Bad intentions: the UK government and migrants

By Ryan Lutz.

At the MMB postgraduate workshop in July, ‘How Not to Think Like a State,’ visiting scholar Nandita Sharma talked to us about the throughlines of her research. One of these, in particular, gripped me: ‘Anti-immigrant sentiments,’ she said, ‘are used as the basis for fascism.’

I am a migrant PhD student in the UK studying migrant integration and how local-level organisations and the City Council in Bristol resist the draconian policies of the UK government, such as the 2021 Nationality and Borders Bill and 2016 Policing and Crime Act. Despite the government’s policies, the council and local organisations in Bristol are striving to provide a safe and welcoming environment for migrants. The city has a long history of fighting against oppression and racism, including the Bristol Bus Boycotts of 1963, the St Paul’s uprisings of the 1980s, the toppling of the Colston statue in 2020 and the Kill the Bill uprisings of 2021. Additionally, Bristol attracted many migrants from colonised countries during the post-colonial period, meaning there is a history of migrants and ethnic minorities in the city who have been a part of integration services and have successfully built their lives here.

Mural in St Pauls, Bristol (image: Gioconda Beekman on Flickr)

At the beginning of my journey as a PhD student, I thought migrant integration could undercut or potentially combat the use of anti-immigrant sentiment as a vehicle for fascism. Given my lived experience with immigration, nationalism and racism in the United States, I assumed that a lack of exposure led people and the systems they created to be hostile towards outsiders. Through our discussions with Nandita in the postgraduate workshop, my worldview was challenged and complicated in the best possible way.

Historically, integration has been seen as equal access to resources, acquisition of national languages and active participation in society. But this approach rarely asks how migrants experience integration as individuals and fails to question what ‘society’ is and at what spatial or ideological level migrants are integrating. In somewhere like Bristol, where 15% of the population is born outside the UK and 22% self-identify as nonwhite, a wide array of socio-economic realities co-exist. Despite its affluent city centre, Bristol has some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country and ranks 341 out of 348 for inequalities experienced by ethnic minorities.

I had always known that integration was a very political issue. Still, through the workshop with Nandita, I began to see how the anti-immigrant rhetoric is now in fact co-opting the integration process in the UK: at a base level, integration plays a crucial role in problematising migrants as others. It situates migrants as apart from the rest of a population, needing to integrate into one unified host society even though, in a country like the UK, there is no single harmonious society to integrate into. The rhetoric that migrants must adapt, integrate and adopt British values places all the blame and burden onto them. And it fails to take into account all of the structural barriers and inequalities they have to navigate daily. Through the increasingly restrictive national immigration policies passed in the UK, integrating becomes more of a pipedream for migrants each year.

The UK government has been described as an ‘iron rod welfare system‘ when it comes to migrants: they either fall foul of it and are deported or receive legal status and comprehensive social rights. However, the ability to gain that legal status and integrate into a new community has become increasingly circumscribed under the Conservative government – now in power since 2010.

Anti-immigrant sentiments have been an integral part of the fabric of the UK since its inception. In recent decades it has become enshrined in laws such as the 1987 Immigration (Carriers’ Liability) Act, which extended document and border checks to airlines and other carriers, making it their responsibility to keep people out who fell on the wrong side of the iron rod. More recently, the UK government has criminalised seeking asylum from within the UK, awarded more funding to Immigrant Detention Centres and extended the length of time migrants can be held in these centres through the Nationality and Borders Bill. The most recent examples are the Manston migrant centre, which has been described as a zoo by inhabitants, and the firebombing of an immigration processing centre in Dover, which was driven by far-right ideologies. Meanwhile, the Conservative government introduced the Rwanda Plan earlier this year, which has had a host of negative externalities for migrants such as restricting their access to claim asylum, taking away their agency to work or where to live once they are in the system, and making the hostile environment worse.

I wholeheartedly agree with Nandita that, at a national level, the UK completely fits her view of anti-immigration as a base for fascism. But given Bristol’s progressive and radical past, I wanted to believe that there was more than just a harmful system at play. Bristol goes beyond other UK cities with its Refugee and Asylum Seeker Inclusion Strategy, run by the City Council. And there is a robust system of migrant and refugee welfare charities that make up the Bristol Refugee and Asylum Seeker Partnership. These organisations offer services that help to fill the gaps left by the iron rod welfare system of the UK government.

The workshop with Nandita raised many questions about the current Conservative government’s everyday functioning. Namely, as the UK moves further and further towards solidifying its borders and making life as a migrant here a traumatising experience, is the vital work of the migrant organisations in Bristol actually enabling the government’s lack of response? Early research has shown that the government’s anti-immigrant policies increase the workload for charities, which prevents them from campaigning. So now my question is, does this integration work by city-wide collaborations in Bristol help the migrant community? Or are the harmful policies of the national government too much for local welfare systems to overcome?

Overall, the workshop with Nandita was extraordinarily thought-provoking and challenged some of the romantic views I held about the function of government. Most importantly, though, it raised questions about the function of my research as a PhD student and the best path forward for an equitable immigration system.

Ryan Lutz is a PhD Student in Social Policy at the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol.

Researching Western privilege in Dubai: a conversation with Saba A. Le Renard

New writing on migration and mobilities – an MMB special series

This is an edited version of an interview with Saba A. Le Renard in Jadaliyya* about their recent book Western Privilege. Work, Intimacy, and Postcolonial Hierarchies in Dubai (Stanford University Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write the book?

Saba A. Le Renard (SLR): When I was doing my PhD fieldwork about the transforming femininities of young Saudi women fifteen years ago, I was shocked by the stereotypical discourses many French residents I met there held on Saudi people. After finishing my PhD, I started working on the statuses, self-identifications, and practices of Western passport holders, first in Saudi Arabia and then in Dubai. During the courses I had followed in Middle East studies, the statuses of Western passport holders had never been a topic, despite many of this group occupying dominant positions in firms and various administrations of the region. My research started with a willingness to question this status, to make ‘Westerner’ the object rather than the implicit subject of knowledge.

In Dubai, as in many places of the world, having or not having a Western passport produces a clear split. Having one facilitates passage across national borders and represents an important differentiator and ranking criterion within the globalised job market, though how and how much one benefits from it differ, notably, depending on one’s position in gender, class and race hierarchies. The book explores how men and women, white and non-white Western passport holders inhabit the privileged status of ‘Westerner.’ It shows how they perceive Dubai’s social order differently depending on their trajectories, and how they nevertheless participate in reproducing it, for instance by implementing salary differentiation when recruiting, or by routinely racialising other inhabitants, described as ‘locals,’ ‘Arabs,’ Filipinos’ or ‘Indian.’ 

J: What particular topics, issues and literatures does the book address? 

SLR: First, the book contributes to what could be called a postcolonial turn in studies of the Arabian Peninsula, breaking with the longstanding tendency to ignore the imperial history of the region. In this book, I study Westerners not only as privileged migrants but also as local elites, playing a role in the perpetuation of nationality, race, class and gender hierarchies. I deconstruct the discourse presenting Westerners in the Arabian Peninsula as outsiders, having no role in the perpetuation of inequality; this belief is central, I argue, to the construction of their privileged subjectivities. For instance, some parents I interviewed told me that Dubai was great with young kids as it is very practical to have a live-in nanny, but that they planned to leave when their kids would become teenagers, because they did not want the latter to ‘see’ such blatant social injustice. I analysed this need to distance themselves from Dubai’s social order while benefitting from it as a salient element of distinctive Western subjectivities. 

Second, the book aims to contribute to race and migration studies. In the last decade, several authors have criticised the lack of attention for privileged migrants in migration studies. Postcolonial approaches of expatriation, which have shown how whiteness is transformed through migrations, have been very useful to understanding the distinctive subjectivities of Western residents in Dubai. The originality of my approach lies in my choice to compare the trajectories, practices and discourses of white and non-white Western passport holders. It enabled me to identify the specificity of whiteness as a privileged status among Western passport holders (because whiteness, in practice, does remain a privileged position among them), and to make visible the trajectories of non-white Western passport holders that benefit, to a lesser extent, from Western privilege, while also facing forms of stigmatisation and marginalisation. Beyond this, the similarities and contrasts between the two groups reveal how Dubai’s neoliberal discourse on multiculturalism, combined with the use of whiteness in the city’s branding, impact racial categories and produce conditional and limited inclusions. Such reflection echoes works on neoliberalism, multiculturalism and selective inclusions in other contexts, especially the United States and some European countries.

Third, the book is grounded on gender and sexuality studies; it documents how the formation of Westerners as a social group interlocks race, class, gender, sexuality and nationality. Postcolonial feminism as well as intersectionality are important inspirations for such approach. I argue that beside professional aspects, Western distinction lies on specific forms of heteronormativity. On the one hand, Western, white, upper-class couples, in spite of a clear labour division among spouses, identify with gender equality and women’s emancipation in contrast with ‘others’ represented as oppressed or sexist, or as frustrated sexual predators. On the other hand, single Westerners often long for serious, authentic relations, which they present as impossible in Dubai. Many associate authentic love with the West and Westerners, in contrast to Dubai’s so-called materialism and superficiality. By analysing specific models of heteronormativity among Western residents and how they participate in making boundaries between them and ‘others,’ I hope this book brings a contribution to Middle East feminist studies, which have been developing postcolonial and queer approaches in the last decades. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

SLR: I hope people interested in the Middle East, in race and migration studies, and in gender and feminist studies will read the book. I think it could help question how Western researchers position themselves while in the field, and also nourish the wider discussion that is currently developing about racialisation in the region.

Since the book is also inspired by race and migration studies and gender and sexuality studies focused on other contexts, I hope it will interest people working in these fields beyond the Middle East. While Dubai has an awful reputation among many intellectual bourgeoisies, some Western passport holders experience it as less racist than their home societies (for instance, France or the United States) and many women consider its streets as more secure than their home cities. As these two elements suggest, Dubai is an interesting society to better understand transnational racial formations, structural racism, gender regimes and the policing of public spaces—impacting gender, race, class, sexuality and nationality hierarchies.

Saba A. Le Renard is a Researcher in Sociology at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Paris. They are currently researching the place of ‘Westerners’ in the multinational professional worlds of Riyadh and Dubai. You can see them interviewed about their book Western Privilege in the MMB Insights and Sounds 2022 series.

* This interview has been edited and republished here with kind permission of Jadaliyya, the independent ezine produced by the Arab Studies Institute. The original, longer version, published in November 2021 and including an excerpt from Western Privilege, can be found here. Please note that Saba’s book was published under a first name that they no longer use.

Researching best practice in supporting refugee and migrant entrepreneurs

By Udeni Salmon and Ann Singleton.

Since January 2021 the University of Bristol has been collaborating with ACH in a research project to bring about social and economic change for refugees and migrants in the UK’s South West and West Midlands. ACH is a social enterprise that works to empower these groups to lead self-sufficient and ambitious lives. Here, we show how the university and this dynamic social enterprise have been working together to understand and support the experience of refugees and non-EU migrants trying to set up businesses in this country.

Entrepreneurship among refugees and recently arrived migrants

Entrepreneurship has long been viewed by policymakers in the UK as a means by which refugees and migrants can achieve economic independence in their new country of residence. In doing so, they create jobs, contribute to urban regeneration and introduce new cultural trends to society. While successful refugee entrepreneurs are held up as aspirational models, the reality is that newly arrived refugees generally lack the capital, social networks and knowledge of the regulatory and tax regimes required to start a new business. Furthermore, refugees experience trauma from their journey, anxiety from being kept apart from their families and uncertainty about establishing a life in the UK.

The Migrant Business Support (MBS) project is led by ACH and works with West of England Combined Authority and two of us from the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol – Ann Singleton (Strategic Policy Lead for MMB) and Udeni Salmon (Research Associate). The project consists of seven business consultants across Birmingham and Bristol, which include two graduates of the recent MSc in Migration and Mobility Studies. MBS investigates the experience of refugees and non-EU migrants who are attempting to navigate this early stage of setting up their own business, and the extent to which innovative forms of business support can assist them.

The known problems with business support include the fragmented and passive nature of business support agencies, which are locally provided but privately constituted. A unique feature of this initiative is that the West of England Combined Authority, through the West of England Growth Hub, is working proactively to address these challenges – as a partner in the MBS project and with other key outreach projects across the region. Many business support agencies have failed to engage with business owners who are not white, male or in tech-centric businesses. They are also reluctant to get involved in the risky pre-start stage of a business, when business plans may not be completed, the business concept may be unviable and the potential entrepreneur could still decide to remain in paid employment. Finally, start-up capital is hard to obtain for newly arrived potential entrepreneurs who have no credit history, inherited wealth or existing assets in the UK.

Shalini Sivakrishnan (left) and Eloise Clemmings (right), graduates of the MSc in Migration and Mobility Studies, at a project promoting the MBS project

The MBS project: a new approach to entrepreneurship support

Projects are needed that take a more innovative approach to business support for refugee and migrant entrepreneurs. In his recent MMB blogpost, David Jepson describes how ACH and the MBS project take a distinctive attitude to supporting migrant entrepreneurship. MBS developed out of ACH’s experience in Bristol and the West Midlands working with partners to either improve or establish host society services to meet the needs of refugees. MBS is funded by the European Commission and will provide up to 500 third-country nationals living in the UK with intensive, bespoke business support to start, stabilise or grow their businesses between 1st January  2021 and 31st December 2022. ACH’s business consultants and volunteer mentors will deliver individual, bespoke interactions to help their refugee and migrant clients to establish their own business. The University of Bristol team aims to understand how ACH’s project is distinctive in supporting its client base and how the ACH approach can provide insights to inform best practice and improved policy development across the UK.

What makes the MBS offer different?

Having conducted more than 30 interviews with MBS clients, staff and stakeholders, we have found that MBS has distinct advantages to standard business support programmes. First, MBS consultants provide advice and support for their clients’ wider needs, including addressing problems that are impacting clients’ mental and physical health. Advice and support are provided not only for their business plans, but also for housing, health, language lessons and family reunion. ACH’s expansive approach provides clients with the peace of mind to focus on setting up their business.

Second, ACH advisors see employment as a valuable alternative to, or steppingstone towards, entrepreneurship. Employment in a chosen industry gives clients valuable experience, which helps get their business off to a more stable and informed start. Finally, MBS consultants are recruited specifically for their personal experience of being from a migrant family, being a migrant themselves or setting up their own business. Such shared characteristics enable them to build trust quickly and establish credibility with clients who find it harder to relate to the typical ‘white’, English male business advisor.

MMB graduate members involved in the AHC project

Shalini Sivakrishnan and Eloise Clemmings are two MBS advisors who graduated from the University of Bristol’s MSc in Migration and Mobility Studies in 2021. Their approach has been to start from the individual need and develop programmes accordingly. Unlike standard business support organisations, Shalini and Eloise have been pro-active in going out into the local area, meeting people and encouraging them to take advantage of their support. They have also developed programmes that go beyond the narrow remit of traditional business advice.

‘[On the MSc] I learned how organisations that claim to provide services for refugees and migrants may end up disempowering the service users,’ said Shalini. ‘That was a monumental lecture for me and has shaped my work at ACH.’ Recognising that Afghan mothers were depressed being stuck with their children all day in small hotel rooms, she started an Afghan Women’s sewing group. While the group has seeded the idea of starting up a sewing business, it has also been a safe space for the women to talk, share problems and host additional support sessions, such as a visit from a mental health counsellor.

Eloise has also found that the MSc greatly informed her work on the MBS project: ‘It gave me a wider understanding of the numerous challenges faced by migrants and refugees. My dissertation focused on the “production of illegality” – how governments across the globe, create the conditions and categories that label individuals as ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’. Now, in my current role, I refer back to this to create new projects that are not only shaped by refugees and migrants themselves, but which are actually accessible to them.’

Next step for the project

The next step for our project is to provide a report for ACH, stakeholders and the funders. We hope this report will contribute to the scarce literature on refugee and migrant entrepreneurship in the UK and will inform policymakers on the importance of taking an informed, collaborative and holistic approach for supporting refugee and migrant entrepreneurs.

Udeni Salmon is a Research Associate Policy in the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol, and Ann Singleton is Reader in Migration Policy in the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol, and MMB Policy Strategic Lead. 

This project has been part funded by the European Union Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund: ‘Making management of migration flows more efficient across the European Union.’ The above text reflects the authors’ views only and not those of the European Commission or the UK Responsible Authority (UKRA). In addition, neither the European Commission nor the UKRA is liable for any use that may be made of the information contained above.

‘African Apocalypse’: the imperial violence behind today’s migration

By Bridget Anderson.

‘What angers me most is he chased away our grandparents… and now we have no food. Every child we bring into the world suffers. They must leave to find work and food for us. Some kids never come home. We just get news of their death. So you can see why we are so angry with this man.’

As she says these words, Batoula Adamou points down to the grave beneath her of French colonial commander Paul Voulet, whose notorious 1899 invasion of what is now Niger was one of imperialism’s most violent episodes. This scene in the town of May Jirgui comes towards the end of ‘African Apocalypse, a BBC documentary on colonial violence, which MMB was thrilled to host at the Arnolfini in July, in association with the University of Bristol’s Department of Film and Television and PARC along with Afrika Eye, and supported by Deputy Vice-Chancellor Judith Squires.

Batoula Adamou, resident of May Jirgui, in ‘African Apocalypse’ (Image: © LemKino Pictures 2020)

From the perspective of western policy makers, migration is almost always seen as a standalone issue, a case of force and freedom, push and pull. But for poor people in the global South migration is very often entangled with colonial histories and ongoing legacies that have bestowed vast inequalities and poverty.

‘African Apocalypse’ presents a journey by British-Nigerian poet-activist Femi Nylander across the Sahel of Niger in the footsteps of Captain Voulet. It soon becomes a People’s History of Colonialism as Nylander and director Rob Lemkin pass through town after town, village after village where residents, young and old, retain vivid collective memories of the day the ‘Whites’ came and the slaughter they brought, even though it was 120 years ago.

Our screening was the UK theatrical premiere of the Hausa language version of the film. As director Rob Lemkin explained in his live introduction to the film, this version was seen by more than eight million people in Niger and Nigeria when Kano-based Arewa 24 TV broadcast it every Sunday evening through February and March of 2022.

A powerful array of panellists, chaired by Peninah Achieng, included one of the film’s participants, Nigérien cineaste Amina Weira (live by Zoom from Niger’s capital Niamey), the noted filmmaker and scholar Imruh Bakari and one of the Colston Topplers and a member of #GladColstonsGone, Luke Wentworth. Luke’s account of Bristol’s history leading to a moment of upsurge found a telling connection with the Nigérien graveside anger that ends the film. The Colston statue stood as an insult to many in the local community for decades. By contrast, the grave of Voulet, which dominates the town square in May Jirgui, has produced bitter resentment among local residents for generations. In a pre-recorded conversation, May Jirgui Deputy Mayor Mahamane Salissou Issa told the Bristol audience how his town has been deprived of infrastructure since the colonial period.

A lively discussion followed the film screening, in which Ade Olaiya, a Member of the International Network of Scholars and Activists for Afrikan Reparations and UNESCO Inclusive Policy Lab Expert, spoke of the need for international civil society – including NGOs in the UK and Bristol – to support the people of Niger’s demands for reparations. He cited recent developments in the international reparations movement, including the launch in 2021 of the UK’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Afrikan Reparations and HR 40 in the USA. Rob Lemkin updated the audience on initiatives at the UN where the filmmakers have worked with the affected communities and lawyers to bring the matter to the attention of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion of Truth and Justice.

Abdelkader Mossi, secretary of the Collectif des Nigériens de la Diaspora (around a dozen Nigeriens had come from London for the premiere) spoke of how important it is for Nigeriens to see their history more widely known and recognised. He spoke about his organisation, which connects Nigeriens in Britain, France and across Europe. He emphasized the importance of the fierce resistance of Nigeriens to the 1899 invasion and his hopes that this may be the beginning of a new type of relationship with France and Europe. Mossi also spoke of the vital role the Nigerien diaspora in Britain and Europe has to play in influencing positive developments.

The screening took place shortly after a public protest in Bristol against the British government’s policy of deporting migrants to Rwanda. Several in the Arnolfini audience came on from that event. One was Alimamy Bangura, a Sierra Leonean refugee living in Manchester. Alimamy spoke of the deep impact the film made on him, and the importance of recognising colonial violence and domination as the essential precursor to today’s global problems of inequality. He is now working through his organisation RAPAR (Refugee and Asylum Participatory Action Research) to bring ‘African Apocalypse’ to Manchester later this year.

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

African Apocalypse filmmakers wish to acknowledge the support of BERTHA FOUNDATION.

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‘.