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Thinking Criminologically: Engaging with darkness

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Often when you mention the word criminology to lay people outside of the academy, the initial response is “ooh that’s interesting” or “that sounds exciting”. The next step in the conversation usually reverts to the most extreme forms of interpersonal violence, murderers, serial killers and so on. For many, criminology appears to be the home of “whodunnits”. People talk of Ted Bundy, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, Fred and Rose West and want to know why they did what they did. For decades, the unsolved case of Jack the Ripper has been pored over by authors, television makers and the general public. For those who choose to engage, we have seen the female victims of this unknown man, eviscerated, degraded and ultimately slain, again and again for the reader/viewers’ delectation. This is not criminology.

Criminology recognises there are no winners in crime, only people left shattered, those devastated by their actions or those impacted by criminality. People are left bloody, bowed and bereaved through victimisation by individuals, institutions and the State. Yet just look on a bookshops ‘Crime’ shelves or flick through the programme schedules and you will find no sign of this. As a society we revel in this darkness and package it as entertainment. This is not criminology.

On the news we see discussions around crime and criminals. What should we do? Shall we give the police yet more powers? Shall we give those oh so lenient judges less leeway for discretion? Should we lock the offenders up and throw away the key? Should we bring back National Service? What about a boot camp? Should we consider bringing back the death penalty? How can we teach these people a lesson they won’t forget? Notice that all of these suggestions are designed to be more and more punitive, no discussions are focused around purely rehabilitative programmes, defunding the police or penal abolition. This is not criminology.

The problem with all of the ideas contained within the preceding paragraphs, is they are entirely negative. Criminology despite its focus on crime, criminality and criminalisation, has a positive focus, motivated by empathy and non-violence, if not pacifism. It is about trying to understand complexity and nuance in human and institutional behaviour. It is not interested in simplistic, quick fire, off the cuff answers for crime. It is forward looking, unconcerned with the status quo and more focused on what ought or might be. It intrinsically has social justice at its heart, an overwhelming desire for fairness for everyone, not just some. This is criminology.

This month is Gypsy, Romany, Traveller History Month, this week is also Refugee Week. Both are groups rarely treated fairly, they are criminalised and subjected to victimisation by individuals, institutions and the State. Their narratives have profound importance to our society. These experiences are far more central to Criminology than who Jack the Ripper might have been. This is criminology.

Also the beginning of this week marked the fourth anniversary of the disaster at Grenfell Tower. The graffiti above (I know, @5teveh and @jesjames50!) seems to capture the feelings of many when we consider this horrific tragedy. I taught for the first time on Grenfell in 2020/2021 and again this year. Both times I have been wracked with huge concerns around whether it was appropriate (many of our students are intimately connected), whether it was too soon and whether I could teach around the disaster with sensitivity. Running counter to this was a strong belief that criminology had a duty to acknowledge the disaster and enable our students to also make sense of such horror. In classes we have utilised poetry, music, graffiti and testimony in sessions to give us all space to consider how we can respond as a society. The biggest question of all, is what would justice look like for the bereaved, the survivors, friends, families and neighbours, the first responders? Some of that discussion is focused on the Grenfell Inquiry but far more is on how we can support those involved, what kind of advocacy can we engage with and how we can all raise our voices. As a society we cannot bring the dead back to life, but we can insist that the survivors and their families get meaningful answers. We can also insist that we make room for these individuals and families to have their voices heard. We can demand that fundamental changes are made so that disasters like these do not happen again. That we learn valuable lessons. This is criminology.

Unfortunately, experience tells us that previous victims of similarly horrible disasters do not receive anything that approximates justice, consider the events at Hillsborough in 1989. Likewise, as a society we do not seem able to learn lessons from inquiries, think about the deaths of Victoria Climbié and Peter Connelly. Nevertheless, as humans we have huge capacity for change, we do not need to keep repeating the same behaviours ad nauseum. As scholars of criminology we are well placed to argue for this change, to understand holistically, the complexities of crime and deviance, to empathise and to make space for marginalised voices to be heard. In addition we must be prepared to challenge and advocate for change. Some of us may be pacifist in orientation, but we must never be passive! This is Criminology.

Refugee Week 2021

This year’s refugee week begins today, 14th June 2021 with the theme ‘we cannot walk alone’. The aim is to encourage all of us to reach out and help someone new. This week is close to my heart as border criminology is one of my key research interests. I am strongly committed to impactful research, activism and contributing my time and resources to helping refugees and making those fleeing persecution feel welcome in the UK’s hostile environment. As the resident border criminologist, I want to introduce Refugee Week activities at the University of Northampton but also to suggest how we can help ensure nobody walks alone.

The University of Northampton is hosting a week of talks in conjunction with Northampton Town of Sanctuary. Beginning on Monday at 2pm we welcome Gulwali Passarlay who fled Afghanistan at the age of 12, travelling alone through 8 countries to the UK where he was eventually granted asylum. Having spent the last few years interviewing, supporting and advocating for refugees I have heard many stories of survival. No two have been the same but each shares such painful paths that I cannot imagine. Each time I hear a refugee speak about the situations they fled I feel humbled, and grateful that despite its array of flaws, the UK is safe. In our Outsiders module, students were recently asked to challenge assumptions of minority groups. Hearing the stories of refugees from the mouths of refugees is enough to shatter any assumptions, rhetoric and media narratives about those fleeing persecution so for those who have undertaken or will sit the module next year this is a must!

On Tuesday 15th June at 2pm there will be an introduction and update to the City of Sanctuary movement.  Being a City (or Town) of Sanctuary means committing to becoming a place which welcomes those seeking safety. The movement extends to universities, many of which offer Sanctuary Scholarships to asylum seekers and refugees. The Northampton Town of Sanctuary movement wants the University of Northampton to become a University of Sanctuary. Dependents of asylum applicants who arrive in the UK as children, go to school and college here, make friends, speak English, and have GCSEs and A-levels, are then unable to continue in their education as they would be liable to pay international student fees. Asylum seekers currently receive £39.63 per week from the government and are prohibited from seeking employment. They are not entitled to student finance. They are at the end of the road, forced to sit quietly and wait for the letter to come through their door with a decision.

In my own research, many of the asylum seekers I interviewed had been in the asylum process for years. For those who arrived as children and attended school here, once they left college and all their friends were going to university, they were left behind with nothing to do. This had enormous impact on their mental health and their sense of identity. They hid their asylum-seeking identity from their friends in fear of judgement, creating false narratives about who they were. This was often due to past experience of xenophobic abuse after disclosing their immigration status at school. Upon leaving school they would further advance these false narratives, making up stories about why they were not working or going to university. Just one of the people I interviewed managed to secure a Sanctuary Scholarship, despite many of them submitting applications. Having seen the impacts of exclusion from higher education, I want to see every university being a University of Sanctuary, but let’s start with the University of Northampton.

The third talk of the week is delivered by Emma Harrison from IMIX, an organisation which delivers valuable work in changing the conversation around migration and refugees. We’ve all seen the headlines and media reports of ‘illegal immigrants’ (the term ‘illegal immigrant’ infuriates me but that’s another future blog). We’ve heard Priti Patel’s plans to overhaul the ‘broken’ immigration system. The plans include further criminalisation of people seeking safety, avoiding death, rape, persecution, war; and extreme sentencing rules for those who help them reach a place of safety. The media and political rhetoric are relentless and a change in the conversation is desperately needed. I often feel hopeless about my work, that the work of myself and other border criminologists falls on deaf ears. I was at a conference a few weeks ago where the keynote was discussing the abolition of immigration detention. Immigration detention is pointless and harmful and research outputs have been good at pointing out the harms but perhaps we need to tell them what they want to hear: immigration detention is a pointless waste of money. I am looking forward to listening and hope I can pick up some tips to alter the way I communicate findings to different audiences. This talk is on Wednesday 16th June at 2pm.

The final talk of the week is delivered by a representative from the British Red Cross on Friday 18th June at 11am. The British Red Cross do a range of invaluable work from practical support such as supplying clothing and food, to finding missing family members of people seeking sanctuary. The talk will be focussed on the work the organisation does in Northamptonshire and Leicestershire during the pandemic. One of the first things I intend to do when I move to Northampton is to familiarise myself with the local service provision for refugees and asylum seekers and get involved so for me this will be a good place to start.

I encourage all our students to attend at least one of these events. They are all virtual so you could even listen while you sunbathe in the park. To attend, please email Nick who will forward a link. For our students who are interested in supporting refugees, we have a Student Action for Refugees branch at the university who coordinate student efforts to help refugees. There are many other ways we can all contribute to making sure people do not ‘walk alone’. We can read books such as Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains or The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla, or watch one of the films free on the British Film Institute’s Refugee Week event. We can have conversations with others and try to think about what refugees might be going through. Next time you see a news report about a conflict talk about what you would do in that situation, what belongings you would take, which of your family would you leave behind? Having conversations such as these helps to build empathy and compassion. We can go further to challenge racist and xenophobic assumptions. I often ask, ‘what is your fear?’ to which I can invariably rationally explain why whatever they disclose will not materialise. Do one, all or some of these things. But I implore you to do SOMETHING to contribute not only to Refugee Week but to making the UK a more welcoming place.

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