, being positioned as a ‘migrant’ implied the possibility of experiencing classed, ‘racial’ and social degradation. Now they had to negotiate their position on two matrices of difference – one ‘here’ in Britain and one ‘there’ in Brazil. While some did reflect critically on these hierarchies and express political solidarity with other migrants, many of my research participants responded by seeking to distance themselves from stigmatised identities ‘here’ and stressing their superior position ‘there’. They were not the real ‘migrants’, they told me, not poor, uneducated, low skilled, ‘illegal’, promiscuous, or criminal like the other Brazilians in London. They did not wish to live amongst the ‘Brazilian community’ in areas of London where real migrants live but rather in areas where there are just ‘beautiful [in other words, white] people speaking English on the street’, where ‘everything is clean and you don’t see rubbish on the floor, or a bunch of ugly, smelly people that make you feel you are in Africa, not in Europe’.

Moving Difference documents the ways in which Brazilians in London negotiate and recreate difference in terms of class, region, gender, ‘race’, ‘culture’ and documental status and examines the connected histories and social imaginaries of ‘race’ and degradation that allow us to make sense of the very visceral racial, classed, gendered and regional disgust expressed by my Brazilian research participants (especially white and lighter skinned middle-class participants) when speaking of their co-nationals and of other migrants and their ‘spaces’. Although their disgust is expressed ‘here’, in London, the feeling has its origins in the colonial presence of Europeans and enslaved Africans ‘there’, in Brazil – a past hat has historically shaped Brazilian projects of ‘race’ and nation as well as continuing to inflect the lives of Brazilians in London today.

After abolition in 1888 Brazil embarked on a whitening project – influenced by eugenic racial assumptions – which incentivised European immigration as way to ‘civilise’ the new nation by ‘improving’ its mixed ‘blood’. This new population of European (and Japanese) migrants was concentrated almost entirely in the south and south-east of Brazil, regions that, since independence, had acquired the central position in the national economy, especially with the production of coffee and, later, industrialisation. At the same time, without access to land or any form of state compensation, an entire class of black and ‘mixed’ people – the formerly enslaved and their descendants – as well as lighter-skinned poor Brazilians (often from the Northeast) have been marginalised both in the configuration of urban space and in the labour market, dealing with daily exclusion, discrimination, degradation and state violence.

Living as ‘sub-citizens’ in the urban poor peripheries and/or slums of the southern cities, they have been used by the middle class and the elite as a cheap, precarious labour force to undertake the most ‘unqualified’ activities – ‘dirty’ and ‘heavy’ activities for men and domestic and sexual labour for women. They are socially imagined as repulsive bodies, blamed by the middle-class and the elite for Brazil’s supposed failure to become fully developed/modern/civilised, and often executed on the streets by the police. As a way to deal with such historical exclusion, Brazilians constantly negotiate racism through hierarchies of colour/hair and class positioning, attempting to distance themselves from any trace of Blackness/poverty that could lead to their identification as a ‘degraded body’.

Today, Brazil’s colonial and racial histories play an important role both in generating the desire to travel and determining whether and how journeys are undertaken. While many Brazilians believe that moving to London will allow them to achieve the material and cultural ideals of a ‘modern’ Western lifestyle that is impossible to attain in ‘not fully modern’ Brazil, the lighter-skinned descendants of European participants in Brazil’s whitening project enjoy greater freedom of movement in Europe and so find it much easier to realise their ambition to move to London. But once in the UK, they find themselves realigned in the constellation of ideas about race, modernity and human worth in such a way as to stand precariously close to those who are socially imagined as disgusting, degraded, uncivilised. Meanwhile, darker skinned/black and working-class Brazilians who do manage to move to London come to perceive that their physical mobility (previously imagined as a straightforward marker of progress and privilege) also carries the threat of social and racial immobilisation: they might be fixed ‘here’ in ways that they are not rigidly contained ‘there’.

Taking the configuration of the social world as a continuum, made of connections, ambivalences and paradoxes, Moving Difference offers a lens on how the global mobile present is connected to the global legacies of the colonial past. The lives of Brazilians in London shed light on how ‘here’ and ‘there’, ‘present’ and ‘past’, are always entwined – creating and recreating racialised inequalities and difference, including unequal access to the privilege of mobility.

Angelo Martins Junior is a Research Associate in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. He is working on the ERC research project ‘Modern Marronage: the pursuit and practice of freedom in the contemporary world’. 

You can purchase Moving Difference: Brazilians in London through the publisher, Routledge, or through your local, independent bookseller.

National sovereignty and postcolonial racism

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


By Nandita Sharma.

A focus on migration, mobility and ideas of ‘race’ are crucial aspects of nationalist thought and practice. Indeed, today, racism operates through nationalism. Yet, while racism has been largely delegitimised, nationalism has not. The delegitimisation of racism does not mean that it no longer exists. Quite the contrary: racism continues to deform our lives but is not, for the main part, carried out through laws that categorise people into distinct ‘races’ who are singled out for negative, discriminatory treatment. It is common for most people espousing racist views and actions to run away from the label ‘racist’ and, instead, to insist that they are anything but.

Case in point: early on in his presidency, former-US President Donald Trump, in response to questions posed by ITV host Piers Morgan, argued that, ‘I’m the least racist person anybody is going to meet.’ Trump insisted upon this in reference to his re-tweeting of three videos made by a group called Britain First in November 2017. Britain First, whose name is congruent with Trump’s own slogan of ‘America First’, is a fascist political organisation formed in 2011 by former members of the British National Party. Their motto, ‘Britain First: Taking Our Country Back’, is largely aimed at legitimising the violent targeting Muslims living in the UK, many of whom are British citizens. As the Washington Post reported, ‘in the case of these three videos, the intended message seems to be that “Muslims are dangerous people.” But these videos appeared to be selected at random, offered without context or original sourcing, and are months, if not years, old. They depict people who may or may not be Muslim, inflicting harm on people who also may or may not be Muslim.’ It added, ‘this is what propaganda looks like.’

In Britain First’s and Trump’s own ‘America First’ rhetoric, as well as in all its other manifestations, what grounds racism is nationalism. Nationalism spatialises and territorialises ideas of ‘race’ by transforming the land (and water and air) that provides the basis of people’s ability to live into the territory of a nationally sovereign state. While state practices of territorialising land is an integral part of what states do (even when the territory is not always clearly mapped out), nationalism fuels claims that there exists some sort of natural link between a specified group of people (i.e. The People) and a certain specified place. Consequently, each ‘nation’ imagines that it has its own place on earth.

(Image: Duke University Press)

In Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants (2020), I investigate how the current political order of nation-states institutionalises the notion that each ‘people’ has its own place in the world by limiting access to national citizenship and authorised immigration.

This national regime of governmentality, which I term the Postcolonial New World Order, co-opted radical anti-colonial demands and replaced them with demands for national sovereignty. Calls for ‘national self-determination’, I argue, perverted demands for the return of expropriated land and for the freedom of labour from exploitative class relations. Instead of decolonisation, people got the postcolonial rule of nation-states. Nationally sovereign states have not only continued the work of imperial-states to organise the global accumulation of capital, their policies (both ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’) have led to the enormous expansion of such practices. Since the start of the Postcolonial New World Order, more people and more land (and air and water) have been brought into capitalist social relations than ever before. Hardly an inch of our world has been spared. Under the rule of postcolonialism, disparities between the rich and the poor – and between Rich and Poor Worlds – have intensified.

In the Postcolonial New World Order, the national mechanism of limiting rights and entitlements according to one’s citizenship and immigration status not only organises racism but also legitimises it. We live in a system of global apartheid, one that rarely codifies ‘race’ in the law but relies instead on ideas of the ‘right’ of national sovereigns to determine membership in the national political community. There is very little outcry of this legislated system of discrimination and injustice even though, as economist Branko Milanovic (2015) points out, one’s nationality is the single-most consequential factor in predicting how well and for how long one lives. In this postcolonial world of nation-states, who gets to be a ‘national’ – and who does not – is therefore an important and hotly contested site of political struggle. In this sense, anti-immigration politics is a structural component of the Postcolonial New World Order and it takes many guises.

Today, across the world and across the Left-Right political spectrum, nationalism is hardening. For a growing number of people and polities, it is not enough for one to be a citizen (even as citizenship becomes more difficult to obtain or even to keep); one must also be seen to be a member of the Native people of the nationalised ‘soil’. By mobilising a discourse of autochthony (or native-ness), today’s National-Natives contrast themselves against allochthons (or people from someplace else). Because of their association with mobility, the figure of the Migrant becomes the quintessential non-Native and is portrayed as being ‘out of place’. Mobility is not really the issue as people can be made into Migrants regardless of whether they have ever left the nationalised territory under question. What matters is the racist idea of ‘blood’ (now sanitised through terms like ‘indigeneity’ or ‘ancestorship’ or ‘genealogy’). Across the world of nation-states, disputes over land, water, jobs, voting rights, political office and more are being fought over who is and is not a National-Native.

We can see this in the politics of Britain First or America First. Britain First is a political party whose ‘principles’ include a commitment: ‘to preserving our British cultural heritage, traditions, customs and values.’ These, they believe are under threat by ‘immigrants’ (many of whom are, in fact, co-British citizens). Britain First views immigration to be the ‘colonisation of our homeland’, which weakens the Christian ‘foundation of our society and culture.’ A large part of Britain First’s activities appears to be ‘mosque invasions’ where, under the banner of ‘no more mosques’, ‘they confront imams and worshippers, insisting they accept copies of army-issue bibles.’

But it is not only on the far-right that we see such politics. The legal and/or social separation of National-Natives and Migrants animates deadly conflicts around the world from what is widely seen as the world’s latest genocide in Myanmar (formerly Burma) to one of the best-studied examples of recent genocides, the 1994 Rwanda genocide. In both nation-states, the violence is instituted by those constituting themselves as National-Natives fighting threats to ‘national society’ by ‘colonising Migrants.’ In less lethal but still highly consequential fashion, the nationalist politics of autochthony is evident in struggles over who is and is not a member of ‘Indigenous Nations’ in Canada and the US.

Yet, however much nationalists proclaim that whoever they see as their members are ‘equal,’ nowhere is this true. Nevertheless, the nationalist myth that, ‘we are all in it together’ remains the cross-class rationale for national sovereignty. Because there needs to be some reason that ‘we’ members of the ‘nation’ remain unequal, nationalisms rely on racism and sexism to mark those who are said to be the cause of all national miseries. Nationalists maintain that ‘we’ would all be well-off were it not for outsiders ruining ‘our nation’. This is what gives constant life to evermore vociferous anti-migrant policies.

Nandita Sharma is an activist scholar and Professor at the Sociology Department at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. She was invited to be a Benjamin Meaker Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Bristol in 2020 but postponed the position due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

You can purchase Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants through the publisher, Duke University Press, or through your local, independent bookseller. In the US, Bookshop is a good alternative to Amazon.

MMB good reads on race, nation and migration

A new blog series reframing thinking on movement and racism.

Introduced by Julia O’Connell Davidson and Bridget Anderson.

Not so long ago, many liberal thinkers in countries of the global north were comfortable narrating the story of liberal societies as a romance in which enlightened heroes gradually overcame the forces of barbarism. It was a tale with an emotionally satisfying ‘happily ever after’ ending. But over the past decade, a series of developments and events have seemingly broken with the ending foretold by this version of the story of liberalism. Rather than reflecting a vision of liberal democracies as having evolved into progressive, prosperous, tolerant, stable, unified and safe nations, news feeds in Europe and North America have increasingly presented a picture of chaos and division: neo-Nazis on the march, thousands of migrants and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean and Aegean, many more in squalid makeshift camps in Europe, children in cages at the US-Mexico border, Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, dwindling trust in democratic institutions, the COVID-19 pandemic, the brutal police murder of George Floyd, and the list could go on.

Mural in Roma Sur, Mexico City (image: Alejandro Cartagena on Unsplash).

As a result, many Europeans and North Americans now have a sense that liberal democratic societies are ‘in crisis’. Race and migration figure prominently in political and media debate on this ‘crisis’, but the relationship between the two is contested. Indeed, the idea that popular and political anxieties about migration have anything to do with race is seen as controversial by mainstream thinkers. Those who make the connection are often said to be misrepresenting and seeking to suppress ‘legitimate concerns’ about migration, namely, the kind of concerns that led in 2019 to the European Commission vice president in charge of migration and skilled labour being given the job title ‘protecting our European way of life’. But the relationship is complicated, even for scholars and activists working on questions of migration and mobility who wish to address, rather than sidestep or deny it.

This series of MMB good reads on race, nation and migration features blog posts by the authors of books we believe can contribute to framing our thinking on the relationship between these subjects. It is not a complete or definitive reading list (we hope to add to it over time), but it highlights some works that:

  • theorise the centrality of racialised mobility controls to the current political order of nation states and their ‘people’ (Nandita Sharma, Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants [2020], Radhika Mongia, Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State [2018], Luke de Noronha, Deporting Black Britons: Portraits of Deportation to Jamaica [2020]);
  • explore the intersections of gender and race, and public and private, in the discourses and practices through which ‘citizens’ and ‘Others’ are produced (Rachel Humphris, Home-Land: Romanian Roma, Domestic Spaces and the State [2019], Denise Noble, Decolonizing and Feminizing Freedom: A Caribbean Genealogy [2020]);
  • remind us that histories of colonialism mean that in many cases ‘migrants’ were differently positioned in social hierarchies of class and race before they moved, and their differences move with them (Angelo Martins Junior, Moving Difference: Brazilians in London [2020]);
  • question the idea that there is anything novel about the current ‘crisis’ and associated articulations of racist anti-migrant sentiment and policy (Maya Goodfellow, Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats [2019], Nicholas De Genova, The Borders of ‘Europe’: Autonomy of Migration, Tactics of Bordering [2017], Nadine El-Enany, (B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire [2020]).

Our reading list also includes works that, even though they do not directly engage with migration, we think could help hone analyses of the relationship between race and migration, namely, the theoretical lens on racial liberalism provided by Charles Mills in Black Rights/White Wrongs (2017), and that on race, space, place and belonging offered by Nirmal Puwar in Space Invaders (2004).

We hope you’ll find the blogs, and the books, as illuminating as we do.

Julia O’Connell Davidson is Professor in Social Research in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. She is MMB’s Anti-Racism Strategic Lead and is currently leading the ERC-funded research project ‘Modern Marronage? The Pursuit and Practice of Freedom in the Contemporary World.’


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


Collective learning in the struggle for migrant justice

A guest blog by Akram Salhab from Migrants Organise.

Last week, the British media began a discussion that revealed the extent to which a hatred of migrants now dominates the national agenda. In the midst of a coronavirus pandemic with hundreds dying every day and Britain leading the world in mortality and infection rates, the BBC began discussing whether or not, at some future date, Britain should consider closing its borders to countries with low vaccination rates.

This discussion highlights the function that attacks on migrants serve within the strategies of Britain’s elite: the identification of a mythical enemy to justify brutal politics and to draw anger away from those responsible for the poverty and failing public services now endemic in Britain. The response to this by certain individuals and organisations of a progressive mindset has been to put out an alternative narrative in the media by attempting to replace dehumanization with stories of integration, positive community relations and solidarity. But can this alone really adequately confront the enormous swing to the right that Britain is undergoing? Given the extent to which the rot has set in in public discourse, attitudes and policies, what realistically would it take to overturn the current status quo?

The migrant justice movement

In approaching these questions we need not start from scratch. In a previous generation, migrants and ‘BAME’ communities were confronted with a British state that, having brought them into the country, then decided they were surplus to the labour requirements of the country’s manufacturing. The acceleration of anti-migrant legislation from the 1960s onwards, paralleled by the rise of the far-right in the streets, was aimed at limiting numbers of migrants and creating violent, hostile conditions for those already living here in order to encourage them to leave. Then, as now, migrants provided an easy scapegoat for a government wreaking havoc on all working-class communities. 

To these divisive and inhumane policies, communities in Britain responded in remarkable and innovative ways. Black self-help initiatives were established related to every part of community life, self-defence committees responding to attacks by the far-right were set up and, in the absence of a trade union movement willing to take up their cause, migrant/black communities established their own workers associations that went on strike and won significant victories. All this took place against a backdrop of global anti-colonial struggle that connected struggles at home with those taking place globally. The varied modes of organising, the different models and approaches put forward, and the unification of very different struggles within broad coalitions, joint action and ad hoc committees provide a wealth of ideas for how to organise to confront our current dilemmas. 

Members of Migrants Organise and other supporters protest against the enforcement of in-person reporting for asylum seekers by the Home Office during the national lockdown, 2020 (image: Migrants Organise)

The most obvious lesson is that, given the current balance of forces, only the organisation of communities in the form of a movement can muster the power necessary to confront existing challenges, and achieve dignity and justice. Such a movement would need to address two central issues: how to build popular organisations with a presence in communities; and how to unite these organisations – together with associations, unions and justice campaigns – in common action.  

Efforts are already underway through the creation of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM) Charter, which articulates the demands and principles to guide a migrant justice movement. The Charter’s ideas were manifested in a recent nationwide mobilisation, in October 2020, under the banner of Solidarity Knows No Borders with events held in more than 20 locations around the country. A recent video from the weekend of action documents the moves being made towards the creation of a wider migrant justice movement.

Although this is a positive start, it is only a beginning. An effective movement can only emerge once urgent questions of justice and organisational approach are understood and debated collectively. These issues are complex and require the engagement of a large range of migrant rights organisations, community groups, activists, racial justice campaigns, trade unions and progressive politicians. We need to think seriously about how to overcome the divisions between us and build a unified movement. 

Solidarity knows no borders

To support this process, Migrants Organise has initiated the webinar series ‘Solidarity Knows No Borders’, which will run from January to April this year. The first session, ‘The Power of the Migrant Vote’, looked at the role of migrant communities in the recent US elections. Organisers from the US spoke about the long-term, grassroots community organising that built the base from which states such as Arizona and Georgia swung in favour of the Democratic Party. 

The next webinar, The Struggle for Migrant and Racial Justice in Britain: Lessons from History, is on 18th February at 6pm and will look at examples from migrant and BAME organising that are relevant to present political work. Everybody is welcome to join this and future events in the series. If you have ideas for other webinars please get in touch.

Akram Salhab is the Advocacy and Campaigns Officer at Migrants Organise, a platform where refugees and migrants organise for power, dignity and justice.


Spaces of connection – MMB in 2021

By Bridget Anderson

As we cross a temporal border – seeing out the old year and welcoming in the new – we look back and forwards. This New Year we look back over COVID-19 and we look forwards over both Brexit, now (allegedly) done, and yet more COVID. 2020 saw huge changes for MMB and how we connect with you. We’ve moved all our output online, from increased blog posts to virtual workshops and seminars, to our two new online courses. Like many academics I have spent longer talking into my computer in the past nine months than in the previous nine years. I’ve adopted a range of video conferencing programmes, got better at chairing online meetings and hosted a number of online panel discussions. Data movement has substituted for physical presence.

This learning has been very much about means of connection, but what about spaces of connection? In a recent short piece for the feminist journal Signs, Miriam Ticktin, a member of MMB’s Transoceanic Mobilities Network, argues that COVID has rendered human connections to be perceived and experienced as dangerous, privileging as ‘safe spaces’ the home and the nation. But for many people home and nation can be highly dangerous. Several MMB blogs in recent months have discussed the horrific rise in domestic violence and the continuing deportation and abandonment of people at borders and in detention centres. Ticktin seeks out emergent spaces of connection in the ‘feminist commons’ and suggests: ‘The question then is not how to isolate ourselves – our vital connective tissue with one another and the planet has been revealed by Covid19 in a whole new way – but which forms of connection to attend to and cultivate; and which ones to be careful of or replace.’

There are also forms of connection that we need to repair and recover, particularly in the context of the Brexit-induced friction that has turned mobile citizens into migrants. For those of us interested in migration and mobility, this exemplifies how the separation of citizens and migrants is political (and often racialised) and invariably obscures multiple and complex connections. COVID can help us think about these in new ways. Balibar (2002) famously observed that borders are ‘polysemic’ – they do not have the same meaning for everyone. UK citizens are accustomed to a version of the polysemic that enables relatively free global access for them – and highly restricted access for non-citizens to UK territory. Yet in December 2020 UK nationals themselves were subject to international travel bans, not because of Brexit (though that swiftly followed) but because of a highly virulent form of the virus. At the same time, the polysemic nature of borders is also revealed in the UK government’s quarantine exemptions for incoming travellers, which include hedge fund managers, senior bankers and senior executives involved in high value deals. While some people pass through borders, others are stopped.

COVID has also exposed internal borders that, for most UK residents had previously been invisible. Who would have thought this time last year that the Scottish and Welsh Governments would have forbidden cross border travel from England? We are being given crash courses too in local authority boundaries, previously barely noticed (turnout for local elections runs at about 35%). These boundaries have been given new meaning through the Tier system, which demarcates what level of restrictions residents are subject to according to their local authority.

For many people, then, it has taken COVID to realise how borders crisscross our lives. But for others this is old news. Administrative boundaries crossed unknowingly by millions every day are only too well known to those on state benefits and the homeless. In England, homeless people who do not have a connection to one local authority can be told they have to go to another for housing and the procedures and guidelines for doing so may also cover cross border issues in relation to Scotland and Wales. In the Netherlands, social assistance claimants can be sanctioned a month’s worth of benefit if they move without a ‘clear and good reason’ (Knijn and Hiah, 2019). In Turkey, some recipients of disability and elderly allowance cannot even move to a different street in the same district – if they do, social assistance is withdrawn for months. In Hungary, social housing claimants have to prove residence for a year in a local area, while in Portugal job seekers can be required to check in at the parish council every two weeks in order to confirm unemployment status. The boundaries internal to Europe – between EU member states – and internal to the British state – between its constituent countries, between London and outside, between different local authorities – afflict and are made visible to the homeless citizen and the welfare claimant, just as the state border afflicts and is made visible to the non-citizen.

COVID exposes this to all of us and, importantly, some citizens are policed more harshly during the pandemic than others. Black Lives Matter has foregrounded the violence meted out to Black people in the ‘wrong’ spaces, citizens or not. In the report Policing the Pandemic, Amnesty International found that across Europe, Black and ethnic minority people are disproportionately targeted by police with violence, discriminatory identity checks, fines and forced quarantines.

MMB is interested in making connections – between different disciplines and areas of scholarship, between theory and practice and across migrants and citizens, policy-makers, activists and academics. This is where we find the sparks that make us think in new and meaningful ways. In 2021 we will be making more spaces for these connections to grow – from online forums to communal gardens. Come and join us!

Bridget Anderson is Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship at the University of Bristol and Director of MMB.

Images by Jordan Graff, Marco Bianchetti and Eutah Mizushima on Unsplash.

Does it matter that the UK relies on migrant workers to harvest food?

By Lydia Medland.

In the recent launch of the new migration research project MigResHub, agricultural labour economist Professor Philip Martin stated that he saw the future of farming in the USA as reliant on ‘machines and migrants, buffered by imports’. This is indeed the direction in which commercial agriculture is going. However, we don’t need to accept this trajectory. It means relegating agricultural work to the bottom of the pile for good and accepting as a given that people don’t want to pick fruit (when they have other options). This is not necessarily true, at least in the UK.

My new project on risk and resilience looks at work in horticulture, where much seasonal labour is required, so I want to focus particularly on the ‘migrants’ part of Martin’s triple prognosis for the future of the food system. Yet, the dominance of both machines and imports in the food security debate makes them important to comment on too.

Lang reasons that, due to Britain’s imperial past, we are used to assuming that other countries will feed us, but he argues that we should be wary of doing so for security as well as sustainability reasons. As I found in my last project, Moroccan workers producing food for Europe’s imports experience pressures such as low wages, a lack of respect and intense time pressures. Put simply, they face the same patterns of pressures as farmworkers within the UK. A reliance on imports therefore displaces social and environmental challenges to other places.

A mechanical engineer with an agricultural robot (image: This is Engineering on Flickr)

Machines have always reduced labour in agriculture, which makes food cheaper but not always better. This direction of travel, spearheaded most recently by proponents of AI and robotics, is at least partially self-propelled by those involved in producing ever bigger and more sophisticated machinery. Huge increases in research funding for automatisation contribute to an industry that has established a narrative of erasure of the majority of workers from agriculture in food systems. (Searching in the UK Research and Innovation Gateway for projects involving the terms ‘robot, agriculture, food and labour’ brings up 1,169 relevant research projects funded in 2019, compared with fewer than five a year between 2000 and 2005.)

The public debate over agriculture and migration has intensified in recent years. While farmers call for large numbers of temporary seasonal workers, nationalist sentiment keeps up pressure for tight restrictions on migration across the board. In addition, discomfort regarding working conditions plays on the conscience of consumers. This mix of concerns appears related to the haste towards robotisation. Government and industry specialists are now charmed by ‘agricultural modernisation’ (robotics and AI) and characterise temporary worker migration as a short-term fix before the mechanical hands are ready to pick. In 2018, Michael Gove re-introduced the UK’s temporary migration programme by saying that ‘… automated harvesting solutions are not universally available and so in the short term, this pilot will support farmers during peak production periods.’ Migration as a short-term fix is a convenient discourse, but insufficient. Not every task is easily mechanised, and while machines work best on large flat lands, the UK has many smaller hilly fields.

Temporary worker permits in agriculture are not new. We could say that the seasonal agricultural workers, who came to Britain at the end of the Second World War, took over from the Women’s Land Army. There is also a longer continuity of drawing on those at the periphery of the workforce for seasonal labour. In earlier times, Irish workers and Travellers were among those who met labour demands at peak times. What is common to all these temporary workers is their position in the labour market, which is low.

The seasonal agricultural workers scheme (SAWS) is the UK’s temporary migration programme; it began as a volunteer scheme after the war and became SAWS in 1990. Access to the EU labour market led to its closure in 2014 as policy makers argued that freedom of movement made SAWS unnecessary. However, this ending turned out to be temporary. Following the Brexit vote in 2016, farmers feared, and began to experience, a lack of access to willing workers. A ‘pilot’ SAWS was launched again in 2018, initially with quotas of just 2,500 workers, which has been increased to 10,000 workers from 2020 onwards. The continuity of demand is clear.

Migrant workers harvest leeks in Lincolnshire, UK (image: John M on Geograph)

Rather than just focusing on SAWS or migrant workers we also need to consider agricultural work itself. The prognosis of machines, migrants and imports takes as a given that workers, given full access to a diverse labour market, will not choose to work in agriculture. Yet, could this be more about the agricultural model than any naturalised preference of workers? Intensive production systems are indeed unattractive to many as a career choice, especially if you don’t own the land.

Nevertheless, many people are interested in producing food. In the UK, demand for allotments has quadrupled in recent years, and growing at home boomed under lockdown. This year, record numbers of non-migrants signed up to pick fruit during the COVID-19 pandemic, and while many didn’t end up on the farm, or didn’t last long, this shows an interest in the work. Perhaps for those that dropped out it isn’t them who should be blamed, but rather the system. Some large UK farms are now described as ‘plantations’, with monocultures that require absolute obedience from both nature and worker. Rejecting this kind of workplace regime – which only became dominant after a squeeze on farms from retailers in the 1990s – doesn’t mean people don’t want to grow food at all.

The growing Land Workers Alliance, representing sustainable growers and farmers, is testament to the increasing interest among young people. So too is the LION (Land In Our Names) movement of black people and people of colour gathering to access land for sustainable projects in the UK. These movements are challenging assumptions about who can be a grower, and a farmer. If opportunities are provided for this to become decent and sufficiently paid work, an able, diverse and motivated workforce may just be available.

Does it matter that the UK relies on migrant workers? I think it’s more important that we don’t naturalise the assumption that only migrants do farm work. The ‘Pick for Britain’ campaign set up early in the pandemic had the benefit of reconnecting British people with the idea (and for some the reality) that we too can pick fruit. As people rallied to feed the nation, it’s just possible that the public became more aware of the essential nature of this work. Alongside machines and imports, it’s possible to aspire to a future in which migrants and non-migrants choose jobs that bring in the harvest – and that they are supported to do so.

Lydia Medland is a Senior Research Associate in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. She currently has a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship to study risk and resilience in the UK’s changing food system. She writes regularly on her blog, Eating Research.

Related MMB blogs include ‘Disposable workers, essential work: migrant farmworkers during the COVID pandemic’ by Manoj Dias-Abey.