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 it 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.

From imperial sugar to golden passports: the Citizenship Industry

By Sarah Kunz.

In a surprising turn of events, September 2020 saw the end of Malta’s citizenship-by-investment (CBI) programme and its conversion into a residence-by-investment (RBI) scheme. CBI schemes allow the acquisition of citizenship regardless of regular naturalisation criteria, such as residence or language skills, in return for a payment to a government fund or a real estate purchase. Similarly, RBI programmes – or ‘golden visas’ – offer residence permits for money. So-called ‘investment migration’ is among the most significant innovations in recent migration policy and in my research I argue that residence and citizenship-by-investment (RCBI) schemes, and the highly privileged migrations they produce, need to become more central to discussions about migration. Research also needs to overcome nation-state centric frameworks to recognise RCBI as the product of a booming transnational industry: the Citizenship Industry.

The decision to wind down Malta’s CBI programme came after years of controversy on the island. The programme was criticised not only by the opposition Nationalist Party but also by Malta’s most famous journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose assassination in 2017 sent shockwaves across Europe and eventually caused Prime Minister Joseph Muscat – who launched Malta’s CBI scheme in 2013 and was its staunchest defender – to step down. The decision to phase out Malta’s CBI scheme also decided the country’s on-going skirmish with the EU, which has opposed CBI schemes for years due to concerns over foreign security, money-laundering, tax evasion and corruption.

Valletta, Malta. In September the country’s citizenship-by-investment programme was converted into a residence-by-investment scheme (image: Needpix.com)

While Cyprus, Malta and Bulgaria are the only EU-members to run CBI programmes, RBI is much more widespread and similarly prone to political controversy. This might be best exemplified by the UK’s Tier 1 ‘Investor Visa’. In 2011, while also rolling out its ‘hostile environment’, Theresa May’s Home office redesigned Britain’s RBI programme to introduce a fast track for the super-rich and relax residency requirements. Four years later, Transparency International discovered a loophole which meant that between 2008 and 2015 3,000 applicants – the majority from high corruption risk jurisdictions like Russia and China – were granted visas without checks on the source of their wealth.

While European RCBI schemes have been getting more media and scholarly attention, the story of CBI actually began in the Caribbean. Saint Kitts and Nevis has been credited with devising the first CBI programme upon gaining independence from Britain in 1983. Yet, as a small and poor island state economically dependent on sugar exports – a relic from its days as the British Empire’s prime sugar plantation – few applicants made use of the provision. This changed in 2006. Its ailing sugar industry had just received a deadly blow from the EU slashing its import price for sugar when the country started working with Henley & Partners, a British immigration advisory firm, to develop a new commodity: citizenship. The country’s revamped CBI programme offered ‘citizenship customers’ limited disclosure of financial information, no taxes on income or capital gains, and, from 2009, visa-free travel to the Schengen area. It became an immediate success.

Crucially, the story of RCBI involves a cast of corporate actors who design, run and promote RCBI schemes – what I call the Citizenship Industry. After working with St. Kitts and Nevis, Henley & Partners helped other Caribbean governments to develop CBI programmes, making the Eastern Caribbean as famous for its citizenship as the Western Caribbean is for offshore financial services. The firm then advised Cyprus and helped design Malta’s CBI legislation, effectively bringing the Caribbean CBI model to Europe. In many ways, the Caribbean has been a laboratory for new models of political belonging that are fast having a global impact. Corporations have been key to this development: effectively creating, skilfully expanding and arguably dominating the global citizenship market. Since its relatively recent origins, investment migration has developed into a USD 3 billion global industry and thousands of service providers now stretch in a ‘golden visa belt’ from East Asia across the Middle East to Europe. Yet, the emergence, shape and role of the Citizenship Industry remains poorly understood and under-theorised.

The rise of RCBI programmes has not only been marked by political controversy. It has also raised some fundamental questions about the fairness of selling citizenship and its broader socio-economic and political impact. Advocates of RCBI argue that it brings much-needed economic activity, human capital gains, and substantial government revenue to small economies. RCBI is said to have enabled countries to diversify their economies and better respond to catastrophes, including global financial crises, hurricanes, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Critics, like Shachar (2018), raise troubling questions about how RCBI advances the encroachment of market forces into the political arena and warn that the commodification of citizenship will impact the institution of citizenship as such. This is an especially pertinent point as the sale of citizenship seems to also hasten the institutionalisation of citizenship revocation, as exemplified by Cyprus’s 2020 laws.

There is also on-going debate about the impact of RCBI on social inequality. Here, Shachar (2018:4) finds ‘the hollowing out of the “status, rights, and identity” components of citizenship’ and Džankic (2014:402), notes that investor programmes ‘infringe upon the liberal ideas of democracy’ and allow wealth and social class to disrupt equality of membership. Kochenov (2014), in turn, takes a global perspective in defence of RCBI, arguing that it allows individuals to overcome the inherent unfairness of international border regimes that limit the movement and life chances of many based solely on the randomness of their birth country. Citizenship, then, not only works to enact equality within states but is also, as Boatcă (2016:15) argues, ‘a core mechanism for the maintenance of global inequalities’ and, moreover, ‘the basis on which the reproduction of these inequalities is being enacted in the postcolonial present’.

Whatever our assessment of investment migration, the phenomenon is here to stay. While Malta’s liaison with CBI might have ended, RBI has become a standard feature of many states’ visa offerings and countries as diverse as Jordan, Moldova, Montenegro, Slovenia, Turkey and Vanuatu have either implemented CBI or plan to do so. There is an urgent need to better understand this trend and to explore the growing role corporate actors play in shaping the organisation and meaning of investment migration. Additionally, we need to make sense of this arguably exceptional ‘liberalisation’ of citizenship in the context of the broader ‘restrictive turn’ (Shachar 2018) in migration policy and its associated proliferation of borders, the preventable deaths of thousands at those borders, and the surge of right-wing populism all over the world.

Dr Sarah Kunz is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol. Her research focuses on privileged migration, the politics of migration categories, and the relationship between mobility, coloniality and racism. In her current project, she looks at investment migration with a focus on the Citizenship Industry. Read more here.

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Somatic shifts: the politics of movement in the time of COVID

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.

By Victoria Hattam.

Dispatch from Brooklyn, NY.
September 2020

COVID-19 has returned questions of migration and mobility to the centre of politics by upending the distribution of mobility privileges. Who is allowed – or required – to move is changing; many are trying to assess the consequences of such reorderings. I want to extend discussions of the virus by turning our eye from migration and mobility to movement of another kind. Under COVID-19, mobility for many has become less about getting from here to there; less about journeys of one kind or another; less about the movement of things: trade, finance capital, and cross-border production. As Shannon Mattern and others have shown, the virus is pushing the boundaries of mobility by demanding that smaller, differently located shifts be included in any assessment of virus significance. If we remain alert to the possibilities, perhaps the virus can open migration and mobility studies to somatic shifts and in so doing expand the political stakes of the present moment.

The virus has ricocheted through the somatic: distance, stance, breath, fluids, air flows, droplets, spittle have taken on new importance. There is a new awareness of the bodily everyday. What is especially interesting is the malleability of bodily actions; within weeks of hearing that the virus had arrived, and without any visual evidence that it was here, how one walked, talked, moved and stood changed. Space is now of the essence. Give a wide birth. I have been surprised at how quickly quotidian ways of being have shifted. What once seemed entrenched social forms have altered in relatively short order. If bodily actions can change so quickly, maybe habitus is not so fixed after all. Political possibilities open up as well.

Lining up for the Food Co-op, Park Slope, Brooklyn (image: Victoria Hattam, August 2020)

The somatic shifts underway have reminded me of Alan Kaprow’s experimental projects from the 60’s and 70’s. Fluids (1967) and Echo-ology (1975) come to mind. When I was co-teaching the ‘Political Sensorium’ with the late Ann Snitow, New York artist/researcher Robert Sember came to class and enacted one of Kaprow’s ‘Happenings’. It was a simple yet amazingly powerful action – deeply political in ways that resonate for me with the virus now.

The protocols went as follows: Everyone stands in a circle. One person has a teaspoon filled with water. The teaspoon is passed from one person to the next moving around the circle. Once the spoon has been passed all the way around, it changes direction and the spoon is passed back to the beginning. Once completed, the person left holding the spoon swallows the water. The whole action takes no more then 5-10 minutes – depending on the size of the group.

When Sember drank the water, a gasp filled the room. I understood expropriation in a way that I had not before. The visceral political. Disbelief, injustice, outrage followed. What amazed me in the Kaprow action, and what echoes now, was the speed with which I and other participants invested in the care of the water and collectively were outraged by its demise. Within the few minutes that it took to complete the action, we had identified collectively with the spoon’s contents – the careful passing of the spoon from one person to another had created a sense of affective investment in the water. The testament to the identifications generated was revealed by the shock that accompanied the arbitrary consumption of our newly created charge. A cycle of identification and resistance occurred within minutes not years.

Spoon filled with water (image: Victoria Hattam, Brooklyn, New York, August 2020)

Living in the time of COVID-19 has shifted somatic presumptions in powerful ways, changing the terrain of the bodily political.

Kaprow was certainly not the only one to push the envelope with such experimental work: John Cage, Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, Daniel Goode, Fluxus, The Motherfuckers, the Cockettes and many others drew attention to the somatic dimensions of the political through a variety of wide ranging projects.

Many experimental works carry with them a playfulness, a sense of pleasure and lightness of being that is captivating. But often, especially with Kaprow’s Happenings, there is a multi-vocality in which matters of power, futility and loss hover in the works as well. This more somber dimension to the Happenings adds to their salience now. Cage’s playfulness and infectious smile are complicated in Kaprow’s work. Constructing the ice ‘tomb’ that is left to melt, carrying buckets of water up stream in order to tip the water back into the river cast shadows over these collective endeavours. Perhaps a sense of mourning pervades Kaprow’s water actions as they were created not long after his two-year old daughter was killed by a car near their home in Glen Head, Long Island. (But one need not resort to such individualized motives; the power of Kaprow’s events often lay in their capacity to hold possibility and difficulty together.

This other register within Kaprow’s work, the more somber, futile, shadowy elements, echo in the time of COVID-19 when the virus reveals again the deep seated racial violence that constitutes the ground of US politics: infections, deaths and unemployment numbers all are structured by zip codes. The virus has ravaged unequally, exploiting longstanding economic and racial disparities in new ways. Pope L’s street crawls come to mind. In 1991, Pope L lay prone on the street, pot plant placed on the road in front of him, pushing it along the road inch by inch for hours. The Tompkins Square Crawl, as the action is known, was one of several such crawls that enact a powerful sense endurance and struggle.

Alternatively, we might follow Jill Richards into what she calls ‘The Fury Archives’ where movement is key, but takes less teleological forms. First wave feminism was powerful in Richards’ telling not for its end point, not for the retrospective ordering provided by the securing of women’s suffrage decades later. Any such ordering foreshortens the politics as it is happening. It is the long slog of action itself, the ‘long middle’ of small scale conflict without clear end, that Richards foregrounds. That unsettled, shuttling motion resonates now. Where the somatic shifts are taking us is by no means certain.

Under COVID-19 movement has neither ended nor disappeared. It has changed. Movement has moved to the everyday somatic. The political ramifications of somatic shifts are neither natural nor inevitable. They are in good measure ours to shape.

Victoria Hattam is Professor of Politics at The New School in New York City. She is a member of the Multiple Mobilities Research Cluster and of the Transoceanic Mobilities Network. Her current research focuses on US-Mexico border politics and the global political economy. For a recent writing see ‘Race Walls,’ in The Funambulist 31 (September–October 2020).

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Kept apart – couples and families separated by the UK immigration system

By Katharine Charsley

In the wake of the report into the Windrush scandal, in which Commonwealth citizens legally resident in the UK for decades were wrongly treated as irregular migrants and denied basic rights, Secretary of State Priti Patel has announced her intention to work towards a ‘fair, humane, compassionate and outward-looking Home Office’, which treats individuals as ‘people not cases’. There has been no sign, however, that the government is considering changing the UK’s family immigration rules, which routinely separate British citizens and long-term residents from their loved ones. Since 2012, the need to demonstrate earnings above a minimum income (set higher than the pay of around 40% of the UK working population), sky-high visa fees and other costs, an increasingly complex application process, and not infrequent errors in decision making (half of immigration appeals are upheld) have meant tens of thousands of couples and families have been kept apart.

Toddler on the phone to her father (image by Michael Grieve)

Over the past few months, I have been working with Reunite Families UK (a campaigning and support organisation), other local academics interested in the issue (Helena Wray at the University of Exeter and Emma Agusita at the University of the West of England), and Rissa Mohabir from the specialist organisation Trauma Awareness, on a project exploring the impact of this separation on British people with non-UK partners and/or families. Rissa facilitated a safe listening project bringing together members of Reunite Families UK to talk about their experiences of negotiating the family immigration system and living with immigration-related separation.

Rissa is more used to working with refugees and so was struck by the level of trauma in evidence in the initial project workshop: ‘The depth of feelings and isolation compounded by the prolonged application process, highlighted lesser known trauma responses of the participants.’ As well as the emotional impact of not being able to be with their loved ones, parents grappled with combining long hours of work to meet the minimum income requirements together with enforced single parenthood and children traumatised by the absence of the other parent. The uncertainty of how long separation would last, or indeed whether they would ever be reunited, could be torturous. Many participants described significant tolls on their mental and physical health. When life situations became difficult – through bereavement, health crises or political events overseas necessitating relocation – the inflexibility of the family immigration system compounded difficulties and trauma.

Our work together was interrupted by the COVID-19 crisis, meaning that instead of a second face-to-face workshop the project had to move online. Family separation became an experience shared by many in the UK during lockdown, but for participants still going through the immigration system, coronavirus and lockdown amplified challenges and uncertainties as partners were affected by travel bans. Reunite Families UK members also reported increased anxiety about the impact of lost income and service closures on their prospects of reuniting.

From the outset of the project we envisioned it being a creative process, using a model of co-creating prose-poems (or ‘narrative prose’) developed by Trauma Awareness in previous work with refugee women. Participants in the workshop were asked to bring an object with them which spoke to them about their experiences of separation. In the workshop, describing the relevance of the objects (which included a rejection letter, phones and huggable items to fend off loneliness) became one of several exercises used to elicit words and images, which then formed the basis of our work together.

Rissa and I compiled participants’ words into evocative prose-poems and word art, individual case studies were then added to provide more sustained personal accounts, and we also added information on the family immigration process for those coming to the topic for the first time. An illustrator, Michael Grieve, brought his personal experience of his wife’s visa rejection to developing illustrations for the project. Some were literal – a rejection letter, hugging a pillow in the absence of their partner –  whilst others were more metaphorical  – the unpredictability and complexity of the immigration process represented by a maze or a Visa World pinball machine (can you make enough to avoid heartbreak and rejection?).

Visa World pinball (image by Michael Grieve)

At each stage, we worked with the original participants in a to-and-fro process of co-creation, which saw the results expand from our original vision of a few prose-poems with illustrations, to a full-colour e-book that we hope will both bring the issue to wider attention and provide a resource for those affected by it.

Reunite Families UK launched the book online amid their renewed campaign to scrap the Minimum Income Requirement. An open letter to Boris Johnson has gathered more than 1,000 signatures (add yours here) from affected families, gaining celebrity support from Joanna Lumley and Neville Southall (whose Twitter followers will have found the striking images from the book appearing on their feed this summer!).

With Parliament just returned from summer recess, Reunite is sending copies of the e-book to MPs. Priti Patel will be getting a printed copy. We hope that she will find time to read it so that the new, more ‘compassionate’ and ‘humane’ Home Office approach will include recognition of the plight of separated bi-national couples and families. With the end of the Brexit transition period looming the alternative is stark: failure to reform the family immigration system will see thousands more separated in future as the immigration rules are extended to UK-EU couples and families seeking the simple right to live together.

View the multimedia e-book here (available as an interactive flipbook, downloadable pdf, or accessible Word document) and a Policy Bristol briefing paper here. You can also read more about the Kept Apart project on the Brigstow Institute website.

Kept Apart: Webinar and Book Launch is being held on 14th September, 6.30-8pm – please register on the Eventbrite page.

With thanks to members of Reunite Families UK, the Kept Apart team (Rissa Mohabir, Caroline Coombs, Paige Ballmi, Helena Wray and Emma Agusita) and Michael Grieve (illustrator), and to the Brigstow Institute (University of Bristol) for funding the project.

Katharine Charsley is Professor of Migration Studies at the University of Bristol.