Somatic shifts: the politics of movement in the time of COVID

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.

By Victoria Hattam.

Dispatch from Brooklyn, NY.
September 2020

COVID-19 has returned questions of migration and mobility to the centre of politics by upending the distribution of mobility privileges. Who is allowed – or required – to move is changing; many are trying to assess the consequences of such reorderings. I want to extend discussions of the virus by turning our eye from migration and mobility to movement of another kind. Under COVID-19, mobility for many has become less about getting from here to there; less about journeys of one kind or another; less about the movement of things: trade, finance capital, and cross-border production. As Shannon Mattern and others have shown, the virus is pushing the boundaries of mobility by demanding that smaller, differently located shifts be included in any assessment of virus significance. If we remain alert to the possibilities, perhaps the virus can open migration and mobility studies to somatic shifts and in so doing expand the political stakes of the present moment.

The virus has ricocheted through the somatic: distance, stance, breath, fluids, air flows, droplets, spittle have taken on new importance. There is a new awareness of the bodily everyday. What is especially interesting is the malleability of bodily actions; within weeks of hearing that the virus had arrived, and without any visual evidence that it was here, how one walked, talked, moved and stood changed. Space is now of the essence. Give a wide birth. I have been surprised at how quickly quotidian ways of being have shifted. What once seemed entrenched social forms have altered in relatively short order. If bodily actions can change so quickly, maybe habitus is not so fixed after all. Political possibilities open up as well.

Lining up for the Food Co-op, Park Slope, Brooklyn (image: Victoria Hattam, August 2020)

The somatic shifts underway have reminded me of Alan Kaprow’s experimental projects from the 60’s and 70’s. Fluids (1967) and Echo-ology (1975) come to mind. When I was co-teaching the ‘Political Sensorium’ with the late Ann Snitow, New York artist/researcher Robert Sember came to class and enacted one of Kaprow’s ‘Happenings’. It was a simple yet amazingly powerful action – deeply political in ways that resonate for me with the virus now.

The protocols went as follows: Everyone stands in a circle. One person has a teaspoon filled with water. The teaspoon is passed from one person to the next moving around the circle. Once the spoon has been passed all the way around, it changes direction and the spoon is passed back to the beginning. Once completed, the person left holding the spoon swallows the water. The whole action takes no more then 5-10 minutes – depending on the size of the group.

When Sember drank the water, a gasp filled the room. I understood expropriation in a way that I had not before. The visceral political. Disbelief, injustice, outrage followed. What amazed me in the Kaprow action, and what echoes now, was the speed with which I and other participants invested in the care of the water and collectively were outraged by its demise. Within the few minutes that it took to complete the action, we had identified collectively with the spoon’s contents – the careful passing of the spoon from one person to another had created a sense of affective investment in the water. The testament to the identifications generated was revealed by the shock that accompanied the arbitrary consumption of our newly created charge. A cycle of identification and resistance occurred within minutes not years.

Spoon filled with water (image: Victoria Hattam, Brooklyn, New York, August 2020)

Living in the time of COVID-19 has shifted somatic presumptions in powerful ways, changing the terrain of the bodily political.

Kaprow was certainly not the only one to push the envelope with such experimental work: John Cage, Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, Daniel Goode, Fluxus, The Motherfuckers, the Cockettes and many others drew attention to the somatic dimensions of the political through a variety of wide ranging projects.

Many experimental works carry with them a playfulness, a sense of pleasure and lightness of being that is captivating. But often, especially with Kaprow’s Happenings, there is a multi-vocality in which matters of power, futility and loss hover in the works as well. This more somber dimension to the Happenings adds to their salience now. Cage’s playfulness and infectious smile are complicated in Kaprow’s work. Constructing the ice ‘tomb’ that is left to melt, carrying buckets of water up stream in order to tip the water back into the river cast shadows over these collective endeavours. Perhaps a sense of mourning pervades Kaprow’s water actions as they were created not long after his two-year old daughter was killed by a car near their home in Glen Head, Long Island. (But one need not resort to such individualized motives; the power of Kaprow’s events often lay in their capacity to hold possibility and difficulty together.

This other register within Kaprow’s work, the more somber, futile, shadowy elements, echo in the time of COVID-19 when the virus reveals again the deep seated racial violence that constitutes the ground of US politics: infections, deaths and unemployment numbers all are structured by zip codes. The virus has ravaged unequally, exploiting longstanding economic and racial disparities in new ways. Pope L’s street crawls come to mind. In 1991, Pope L lay prone on the street, pot plant placed on the road in front of him, pushing it along the road inch by inch for hours. The Tompkins Square Crawl, as the action is known, was one of several such crawls that enact a powerful sense endurance and struggle.

Alternatively, we might follow Jill Richards into what she calls ‘The Fury Archives’ where movement is key, but takes less teleological forms. First wave feminism was powerful in Richards’ telling not for its end point, not for the retrospective ordering provided by the securing of women’s suffrage decades later. Any such ordering foreshortens the politics as it is happening. It is the long slog of action itself, the ‘long middle’ of small scale conflict without clear end, that Richards foregrounds. That unsettled, shuttling motion resonates now. Where the somatic shifts are taking us is by no means certain.

Under COVID-19 movement has neither ended nor disappeared. It has changed. Movement has moved to the everyday somatic. The political ramifications of somatic shifts are neither natural nor inevitable. They are in good measure ours to shape.

Victoria Hattam is Professor of Politics at The New School in New York City. She is a member of the Multiple Mobilities Research Cluster and of the Transoceanic Mobilities Network. Her current research focuses on US-Mexico border politics and the global political economy. For a recent writing see ‘Race Walls,’ in The Funambulist 31 (September–October 2020).

Kept apart – couples and families separated by the UK immigration system

By Katharine Charsley

In the wake of the report into the Windrush scandal, in which Commonwealth citizens legally resident in the UK for decades were wrongly treated as irregular migrants and denied basic rights, Secretary of State Priti Patel has announced her intention to work towards a ‘fair, humane, compassionate and outward-looking Home Office’, which treats individuals as ‘people not cases’. There has been no sign, however, that the government is considering changing the UK’s family immigration rules, which routinely separate British citizens and long-term residents from their loved ones. Since 2012, the need to demonstrate earnings above a minimum income (set higher than the pay of around 40% of the UK working population), sky-high visa fees and other costs, an increasingly complex application process, and not infrequent errors in decision making (half of immigration appeals are upheld) have meant tens of thousands of couples and families have been kept apart.

Toddler on the phone to her father (image by Michael Grieve)

Over the past few months, I have been working with Reunite Families UK (a campaigning and support organisation), other local academics interested in the issue (Helena Wray at the University of Exeter and Emma Agusita at the University of the West of England), and Rissa Mohabir from the specialist organisation Trauma Awareness, on a project exploring the impact of this separation on British people with non-UK partners and/or families. Rissa facilitated a safe listening project bringing together members of Reunite Families UK to talk about their experiences of negotiating the family immigration system and living with immigration-related separation.

Rissa is more used to working with refugees and so was struck by the level of trauma in evidence in the initial project workshop: ‘The depth of feelings and isolation compounded by the prolonged application process, highlighted lesser known trauma responses of the participants.’ As well as the emotional impact of not being able to be with their loved ones, parents grappled with combining long hours of work to meet the minimum income requirements together with enforced single parenthood and children traumatised by the absence of the other parent. The uncertainty of how long separation would last, or indeed whether they would ever be reunited, could be torturous. Many participants described significant tolls on their mental and physical health. When life situations became difficult – through bereavement, health crises or political events overseas necessitating relocation – the inflexibility of the family immigration system compounded difficulties and trauma.

Our work together was interrupted by the COVID-19 crisis, meaning that instead of a second face-to-face workshop the project had to move online. Family separation became an experience shared by many in the UK during lockdown, but for participants still going through the immigration system, coronavirus and lockdown amplified challenges and uncertainties as partners were affected by travel bans. Reunite Families UK members also reported increased anxiety about the impact of lost income and service closures on their prospects of reuniting.

From the outset of the project we envisioned it being a creative process, using a model of co-creating prose-poems (or ‘narrative prose’) developed by Trauma Awareness in previous work with refugee women. Participants in the workshop were asked to bring an object with them which spoke to them about their experiences of separation. In the workshop, describing the relevance of the objects (which included a rejection letter, phones and huggable items to fend off loneliness) became one of several exercises used to elicit words and images, which then formed the basis of our work together.

Rissa and I compiled participants’ words into evocative prose-poems and word art, individual case studies were then added to provide more sustained personal accounts, and we also added information on the family immigration process for those coming to the topic for the first time. An illustrator, Michael Grieve, brought his personal experience of his wife’s visa rejection to developing illustrations for the project. Some were literal – a rejection letter, hugging a pillow in the absence of their partner –  whilst others were more metaphorical  – the unpredictability and complexity of the immigration process represented by a maze or a Visa World pinball machine (can you make enough to avoid heartbreak and rejection?).

Visa World pinball (image by Michael Grieve)

At each stage, we worked with the original participants in a to-and-fro process of co-creation, which saw the results expand from our original vision of a few prose-poems with illustrations, to a full-colour e-book that we hope will both bring the issue to wider attention and provide a resource for those affected by it.

Reunite Families UK launched the book online amid their renewed campaign to scrap the Minimum Income Requirement. An open letter to Boris Johnson has gathered more than 1,000 signatures (add yours here) from affected families, gaining celebrity support from Joanna Lumley and Neville Southall (whose Twitter followers will have found the striking images from the book appearing on their feed this summer!).

With Parliament just returned from summer recess, Reunite is sending copies of the e-book to MPs. Priti Patel will be getting a printed copy. We hope that she will find time to read it so that the new, more ‘compassionate’ and ‘humane’ Home Office approach will include recognition of the plight of separated bi-national couples and families. With the end of the Brexit transition period looming the alternative is stark: failure to reform the family immigration system will see thousands more separated in future as the immigration rules are extended to UK-EU couples and families seeking the simple right to live together.

View the multimedia e-book here (available as an interactive flipbook, downloadable pdf, or accessible Word document) and a Policy Bristol briefing paper here. You can also read more about the Kept Apart project on the Brigstow Institute website.

Kept Apart: Webinar and Book Launch is being held on 14th September, 6.30-8pm – please register on the Eventbrite page.

With thanks to members of Reunite Families UK, the Kept Apart team (Rissa Mohabir, Caroline Coombs, Paige Ballmi, Helena Wray and Emma Agusita) and Michael Grieve (illustrator), and to the Brigstow Institute (University of Bristol) for funding the project.

Katharine Charsley is Professor of Migration Studies at the University of Bristol.

Disposable workers, essential work: migrant farmworkers during the COVID pandemic

By Manoj Dias-Abey.

In July I co-organised a webinar on the situation of migrant farmworkers with Tomaso Ferrando (University of Antwerp) and Brid Brennan (Transnational Institute). We wanted to explore how the working and living conditions of migrant farmworkers during the COVID-19 pandemic merely represented a more acute form of marginalisation experienced in so-called normal times. We also wanted to speculate about how their situation might shift in the near future and what this would mean for labour organising efforts.

Rather than holding a discussion between academic interlocutors, we invited five farmworker advocates to reflect on these issues. We did so, first, because these advocates were likely to have a more accurate appraisal of the situation on the ground. And, second, because, having pioneered insightful analyses of the food system and effective forms of activism, advocates might also be able to explain how farmworkers could organise to raise their plight from the margins to the centre of national consciousness. The webinar featured Alagie Jinkang from IKENGA in Italy, Bridget Henderson from UNITE in the UK, Gerardo Reyes Chavez from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, US, Vasanthi Venkatesh from Justice for Migrant Workers in Ontario, Canada, and Carlos Marentes from the North American division of La Via Campesina.

Migrant farmworkers pick cabbages in Ohio, USA (image: Bob Jagendorf)

Despite the different country contexts, the advocates told a depressingly similar tale of overcrowded living conditions, long working hours, little or no safety precautions including safety adaptations for COVID, and barely enough pay to meet basic living costs. Large outbreaks of COVID have been detected in Ontario, Florida and Herefordshire, and these are simply the ones that have been reported. The lockdown measures have, in some cases, made the situation worse for workers, with one advocate describing it as being ‘locked in marginalised spaces’, lacking necessary ‘conveniences’ such as electricity and plumbing. Advocates reported that government agencies responsible for testing the population and implementing public safety measures were rarely seen or entirely invisible. The migrant workers keenly felt that their lives were disposable even as governments were taking unprecedented steps to protect the lives and livelihoods of citizens.

Several of the advocates were quick to point out that COVID did not create these conditions, but simply exacerbated existing forms of marginalisation and inequality. In each of the countries surveyed in the webinar, migrant farmworkers are some of the worst paid workers in the labour force. They work under enormously precarious conditions, particularly so in the case of seasonal farmworkers. The work is difficult and dangerous and the hours long and arduous. Supervisors treat workers with contempt and forms of racial discrimination and sexual harassment are rife. The rural setting of farms contributes to workers’ sense of isolation from sympathetic populations and critical services.

The poor working and living conditions of migrant farmworkers are widely recognised as a function of a food system organised along the axes of market distribution and capital accumulation. Several of the advocates highlighted the role of value chains in particular, which have come to dominate agricultural production. Large, global supermarkets sit at the top of these chains, exercising power and control over growers to provide produce that meets strict product specifications at low costs. In addition, successive rounds of trade liberalisation have created a situation in which most countries are now dependent on food imports. During the pandemic, interruption of the passage of agricultural products across borders and the disruption of food value chains have caused foods shortages and price spikes, and raised the prospect of mass hunger as the pandemic inexorably spreads. These dynamics diminish the room available for growers to provide decent working conditions.

Migrant farmworkers harvest sweet potato in Virginia, USA (image: US Department of Agriculture)

In each of the countries considered in the webinar, the farm labour force tends to be predominantly made up of migrants. A variety of legal frameworks are used to mobilise workers across borders and immobilise them in the workplace. In Canada, for instance, guestworker programmes bring in tens of thousands of seasonal farmworkers from Mexico and the Caribbean to work on fruit and vegetable farms. Since they are required to be employed by a particular employer as a condition of their visa, and changing employers is almost impossible, employers wield enormous power over these workers. In the US and Italy, a significant portion of the farmworker population lacks the proper legal authorisation to work. This means that the workers are vulnerable to deportation by state agencies, which inhibits any resistance to exploitative working conditions.

In the UK, a seasonal agricultural programme has been recently launched and expanded to replace the migrant workforce previously provided by free movement under European Union rules. In each of the jurisdictions, de jure and de facto restrictions on collective bargaining along with weak employment standards and poor government enforcement further constrain farmworkers’ capacity to act, adding to their marginalisation.

It is striking that even as countries closed their borders to travel due to the pandemic, migrant farmworkers were allowed entry on the basis of their importance to food production. How do we resolve the apparent paradox between the essentialness of agriculture and farm work, but legal frameworks that treat workers as ‘eminently disposable commodities’? In fact, there is no paradox at all. Whilst many were initially hopeful that the discourse of ‘essential work’ would operate to revalorise occupations such as farm labour, it is increasingly clear that the narrative merely affirms that this work needs to be performed regardless of the consequences for individual workers and their families. If anything, public declarations deeming particular sectors essential have simply reinforced the notion that some workers’ lives are cheap.

The difficult task of revaluing work will require political struggle and the organisations represented at the webinar had a variety of different strategies for achieving this outcome. Bridget Henderson spoke of the challenges faced by traditional trade unions to organise a transient workforce to engage in collective bargaining in the UK. Alagie Jinkang and Vasanthi Venkatesh represent organisations that have taken a different path. By engaging in community building and forms of direct action such as wildcat strikes, these organisations have won very specific gains, although their strategies have not resulted in a broader transformation of the situation faced by farmworkers.

Gerardo Reyes Chavez described the private governance regime established by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, in which lead firms such as supermarkets and fast food companies were enlisted to purchase their produce from growers with non-exploitative employment practices. Although this programme has had remarkable success in improving working conditions of tomato harvesters in Florida, and there is some evidence of it being used as model elsewhere, a range of contingent factors will affect whether it can be more broadly replicated. Given the global nature of the food system today, transnational conversations between advocates and farmworkers will be necessary to inspire and coordinate a response.

A recording of the webinar is available here. A podcast is available here.

Manoj Dias-Abey is Lecturer in Law at the University of Bristol and co-ordinator of the MMB research challenge Trade, Labour, Capital.

Migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in Greece during COVID-19

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.

By Theodoros Fouskas.

Dear friends,

I hope you are staying safe and keeping well.

The first COVID-19 case was diagnosed in Greece on 26th February 2020 (National Public Health Organization, 2020a). As subsequent cases in late February and early March were confirmed the government began to implement lockdown measures. Between 10th and 18th March, educational institutions and shops nationwide suspended operations, along with cinemas, gyms, courtrooms, shopping malls, cafés, restaurants, bars, beauty salons, museums and archaeological sites, beaches and ski resorts. On 23rd March, with 695 confirmed cases and 17 deaths, a nationwide restriction on movement was enforced, whereby citizens could only leave their homes for specific reasons and with a special permit. The gradual reduction of these measures began on 4th May.

The data below show cases from the epidemiological surveillance of the disease of the novel coronavirus, based on statistics of the National Public Health Organization and recorded up to 2nd August. The latest confirmed laboratory cases of the disease numbered 75, of which 4 were identified at entry points of the country. The total number of cases is 4,662 (daily change +1.6%), of which 54.7% were men. The latest recorded daily deaths of COVID-19 patients were 2, while a total of 208 deaths have been reported since the outbreak began. The average age of patients who have died was 76 years. The number of patients hospitalised and intubated were 12 (83.3% men) (National Public Health Organization, 2020b).

Figure 1: Number of laboratory confirmed COVID-19 cases in Greece by 2nd August 2020

Source: National Public Health Organization, 2020b

In Greece, thousands of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants are living in unsafe and degrading conditions in camps on the Aegean islands and on the mainland. These camps are severely overcrowded. Multiple deficiencies and lack of medical doctors have resulted in numerous health issues. Deterioration of health is also due to weather conditions as there is no insulation or heated accommodation in the winter. Many third-country nationals (TCNs) feel insecure under these precarious conditions, having already suffered abuse or trauma. In the Reception and Identification Centres (RICs), medical doctors and NGO staff agree with the asylum seekers, refugees and migrants that measures against the spread of the coronavirus are severely lacking in such overcrowded spaces with little access to proper healthcare services.

TCNs inside the RICs are crammed into small individual tents or makeshift shelters with wooden walls and canvas rooves. These spaces offer little or no privacy. A blanket serves as a door and mats as a floor, providing insufficient insulation from harsh weather conditions and temperature changes (extreme heat in summer and freezing cold in winter). As the World Health Organization (WHO) (2020) states, asylum seekers, refugees and migrants are exposed to increased risks of contracting diseases such as COVID-19 due to the overcrowded facilities and lack of basic public health conditions where they are living.

‘Vial’ RIC, Chios island, December 2019 (image: T. Fouskas)

COVID-19 cases were detected in accommodation centres in mainland Greece from mid-March. After the first case was detected multiple attempts to enter via the Greek-Turkish land border led to a border closure policy and the suspension of asylum applications. Table 1 shows the number of cases detected in accommodation centres:

Table 1: COVID-19 cases among migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in Greece

AreaDateCases
Ritsona31 March, 202023
Malakasa, East Attica5 April, 20201
Koutsohero, Larissa10 April, 2020Quarantined after tracing a Roma case
Porto Heli, Argolida19 April, 20201
Kranidi, Argolida20 April, 2020150
Megala Therma, Lesvos12 May, 20202
Efthalou beach, Southern Lesvos15 May, 20202
Kranidi, Argolida26 May, 20203
Nea Kavala, Kilkis3 June, 20201
Northwest coast of Lesvos27 June, 20203

Protective measures against COVID-19 in the RICs, in the accommodation centres and in the Asylum Service were implemented from mid-March. The measures included the postponement of activities such as school classes (synchronous and asynchronous distance learning projects implemented during the lockdown) and exercise routines. Newcomers were checked for COVID-19 symptoms and confined to quarantine if found to be unwell (Kathimerini, 2020). TCNs were discouraged from strolling around the facilities or going outside the RICs, even to obtain supplies. The restriction on movement entitled ‘Measures against the occurrence and spread of cases of coronavirus COVID-19 in the Reception and Identification Centers, throughout the Territory, for the period from 21.3.2020 to 21.4.2020’ was extended via the relevant Joint Ministerial Decisions (Minister of Civil Protection, Minister of Health, Minister of Migration and Asylum) until 31st August (the measures apply to all types of accommodation structures throughout Greece, aiming at preventing the occurrence and spread of COVID-19). This was problematic as there was concurrently a lifting of restrictions for the public (from 4th May) and for international visitors (from 15th June).

It is extremely difficult to take the necessary precautionary measures against the pandemic in the RICs and accommodation centres, such as maintaining social/physical distancing between individuals and implementing hygiene rules. The overcrowded structures on the islands urgently need decongesting while on the mainland efforts to create new housing are crucial in order to contain the COVID‐19 virus in a humane and dignified way.

Warm wishes and stay well,

Theodoros

Theodoros Fouskas is a sociologist working on migration, precarious employment, social integration and exclusion of third-country nationals, and migrants’ access to healthcare and trade unions in reception societies. He teaches at the School of Public Health, University of West Attica.

Legislative update for EU migration and asylum statistics – work in progress

By Ann Singleton

As the UK leaves the European Union, a legislative change will update the EU framework for the collection of migration and asylum statistics. This might receive little attention outside the specialist focus of academics or policy makers, but it is important for anyone with an interest in migration trends, analysis and policy in the UK and in the EU.

Regulation (EU) 2020/851 came into force on 12th July 2020. It is the latest step in consolidating an EU-wide legislative framework for the collection of statistics on migration and asylum. Following Brexit, the UK will no longer be subject to EU legislation in this field. It is most likely to continue participating on a voluntary basis in Eurostat’s migration and asylum data collection system.

Post-Brexit, the UK is likely to continue taking part in Eurostat’s migration and asylum data collections system (image: Wikimedia Commons)

This Regulation aims to improve the collection of data on what the European Commission calls ‘managed migration statistics’ (mainly about ‘third-country nationals’). It keeps the same methodological approach as its predecessor, Regulation (EC) No 862/2007, whilst it amends, replaces and updates some definitions and disaggregation requirements. More frequent and timely supply of data to Eurostat is also now required. Other main changes of substance relate to the integration of administrative data (an area that the UK Office for National Statistics has also been working on intensively); financing of actions to strengthen the data collection systems in the Member States; and, perhaps more controversially, under ‘inter-operability’ measures, allowing for the use of data by ‘multiple organisations’. 

Better quality and coverage of data is recognised as being essential to produce indicators for  measuring the success or otherwise of migration policies. Consistency in the time series would be continued as the amending legislation was intended to enhance and add to the existing provisions in the 2007 Regulation. A core underlying principle of the new legislative proposal is to ensure methodological consistency with that set out in the 2007 Regulation.

The 2020 Regulation also allows for implementing measures and for the financing of pilot studies in the Member States to investigate the feasibility of developing new data collections. The overall picture of ‘demographic migration’ will also be addressed in a forthcoming regulation on European Population Statistics, currently in preparation.

All these changes are timely in an international context, as they coincide with work on the revision of the 1998 UN Recommendations on Statistics of International Migration. These recommendations envisaged an ideal best practice, which in effect has proved to be unachievable in most countries across all categories of information. During 2019 and 2020 the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs has been working on proposals for their revision, with the intention of providing relevant guidance for national activities in the field of migration and asylum data collection. The new recommendations are anticipated to address some of the new realities of human mobility, together with realistic expectations of national capacities for collecting, delivering, analysing and reporting on data.

Will the new EU legislation and the revised UN Recommendations lead to better quality, coverage and comparability of migration data? 

The extent to which these measures have an impact on data collection will also depend on the efforts of national authorities and the funding they commit to improving data quality. There is always a compromise between what is deemed necessary and what is achievable in policy terms at national level and EU-wide level. The 2020 Regulation acknowledges demands on data suppliers and the need for consistency by accepting the methodological basis for the collection of data on migration and asylum statistics, whilst amending and extending the scope of the collection and adding additional categories. It is most likely that the UK will be invited to continue providing data to Eurostat, which should ensure continuity in the Europe-wide dataset. Whether this happens will depend on the final terms of the Brexit arrangements and/or willingness to participate on a voluntary basis. It is thought possible that the UK authorities will continue to send Eurostat at least some asylum data and some migration data.

What is missing?

Official data do not capture the changing dynamics of migration and the realities of the lives of people who negotiate their journeys to, within and from Europe in relation to the changing legal boundaries and borders. There remains, uncaptured by the official data, a broad category of legal and irregular migration encompassing a wide range of human mobility. This involves different forms of documentation, legal authorisation and different groups of people. The data gaps can therefore only partially be filled by the 2020 Regulation. Still missing are:

  • data on migration and socio-economic variables;
  • systematic data collection on ‘saving lives at the border’ (one stated aim of the European Agenda on Migration).         

The latter is a glaring omission in the overall picture of EU policy failures. The only systematic global data collection on deaths of migrants at the borders and during migration is the Missing Migrants Project of the IOM. In the era of increased public discussion that Black Lives Matter, it is significant that the UK and the EU still need to address this issue.

Policy implications – monitoring the economic and human costs of ‘managed’ migration

Some significant gaps in official data collection and in public knowledge will continue to limit the possibility of systematic scrutiny of policy in the UK and across the EU. There appears still to be no intention to collect information for public use on what happens following forced returns – that is, what happens to people who have been removed from EU territory. EU Member States should monitor the outcomes of returns as a requirement under EU law (Directive 2008/115/EC), as well as the consequences of their acts or omissions in the return process.

All these gaps also shed light on the need for action to address the racialisation of terms, concepts and definitions used in the measurement and analysis of migration in the context of post-imperial national systems.  

Academic and policy actors could take this opportunity to engage in a meaningful dialogue about what is measured, what is known and what is missing from the data, from academic research, policy debates and from public discourse about migration.

Ann Singleton is a Senior Research Fellow in the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol, and MMB Policy Strategic Lead. She led research to improve the Eurostat database (1996-2002) and was responsible for policy on asylum and migration statistics in the European Commission’s DG Justice and Home Affairs (2002-2004).

This post is based on a chapter in the Research Handbook on EU Asylum and Migration Law (eds. P. De Bruycker and E. Tsourdi, Elgar, forthcoming). A longer version of the post will be published by the Odysseus Network in August. The author is grateful to Giampaolo Lanzieri, of Eurostat, for advice and clarifications.

No longer welcome: migrants face growing racism in South Korea

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.

By Minjae Shin.

Dear friends

I hope you all are staying safe and keeping well.

It has been almost five months since I left Bristol. I am currently in South Korea, my country of origin. Many migrants, including international students, have returned to their home countries unexpectedly since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. I was expecting to come back to South Korea to conduct fieldwork for my PhD research project ‘Politics of representations: representations of marriage migrants in South Korea’. But the unprecedented pandemic has changed my fieldwork into an unexpected journey.

I was supposed to participate in the activities of different institutions related to marriage migrants in South Korea. When I arrived at the end of February, however, the situation with the virus was already extremely serious. It was one of the first countries to experience the COVID-19 outbreak, with its first case imported directly from Wuhan, China. In January, at the very first stage of the pandemic, the number of confirmed cases remained in single digits, but the figure soon began to rise sharply. Daily confirmed cases reached a peak of 909 at the end of February.

As the number of cases kept rising, the country raised its COVID-19 alert to the highest level. The South Korean government imposed strict social distancing measures and, as a result, all workplaces were closed and employees had to work from home. Rather than getting into the field and conducting participant observation, therefore, I was sitting at home trying to become, as one person said, a ‘socially distanced but spiritually connected’ researcher. I was also thinking about my foreign friends who live in South Korea as I was worried about how they were doing. The first step of my fieldwork journey, then, was writing emails to these friends, asking how they were coping with the unprecedented situation.

One of my friends, who is a student from China, replied saying, ‘I am extremely scared of racism. South Koreans have been giving me really hateful looks since the COVID-19 outbreak.’ Since the pandemic started, several accounts of racism have been reported – anti-Chinese sentiment, especially, has been on the rise in South Korea. Fear of the outbreak has fuelled ethnic hatred, with Chinese people being seen as ‘carrying the virus’. Restaurants and shops have reportedly been posting signs saying, ‘No Chinese’ or ‘No Chinese allowed’ and refusing to accept Chinese customers. Protests have been held calling for a ban on Chinese people entering South Korea.

An anti-Chinese poster distributed widely on South Korean social media

Disease outbreaks have been used to rationalise xenophobia throughout history (Abbott 2020). And indeed, since the start of COVID-19, anti-Chinese sentiment has been amplified around the world, not just in South Korea. Who encourages such rhetoric as ‘the Chinese carry the virus’ or ‘it’s the Chinese virus’? Racialised rhetoric can be found easily among politicians, many of whom (such as Donald Trump) continue to connect disease with race. As Michael Dryzer discussed at the beginning of the outbreak, and Nandita Sharma more recently in the MMB blog, COVID-19 became heavily politicised very quickly and in the process has been used as strategy for immigration policy.

I received another email from a friend who is a migrant spouse from Singapore. Married to a South Korean national, she expected to feel safe and be given protection by the government during the COVID-19 crisis. However, instead, she has felt very vulnerable and found herself being excluded from South Korean society. In her message she wrote about the issue of distribution of cash relief funds. The South Korean government had begun distributing COVID-19 relief funds of up to £650 per household (as one-off payments). Foreign nationals who have permanent residency and are married to Korean nationals are eligible for the funds. But some of her friends, who are also marriage migrants, could not receive the funds because they were divorced. This made her realise that the citizenship status of migrant spouses is more insecure than she had thought.

I was relieved to receive emails from my foreign friends and know that they were all healthy. However, I kept thinking about their other vulnerabilities. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected migrants all over the world in many ways, as outlined in Lorenzo Guadagno’s IOM report. In a global crisis like this, people have to engage with the underlying vulnerabilities of migrants. In particular, the questions of border control, citizenship and citizenship rights have become more important than ever as countries close their borders, restrict people’s movements and, first and foremost, protect their own citizens from the pandemic.

When a crisis like this hits, the human instinct is to go home. But for some migrants, ‘going home’ has not been an option as their countries of origin quickly closed their borders. In South Korea, some have therefore unexpectedly become ‘the undocumented’: unable to leave but not welcome to stay. Many migrants have also faced economic hardship having lost their jobs and remained unemployed due to the economic crisis resulting from the pandemic. In many cases, this has been made worse by the increased discrimination and racism against them.

The rate of infection in South Korea is now much lower and I have finally begun the second stage of my fieldwork journey – active participation. The strict social distancing is easing and life appears to be going back to normal. NGOs and activists have been busy confronting the increase in racism by distributing press releases on behalf of migrants and intervening in governmental policies for migrant welfare and rights. For example, they have set up a campaign calling on the government to provide equal financial support (disaster relief funds) to all migrants. Since June, I have worked for one of these NGOs and assisted in distributing private relief funds to migrant households.

The next step of my journey is finally the expected part – my planned fieldwork. I am currently participating in an NGO programme that is similar to my research project and hopefully I will be able to conduct interviews soon. Even though my fieldwork was put on hold for a while, my time in lockdown here has not been wasted. My unexpected journey gave me time and space to think through others’ vulnerabilities in a way that I may not otherwise have done.

Minjae Shin is a PhD Researcher in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol.

From ‘social distancing’ to planetary solidarity

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.


By Nandita Sharma.

Greetings from Hawai’i!

Reading Colin’s blog from the ‘afar’ of Bristol has made me think about distance, and the (dis)connections between physical and social distancing. We are physically far apart, but, I like to think, socially close. This seems to run counter to the ‘social distancing’ we are being enjoined to adopt.

‘Social distancing’ is the most oft-used phrase during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, it could be the motto for how states and ruling classes govern. For those studying the political economy of capitalism, ‘social distancing’ is understood as the effort by rulers to keep the levers of power and much-needed resources out of the reach of most people (Ruth Wilson Gilmore, personal communication, 11 March 2020).

Physical distancing at the bus stop (image: Gavin Clarke on flickr.com)


‘Social distancing,’ then, is not about the physical space between us. All systems of apartheid, after all, are built to ensure the close proximity of the dominators and those they supress. The point of ideological practices such as sexism, racism and nationalism is to keep us politically separated from one another. Going along with the idea that ‘we’ are unconnected to ‘them’ severely weakens our ability to take back our power and resources. That is precisely the point.

Rulers extol us to distance ourselves not only from other people, but also from the rest of life on our shared planet. We are encouraged to use non-humans as we will but to take no responsibility for the harm we do. Indeed, we are taught to deny any awareness of our actions and to deny our connections with other life forms.

This is reflected in the political organisation of our world. We live in a global system of apartheid organised by nation-states, which encourages us to see each nationalised territory in splendid isolation from all others. Yet, if COVID-19 has taught us anything it is that we ignore the world at our peril.

What we can learn from this global pandemic is that the global circulation of capital precipitates the global circulation of deadly pathogens. The penetration of capital into almost all parts of the planet has resulted in the destruction of complex ecosystems, the dispossession of more and more living beings (humans and non-humans), the rise of industrial agriculture and ‘meat farms,’ the cultural capital attached to eating ‘wild’ animals by urban dwellers, and the expanding supply chain of commodities. Each of these have contributed to the breeding and spreading of novel viruses.

Yet, none of this reality is reflected in responses to COVID-19 by either nation-states or capital. Instead, each nation-state touts its border controls as its first ‘line of defense’ (in keeping with the general militarised jingoism of the pandemic). Meanwhile, capital discourages efforts to halt transmission of the disease while pushing for the quick ‘opening up’ of the economy. Nation-states have largely gone along with this by refusing to organise the redistribution of wealth necessary to ensure that people can survive without jobs.

Many imagining themselves as members of the ‘nation’ cheer on such approaches, thereby further fanning the flames of racism/nationalism and deflecting attention away from inept governments and rapacious capitalist markets. Such approaches are on full display in the United States (but not only here).

On 31 January 2020, the same day the novel coronavirus was first declared a public health emergency, Trump issued an executive order blocking the entry of anyone who had been in China in the last 14 days. On 11 March 2020, Trump extended the travel ban to include the 26 EU Schengen states. On 14 March, it was extended further to encompass the UK and Ireland.

In keeping with the structural importance of national citizenship to current regimes of power, these travel bans do not apply to US residents and family members or spouses of US residents or citizens, even though they may very well be the ones carrying and spreading COVID-19. In any case, the first person diagnosed with COVID-19 in the US was announced more than ten days before the very first travel ban. Since then, the number of COVID-19 cases has continued to increase. So too have border control measures.

Supposedly to ‘protect the public health,’ on 20 March 2020 the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health order denying people seeking asylum the protections afforded them under national law and allowing them to be summarily deported. From 21 March 2020 to 30 April 2020, more than 20,000 migrants were expelled, mostly to Mexico. 

Migrants are deported from the US to Mexico, March 2020 (image: Asociacion Pop No’j)


Of this number, 915 were unaccompanied children seeking asylum. A New York Times reporter found that, ‘some young migrants have been deported within hours of setting foot on American soil. Others have been rousted from their beds in the middle of the night in U.S. government shelters [sic] and put on planes out of the country without any notification to their families’ (Dickerson 2020). Disavowing responsibility for the harm they do to others, the US government is largely silent about the spread of COVID-19 in its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) concentration camps or their deporting of people with the virus to nation-states with far less resources than the US. This too is a form of ‘social distancing.’

At the same time, nationalism doesn’t prevent people from demanding that what they need and want from ‘outside’ continues to enter, including personal protective equipment, medicine, food, clothing, entertainment and people recruited to work in sectors deemed ‘essential’ for the well-being of the citizenry. While industries of healthcare, agriculture, meatpacking and more would cease to operate were non-citizen workers not permitted to enter and work in the US, these workers are denied the rights and protections available to the citizenry they serve.

The issue, then, is hardly about movement. Nation-states actively organise the movement of people, other living beings, capital, commodities and more – but only on terms that maintain ‘social distancing.’ That is, only on terms that will keep power and resources out of the reach of most people and only on terms that will ensure our continued separation from one another.

This is not a contradiction, so far as nationalists are concerned. Instead, it is a powerful testimony of the importance of separation to ruling relations.

If ‘social distancing’ is the mantra of those hoarding power and wealth, the response of those seeking liberty from rulers is to break down the walls built to disconnect us from one another. While public health officials and media talk about ‘community spread,’ it is also true that during this global pandemic a tremendous growth of solidarity has taken place.

Here in Hawai’i, where I am ‘sheltered in place’ with my partner, Gaye Chan, there has been a massive uptick in our connections to people, mostly strangers. In keeping with our project, Eating in Public, Gaye has responded to the fear of food shortages at the market by building ‘weed stations’ that demonstrate how to grow and cook the edible, nutritious and tasty weeds all around us. She then erected another Free Store, re-stocked on a seemingly minute-by-minute basis. And, she helped organise the Seamsters Union that, to date, has collectively made more than 3,000 cloth masks to freely distribute to those ignored by rulers. Each day, more people come and go, stop and talk than ever before. Practicing solidarity while adhering to safe practices of physical distancing is the opposite of ‘social distancing’ and it forges a path away from our dominated world. And, I know we are not alone.

Nandita Sharma is an activist scholar and Professor at the Sociology Department at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. She recently published a new book, Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants (Duke University Press, 2020).

Life in lockdown – an asylum seeker’s struggle to survive

My name is Maria*. I am an asylum-seeker single-mother who escaped to the UK because I felt unsafe in my home country.

I arrived in the UK two years ago. It was hard for me because I am a single mother of two kids. Initially, the accommodation and support I received as an asylum-seeker were horrible. I had to share a house with strangers who liked to drink alcohol and smoke. It was depressing and horrible. My living conditions are better now, but my children and I have faced many new difficult challenges. 

My life has been difficult during the lockdown as an asylum seeker and single mother of two. It is so depressing this situation while still waiting for my asylum claim. After waiting for two years, I got a letter from the Home Office three weeks ago saying they will reschedule my appeal date. They do not know yet when the new date will be, but they had to reschedule it because of the coronavirus. 

A picture on Maria’s wall

When I was able to go to college to study English my mind was busy, and I did not have to spend as much time thinking about my problems. I was not depressed when I was studying because my mind was busy. But now in this situation with the coronavirus, and the difficulties with my asylum claim, it has been a horrible time because it is depressing and stressful. 

Financial insecurity 

The UK Government gives me £35 a week to buy food. The Home Office has only considered giving money for food, but refugees and asylum seekers need other things too like hygienic products. My kids are growing up and they need more things. They are eating more, and the prices of food have increased. During the lockdown, my kids do not receive free school meals.

I think the Home Office should give a little bit more money. If they do not want to give more money, they should give asylum seekers permission to work so we can support ourselves. Working would help me keep my mind busy and prevent me from thinking too much about my problems. 

Education

My kids’ school is giving classes online. It is difficult for me and for my children because I do not have a computer or a tablet. I have been helping my children do their homework on my phone. It is difficult because it takes time for the kids to learn, it takes time to explain to them how to do their homework. I have two kids and they are in different classes. So first, I help one of my kids with homework, then we have to wait to start with the other one. It is hard with one phone and it means I need to top up my phone more often because the data goes fast. I used to top up my phone for £10 and now I have to top up at least £20 pounds for two weeks. It is difficult for me and for my kids. I would like to get at least one tablet so one of my children can work with the tablet while the other one can study on my phone. It would be better for me, and for them. 

It is very important for my kids to continue to learn online and do their homework. Their teachers give points if the homework is completed. The teachers said that doing homework and getting these points can help my kids pass to the next level. I believe the school will do a diagnostic assessment in September. If the assessment says my kids are not ready for the next level, so maybe they do not pass, and they stay at the same level. The teachers do not keep in touch with me and my children. They just send an email with the homework assignments and instructions. We need to take pictures of the homework and post it in the online class website. The school knows about my situation. But I do not think they can do anything for me. 

I would like my kids to continue to learn. They need to learn, and they need to study. But I am not going to send them back to school soon because the coronavirus is still going to be here. Kids do not know how to keep distance from each other, they do not understand the restrictions. They will be close when playing together. So I will continue trying to teach my kids at home. 

Social support

Before the lockdown, I could go to the local organisations that help refugees and asylum seekers. I could go to English class; we could talk to different persons at the organisations. They help us learn English. They are like friends to us. Now they are closed. I was also going to church and I met so many nice people there. I had never met people like that in my country, they are so kind, so friendly. There is a lady from church who calls me to ask how I am doing. They do the church online on Sundays and do Bible study online on Wednesdays, so that is good, but I only participate once every two weeks because my internet access is limited. It has been sad because these places are closed. My kids want to go out and they want to learn more but it is so much harder now. 

I don’t know about the future – I have to wait for my asylum process. I do not know what is going to happen, but I just want to keep going especially for my kids because I am mum and dad for them. So I need to continue strong and stand up for them. 

* Maria is a pseudonym.

As told to Jáfia Naftali Câmara, PhD student in Education, University of Bristol. A longer version of this interview was published in openDemocracy on 28 May 2020.


Black Lives Matter – whatever their nationality

By Bridget Anderson.

On 19th June 2020 the European Parliament voted to declare ‘Black Lives Matter’. The same European Parliament that last October voted AGAINST supporting more search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean; the same European Parliament that has voted through Economic Partnership Agreements that have ruined Black small-scale producers through exposing them to multinational corporation competition, reduced market access to European member states and taken away tariff revenue to poor states. Black Lives Matter – so long as they are not lived in Niger or Libya or pushing at the borders of Europe.

Rassemblement Aquarius – SOS Mediterranean, Paris 2018 (image: Jeanne Menjoulet on Flickr)

Even when they are lived on the territory of European member states Black Lives are easily discarded. Luke de Noronha (2018) has detailed the devastating impact of the deportation of long-term British residents to Jamaica, people who came to the UK when they were children, who have built lives and communities that have simply been disregarded. Recent evidence from Detention Action has found that immigration detention is systemically racist – 90% of Australian nationals were released after spending less than 28 days in immigration detention, compared with 60% of Nigerian nationals. Black Lives do not seem to matter either when they are requesting family reunion or fighting deportation.

In the past 30 years migration studies has drifted apart from race and ethnic studies. Until the late 1980s anti-deportation campaigns were usually explicitly grounded in anti-racist activism but migration activism too has drifted apart from anti-racism. It is vital that we re-connect them if we are to affect systemic change. There are scholars, activists and scholar activists who have been developing work that explores the relation between migration and ‘race’ (Lentin and Karakayali 2016; Bhattacharya 2018; Yuval Davis et al. 2019; and work by Statewatch and work showcased by the Institute of Race Relations, for example). But so far little attention has been paid to the role of ‘nationality’. Nationality can be read as both a legal status, consonant with citizenship, AND as signifying belonging to the nation of the nation-state. Furthermore, national membership is traced through ancestry and nationality is sutured to race (Sharma 2020).

This ambivalence is not simply happenstance. Radhika Mongia writes, ‘A blurring of the vocabularies of nationality and race is a founding strategy of the modern nation-state that makes it impossible to inquire into the modern state without attending to its creation in a global context of colonialism and racism’ (Mongia 2018, 113). For many years, historians have been encouraging migration scholars to take a long view of human movement, and thereby de-exceptionalise migration, which today is wrongly imagined as disturbing a previous national homogeneity. ‘Societies’ have not long been ‘national’ and they have certainly not been homogenous.

Mongia goes a step further to illustrate how the labelling of certain movements as migration precipitated the emergence of nationality as a territorial attachment. Thus, controlling migration is central to state development and rule and racism is not an unfortunate characteristic of immigration enforcement, but is absolutely baked into immigration controls and enforcement.

In her new book (B)ordering Britain (Manchester University Press 2020) Nadine El-Enany powerfully argues ‘Immigration law teaches white British people that Britain and everything within it is rightfully theirs. “Others” are here as their guests.’ There are very practical ways in which this intersection between ‘race’ and nationality is manifest in immigration frameworks. For example, under the Equality Act discrimination is unlawful. Yet it is not unlawful for immigration officials to discriminate on the basis of race when ‘race’ can be construed as nationality or ethnic origins. The Act permits direct discrimination on the basis of nationality when this is required by law, Ministerial Conditions or Ministerial Arrangements, and nationality can make certain people ineligible for certain services and benefits. Nationality is a magic wand that renders ‘discrimination’ (which covers a multitude of sins, including racial subjugation) not simply acceptable but legally enforceable.

And it is not only immigration officials who are so required. The ‘hostile environment’ has rolled out responsibility to enforce immigration checks to a wide range of ordinary people – employers, registrars, health providers, educationalists and landlords may all be legally required to check immigration status. The general population is increasingly drawn into immigration enforcement: poorly trained and anxious to err on the side of the law, these deputized actors often ‘directly reinforce symbolic and moral distinctions of otherness and illegality’ (Walsh 2014, 247). In many states those charged with imposing immigration checks typically rely on race and/or ethnicity as a marker of national difference.

In the UK this is precisely what happened in the Windrush scandal. The fact that people were Black was read as meaning they were migrants and potentially ‘illegal’, and therefore their status was subject to heightened scrutiny. But it is crucial that we recognise that this is not simply individuals carrying out the even-handed law in a racist manner. In time honoured colonial fashion, the letter of the law may be, to use David Theo Goldberg’s (2002) terminology, ‘raceless’ but its practice is ‘raceful’, and it is nationality that enables this sleight of hand.

Take the right-to-rent checks that are imposed as part of the hostile environment and have resulted in landlords being significantly less likely to rent to people who they think might be ‘foreign’ on the basis of colour, name or accent. In 2019 the High Court found that the requirement for right-to-rent checks ‘does not merely provide the occasion or opportunity for private landlords to discriminate but causes them to do so where otherwise they would not’ (para 105).

The Home Office appealed this decision and won. Lord Justice Hickinbottom did not dispute that ‘some landlords do discriminate against potential tenants who do not have British passports and those who do not have ethnically-British attributes, but the nature and level of discrimination must be kept in perspective’ (para 79, my emphases). However, ‘Whilst I do not suggest that this is a point of any great force although the evidence is that, in respect of potential tenants who do not have a British passport, landlords effectively use ethnic proxies for nationality, the primary ground of discrimination is nationality not race’ (para 148, iii). Whatever its force in the judgement (which will be appealed at the Supreme Court), politically the elision of nationality and race, and the requirement to exclude, is of tremendous force.

Our own students experience the racism of the hostile environment when they are looking for accommodation in Bristol, and this is only one of multiple institutional and bureaucratic difficulties that international students must manage alone as Tier 4 visa holders. There is no guidance on the highly complex visa conditions that they must negotiate, and little institutional appreciation that they are constrained in particular ways – they can only suspend studies for 60 days or they will infringe visa conditions; they are only allowed to work a certain, but variable number of hours per week; postdoctoral applications must be submitted before visas expire, and so on. For this reason, MMB’s working group on international students is calling for a designated International Student Advocate, with knowledge of immigration law, who can help students negotiate institutionalised racism and lobby for change.

As I write, the European Parliament has announced that they will be debating racism next week. I suspect that they will not be talking about migration. Of course, both migration and race are highly complex, and we can’t reduce them to each other. Rather, both reflect each other’s complexity –hierarchies of whiteness, the relationship between race and property, and between state, society and nation. However, let’s not forget the bottom line: until Black Lives Matter irrespective of nationality and immigration status, Black lives will continue to be disposable.

Bridget Anderson is Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship at the University of Bristol and Director of Migration Mobilities Bristol.

Unemployment and xenophobia persist for migrant workers as China’s lockdown is lifted

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.


By Xinrong Ma.

Dear friends,

I hope this letter finds you all very well.

The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic first broke out in China at the end of last year, then rapidly spread around the globe. While people in many other countries are still experiencing lockdown, in China it has now been lifted. Since the middle of May travel restrictions have been eased, business and commercial activities have reopened and ordinary people have started to return to work, although the government is still emphasises the potential risks and advises people to wear face masks in public.

The pandemic has affected Chinese migrant workers in various, extremely damaging ways. Mobility has become seen as not only risky but also immoral. Workers were locked down in their hometowns from February and have been unable or unwilling to come back to the cities. By March, labour-intensive factories, such as the electronics and garment industries, were in dire need of workers to restart their production after a month’s shutdown. To recruit workers to return to factories, local governments of industrial cities began to offer higher salaries and subsidies to attract migrant workers.

An intersection of roads with no traffic. A man pushes a cart.
Empty city streets in China during lockdown, April 2020 (image: Gauthier Delecroix on flickr)

And then, unexpectedly, the supply chains were terminated in April as the pandemic spread across the globe. Many returned migrant workers were again unemployed. I have been thinking of some of the migrant workers I interviewed previously. Most of them who used to work in manufacturing can no longer find jobs and are trapped in their hometowns. They worked for years in industrial cities where small factories have now been closed. Even the largest firms, such as Foxconn, are laying off staff. Some people, including domestic workers and those in the hospitality industry, are now gradually coming back to work, but the persistence of the pandemic across the world will continue to create difficulties for migrant workers in the coming months.

The dangerous vulnerabilities of being a migrant worker in China have also affected immigrants from abroad during the current crisis. Under recent epidemic control regulations, individuals are required to provide a health code – like a digital passport – to enter their residential compound, shopping centres, transport or other public places. This digital code also enables the government to collect people’s private information, so some immigrants are unwilling to use it. Meanwhile, others find it difficult to follow the government’s pandemic control policies due to language barriers.

Guangzhou, the city where I live, became a global media hotspot in late April when the authorities required all Africans in town to test for COVID-19 and remain in quarantine, regardless of whether or not they had recently travelled. Many were evicted from their hotels or apartments and found themselves homeless. This policy, referred to briefly in the Chinese media, caused a major backlash internationally due to the clear racial discrimination behind it.

The local government’s overreaction towards Africans is associated with Beijing’s ‘Three Illegals’ of immigration (illegal entry, overstayed visas, working without a permit) – a category that many undocumented African migrants are subjected to. Social exclusion and xenophobia among Chinese citizens have been magnified during the epidemic. Under diplomatic pressure, the local government later issued an announcement that Chinese and foreigners should be treated equally, but still, the deep division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ revealed in such an event cannot be easily erased.

Although the local government was slow to act, a group of young people with backgrounds in anthropology, sociology and psychology quickly began providing food, language translation and physical support to the Africans in quarantine. Within a few days, the number of volunteers reached over 400. Being part of this volunteer group has made me feel more hopeful about the future.

My latest research concerns foreign domestic workers in China. This is an extension of my previous studies of internal ethnic Yi labour migrants. As with many African immigrants in China, southeast Asian migrant domestic workers have also been subject to the ‘Three Illegals’ category. During the pandemic, face-to-face meetings are not possible, so my plan of conducting fieldwork has been postponed. Instead, I sometimes talk with a few familiar informants via WeChat to say hello and comfort those feeling anxious.

Many of them, especially those working part time, have lost their jobs. In their neighbourhoods they are now more frequently inspected by the community guards and in public spaces more likely to be stopped by the police, though they find subtle ways to avoid them. Being unable to follow the ever-changing government information in Chinese has caused them many difficulties. If Chinese internal migrant works are only just noticed by local civil society organisations, undocumented foreign migrant workers in China are completely out of sight. So far, the Chinese government has not issued any specific policies regarding undocumented migrants, though a few local news reports state that some have been repatriated to their home countries.

Personally, a big change in my life is that I recently became a mum. My baby girl is seven months now. Her arrival cheered me up and enriched my life with love and intimacy during the lockdown period. Like many working mothers, I am facing the challenge of balancing work with caring, production and reproduction. The struggle of motherhood, precarious academic work and the embodied existence of gender inequalities, all magnified by the pandemic, are not something I read from literature, but experience in everyday life. Being a mum gives me more empathy with many working-class women I have studied and will conduct research with, especially those who have to shoulder the responsibility of family and work, and are struggling to feed their families in the pandemic. I have the privilege of working from home, but many of them cannot afford to do so. We all need to explore our agencies and form solidarity with others.

We are required to keep our physical distance during COVID-19, but many new ways are opening up for people to be socially connected. In China and many other countries, a lot of open-access webinars are now being held. The beacon of knowledge, previously bound by the wall of the university system, is leaking to wider audiences. As Bridget wrote in her earlier blog, ‘we do need to build our intellectual and affective community so we can learn from and support each other’.

The outbreak of the pandemic urges people to think beyond their familiar world, to find connections and to overcome the isolation and individualisation of our age. I am happy to share my observation of migrant workers in my country as well as my personal experience during this time with friends whom I both know or have not yet met.

Xinrong Ma has a PhD in Chinese Studies from Leiden University, The Netherlands. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Sun Yet-Sen University, Guangzhou, China. She can be contacted at maxr5@mail.sysu.edu.cn.