[This review was published in the Journal of Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Law, 27 (2): 188-189]
Borderline justice: The fight for refugee and migrant rights by Frances Webber, Pluto Press, 2012
Webber’s book offers a captivating and insightful reading. It can be read as a history of how the governance of immigration and asylum developed over the last thirty years from the perspective of someone who has followed its twists and turns very closely as a legal practitioner, as a micro history of how a handful of committed radical lawyers succeeded in creating a network of legal advice centres that over the years became ‘an infrastructure of legal expertise for grassroots organisations fighting for civil rights, justice and equality’ (7), and as a memoir of the daily struggle of a social justice campaigner and lawyer that has seen the legal terrain on which her work is grounded shaking and drifting away due to pressure by anti-immigration media, populist support-seeking politicians and largely hostile public opinion, and a diary of her frustration for a rooted, overpowering and widespread culture of disbelief that shapes the everyday lives as much as the ‘spaces of hope’ (Harvey 2000) of migrants and refugees who are left with little to attach their hopes to.
The chapters of this book offer an insight into the workings of the immigration and refugee regimes in the UK as well as a genealogy of the current political crusade against human rights, the extent of which has been made apparent recently by the leaked emails in which senior civil servants explain to the members of the inter-ministerial group (IMG) on migrants’ access to benefits and public services the potential consequences on the UK’s international standing of the proposal of carrying out checks on applicant’s immigration status as part of school admissions which would de facto limit access to education for undocumented migrant children (Malik and Walker 2013; Sigona and Hughes 2012).
Divided in three parts, the book takes a staged approach to explore respectively issues around arrival, stay, and departure from the UK.
Part 1 examines the criminalisation of refugees and production of ‘illegality’ through rules, regulations and technologies of control that have made access to asylum increasingly difficult to people escaping persecution, substantially transforming in the process the nature of borders and practice of border control. In Part 2, after a brief exploration of the dispersal system and a critique of the use of destitution as a weapon for immigration control, Webber moves her attention to the spread of a ‘managerial’ attitude to migration during the Labour government and the emergence of a nativist bias at time of austerity and economic crisis. This section also looks into current approached to family and student migrations. Finally, Part 3 looks at the securitasation of immigration management marked by the birth of the UK Border Agency (recently dismissed by the Home Secretary Theresa May) and the increase use of forced and assisted removals as well as immigrant detention as tools of ‘ordinary’ immigration governance.
In conclusion, in recommending this fascinating book to everyone interested in understanding the direction of current immigration policy and practice in the UK and the role that legal courts, judges and lawyers have played over the years, I want to point briefly to what I see as three potential risks associated to a court-centred activism for migrants’ rights. Firstly, migrants and refugees sometimes disappear and what one hears of their voices and experiences is only what is relevant and intelligible in the law courts. Notwithstanding the good intentions of many of those involved, these voices end up filtered, if not sanitised, to conform to narratives put together by others. In the US, legal anthropologist Susan B. Coutin (2003) has shown through an analysis of suspension of deportation hearings how in court narratives of deservingness and undeservingness of migrants are constructed to comply with dominant notions of ‘Americanness’, which are gendered, racialised, class-based and heteronormative.
Secondly, it is somehow in the nature of legal activism to convey an atomised portrait of society, made of test cases and individual stories. As Webber shows in her book, to bridge the individual case to the collective dimension is a difficult task. Translating and feeding in what happens in the courtroom to migrants’ rights campaigners and community organisations and ensuring that the battle in court is informed by political instances and what happens outside the court require a daily engagement with several social actors and the creation of communication infrastructure that go both ways. For Webber to turn (legal) cases into (political) issues is challenging but necessary as legal action alone is unable to produce wider political and social changes needed to transform what over the last thirty years has become an increasingly hostile environment for asylum seekers and refugees and, more recently, also for migrant families, children, low paid workers and students.
Thirdly, in the contest of the ongoing political and media campaign that portraits human rights and the human rights regime as an instrument of foreign interference and the ultimate obstacle for the UK government to succeed in its immigration policy to reduce net-migration to the tens of thousands, a court-centred activism for migrants rights and social justice may risk of further expanding the rift between the ‘deserving’ citizens and the ‘scrounger’ immigrants that seems to dominate current responses to immigration. To avoid this pitfall, legal activists should not only build bridges with the converted (i.e. migrants’ rights campaigners, etc.) but also find ways to reach new audiences and build new alliances. The grassroots campaign against the immigration family rules introduced in July 2012 led by British citizens in mixed status families affected by the new rules shows the potential for creating a wider alliance across the citizens/immigrants divide that the politicians instead have interest to preserve and reinforce.
Cohen, N. (2013) ‘Beware the lure of Mark Zuckerberg’s cool capitalism’, The Guardian, 31 March 2013: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/31/beware-zuckerberg-cool-capitalism
Coutin, S.B. (2003) ‘Suspension of deportation hearings and measures of “Americanness”’, Journal of Latin American Anthropology, 8 (2): 58-95
Harvey, D. (2000), Spaces of hope, Berkley: University of California Press.
Malik, S. and Walker, P. (2013) ‘Ministers planning immigration crackdown on ‘education tourists’’, The Guardian, 27 March 2013: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/mar/27/ministers-immigration-crackdown-education-tourists
Sigona, N. And Hughes, V. (2013) No way out, no way in: Irregular migrant children and families in the UK, Oxford: COMPAS