The UK–Philippine trade in nurses: is it ever ethical?

By Megan Anjeri Buxton.

Funding for home-grown nurses has been steadily declining in the UK since the 1980s. The last nail in the coffin came in 2016 when the bursary for nursing students was entirely scrapped. As a result, we have a graduation rate of 27 nurses per 100,000 people. Hardly enough to meet the demands of a generally unhealthy and ageing population – and that’s before the pandemic hit. Practicing nurses are also rightfully fed up with poor employment conditions and low pay and they are leaving in droves. The NHS needs 50,000 more nurses and is looking towards the Philippines to fill a lot of this gap.   

Currently, there are 40,000 Filipino nurses working in the UK, a staggering number that results from an arrangement made between the UK and Philippine governments. Established in 2003, this bilateral agreement provides the UK with Filipino nurses, and the Philippines with compensatory funds from the UK as well as remittances from their overseas workforce. Despite this agreement being purportedly a ‘win-win’, the increasing ‘industrial-complex’ that has come to characterise the trade in nurses is sucking the Philippines dry.  

A nurse in full PPE during the COVID-19 pandemic (image: Ömer Yıldız on Unsplash)

Context  

For the UK, relying on overseas healthcare personnel is hardly new. Since the NHS came into being in 1948 it has been staffed by workers from the Commonwealth who nursed a nation recovering from war back into health. The UK has a habit of poaching nurses from nations who are most in need. In the past both Ghana and South Africa have condemned the part the UK played in their severe nurse shortages. Similarly, in 2014 the most targeted countries for recruitment to the UK were Spain, Portugal and Italy, each of which were suffering from devastating economic crises.  

Looking abroad for nurses is not surprising for a nation that is founded on the extraction of resources from elsewhere for its own convenience. The financial costs of recruiting an overseas nurse are only ten per cent of what it would cost the UK to train its own. Overseas nurses are also ‘ready-made’, with seven years of training replaced by only the few weeks it takes to recruit one. The externalisation of costs is a sign of the commodification of nurses who are viewed not as humans providing essential healthcare but as goods to be bought and sold.   

The ethics of recruitment  

Although managed by the Philippines Overseas Employment Agency (POEA), the export-led model in the nursing field in the Philippines has led to increasing private-sector involvement. Many nursing schools, or ‘migrant institutions’, train nurses specifically to go overseas. Because they are profit driven many schools have enrolled students far beyond capacity, jeopardising the quality of training. Schools often have business deals with licensure exam review centres. There have been instances where schools have bribed officials from the Professional Regulation Commission of Nursing to leak exam questions. Such corruption has resulted in a system of nurse training that follows industry models. Profit seeking has compromised the quality of care and nurses themselves have been transformed into a mass-produced commodity.   

Within the sector more and more schools have been established that cater only for the export market. This means that the syllabus does not match the needs of healthcare in the Philippines, and that skills become specialised towards western diseases and illnesses. In fact, some recruitment companies that operate internationally have amalgamated with nursing schools, streamlining the export process. As a result, not only is the Philippines losing nurses, but doctors are re-training as nurses and also leaving the country. The Philippines has half the amount of nurses and ten times fewer doctors per capita than does the UK. Over the past decade hundreds of hospitals have closed and the mortality rate has increased to the level it was 30 years ago. For Jaime Galvez-Tan, previously the Executive Director of the National Institutes of Health in the Philippines, this phenomenon is less an example of ‘brain-drain’ than of ‘brain-haemorrhage’.  

In the UK certain measures have been put in place to ensure that recruitment practices remain ethical. The 1999 Department of Health guidelines state that compliance with its code of practice ‘minimises harm to the health and care systems of countries of origin’. The industry in nurse recruitment that has resulted from the bilateral arrangement between the UK and the Philippines appears to fall far short of these guidelines. The ethics of the recruitment agencies – who also follow a profit-based business model – are not dependable when the sector is not regulated by a government body.

Having a code of practice suggests that the UK government should monitor agency recruitment carefully. But a study of NHS Trusts found that few had any information on recruitment activity and most had none at all. A long chain of outsourcing and sub-contracting – from companies involved in initial training to ones that market emigration opportunities, to those that guide nurses through the visa application process, to companies that arrange travel and English Language Tests – makes it difficult to keep track of the specific activities involved in recruitment. The monitoring process for the code of practice is not sufficient to deal with these complexities. It simply ‘encourages’ health and social care organisations to respond to surveys capturing international recruitment activity and to share information on any known breaches of the code of practice. The agencies themselves are only sent an email every two years asking them to ‘confirm their compliance with the principles of the code of practice’ and to supply two referees to confirm that they use the agency and that it complies with the code of practice.

The pandemic has further highlighted the questionable ethics of Filipino nurse employment in the UK. Nurses come to the UK on a Tier-2 visa, which makes their ability to legally reside in the UK dependent on them being in employment. Without a job, their legal residence is withdrawn. As a result, many Filipino nurses have felt under pressure by management to work extra shifts and work in COVID wards as they feel they ‘owe’ the hospital for allowing them to enter and reside in the UK. This has likely contributed to the disproportionately high number of Filipino NHS nurses who have died from COVID. A letter to parliament from the Filipino UK Nurses Association points out that of the 50 Filipino nurses who died last year almost 40 were in a high-risk category and should have been allowed home to shield. 

Overall, then, a picture is painted of a trade agreement that is creating a fatal imbalance in the distribution of nurses between the UK and Philippines. It has led to a training industry that values profit over education, a recruitment industry that is left largely unmonitored and a work environment in the UK that puts Filipino nurses at risk. From origin to destination each leg in this chain is unethical.

Megan Anjeri Buxton is a student on the MSc Migration and Mobility Studies at the University of Bristol.

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

By Laurence Publicover.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MMB good reads on race, nation and migration

A new blog series reframing thinking on movement and racism.

Introduced by Julia O’Connell Davidson and Bridget Anderson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

By Lydia Medland.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Domestic workers and COVID-19: Brazil’s legacy of slavery lives on

By Rachel Randall.

On 19 March it was confirmed that Rio de Janeiro’s first coronavirus-related death was that of Cleonice Gonçalves, a 63-year-old domestic worker who suffered from co-morbidities. When Gonçalves fell ill on 16 March, she was working at her boss’ apartment in the affluent neighbourhood of Leblon, in the city of Rio. Her boss had just returned from a trip to Italy where COVID-19 had been rapidly spreading. She had not advised her employee that she was feeling sick. Gonçalves’ family called a taxi to bring her from the state capital to her home-town 100km away. It took her two hours to arrive. She entered hospital the same evening and died the next day. Her story exemplifies the fact that it was Brazil’s ‘jet set elite’ who first brought COVID-19 into the country, as Maite Conde points out, but it is the poorest who are now at greatest risk of dying from the disease as it ravages urban peripheries. Unlike her employee, Gonçalves’ boss, who tested positive for COVID-19, later recovered.   

Gonçalves’ case is not an isolated one, as Luciana Brito explains. Domestic workers are among those most vulnerable to the pandemic. While many employers have remained at home, 39% of monthly-paid domestic workers (mensalistas) and 23% of hourly-paid cleaners (diaristas) continued their labours in spite of the lockdown, frequently out of economic necessity – often residing with their bosses or travelling substantial distances by public transport to reach them. Of the country’s six million domestic employees, over 90% are women and the majority are black (Cornwall et al. 2013). As Angelo Martins Junior has argued, it is the descendants of enslaved Brazilians who occupy the jobs that put them at greatest risk and who are being encouraged to return to their precarious, low-paid work in order to continue feeding themselves and their families.

In Brazil, domestic workers have featured at the centre of debates about the country’s high levels of socio-economic inequality, its legacy of slavery and the relationship between the private and public spheres for some time, including in its cultural production (as I have discussed in an article about contemporary Brazilian documentary). In the wake of COVID-19, these workers have become a powerful symbol in the media for the ways that the virus is exacerbating existing inequalities in the country in terms of mobility, income security and housing. The artist Cristiano Suarez has published a pair of illustrations that explore these dynamics on his Facebook page. They serve as parodies of Instagram posts made by young, white influencers in upmarket apartments who remind their followers to prioritise their well-being and relinquish negative energies during quarantine, while their domestic employees can be glimpsed in the background maintaining their glamorous lifestyles. Sadly, some social media content shared by real employers to ‘celebrate’ their domestic workers’ return to work has been actively degrading, including a video posted by vlogger Luan Tavares who recorded his employee cleaning his bathroom as he joked about reducing her wages due to the crisis; the video was spotlighted on an episode of Greg News (the Brazilian version of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver) dedicated to domestic workers.  

natypatriota Pluto in retrograde has come into full force. This pandemic has not occurred by chance, it is an instrument of human redemption preparing us for a better world! COVID-yourself, love yourself, take care of your own and free yourself from useless suffering! Big love to our Brazill! Resilience, gratitude and peace!’ (Image: Cristiano Suarez.)

The debate about how employers should treat domestic workers during the pandemic has been heated. 39% of bosses have dismissed their employees, leaving them without a salary, a situation that worst affects hourly-paid cleaners who do not have a formal contract and are not eligible to benefit from the government’s emergency financial package. Meanwhile, in several states domestic employees were classified as essential workers, thereby obliging them to continue working in spite of the risks. This decision draws attention to the ways that paid domestic work has historically been treated as ‘exceptional’. The Constitutional Amendment on Domestic Work (‘A PEC das domésticas’) implemented in 2015 by the Workers’ Party government represented an important attempt to redress this by aligning domestic employees’ rights with those of other workers. It has been called ‘the second abolition of slavery’.

Ultimately, pressure from domestic workers organisations led the Brazilian Ministry of Labour to state in April that domestic employees should not be made to come to work and should be guaranteed pay while their employers are self-isolating. Despite this, Sérgio Hacker – the mayor of Tamandaré municipality in Pernambuco – and his wife Sari Corte Real, continued to treat the services of their domestic employees’ as ‘indispensable’. The couple, who are white, were both infected with COVID-19, as was their Afro-Brazilian employee Mirtes Renata Santana de Souza, who went to work at their apartment in the state capital Recife on 2 June, taking her five-year-old son Miguel with her as no creches were open.

While Real was having a manicure, Souza took her bosses’ dog out to the street, leaving Miguel with Real. Miguel, who wanted his mother, entered a lift in the apartment block. CCTV shows Real speaking to Miguel in the lift and pressing a button for another floor. Miguel got out on the ninth floor and fell to his death. Real is under investigation for manslaughter. The event – which coincided with the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd – horrified many Brazilians who took to the streets demanding justice for Miguel.

Brito has explained how Real’s disregard for Miguel’s life epitomises the white supremacy still so prevalent in Brazilian society. As the country’s economy begins to re-open, despite having the second highest death toll in the world, there seems little hope that the lives of domestic workers and their families will be better safeguarded. After all, President Jair Bolsonaro was the only elected deputy to vote against the Constitutional Amendment on Domestic Work when he sat in the National Congress in 2012.

Rachel Randall is Lecturer in Hispanic Media and Digital Communications (School of Modern Languages, University of Bristol). Her current research explores cultural representations of paid domestic workers in Latin American film, documentary, digital culture and literary testimonies (testimonios).

This blog post was first published on the MMB Latin America blog on 6th August 2020. Related MMB blogs: ‘To stay home or go out to work? Brazil’s unequal modes of COVID-19 survival‘ by Aline Pires, Felipe Rangel and Jacob Lima, and, ‘A violent disregard for life: COVID-19 in Brazil‘ by Angelo Martins Junior.

From imperial sugar to golden passports: the Citizenship Industry

By Sarah Kunz.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Disposable workers, essential work: migrant farmworkers during the COVID pandemic

By Manoj Dias-Abey.

In July I co-organised a webinar on the situation of migrant farmworkers with Tomaso Ferrando (University of Antwerp) and Brid Brennan (Transnational Institute). We wanted to explore how the working and living conditions of migrant farmworkers during the COVID-19 pandemic merely represented a more acute form of marginalisation experienced in so-called normal times. We also wanted to speculate about how their situation might shift in the near future and what this would mean for labour organising efforts.

Rather than holding a discussion between academic interlocutors, we invited five farmworker advocates to reflect on these issues. We did so, first, because these advocates were likely to have a more accurate appraisal of the situation on the ground. And, second, because, having pioneered insightful analyses of the food system and effective forms of activism, advocates might also be able to explain how farmworkers could organise to raise their plight from the margins to the centre of national consciousness. The webinar featured Alagie Jinkang from IKENGA in Italy, Bridget Henderson from UNITE in the UK, Gerardo Reyes Chavez from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, US, Vasanthi Venkatesh from Justice for Migrant Workers in Ontario, Canada, and Carlos Marentes from the North American division of La Via Campesina.

Migrant farmworkers pick cabbages in Ohio, USA (image: Bob Jagendorf)

Despite the different country contexts, the advocates told a depressingly similar tale of overcrowded living conditions, long working hours, little or no safety precautions including safety adaptations for COVID, and barely enough pay to meet basic living costs. Large outbreaks of COVID have been detected in Ontario, Florida and Herefordshire, and these are simply the ones that have been reported. The lockdown measures have, in some cases, made the situation worse for workers, with one advocate describing it as being ‘locked in marginalised spaces’, lacking necessary ‘conveniences’ such as electricity and plumbing. Advocates reported that government agencies responsible for testing the population and implementing public safety measures were rarely seen or entirely invisible. The migrant workers keenly felt that their lives were disposable even as governments were taking unprecedented steps to protect the lives and livelihoods of citizens.

Several of the advocates were quick to point out that COVID did not create these conditions, but simply exacerbated existing forms of marginalisation and inequality. In each of the countries surveyed in the webinar, migrant farmworkers are some of the worst paid workers in the labour force. They work under enormously precarious conditions, particularly so in the case of seasonal farmworkers. The work is difficult and dangerous and the hours long and arduous. Supervisors treat workers with contempt and forms of racial discrimination and sexual harassment are rife. The rural setting of farms contributes to workers’ sense of isolation from sympathetic populations and critical services.

The poor working and living conditions of migrant farmworkers are widely recognised as a function of a food system organised along the axes of market distribution and capital accumulation. Several of the advocates highlighted the role of value chains in particular, which have come to dominate agricultural production. Large, global supermarkets sit at the top of these chains, exercising power and control over growers to provide produce that meets strict product specifications at low costs. In addition, successive rounds of trade liberalisation have created a situation in which most countries are now dependent on food imports. During the pandemic, interruption of the passage of agricultural products across borders and the disruption of food value chains have caused foods shortages and price spikes, and raised the prospect of mass hunger as the pandemic inexorably spreads. These dynamics diminish the room available for growers to provide decent working conditions.

Migrant farmworkers harvest sweet potato in Virginia, USA (image: US Department of Agriculture)

In each of the countries considered in the webinar, the farm labour force tends to be predominantly made up of migrants. A variety of legal frameworks are used to mobilise workers across borders and immobilise them in the workplace. In Canada, for instance, guestworker programmes bring in tens of thousands of seasonal farmworkers from Mexico and the Caribbean to work on fruit and vegetable farms. Since they are required to be employed by a particular employer as a condition of their visa, and changing employers is almost impossible, employers wield enormous power over these workers. In the US and Italy, a significant portion of the farmworker population lacks the proper legal authorisation to work. This means that the workers are vulnerable to deportation by state agencies, which inhibits any resistance to exploitative working conditions.

In the UK, a seasonal agricultural programme has been recently launched and expanded to replace the migrant workforce previously provided by free movement under European Union rules. In each of the jurisdictions, de jure and de facto restrictions on collective bargaining along with weak employment standards and poor government enforcement further constrain farmworkers’ capacity to act, adding to their marginalisation.

It is striking that even as countries closed their borders to travel due to the pandemic, migrant farmworkers were allowed entry on the basis of their importance to food production. How do we resolve the apparent paradox between the essentialness of agriculture and farm work, but legal frameworks that treat workers as ‘eminently disposable commodities’? In fact, there is no paradox at all. Whilst many were initially hopeful that the discourse of ‘essential work’ would operate to revalorise occupations such as farm labour, it is increasingly clear that the narrative merely affirms that this work needs to be performed regardless of the consequences for individual workers and their families. If anything, public declarations deeming particular sectors essential have simply reinforced the notion that some workers’ lives are cheap.

The difficult task of revaluing work will require political struggle and the organisations represented at the webinar had a variety of different strategies for achieving this outcome. Bridget Henderson spoke of the challenges faced by traditional trade unions to organise a transient workforce to engage in collective bargaining in the UK. Alagie Jinkang and Vasanthi Venkatesh represent organisations that have taken a different path. By engaging in community building and forms of direct action such as wildcat strikes, these organisations have won very specific gains, although their strategies have not resulted in a broader transformation of the situation faced by farmworkers.

Gerardo Reyes Chavez described the private governance regime established by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, in which lead firms such as supermarkets and fast food companies were enlisted to purchase their produce from growers with non-exploitative employment practices. Although this programme has had remarkable success in improving working conditions of tomato harvesters in Florida, and there is some evidence of it being used as model elsewhere, a range of contingent factors will affect whether it can be more broadly replicated. Given the global nature of the food system today, transnational conversations between advocates and farmworkers will be necessary to inspire and coordinate a response.

A recording of the webinar is available here. A podcast is available here.

Manoj Dias-Abey is Lecturer in Law at the University of Bristol and co-ordinator of the MMB research challenge Trade, Labour, Capital.

Migrants abandoned – lockdown at the Mexican-Guatemalan border

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

By Ailsa Winton.

Dear Bridget

I hope you are keeping well and sane. Although working at home is quite normal for me, the anxiety is not. So it was great to read your letter and to be able to share some thoughts!

I feel as if I am writing this from many places at once: from my home in Tapachula, at the southern tip of Mexico; from Guatemala where – until recently – I had been busily working on sabbatical research; and also from the UK, where I am virtually rooted to home and to loved ones. Living this ‘global’ event simultaneously through different places like that is interesting but quite unsettling; experiences, information, decisions and relationships take on an entirely different form in relation to each other.

Being a distant spectator even to things that are close by has been weird. When things happen, as they often do here, not being able to be physically present is odd and frustrating. But much more importantly, the fact that local NGOs can’t do any face-to-face work at the moment means many lifelines are being cut off for those who need them most. For many, economic precarity is becoming critical, especially among migrants.

A fence across and empty street. Two parked pick-ups.
‘Tyre repair shop open’: local business tries to attract customers amidst road closures in a southern Mexican border town (image: author’s own)

In Guatemala, the government was fast to act, moving quite quickly to limit movement both from outside and within its borders. I was midway through some fieldwork on violence-based displacement there when rumours about shutdowns began to circulate in March. People in the rural communities in Huehuetenango where I had been working were worried about how they would be able to meet their basic needs in the face of strict curfews and severe restrictions on movement. I couldn’t help but think apocalyptically about what a major outbreak of COVID-19 would look like in those same places. Thankfully, this has not yet happened, but already high levels of food insecurity are now critical in many parts of the country.

For its part, Mexico’s official response so far in terms of control has been patchy and notably more relaxed than many neighbours to the south. There is definitely a sense that people do not feel protected or reassured in general, and abundant misinformation circulating on social media has stoked fears; there have been many reports of locals blocking roads to stop the intrusion of the infected outsider and, shockingly, many cases of attacks and threats of violence targeting healthcare workers and hospitals. So, as my dad back in the UK pops out to clap the NHS one Thursday evening as we chat on skype, I am reminded in a very crude way of the hugely complex social conditions shaping personal responses to this ‘global’ threat.

Meanwhile, the US-Mexico-Central America migration dystopia continues apace. Just one example: in April, the authorities in Mexico decided to bus hundreds of undocumented Central American migrants from detention centres in northern and central Mexico to the southern border with Guatemala with a view to ‘repatriating’ them. Nothing particularly unusual in that, except that they did this in the full knowledge that Guatemala had sealed its border weeks previously, making crossing to that or any of the other countries of origin impossible. So they left them at the border, hundreds of people with nowhere to go in the midst of a pandemic.

Old tyres lie across the road; men stand in front of vehicles
A temporary roadblock at the approach to the Guatemalan border (image: author’s own)

Some Guatemalans decided to cross the river dividing the two countries, bypassing border controls, and try their luck with the police-enforced curfew on the other side. But most were stuck, left to weigh their barely existent options. Amidst rising tensions with locals, the National Guard was forced to intervene to remove the offending migrants, loading them onto buses again only to dump them in groups outside Tapachula, the nearest large town some 15km away from the border. An atrocious act under any circumstances, but especially now with migrant shelters and other services closed, and even public space cordoned off. But what else to do with these disposable bodies when they can no longer be discarded in the usual receptacles (detention centres, migrant shelters, countries of origin), other than to just toss them on the side of the road?

Like you, I am particularly struck that many people have suddenly become aware of mobility as something that shapes life. I suppose like other types of privilege, that of being able to choose your mobility is invisible to those who benefit from it, until it is challenged. As a migrant who studies human mobility, I have certainly been made aware of my own mobility privilege, and I have also witnessed first-hand over many years the noxious effects of precarious mobility. You are spot on with what you say about ‘precarious migrant time’. I see so clearly now amidst so much uncertainty that one of the privileges of being able to choose your mobility is the degree of certainty it affords.

I look forward to reading your piece on corona-nationalism! This massive systemic rupture is so full of transformative potential, but of course it also brings a real danger of that transformation taking us down dark paths. There is so much to reflect on and learn about collectively. So it is really encouraging to see so much excellent critical thinking already coming out. Notice how flexible academic time can be when it wants! Let’s hope those voices start to talk and pull together.

Keep in touch! There’s another platitude turned genuine.

Warm wishes,

Ailsa

Ailsa Winton is a Senior Researcher in the Department of Society and Culture at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, Tapachula, Mexico. Her research currently focuses on processes of mobility, inequality and violence in the context of border regions.

The relevance of luxuries during a global pandemic

By Tamar Hodos 

In these extraordinary times, I have made a contribution to society by providing a timely news story that does not involve the current global pandemic. This is the results of a study that forms part of my ongoing research into the production, distribution and socio-cultural significance of luxuries in past globalising contexts. One might well question the tact of highlighting luxuries at a time when human life and economic stability are at tremendous risk, however. 

Carved ostrich egg with hole in top
Decorated ostrich egg. © Tamar Hodos, University of Bristol (with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum)

In the interconnected world of the ancient Greeks, Phoenicians, Assyrians and Egyptians, ostrich eggs were turned into highly decorated vessels, and they were coveted by elites across the Mediterranean and Middle East. The project, in collaboration with colleagues at the British Museum and Durham University, has explored where eggs were laid, whether the mother was wild or captive, and how the eggs were worked. The journal publishing the results timed its release to coincide with Easter. The research has received global attention. 

It might seem frivolous to discuss luxury good production methods when everyone is affected by Covid-19. Luxurious objects are the preserve of the wealthiest, who can afford them. When so many people have lost their jobs and rapid economic recovery prospects are bleak, it may even appear crass to emphasise materials beyond reach for so many. 

Luxuries impact upon many more than their elite consumers, however, and in this lies their wider relevance to society, both past and presentOur study has revealed that decorated ostrich egg production in antiquity was a particularly complex affair. We established that the eggs were acquired from wild, rather than captive, birds. As a result, we can suggest that the production process begins with trackers, who had to find nest sites and steal eggs by one means or another.

Ostrich nests are difficult to spot because they are dug into the ground amid grasses such that they are invisible from across the landscape. The female’s colouring further camouflages the site during the day, when she incubates the eggs; the male’s colouring does the same at night, when he keeps the eggs warm. An ostrich will lay its head flat if it senses a predator, which is the origin of the notion that ostriches bury their heads in the sand. But do not take that as passiveness: the birds can kill with a single kick.  

Faint carving of ram's head on shell
Detail of a ram’s head. © Tamar Hodos, University of Bristol (with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum)

Acquiring eggs entailed risk to the tracker. Firstly, it could take days to find nest sites, since a male ostrich’s territory may extend up to 20km2, and nest locations seem to have no relation to nest sites from previous seasons within a territory. Secondly, other predators equally dangerous to humans inhabit the same landscapes as ostriches. Even if the tracker chose to kill an ostrich rather than merely steal its eggs, the bird itself was not the only threat. 

Furthermore, it transpires that just because you could source an ostrich egg locally, it does not necessarily mean that you did. In antiquity, ostriches were indigenous to north Africa and today’s Middle East. Using isotope analyses, our study was able to determine different environmental zones across this expanse where the mothers roamed during ovulation. But this raises new questions such as whether fresh eggs themselves were traded as source material, and if eggs from different areas had different perceived values. Who was involved in these exchanges? 

We also learned that an egg needs to dry out naturally for an extended period of time after blowing (emptying) before the shell is suitable for carving. This necessitates safe storage, which has economic implications as storage creates a longterm investment before reaping payment.   

Only once an egg was suitably dried could highly skilled craftsmen undertake their decoration. In this lies a social interpretation complication, for artisans were mobile during this era. For example, Phoenician craftsmen were known to be in the employ of Assyrian kings in Assyria. So, should we consider a product made by such an individual as a Phoenician or Assyrian object 

Furthermore, what does it mean when a deceased Etruscan king in Italy is interred with a decorated ostrich egg? Or a Phoenician residing in Spain? How do those meanings overlap and differ? As the eggs were imports to both regions, what does this tell us about the varieties of connectivities between cultures using ostrich eggs? This line of questioning is valuable to our own era, because our identities cannot necessarily be understood simply from how we style ourselves, especially as our choices are often contextually significant, and when objects, dress, style and people are highly mobile. 

Faint carving of lotus flower on eggshell
Detail of a lotus flower motif. © Tamar Hodos, University of Bristol (with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum)

The ostrich egg study used the mobility of objects themselves to learn about the variety of people involved in production and exchange in the past, as well as shared and divergent social practices of materials in common, but its relevance does not lie just in learning more about the ancient world for diverting news stories. This approach is applicable to society today because of our own social relationships with the material world. Today, the same object may concurrently have overlapping and different social or symbolic meanings for diverse populations, while its production and distribution connects people in complex ways across time and place. Understanding the relationships between our social lives and material worlds helps us foster better relationships with one another, especially with regard to social and cultural differences. Objects ‘belong’ to many more than just their final consumers. Luxuries extend across the full spectrum of society.   

Unfortunately, so does Covid-19. 

Tamar Hodos is Reader in Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Bristol and a unit director on the MSc Migration and Mobility Studies.

 

A moment of opportunity? Britain and the maritime security challenge

By Tim Edmunds and Scott Edwards

On 28 February 2020, SafeSeas hosted an IdeasLab in Bristol on UK maritime security after Brexit, with the kind support of PolicyBristol, Migration Mobilities Bristol, and the Bristol Global Insecurities Centre. Titled ‘Securing Britain’s Seas’, the goal of the day was to ask how maritime insecurities and blue crimes impact on UK interests, explore how current governance arrangements work in response to these, and consider how these may be challenged and transformed both by a rapidly changing security environment and the challenges of Brexit.

The IdeasLab provided an opportunity for policymakers, practitioners, and academics from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, including security studies, law, social policy and politics, to engage with one another. Participants from all major UK maritime security agencies, including high level participation, exchanged views and knowledge with leading academics in order to advance understanding of the UK’s maritime security environment.

A battleship rests in harbour, a British flag flying from the bow
HMS Bristol. Photo by Random Acts of Language, licensed under Creative Commons

Panels focused on three core themes of importance for British maritime security. The first covered ‘Threats, risks and opportunities’, chaired by SafeSeas Co-Director Professor Timothy Edmunds, and featured Dan O’Mahoney (Director, Joint Maritime Security Centre), James Driver (Head of Maritime Security and Resilience Division, Department for Transport) and Dr. Sofia Galani (University of Bristol). Discussions revolved around the complexity of maritime security governance in the UK context. This complexity is visible in relation to the diversity of challenges at hand – including the protection of maritime trade routes, the prospect of a terrorist attack at sea, threats to marine critical infrastructure, human trafficking and movement of people, the smuggling of illicit goods, the maintenance of public order at sea, and marine environmental management including fisheries protection – and also to the web of different authorities, departments, agencies and private actors engaged in the UK maritime space.

These challenges are often ‘invisible’ in the sense that the general public and politicians are often less invested in the maritime arena than other areas of public policy. Gaps also exist in the legal framework governing the maritime domain – for example around port management – and more work needs to be done to encourage inter-operability and coordination between agencies. However, the panel also highlighted a moment of opportunity in this area too, with a renewed focus on maritime security issues following the 2019 oil tanker crisis in the Straits of Hormuz, the implications of the Brexit process and the prospect of a new UK Maritime Security Strategy in the near future.

The second panel, chaired by Professor Bridget Anderson (University of Bristol), focused on ‘Boundaries, borders and maritime regions’ and featured Professor Sir Malcolm Evans (University of Bristol), Joe Legg (Maritime desk, Foreign and Commonwealth Office), and Ann Singleton (University of Bristol). The discussion raised interesting questions on what should be considered British seas, and how these boundaries have been, or are being, constructed. Panellists agreed on the fundamentally transnational nature of the UK maritime region, incorporating UK home waters, but also critically important maritime spaces such as the North Sea and Mediterranean as well as overseas territories and the international maritime trade routes.

Above all the panel emphasised the need to manage the UK’s maritime boundaries and borders humanely and with proper regard to safety at sea, particularly in relation to the movement of vulnerable people and migrants. There was also intense discussion over the extent to which security responses are appropriate for such issues and the inter-linkages between maritime security and other areas such as migration policy.

Finally the third panel, chaired by Professor Christian Bueger (University of Copenhagen & SafeSeas co-director), addressed  ‘Governance and coordination’ and featured Caroline Cowan (Fisheries Lead, Scottish Government), and Professor Richard Barnes (University of Hull). The panel and discussion highlighted the need for coordinated and inclusive governance in the maritime domain, and for more work to be done on the inter-connected nature of many maritime security threats and scalable nature of responses across these. The panel also highlighted the potential for localised issues (such as conflicts over fisheries access) to escalate to national or regional level problems (and vice versa).

A large metal boat with radar on top
Hirta (Marine Fisheries Vessel) Arriving Aberdeen Harbour June 2019. Photo by Rab Lawrence, licensed by Creative Commons

Discussions again emphasised the broad and diverse nature of the interest groups engaged in maritime security and the difficulties of ensuring fair and effective governance across these and their various identities and interests. Participants highlighted the importance of Scotland in the UK maritime security picture, with 62 per cent of the UK’s (home) Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) located off the Scottish coast, the remote nature of much of this territory, and the devolved nature of many marine environmental management and policing issues. Moreover, and even within government, there is sometimes a lack of understanding over jurisdictional issues between national and devolved authorities engaged in UK maritime security governance.

Overall, the IdeasLab discussions were extremely rich and productive. They highlighted the complexity of the maritime security challenge, the multiple, diverse and sometimes conflicting nature of security governance in this area and the potentially transformative impact of the UK’s exit from the EU on existing practices, arrangements and relationships.  Insights from the ideaslab will be expanded upon and presented in an upcoming policy brief produced by SafeSeas.

Tim Edmunds is Professor of International Security and Director of the Global Insecurities Centre at the University of Bristol. Scott Edwards is an Associate Teacher and Research Associate for the Transnational Organised Crime at Sea project at Bristol.

SafeSeas is a network of academic institutions that studies maritime security governance and efforts to support it through capacity building. This post is republished from the SafeSeas blog.