Maritime mobility and literary culture: ‘Hamlet’ off the coast of Sierra Leone

By Laurence Publicover.

In 1607 three East India Company (EIC) ships set off on the company’s third voyage, aiming to break into the lucrative spice trade dominated by Portugal for the previous century. As the first to reach mainland India, this voyage has clear significance for histories of globalization and English (later British) imperialism. But it is also of interest to literary historians, as it provided the occasion for the first recorded performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Or at least, it might have done – the documentary evidence leaves plenty of room for doubt. In any case, this (possible) performance of Hamlet off the coast of what we now call Sierra Leone, perhaps before an African audience, is good to think with. It might, for example, prompt us to consider how Shakespeare’s works became both a tool for imperialism – his plays have found a prominent place in colonial curricula, including in India – and a means by which colonial subjects could ‘speak back’ to the imperial centre through adaptation and reinterpretation. If Shakespeare is a global playwright, then it seems apt that the earliest performance record we have of Hamlet – perhaps his most important play – relates not to London, but to a voyage that helped shape global history.

All this is very enticing. But as someone who works across Shakespeare studies and oceanic studies, I am also interested in this episode for other reasons. To borrow Hamlet’s words, what might have been ‘the purpose of playing’ during an EIC voyage?

‘A fleet of East Indiamen at Sea’ by Nicholas Pocock, 1803 (image: Wikimedia Commons)

The idea that literary culture shapes maritime culture – and vice versa – sits at the heart of Shipboard Literary Cultures: Reading, Writing, and Performing at Sea, a volume of essays I have edited with the social historian Susann Liebich (University of Heidelberg). Currently in production at Palgrave Macmillan, the book examines the literary cultures of vessels ranging from a man-of-war anchored off the coast of Plymouth during the English Civil War (1642-51) to the container ships that traverse our oceans today. Individuals explored within specific chapters include anxious migrants on the three-month ‘Australia run’ from England, a young girl on her father’s whaleship, troops travelling from New Zealand to Europe to fight in the First World War, and American college students circumnavigating the globe aboard the ‘Floating University’ around a decade later.

Our contributors demonstrate how, in their various ways, these seafarers came to terms with their situation through ‘literary’ strategies: by putting on plays, producing newspapers or circulating reading materials as a way of building morale and a sense of community; and through private acts of reading and diary-writing that, among other things, helped maintain mental health and personal identity in the extraordinary circumstances occasioned by sea travel.

If mariners really did perform Hamlet off the coast of Sierra Leone in 1607, then this was not, in fact, the most significant way in which literary culture shaped the third EIC voyage. When floundering in mid-Atlantic and on the point of returning to England for fresh supplies, EIC officers decided instead to seek provisions on the West African coast after reading about Sierra Leone in Richard Hakluyt’s compendium of voyage narratives, The Principal Navigations (1589). What was this book – which includes narratives of mythical as well as actual voyages – doing on board? Did someone bring it along for just such an eventuality? Or was this the re-purposing of a book carried for other reasons?

Front page of The Principal Navigations by Richard Hakluyt (1589) (image: Wikimedia Commons)

If Hamlet was performed, then we must assume the seafarers were carrying a copy of the play, too: either the shorter 1603 version, or the longer 1604 version more familiar to us today. Was this copy similarly repurposed – carried as personal reading material, but transformed into a performance text when the need arose? And what was that need, exactly?

Some scholars have argued that the performance of Hamlet was designed to establish closer relations with the rulers of what was, for the EIC, a strategic stopping-off point on the journey around Africa. Given that plays were often performed before ambassadors in early modern London, this certainly seems feasible. But it is also possible that Hamlet was staged for the benefit of the English crew: as more than one contributor to Shipboard Literary Cultures argues, theatrical performance at sea could provide a welcome distraction – even a necessary release valve – for those cooped up together on a long voyage.

Over the next year I will be advising on The Hamlet Voyage, a project developed by the director Ben Prusiner that considers the wider resonances of the EIC voyage. The play, which is being written by Rex Obano and features puppetry directed by the Delhi-based Anurupa Roy, will be performed aboard The Matthew – a replica of the ship in which John Cabot crossed the Atlantic in 1497 – at the 2022 Bristol Harbour Festival.

We are interested in how the 1607 voyage points forward to the British colonization of India; we wish also to explore the fact that, only a few decades earlier, an English ship had carried enslaved people from Sierra Leone to the Caribbean (this was the voyage read about in The Principal Navigations). Sierra Leone was later to become a key node in the triangular trade.

In these ways, then, the 1607 voyage asks us to reflect on the history and the legacy of British imperialism. But it also asks us to think about the wider experience of crossing oceans. What is it like to head towards an unknown destination, losing sight of land for weeks at a time? What, in such circumstances, might help us assuage our fear, or our boredom? What might help us build relationships with those sharing our experience? What might help maintain a connection with home?

Different conditions of voyaging will, of course, determine the answers to these questions. But across different centuries, cultures and vessel types, literary activity – and perhaps especially communal performance – has helped people cope with the hardships and perils of maritime mobility. Studying the records of such activities can help us imagine the experiences of those who crossed oceans in the past; and in turn, it may help us overcome the ‘seablindess’ that – alongside other factors – prevents us from thinking about those who cross them today.

Laurence Publicover is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Bristol and the MMB Graduate Studies Strategic Lead. His research focuses on Shakespeare and other English Renaissance dramatists and on the relations between humans and oceans. Shipboard Literary Cultures: Reading, Writing, and Performing at Sea is forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan.

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.

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.


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.