On being a space invader: negotiating whiteness in education

By Evelyn Miller.

Poster for Juice, the online South Asian collective and magazine (2020)

I am a first-year sociology student at the University of Bristol, and a mixed South Asian woman, my mum being of Malaysian and Mauritian descent and my dad being of English and Irish descent. This blog sketches out the troubles I have experienced in white-majority educational institutions to show why it’s important for university staff and students and to challenge practices that reproduce structures of elitism, whiteness, and masculinity

Before secondary school, I lived in Woking on a diverse council estate with lots of friends and similar families nearby. As I started secondary school, we moved to Godalming, an almost entirely white and middle-class area in Surrey. Our house is on a road that was originally wholly council owned. Set in the Surrey hills, it is not your typical council estate, but a stigma is still attached to living there. Meanwhile, being one of the only families of colour in the town has made us hyper-visible. We are positioned as ‘other’ and our presence is often met with racism and hostility. I remember other children shouting, ‘go back home!’ at my younger sister, aged 10 at the time, as she walked the dog in the first few months of living there. At school and college, I experienced more subtle and institutional racism. There, I did not simply study for my GCSEs and A Levels but was also forced to learn about the inequalities and hierarchies of race and class that positioned me as an ‘other’.

At my state school, I was one of a small minority of people of colour. Even though I often academically outperformed my peers, it seemed I constantly had to prove my ability, while my peers who presented as outwardly middle-class and white were simply assumed to be able. Disappointed by a curriculum that did not reflect my own experiences as a woman of colour, I took it upon myself to bring my views and experiences into my work. For instance, when a small group of us were tasked with writing a satirical article for an AS Level in Creative Writing, I wrote about my frustration at my teachers consistently calling me Moli (another South Asian girl in the year) rather than Evelyn. I titled the article ‘The difference is written all over our faces’, but it met with ridicule from both my Creative Writing peers and my teacher, who even joked about calling me Moli in the feedback. I think the only person who made me feel ‘seen’ at school after reading this was Moli herself.

The painful invalidation of my voice and experience continued as I studied for A Levels. My final Art project explored the identities of women of colour through a series of portraits. By sharing this project beyond college, I met lots of other artists of colour, took part in exhibitions, and founded a South Asian collective and magazine, Juice. Yet my art teacher dismissed the project entirely, suggesting I should just focus on portraiture and my artistic technique. Though disheartened, I ignored him and dedicated my Personal Essay and final piece to discussing the representation and agency of women of colour in the art world. I achieved an A*. Though my teacher praised my work, he never acknowledged the importance of the themes I was exploring.

drawings of faces
Evelyn’s A-Level Art sketchbook (2019)

Nirmal Puwar’s book Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place with its analysis of the dynamics of in/visibility experienced by people of colour in white-majority institutions captures my experience at school and college in Godalming. I hoped that in moving to Bristol to study sociology I would leave behind my sense of being a space invader. But I was disappointed to find the core modules offered to first year students still prioritise the theories and thought of white sociologists, especially white men, and often completely overlook the critical work of scholars and activists of colour who had inspired my interest in sociology. In some cases, all the essential readings were by white authors. How can I, or any women of colour, find our place as sociologists whilst being taught that thinking sociologically is almost exclusively a thought process of white men?

Postcolonial feminist thought was introduced, but in a module on global sociology, as if such thinking is only relevant to global issues. Nonetheless, it was refreshing and exciting to study the works of women of colour, although ironically my seminar tutor misgendered the sociologist Gurminder Bhambra, referring to her using the pronouns he/him. Other seminar tutors have been key to my happiness and success this year, however. They have provided me with support and additional readings prioritising intersectional thought, and they have given me hope that we can create radical anti-racist and feminist spaces within the university.

When people of colour question the overwhelming whiteness of British universities, Sara Ahmed says, they are often heard as speaking about themselves, being too ‘subjective’, rather than speaking about wider structures of inequality. But the sociological imagination, as famously defined by C. Wright Mills, demands ‘the vivid awareness of the relationship between personal experience and the wider society’ – personal troubles are inherently public issues. My ‘personal troubles’ described above connect to a public problem, namely the fact that schools, colleges and universities are not ‘neutral’ spaces of learning but continue to take whiteness as the norm and reproduce classed, raced and gendered hierarchies, marginalising minority groups.

Anti-racism activists and scholars have worked for centuries, and continue to work, both within and outside of institutions, to challenge racist systems, policies and practices. Gurminder Bhambra recently presented a radical argument for decolonising universities, the ‘home of the coloniser, in the heart of establishment’, including greater attention to anti-racist practice within universities. It is important for students as well as staff to get involved in MMB’s Anti-Racist Network so that we can collectively explore what it means to decolonise the university and how to do it, as well as wider issues of racism and how to combat them.

Evelyn Miller is studying a BA in Sociology at the University of Bristol. She is a co-founder and the creative director of Juice, an online platform for sharing the lived experience of the South Asian diaspora.

Please contact Julia O’Connell Davidson if you would like more information about MMB’s Anti-Racist Network.

Are transnational marriages bad for integration?

By Sarah Spencer

The belief that marriage partners from less developed countries are bad for ‘integration’ is firmly held by European policy makers. With pressure to curb immigration, that concern has conveniently justified raising the bar for spouses to enter.

Marriage Migration and Integration (2020) interrogates that assumption with substantial evidence from an ESRC-funded study on transnational marriages in two of the largest minority communities in the UK: Pakistani Muslims and Indian Sikhs. Negative discourses focus on Muslim marriages in particular – hence the value of the comparison the study provides.

Led by Katharine Charsley (University of Bristol) in collaboration with Oxford colleagues, the study uncovered the first clear evidence of a fall in the number of transnational marriages in both groups. Yet around half British Pakistani Muslims and a quarter of British Indian Sikhs currently have partners from the Indian subcontinent.

Coined a ‘first generation in every generation’, the assumption is that the new family member, with less egalitarian social norms, drags social progress back from modern values; and that they are individuals whose lack of education and skills will impede their own integration and that of their partner and future children.

Yet the evidence supporting that assertion is limited; and uses problematic notions of ‘integration’, a concept rightly subject in recent years to severe critiques. This study used a ‘whole society’ concept and new definition of integration that recognises the crucial role played by the opportunities and barriers individuals face, and the differing pace and impact of integration processes across different spheres of life. The ways in which experiences in one sphere, such as employment, impact on others is a constant theme in the substantial analysis of the Labour Force Survey and qualitative interview data which form the backbone of the book.

A wedding couple hold hands in Lahore (photo: Kahdija Yousaf)

Writing about integration is like untangling a complicated knot—identifying the strands and teasing apart their relationships to each other. Pulling one strand or another first will expose particular sets of inter-relationships in a different order. In this case, to disentangle the impact of transnational marriage among other factors, the study explored the trajectories of a unique sampling of sibling pairs: couples in which both partners are UK born or raised and transnational couples where one partner came to the UK as an adult. The research design focused on families in which both couples could be found.

Exploring experiences in employment, education, extended family living, social networks and participation in community life, along with gender roles and belonging, the findings not surprisingly reveal a diversity of experiences that include – but also significantly depart from the simplistic characterisations of the trope.

Debunking myths

  • While some migrant wives take on a domestic role, many are keen to, and do, engage in the labour market. While some migrant spouses prefer to speak their first language, English is also often used. Language use is varied and contextual.
  • Transnational marriage can reinforce patriarchal gender expectations, but can lead to greater autonomy for a British woman, releasing her from the expectations faced when in-laws are close at hand. Her husband, moreover, is reliant on her for local knowledge and support.
  • Transnational marriage is associated with higher rates of extended family living, assumed to be a marker of patriarchal traditionalism; but it also brings benefits: sharing expenses helps compensate for low incomes and allows saving for investment in property and business.
  • Significant proportions of migrant spouses have post-secondary education, but can face barriers to translating educational capital into labour market outcomes. The workplace can be an important source of social contacts; but for wives not in work networks can nevertheless expand through their children’s school, language classes and community groups.
  • Retaining an identity with the country of origin does not inhibit full engagement in the UK. A sense of national identity, however, does not always come with participation in other spheres, and can be inhibited or reverse following experiences of discrimination.
  • Crucially, some experiences are not the result of transnational marriage at all but of the couple’s stage in their life course: marriage leading, as for others, to new roles and responsibilities including child-rearing. Reliance on family, a narrowing of social networks, lack of time for further education or civic participation, reflect a stage in the life course here, not migration.

Spouses face similar challenges to other migrants, but they have one advantage – a family who can provide knowledge, support and connections. Most migrant husbands find work through family contacts. Families’ resources and attitudes are, however, not uniform. For newcomers, information, signposting and support to reduce reliance on relatives for awareness of opportunities would help, as would more flexible opportunities to access language classes.

The irony of a simplistic portrayal of transnational marriage is that it reinforces the negative stereotypes that are themselves a barrier to integration. It should be possible to address gender inequality, and advocate services, without denigrating the family practices of entire ethnic groups. Instead of finger-pointing at newcomers, we could focus on unlocking the assets people bring – the under-use of migrants’ educational qualifications for instance – and the benefits of facilitating the full participation of all residents in the country’s economic, social, cultural and political life.

Sarah Spencer is Director of Strategy and a Senior Fellow at the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS), University of Oxford, and was Director of the Global Exchange on Migration and Diversity until 2019. This post was first published by COMPAS on 06/06/2020 following the publication of Marriage Migration and Integration (2020).


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.


Lessons we’ve learned from COVID so far

By Bridget Anderson 

Far from being ‘all in it together’ COVID-19 is exposing the mechanisms that promote and maintain inequality within as well as between states. In the UK, Sweden and the USA, among other countries, evidence is emerging that Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people are disproportionately likely to catch and die from coronavirus. Increased susceptibility is in part because of poorer living conditions and long-term health inequalities, but also the likelihood of working in ‘forward facing’ and essential jobs.

These discrepant vulnerabilities and their association with race and class divisions are acknowledged, but citizenship status has so far been overlooked in reports and data on those who have caught and died from the virus. In a recent EUI hosted webinar, Friedrich Poeschel illustrated that non-citizens account for a substantial share of employment in many sectors that are now defined as essential.

Ambulances wait in the street
NHS ambulances collect COVID-19 patients in London. Photo by Joe Kibria on Unsplash.

This includes health professionals: in the US 25% of doctors are non-citizens, in Switzerland 34%. In the UK, Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care tweeted on 17th November 2019: ‘It’s the National Health Service not the International Health Service. Everyone should make a fair contribution towards our NHS so after Brexit we’ll extend the NHS surcharge to all non-UK residents.’ But the staffing of the NHS is international: 37% of hospital doctors gained their qualification outside the UK. Furthermore, a report by the Migration Advisory Committee found that migrant nurses are paid 22% less than their UK national colleagues. The NHS surcharges Hancock is so pleased with are currently imposed on all non-EU citizens, meaning that nurses, doctors, care workers and others on the frontline have to pay a £400 annual ‘NHS surcharge’ for themselves and for each of their family members.

The second reading of the Immigration Bill was postponed on Tuesday. Perhaps the appetite for the crackdown on ‘low-skilled workers’ from abroad is flagging. The COVID crisis has exposed how many of the jobs on which our everyday lives depend – the hospital cleaners, supermarket shelf stackers, retail workers, drivers, carers and agricultural and food-processing workers – are low waged, low status and undertaken by BAME people and migrants. It suggests we have to go further than seeking to expand definitions of skill and challenge whether skill is an adequate measure of value at all.

One of the consequences of the focus of immigration policy on skills is that non-EU nationals working in these essential sectors may be on spousal visas, visitor visas, cultural exchange type visas, with permanent residence or simply working illegally. This is likely to be particularly true for the precarious workers in the gig economy who work via platforms such as Deliveroo, Instacart and Uber. It is notoriously difficult to measure the gig economy, and migrant participation in it is even more difficult, but evidence from the US and Europe suggests that migrant workers are a significant proportion of this labour force.

The vast majority of workers in the gig economy are vulnerable. This is not only because they do face-to-face work, but also because they typically have no employee benefits. Researchers in France surveyed bike delivery workers two days before and two days after lockdown and found that those workers with incomes under 1,000 Euros a month were most likely to keep on working.

Man rides a bicycle carrying a large bag containing a food delivery
Takeaway food delivery. Photo by Patrick Connor Klopf on Unsplash.

Migrant workers are made additionally vulnerable because they often have no safety net at all. In the UK, for instance, many legally resident and legally working migrants have a condition of No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF). This means that they cannot claim Universal Credit, which is the basic safety net for people who cannot work. There is a public health risk to having people in a situation where they are compelled to work. If the COVID-19 crisis has taught us anything it is that what is bad for migrants is not good for citizens, in fact we are seeing it is very bad for citizens as well.

One of the perceived advantages of migrant labour on migrant worker visas is that migrants are not only often lower waged but also easier to hire and fire as temporary workers. Time is an important factor in demand and supply of migrant worker visa holders, who usually enter on temporary programmes. COVID has exposed the taken-for-granted access to low-waged seasonal migrant labour with its flexibility and poor wages that relies not just on them wanting to come, but on international transport infrastructure, and sending states permitting their citizens to move.

These labour supply chains are not as resilient as imagined. The obvious example is seasonal agricultural workers. Producers in Canada, Australia, US and the European Union are seriously concerned about labour shortages and the European Commission last week called on member states to allow seasonal agricultural workers to travel within the EU as essential workers. Even at this time of lockdown in the UK, large farms have been chartering planes to bring in temporary workers and labour providers and last week requested the UK government to charter planes for labour supply.

One alternative to employing migrant labour and to improving employment conditions has been offshoring. But offshoring can reduce supply chain resilience. We are learning the hard way about the perils of fragile and long supply chains in vital supplies. The UK government might say that it makes more sense to import strawberries than to be dependent on seasonal agricultural workers. But that does not mean that British consumers are not dependent on low-waged migrant labour – they are just dependent on low-waged Moroccan labour working in Spain, instead, where the UK government has no levers of control over supply.

Let’s re-think how we value work, both in terms of money and status. And may the lessons from COVID last.

‘You Clap For Me Now’ – The coronavirus poem on racism and immigration in Britain.

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


No more ‘back to normal’ – ‘normal’ was the problem. Thoughts on corona

By Bridget Anderson 

(Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash)

We are facing an unprecedented challenge and opportunity that we are not simply observing as social scientists but experiencing at personal, institutional and professional levels. We are living a natural experiment whose reagents include multiple types of mobilities, clashing across different scales.

The COVID virus is a human infection of animal origin, and the outbreak is likely to have originated in a market selling dead and live wild animals as food. It is very important we appreciate the political, economic and geographic factors that collide in such markets and challenge lazy assumptions about cultural practices and finger pointing at China. Across the world, big business has undermined local food security, pushing smallholders off their land and fisherfolk from their fishing grounds, increasing the cost of food and making subsistence more difficult. As the price of protein has risen the urban poor have turned to ‘bush meat’ and rural people have moved to land that is more difficult to cultivate, sometimes encroaching on areas previously uninhabited by human populations, exposing them to new animal harms and disturbing previously resilient ecosystems 

Factory farming too has driven the emergence of new diseases. The mass ‘production’ of livestock crowds together millions of farmed animals in breeding grounds for disease and species jumping. Most recently Rob Wallace has co-authored this must-read article that describes brilliantly how, for viruses to survive, they must let their hosts live long enough to enable them to spread, but that in factory farming they must jump to the next host before the first host is slaughteredand the next host is genetically the same, further facilitating spread. Livestock production and multinational agribusiness are owned and controlled by a handful of multinational corporations – JBS, Tyson Foods, Cargill and Smithfields (the last owned by the Chinese WH Group) 

The multiple intersections of (im)mobilities of capital, of food, of humans, of animals, of the microbiological have produced the contemporary situation where the ‘cure’, it seems, is human immobility. This is only a temporary cure, though, and ultimately, we will have to attend to the connection between the socio-economic and the biological that lies at the heart of human reproduction, but which has become, quite literally, toxic. Wallace et al. describe how human epidemics, including Ebola and SARS, have been multiplying and will continue to do so unless we change the structure of global food production. 

To see the virus as originating in China, therefore, is to miss the powerful transnational forces at play. This is not to let the Chinese government off the hook. In a really interesting article the Chuang collective argues that China’s unregulated industries, rapid urbanization and low public spending on health, combined with the massive growth in livestock production (the world’s largest dairy farm is the Mudanjiang City megafarm with an acreage roughly equivalent to Portugal!) and the formalization of the wild food sector all contributed to the emergence and propagation of the virus.  

But we desperately need a politics that sees through and beyond the scale of the national. The national is implicit in appeals to citizenship and the ready mobilising of images of being ‘at war’: this not only obfuscates the sources but also the consequences of the virus. Western media attention has focussed on the rich world, but it is people in areas of the world that have long borne the burden of resource depletion, exploitation and global inequality, who are set to carry the cost of COVID-19. Their conditions risk being further worsened by global, national and camp specific lockdowns, the cessation of donations, the impossibility of moving for livelihoods. Spare a thought for the Rohingya people under lockdown in camps in Bangladesh and Myanmar and remember that those who are malnourished or who have diseases of poverty have compromised immune systems, which mean they are more likely to become seriously ill. Those ‘migrants’ from the Global South who are resident in the rich world may fare scarcely better think about the refugees in Lesbos expected to wash their hands but sharing one tap between 1,300 people.  

The scale of the national does matter, of course. It is crystal clear that where we are living matters, as national governments are responding quite differently to the public health crisis. But this does not mean that those residing on the same territory are ‘in it together’. True, in the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Prince Charles have both tested positive. The virus does not recognise passports, wealth or power. Yet it is precisely this that highlights the existent inequalities that mean that some of us are more likely to develop mild symptoms than others. Some of us are also far more protected from the economic ravages that this epidemic will cause 

There are so many ways in which the current crisis is related to our work at MMB and we will be exploring them in future posts – so please get in touch with Emily (mmb-sri@bristol.ac.uk) with texts and ideas. We will see how we can take this forward in a different format in the coming weeks so watch this space. Some starters for our research challenges these are what are crossing my mind as I write – some ideas to put out there: 

Trade Labour Capital: we can think about the movement of animals and the movement of people. And let’s not forget the movement of capital. After the 2008 financial crisis Goldman Sachs bought into Chinese poultry farms – reservoirs of avian flu.  

Bodies Borders Justice: we can think about how human movement into new areas has affected zoonotic transmission (importantly let’s not blame the ‘migrants’ here but look at the forces behind such movement). Frustratingly MMB have had to cancel the activity we planned to hold jointly with the Bristol BioDesign Institute and the New School for Social Research on ‘Biomia’, exploring microbiological mobilities – seems we were ahead of the curve on that one! 

Control Conflict Resistance: we can think about the surveillance and mobility controls being ramped up and normalised across the world – what is the risk of these ‘sticking’ after this phase has passed? 

Imagination Futures Belonging: how can we think relationally, enabling us to locate the origins of the crisis not in a single animal in a wet market in Wuhan, but in entanglements whose ‘knots’ are not only in Beijing and Hong Kong but also in global cities like New York, London and Paris? 

In the recent uprisings in Chile one of the slogans was ‘We won’t go back to normal because normal was the problem’. Normal was indeed the problem. What can we start learning from the current situations to move towards a better, more just, normal? 

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


Bristol Colombia Week 2019: Truth-seeking and the Colombian Diaspora

By Mary Ryder

Three years on from the negotiated peace agreement between the FARC-EP and the Colombian state, MMB co-hosted members of the Colombian Truth Commission (CTC) to participate in ‘Truth, Memory and Diaspora: The Seeds of Peace in Colombia’, a week of transnational dialogue and collaboration between UK and Colombian institutions. 

The University of Bristol has been working with the CTC through a variety of different collaborative projects including ‘MEMPAZ: Bringing Memories in from the Margins’, funded by AHRC, Newton and Colciencias, which supports the creative memory practices of local organisations to bring memories from the margins into Colombia’s transitional justice processes; and ‘Transitional Justice as Education’, funded by AHRC, which works to support the gender and pedagogy work of the CTC by connecting it with feminist and educational expertise from around the world. 

The week of events provided a unique opportunity to hear directly from the CTC about the achievements, innovations and challenges of truth-seeking both within and beyond the national border at this pivotal time in Colombia’s history. In this blog I highlight the key messages shared. 

Conflict, exile and truth-telling of the ‘Colombia outside Colombia’ 

The Commissioner stands in front of MEMPAZ and MMB posters speaking
Commissioner Carlos Martín Beristain speaks about the critical importance of including the diaspora in the process of the CTC

Forced displacement has been recognised as a major consequence of the armed conflict in Colombia, sometimes forcing victims to leave the country and go into exile. According to the National Victims’ Registry, there are more than 8,500,000 victims of the armed conflict and 7,500,000 victims of forced displacement in Colombia. It is unknown exactly how many of them are living abroad but the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates it to be approximately 400,000 it is likely to be even higher. 

In an evening of talks onThe Truth Commission and the Colombian Diaspora,’ Commissioner Carlos Martín Beristain discussed the work being done to collect testimonies in the ‘Colombia outside of Colombia in order to investigate how the armed conflict has been experienced by the Colombian diaspora and uncover why so many people were forced to leave. The scale of this work is unprecedented in international Transitional Justice experience. 

Another fundamental aim of the CTC is to make the experiences of the Colombian diaspora, which are relatively unknown within Colombia, visible within the country’s historical memory. 

How can a diaspora be involved in a truth commission? 

In its first year of operation, the CTC, led by Beristain, has been working with civil society and victims’ organisations across the world to help build trust, to educate people about the CTC’s mandate and process, and to learn more about the expectations, needs and concerns of the victims. More than 120 people have been trained so far, operating within country specific ‘nodes’, to interview Colombians living in exile. 

Beristain was joined in Bristol by members of the UK Truth Commission hub to reflect on their efforts to encourage UK based Colombians to give their testimony. Five of these members, including a lawyer, an academic and a priest, gave deeply poignant accounts of the stories they have heard and the challenges they have faced in encouraging people to come forward. Andrei Gomez Suarez, one of this UK based team, called on the audience to become the channel of communication between people who may want to give a testimony and the CTC. Through the discussions it was recognised that documenting so many traumatic accounts can take its toll on those carrying out the interviews. 

The challenges of working in a polarised context 

Beristain also outlined clearly the obstacles facing the truth-seeking processes in such a polarised context, where lies have been institutionalised, pain internalised and social fractures run deep in society.  In another event that week, Gonzalo Sánchez, the former director of the Colombian National Centre for Historical Memory and a member of the Advisory Board of the Truth Commission, reflected on historical memory and peacebuilding in times of such polarisation.  

Sánchez discussed the question of who produces memory work and for whom. He raised concerns that in Colombia today, memory and truth are being threatened by toxic narratives made up of hatred, vengeance and fear, built up over years of conflict and driven by those who oppose the negotiated peace agreement. A key challenge for the CTC is to ensure that marginalised voices, which have historically been excluded and discriminated against, are heard and taken seriously by the Colombian state.  

The opportunity for reconciliation 

A man holding an infant close stares straight at the camera
Poster for the campaign, Let’s Defend the Peace, showing one of Abad Colorado’s photographs: a member of the Bojayá community, Chocó, following the 2002 massacre

The final event of the week was a screening of ‘The Witness’ (El Testigo, 2019), a new documentary about the photographer Jesús Abad Colorado who has documented violence in Colombia for over 25 years. It tells the inspiring human stories of the people in Abad Colorado’s photographs, exploring the pertinent themes of resilience and forgiveness, and what they mean to those for whom so much is at stake. The film generates a strong emotional connection with the conflict, felt even by those who experienced the violence indirectly or from a distance.

Following the screening, Gonzalo Sánchez and Lina Malagón, a Colombian human rights lawyer teaching at the University of Bristol, reflected on whether Colombia is now ripe for reconciliation. It is time to know the truth, said Malagon, because we all have a story to tell and we need to move on.   

Lessons learned 

Bristol Colombia Week 2019 provided a valuable opportunity for many Colombians and friends of Colombia to learn more about the CTC and to connect with the country’s transitional justice process, and with one another, so we can support peacebuilding from afar. Truth-seeking in Colombia will not end with the culmination of the CTC’s three-year period. It is hoped that the final report produced by the Commission will create the conditions conducive to peace and will be accompanied by meaningful efforts to promote dialogue, reconciliation and coexistence on a local and national level, and beyond the national borders. 

Mary Ryder (mr12859@bristol.ac.uk) is a PhD researcher in the School of Education, University of Bristol. Her research explores the conflict narratives of rural farmers in drug-producing regions of Colombia, within the country’s transitional justice processes.


‘So far from justice’: On the frontline of the Hostile Environment

By Natasha Carver

‘Esther, can you see Amir. He’s been refused Section 95 support …’

‘Samira, I need you to do an urgent HC1 for this chap with kidney failure …’

‘Mariana, we’ve got a young boy off a lorry just turned up. He has nothing. He’s with Muna in the main hall just now getting a cup of tea and some warm clothes …’

Harriet, the Caseworker Coordinator, is allocating appointments. If the work sounds complicated, it is: Section 95, Schedule 10, Section 4, Pre-Action Protocol, HC1. Anyone could be forgiven for thinking that Harriet’s team were hot-shot lawyers, well-remunerated for their extensive knowledge and experience. But this is Bristol Refugee Rights (BRR), and Harriet’s team are all volunteers.

A teenager holds a mask he has made in front of his face
A young migrant shows his craft work at BRR

Some years ago, when I worked in the sector, there were specialist providers who received statutory funding to help asylum-seekers – who are not permitted to work – to apply for financial support and accommodation. But government policy put an end to that funding and now, in Bristol at least, those seeking access to the little to which they are entitled come in despair to the advice team at BRR. I’m an academic now and a trustee of BRR, and I’ve come to find out about the everyday impact of the Hostile Environment on its intended targets.

When she was Home Secretary, Theresa May enacted a policy aimed at creating an environment ‘so hostile’, that those seeking safety and security in the UK would abandon their quest, give up fighting for their rights and entitlements, and leave the country. This policy has not been successful: the number of those removed voluntarily and by force from the UK has fallen year by year, while recent research estimates that for every ‘authorised’ migrant in the UK, there is another ‘unauthorised’ one.

But the policy has caused untold harm to many. The national media has reported on some of the casualties. The plight, for example, of the highly-skilled, recruited with the hope that they would make the UK their home and then subsequently refused leave to remain after many years on the spurious basis of tax return discrepancies. The abrupt curtailment of the visas of tens of thousands of students following evidence that an unspecified number had cheated at an English test. And the terrible injustices and hardships suffered by many of the (often British) children of the Windrush generation.

These groups of ‘authorised’ migrants and/or their children are portrayed as being the innocent victims of the Hostile Environment Policy; collateral damage caused by confusing unlawful with undocumented. But what about the toll of this policy on its intended targets – asylum-seekers, failed asylum-seekers and the ‘unauthorised’? And what about the damage to British justice and reputation? Can we really still claim to be a welcoming society?

Once Harriet has finished allocations, she asks the team if there are any issues that need to be discussed. Esther relates that she gave up after spending two and a half hours waiting in a telephone queue last week on a routine call to Migrant Help, the charity awarded the Home Office contract as the ‘point of call’ for migrants who have questions about their applications or need to inform the Home Office about a change in circumstances. I’m aghast. Two and a half hours! But Esther is not complaining about the length of the wait. Kafkaesque-style government bureaucracy has become so normalised for this team that waiting – the very condition of being an asylum-seeker – is no longer noticeable as an outrage. She is complaining instead about Migrant Help’s recent decision to remove the indication regarding the position you are in the queue and therefore the potential length of the wait.

Later, Advice Team Manager Elinor explains to me that before the introduction of the Hostile Environment Policy, asylum-seekers and caseworkers could contact the Home Office directly about their applications for the basic support to which they are entitled: £37.75 per week and accommodation. The whole process of applying usually took a few weeks, and if further evidence was required, the Home Office would call and request it. Now, applications typically take twice as long, and then have to be chased and actively pursued by BRR volunteers. For a new claimant that usually means 6-8 weeks of living on the streets or sofa-surfing. Migrant Help is the only point of contact for everything support-related, including numerous housing problems such as broken boilers, rat infestations, major damp problems, no locks on the door. One BRR member spent six months with no running water.

‘They would be better called “Migrant Barrier”,’ says one volunteer. ‘They do not help.’

Volunteers recount experiences of waiting for hours, only to be cut off when they get through; of staff who seem to have little to no understanding about the process and who mis-advise. Complaints about the atrocious service fall on deaf ears: this is after all one aspect of how an environment is made hostile. Meanwhile the process of claiming financial support has become more complex and more bureaucratic. The volunteers give me examples where the Home Office has sent out a request for a different document week after week, or even the same document, repeatedly causing delay to applications. Or worse, refusing applications outright over failure to tick a box, meaning that they need to be appealed which takes more time.

I ask them to describe the system to me:

‘So far from justice.’

‘Insanely complicated.’

‘Chaotic but also cruel.’

‘Hostile. Deliberately hostile.’

A young man draws a picture
A young migrant at BRR draws about his experience as a refugee

These are applications made not just for the welfare of the migrant who will be destitute without this basic entitlement, but also for the welfare of our communities and the streets where we live. Street homelessness takes a terrible toll on the mental and physical health of the individual involved, but it also has a financial and social toll on all of us.

After the meeting I am given the opportunity to observe Esther as she talks with Amir, the BRR member who has been refused ‘Section 95’. He had applied for just the financial element because he was staying with a local family. They themselves were on a very low income and struggled to feed an extra person. The decision to refuse Amir has led the family to decide that they can no longer offer him accommodation. They have written a letter explaining their circumstances: feeding Amir on their very tight budget means they have had to scrimp on heating and clothing. They add that Amir often wakes up screaming, which disturbs them and their children.

Amir must now apply for both the financial element and accommodation. He has nowhere else to go. He is softly spoken, apologetic and deeply sad. He tells Esther that he has not seen his own family for ten years. Esther takes him through the application patiently and slowly. She says everything of importance at least three times. She tells him right at the outset that he is unlikely to be housed in Bristol. He tells Esther that he has friends here and a support network, and his mental health is bad and it would be too difficult to move somewhere else. Esther explains that she understands all this but if he applies for accommodation, he will be housed somewhere else, possibly far, far away.

While the asylum support system has justifiably been described as ‘disabling’, Esther is consistently enabling. She and fellow advice volunteers are just one part of BRR’s aptly named ‘Welcome Team’, a 30-strong group of volunteers who do all they can to provide hospitality and warmth to counter the overt government hostility.

‘Sometimes there’s not much we can practically do,’ explains Mariana, ‘but just listening to the person and treating them like a fellow human being goes such a long way.’

By the time I leave, the line of silent, crushed and despairing faces that waited outside the hall on my arrival has gone. In its place, the hall reverberates with the noise of chatter, games, crafts, cooking and laughter.

If you would like to help Amir and others affected by the Hostile Environment Policy any money you donate to Bristol Refugee Rights between 3rd and 10th December will be doubled as part of #ChristmasChallenge19 as part of The Big Give: https://www.bristolrefugeerights.org/news-and-events/urgent-appeal/.

Note: The names of the BRR volunteers and members have been changed in order to protect identities.

Natasha Carver is a Research Associate at Cardiff School of Law and Politics. She is currently researching criminal prosecutions involving migrants.


The hostile environment confuses unlawful with undocumented, with disastrous consequences

By Colin Yeo

If a policy that deprives residents of jobs, homes and money is going to be introduced, one would hope it would be targeted using the best available data with strong failsafe mechanisms in place to reverse any errors. It would, you would have thought, be a disaster if innocent individuals ended up being forced into penury and out of the country as a result of incorrect information.

In reality, Home Office data on the immigration status of residents of the United Kingdom is often wrong and this has become increasingly clear in the years following Theresa May’s announcement in 2012 of her intention to make Britain a ‘really hostile environment for illegal immigrants‘. Public confirmation was provided as early as 2013 after a contract was awarded to the private company Capita to track down 174,000 suspected unlawful residents on the Home Office database. As soon as the company started sending out threatening text messages, though, it became clear that lawful residents and even British citizens were somehow on the database (Dixon, 2018). In 2016 it emerged that hostile environment bank account checks were throwing up incorrect results as much as 10% of the time (Bolt, 2016). In these cases, people were wrongly being refused permission to open a bank account. Officials admitted that relevant changes to a person’s status might not be entered on the relevant database ‘until some months after the event, and that data was often entered in the wrong field, commonly as free text.’

Similar issues arose with the new duty on the DVLA to cancel driving licences. The Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration examined the use of these powers in 2016 (Bolt, 2016). The Home Office made 9,732 revocation requests to the DVLA in 2015, all but meeting the target set of 10,000 per year. Some of these licences were wrongly revoked, though. The same year, 259 licences had to be reinstated after complaints. In the meantime, those affected would have been unable to drive or would have committed the strict liability criminal offence of driving without a licence. As the Chief Inspector said, ‘the Home Office did not appear to appreciate the seriousness of such errors for the individuals affected.’

Diagram showing who the hostile environment affects

As well as getting the facts wrong on people it does know about, there are many people living in the UK the Home Office does not know about. The vast majority are lawful residents and many are British citizens. They just do not have documents yet, perhaps because they did not really need them until the hostile environment was launched in 2012. There is currently no population database or register for the UK, nor is there a central register of British citizens. There are plenty of British citizens who have never applied for a passport, for example. The last census showed that 17% of UK residents (about 10 million people) do not have passports, the majority of whom are likely to be British citizens. There is simply no reason for the Home Office to know about these people and, traditionally, it would be considered none of the Home Office’s business to know about them. There are also plenty of foreign nationals living in the UK unknown to the Home Office, millions of whom are lawfully resident. Some have been resident for decades and were granted status many years ago, before Home Office computer records began. Nevertheless, they are all potential victims of the hostile environment.

One of the fundamental flaws in the whole conception of the hostile environment scheme is that it is intended to affect unlawful residents but it is actually aimed at undocumented residents. Sometimes these things overlap and a person who has no documents is also unlawfully resident. But that is very far from always being the case.

This leads us to the most famous victims of all of the hostile environment: the Windrush generation. Broadly speaking, this is the label that has been attached to lawful long-term residents from Commonwealth countries. Many either came to the UK themselves when they were in effect British citizens or are the children of those who did so (before the British Nationality Act 1981 there was no such thing as a ‘British citizen’, just ‘Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies’). Typically, they are lawfully resident because they were granted a status called Indefinite Leave to Remain many years ago, sometimes automatically by law and sometimes in the form of a stamp in a long-expired passport. For decades, they lived in the UK without anyone asking them to prove their right to be here. That started to change as the hostile environment geared up from 2012 onwards.

In 2014, Fiona Bawdon researched and wrote a report entitled Chasing Status for the Legal Action Group (names were changed for the purposes of the report). The report highlighted the plight of thousands of long-term UK residents who were unable to prove their immigration status or have ‘irregular’ status, despite having lived legally in the country for most of their lives. Bawdon called these residents ‘surprised Brits’ because they felt British, many thought they actually were British, and yet they had been caught out by the new hostile environment laws.

The Chasing Status report seemed to sink without trace. After the Brexit referendum in 2016, though, the media found a new appetite for stories critical of the Home Office following a string of articles about generally white, middle-class EU migrants who were facing difficulties proving their permanent residence. A journalist at the Guardian, Amelia Gentleman, started to investigate the cases of destitute Commonwealth migrants. Realising that the examples she was seeing must be the tip of an iceberg, she unearthed a shocking series of similar cases (see Gentleman, 2019, for the full account). As Bawdon had earlier shown and predicted, lawful residents were finding themselves turfed out of jobs and homes, denied life-saving NHS care and threatened with deportation to a country they barely knew.

In April 2018, what became known as the Windrush scandal finally received the attention it deserved. Immediately before a Commonwealth heads of government meeting, Prime Minister Theresa May refused to meet with a delegation of twelve Caribbean high commissioners to discuss the situation of long-term residents facing immigration difficulties. An article about this diplomatic snub appeared on the front page of the Guardian. Suddenly, as Gentleman writes, ‘ministers who had shown no interest were falling over themselves to express profound sorrow.’ Home Secretary Amber Rudd was forced to appear at the Commons dispatch box to make the first of two comprehensive admissions that the Windrush generation had been treated ‘appallingly’. Theresa May herself was forced repeatedly to apologise, although her initial efforts were weak attempts of the ‘sorry-not-sorry’ variety. Belatedly, the special unit that Bawdon had advocated in 2014 was set up, along with a compensation fund for those affected.

The fundamental flaw in the design of the hostile environment persists, though, and this will have major consequences if or when the UK leaves the EU and scraps free movement rules for EU citizens. This is because the majority of lawful residents without status papers are citizens of EU countries who entered the UK under free movement laws. Immigration officials are literally forbidden from stamping the passports of EU citizens entering and leaving the UK and have no idea why an EU citizen is entering the UK or for how long he or she stays.

Brexit therefore represents a huge challenge; no-one knows how many EU citizens live in the UK but estimates go as high as four million. When EU law ceases to apply in the UK, all of these EU citizens and their family members need to have acquired a new immigration status under UK law. If they do not apply by the deadline, they will become unlawfully resident. No registration campaign around the world has ever achieved a 100% success rate and it is estimated that as many as hundreds of thousands of EU citizens will miss the deadline. Some will be elderly residents in care homes, some will be young children, others will not speak good English, some may be afraid of applying and some will have believed the Leave campaign promise that their rights would be protected. Some will just be disorganised or unaware; a lot of people miss the deadline for filing their tax return every year even though they get fined for doing so. Some may refuse on principle.

No matter their reasons, the effect of being exposed to the hostile environment will be the same. Their jobs will be lost, their bank accounts closed down, their tenancies terminated and access to the NHS and welfare benefits ended.

Colin Yeo is a barrister, writer, campaigner and consultant specialising in immigration law. He founded and edits the Free Movement immigration law blog.


MMB hosts the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants

By Diego Acosta, Bridget Anderson and Lindsey Pike

On 3 July 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, Professor Felipe González, visited the University of Bristol. The event was organized by Migration Mobilities Bristol (MMB) with funding from PolicyBristol. Here we outline the scope of his work and focus of his visit.

During the event, the Rapporteur presented the work of his office and his latest activities. He then heard from the City Council, civil society, NGOs, business representatives and academics about the challenges migrants and refugees face in the UK. This included discussions about the situation of EU citizens after a possible Brexit, the Windrush scandal and the effects of the so-called hostile environment policy.

MMB provided a dossier of notes to accompany his visit. This outlined the breadth of interests of MMB researchers, and salient issues about the rights of migrants in Bristol. As this was not an official visit, the Rapporteur will not be producing a final report with his observations. However, he took good notice of all the issues raised, and we are pleased to have been able to facilitate connections between the Rapporteur, the University and the city of Bristol.

The Special Rapporteur’s role

The Special Rapporteur’s role was created in 1999 by the Commission of Human Rights. Professor González, a Chilean, is the fourth person, and third Latin American, to hold the mandate, which covers all countries regardless of whether a state has ratified the 1990 United Nations Migrant Workers Convention (the UK has not). He can request and receive information from various sources, including migrants themselves, about individual cases of alleged violations of human rights, or about general situations of concern in a particular country. The Rapporteur is not the ‘last resort’, meaning that complainants can approach him at any time; they do not  have to exhaust domestic remedies first.

The Rapporteur has three main tools to carry out his work:

  • Country visits (also called fact-finding missions) allow the Rapporteur, following an invitation by the relevant government, to examine first-hand the situation of human rights protection in a particular state. Following such a visit, a report is submitted to the Human Rights Council with his findings, conclusions and recommendations.
  • Communications’ allow the Rapporteur to bring to the attention of a particular government alleged violations of the human rights of migrants, without the need to visit that particular country. This was, for example, the case with his
  • The Rapporteur produces an annual report to the Human Rights Council about the global state of protection of migrants’ human rights but can also produce thematic reports on issues of interest, such as the one on bilateral and multilateral trade agreements and their impact on the human rights of migrants. The Special Rapporteur also reports to the General Assembly.

We were honoured to host Professor González and hope to continue our exchanges in the coming years.

Further information

Further information about the mandate of the Special Rapporteur is available here.

Please email mmb-sri@bristol.ac.uk if you’d like to be involved in MMB’s ongoing communication with the Special Rapporteur.

Everyday Integration

By Bridget Anderson

The new Conservative leader, Boris Johnson, during the July hustings in Darlington complained that, ‘There are too many too often there are parts of our country and parts of London still and other cities as well where English is not spoken by some people as their first language, and that needs to be changed and people need to be allowed to take part in the economy and in society in the way that that shared experience would allow.’ ‘Integration’ continues to be a hot topic. We are looking forward to making an important contribution to these debates with evidence from the research project ‘Everyday Integration’ funded by ESRC that we’ll be starting in October. The project, led by Jon Fox (SPAIS) and also involving Bridget Anderson, Therese O’Toole (SPAIS) and David Manley (Geography) proposes a radically new approach that develops theory and learns from and contributes to the city of Bristol. We are particularly excited to be working with Bristol City Council and 25 community partners in the research design and implementation, and in the co-production of an Integration Strategy for Bristol, and an Integration Toolkit for other UK urban contexts.

Photo by Harry Kessell on UnsplashIn Bristol as in other cities, lives are very different. Histories, cultures, and structures of feeling that in the past were separated by enormous distances can now, as Gilroy puts it ‘be found in the same place, the same time: school, bus, café, cell, waiting room, or traffic jam’ (Gilroy 2004: 70), and here they shape our institutions and our relationships, including racisms and other social divisions. We take as our starting point that integration is about the everyday rather than abstract ‘national values’, and that it must be embedded in very local contexts – in our case, Bristol. We also recognise that the debates about integration must themselves be ‘integrated’ into our understandings of class, racism, and disability for example.

There are many ways in which our local communities are stratified and people are stereotyped and marginalised, and moving within and into the city can be as important as moving across national borders. Mainstream conversations about integration too often float free of these crucial considerations. An integrated city is not without its differences, disputes, or competing interests, but these differences don’t lead to exclusion, segregation, or marginalisation. We are interested in the ways that residents of Bristol experience and practice integration (recognising they may not use the term ‘integration’) and what we can learn from this, not to make everyone come together but so that everyone can come together. Rather than starting with mobility as the ‘integration problem’ and seeing ‘community’ as sedentary, we approach mobility (spatial, social, economic, and civic) as necessary to sustain and develop our relationships. We have developed some really exciting methods that, as you would expect from MMB, engage with the opportunities for mobility: Uber rides for urban snapshots, flash focus groups on Bristol buses, GPS logs to see how people manage mobility within the city. Keep an eye out too for our ‘Integration Roadshows’, four town hall meetings in different parts of Bristol to help build an integration strategy for our city.

We have just advertised for two research assistants on the project – .  Further details onthe project can be found on the MMB project page and we will have a website later this year so do check in and see how we’re doing. It is going to be a very productive two years, and we hope you’ll hear more about us in Bristol and beyond.