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Refugee Week 2022
Next week (20th-26th June) is Refugee Week, coming at a moment in time days after the first deportation flight of asylum seekers to Rwanda was scheduled. Luckily the government’s best efforts were thwarted by the ECHR this time. Each year Refugee Week has a theme and this year’s focus is healing. People fleeing conflict and persecution have a lot to heal from and I am pessimistic about whether healing is possible in the UK. My own research examines the trajectories of victimisation among people seeking safety. I trace experiences of victimisation starting from the context from which people fled, during their journeys and after arrival in the UK. It is particularly disturbing as someone who researches people seeking safety that once they arrive in a place they perceived to be safe, they continue to be victimised in a number of ways. People seeking safety in the UK encounter the structurally violent asylum ‘system’ and discriminatory attitudes of swathes of the public, sections of the media and last not certainly not least, political discourse. Even after being granted leave to remain, refugees face a struggle to find accommodation, employment, convert education certificates and discrimination and hate crime is ongoing.
Over the years I have supported refugees who suffered breakdowns after having their asylum claim awarded. They are faced with the understanding of the trauma they suffered pre-migration, compounded by the asylum system and the move-on period following claims being awarded. Yet this is no time to heal. In the wake of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, no migrant nor British citizen with a claim to citizenship elsewhere is safe. There is no safety here and therefore there can be no healing, not meaningful healing anyway.
Despite my negative outlook on the state of immigration policy in the UK, there are some positive signs of healing for some people seeking safety. These experiences are often facilitated by peer support, grassroots organisations and charities. I recall one woman who had fled Iraq coming into a charity I was undertaking research in. When we met for the first time, she was tiny and looked much older than she was. She would pull her veil tightly around her head, almost like it was protecting her. This woman did not speak a word of English and the only volunteer Kurdish Sorani interpreter did not attend the group every week. The womens’ group I attended conducted activities which overcame language barriers and at the time we were working with tiles and mosaics on a project which lasted a few weeks. During this time I could visibly see this woman start to heal. She started to stand up straight, making her appear taller. Her face softened and she appeared younger. She started smiling and her veil loosened. She was relaxing among us. In my experience, I’ve noticed that the healing comes in ebbs and flows. Relief of being ‘safe’, compounding stress of asylum, making friends, waiting, waiting, waiting for a negative decision, being supported by NGOs, letters threatening deportation, having a ‘safe’ place to live, having a firework posted through your letterbox.
For me this week is about celebrating those fleeting moments of healing, since I spend so much of my time discussing and researching the negative. The University of Northampton is co-hosting a number of events to mark Refugee Week 2022, starting with a service being held to remember all those seeking sanctuary both past and present. The event will be held on Monday 20th June at 1pm at Memorial Garden, Nunn Mills Road, Northampton, NN1 5PA (parking available at Midsummer Meadow car park).
Monday will end with an ‘in conversation with’ event with University of Northampton doctoral candidate Amir Darwish. Amir is Kurdish-Syrian and arrived in the UK as an asylum seeker in 2003. He is now an internationally published poet and writer. This event will be run in conjunction woth Northampton Town of Sanctuary and will be hosted at Delapre Abbey at 7pm. You can find further details and book tickets here.
On Wednesday the University of Northampton and Northampton Town of Sanctuary will be hosting an online seminar at 3pm with Professor Peter Hopkins, whose recent research examined the exacerbation of existing inequlaities for asylum seekers during the pandemic. I’ve just written a book chapter on this for a forthcoming volume reflecting on the unequal pandemic and it was staggering – but unsurprising – to see the impact on asylum seekers. This seminar can be accessed online here.
The week’s events will conclude with a Refugee Support Showcase which does what it says on the tin. This event will be an opportunity for organisations working with refugees in the local area to show the community the valuable work they do. This event will take place on Thursday 23rd June 4-6pm at the Guildhall, St. Giles Square, Northampton.
This year the University has worked with a number of organisations to produce a well-rounded series of events. Starting with reflection and thought of those who have sought, and continue to seek sanctuary and celebrating the achievements of someone who has lived experiences of the asylum system. Wednesday contibutes to the understanding of inequalities for people seeking safety and we end Friday on a positive note with the work of those who facilitate healing.
Au revoir Le Pen, take the rest of the far right with you!
The recent French election once again saw centrist Macron head to head with far right nationalist Le Pen. Macron won the election by a much narrower margin that the 2017 elections. I have an interest in the French elections as my parents live there and are not far away from applying for citizenship. For them, the prospect of a far right president was worrying.
The politics of much of the world has shifted to the right of late, often to the far right. Perhaps this hasn’t been a recent thing. Indeed, before this wave of Trump, Modi, and Le Pen, we had UKIP and for a while the BNP was making a lot of noise. The writing was on the wall with New Labour and their many new immigration offences, Blair’s tough on crime and it’s causes approach, and not forgetting war on Iraq and Afghanistan. This was swiftly followed with then Home Secretary Theresa May’s hostile environment agenda which has been advanced again and again by consecutive Home Secretaries until we passed the point of no return with Priti Patel and her Nationality and Borders Act 2022 (it pains me to type ‘Act’ instead of ‘Bill’ – it’s black and white now) from which not the Lords nor God nor the best lawyers in the land seem have yet been able to save us from. What we see now is a Conservative government embedded with far right ideology, and this is not an isolated island in that respect.
This current uprising of the far right, racist, and xenophobic politicians is a global phenomenon. Modi, the far right Hindu nationalist is knee deep in his campaign against Muslims, revoking autonomy in Jammu and Kashmir (ironically – or deliberately – this took place on 31st October 2019, the day Britain was supposed to leave the EU), invoking the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 which disproportionately affects the citizenship of Muslims who now face the possibility of expulsion, and even outright attacks on Muslims.
Then there was Trump and the less said about him, the better. But let us return to France. This is the second consecutive election in which Macron has faced Le Pen and won. In France, elections are held in two stages. All parties and candidates go head to head in stage one and if no candidate holds a majority, a second round between the top two candidates takes place. In 2017, Macron won the second stage with 66.1% of the vote. This time around, the vote was much narrower 58.6%. Le Pen’s Rassemblement National party has ‘transformed’ since the 2017 election, with the party’s councillor for Gironde arguing that they are not the far right, and instead are localists and nationalists. Are they not one and the same?
In recent years, the rise of the far right in Europe has been fuelled by fears of refugees, terrorism, and open borders within the European Union. In addition to this, concerns over employment and poverty have contributed to this. It is not all about them, it is preservation of us.
In a globalised era, we have seen decades of erosion of the working class jobs of old combined with distorted perceptions of immigration and population changes. People living in poverty, unemployed or in insecure employment look for someone to blame and the someone tends to be them. So, parties who say they stand for the working man and oppose immigration become popular, not because voters are necessarily racist but because they are fearful and suffering. Bearing that in mind, where does that leave us now? The whole of Europe is facing a cost of living crisis, war on our doorstep. Here in the UK, inflation and interest rates are rising but wages are not. We cannot blame this on them, on people fleeing persecution, on people who come to the UK to fill the jobs nobody wants or are not qualified to do. This us and them narrative causes nothing but division and hatred, fuelling hateful politicians who – let’s face it – serve nobody’s interests but their own.
My Monday message: Choose love
From Criminal to the ‘Rule of Law’? Johnson’s border policy on refugees
Britain has a very proud history of taking refugees and migrants from war-torn and destabilised areas of the world – this is a fact which has been made clear from all sides of the political spectrum. What is concerning, however, is that this statement has since Brexit been continuously added as a precursor to every new border policy blunder made by the UK Conservative government in an attempt to ‘soften the blow’ of public perception. It is the paradox of Boris Johnson trying to appeal to those sympathetic to migration, but to also appease hard-line anti-immigration Brexiteers. This paradox was inevitable, given (a) the close split between Leave and Remain votes in the 2016 EU Referendum, and (b) the amount of lies told to both sides of this debate by Johnson and his ‘mates’ in a desperate attempt to gain political power in 2019…leaving the British public in permanent limbo as whether or not ‘Brexit’ (in the way it was described) had even taken place at all; a state of ‘technically we’re out, but we’re not really out’.
Given the ease of shaping and reproducing ‘empty signifiers’ (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985; Torfing, 1999) within this discursive limbo, Boris Johnson’s latest border policy disaster relating to refugee border crossings was announced yesterday. The new “genius” idea will be to deport those who are single men crossing the Channel in boats or lorries from France to Rwanda for ‘processing’. Of course, as per usual, this was seemingly quite a surprise to the Minister of State for Refugees who claimed on LBC just over a week prior to the announcement that he had no knowledge of any new plans to send anyone to Rwanda.
Before going into the details of the hypocrisy associated with this policy in the light of the war in Ukraine, what I fail to understand is the entire point of this process. Boris Johnson’s announcement seemed to focus most of his rhetoric on the ‘illegality’ of the status of people entering UK borders, as well as the need to curb ‘people smuggling’. He merged this part of his speech with Ukrainian refugees in an attempt to, once again, appear to seem more sympathetic to the struggle of fleeing populations than he is in reality…’whether you are fleeing Putin or Assad, our aim is that you should not need to turn to people smugglers or any other kind of illegal option’. It is important to note that we shouldn’t be confusing (as often happens) the term ‘people smugglers’ with ‘sex traffickers’, whose motives are wholly different than merely receiving money to aid someone’s journey across nation state borders. People smugglers tend to take advantage of those who are in sheer desperation. This desperation is normally grounded in a combination of multiple factors: (1) destabilisation in their home country, (2) fear for their life, safety, or future (or that of their family), (3) strong desire for liberation or freedom and, most importantly, (4) a practical inability to actually escape their current borders.
With this in mind, it is astonishing to hear Johnson trying to justify this policy on the grounds that he is somewhat of a rule-of-law fan, wishing to drive out illegal behaviour from UK borders, given that he has recently become the first ever serving UK Prime Minister to have been sanctioned for breaking the criminal law. As with many similar approaches to these types of policies in the past (the obvious being the so-called ‘war on drugs’), the core motivation has very little to do with the actual human safety, and more rooted in neoliberal frustrations of the (and I deliberately use this term in its loosest possible sense) ’tax-paying’ Eton schoolboys at others, within UK borders or otherwise, earning any kind of money from which they are not directly benefitting. This ties in closely to, what I mentioned in a previous post, as the UK Conservative Party’s lazy response to sanctioning oligarchs linked to the Putin regime…for obvious personal reasons.
Most striking here is the level of hypocrisy between who is considered part of the in-group of migrants and refugees, and who is the ‘other’; the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ (Cottle, 2000; Van Dijck, 2000; Quinsaat, 2011; Reed, 2017). Without deflecting from Putin’s responsibility in reproducing anti-Ukrainian sentiment in Russia and surrounding former Soviet nations, and framing the ethnic group as some kind of leeching parasite on the Russian people, we have seen both overt and covert racism at play in Ukraine and other parts of the world in relation to this idea of ‘ideal’ refugees. The UK is no exception to this. Not since the aftermath of the Second World War have we seen the type of outpouring of sympathy by the British public towards a persecuted ethnic group, with hundreds-of-thousands opening up their homes to house refugees expected imminently. Of course we should be proud of every hand extended to any human in need of help, but where was this reaction when Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and Libyans were fleeing their countries due to botched UK military operations in their sovereign territory? Where is this reaction when innocent Yemeni people are calling on the world to help while we are funding Saudi Arabia’s genocidal campaign in their sovereign territory?
It is too simple to claim that this issue is purely related to skin-colour-based racism or another type of xeno-racism, because we know this not to be the case. Perhaps due to the personal nature of the conflict in the Republic of Artsakh in late 2020 which killed thousands of Armenians and displaced around 90,000, and the rhetoric of neutrality from the UK Conservative government (due to their close monetary ties with the aggressor and his oligarch friends), the mainstream media and near-total silence from prominent celebrities…all of whom seem to now scream for action in response to Ukraine (rightly so), but I can’t help but echo a question asked by another Armenian, Tatev Hovhannisyan: Where was the outpouring of empathy when my country was at war?
Perhaps to understand the nature of this hypocrisy we need to focus more on the complex interplay between the nation state, power and discourse. I would add another element into this equation: money. In a neoliberal, populist political model, dictators seemingly pay vast sums of money to other nation states in exchange for the unyielding, unchallenged and unregulated power to produce and reproduce dominant discourses which ground their version of hegemony within those states.
Cottle, S. (Ed.). (2000). Ethnic Minorities and the Media. Open University Press.
Laclau, E., & Mouffe, C. (1985). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. Verso.
Quinsaat, S. M. (2011). ‘Everybody Around Here is from Somewhere Else’: News frames and hegemonic discourses in the immigration debates in the United States, 2006 and 2010 [MA Thesis]. University of Pittsburgh: Kenneth P Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.
Reed, H. (2017). Framing of Immigrants and Refugees: A content analysis of mainstream and partisan news coverage of immigration [MA Thesis]. University of Missouri: Faculty of the Graduate School.
Torfing, J. (1999). New Theories of Discourse: Laclau, Mouffe and Žižek. Blackwell.
Van Dijk, T. A. (2000). New(s) Racism: A Discourse Analytical Approach. European Journal of Political Economy, 33–49.
“…the result is the same: beasts of prey and ignorant thieves”￼
Since the ousting of a close Putin ally (ex-President Viktor Yanukovich) from Ukrainian politics and territory in 2014 during the Euromaidan revolution, the closeness the country had come to actually joining the defensive NATO alliance seems to have irked Putin enough to swiftly “recognise the independence” of, as with Crimea in 2014, two Eastern-Ukrainian regions, Donetsk and Luhansk. It is not a new politically strategic move and certainly not unique to Russia. Examples of this kind of act can be seen around the world in regions where complex power interplays are rendering regional enclaves powerless in garnering enough support for the recognition of their own independence from oppressive regimes, genocide or in securing mere rights to self-determination (e.g. Kashmir in Northern India, Artsakh in South-Eastern Armenia etc.).
Yesterday morning we awoke to the news that Russia’s Vladimir Putin had ordered a full-scale attack on Ukrainian sovereign territory, in violation of international law (among many other violations of basic morality and human decency). I should emphasise here that this is a Putin-centred issue rather than one which encompasses the Russian Federation, since it is not inconceivable to suggest that ordinary Russian citizens are not particularly excited that their relatives, friends, children are being sent to die like cattle in another country while their billionaire leader basks in complete safety in his ivory tower. With an attack from the northern, eastern and southern borders of the country…and now the imminent arrival of Russian troops in Ukraine’s capital Kiev…this does not seem like just a case of Putin’s desire to rebuild a modern-day Russian empire incorporating its former Soviet nations, but a much deeper personal desperation to be seen to be the only globally-remaining strong leader.
The stepping down of Angela Merkel in Germany, ousting of Donald Trump from the US, and the failure of Brexit in achieving what he thought would be a political and economic disaster for the European Union, have all contributed to Putin’s desperation. The poisoning and subsequent arrest/detention of Alexei Navalny, the populist Russian opposition leader who in recent years managed to almost successfully stage a political coop against Putin, demonstrates the lengths Putin will go to convince his increasingly oppressed citizens that the alternative to his leadership will equate to the kinds of political and economic failures they have witnessed of Western nations.
It is clear that the UK’s sanctions have not gone near far enough in preventing the kinds of miscarriages of justice that will inevitably follow from Putin’s appointment of a de facto Russian leader on Ukrainian soil without democratic support from the Ukrainian people. But I wonder whether the seemingly lazy response from Boris Johnson and the UK Conservative Party is indicative of the deeply-rooted corruption which helped his eventual election into British politics. We had for many years been aware of the extent of foreign money laundering through UK banks by Russian and Azerbaijani oligarchs, the billions of pounds’ worth of UK property owned by those with close ties to the Kremlin, the millions donated to fund the Conservative Party, and perhaps most significantly, the “we’ll return the favour” investments by Conservative politicians in Russian-owned banks, stocks and shares. Is it then surprising that Putin was so supportive of the Brexit campaign and the election of Donald Trump, both seemingly aimed at destabilising the West; the US, UK and EU? Surely, now is the time for the British public to demand the highest level of openness and transparency of their politicians, particularly those who have already been elected under the banner of lies. Perhaps this will help in our collective political and economic response to miscarriages abroad, as well as within our borders.
NATO nations’ unwillingness to intervene, militarily, in this conflict is evidently the green light Putin needed to set foot in sovereign territory under the guise of “denazification” (bizarre considering Volodymyr Zelenskyy – the current Ukrainian President – is himself Jewish). This should form a stark reminder to former Soviet nations not to be seduced by the thought of reliving some kind of Soviet nostalgia of perceived religious and cultural similarities with Russia which has been drip-fed for many years since the collapse of the USSR. Those living in this hazy nostalgic dream will soon forget the reality that the experience of a Russian invasion will be grounded not in the form of communism which once secured its citizens with guaranteed housing, easy employment, and annual trips to the sanatorium…but in a dangerous oppressive dictatorship and an isolationist economic model. To quote a well-known message from a 1993 Russian film Window to Paris: ‘Sure. You brought up builders of communism. Now, it’s builders of capitalism. And the result is the same: beasts of prey and ignorant thieves’.
Former Soviet nations not aiding and abetting the current aggression in Ukraine (as Belarus is doing) should now be alert to the fact that they will never be safe in a military limbo, nor under Putin’s wing. It is a time where citizens of these regions should let go of any hope of a return to a “simpler way of life” and move to securing effective political and military support for their nations away from Russian influence.
Colston, the toppling of a pejorative narrative
The acquittal of the four defendants for their role in the toppling of Edward Colston in Bristol has created an interesting debate and in some, more right-wing quarters, fury. In an interview following the verdict Boris Johnson stated we cannot seek to “retrospectively change our history“
But what history is he talking about, the one where this country was heavily involved in slavery or some other history around Empire and ‘jolly hockey sticks and all that sort of thing’?
History tells us that this country’s empire, like all empires significantly benefited from its conquests to the detriment of those conquered. Although if you watch the Monty Python film The Life of Brian, the right of the political spectrum might find some comfort in the sketch that starts with ‘What have the Romans ever done for us’? This country’s history is complex more so because it is a shared history with its own inhabits and those of other countries across most of the world. A history of slaves and slave traders. A history of rich and powerful and poor and powerless. A history of remapping of countries, redefining of borders, of the creation of unrest, uncertainty and chaos. A history of theft, asset stripping, taking advantage and disempowerment. As well as a history of standing up to would be oppressors. It is a complex history but not one that is somehow rewritten or removed by the toppling of a statue of a slave trader.
The tearing down of the statue is history. It is a fact that this country’s so called great and good of the time were tarnished by a despicable trade in human misery. The legacy of that lives on to this day. Great and good then, not so now, in fact they never were, were they? It may be questionable whether the circumstances of the removal of the statue were right, hence the charges of criminal damage. It might be questionable whether the verdict given by the jury was right, but surely this isn’t about changing history, it is about making it.
There are suggestions that the verdict may be referred to a higher authority, perhaps the Supreme Court. It appears right that there was a case to answer, and it seems right that the jury were allowed to deliver the verdict they did. There is nothing perverse in this, nothing to challenge, due process has taken place and the people have spoken. The removal of the statue was not criminal damage and therefore was lawful.
If a statue is an affront to the people of a locality, then they should be able to have it removed. If is such an affront to common decency, then the only people guilty of an offence are those that failed to remove it in the first place. Of course, it is more complex than that and perhaps the bigger question is why this didn’t happen sooner?
It would seem fitting to replace the statue with something else. Something perhaps that shows that slowly people of this country are waking up to the country’s past, well at least some of them. A statue that commemorates a new beginning, that acknowledges the country’s true past and points the way to a far more humane future for all. No Mr Johnson, we shouldn’t try to rewrite or obliterate history, we just need to change the way it written and stop ignoring the truth.
The Maid: A Few Thoughts
Last week featured my first weekend of rest in a long time and I was desperate to do nothing. In conversation with a friend I mentioned that I had not binge-watched anything in a long time and she suggested The Maid (streaming on Netflix) with a warning that it was brilliant but that I might find it traumatic. I consumed the entire season over the weekend, even after I messaged said friend to inform her after episode two that it was a difficult watch and I would need a break. I did not take a break and powered through. If you have ever been through, witnessed or supported someone through abuse, this will be a difficult watch but I also found it quite therapeutic because it was realistic.
The series is about domestic abuse and focuses on emotional abuse, addressing some of the stigma and contested victimhood of those who suffer non-physical abuse. Although based in the US, it addresses the lack of recognition in the legal system for abusive relationships that do not feature physical violence. The show highlighted that many in society do not recognise non-physical domestic abuse as ‘real’ or ‘enough’, and for a while the female lead (Alex) herself did not perceive herself to be victimised enough to warrant support from a refuge or seek help from the police. She later moves through her denial after getting flashbacks as a symptom of PTSD. She realised that having witnessed her father perpetrate violence towards her mother as a child, her daughter was now impacted in exactly the same way, despite this ‘lesser’ form of abuse.
Much of the series showed the struggles of single mothers leaving abusive relationships, often with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Forcibly displaced, they slowly try to rebuild their lives, applying for state benefits, social housing and childcare. Alex quickly finds a job and still finds it difficult to find a place to live because she needs state support to supplement her rent and deposit. There are few landlords who accept tenants receiving state support, both in the US and the UK. She is repeatedly facing the barriers of an unjust system, stacked against her because of the type of victimisation she suffered.
While facing structural barriers, the maid found help in the most unlikely people: women in the shelter, a social worker helping her to fight the system, a wealthy woman she worked for. Her relationships changed with some people to access support. She was forced to seek help from her father and another male friend when she was left homeless which had difficult gendered dynamics. The father had been abusive to her mother and when she recalled this, it caused conflict in her relationship and she left his home, despite this leaving her homeless once again. Her male friend appeared to be helpful and kind but did so with the expectation she would start a relationship with him and when this did not materialise she was again asked to leave with nowhere to go so she returns to her ex-partner.
The maid does not as much get back into a relationship with him than coexists with him. The relationship he thinks they have is not what her reality is. He thinks she has come home, she is there because she is homeless with nowhere else to go. They live parallel lives. After returning to the ‘family home’, Alex falls into depression and suffers PTSD. Some of the imagery here is intense. In one scene the sofa swallows her up, as if she wished to sink into the cracks of the furniture, not wanting to be seen, wanting to escape but with no means to flee or places to flee to. In other scenes, she tries to go for a walk in the forest, but the trees close in around her, visually representing the isolation her abuser has forced upon her.
My main criticism is in the final episode when Sean tells the maid he will get sober but getting sober will not fix this. Alcohol is not the problem. He was abusive during his sober phases. Quitting alcohol does not transplant men’s attitudes, values and beliefs towards women. Being sober does not remove the need for abusive men to control women. This sends the wrong message to the audience, and it is a dangerous message to send. I would have liked to see the series end with Sean admitting he was a controlling, abusive man and that he would get help for this. Instead he blamed his behaviour on alcohol.
I’m going to play the tape forward and imagine a season 2 because I have witnessed this scenario a few times over the years. He cleans up, gets sober and appears to look like he is doing well. He may have been to rehab or AA where he was taught that he probably should not punch walls or throw objects at people’s heads. He gets in a new relationship and it looks like all is well for a while but he still has not admitted or addressed why he was abusive so his behaviours are there, they are just more subtle. He gaslights, manipulates, controls. But he isn’t outwardly aggressive so he gets away with it for a while. Until he doesn’t.