The Hypocrisy of Immigration Politics: Compassion at a Distance

by Yasmin Gunaratnam and Pragna Patel

For many, including politicians, to belong at this moment is to be anti-migrant but not racist, to feel compassion but at a distance, glossing over the everyday terror and insecurity that immigration and its enforcement can entail.

First published: 29 April, 2015 | Category: 

We are in a new era of immigration, characterized for the most vulnerable by “necropolitics”, the term used by the philosopher, Achille Mbembé to describe “death worlds” where “vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead”. The Mediterranean Sea is fast becoming a contemporary death world.

Crossing the Med in a flimsy boat, where 1 in 20 migrants will meet their death, is the perilous option that an estimated 23,556 people escaping to Italy from war and communal violence in Libya, Syria, Eritrea, Somalia and Mali have already taken this year. At the same time, European states are pursuing more aggressive domestic immigration enforcement, reinforced by what the UN see as an “extreme and very irresponsible” xenophobic rhetoric. As the tensions between humanitarianism and punitive immigration policing play out across Europe, our cultural narratives are also becoming more insidious: the human face of the migrant is most able to emerge posthumously and ‘compassion’ is becoming a condescending palliative and stand-in for a politics of hospitality

What the public is able to see and understand about these relationships and narratives is proving important. The catastrophic scale of the deaths last week, when some 1,200 migrants are thought to have downed in two separate incidents, sickened the British public. Laura Padoan, an Associate of the UN Refugee Agency, believes the events have compelled the main political parties to temper their pre-election anti-immigration fervour. Politicians are coming under new pressure to show how they can save migrant lives, Padoan feels.

Public opinion is a whimsical pressure, especially when it comes at a time of political disaffection, widening social disparities and an intensification of anti-migrant sentiment. That public opinion might currently favour showing compassion for those migrants crossing the Med is a perspective that ultimately jars with more longstanding opinion poll research, as well as stopping short of anything more radical, such as an eager welcoming of migrants. It is also at odds with the increasingly hard line on domestic immigration enforcement that all the main political parties have been advocating, including measures to reduce net migration and restrict migrants’ access to welfare provision, making Britain as inhospitable as possible for those who are vulnerable. For the writer Shane Thomas, the pre-election message to migrants from the main political parties is clear: “You don’t want to come here, and if you do, we’re going to go out of our way to make your life extremely difficult.”

Suzanne Hall, a geographer at the London School of Economics, suggests that in the absence of a political ideology or infrastructure to address social inequality, the figure of the migrant serves well as a unifying enemy, ‘a scapegoat for unresolved economic and political crises; and an articulation of a dystopic future, to be fought against at all costs.”

How is the “migrant problem” being fought against? And how do the extraordinary catastrophes of the Meditarranean’s boat people relate to the new spectacle that is being made of domestic immigration policing that we first witnessed in 2013 with the Home Office’s Operation Vaken and its now infamous ‘racist vans’ and Twitter campaign to ‘encourage’ irregular migrants to ‘Go Home’?

The political theorist Will Davies believes that the public has become skeptical of economic and statistics based rhetoric, such as evidence of the economic benefits of immigration. We need to see and feel the impact of government policies in our everyday lives. With this chasm between public and political worldviews, the government’s efforts to brand and make visible immigration enforcement strategies have become more and more important Davies writes, “to convince the public that they are enforcing regulations and borders as forcefully as possible.” In other words, seeing and feeling is believing.

For the past eighteen months, a team of university researchers, working with civil society organisations, including Southall Black Sisters (SBS), has been investigating the effects of government immigration campaigns, using qualitative and survey research. Our ‘Mapping Immigration Controversy’ study has been looking at how campaigns such as Vaken have been received by local communities. Here we discuss Vaken within wider conversations about the incursion of state borders into communities and with a focus upon London. As Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Nielson remind us,  “borders in the contemporary global order serve not simply as devices of exclusion but as technologies of differential inclusion.”

As politicians try to reinforce national boundaries, borders have simultaneously become more molten – fluid and mobile with the capacity to ‘pop up’ in unexpected places. It is important that we find out more about the toing-and-froing that is being created between exclusion and “differential inclusion” and the evolving cultural narratives that are shaping contemporary immigration discourses. We believe that tracking domestic government immigration campaigns is one way of doing this. 

Driving the Border

As several writers have noted, national borders are becoming more disaggregated and dispersed in their policing and administration. We would also argue that this proliferation of the border includes the public performance of a punitive ‘getting tough’ approach to immigration control, from initiatives like Vaken to the heightened anti-migrant sentiment and vitriol of recent pre-election political rhetoric and punditry that rests on racially degrading imagery and metaphors. What is significant about these developments, which have been further strengthened by the 2014 Immigration Act, is that they are generating new techniques and spaces of surveillance and immigration enforcement. State borders, as sites of national regulation and control, are bubbling out into workplaces, the university, a hospital or doctor’s surgery. To put it another way, you might stay in one place but the border can come to you.

Carrier sanctions that are used to deter the unauthorized entry of migrants and refugees into Britain on planes, trains, ferries and lorries, are one example. Focusing on road haulage, William Walters has described how lorries and trucks have been fitted with extra security devices such as padlocks and seals. Drivers have also received special training in inspection skills to detect hidden bodies, sometimes using imaging scanners and carbon dioxide detectors. For Walters, “the entire road transportation system becomes a kind of networked border. The border transforms into a mobile, noncontiguous zone materializing at the very surface of the truck and every place it stops” (p.195).

In a different way, Operation Vaken’s immigration checks, posters, tweets and vans can also be understood as a part of the implementation and insinuation of “networked borders”. With Vaken, the border was literally and symbolically driven into migrant rich communities. It created new capillaries for immigration control and surveillance and stoked and interfered in the existing social dynamics of each locality.

That Vaken took border enforcement out into particular London streets is significant. The street is where we are thrown into proximity with others, without the protective buffer of a camera lens or screen. It is where we see, hear, taste, touch and smell difference. It is where we apply and put to the test what we might have heard from politicians, a neighbour, Facebook, our kids or a talk show.

When Operation Vaken drove the border through London boroughs, it entered into places alive with their own idiosyncratic frictions, conviviality and indifference to migrants. Although Vaken may have been designed to reassure the public of government action on irregular immigration, it also increased worries and anxiety. The survey carried out for us by Ipsos Mori of a nationally representative sample of 2,424 people, found that the vans made some people (15%) ‘concerned that irregular immigration might be more widespread than they had realised’. More forcefully, Rita Chadha, Chief Executive of the Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London (one of our community partners in the research) said of Vaken “it incites racial hatred and it inflames community tension. It’s just going to scare people to think that immigration is a huge problem when it’s not.”

Talking about immigration – the ‘good’ immigrant

In 14 focus groups – held in Barking and Dagenham, Bradford, Cardiff, Glasgow, Ealing and Hounslow, Birmingham and Coventy – we showed local residents photographs of the vans and a Home Office tweet of an ‘immigration offender’ being led into a van. We asked people what the images brought to mind.

We found that talking about Operation Vaken led to dour moral prescriptions about immigration bolstered by stories about local histories, relationships and multicultural living. What took us by surprise was the potency and pervasiveness of the rancour that recent migrants elicited.

Some migrants spoke about being told to “Go Home” by British citizens from Black and racially minoritised groups. Other focus group participants drew distinctions between post-war migrants from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-Continent and more recent migrants, particularly those from Eastern Europe and Africa. The former were deemed to be ‘good’ British citizens who had made efforts to integrate and contribute to local communities. The latter were demonized.

The nuances between anti-immigrant hostility and racism are especially interesting. With migrants it is a fundamental incommensurability of lifestyles and values that was talked about as a problem rather than skin colour; a phenomenon that social scientists see as second-degree racism or ‘racism without race’ in the words of Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein. Second-degree racism can be a way of dodging the social stigmatization of being seen as a bigot. Even supporters of the far-right British National Party that we interviewed were keen not to be seen as racist.

Other conversational strategies, for maneuvering around this danger, included in-direct hostility and stereotyping, voicing anti-immigrant feelings on behalf of others. The following extract, is from ‘Jackie’ (a pseudonym), a supporter of the UK Independence Party:

“Well, back in the 50’s you had a lot of immigration from lots of places, but the people that came over then, they had to integrate, they had to work hard, they’d no benefits, nothing was handed out on a plate and they now resent this far more than we ever do, because if people see a black face they don’t know whether that person’s integrated into society, they just are wary of them, whoever they are and they really, really do hate it… these people that came over with their families back then to all intents and purposes they’re English, because they live the English way of life. ”   

Jackie’s neoliberal version of citizenship is where good/successful/can-do migrants take responsibility for themselves and integrate into society. It is a narrative that can be found across the political spectrum and in various incarnations, from the welcoming of skilled, wealthy and English proficient migrants by politicians to pro-immigration campaigns that profile migrant exceptionalism. The playwright Anders Lustgarten captures this narrative as ensnared by a “What can they do for us?” emplotment.

It has become almost impossible to talk about immigration in public without simultaneously taking account of neoliberal imperatives and the fear and resentment that immigration conjures. Migrants themselves are not immune to the symbolic violence of these storylines, despite their simplistic plotlines. Edona, a refugee, talking in a mixed ethnicity group in Barking, voiced her offense at the Go Home vans while reiterating the metaphorisation of Britain being “flooded” by “immigrants”:  

I’m a refugee myself, I came into this country in 1999, I’m from Kosovo and I came here through mandatory evacuation, because I was in a camp for a month and when I saw this (the ‘Go Home’ vans)…I felt very offended in a way and it’s not the right way to approach the people.  I know that there are illegal immigrants. I know that Britain is flooded with immigrants, but nobody’s coming to this country because they really want to, because nobody will leave their country if everything is fine.

The conversations elicited in response to Operation Vaken tell us something about the tenor, contradictions and ambivalence of contemporary British immigration discourses. Talking about immigration and immigration control has become a way of showing knowledge of the terms of national belonging and how British nationalism rests on the troubled spine of longer histories of racist abasement. For many, including our politicians, to belong at this moment is to be anti-migrant but not racist, to feel compassion but at a distance. Indeed, we seemed to be trapped in ever decreasing circles of the same stories about immigration, like hapless characters in a relentlessly repeating Groundhog Day. What can be glossed over or marginalized is the everyday terror and insecurity that immigration and its enforcement can entail.

Sukhwant Dhaliwal facilitated focus groups of women in Ealing and Hounslow. The women were a mix of British nationals, those that have been resident in Britain for some time, those that had recently gained leave to remain in the UK, and also a number of women awaiting news of applications or appeals. Dhaliwal has described how these women “talked openly about the visceral experience of immigration in their lives and the lives of people they know.” She picked up on “an overwhelming sense of fear and stress”.

In our experience, the double symbolism of ‘home’ as both a domestic and a national space is producing cross-cutting vulnerabilities for migrant women, as intolerance ratchets up and as borders are driven and pursued further into communities. It is through the dissemination of the border that state responsibilities for the care/protection of women can come into conflict with the harsh imperatives of immigration policing.

‘Everyday bordering’: undermining the protection principle in domestic violence cases.

Southall Black Sisters’ work with migrant women has become increasingly difficult in this anti-immigration environment. At least 60% or more of the women that contact SBS have been subject to gender-based violence and have insecure immigration status. We have spent over two decades trying to assist them to obtain a right of stay in the UK as victims of domestic violence. And just when some headway has been made, we are hit by wider regressive immigration policies - including limited or No Recourse to Public Funds for those on spousal visas - that have a number of serious consequences for this group of women, as well as women in other migrant groups.

For example, a report released at the end of March by the organisation Doctors of the World, has drawn attention to how confusion about entitlements to free health care for pregnant immigrant women and fear of deportation has resulted in poor ante-natal care and the deaths of babies. The report found that half of the women who had used the charity’s drop-in clinic in east London, many of whom were asylum seekers and refugees, had received no care for 20 weeks or longer.

In our work with advising and supporting women, we have seen how Operation Vaken and the growing pressure put on local agencies, including the police to enforce immigration control, has been leading to the increased vulnerability of migrant women, especially those facing domestic violence. When the ‘everyday bordering’ agenda overlaps with gender based violence, the protection principle is seriously compromised.

Recently, SBS has been compelled to challenge a local police decision to prioritise the need to police immigration status above the need to ensure protection in a domestic violence case involving a migrant woman. In this case, the police and Chair of the local Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference (MARAC) made clear to SBS that vulnerable and abused women with insecure immigration status should not call the police even in emergencies where they fear for their lives or that of their children. They argued that the police are duty bound to arrest them and report women to the immigration authorities if they are flagged up on their data base as ‘illegal immigrants’, irrespective of whether or not they are taking steps to secure their status, based on their right to apply to remain in the UK as victims of domestic violence.

At a recent meeting called by SBS on the matter with the local borough commander in Ealing, the police confirmed the view that their paramount duty is to arrest and not to protect even in cases of domestic violence. Clearly, this stance will have far reaching implications for an entire group of migrant women who need to access the criminal justice system for protection and redress. We are therefore seeking urgent clarification from the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and will obtain further legal advice on what is clearly emerging as a conflict of police duties, obligations and functions that contradict and override the protection principle enshrined in international laws and human rights standards on violence and discrimination against women and children.

Operation Vaken and other border control measures have instilled a general fear amongst the women that we see, creating uncertainty and confusion. The measures add to the trauma that such women have already experienced due to domestic violence and other forms of harm. They amount to what can be termed secondary abuse by the state. But migrant women are not taking these developments lying down. They are actively resisting and mobilizing in their communities and in doing so, defying state attempts to institutionalize their marginalisation.

Molten Dissent

The proliferation of domestic immigration enforcement, the more mundane and shadowy other of international border control and necropolitics, is having uneven effects. Whether these are intentional or not, you can decide. We do know that the damage can be slow and difficult to quantify and capture, whether in detention centres, streets or homes. Operation Vaken was ‘terrifying’ for some people. For others, it signalled the normalising of the public expression of hostility towards immigration and migrants. “It is now acceptable to come out and say I am anti-immigration” one person told us.

If Vaken made anti-migrant feelings and second-degree racism respectable, we should not forget that it also galvanized opposition, both serious and playful. There were many spoof photoshopped racist vans doing the rounds on social media. The human rights group Liberty commissioned their own van to drive through London with similar branding to the Home Office van. The billboard read "Stirring up tension and division in the UK illegally? Home Office, think again."

The government’s own evaluation of the £9,740 Vaken makes for interesting reading. Of the 1,561 text messages received by the Home Office, 1,034 were hoax messages, taking up 17 hours of staff time and confirming Alec Ross’ belief that with social media “Power is shifting from hierarchies to citizens and networks of citizens”, making it harder for governments to regulate and censor dissent. At the time of writing, the YouTube film of SBS disrupting one of Vaken’s immigration raids has been viewed nearly seven thousand times, suggesting an impact much wider than the original spontaneous event.

There are plenty more examples of dissent from the politics of suspicion and hatred, signifying what the political scholar Vicky Squire thinks of as ‘mobile solidarities’ – collective engagements and small acts of hospitality that cut across social hierarchies and divisions. As borders continue to mobilise and insinuate into international and domestic spaces, our hope is that so will resistance and a more unconditional hospitality to migrants.

This is part of NLP's Immigration series


Yasmin Gunaratnam teaches in the Sociology department at Goldsmiths College and is a member of the Feminist Review and Media Diversified editorial collectives

Pragna Patel is the Director of Southall Black Sisters

You can find out more about The Mapping Immigration Controversy study here and watch a short film about research findings here. The end of study conference will be held on 10th June at Warwick University.

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