Hostile environments and the politics of un-belonging

Anna Colom, The Open University

This article by PhD candidate Anna Colom is a personal reflection on the symposium Hostile Environments: The Politics of (Un)Belonging, co-organised by Victoria Canning, Gabi Kent (Harm & Evidence Research Collaborative) and Umut Erel for the WhoAreWe collaboration at the TATE Exchange. It was first published under the Year of #Mygration Open University series: www.open.ac.uk/mygration

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This week I became a British ‘citizen’.  While waiting to affirm my allegiance in the official citizenship ceremony, and like so many times in recent months, I thought about what this new status meant for my rights and my identity. But, also like so many times before, I thought about the many people trapped in liminal spaces, existing but without being recognised, unable to move or stay, asked to fill out papers that will be rejected, pushed into bureaucratic labyrinths that can return them from where they escaped. Fellow human beings who, like me, were born in any part of the world by accident. Like me, with hopes and dreams. Where do we belong? And who decides it? For some, these are rather philosophical questions. For others, literally a matter of life and death. And, in between, a myriad of struggles, sometimes endured in the privacy of one’s silent journey through life, others through collective understandings, often invisible, or perhaps turned into social movements of resistance, claiming for the right to be – to belong.

These are the questions, the spaces, the lives, the injustice that Who Are We?, a collaboration between The Open University (OU), Counterpoints Arts and Stance Podcast, helped to make more visible through combining arts, activism and academia at the Tate Exchange. A symposium on hostile environment policies against migration and the politics of un-belonging shed light on what these policies mean for people’s lives and for democracy.

Through the presentations and lively discussion, the  members of the panel showed how the overarching headline of ‘hostile environment policies’ translates to have a varied impact. It can mean you are denied free healthcare in the middle of your cancer treatment, which happened to Mo, a member of the Migration and Asylum Seekers Forum. It means that as a woman facing domestic violence you might be denied accommodation but offered a flight ticket home (even if the law doesn’t allow it), as Sandhya Sharma from Safety 4 Sisters explained. It means the tools and support to seek legal aid are being stripped away. It means you lack voice, are disconnected and isolated from those campaigning for you whilst you are in a detention centre. It means asking doctors to become police, which Docs Not Cops is campaigning against. It means hate violence perpetrated by authorities, as Monish Bhatia from Birbeck University described. It means that the immigration policies are shown as separate from, but actually part of, systemic racism and neoliberal policies, intersecting and reinforcing patriarchy and heterosexual hegemony. It means you escape war legally but your status is then taken away, like 70% of the Syrian population in Lebanon, as explained by Syrian activist Leila Sibai and stated by Human Rights Watch (2017). As OU academic and activist Victoria Canning said, “there is a lot to be concerned about, and a lot to fight against”.

I have always wondered where I belong. I have felt both privileged and an underdog, and many spaces in between. I have learnt that migrating comes with endless longing for something, no matter how privileged in your new home. I have learnt not to take any of my rights for granted and that belonging is an endless struggle. But I have felt privileged after all. I have always had a safe, private place to stay, and warmth, and food and water. I have never been denied free access to quality healthcare, or education and, with it, the essential driving force that learning is to me. I have crossed many borders many times, comfortably, knowing well I could return.

There are millions, however, that have not had this experience – forced to make impossible choices, trapped, illegal, unwanted, dehumanised, in constant fear, too close to death. And, as I became a British citizen, this week has been a stark reminder of the injustice and systemic oppression faced by many whose worth is questioned every day. If citizenship is more than a legal status, if it is also care for your neighbour and to be part of a community, as was indicated in the citizenship ceremony, then it is also a responsibility to engage in practices of solidarity. It is to report, resist and change the policies, the laws, and the everyday racist and patriarchal practices that normalise this hostile environment.

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Government policy is characterised by being petty and vindictive

Dave Middelton, The Open University

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What sustains a Government in power? Having the number of MPs to win votes seems pretty important you might think (although the Tories threw away a working majority and now have a very narrow lead and need the support of the DUP). As does having support in the country (see recent YouGov poll here.) However, neither of these can quite explain the success of the current Tory Government who should be in far more electoral trouble than they are. Of course, some people will point to a divided opposition and this remains true.

But that is to assume that the Tories themselves are united which is clearly not the case. What is sustaining the Government currently is a politics that can best be described as petty and vindictive. Unfortunately this pettiness and vindictiveness has plenty of support throughout the country and can be seen in many policies introduced over the past 20 years or so.

The most recent example is the so-called Windrush scandal in which the Home Secretary has been made to resign over an overtly racist policy introduced by her predecessor with the explicit aim of “encouraging” people to leave the UK. (Here is the BBC doing their best to emphasise the personal tragedy for Amber Rudd).

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The hostile environment policy introduced by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary was a policy that was racist both in its intent and application. What is so disappointing is that this policy received no real critical examination in the media (and very little in Parliament) until it emerged that black citizens, who clearly had the right to be in the UK, were affected. This came to light following an investigation by Guardian journalist Amelia Gentleman.

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The policy and its political fallout is largely treated as if it was an accident, an oversight, and even a personal tragedy for Amber Rudd. But, it was not an accident it was a deliberate and sustained attempt to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation toward black citizens in a somewhat vain attempt to meet targets which despite the lies to the contrary clearly existed.

It is not clear how many ‘illegal’ immigrants there are in the UK (the Office For National Statistics warns that methods of calculating the number are seriously flawed), but what is clear is that this policy and its accompanying ‘leave now’ vans were designed to intimidate a particular community. Why is tackling so-called ‘illegal immigration’ seen as so important to a Government that surely has more important things to worry about?

Theresa May in defending the policy constantly ignores the human suffering she has caused preferring to remind us that there are people in the UK illegally. It is an obfuscation that plays well with the Tory grassroots and the mass media and it completely misses the point. Although the right wing press play along. (Heres the Daily Mail’s reporting of May’s defence of the policy.)

There is no need to consistently victimise people who do not have the means to fight back. This is a policy based on a vindictive and empathy lacking political elite whose own lives are rarely, if ever, touched in a negative way by the programmes they introduce.

The “hostile environment” policy is no aberration. The disabled, single parents, unemployed, refugees, those who rely on benefits have all been treated, in one way or another, to versions of the hostile environment.

The Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake showed brilliantly how difficult it has become in the UK to claim benefits.

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Rather than social security, as we used to call it, being a safety net for those in need it has become a bureaucratic means of humiliating individuals whose only crime is to have fallen on hard times.

We now know that as a result of the stress caused by the ‘hostile environment’ policy more than one person was driven to suicide.   The website Calum’s List lists 63 known cases of deaths attributable to cuts in benefit. The figures for the number of suicides attributed to austerity programmes and particularly those involving the targets to reduce benefits are difficult to ascertain as coroners rarely report “Government policy” as a cause of death, but a recent report suggested that at least 81,000 people have taken their own lives shortly after receiving suspensions to their benefits (https://archive.is/zhvCc#selection-597.0-605.36).

Perhaps this will be more shocking if we name some of these people. On November 17th 2017 the Manchester Evening News reported that 38-year old Elaine Morrall died in her freezing home after her benefits were stopped. (Manchester Evening News)

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On 10thDecember 2017 The Independent reported that 32 year old singer-songwriter Daniella Obeng died in Qatar where she had gone to find work after her disability benefits were stopped. (Independent)

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On June 22nd 2017 the Disability News Service reported on the case of Lawrence Bond a disabled former electrical engineer who died of a heart attack after being told that he was fit for work. (Disability News Service)

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But, it is not just the suicides, though if I were a Government Minister I would not want them on my conscience (assuming, of course that Government ministers actually have consciences). The strain that ordinary people are placed under as a result of being denied benefits or being investigated by the Home Office is cruel and usually unnecessary (this blog shows the effect on some of the people who get caught in this bureaucratic trap). For the victims of these deliberately created hostile environments life becomes like living in a Kafka novel.

Socialists are often accused of pursuing a politics of envy and yet the real politics of envy is not those who seek a more equal society but those who seek to maintain a society which is structurally unequal. The vindictiveness of those who enact laws and regulations aimed at the most desperate and vulnerable members of our communities is a national scandal that the occasional ministerial resignation does nothing to change.

Whilst the papers and broadcast media were full of pity for Amber Rudd and enthusiasm for her successor, they fail to notice the number of people who are the real victims of the policies Amber Rudd, Sajid Javid and Theresa May are responsible for enacting. And, whilst it is tempting to think that a change in government would end the hostile environment for ethnic minorities, the disabled, the poor and the vulnerable in our society ultimately we need a change in our culture which will probably only occur in a completely different type of society from the one we are living in now.

 

This post was originally published on Dave Middleton’s blog Thinking and Doing, at: http://davemiddletons.blogspot.co.uk/2018/05/government-policy-is-characterised-by.html

Border Crossing Monuments

Evgenia Lliadou, The Open University

 

Abandoned Plastic Dinghies
Figure 1.  Abandoned Plastic Dinghies at the coasts of Lesvos, photo by Evgenia Iliadou

Lesvos Island, May 2017. From where I am standing I can see the Turkish coast. During the night one can also see the lights on the other side of the Greek-Turkish border. The other side. The other side, as well as the people of the other side, is so close but at the same time so far away. The Greek and Turkish borders touch each other at a cognitive vertical line, dividing the sea through the middle, but at a point where the eyes cannot see – some 4.1 miles away. The beach underneath me is full of waste- border crossing waste. The ruins of a grey plastic boat, half buried under the sand, are left there as monuments and reminders of the thousands of border crossings. The ruins of a grey plastic boat are left there as an evidence of a “crime”. Τhat is how ‘irregular’ migration is coldly defined according to the criminal law; as a criminal act. Clothes are lying on the beach. Large sized clothes. Small sized clothes. Adults’ clothes. Children’s clothes. A child’s lifejacket is floating in the sea. It capsizes and finally drifts away on the waves. I cannot help but feel that I have just entered a crime scene. How many people, I wonder, have lost their lives on this little piece of earth alone? How many lives have been wasted here? Wasted lives and dreams are silently lying there, underneath my feet. The macabre feeling that I will confront a dead body washed ashore by the sea has overwhelmed me.

The statue of the Asia Minor Mother – the symbol of the massive forced displacement of 1922 – holding her children is standing still behind me. It has become unnoticeable to people and looks forgotten by both people and time. Her back is turned to the sea and faces the city. Her gaze cries out, “Forget me not!” connoting the unequal game between collective memory and oblivion. I look at her and wonder; has she just arrived? Has she just fled and been washed ashore in one of the ruined plastic dinghies underneath my feet? As I stare at the lifejackets floating in the sea and at the Asia Minor Mother statue holding her children, I cannot help but think that I am standing between two different border crossing monuments in time and space; the Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1922 and the refugee crisis of 2015. Both border crossings monuments connote and manifest refugee journeys, massive deaths, forced displacements, unrecognised genocides, suffering and trauma; a continuum of violence in time and space.

As Walter Benjamin argues, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

This blog was originally posted at http://www.open.ac.uk/research/news/border-crossing-monuments on 8 February 2018

Asylum and austerity: a means to separate the ‘should haves’ and the ‘should have nots’

Victoria Canning, The Open University

 

When austerity erodes essential public services, it is easy to create categories of ‘should haves’ and ‘should have nots’. Alongside other migrant groups, people seeking asylum are increasingly seen as burdensome, to the detriment of their rights, dignity and civil liberties.

 

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The gradual erosion of welfare has long been a cilice forced onto those most dependent on financial support. Decisions made under the guise of austerity have taken that a step further, slicing through the very mantel of public services, not only those receiving benefits or care, but those giving them. Legal aid cuts have reduced the capacity for lawyers to provide free guidance, whilst the strain of cuts to the NHS renders healthcare staff stretched, stressed and well beyond safe working environments.

 

Alongside the creeping criminalisation of migration, the language of austerity has provided ample justification for reducing asylum rights in the UK. In times of particular financial hardship, it becomes ever easier for the state and the public to call for measures reducing support to people who are seen as ‘non-citizens’. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, the cascading austerity cuts have been hard felt by people seeking asylum. Since 2010, individuals and families seeking asylum have faced reductions in legal aid, and now face ever more significant barriers accessing services for mental health problems, sexual violence counselling, or post-torture support. Since refugee groups often have disproportionately violent histories, these services are absolutely vital.

 

Austerity has, in reality, encouraged an environment that facilitates neglect and increased violence against people seeking asylum, amongst other migrant and non-white populations. When I started researching the British asylum system in 2008, at the beginning of the ‘crisis’, I could not have imagined that the social or economic landscape for people seeking asylum could get much worse. I found that the lack of access to interpreters impacted on the health of pregnant women and their children, sexual violence services were thinly stretched, and local foodbanks in Mosques and churches were commonplace. Support was minimal, but it was at least existent in some capacity.

 

Now, at the height of austerity and scores of interviews and thousands of hours of activist participation later, it is plain to see how the social, legal and economic conditions have rapidly evaporated. To echo the sentiments of a community mental health worker:

 

Five, six, seven years ago Liverpool had so many organisations supporting asylum seekers and probably that’s because there was a lot of funding available from government or local authorities or even trust funders.  Over the last two, three years things have changed, there isn’t a lot of money around, so a few other organisations have had to shut down their doors, they’ve had to streamline their services.

 

‘Streamlining their services’ suggests making services more focussed. In reality, it has basically meant that fewer specialised organisations exist, with central and local cuts – some of the most severe across the UK – adding further weight onto the few shoulders that are still available to carry it.  This is a key issue for women fleeing domestic violence who otherwise face the reality of daily abuse. As a councillor in the North-West of England put it:

 

In terms of women’s issues as refugee and asylum seekers they were just expected to be absorbed into the existing organisations but what people didn’t realise that the existing organisations were only working to a minimum capacity because of their funding. Now with austerity and the European Brexit and stuff like that, that’s beginning to look even worse, if you can imagine it to be any worse.

 

As I argue in The Violence of Austerity, and as advocacy and pressure groups such as Sisters Uncut and Safety 4 Sisters can attest, cuts to specialist services have the capacity to effectively facilitate deaths. If women cannot escape cycles of violence, gain access to refuges and receive emotional support – if they are depressed or feeling suicidal – some women will die. Such deaths are foreseeable when financial support is all but eradicated. Ignoring their potential has been a decision central to the agenda of austerity, not a by-product of it.

 

Deflecting responsibility on to those who least deserve it?

 

In a recent interview in Merseyside, a case worker for a refugee women’s service told me she felt that, ‘there has been definitely a concerted drive to divert attention away from the fact that there’s been less money provided, and put attention on stuff like, “Well who else could be using the services who doesn’t have as much right to the service as you?”’. In other words, rather than looking at those responsible for austerity, we are encouraged to look at those around us as potential threats to dwindling resources.

 

The reality of life in asylum has, however, long been more than arduous. Currently, people seeking asylum in Britain receive £36.95 per week in cash (£5.28 per day), but those who are awaiting asylum appeals receive £35.39 per week on a prepayment card. Considering that people seeking asylum received around £5 per day in 2008, at the beginning of the so-called ‘economic crisis’, and that inflation has increased on average 2.6 per cent each year since then, the end result of the infliction of such poverty is clearly foreseeable. Evidencing the harmful effects of this meagre entitlement, in 2014 Refugee Action found that:

 

Half of asylum-seekers surveyed couldn’t buy enough food to feed themselves or their families. [Our] research also found that 43 per cent of asylum-seekers miss a meal because they can’t afford to eat while a shocking 88 per cent don’t have enough money to buy clothes.

 

Over the past few months, I have spoken with women seeking asylum who are literally choosing between food and legal support payments. Cuts to support workers are devastating for people who can’t read English or who gain no advice, because it literally means not being able to access food or healthcare – even if they have the right to do so.

 

If there is one point to take away from a collection as hard hitting as The Violence of Austerity, it is that the decisions made in the aftermath of the so-called financial crisis were exactly that – decisions, made by some of the very people responsible for ensuring welfare and protection. They were not made by people seeking sanctuary – people requesting protection – who will likely feel the social and economic impacts of austerity for years to come.

 

Victoria Canning is a contributing author in ‘The Violence of Austerity’ where she writes on‘‘Multiple forms of violence in the asylum system’. The book is available to buy from Pluto Press:

http://www.plutobooks.com/promo_thanks.asp?CID=AUSTERITYCOOPER