King Nigel’s Speech: recasting ‘us’ and ‘them’

[Article published in OpenDemocracy, 13 May 2013)

In the UK political debate, boundaries are being blurred between the two hot topics on the political agenda: migration and the EU. This should be a wake-up call for the 2.7 million European immigrants living and working in the UK, says Nando Sigona.

Nigel Farage, UKIP leader

Nigel Farage, UKIP leader

Written by the government and delivered by the reigning monarch, the Queen’s speech sets out the legislative agenda for the year aheadAs expected, David Cameron, the UK Conservative Prime Minister and his coalition government have used this year’s Queen’s speech to offer a quick if rather panicked response to the recent electoral success of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) which gained 139 council seats in the 2013 local elections.

The speech places immigration firmly at the centre of the political agenda, as if the crisis of the banking system and a poorly performing economy didn’t exist or could be attributed through some rather obscure association to the presence of non-British residents. As Alex Andreou has explained in a comment in the New Statesman, Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, ‘has merely acted as the catalyst, by stepping into an emotional vacuum left by mainstream parties’, providing a comforting but ultimately useless solution to the current crisis at a time when mainstream parties are all perceived as distant, elitist and impermeable to what is happening outside Westminster. What the Queen’s speech did is to legitimate the anti-immigration and anti-EU rhetoric of UKIP as a solution to the crisis, something that the Conservative Party right-wing had failed to achieve until now.

Besides the headline-grabbing statements against illegal migrants, speeding deportation for foreign-born criminals and fighting alleged abuses of the welfare system, the Queen’s speech is underpinned by a wider vision which at the core criminalises migrants and migration to an extent we hadn’t previously observed in recent mainstream British politics. This criminalisation also extends to EU citizens, until recently kept relatively protected from anti-immigration campaigners and politicians. This is with the noticeable exception of Romanians and Bulgarians, whose possible arrival following the lifting of the existing restrictions on access to the job market and welfare system in early 2014 is generating waves of moral panic.

By associating intra-EU mobility more closely to immigration, the Queen’s speech blurs the boundaries between the two hot topics on the political agenda: migration and the EU, and turns the moral panic generated by the arrival and settlement of Romanians and Bulgarians, the ‘new’ Europeans to paraphraseformer US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, into yet another argument in support of Eurosceptic politics.

As a researcher working on migration, asylum and minority rights for over a decade, I am familiar with the rising criminalisation of asylum seekers in the UK: the use of enforced destitution, dispersal and detention to deter new arrivals and force those no longer entitled to stay to leave the country. Furthermore, I have documented the plight of undocumented children and young people kept in legal limbo, non-deportable and yet excluded from formal citizenship.

As a foreigner myself, an EU citizen who has lived in the UK for the last 12 years, I feel increasingly uncomfortable with the tone and contents of the debate on immigration. I feel more and more part of the population I study, experiencing personally some of the feelings and anxieties that I am used to hearing from the individuals I interview.

Of course, this is not to say that as an Italian I go through the same ordeal as, for example, that of someone seeking asylum in the UK. But I can certainly say that over the last year or so I have felt increasingly more like an immigrant to whom the right to reside in the UK is granted from above (and can be withdrawn if needs be for electoral considerations) than an EU citizen, that is, part of a pan-European political community founded on the principles of freedom of movement and equality among its citizens.

With this realisation came a renewed sense of empathy for those non-EU migrants who on a daily basis have to negotiate or subject key decisions in their personal life to a faceless bureaucrat somewhere in Croydon (i.e. the UK Border Agency’s HQ) who can decide if a marriage is legitimate, if one can go to a funeral back home, or if a non-British father can be with his British partner at the birth of their child in London. For Romanian and Bulgarian migrants the boundary between being an immigrant and an EU citizen has already been blurred for a while, long before the so-called ‘old’ Europeans.

According to the Oxford-based Migration Observatory, data from the 2011 Census suggest that 2.7 million residents of England and Wales were born in other EU countries. About 1.1 million of those (41%) were born in countries which joined the EU in 2004 (Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia) or afterwards (Bulgaria and Romania). The majority of the EU citizens are therefore people like me (and it feels awkward to talk of myself in terms of my nationality): Italians, Germans, Spaniards, French, Greeks etc.

Until recently, one wouldn’t have heard politicians talk about ‘us’ in the same breath with the ‘other’ foreigners, but the economic crisis and a government in search of scapegoats are changing the terms of the debate. This is a wake-up call for many who felt that the tough talk on immigration was never about them, that somehow they were bullet-proofed from attacks by right-wingers and alike. In other words this is a wake-up call for a largely politically invisible population, with no right to vote at general elections, no spokespersons or campaign organisations, but also with rather powerful states behind them and relatively good social positions in British society.

We may realise soon that all mainstream political parties, faced with the challenge of UKIP, may be prepared to sacrifice us for the sake of electoral victory. For if the Queen’s speech marks a further shift towards the right of the political spectrum of the political debate on immigration, the Labour opposition demonstrates once again little will to fight the battle for immigrants and immigrants’ rights, as well as for the EU and EU citizens. The shadow minister Yvette Cooper more often than not attacks the government for not being able to control immigration and borders, as confirmed recently in a major speech at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). It’s hard to see how these tactical responses may lead to a different strategy and new ways of thinking on migration.

The Queen’s speech has thus contributed to redrawing the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and for some of us this came as a realisation that the position we thought to occupy in British society as fellow EU citizens is gradually being eroded by a dangerous combination of anti-foreigner and anti-EU sentiments. This is happening without much opposition. Times of crisis also bring new opportunities. New spaces for political mobilisation may yet open up and lead to the emergence of new political subjects in British politics: ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europeans fighting back.

 

Nowhere Home in Oxford

Nowhere Home by Margreth Olin

Nowhere Home by Margreth Olin

Special screening of Margreth Olin’s award-winning documentary: Nowhere Home

When: Tuesday 30th April 2013: 6.15pm introductory talk, 6.30pm screening

Where: The Ultimate Picture Palace, Cowley Road, Oxford

Organised by: Oxford Institute of Social Policy (OISP) in collaboration with the Refugee Studies Centre (RSC) and the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) at the University of Oxford and the School of Social Policy at the University of Birmingham

Synopsis: Nowhere Home follows the fortunes of a number of young people from Salhus, a Norwegian centre offering temporary residence to unaccompanied asylum-seeking young people as they approach adulthood. While they all hope to remain in Norway, the threat of deportation when they turn 18—and uncertain futures in countries like Afghanistan or Iraq—hangs over them. A visceral and provocative film, Nowhere Home scrutinises what Human Rights Watch has called one of  the ‘major moral dilemmas’ facing Europe today.

Year: 2012 / 90m.

Distributor: Norwegian Film Institute

Watch the trailer online.

Tickets: £8 (£6 concessions). Online booking now open.

Proceeds go to Asylum Welcome (Charity no. 1092265)

Happy Valentine’s Day from the Home Office

ho_valentineTo ‘celebrate’ Valentine’s Day the UK Home Office is publishing on Twitter/Flickr a stream of archive pictures and videos  of sham brides and grooms arrested in UKBA operations. Repeating a ‘name & shame’ communication strategy used already to mark the arrest of a number of visa overstayers last summer (see my comment on the Mayapple Operation), Thresa May’s Home Office offers yet another proof of its ‘zero tolerance’ approach to unlawful immigration – no matter that it is its own continuous moving of the goalposts that is making many migrants unlawfully resident. This use of social media is rather disconcerting, especially because it show very little care for the pains the Home Office is inflicting on thousands of couples and families torn apart by immigration rules, pains that can hardly justify the discovery of a handful of ‘genuine’ sham marriages (you can read my comment on the family rules here).

ho-valentine-1

There is also another (small) question mark here: in the caption to the photos, the Home Office claims to have conducted 300 operations and as a result prosecuted 230 people for sham marriages. Now if I understand the maths  and obviously this is a very rough calculation, assuming that for any successful operation they have prosecuted at least 2 people (bride and groom), this would mean that about 115 operations were successful, which leaves one thinking: what about the rest? Did the Home Office intervene to stop about 185 alleged sham marriages that were in reality genuine (even in its own narrow terms)? Have they ever apologized to them? Definitely not an happy Valentine’s day for them.

What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?

we are americans TIME Inspirational talk by Jose Antonio Vargas at TEDxMidAtlantic in October 2012. You can hear the story of Washington Post journalist, Pulitzer prize winner and undocumented migrant Jose Antonio Vargas in his own words. For some background on his coming out and the possiblebut daunting task of combining a successful career and the fear of being apprehended because undocumented read this article published in the The Guardian.

The UK’s DREAMers? Undocumented children in Britain

tedxeastend Below the video of the talk I gave at TEDxEastEnd (Society Without Borders) last October. I start with a critical analysis of current deportation policy and practice, using as an example the UKBA’s Operation Mayapple. I then point to the gap that exists between those you are deported and those you are deportable, a significant gap despite the increasing use of deportation by Western governments. A closer look at the deportation gap shows that undocumented migrants are not all equally deportable and that children, in particular, are less likely to be forcibly removed. Nonetheless, in the UK these very children are not offered concrete routes to regularisation and are stranded in legal limbo. The Obama administration‘s executive decision that has recently granted a route to regularisation to up to 800,000 young undocumented migrants offers an example of a pragmatic and long term solution beneficial to both the children and society more broadly.

Legal status, rights and belonging: International symposia

The analysis of the relationship between legal status, rights and belonging is the central theme of two symposia jointly organised by the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago and the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS), the Refugee Studies Centre (RSC) and the Oxford Institute of Social Policy (OISP) at the University of Oxford.

The symposia are convened by Dr Roberto G. Gonzales  (University of Chicago) and myself .

Main Themes of the International Symposia

The events will be held respectively in Oxford in April 2013 and in Chicago in October 2013 and will address two interrelated aspects of the relationship between legal status, rights and belonging:

The symposium will investigate the interplay between forms and modes of contemporary membership, migration governance (both immigration and emigration), and the politics of belonging. This will be achieved through in-depth examinations of a range of experiences of membership including, but not limited to, those of:  ethnic minorities; citizen children of undocumented migrant parents; former unaccompanied asylum seeking children; people with dual citizenship; ‘failed’ asylum seekers; and stateless people. Participants are invited to discuss issues such as the position of the non-citizen in contemporary immigration and emigration states; the nexus between human mobility, immigration control, and citizenship; the tension in policy and practice between coexisting traditions and regimes of rights; and the intersection of ‘race’ and other social cleavages and legal status. The Oxford symposium is organised by Dr Nando Sigona (Refugee Studies Centre), Vanessa Hughes (COMPAS) & Dr Elaine Chase (Oxford Institute of Social Policy).

  • Illegality, youth and belonging  (Chicago, October 2013)

This second symposium will explore the confusing and contradictory experiences of belonging and illegality that frame the everyday lives of undocumented immigrant youth. Over the last two decades in the United States, non-citizens have experienced a shrinking of rights while immigrant communities have witnessed an intensification of enforcement efforts in neighbourhoods and public spaces. In effect, these trends have sewn fear and anxiety and narrowed the worlds of youth—such that even mundane acts of driving, waiting for the bus, and traffic stops can lead to the loss of a car, prison and deportation. But these young people have also benefited from local and national efforts to widen access—particularly in the realm of education—providing young immigrants important opportunities to establish connections, form relationships, and participate in the day-to-day life of their communities. The experiences of undocumented immigrant youth teach us about the two-sided nature of citizenship—such that persons can be removed from spaces, denied privileges and rights, but can experience belonging too.

Collectively this joint initiative aims to break new ground through analyses that are empirically informed, theoretically engaged and ethnographically rich and drawing on the expertise of scholars from a range of disciplinary backgrounds and state contexts. As immigration has become a topic of great visibility among scholars, policy makers, and the media, this endeavour holds appeal to a range of audiences. Read the Background paper & Call for Papers

Why removal is not the solution

Courtesy of Jason Ven @TEDxEastEnd 2012

At TEDxEastEnd 2012 illustrating the deportation gap and how, despite the efforts made by Western governments, forced and voluntary removals have only a limited impact on the stock of irregular migrants in these countries and how an acknowledgement of this reality should lead to a change of policy, as for example a regularisation initiative for undocumented migrant children and young people who are either born or have spent a significant part of their childhood in the UK. I also pointed to US-based DREAMers movement as a model for UK-based activists and campaigners. The video of the talk will be available in November.