Migrants abandoned – lockdown at the Mexican-Guatemalan border

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

 

By Ailsa Winton

Dear Bridget

I hope you are keeping well and sane. Although working at home is quite normal for me, the anxiety is not. So it was great to read your letter and to be able to share some thoughts!

I feel as if I am writing this from many places at once: from my home in Tapachula, at the southern tip of Mexico; from Guatemala where – until recently – I had been busily working on sabbatical research; and also from the UK, where I am virtually rooted to home and to loved ones. Living this ‘global’ event simultaneously through different places like that is interesting but quite unsettling; experiences, information, decisions and relationships take on an entirely different form in relation to each other.

Being a distant spectator even to things that are close by has been weird. When things happen, as they often do here, not being able to be physically present is odd and frustrating. But much more importantly, the fact that local NGOs can’t do any face-to-face work at the moment means many lifelines are being cut off for those who need them most. For many, economic precarity is becoming critical, especially among migrants.

A fence across and empty street. Two parked pick-ups.
‘Tyre repair shop open’: local business tries to attract customers amidst road closures in a southern Mexican border town (image: author’s own)

In Guatemala, the government was fast to act, moving quite quickly to limit movement both from outside and within its borders. I was midway through some fieldwork on violence-based displacement there when rumours about shutdowns began to circulate in March. People in the rural communities in Huehuetenango where I had been working were worried about how they would be able to meet their basic needs in the face of strict curfews and severe restrictions on movement. I couldn’t help but think apocalyptically about what a major outbreak of COVID-19 would look like in those same places. Thankfully, this has not yet happened, but already high levels of food insecurity are now critical in many parts of the country.

For its part, Mexico’s official response so far in terms of control has been patchy and notably more relaxed than many neighbours to the south. There is definitely a sense that people do not feel protected or reassured in general, and abundant misinformation circulating on social media has stoked fears; there have been many reports of locals blocking roads to stop the intrusion of the infected outsider and, shockingly, many cases of attacks and threats of violence targeting healthcare workers and hospitals. So, as my dad back in the UK pops out to clap the NHS one Thursday evening as we chat on skype, I am reminded in a very crude way of the hugely complex social conditions shaping personal responses to this ‘global’ threat.

Meanwhile, the US-Mexico-Central America migration dystopia continues apace. Just one example: in April, the authorities in Mexico decided to bus hundreds of undocumented Central American migrants from detention centres in northern and central Mexico to the southern border with Guatemala with a view to ‘repatriating’ them. Nothing particularly unusual in that, except that they did this in the full knowledge that Guatemala had sealed its border weeks previously, making crossing to that or any of the other countries of origin impossible. So they left them at the border, hundreds of people with nowhere to go in the midst of a pandemic.

Old tyres lie across the road; men stand in front of vehicles
A temporary roadblock at the approach to the Guatemalan border (image: author’s own)

Some Guatemalans decided to cross the river dividing the two countries, bypassing border controls, and try their luck with the police-enforced curfew on the other side. But most were stuck, left to weigh their barely existent options. Amidst rising tensions with locals, the National Guard was forced to intervene to remove the offending migrants, loading them onto buses again only to dump them in groups outside Tapachula, the nearest large town some 15km away from the border. An atrocious act under any circumstances, but especially now with migrant shelters and other services closed, and even public space cordoned off. But what else to do with these disposable bodies when they can no longer be discarded in the usual receptacles (detention centres, migrant shelters, countries of origin), other than to just toss them on the side of the road?

Like you, I am particularly struck that many people have suddenly become aware of mobility as something that shapes life. I suppose like other types of privilege, that of being able to choose your mobility is invisible to those who benefit from it, until it is challenged. As a migrant who studies human mobility, I have certainly been made aware of my own mobility privilege, and I have also witnessed first-hand over many years the noxious effects of precarious mobility. You are spot on with what you say about ‘precarious migrant time’. I see so clearly now amidst so much uncertainty that one of the privileges of being able to choose your mobility is the degree of certainty it affords.

I look forward to reading your piece on corona-nationalism! This massive systemic rupture is so full of transformative potential, but of course it also brings a real danger of that transformation taking us down dark paths. There is so much to reflect on and learn about collectively. So it is really encouraging to see so much excellent critical thinking already coming out. Notice how flexible academic time can be when it wants! Let’s hope those voices start to talk and pull together.

Keep in touch! There’s another platitude turned genuine.

Warm wishes,

Ailsa

Ailsa Winton is a Senior Researcher in the Department of Society and Culture at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, Tapachula, Mexico. Her research currently focuses on processes of mobility, inequality and violence in the context of border regions.

 

Filling the legal aid gap

By Ella Barclay

An asylum seekers future can rest upon the translation of a single word. One such case was a man whose refugee status was rejected in the UK because he told the Home Office he had travelled to the Turkish border in a taxibut later used the word private car. The asylum office interpreted this as an inconsistency undermining his claim. He was forced to leave his home at an hours notice and return to the country he once fled. 

When Tiara Sahar Ataii, founder of the charity SolidariTee, heard his story it highlighted for her the essential role of legal aid in ensuring that asylum seekers receive refugee status. A lawyer could help, for example, to ensure a consistent narrative for someone who has been so traumatised by their experience that such details are impossible to remember. The EU refugee crisis is a legal crisis, Tiara realised, and the solution is therefore legal aid. So in 2017 she founded SolidariTee, a student-led charity, to fundraise for legal aid and raise awareness of the ongoing refugee crisis. It now spans over 40 universities in 6 different countries and has raised more than £40,000 for legal aid providers. 

What was the address of the people who helped you get your papers?” “What date did you finish secondary school?When did you first get your passport? (Crawley, 1999, p.68). These are all real questions that have been asked in asylum interviews, with the individuals expected to recount every possible detail of their story, no matter how traumatic the event. The ability to answer such questions should not cost someone their refugee status, and yet, in so many cases, it does. 

Legal aid is critical for guiding people through this strict process of claiming asylum, but such aid is desperately scarce. On the Greek islands, for example, state lawyers are so overworked they rarely meet with their clients and therefore routinely miss out essential details, which could be the difference between a successful and unsuccessful claim. Psychiatrists are similarly overworked, with the result that they are often unable to produce medical reports in time for asylum interviews. Consequently, mental health issues are rarely diagnosed or confirmed, again leading to asylum applications failing unnecessarily. 

Most asylum cases would be successful if claimants were provided with sufficient legal aid. A lawyer would hear if they had a stutter, for example, and ensure that this does not undermine their credibility. Or they would take the time to write a narrative that clearly shows the individuals well-founded fear of persecution. But with the current lack of provision in countries such as Greece, this kind of support is simply not possible. 

Asylum seekers throughout Europe are currently engaged in a lottery: refugee status, which may be the difference between life and death, depends on luck. And yet, legal aid remains critically underfunded.  

Perhaps one reason for this lack of funding is that it is much harder to market legal aid in comparison with other forms of refugee support. Such aid is often intangible whereas raising money for food and shelter can be illustrated quite easily on a poster. Legal aid may take years to reap benefits and its impact is incredibly difficult to explain in a 280-character social media post 

While the more marketable forms of aid are vital, they remain short-term solutions that are merely treating the symptoms not the cause. Across Europe, 50% of failed first-instance asylum cases are accepted upon appeal, even though their stories and reasons have not changed (Henderson, Moffatt and Pickup, 2019). The only difference between a first application and an appeal is access to legal representation. 

At SolidariTee our aim is to help fulfill this urgent need for legal aid. We have a vision that feels realistic. Imagine if every asylum seeker was properly informed of the application process and understood its key terminology before their first interview: those who have a legitimate claim to asylum would be accepted. As a consequence, the refugee camps would begin to free up, meaning asylum seekers sleeping rough would suddenly have accommodation. The rate of appeals would fall, meaning waiting times would fall too. 

Legal aid is not fashionable but its the most realistic and sustainable solution we have for supporting the asylum-seeking process. 

SolidariTee is currently running a campaign to protect refugees from Covid-19. Read its open letter to European leaders and find out how you can support the campaign here.

To donate money or buy a signature T-shirt to help SolidariTee, please visit the website. And join the SolidariTee Facebook page to stay updated on upcoming fundraisers and awareness events. 

Ella Barclay is a student on the MSc in Migration and Mobility Studies at the University of Bristol and Bristol’s current Head Representative of SolidariTee.

 

A moment of opportunity? Britain and the maritime security challenge

By Tim Edmunds and Scott Edwards

On 28 February 2020, SafeSeas hosted an IdeasLab in Bristol on UK maritime security after Brexit, with the kind support of PolicyBristol, Migration Mobilities Bristol, and the Bristol Global Insecurities Centre. Titled ‘Securing Britain’s Seas’, the goal of the day was to ask how maritime insecurities and blue crimes impact on UK interests, explore how current governance arrangements work in response to these, and consider how these may be challenged and transformed both by a rapidly changing security environment and the challenges of Brexit.

The IdeasLab provided an opportunity for policymakers, practitioners, and academics from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, including security studies, law, social policy and politics, to engage with one another. Participants from all major UK maritime security agencies, including high level participation, exchanged views and knowledge with leading academics in order to advance understanding of the UK’s maritime security environment.

A battleship rests in harbour, a British flag flying from the bow
HMS Bristol. Photo by Random Acts of Language, licensed under Creative Commons

Panels focused on three core themes of importance for British maritime security. The first covered ‘Threats, risks and opportunities’, chaired by SafeSeas Co-Director Professor Timothy Edmunds, and featured Dan O’Mahoney (Director, Joint Maritime Security Centre), James Driver (Head of Maritime Security and Resilience Division, Department for Transport) and Dr. Sofia Galani (University of Bristol). Discussions revolved around the complexity of maritime security governance in the UK context. This complexity is visible in relation to the diversity of challenges at hand – including the protection of maritime trade routes, the prospect of a terrorist attack at sea, threats to marine critical infrastructure, human trafficking and movement of people, the smuggling of illicit goods, the maintenance of public order at sea, and marine environmental management including fisheries protection – and also to the web of different authorities, departments, agencies and private actors engaged in the UK maritime space.

These challenges are often ‘invisible’ in the sense that the general public and politicians are often less invested in the maritime arena than other areas of public policy. Gaps also exist in the legal framework governing the maritime domain – for example around port management – and more work needs to be done to encourage inter-operability and coordination between agencies. However, the panel also highlighted a moment of opportunity in this area too, with a renewed focus on maritime security issues following the 2019 oil tanker crisis in the Straits of Hormuz, the implications of the Brexit process and the prospect of a new UK Maritime Security Strategy in the near future.

The second panel, chaired by Professor Bridget Anderson (University of Bristol), focused on ‘Boundaries, borders and maritime regions’ and featured Professor Sir Malcolm Evans (University of Bristol), Joe Legg (Maritime desk, Foreign and Commonwealth Office), and Ann Singleton (University of Bristol). The discussion raised interesting questions on what should be considered British seas, and how these boundaries have been, or are being, constructed. Panellists agreed on the fundamentally transnational nature of the UK maritime region, incorporating UK home waters, but also critically important maritime spaces such as the North Sea and Mediterranean as well as overseas territories and the international maritime trade routes.

Above all the panel emphasised the need to manage the UK’s maritime boundaries and borders humanely and with proper regard to safety at sea, particularly in relation to the movement of vulnerable people and migrants. There was also intense discussion over the extent to which security responses are appropriate for such issues and the inter-linkages between maritime security and other areas such as migration policy.

Finally the third panel, chaired by Professor Christian Bueger (University of Copenhagen & SafeSeas co-director), addressed  ‘Governance and coordination’ and featured Caroline Cowan (Fisheries Lead, Scottish Government), and Professor Richard Barnes (University of Hull). The panel and discussion highlighted the need for coordinated and inclusive governance in the maritime domain, and for more work to be done on the inter-connected nature of many maritime security threats and scalable nature of responses across these. The panel also highlighted the potential for localised issues (such as conflicts over fisheries access) to escalate to national or regional level problems (and vice versa).

A large metal boat with radar on top
Hirta (Marine Fisheries Vessel) Arriving Aberdeen Harbour June 2019. Photo by Rab Lawrence, licensed by Creative Commons

Discussions again emphasised the broad and diverse nature of the interest groups engaged in maritime security and the difficulties of ensuring fair and effective governance across these and their various identities and interests. Participants highlighted the importance of Scotland in the UK maritime security picture, with 62 per cent of the UK’s (home) Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) located off the Scottish coast, the remote nature of much of this territory, and the devolved nature of many marine environmental management and policing issues. Moreover, and even within government, there is sometimes a lack of understanding over jurisdictional issues between national and devolved authorities engaged in UK maritime security governance.

Overall, the IdeasLab discussions were extremely rich and productive. They highlighted the complexity of the maritime security challenge, the multiple, diverse and sometimes conflicting nature of security governance in this area and the potentially transformative impact of the UK’s exit from the EU on existing practices, arrangements and relationships.  Insights from the ideaslab will be expanded upon and presented in an upcoming policy brief produced by SafeSeas.

Tim Edmunds is Professor of International Security and Director of the Global Insecurities Centre at the University of Bristol. Scott Edwards is an Associate Teacher and Research Associate for the Transnational Organised Crime at Sea project at Bristol.

SafeSeas is a network of academic institutions that studies maritime security governance and efforts to support it through capacity building. This post is republished from the SafeSeas blog.

 

Climate-change displacement: a step closer to human rights protection

By Ignacio Odriozola 

On 20th January this year the United Nations Human Rights Committee (Committee) released a landmark decision on people seeking international protection due to the effects of climate change. The decision did not include specific guidance as to where the tipping point lies, but it nevertheless remains highly relevant to future similar potential cases around the world. 

The case and the plot twist 

The case deals with the individual communication made by Ioane Teitiota, a national from the South Pacific country of Kiribati, under the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Based on this Protocol, he claimed that New Zealand had violated his right to life by rejecting his request for refugee status and returning him and his family home in 2015.  

Children sit on sand bags by a flooded sea wall on a Pacific Island
Flooded sea wall by a village on Tarawa, Kiribati (UN)

Teitiota argued in his case that the effects of climate change, such as sea-level rise, had forced him to migrate from Tarawa (the principle island in Kiribati) to New Zealand. He claimed that freshwater on Tarawa had become scarce due to salinization and that eroded inhabitable lands had resulted in not only a housing crisis but also land disputes. These, combined with social-political instability, created a dangerous environment for him and his family. 

New Zealand’s judicial system did not find evidence that Teitiota had been involved in a land dispute or that he faced a real chance of being harmed in this context that he was unable to grow food, find accommodation or access to potable water; that he faced life-threatening environmental conditions; and that his situation was materially different from other residents of Kiribati.   

The Human Rights Committee supported the decision adopted by New Zealand and rejected almost all arguments brought by Teitiota. However, it specifically acknowledged that “without robust national and international efforts, the effects of climate change in receiving states may expose individuals to a violation of their rights under Article 6 or 7 of the Covenant, thereby triggering the non-refoulement obligations of sending states […] given that the risk of an entire country becoming submerged under the water is such an extreme risk, the conditions of life in such country may become incompatible with the right to life with dignity before the risk is realized.” (Parag. 9.11) 

This paragraph has caught international attention. To be clear, the Committee is not expressly banning the return home of someone requesting international protection due to the impacts of climate change. But it indicates that states, individually and/or collectively, could be prohibited from sending people back to life-threatening conditions if they don’t cooperate to tackle the adverse effects of climate change in those countries. If the conditions in those countries are not thoroughly analyzed before discarding risk, they could breach the powerful international obligation ofnon-refoulement. 

Landmark decision or a passing storm? 

Despite delivering an important message, the Human Rights Committee ruling does not provide explicit guidance for its implementation. Nevertheless, assumptions can be extracted from the document that shed light on its relevance and growing significance. 

To begin with, it is the first-ever ruling adopted by a UN Committee regarding the claim of a person seeking refuge due to climate change. It also reinforces the idea that environmental degradation, climate change and unsustainable development can compromise effective enjoyment of the right to life, as stated previously in the General Comment No. 36and the case ofPortillo Cáceres et al. v. Paraguay 

Furthermore, despite not being legally binding, the decision is based on international legal obligations assumed by the 172 States Parties to the ICCPR, and almost 106 States Parties to the Optional Protocol. The latter allows individual claims against the ICCPR such as Teitiota’s. 

Contrary to media reports, such as those by CNNandThe Guardian, the Human Rights Committee did not address Teitiota as a climate refugee. Instead it considered him a person under the protection of the ICCPR whose life could be at risk of being exposed to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment due to the impacts of climate change. This means that the Committee´s examination was based on factors and standards intended to consider if there was a threat to Teitiota’s life in Kiribati from the perspective of International Human Rights Law, which is wider and more inclusive than that of International Refugee Law.  

Huts above a sandbagged sea wall on a Pacific island
Sand bags attempt to prevent village huts flooding on Tarawa, Kiribati (Brad Hinton)

The Committee established that individuals seeking refugee status are not required to prove that they would face imminent harm if returned to their countries, implicitly relaxing the probatory standard required for pursuing international protection under a human rights scope. It argued that individuals could be pushed to cross borders looking for protection from climate change-related harm, caused not only by sudden-onset events but also slow-onset processes (Parag. 9.11).  

The Human Rights Committee has continually raised the standard of states’ analyses of protection requests. In this ruling, it recognised that New Zealand’s courts carried out a careful and in-depth examination of both Kiribati’s and Teitiota’s situations before proceeding to deport him. But alongside this it highlighted factors that must be considered in future similar cases: for example, the prevailing conditions in the person’s country of origin; the foreseeable risks; the time left for authorities and the international community to intervene; and the efforts already underway (Parag. 9.13).  

In this way, the Committee’s ruling represents a significant step forward. It has established new standards that may lead to the eventual international protection of people impacted by climate change. From now on, states should examine in detail the climatic and environmental conditions of a migrant’s country of origin under the possibility of breaching the non-refoulement obligation. As the former UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, John Knox, said: “If the crisis continues to worsen, a similar case in a few years may reach a very different result. 

Ignacio Odriozola is studying the MSc in Migration and Mobility Studies at the University of Bristol. He is a lawyer for the Universidad de Buenos Aires and a researcher for the South American Network for Environmental Migrations (RESAMA).

 

New writing on race, migration and forgetting

By Bridget Anderson 

As another shameful deportation charter flight has just left for Jamaica, I wanted to reflect on three books I’ve read recently that connect to this horror in different ways. The first is a short book by David Andress called Cultural Dementia (Apollo 2019). Andress is a historian and as he wrote the book he was dealing with the destruction that Alzheimers was wreaking on his father, so he does not use the term ‘dementia’ lightly. He describes how Europe, and more particularly the UK, France and the USA are experiencing a terrible forgetfulness or at best a half-remembering of the past, resulting in a tremendous disconnect and a deep confusion and misunderstanding about the present. 

A self-confessed Remainer, Andress sees the symptoms of cultural dementia in the ways that Brexit calls on a golden age of the welfare state, and a fantasy of a nation state imagined as on the one hand hermetically sealed and on the other dominant and expansionist.  

To be frank, I am not sure that the memory of ardent Remainers is particularly sound either, and even the shortterm memory of the Greek vote, Portuguese austerity politics and the EUTurkey deal seems to have vanished in a fantasy of the European Union as a bastion of social democratic redistributive justice.  When it comes to the longer term, I would be tempted to diagnose Cultural Lobotomy rather than Cultural Dementia as people’s potential to understand our history has been deliberately excised. Remember Operation Legacy (Sato 2017), the destruction of colonial documents amounting to ‘one of the most spectacular destructions of historical records known in our time’.  

And this lobotomy has terrible consequences for all of us including long term British residents born in the UK’s former colonies, the so-called ‘Windrush generation’. Earlier this week, Home Office Minister Kevin Foster, claimed that The Windrush generation should be defined by the midwife who delivered hundreds of babies, the person who travelled thousands of miles to work hard and provide for their family for decades (PoliticsHome, 10/2/20). This was a matter, he told the House of Commons, of ‘criminality not nationality’.  

Cultural lobotomy wreaks havoc with one’s sense of justice, ignoring the fact that Jamaica was an English colony from 1655, that is BEFORE England’s Act of Union with Scotland. Yet it was not the fact that the Windrush generation had come to the UK as subjects and citizens, residents of islands which Britain had ruled as an imperial power, materially connected through slavery, expropriation and primitive accumulation, that gives them rights, but rather, to use then Prime Minister Theresa May’s phrase ‘they have made a contribution’. Despite these connections in the past and the present, rights associated with membership are framed as deserved, rather than assumed.  

There are cures for cultural dementia that help us unpack the relationship between racism and hostility to migrants, and relatedly between the politics of race and the politics of migration. There are some fantastic scholars who have been arguing this for a while – people like Gargi Bhattacharya, Alana Lentin, Luke de Noronha and Nira Yuval Davis. But frustratingly little attention has so far 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. Nationality in both legal and social senses is traced through ancestry and in this way, nationality is sutured to race. This is the key insight of the second book I’ve been reading, Radhika Mongia’s Indian Migration and Empire (Duke University Press 2018). She examines the efforts to control the movement of Indians to Canada in a climate of hostility to ‘Asiatics’ who nevertheless were British subjects. How to stop negatively racialized bodies from entering, without naming race? The answer was through mobilizing nationality via the passport. 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 

It is not simply that migration is wrongly imagined as disturbing a previous national homogeneity, but that migration precipitated the emergence of nationality as a territorial attachment. Thus, migration is not an external challenge to state development and rule but is central to it; and racism is not an unfortunate characteristic of immigration enforcement but is absolutely baked into immigration controls. 

And there is a fantastic third book, just out, by Nandita Sharma, called Home Rule (Duke University Press 2019) that you’ll be hearing more about in the next few months. Nandita explores the making and separation of the categories of ‘native’ (people in place) and ‘migrant’ (people out of place). I’m very pleased to say that she will be joining us on a Benjamin Meaker fellowship in May and we are planning a number of events during her stay. Nandita’s work is the antidote to cultural dementia not only her fantastic scholarship, but also her creative collaborations and political activism. Watch this space for some really interesting upcoming activities… 

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

 

MMB in 2020 – forging new partnerships

Happy New Year from the MMB team!

We have exciting plans for 2020 as MMB continues to develop its dynamic research remit and build an ever-stronger community of scholars. Our four research challenges are running a range of workshops, seminars and networking events in the coming months, which will showcase the breadth of approaches to migration and mobilities studies among our members. We will also be organising a public lecture by a prominent international activist and scholar – identity to be revealed soon. 

New this year is the MMB film group, in motion, which will be screening films about migration and movement on the last Tuesday of each month. We are also starting a regular MMB research seminar for members to share their work and receive critical feedback from colleagues. And one of our PhD students is running a series of workshops on the logistical, ethical and intellectual challenges of fieldwork. Keep an eye on our website for details of these and other events coming up. 

Don’t forget, the website is a place where you can showcase your research. Do contact us if you have any questions or would like help in developing your text and illustrations.

At the end of last year we published the MMB 2018-2019 Annual Report to show our progress in building an interdisciplinary network of scholars and supporting the wide range of migration-related research across the university and city of Bristol. The report outlines the focus of each of our research challenges, which bring people together from diverse disciplines to think about migration and mobility in new ways. The report features many of the research projects of these challenge members as well as highlighting some of the key events organised by MMB in the past year. 

In 2019-2020 we will continue to consolidate and support our internal community while also developing closer partnerships with institutions and organisations outside the UK. These include The New School in New York, the European Public Law Office in Greece and the Universities of Linkoping and Malmo in Sweden. We are also delighted to be liaising with a network of University of Bristol scholars working in Latin America to support their research on movement and migration in the region. 

Do get in touch if you have any news about relevant events, publications or research ideas. We also still have a small amount of funding for networking events and activities, so if you have an idea that will take place between now and the end of July 2020 please complete the application form. We will next review applications at the end of February. 

We look forward to working with you in 2020! 

Bridget, Emma and Emily 

 

 

Cross-border marriage in South Korea

By Minjae Shin

‘Getting married to Vietnamese/China/Philippines/Uzbekistan woman – If for any reason you’re not satisfied with our service, a 100% satisfaction guarantee.’

This eye-catching phrase is from the website of international marriage brokers in South Korea. My research journey started with this advertisement. Until a few decades ago, the segment of marriage migration that was supported by the marriage industry drew little notice in East Asia. As a result of rapid economic development in Asian countries such as South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, marriage migration patterns have shifted. This economic growth has turned these countries into new marriage destination countries, largely for women from developing countries also in Asia. Indeed, there has been a steep increase in immigration by way of marriage into Korea since the 1990s, as cross-border marriages between Korean men and migrant women became increasingly prominent in the country. In Korea, the so-called marriage squeeze phenomenon – the imbalanced sex ratio among the marriageable population – has resulted in a shortage of prospective Korean brides. Rural bachelors were the first to face this ‘bride shortage’ problem (Friedman and Mahdavi, 2015). Men who live in the less economically lucrative rural areas often work the land and are considered unmarriageable as Korea’s history of economic development privileges the urban over the rural. As a result, Korean authorities, from the central government to local governments, have begun to encourage cross-border marriages for wife-seeking rural bachelors as a national project, named the ‘Rural Bachelor Marriage Project’, in order to address the problem of shortages in the labour force in rural areas from the early 1990s onwards.

Photographs of women for their profile pages.
Women’s profile pages on a Korean marriage brokerage website (photos edited by the author for privacy purposes)

Most of the marriage migrants in Korea are women, who account for 83% of the country’s total number of marriage migrants (132,391 out of 159,206). In the early 1990s, these migrant wives were predominantly ethnic Koreans from China. The countries of origin of these women have since diversified to include Vietnam, the Philippines and countries in Central Asia and Eastern and Central Europe. Currently, cross-border marriage is prominent even in urban areas, and it has become an important pathway to marriage for Korean men who are of a lower socio-economic status, and not solely for rural men.

At the centre of this marital migration exists international marriage brokers. Cross-border marriage in Korea has become increasingly commoditised and systematised, with the rapid growth of the profit-oriented marriage brokerage industry. In Korea, a high percentage of marriage migrants (84.3%) met their spouses through marriage brokerage agencies, highlighting the prominent role of these agencies in marriage migration to Korea. In contrast to commercially brokered cross-border marriages in other parts of the world, most marriage brokers in Korea do not provide email correspondence services due to the language limitations of their clients who hardly know the language of their potential partners. These agencies must operate as the mediator, serving as the go-between for the two potential spouses. They closely interact with potential spouses both in Korea and overseas who seek cross-border marriages and assist both by providing information on criteria, legal procedures and immigration policies to their clients. The agencies also provide information about the cultural and national background of a potential spouse, the women’s expectations about the marriage (for example, love, or a better life). The agencies then communicate this information to their male clients. Moreover, with the advancement of the Internet, marriage brokers provide their male clients with profiles and photographs of their potential spouses to choose from.

In these processes, the practices of marriage brokers tend to be problematic, specifically with respect to their representation of migrant women. Racialised and gendered representations are readily apparent, in particular in their advertisements and marketing strategies. Marriage brokers claim that they speak for migrant women who are searching for a better life to escape poverty in their countries. Yet, at the same time, they tend to depict migrant women as ‘naïve, pure, innocent, submissive, obedient and thrifty, or non-materialist’. They also tend to emphasise the different appearances of women from different countries by using the phrase ‘the strength of women’. For example, on their websites, they illuminate the strengths of Southeast Asian women by stressing similar appearances with Korean; on the other hand, the strengths of Central Asian women by stressing exotic westernised beauty. The women who migrated to Korea through marriage are thus homogenised, their individuality obliterated by ignoring their uniqueness and differences.

There are gaps or discontinuities within their representations that stem from their status as a stakeholder with economic interests, their socio-political positions or something that is further restructured in today’s neo-liberal globalised system in relation to marriage migration. However, their interests and locations are rarely articulated or are simply ignored because of the complexities of representation (Spivak, 1988) in so far as the marriage brokers are both ‘speaking for’ and ‘depicting’ the women. The two senses of representation are interrelated and, to a large extent, co-exist. But they are also discontinuous and inevitably contradict each other since speaking for someone reflects the actor’s own location and interests.

Photographs of women's faces for their profile pages
Women’s profile pages on a Korean marriage brokerage website (photos edited by the author for privacy purposes)

These representational practices (re)produce nationalistic discourses, reinforce certain ideologies – particularly patriarchy – and legitimise their interests. However, there has been a lack of attention on the representational practices of marriage brokers even though they are key players in Korea’s cross-border marriage processes. Korean government has since regulated marriage broker agencies’ representation and fines or suspends agencies deemed to foster racial or gender discrimination and commodification of women through their advertising. Yet, marriage brokers have closely interacted with the government and in so doing, push and negotiate for their own interests by changing their tactics with respect to representations of marriage migrants.

There are several institutions in Korea, other than marriage brokers, that are closely associated with cross-border marriage, including governmental support centres for marriage migrants and NGOs. These institutions have played prominent roles in maintaining Korea’s cross-border marriage system by providing a wide range of services, and they also tend to represent marriage migrants actively. For the past year, I have been researching certain institutions in Korea including marriage brokers and their representational practices. To the next step, I expect to conduct fieldwork to explore day-to-day representational practices of several institutions in Seoul to understand how these institutions represent marriage migrants in the different senses of representation. Through this fieldwork, I hope to highlight the politics of these representations that legitimise their interests, and discuss how hegemonic ideology is being reproduced, legitimised or challenged in the process.

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

 

 

Better Legal and Social Support Needed for LGBTQI+ People Seeking Asylum in Germany

By Mengia Tschalaer and Nina Held 

LGBTQI+ people seeking asylum in Germany often remain invisible and unrecognized within Germany’s asylum system unless they specifically come forward and out themselves. Our new report shows that better visibility and access to legal and social support is needed for this group of asylum seekers.

The German Lesbian and Gay Association (Lesben und Schwulen Verband Deutschland) estimates that out of the nearly 1.6 million refugees that have been registered in Germany between 2015 and 2018 approximately 60,000 are LGBTQI+ individuals from countries in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and the Caribbean. While human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity are grounds for seeking asylum in Europe a policy brief, published by University of Bristol, points out that LGBTQI+ people seeking asylum in Germany face unique challenges as compared to non-LGBTQI+ individuals when seeking refugee protection.

The data that led to the key findings of the policy report derives from our two EU-funded research projects entitled Queer Muslim Asylum in Germany and SOGICA – Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Claims of Asylum. Nina Held is a sociologist who researches sexual orientation and gender identity asylum claims in Germany at the University of Sussex and Mengia Tschalaer is an anthropologist who examines the asylum experiences of LGBTQI+ individuals with Muslim background in Germany at the University of Bristol. Between 2017 and 2019, we conducted over 100 interviews with NGO professionals, lawyers, judges, policy-makers and LGBTQI+ refugees and people seeking asylum on their experiences with queer asylum in Germany. We asked them about the changes needed to improve the social and legal experiences of LGBTQI+ refugees and people seeking asylum in Germany. In addition, the research includes the analysis of court observations and LGBTQI+ asylum decisions.

Our projects deploy an intersectional approach aiming to understand how sexuality, gender, gender identity, religion, class, age, ‘race’, nationality and (dis)ability shape asylum experiences for LGBTQI+ individuals.

The report highlights the fact that LGBTQI+ people seeking asylum in Germany often remain unrecognized and invisible in the asylum system unless they specifically come forward and out themselves. We argue that this is particularly difficult for those who are reluctant to come out due to their specific life situations (i.e. family, marriage, community), feelings of shame and fear of talking about their sexuality/gender identity and/or a lack of safe accommodation and other spaces that would allow for a “coming out”. Indeed, LGBTQI+ asylum seekers who are hiding their sexuality and/or gender identity, who feel uncomfortable to talk about it and/or who are married – some with children – in their countries of origin are often rejected.

Further, we observe that LGBTQI+ individuals seeking asylum in Germany are often housed in asylum accommodation located in rural areas, far away from other LGBTQI+ people and access to LGBTQI+ NGOs in urban areas. Consequently, they feel a heightened sense of loneliness and social isolation and are more likely to experience hate crime and sexual assault.

We also find that decision-making on LGBTQI+ claims is inconsistent and dependent on who decides the case and what kind of knowledge the decision-maker has on issues of sexuality and gender identity as well as on the situation for LGBTQI+ individuals in their country of origin. The policy brief suggests that there is often inadequate knowledge about the situation of LGBTQI+ people in the respective countries of origin resulting, for instance, in decisions where ‘internal relocation’ is suggested.

There is often a disconnect in recognizing gender-based and other forms of violence against LGBTQI+ people as an integral part of their asylum claim. Gender-based violence, in particular, is often deemed as not credible due to the lack of concrete evidence and the lack of awareness that lesbians, transwomen, and bisexual women are especially vulnerable to gender-based violence, including trafficking.

Poor decision-making results in long waiting periods and thus exacerbates social isolation and the strain on mental health.

Overall, LGBTQI+ people seeking asylum often lack access to legal and social support because there is a lack of information for LGBTQI+ refugees on how and where to find support. Organisations that provide support for LGBTQI+ people seeking asylum are generally underfunded and it is thus difficult to get a timely appointment.

And lastly, LGBTQI+ refugees and people seeking asylum often lack safe access to adequate medical and psychological treatment due to their invisibility within the asylum system.  They can also experience social isolation and discrimination due to the lack of multilingual therapists that are sensitized to LGBTQI+ issues. This increases the risk of mental health-related issues, which, in turn, can affect the asylum process negatively.

 

Notes

To download the policy brief with the key findings and policy implications please visit the Policy Bristol website here.

To get in touch with the authors of the brief Dr Nina Held and Dr Mengia Tschalaer please contact them via email at n.held@sussex.ac.uk and mengia.tschalaer@bristol.ac.uk.

 

MMB reflects on the past year

By Bridget Anderson, Emma Newcombe and Emily Walmsley

In the run up to our second MMB AGM we thought we’d take the chance to showcase migration related research in Bristol, reflect on our past year’s work as a Specialist Research Institute and discuss plans for future development by writing an annual report.  At this stage it is just a draft so we are happy to take suggestions for changes and additions. If you would like your work profiled in this report please do get in touch – mmb-sri@bristol.ac.uk.

In 2018/19 MMB focused on how we could organise ourselves, in intellectual and practical terms. We discussed the range of research interests across different faculties and as a result set up four cross-faculty teams to develop our ‘Research Challenges’. Our four co-ordinators have done an excellent job in getting these research challenges going, including organising four great kick-off events that brought together a wide range of participants. We are very grateful to Pier, Nariman, Manoj, and Angelo for all their hard work.

We set up a cross-faculty management group to help us fulfil our objectives and are grateful to them too for the ways in which they have engaged and thought through how we can develop our work. We also found funding for a part-time administrator and Emily joined us in November 2018.

In January we launched our website and the new MMB ‘look’ (we even have MMB pens!). The website is a great place for showcasing your research and bringing it to a wider, cross-disciplinary audience. Do let us know if you want to have a listing or contribute a blog.

It’s been an event-full year for MMB. We’ve concentrated on building our internal community and as such have held or supported 25 events – in May we had four running in one week!  One particular highlight was having the privilege of hosting the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants for an event that brought together UoB researchers with activists and community workers from Bristol. A big thanks to Diego Acosta from Law for arranging this. We hope that you’ve found the events stimulating and that you’ve taken the chance to engage with people from across the University.

Finally, remember that MMB is here to support you. In the coming year we will be trialling some ‘drop-in sessions’. If you have an idea you want to think through, a question about impact or are in search of contacts, do come along (details will be on our website). Also, we are keen to promote the wide range of research and publication projects going on in Bristol on migration and mobilities, many of which are described further in this report.

If you would like to add your work to this report and our website, please do get in touch – mmb-sri@bristol.ac.uk.

 

‘Stop talking; listen to me first!’ Fieldwork in India

By Pankhuri Agarwal

Fieldwork research has a significant effect on one’s mental, emotional and physical well-being. However, it is astonishing that not much time, space and attention is devoted to exploring, learning and deliberating upon the variety of fieldwork experience that goes undocumented in academic work including on topics such as gender bias and mansplaining; nationality and cultural ethos as a researcher of particular origin; uncertainties, failures and long periods of waiting; emotional and mental harm to the researcher, to name a few.

I realised this more when I recently completed seven months of socio-legal multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork in Delhi and neighbouring states. The fieldwork broadly comprised of investigating the performance of Article 23 of the Constitution of India, ‘prohibition of traffic in human beings, begar and other similar forms of forced labour’ and its effect on the everyday lived experience of people (begar means non-payment of wages for work done). This entailed accompanying sex workers and bonded/forced labourers in their legal journeys as internal migrants (in various occupations) through various sites such as the courtrooms, police stations, prison, shelter homes, red light area, informal worksites and district and central government offices. I conducted in-depth interviews with sex workers and bonded/forced labourers, besides interviews with related legal stakeholders. These interviews were complemented with courtroom observation, participant observation and a study of legal case files, which captured the entirety of the participant’s long, unpredictable and complex legal journeys.

G.B. Road (Swami Shradhanand Marg), red-light area, Delhi, India
G.B. Road (Swami Shradhanand Marg), red-light area, Delhi, India

The process of following these movements through various sites meant that I often occupied multiple (assumed) positions and identities simultaneously – that of a researcher, female friend, student, journalist, lawyer, intern and so on. This also implied that I was seen in the light of multiple assumptions in terms of my class, caste, occupation, marital status and age. Whilst the fieldwork was filled with many positive experiences due to the support and encouragement of comrades and activist organisations, in this article I want to focus on the gender bias and emotional burden the fieldwork demanded of me as an ‘Indian female researcher’.

Several researchers before me have taken the responsibility of writing about how their gender, age, caste, nationality, class or their very being were put into question while doing fieldwork (see Ravina Aggarwal, Elizabeth Chacko, Isabelle Kunze and Martina Padmanabhan Erdkunde, Isabella Ng, Nitasha Sharma and Jillian M. Rickly among others). This is because as a female researcher, one can be constantly put off by enquiries and curiosities surrounding one’s marital status, age, race, caste, class or clothing. It is often assumed that the researcher is unaware, innocent or naive. Dressing ‘maturely’ does not help either. When I interviewed some elite male participants, they (ignoring my questions) started by offering me basic definitions of terms and concepts that I did not even ask for. On some occasions, I was stopped with an angry hand gesture (while I was talking) and, in a very aggressive tone, ‘Stop talking; listen to me first’. This was even though I had explained that I had worked on and researched these issues for over six years.

This is not surprising especially when we know that power relations, gender violence and hierarchy are embedded in the soul and spirit of Indian society. We are a society built and sustained on the robust, unshaken and eternal foundation of patriarchy. Amidst this, the intellectual work, emotional labour and the mental health effects of such experiences go unnoticed, let alone compensated for. It is generally accepted and internalised that women, especially feminist women invite such reactions. And you alone are responsible for them. ‘You must have done something’, people say, or, ‘Just ignore it; you think too much’.

Women from all walks of life gather at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on 4th April 2019 to raise their voices against gender-based violence, patriarchy and caste-based politics and to demand a secular, equal and tolerant State.
Women from all walks of life gather at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on 4th April 2019 to raise their voices against gender-based violence, patriarchy and caste-based politics and to demand a secular, equal and tolerant State.

I also realised that in the field, people (in both personal and professional relationships) were less concerned about my research and well-being than with the roles I should be playing as a woman. I was expected to be ‘back home’. I wondered what for. ‘You should not take up such fieldwork travels while [your partner] is left alone at home.’ These accusations were followed up with solutions. ‘You do not have to travel. How will you travel? We will arrange for a ten-minute phone call and you can write that you interviewed this person. This will make the fieldwork quicker and you can return soon.’

I often pondered upon such encounters and noted them in my reflection journal. Where am I supposed to return? To who and why? Why this rush and pressure? Why was my mobility between fieldwork sites a matter of concern and curiosity to some people? Why was there no interest in my research or the emotional roller coaster I was going through in the field? The mystery of my return concerned and perturbed many people in the field. Due to this, I was constantly called to account for myself, not as a researcher, but because of my position as a woman with a partner. My identity was constantly attached to his as if I did not exist as an individual. This was overwhelming not only for me but also for my partner because, in these conversations, he was made an implicit participant without consent.

Once such distressing encounters had become a usual occurrence, I mastered the poker face. I needed to collect data and could not risk annoying anyone. So, I laughed when they laughed, expressed concern when they did, shook my head often as they did and in rare instances, gave a ‘shy woman-like smile’ when ‘uncomfortable topics’ were discussed, as was expected of a woman from a ‘good family’. If I did not, they stared. So, I did.

During such emotionally troubling times, fortunately, I had some comforting companions. My supervisor shared with me her own fieldwork experience of ‘mansplaining’. This encouraged me to reflect on my experience of fieldwork as a feminist woman with those of the female participants of my research; how different yet similar our lives are in terms of how we all ‘risked lives, homes, relationships, in the struggle for more bearable worlds’ (Ahmed, 2017, p.1). The subaltern resists, speaks and revolts invisibly and powerfully, even in the middle of moving, parting from their land and homes, and often their families and children. How powerful, beautiful and empowering is this!

Released bonded labourers from across the country protest at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on 1st March 2019 to demand compensation in long-pending legal proceedings.
Released bonded labourers from across the country protest at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on 1st March 2019 to demand compensation in long-pending legal proceedings.

I also found comfort in Maya Angelou’s autobiography where she, through her brilliant and unapologetic writing, stumbles through life from one role to another both personally and professionally, fighting and discovering the multiple ways in which women are not only made to feel small and incompetent but are often treated as second-class citizens. They are expected to fit into many roles and stereotypes and made to feel guilty if they do not follow the norm. Maya Angelou was speaking to me, ‘Onus and guilt were shifting into my lap, where they surely didn’t belong’ (2008, p.246).

Amidst these reflections, Sara Ahmed gave me the reassurance to not ignore, give in and ‘adjust in an unjust world’ (2017, p.84) (emphasis my own). I then realised that the politics of fieldwork research was gradually merging with my feminism(s). The personal was indeed political and the political became personal. This transported with it the (un)comfortable consciousness of my being, beyond that of a researcher and a woman. These musings kept visiting me because of how I was seen and how I was not seen during fieldwork. This is even though I have spent more than 28 years growing up in India, being accustomed to conducting myself in an ‘appropriate manner’ in both public and private spaces, not because I want to but because I need to. I know and have experienced that speaking up does not always help. It often leads to accusations of creating an ‘unnecessary scene’. ‘To disappoint an expectation is to become a disappointment’ (Ahmed, 2017, p.52). So, in a society where people are accepted, rewarded and applauded for being sexist, casteist and misogynistic, bringing out wrong can often make you the reason for the wrong. How shocking is this revelation? Not at all.

I am sure that these experiences resonate with some other researchers and require space, time and attention for ‘revelation’. For this reason, I am organising a series of (three) seminars with the MMB Networking Funds Grant between January and June 2020 at the University of Bristol for PhDs and ECRs. Each seminar will have a specific theme around fieldwork research. These seminars will be followed with a writing workshop where experienced researchers from across disciplines will be invited to mentor PhDs and ECRs to bring this important discussion together in an edited volume, report or podcasts. If you would like more information about the seminars and the writing workshop, please e-mail me at pankhuri.agarwal@bristol.ac.uk.

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