Religious encounter and identity formation among international students  

By Lin Ma.

Studies of religion and migration tend to focus on how faith and beliefs travel with migrants, especially in the case of religions that are purposefully spread by their adherents. However, the story differs with my recent doctoral research on identities of Chinese international students who explore or convert to biblical evangelicalism in the UK.

International students stand out among other migrants for their chosen transient and temporary status. Unlike refugees – whose basic rights are often violated and institutionally denied – the choice of international students to migrate for educational purposes is often welcomed by host countries. Anglophone universities are among the oldest institutions to receive foreign students. And yet all international students are not equal, and some have more opportunities available to them than others. Of all these opportunities, why would Chinese international students favour a biblical, Christian identity in the UK?

(Image: Daniel Morton on Unsplash)

There has been growing awareness of the conversion of overseas Chinese people to Christianity. Since the 1980s, the number of Chinese Christians has increased steadily, along with the academic interest. In the US, where scholarship in this field first emerged, Fenggang Yang documented a ‘mass conversion’ of Chinese immigrants to Christianity. I was fascinated by this religious conversion of adults to a fundamentalist identity – one that they alleged to be more important than all others. More intriguingly, exposed to the same setting, why do some convert but others not?

Based in the UK, I did not observe a ‘mass’ conversion of Chinese to Christianity but rather the influence of colonial legacies in drawing people towards this church. Hong Kong Chinese are the backbone of established ethnic Chinese congregations in the UK, with active but separate evangelical outreach programmes aimed at Mandarin-speaking Chinese students and students-turned professionals.

To reach these international students, British evangelical Christians actively present their church as a way of accessing British culture, practising English and integrating into local communities (Ma 2021). Such depictions are especially appealing to Chinese international students whose participation in local society is compromised by their linguistic and cultural differences. Consequently, even though Christian proselytisers want to evangelise indiscriminately, they are much more likely to succeed with particular types of international students. 

The UK has been seen as ‘exceptionally secular’ in comparison with the ‘exceptionally religious’ US (Berger et al. 2008) but to the Chinese, the white-majority Anglophone culture of both overrides their religious differences. As I have recently shown (Ma 2021), two thirds of the Chinese students I surveyed when they had just arrived in the UK had thought that ‘Britain is a Christian country’ and that ‘Most British people are Christians’. Indeed, such perceptions were shared by those Chinese students who sought out and participated in local Christian settings.

Most of the Chinese international students I spoke to or interviewed came from the People’s Republic of China, where Christianity has never been coupled with politics as it has been in the West. Nor has China had a good record of human rights and religious freedom. Nonetheless, none of the students saw themselves as victims of limited religious choice before coming to the UK. Some had had a Christian upbringing or prior Christian encounters, but all insisted that they only became true believers after they came to study in Britain.

Following six months of multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork at biblical, evangelical settings – including churches and faith-based organisations on and around university campuses in the UK – I recruited over 30 Chinese students for life-story interviews. Half of the students were self-identified Christian converts, and half were not converted. Had those who converted been seeking to become religious in the first place? Or how did their educational mobility to the UK intensify a search for this faith?

It became clear that in China students are taught that the cultural core of the West is Christianity. This is especially reflected by students majoring in globally oriented subjects – such as English language and literature, international business and cultural studies. As such, they were encouraged by their Chinese tutors and seniors to learn about Christianity. Is this an Asian construct of the West? Evidence suggests that within the religious landscape in the West, a Christian hegemony succeeded in defining Western culture this way, and that the image was accepted by those outside. My research found that contemporary encounters between different peoples continue to reflect this legacy.

The presence of these nonconverts in evangelical settings suggests that these Christian spaces provide more for overseas Chinese students than just religious support. In the context of a ‘white’ Anglophone university where not all international students have an equal footing, the Christian organisations have helped Chinese students settle into their British surroundings. All of my interviewees acknowledged the kindness, care and conversational space that Christians had provided for them. Their subjective sense of crisis often accompanied their intellectual interest in the Western culture core. In addition to attending language and culture events tailored for international students, their requests at the prayer sessions frequently unveiled their struggle to fit in, to belong, and to deal with an unfamiliar academic environment. Prayer content ranged from dealing with mentors who neglected their emails to loan agencies’ delayed responses, which could jeopardise their visa status.

When local Christian support addressed students’ requests, it was linked to the theological belief in a divinely ordained intervention. Such experience gave strength to those who had felt disempowered following their migration to the UK. Their intense desire for a just, omnipotent being to oversee their lives reflected the moments of helplessness they experienced in the UK when injustices – such as personal and institutional racism – were directed towards them. For converts, the power and love of a supreme being made them feel valued and validated, something they struggled for in the higher education context.

My research sits across studies of religion, migration and internationalised higher education. Within religious studies it challenges the crude secularisation thesis that, in modern society, people walk away from religion. It also challenges higher education studies that recognise the privileges of international students but do not consider universities as a place for cultivated religious identities, especially for those situated on the margin. Equally, migration studies, though acknowledging religious claims of migrants, shrink from a rigorous examination of how and why religious belief can become a significant part of the migration experience and shape the decisions that migrants make. In using a decolonial epistemology my thesis initiates a necessary conversation between these fields and unveils the liminal space in which individuals, with both their privileges and vulnerabilities, come to navigate new identities in the global arena.

Lin Ma is a Lecturer in Sociology at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol. Her doctoral research examines the role of Christianity in the globally constructed identities of Chinese international students in Britain.

Institutional encounters by non-citizens in the Nordic welfare state – a dialogue

By Valter Sandell-Maury and Liselott Sundbäck.

How is access to the Nordic welfare state services navigated and negotiated by non-citizens? What is the role of social workers and other street-level bureaucrats when delivering these services? As two PhD students exploring the contemporary welfare state regimes in Finland and Sweden, we ask how migration policy is created and delivered by social workers and other state employees on the ground. Our aim with this blogpost is to elaborate on emerging questions about the Nordic welfare states. We chose to write the post as a dialogue, highlighting the similarities and differences in our approaches. Valter comes from a social work stance and Liselott from a social policy one.

Valter: The Nordic welfare state model has been characterised as universalist and comprehensive. The residence-based model is widely understood as egalitarian in the sense that it does not overtly distinguish between citizens and legally residing non-citizens in terms of social welfare entitlements. However, obtaining legal status does not guarantee a secure position, as immigration law creates different legal statuses, some of which are precarious (Könönen 2018). This suggests that we need to go beyond the dichotomous understanding of inclusion and exclusion of non-citizens in the Nordic welfare state, and towards a graded understanding of the hierarchisation of rights. Goldring and Landolt (2013) picture the residence permit system as comprising ‘chutes and ladders’, where one can climb upwards towards a more secure position or slide downwards to illegality.

Liselott: Yes, I agree, and current migration research also discusses the neoliberal turns and welfare chauvinism within the Nordic welfare state (Keskinen 2016) and shows how bureaucratic violence (Näre 2020) is present in the everyday life of asylum seekers. Within Nordic migration policy accessing services and benefits requires numerous institutional encounters, institutional discourses and a certain form of dependency on the welfare system. Counselling, benefits and services are often tied to interaction with street-level bureaucrats (Lipsky 2010), such as personnel at the employment offices or municipal immigration offices. As Lipsky (2010) suggests, institutions carrying out street-level bureaucracy are to some extent structurally similar despite performing unrelated and diverse work task. It is the action and positioning of these street-level bureaucrats that I am trying to understand better in my research, as well as the trajectory, created through state migration policy, that leads to a form of dependency on both the institutions involved in ‘integration’ work and the actions and discretion of the street-level bureaucrat.

Valter: Social work research sheds light on what kind of challenges these encounters between undocumented migrants and social workers in the Nordic welfare state evoke (Cuadra 2018, Jönsson 2015, Nordling and Persdotter 2021). The tension between social work ethics, emphasizing social justice and equality, and undocumented migrants’ exclusion from social services and rights raises pressing questions about how social workers can assist undocumented clients who turn to social services when in need.

Meanwhile, less scholarly attention has been given to the kind of challenges that different legal statuses among non-citizens produces, as the type of legal status can affect their social entitlements. It is valuable to broaden the picture of how immigration law and controls create challenges for social work practice that go beyond the dichotomous understanding of legally residing non-citizens and undocumented migrants. We should look towards a critical inquiry of how the diversification of legal statuses affects social work practice, and how social workers both reproduce and challenge these inequalities.

Liselott: I believe that the study of institutional encounters as part of migration governance in the Nordic welfare states of Sweden and Finland can benefit from a particular focus on trust and distrust. We know that the level of trust in Nordic states is high among both citizens and recently arrived migrants (Andreasson, 2017; Bäck and Kestilä-Kekkonen 2019; Holmberg and Rothstein, 2020; Nannestad et al. 2013; Pitkänen et al. 2019) but we know little about how trust and distrust is experienced and shaped through what I call the series of institutional encounters present in the everyday life of forced migrants. Multiple institutional meetings are needed to access the welfare state, with regards to guidance, permits and benefits.

What interests me is both a top-down and bottom-up perspective of how trust is enacted in these encounters as narrated by the experiences of both young, forced migrants (as clients) and street-level bureaucrats (as representatives of institutions). In order to understand this better we have to scrutinise the shaping of trust from various angles, such as its characteristics, context, timing and power asymmetries.

While trust is a strong narrative for the Nordic welfare state, I would argue that the notion of trust is also a means of migration governance with street-level bureaucrats striving to create trust in order to steer the migrants towards ‘integration measures’ such as employment and education.

Valter: Likewise, we need to look closely at how social workers actually carry out their role on the ground. Critical social work scholarship has stressed that the ethical principles of social work should work as the guiding star of social work practice. This rallying cry for a de-politicisation of social work is, of course, important as it stresses that social work should stand with the precarious, the poor and the disadvantaged. However, the emphasis on the ethical principles of social work and the portrayal of social workers as social activists rather than street-level bureaucrats risks essentialising them as morally good or as activists by nature. But rather than just focusing on what social workers ‘should do’ (for a critique of social work see Maylea 2021), or how the ethical principles of social work should be followed in practice, it is also important to investigate how social workers use discretion in their work with migrants of precarious status in a way that might reproduce injustices.

Liselott: Exactly, that is also what I see in my research on trust and distrust: the positioning of the social worker, or other street-level bureaucrats, in using their discretion is crucial for trust shaping. Maynard-Moody and Musheno (2000) argue that the street-level bureaucrats’ work is characterised by a dichotomy – they are either an agent of the state or an agent of the citizen. But I would argue that it is much more dynamic than this, with their individual discretion playing a key role in how they position themselves between state and citizen or, when also including non-citizens, the individual. I elaborate on this in more detail in my research on street-level bureaucracy in Finland and Sweden.

So, what we argue is that in order to understand how migration policy is ‘made’ in the contemporary Nordic welfare state more focus needs to be put on the series of institutional encounters between social workers and migrants, and the actions of street-level bureaucrats.

Valter Sandell-Maury is a PhD candidate in social work at Malmö University in Sweden. He is affiliated with the Malmö Institute for Studies of Migration, Diversity and Welfare (MIM) at Malmö University and with The Centre for Research on Ethnic Relations and Nationalism (CEREN) at the University of Helsinki.

Liselott Sundbäck is a PhD student in social policy at Åbo Akademi University in Finland. Her research focuses on forced migration and institutional encounters in Finland and Sweden. She is also a short-term visiting PhD student at the Division of Migration, Ethnicity and Society (REMESO) in Sweden.

MMB works in collaboration with the Malmö Institute for Studies of Migration, Diversity and Welfare (MIM). During March-June 2022, MMB Director Bridget Anderson was based at MIM as the Malmö City Guest Professor in Migration Studies.

Image: Flags in Helsingborg by Lars Strandberg on Flickr.

Thinking about the positive value of free movement

By Chris Bertram.

One of the consequences of Brexit is that British people are more limited in their freedom of movement. Whereas previously they could travel, work, retire, settle in other European countries, today the default is that they can only visit the Schengen area for 90 days in any 180-day period and lack rights to work. EU citizens are similarly more limited in what they can do than before, though only with respect to the territory of the UK. (Irish citizens, being part of both the EU and a common travel areal with the UK, are uniquely privileged).

I mention these facts purely as an entrée to my main subject, which is to begin thinking about the positive value of free movement across borders, a topic that is little considered by political philosophers and theorists and is low down the agenda of many politicians, who are more concerned with keeping out the unwanted and security at the border than they are with the liberties of their own citizens to travel, settle, work elsewhere and to associate with people in other countries and of other nationalities than their own. I take it that all of these liberties are valuable to a person and enhance their autonomy for the same reason as the freedom to travel within a country’s borders is valuable.

(Image by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash)

When philosophers and political theorists write about free movement it is mainly in a negative, protective and instrumental register: people need the freedom to escape across borders, to get away from their persecutors or from grinding poverty and lack of opportunity. To be sure, these things are of the greatest importance and the fact that such freedom is denied and that people are penned into unjust regimes and poor lives is the worst aspect of our global mobility regime, but we need to make the positive case for free movement too.

The freedom of movement that mainly rich (and white) people enjoyed before 1914 — as later regretted by such figures as AJP Taylor and Stefan Zweig — was in part supported by the sense that such people had that they were entitled to go about their business without impertinent questioning and impediment from puffed-up officials. The situation today is almost the exact opposite, where border guards have almost unlimited rights to question people about their purposes and to detain and refuse them and where we all approach the passport check as the meekest of sheep, convinced that any sign of disrespect or recalcitrance might cost us our ability to enter a country and perhaps be marked on official records and surveillance systems to cause us problems for the future.

Sparing travellers from impertinent questioning is of small importance though compared to the positive benefits of free movement. Free movement also gives those who have no particular desire to live elsewhere the ability to visit and enjoy the natural and cultural heritage that belongs to humankind as a whole. Why should someone born in Burkina Faso be denied the opportunity ever to visit the Grand Canyon or to see the Mona Lisa, for example? The positive arguments for the value of free movement are going to be mainly about these autonomy-enhancing properties: it simply gives people a wider range of choices for how to make and shape their lives and frees them from the restricted menu that is available in their current location.

What are the counter-arguments going to be? I suspect there will be some who argue that we should hold back on pursuing free movement for some until we can achieve free movement for all. This was an argument put during the Brexit referendum by left-wing opponents of the EU who argued that European free movement is racist, since Europe permits free movement only to the predominantly white citizens of the European Economic Area and yet has a hard external border that keeps out Africans, Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans etc. Of course, the hard external border is wrong, but the idea that we should deny freedoms for some until we can achieve the same freedoms for all also seems unattractive, at least in some cases. So, for example, most states introduced universal male suffrage long before women got the vote, and it was always unjust that women were denied it, but should the earlier extension of the franchise have been resisted on the grounds of this injustice?

It may well be that there is a tension here, though, because when states reach reciprocal agreements to extend the free movement rights of their own citizens, such agreements could include clauses requiring greater control of the movement of people who are not citizens of either contracting state, co-operation on wider immigration control etc. If so, the free movement of some would be bought at the price of limiting the movement of others, and such clauses are both unjust and inimical to the wider aim of promoting free movement.

Freedom of movement also comes, potentially, at a cost to those already in the places that people choose to move to or visit. I’m thinking here not of the familiar arguments that immigrants are bad for wages or whatever (arguments I generally find unconvincing) but rather cases involving not settlement but visiting. If you live in Venice or Barcelona then a high volume of tourists, while welcome for the money they bring, can also make life unbearable in other respects. I think in cases like this the right answer probably lies not in banning people as such, but rather in planning and regulating movement so that everybody who wants to visit has the opportunity to do so, even if they might have to wait until a slot is available.

Other issues are going to include the environmental costs associated with mass travel. If we want to combine the autonomy-enhancing possibilities of free movement with a concern with the planet and greenhouse gas emissions, then we have to develop means of travel that impose low or no carbon costs. In other words, freedom of movement justly pursued, will have to be free movement that does not impose unfair costs on others. There is no good environmental rationale to stop people from walking, cycling or swimming across borders, but other means of transport will need pricing or rationing mechanisms so that travel doesn’t impose unfair costs on others.

There are also barriers to free movement that people, especially younger and able-bodied people, don’t think about all that much. As we grow older (or if we suffer from a disability) it becomes difficult to move or even to visit another country unless you can be reasonably assured that your health care needs will be met there in a way that will not bankrupt you. One of the features of the UK’s Brexit deal was to preserve some reciprocal arrangements on health care, but when people turn 70 the additional insurance they need can still be expensive and can limit the time that they are covered when abroad. So, if we want to promote access to free movement as a human good, then we also have to think about the kind of arrangements that permit those who are not young or able-bodied to travel elsewhere.

Chris Bertram is Emeritus Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at the University of Bristol. He is the author of ‘Do States Have the Right to Exclude Immigrants?’ (2018, Polity Press) and a regular contributor to the Crooked Timber blog.

This post was originally published on the Crooked Timber blog on 3rd April 2022.

Linking up public policy and research: the case of migration

By David Jepson

From the Policy, Politics and Practice blog series

How do public policy interventions come about and how are they delivered? What are the respective roles of researchers and those who design and deliver programmes including politicians, public officials, civic society and the media? I have thought about these questions for decades and there is no better area to explore them than migration.

In recent years, conflict, instability, economic inequality and a natural desire for people to seek better lives has continued to drive migration. The Syrian civil war, the Brexit referendum, post-COVID labour market shortages, conflict in Afghanistan, the crackdown in Hong Kong as well as the current appalling violence in Ukraine are just a few recent examples of events leading to further migration towards the UK. The media has heightened the visibility of this movement, which has in turn generated public policy responses at the national and local level – from both state and NGO sectors – within a pressurised and divisive framework.

In this context journalists produce emotive images of migrants, politicians express strong concern over figures so long as they’re in the headlines, and researchers write articles that are often too focused on methodology, too caveated and too long to be easily useable by policy makers and practitioners. Meanwhile local government and NGO providers deliver schemes that draw on past models in which outcomes can be easily quantified – funders tend to support programmes that can easily be measured. They often rely on a loosely researched evidence base that is supported by previous direct experience and anecdotal information. These drivers of media and politics have tested the policy development framework to the limit and beyond.

ACH, a social enterprise based in Bristol and the Midlands, takes a different approach by drawing on grassroots experience to inform research and policy development nationally and internationally. We offer resettlement and integration support for refugee and migrant communities through providing housing, careers advice training and support for migrant entrepreneurship. We reject a top-down perspective to ‘integration’ that prioritises assimilation and instead focus on individual aspiration. We work with around 3,000 people a year on the ground in Bristol, Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Coventry. We employ some 80 staff from a wide variety of backgrounds, many with direct lived experience of the migration and refugee system themselves. Our approach is always to deliver support that is tailored to the needs of different communities and individuals.

ACH’s resettlement and integration support model for refugee and migrant communities (image: ACH)

A specific example is the Migrant Business Support scheme, which aims to directly assist 500 none-EU migrant businesses in the West of England and West Midlands over a two-year period. Funders (in this case the EU) tend to monitor inputs and outputs rather than evaluate longer term impact. Migrant businesses can generate employment, income and social capital for communities otherwise excluded. However, there is often an a priori assumption that it is a good thing for individuals to set up their own business and become entrepreneurs – that it will always generate employment, income and social value for communities that need it. And there is an assumption that support will reduce the risks and enhance the success and social impact of these businesses. But is this the case?

Enterprise and entrepreneurship can certainly create opportunities for some, but such aspirations may also reflect barriers to other employment opportunities, forcing people into small business and self-employment. For businesses that are high risk or offer very low returns it may lead to greater precarity and put people’s housing, access to public services and even migration status in jeopardy. Enterprise ambitions among migrants may also reflect the need for self-employment status as a cost-saving device, bringing all the risks but few of the benefits of entrepreneurship. Of course, different cohorts of migrants have very different situations, which also need to be assessed. For example, the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, Hong Kong BNO, Afghan citizens and Ukrainian citizens all have diverse demographic characteristics, migration journeys and resettlement pathways. This will affect their means of business development.

The links ACH has developed over the past few years with Migration Mobilities Bristol (MMB) are an attempt to bridge this gap between research, policy development and delivery in order to help deliver business support and other schemes more effectively. For example, we have built an evaluation element into the Migrant Business Support programme led by Ann Singleton, MMB’s Policy Strategic Lead, and Udeni Salmon from the School for Policy Studies, which will generate an evaluation framework to go beyond the usual counting of inputs and outputs.

We have also organised a very successful online seminar series, chaired by MMB Director Bridget Anderson, which regularly attracts more than 60 participants. This has brought together researchers and a range of participants from local government and the community sector in a positive way. Our most recent event in April, for example, explored housing and migration by drawing on the experience of Alex Marsh, an expert on the housing market, Hannah Little from CRISIS, which is doing pioneering work in tackling homelessness, and ACH CEO Fuad Mahamed.

The ACH support team runs an arts and crafts session with their tenants (image: ACH)

Through MMB we have also been partners in the Everyday Integration project, led by Jon Fox and funded by the ESRC. This research has enabled thinking about precarity, which has reinforced our approach to migrant employment that ensures pathways into long-term and sustainable work. Working with the Big Issue we have jointly initiated action research with the Romanian Roma community in the UK, largely overlooked in narratives about equality. This project will especially focus on vulnerability to No Recourse to Public Funds and how this might be mitigated at the local level.

Finally, we are elaborating a research proposal on Polish and Romanian migrants with Magda Mogilnicka from the School of Sociology, Politics and International Relations, which could have major implications not only for social inclusion but also for the labour market. It raises issues about the relationship between people as economic actors and as citizens drawing on ACH experience and Magda’s previous research.

These are small but important steps to connect up cutting-edge research on migration with the development of policy and delivery of support to promote better lives. This needs to become an iterative and sustainable process beyond the ad hoc, yet valuable, activities we have undertaken so far. This will not only enhance the role of both researchers and practitioners but will also make more effective use of public money and, most importantly, improve the well-being of migrant communities who contribute so much to the city of Bristol.

David Jepson is a Director and Policy Adviser at ACH. His work relates to labour market and economic development opportunities for refugees and migrants, including building better links to employers, businesses and development organisations, as well as local authorities and other stakeholders.

Digital home working and its sustainability potential: human immobility and the mobilities of stuff

Special series on Migration, Mobilities and the Environment, in association with the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

By Chris Preist and Dale Southerton.

Despite the huge human and economic costs of the COVID pandemic, many commentators have observed that this disruption – or shock – to our resource-intensive daily lives could offer a catalyst for the great societal transformations necessary to meet the climate emergency.

Radical growth of home working is an oft-cited example. According to Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures 50% of those in employment did some work from home in April 2020. This mainstreaming of home working has been facilitated by the rapid appropriation of digital devices and services into our everyday lives. It has been accompanied by equally rapid development of cultural skills and competencies required to (collectively) use those devices and services in a satisfactory way. And has led to major adjustments in how we work but also how we shop, interact, use our homes, engage with our local communities, learn, care for others and so on.

Home working during the pandemic, March 2020 (image: Simon Evans on flickr)

The question is whether these shifts could lead to systemic environmental gains. Is it an environmental ‘good’ or ‘bad’? As ever with academics, our answer is ‘it’s not straightforward…’, but when viewed from a systemic perspective it does offer an opportunity to re-imagine sustainable ways of life.

When considering the environmental impacts of any technology or practice, understanding will be shaped by the scope of the analysis: what is considered inside the system being studied and what is ignored. A narrow scope, focused only on the technological parts of the system, makes it more straightforward to quantify the results (such as a ‘carbon footprint’ of something) but means missing out the broader implications – such as how any technology interacts with diverse social practices. One approach to this problem is to consider different scopes for analysis that address the direct, indirect and systemic impacts of a technology. We apply this framing to home working to consider some possibilities.

Direct impacts are the environmental costs of constructing, using and disposing of a technology. Engineering methods, such as life cycle assessment (LCA) (or more colloquially, ‘carbon footprinting’) can be used to model the technology’s life cycle, systematically collect the relevant data and then apportion the ‘environmental burden’ to the different applications of that technology. In the case of digital home working, this will include the impacts of manufacturing the equipment used and providing the electricity to keep it operational: both the home laptops and Wi-Fi, but also a share of the networking equipment used to connect workers with their offices and each other, and the data centres used to power the applications they use. Accounting for this ‘hidden materiality’, and the large consumption of energy used by data centres, has led to some fearing that the impacts of digital home working are substantial. Applying University of Bristol models developed for digital services to video conferencing suggests that the truth is somewhere between the two. A ballpark estimate for the climate impact of a one-hour video conference, for example, would be about 50-100g CO2e depending on the setup used – roughly equivalent to driving 400-800m in a typical family car. This suggests that we should not let concerns about the direct environmental impact of digital services put us off a move to home working.

Indirect impacts are the environmental costs of changing social practices related to the digital service. What do people stop doing? What do they start doing? Again, LCA can be used to quantify these – but only if one understands the nature of these changes. Social science insights are essential here, both to identify what changes to practice might occur, and to collect the data to quantify the extent to which they change across diverse populations.

In the case of home working, the most obvious changes to practice are reduction in travel to work and decreases in energy use within workplaces. These two factors will potentially be substantially larger than the direct impacts of technology use – but will be more variable and harder to predict across the population. Reductions in heating and lighting in the workplace were, it would appear, largely offset by rises of domestic energy use (Hook et al., 2020). The most dramatic potential environmental savings are from the sharp reduction in commuting, with the Department for Transport reporting a 60% reduction in private car usage during 2020 and a 90% decline in the use of public transport. But even here we must consider a range of related indirect effects of the apparent immobility of people. During the same period, we witnessed a huge increase in online shopping as people ordered their goods for home delivery. The ONS shows that online retail sales increased from just under 19% of total retail sales in November 2019 to almost 40% within a year. Groceries, clothing, household products and takeaway foods saw the largest growth.

The digital devices and services that allowed us to adapt so quickly to conditions of apparent human immobility also offered the technological affordances and cultural skills necessary for a commensurate growth in the circulation of goods, ordered online and delivered (often as individual items) to the homes of the immobile. Measuring these effects – especially if trying to capture the relative weighting of a trip to the shopping mall to purchase multiple items versus delivery of multiple individual items purchased online – would be necessary to estimate indirect impacts.

Systemic impacts consist of a huge range of elements that shape, and are shaped by, technologies and social practices. In the case of home working, we pick out three core elements: infrastructures, cultures, and modes of provision. To consider the impact and potential of home working we need to recognise the changing home to include the re-purposing of space for home offices and the technologies required, from the high tech (digital devices and networks) to the low tech (desks and storage). Local communities are also changing, and development of local service infrastructures to support mass home working (for example, the re-invention of the local high street) together with a corresponding decline of city-based office infrastructures will be required if home working is to be viable over the longer term. Each of these changes come with their own direct and indirect environmental impacts.

Cultural shifts must also be considered. Workplace cultures of presenteeism, long working hours, the status of private offices, and daily meetings are all challenged by home-working regimes. In addition, the rising use of digital platforms shows signs of fostering modes of provision through informal networks (such as familial and community based) that have, in recent history, been marginalised by the dominance of market modes of provision. Community sharing initiatives (such as food box schemes, local delivery hubs, community stores) coupled with the accumulating practical challenges of privately owned goods (as symbolised by the increasing percentage of domestic space devoted to storing seldomly used consumer goods and the decreasing use of expensive private cars) have been argued to indicate a shift towards collaborative consumption: the rejection of privately owned goods in favour of sharing (Southerton and Warde, forthcoming). While the direct and indirect environmental impacts of such systemic shifts are unknown, the potential to reduce the material flows of goods and reduce the impacts of human mobility are clear.

Thinking in terms of the systemic implications of home working – symbolised by the immobility of people and rising mobility of goods during COVID – is more important than only measuring direct and indirect impacts. As things stand, we are moving in the direction of ‘hybrid’ working, presumably on the grounds of a ‘best of both worlds’ assumption. From a systems level perspective there is a huge risk that we end up with two systems: workplaces and home working. Whether this ends up being the worst of both worlds, layering new resource-efficient systems over old resource-intensive systems, will largely depend on whether debates regarding the post-COVID world takes the opportunity to re-imagine and re-configure the systemic impacts of technology and human practice on the environment (Geels et al., 2015).

Chris Preist is Professor of Sustainability and Computer Systems at the University of Bristol. His research focuses on the environmental impact of digital technology and consumer electronic goods. Dale Southerton is Professor in Sociology of Consumption and Organisation at the University of Bristol. He studies consumption, its role in organising everyday lives and its significance in processes of societal change.

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

By Nandita Sharma.

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

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

Nicosia, 2019 (Image by Ittmust on flickr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cure or the cause? The impact of medical tourism on global health inequality

By Ella Barclay.

Migration motivated by the improvement of one’s health is not a new phenomenon. Nineteenth-century doctors around the world prescribed visits to foreign spas to improve wellbeing and London’s Harley Street was one of many internationally renowned centres for medical care. Despite this, there has been a recent boom in such movement, with individuals increasingly opting to access care beyond their state borders (Morgan, 2010). This phenomenon, termed ‘medical tourism’, has developed into a globalised industry, with states now viewing healthcare as a commercialised product. Various destinations have chosen to profit from this trend, even marketing themselves as ‘international healthcare capitals’ (Hanefeld et al., 2014). However, concerns have been raised regarding the actual value of this phenomenon, with many questioning whether this growing market is helping or hindering global equality.

Medical tourism as the cure

Contrary to the assumption that the healthcare industry thrives in economically developed countries, the rise of medical tourism has been described as a case of ‘reverse globalisation’ (Connell, 2013), shifting power and wealth back into less economically developed states (LEDCs). These destinations have embraced the commercialisation of international medical care, offering up affordable treatment to citizens of, typically, more economically developed states who wish to travel abroad for their procedures and simultaneously experience the tourist aspects of these ‘exotic’ destinations (Johnson et al., 2010). Funnelling large sums of their state budget into this sector, LEDCs have profited greatly from this phenomenon, with medical migrants contributing significantly to the medical and tourist sectors.

(Image: Annie Spratt on Unsplash)

The growth of this industry within LEDCs also counters the effects of ‘brain drain’, by creating jobs within the healthcare sector (Oberman, 2013). Where the mass migration of medically trained individuals to Western states was previously the norm, leading to labour shortages within native states, the rise of medical tourism in LEDCs has created many new healthcare centres, offering highly paid jobs to citizens (Cohen, 2011). This again boosts the state’s economy by allowing for a ‘return investment’ in their residents; the individuals who are trained within (and, therefore, funded by) the state remain within that territory to ‘give back’ to the economy. Here, one could argue that Western states will suffer from labour shortages as we heavily rely on this migrant workforce. However, as people increasingly seek treatment abroad, the strain on state resources will be simultaneously alleviated. Subsequently, the wait time for elective treatments within national systems will be reduced, thereby benefiting medical tourists and residents alike.

Lastly, with the growth of the global market for any commercialised good comes competition and innovation (Lee et al., 2011). Each state wants to offer the newest and best treatment to its high-paying customers, thereby continually funding medical research, technology development and infrastructure, to ensure they are the go-to medical tourist destination. This ongoing competitiveness has hastened medical advancements over the past two decades and greatly improved the quality of healthcare available globally.

Medical tourism as the cause

The novelty of this phenomenon means the medical tourism market is not well regulated. Although the quality of care provided by verified clinics is improving, there are no regulations in place to prevent unqualified and illegitimate clinics from targeting foreign patients. Defined by critics as ‘rogue medical tourism’ (Hunter and Oultram, 2010), individuals offer impossibly cheap treatments, exploiting the naivety and frugality of medical migrants by allowing non-medical staff to carry out procedures in unsanitary and inadequate surroundings. This aspect of medical tourism not only causes harm to the individual but also re-asserts the strain on their home healthcare system, as they will inevitably want to address any ‘botched’ treatments within their own country.

International clinics may also offer treatments that are illegal in other states, such as euthanasia or stem-cell research (Higginbotham, 2011). The availability of these treatments could be seen to enhance autonomy, however, there remains a question of where the line can be drawn concerning treatment that is seen as unethical in one state yet permitted and even promoted in another. Evidently, claims of ‘enhanced quality of healthcare globally’ by proponents of medical tourism are debatable.

Similarly, there is a question of whether this supposedly high-quality healthcare benefits all persons, or simply the elite few who can enjoy the luxury of medical tourism. Having recognised the potential economic value of this industry, state funding currently prioritises healthcare efforts that serve foreign, wealthy patients, as these yield a profit. More money is put into the development of the luxury provision of healthcare, than into the necessary provision of healthcare to impoverished persons; in an effort to harness the full potential of medical tourism, states are neglecting the wellbeing of their own citizens (Bookman and Bookman, 2007). Not only are these individuals denied access to this high-quality care due to their inability to pay, but they also lack basic health rights, such as access to sanitation and clean water, highlighting the need to invest in this lower sector of care provision, not de-fund it. This constitutes a ‘dual medical system’, in which the standard of care available is dependent on one’s socioeconomic status, thereby increasing healthcare inequalities within the state (Manna et al., 2020). Although medical tourism may reverse the effects of globalisation by placing wealth back in the hands of LEDCs, on a national scale the growth of this industry makes the disadvantaged worse off. Claims that this phenomenon is benefiting LEDCs when inequality within these states only grows are misinformed.

Conclusion

Medical tourism may have the potential to benefit global health inequality, but the current over-investment into this sector is exacerbating the already compromised health of those worst-off, creating a dichotomy within the provision of healthcare. To view health as a commercialised product rather than a human right is to ignore the importance of access to healthcare for basic wellbeing and growth. Until this inequality is addressed, and a basic level of care is provided to all within and across states, it is both misguided and unethical to invest in a global industry that favours luxury over human rights.

Ella Barclay is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of the West of England. Her research focuses on the sexual and reproductive rights of undocumented migrants within the UK’s hostile environment and involves ethnographic research with migrant mothers in Bristol. Ella completed the MSc in Migration and Mobility Studies at the University of Bristol in 2020 and is an MMB Alumni Ambassador.

‘Six new home carers near you!’ How digital platforms shape domestic services

By Jing Hiah.

Finding cleaning and child rearing services is easier than ever in many parts of the world. Install an app on your phone and start browsing through hundreds of (female) workers. If you decide not to directly hire their services – perhaps you feel too embarrassed (can’t we take care of ourselves?!) – you’ll be sent reminders by email: ‘Six new home carers near you. Contact them now!’

Domestic service is reportedly the fastest growing sector in the platform or ‘gig’ economy – that is, economic activity facilitated by digital platforms that mediate supply and demand, creating digital marketplaces. Rising demand for home-based care and domestic workers and health professionals (and even virtual nannies during the COVID-19 lockdown) has been prompted by factors including women’s entrance into the paid labour market, longer lifespans and the retrenchment of the welfare state. Platform companies like Care.com, Helpling and Handy have designed digitised infrastructures that connect domestic workers to those wanting their services. This is the focus of my project ‘New mobilities or persistent inequalities’, which I will be researching during my 20-month stay at the University of Bristol.

(Image: Magnet.me on Unsplash)

New mobilities or persistent inequalities?

Paid domestic work can be broadly understood as all tasks conducted in the private household including cleaning, child rearing and care of the elderly. While inequalities and difference in paid domestic work are hotly debated, it has been cited as a quintessential example of ‘invisible work’ due to its poor labour conditions combined with legal disenfranchisement, which make the sector vulnerable to exploitation. Furthermore, the demand for domestic workers is highly gendered, as it is associated with women’s ‘natural’ qualities. Racialisation also plays a part, with some minority groups considered to be better fitted to perform domestic work, and this has intersected with female migration in different parts of the world. Immigration regulations further control the rights and mobilities of domestic workers, whether they have entered on domestic worker, family reunion or other visas, or overstayed.

Anonymised example of an app for finding domestic workers (created by the author)

My project will explore how vulnerabilities and inequalities in domestic work are shaped by digital platforms. The literature so far suggests that these platforms offer some groups of marginalised workers, such as migrants, racialised minorities and workers with familial obligations (often women), new and flexible opportunities to access work. However, there is also growing evidence that platforms contribute to a degradation of employment relations. They do not guarantee minimum wages or income security and they challenge worker organisation. Furthermore, work on surveillance capitalism and visibility regimes has found the digital infrastructures of platforms and the associated online visibilities of workers to cause further inequality in the domestic employment relationship.

So, what about the ‘six new home carers near you’? It’s important to remember that the carers have no idea who ‘you’ are and neither do they know anything about your household. You do all the picking and choosing. This picking and choosing, research shows, is not only based on the profiles of the individuals on the app: employers also often check the broader social media presence of workers, for example on Facebook and Instagram. For some workers it has become a full-time (unpaid) job to perform gender and ethnicity through their platform profiles. Meanwhile, they have no idea about the appearance, relationships or even gender, race, occupation or name of potential employers. Workers therefore often have to give up their privacy, manage their various connected social media profiles and invest in social media skills, which they may be unfamiliar with and certainly don’t get paid for.

Possibilities for ‘good’ platformed domestic work jobs

So today I was trying to get the attention of [the kid the nanny is taking care of] and he was glued to his Switch. I gave him ample warning that we were about to change to a different task and he has 5 minutes left before we move on. He told me no, that he wants to keep [playing] and that he’ll just ask his mom for more time. Imagine my surprise when [their] mom storms out of the room, takes the Switch, and firmly says ‘I never want to hear that again. Nanny is always right and don’t you forget it.’ And just walks away….

This family is definitely my unicorn family, and it was just solidified today that I never want to leave them! I felt so freaking empowered!

(Post on an online nanny support group.)

Inequalities related to paid domestic work have been recognised to be pretty persistent and these inequalities may have become even more serious when mediated by the digital infrastructures of platforms. Yet does that make a job in paid domestic work by definition a ‘bad’ job? The post of the (self-identified) nanny above on an online nanny support group gives us some insight into various aspects of what, according to sociologists of work, makes a job a ‘good’ job – namely a sense of autonomy, control over work activities and social contact (other aspects include income, health and control over work hours).

So, while the employment relationship between paid domestic workers and their employers may be characterized by inequalities, what also matters is the manner in which employers and workers approach these inequalities in their everyday relationships. The various discussions in the online nanny support group show that it is not only important to workers to be treated fairly, but that many employers also do their best to secure fair and good relationships. Since there has been less work done on the perspectives of employers, the aim of my project is to also include their perspectives in my analysis of platformed domestic work. I am looking forward to hearing from employers and workers how they secure fair relationships in platformed domestic labour relations.

Jing Hiah is an Assistant Professor in Criminology at the Erasmus University Rotterdam and a Dutch Research Council (NWO) Rubicon Postdoctoral Fellow. She is visiting the University of Bristol from December 2021 until July 2023 as a guest of MMB and SPAIS. During this time she will be carrying out her study on domestic labour platforms funded by the Dutch Research Council, the Erasmus Trustfonds and an innovation grant of the Erasmus School of Law.

Brexit, COVID and stay/return narratives amongst Polish migrants in the UK

By Magda Mogilnicka.

Following EU enlargement in 2004, Polish migrants quickly became the largest migrant population in the UK. Since the Brexit referendum in 2016, however, the Office for National Statistics has documented a decline in the Polish population by around a quarter. A further drop in numbers was noticeable after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the estimated population of Polish citizens at the end of 2020 at 691,000 compared with 818,000 in 2019. Both the rise and the fall in numbers have been widely understood in terms of Poles as economic migrant workers and their contributions to the economy. But how do Polish migrants themselves reflect on their presence in the UK? In 2021 I carried out a research pilot study to learn more about the impact of COVID and Brexit on Polish people living in Bristol, and whether they are currently considering leaving or staying in the UK.

Since the referendum there has been a surge in British citizenship and EUSS scheme applications made by EU citizens, which demonstrates that concerns around Brexit and the pandemic have driven some EU citizens to take actions to anchor themselves in British society. However, recent media debates have focused on the return of many EU citizens to their countries of origin, which has been understood as an exodus that will affect the British economy. Commentators have pointed at Brexit and the pandemic as contributing factors in these individuals’ decision to leave, and the impact of these events on a rise in hate crime towards them, being made to feel unwelcome and uncertainties around their future.

Although many Polish people are leaving, it is unclear how many of them have also secured EU Settlement Scheme status or applied for British citizenship. The current return migration should not, therefore, be seen as a definite, long-term departure. Neither should their potential relocation back to the UK be interpreted as a long-term stay. In other words, the Brexit or COVID related changes in status and mobility are not fixed.

Polish grocery store in Plymouth, UK, 2015 (image by Chris on Flickr)

Polish migrants in my pilot research study clearly voiced their anxieties about their future in the UK. In 2021 I interviewed 15 Polish workers employed in a variety of sectors, such as hospitality, the NHS, food distribution, supermarkets and the public sector. The project explored how Brexit and COVID were affecting their everyday lives. This led to discussions about the possibility of returning to Poland.

At the time of the study, Brexit was overshadowed by COVID-19.However, the respondents readily shared memories of the vote to leave the EU five years earlier. Above all they described a feeling of disappointment and betrayal.

Most participants knew of someone who had already left the UK and were sympathetic towards the decision. The returns were perceived as a loss for the British industries, as stated by a female participant Edyta: ‘Watching all those construction sites in our neighbourhood, I thought to myself: “Who is gonna work here?” (…) Poles are leaving, escaping (…) because it doesn’t pay off for them anymore (…). So, who is gonna work here?’ Similarly, Marta noticed that Polish people might be better off financially in Poland: ‘The British pound is not as strong a currency as 15 years ago. We cannot save as much anymore.’

Other respondents also reproduced the discourse of Poles’ economic contributions as migrants. One of them, Ania, claimed that the UK is already experiencing a shortage of labour force: ‘They say: “immigrants are taking jobs away!” Now farmers cannot find anyone to work so what jobs are we taking away?’ Some suggested that British people would eventually regret their decision to leave the EU as they are losing an essential labour force. These narratives draw on the stereotype of a hardworking Polish migrant and reproduce the sense of validity and usefulness of Poles in Britain as migrant workers rather than citizens deserving to be here.

Although the participants justified other migrants’ decisions to leave, they themselves had no intention to do so in the near future. Interestingly, the narratives about staying also constructed Polish citizens as migrant workers. A notion of their irreplaceability has led some to believe that their position in the UK is secure, as expressed by Monika: ‘They won’t kick us out – they need immigrants, Brexit is just an economic stage in their country’s history, I don’t take it personally.’ Similarly, Marcin claimed: ‘I’m not scared of losing my job. I will find another one easily.’ Over the years, Poles have earned a good reputation as a ‘hard-working’ migrant group. As Marta stated: ‘One of my customers said to me: I voted Brexit but have nothing against Polish migrants. They work hard.’ Although Brexit continues to have serious consequences for EU migrants’ mobility, the participants were convinced that their legal status was secure. Their stay narratives – similarly to their return ones – constructed Polish people as migrant workers in British society.

By contrast, the participants expressed their sense of belonging to Poland through nostalgic memories about family, friends and places. These feelings had been intensified by the pandemic. The sudden travel ban following the start of COVID-19 made it impossible for them to see their families, which led some participants to seriously consider leaving the UK for good. They rethought their values and the importance of their families, as seen in Ania’s reflection: ‘I’m the only child, my parents miss me. They are 80 and 79, I don’t know for how much longer I will have them.’ Marta’s memories of Poland expressed deep nostalgia: ‘I miss Poland so much. I miss gardens, parks, people, everything!’ This romanticised picture was reinforced by Monika: ‘I miss four seasons (…) I feel like I’m missing out on so much by being here.’

My respondents rationalised other Polish people’s decisions to leave as a financially more secure option and as a loss to the British economy, but they talked about their own potential return in terms of an emotional connection to Poland, which was missing from their narratives about the UK. Those who expressed a sense of belonging to the UK talked about it in terms of their local links to neighbourhoods, workplaces and mortgage commitments, or having children who feel more at home in the UK than in Poland.

Their stay and return narratives therefore reproduced dominant discourses in UK society that identify Poles as migrant workers whose value is measured in economic terms. In other words, they are seen as economic actors rather than as citizens – an issue for many migrant groups. Their narratives are also in dialogue with broader media and political discourses in the UK that construct them as the racialised East European Other – that is, cheap, low-skilled economic migrants praised for their hard work, but also facing political hostility and racism. These discourses position them below the white British majority in hierarchies of belonging. And yet, as seen in my participants’ responses, many Polish migrants today point to the UK’s labour shortages resulting from Brexit and the pandemic and use this to re-negotiate their identity as economic workers ­that once again need to be appreciated.

Magda Mogilnicka is a Lecturer in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Relations, University of Bristol. Her PhD thesis, ‘Lived diversities of conditional citizens: Poles’ encounters with difference in Britain’, investigated everyday ambivalent experiences of learning to live with diversity in the context of British national hierarchies of belonging.

The power of collaborative art in research for social change

By Rebecca Yeo.

On Human Rights Day, 10th December 2021, a mural on the wall of Easton Community Centre was officially opened. It brings together and promotes messages from Deaf, Disabled and asylum-seeking people living in the Bristol area. The collaborative process of creating the mural is the latest in a series of projects facilitated by artist Andrew Bolton and myself, including work in Bolivia and in the UK. In this most recent project in Easton we specifically sought to bring together the Disabled people’s movement and people with experience of the UK immigration system, as well as to develop creative means of engagement during the pandemic.

‘Disability and migration: a mural for social change’, Easton Community Centre, Bristol, 2021 (image: Mark Simmons)

My research focuses on responses to disability and forced migration in the UK (Yeo, 2015, 2017, 2019, 2021). Within this, I investigate and seek to reduce the barriers separating the asylum sector and the Disabled people’s movement – there is considerable overlap in the experiences of people in both. Many asylum seekers, for example, experience severe mental distress or have other impairments. However, with this mural we were not only working with asylum seekers who identify as Disabled but with a wider section of both groups to build an understanding of the similarities and differences in their experiences.  

The mural conveys key messages of the hopes and struggles faced by asylum seekers and Disabled citizens. Some people contributed images and others used words to explain what they wanted the world to understand. Andy, the mural artist, worked with each person to include elements of their ideas or images in the overall design. Some people helped to paint the mural background directly onto the wall. Others painted their contributions onto wooden boards, which were then varnished and fixed to the wall. Alongside the painting, each person was invited to contribute to a short film, explaining their messages in their own words.

This collaborative and creative research approach brought together people whose voices are rarely heard in the mainstream media. The images highlight that the asylum system itself is actively and deliberately disabling, but the mural also makes clear that these injustices are not inevitable. The top of the mural is divided into three rainbows: on the left, a colourful rainbow represents visions for how things could be; in the middle, the rainbow has more muted colours, representing things changing for better, or worse; and on the far right, a grey rainbow represents the worst injustices. 

At the start of the first rainbow, a chain of interconnected people provide help and solidarity to each other (left). However, the University of Bristol’s Student Disability and Accessibility Network explained how this chain of support has been made increasingly fragile through underfunding, and how responses to COVID have been pulling it apart.

Together with many other Disabled people, students expressed their relief when, during lockdown, university lectures along with many public events became accessible from home. They hoped that lockdown might increase empathy and commitment to long-term provision for people who need remote access. However, Lizzy Horn, a woman who has been largely housebound for the last 13 years described her frustration when, after the first lockdown, the need for remote access was again sidelined. She contributed this Haiku:

Gaze from my window,
The world moves on once again,
I am left behind.

Meanwhile, people seeking asylum described the disabling effects of government policy. Under the colourful rainbow, a group of people chat happily. But in the centre, under the fading rainbow, one man stands with his backpack after leaving a house (below). On the right, the same man is homeless, crouching in a bush. Without food, shelter or hope for the future, he explained that asylum policy had caused him to ‘lose [his] mind’. A uniformed officer and a suited man stand together ignoring the homeless man. These figures represent immigration officers and politicians as well as those in academia, local government and beyond who collude with the police and government policy rather than risk speaking out against injustice.

Three stages of homelessness

Above this, a series of cages hang from the sky bring together experiences of asylum seekers and Disabled citizens. People from both groups talked about feeling trapped and being unable to move on in their lives. In the first cage (right), under the muted rainbow, a wheelchair user is surrounded by confusing information from social and mainstream media. The socially constructed nature of the cage is highlighted by having a second image of the same wheelchair user under the brightly coloured rainbow, but this time sitting in a comfortable pagoda, able to engage with and contribute to the world (see cage image above).

The middle cage (below) contains a Deaf person with their arms out signing ‘Where?’ In front of the cage there is a hand with the words, ‘Where is the interpreter?’ This image from Lynn Stewart Taylor is the symbol for the campaign that she established in response to government failure to provide British Sign Language interpreters for public health announcements about COVID. As with many images in this mural, the image is also very relevant to a wider population: government announcements about the pandemic have routinely been provided only for English language speakers. The final cage holds a dead canary, evoking the historical practice of taking canaries into mines to warn of gas leaks. This mural warns that urgent action is needed to save lives. 

Next to the final cage there is a drawing of Kamil Ahmad, a Disabled asylum seeker who was murdered in Bristol in 2016. The image is repeated from his contribution to a mural in 2012 – it depicts him holding his head in despair at the injustices caused by the Home Office. The mural is dedicated to him, in a quest to build solidarity and prevent further injustices. 

The mural enabled participants to claim a space in a public setting and raise awareness of their experiences of marginalisation. The images and messages will also be submitted to the United Nations as part of this year’s shadow report from Deaf and Disabled people. The UN uses this report, alongside an official government submission, to assess how the UK is meeting its obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People. This is the first time that the experiences of asylum seekers have been included in the shadow report.

In these ways, this mural is intended not just to convey people’s experiences but also to contribute to change. The key message is that if we work together it is possible to build a better world and extend the colourful rainbow to include everyone. It calls for solidarity between the asylum sector, the Disabled people’s movement and allies – as one contributor put it, ‘togetherness is strength’.

Rebecca Yeo is an ESRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School for Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol. Her research focuses on refining and promoting a social model of asylum as a means to transform responses to disability and forced migration in the UK.

All images by Rebecca Yeo and Andrew Bolton except where indicated.