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The dismal UK Home Office response to coronavirus: the wider picture

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


By Colin Yeo

Dear Bridget,

We’ve learned that closeness does not mean contact, so I hope that this can count as a ‘Letter from Afar’ even if ‘afar’ seems a strangely 19th-century way of talking about the distance between Newport and Bristol. I wanted to share with you some of my reflections on the UK Home Office’s response to coronavirus and what it means for migrants and asylum seekers.

Let me start with recognition of the fact that basic steps to reduce immediate contagion risk were quietly implemented in mid-March – such as suspension of immigration bail reporting and cancellation of asylum interviews. This may have been because the hand of the Home Office was forced by social distancing guidelines from other government departments. But where the Home Office response has been seriously deficient is in its chaotic communications, failure to protect migrant lives, failure to protect families and questionable legal competence.

Adrian Berry from the Immigration Law Practitioner’ Association and I gave evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee about these failings. But I want to step back from the immediate Home Office failings here and think about the broader context. There are important features of the immigration system that could inform a considered, strategic and effective government response. If there was to be such a thing.

Unauthorised migrants

First, there are estimated to be between 600,000 and 1.2 million unauthorised migrants living in the UK. If the government decides to employ a policy of contact tracing, the size and distribution of this population will potentially make such a policy very difficult. Unauthorised migrants are not going to volunteer to download an app which tells the authorities where they live and work.

This group are in considerable danger from coronavirus. Many are destitute, have no routine access to healthcare and live in substandard accommodation with no access to furloughing or Universal Credit. The government says it is trying to stop transmission of the virus by reducing non-essential work that brings people into contact with one another, but for this group work is literally a matter of survival.

Some countries have responded to the coronavirus crisis by offering unauthorised migrants access to lawful residence and to welfare support. There were already lots of reasons to pursue this policy and the public health dimension during a pandemic is just one more.

Access to healthcare

This brings us to the hostile environment. One of the features of the policy – and it is a feature, not a bug – is that it makes unauthorised migrants afraid of the authorities. Data sharing agreements between departments mean a sick person who seeks medical help may be reported to the immigration authorities and there is plenty of evidence that unauthorised migrants would rather go untreated than risk deportation. The government has added coronavirus to the list of diseases for which free treatment is available to all. This is welcome, but it does nothing to address this fear.

An amnesty would address this issue. As a first step the data sharing arrangements between government departments and the immigration authorities need to be suspended.

Nature of the immigration system

The immigration system is highly complex with outdated and sometimes incomprehensible laws, a widespread lack of faith in the immigration authorities, a very poor working relationship between the authorities and civil society and the legal community, and dire consequences for anyone who makes the slightest mistake.

Immigration lawyers have to be cautious because for us worst case scenarios are the norm. So, we are reluctant to accept such unverifiable and easily-reversible Home Office platitudes as ‘we’ll extend visas, trust us’, and we are slow to trust a government website that changes almost daily, leaving no trace of whatever was yesterday’s mumbled, fumbled plan F. We need to see proper statutory instruments that we can be confident are legally effective. At the very least, the Home Office needs to share why it thinks announcements on a website meet the formal requirements of the Immigration Act 1971.

Valuing migrants

The UK immigration system values migrants by their economic worth. Migrants are Good Migrants if they contribute to the economy as the ‘highly skilled’. Implicitly and often explicitly, migrants are Bad Migrants if they contribute to our economy and society through ‘low-skilled’ work picking fruit, cleaning hospitals and delivering food. Or by caring for children and the elderly.

The public and maybe even the government may be re-evaluating what the coronavirus has definitively shown to be a false dichotomy. I’m not holding my breath; the old ways of thinking have become deeply embedded.

A range of harsh policies are automatically triggered against migrants who lose their jobs or whose salaries are reduced. If a family that includes a migrant husband, wife or partner finds that its income has dropped below £18,000, the migrant will have to leave the country, and the British partner and children will either have to accompany them or stay behind and hope better times eventually come. If a skilled worker on a Tier 2 visa loses their job or their salary drops below £30,000, they will also have to leave the country. Some are affected by this rule right now, but many others will face the problem in the coming months as their visas expire.

Immigration policies tying immigration status to economic value are supposed to incentivise migrants to work hard – or, at least, to earn a lot, which is not always the same thing. But during the coronavirus, when the government is trying to discourage everyone from unnecessary work and the social contact it inevitably brings, migrants are still compelled to work. Migrants do qualify for furloughing, but if the 20% cut in wages puts them below the income thresholds, they are ultimately going to have to leave the country.

If migrants are valued in purely economic terms, and very narrow economic terms at that, they are – not to put too fine a point on it – totally screwed if or when the economy collapses.

This is why I and others have been so critical of the whole hostile environment policy. It does nothing to deter future arrivals or encourage departures, but it does treat migrants already in the UK as a disposable economic commodity rather than as human beings worthy of respect.

It is difficult for politicians who have risen to power on the back of anti-immigrant sentiment to reverse an anti-immigrant policy. Some are genuinely ideologically committed to reducing immigration but also their political support depends on their presenting themselves as tough on immigrants.

It is time to separate out future admissions policy from the treatment of migrants who are admitted. The coronavirus offers an opportunity to make changes on a temporary basis that can later become permanent. The opportunity should be embraced and hostile environment measures suspended.


Colin Yeo is a barrister, writer, campaigner and consultant specialising in immigration law. He founded and edits the Free Movement immigration law blog. This Letter from Afar is an edited version of one of his recent posts on the Free Movement website. Colin’s latest book, Welcome to Britain: Fixing our Broken Immigration System, will be published by Biteback in July.


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 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.


A violent disregard for life: Covid-19 in Brazil

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


By Angelo Martins Junior

Dear friends

Two months ago the governor of São Paulo decreed a state of emergency and social isolation measures to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. At the time, I was in São Paulo, conducting fieldwork for the ERC project I am working on, ‘Modern Marronage? The Pursuit and Practice of Freedom in the Contemporary World’. The project uses histories of Atlantic World slavery and the means by which enslaved people sought to escape it to guide research on marginalised people’s efforts to move closer to freedom today. So, my days are now mostly spent reading about the history of slavery and its aftermath, and anxiously following news on the Covid-19 pandemic, topics that are closely entwined in the Brazilian context.

Here, as elsewhere in the world, the Covid-19 crisis has illuminated existing inequalities. Besides the massive division between those who can afford access to high quality health care and those who cannot, much of the country’s population simply cannot enact the practices recommended by the World Health Organisation to prevent contagion, such as washing hands or social isolation: 38 million people (41.4% of the labour market) are informal workers; more than 100,000 are homeless; 31 million lack access to a water supply system; 13.6 million live in the thousands of favelas spread across a country that is twice the size of the European Union.

A cart on the street filled with rubbish, with painting and slogan on the side
‘My dream… is to have rights!’ – a street recycler’s barrow in São Paulo (image: author’s own)

Bolsonaro’s deny and defy approach to the Coronavirus pandemic has already been widely reported in the international media. Over the past month, the President has claimed that the Covid-19 crisis is a media fabrication and trick, or a ‘little flu’. He has also attacked scientists and fired his Health Minister for defending and promoting social isolation; urged people to go on demonstrations against their governors and isolation measures. Bolsonaro mobilises his support with a narrative that places the economy and the virus in competitive opposition, claiming that he is trying to save lives by demanding an end to social isolation, since hunger is a far greater threat to the mass of Brazilian people than a ‘little flu’.

Hundreds of his supporters (video 1) have taken to the streets across large cities in Brazil, waving Brazilian flags, calling the pandemic a communist farce, chanting and shouting violent, nationalistic and authoritarian slogans, asking for dictatorship/military intervention, and mocking death (video 2). Many people have been physically attacked by demonstrators (video 3), while others have suggested killing governors who have decreed social isolation.

These demonstrations are visceral testaments to two things that go hand in hand in Brazil – first, the absence of belief that the state has any role to play in providing for people, and second, a violent disregard for life. Instead of asking why the state is not providing for people so they can safely stay at home, the idea that people will die from hunger if they are not allowed to work individualises the problem and fosters violent sentiments towards those who defend social isolation measures.

Many will rightly link the popular response to the pandemic to neoliberal politics and its individualising social enterprise. It is true that, from the 1980s, neoliberal policies, and their individualising ideological commitments, have been normalised in Brazil, translating all social problems into matters of individual misfortune or misdeed. We can say, indeed, that the ‘neoliberal rationale’ has become a hegemonic feature of the Brazilian cognitive political struggle as well as in people’s minds. This could help us understand why so many people do not see the state as responsible for caring for its population, but instead applaud its efforts to send them to work to avoid dying from hunger even when this means spreading a virus that will kill thousands.

But we also need to remember that in the colonial and post-colonial order of Brazil, violence, disregard for (particular) lives and state repression have been almost omnipresent features. Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery, after having enslaved 4.9 million Africans or 40% of the total number forcibly taken to the Americas. To transform people into slaves, it was necessary to continually repeat acts of violence designed to impress upon the enslaved the knowledge that they were nothing but slaves, with no existence conceivable except as an appendage to the master who owned them. Violence was not only a matter of punishment, but something core to the existence of the enslaved, the masters and the whole system of slavery. For centuries, the mass of people in Brazil were condemned to live in a society where their own social status and very existence was dependent on perpetuating and/or submitting to acts of violence, and this has had great consequences for later generations, long after ‘emancipation’.

After abolition, an entire class of black and mixed people – the formerly enslaved and their descendants – as well as lighter skinned poor Brazilians were left to their own fates, having to survive in the poor peripheries of large urban centres. They have been marginalised both in the configuration of urban space and in the labour market, dealing with daily exclusion and discrimination. In Brazil, there was never a welfare state, as in Western Europe, which could attempt to remedy such inequalities by providing the basic social rights and protections required for this population to be able to live with dignity. In fact, after independence, almost all governments that have tried to promote social justice and diminish social inequality were impeached or suffered a military coup. In this context, violence has continued to be an important element in Brazil’s social order.

The descendants of the enslaved and lighter skinned poor Brazilians have historically faced a discourse of degradation, rejection from the human commonwealth, and state violence – often being executed on the streets by the police. They are the ones now struggling in the favelas, being told to go back to their already precarious, low paid and insecure work to avoid dying from hunger in a moment of health crisis.

As Stuart Hall has noted, it’s difficult to work through the question of how violent colonial pasts inhabit the historical present. Yet there can be no doubt that this past still reverberates in Brazil’s socio-political-economic structures, as well as in its collective psyche today. Unbidden, our history shapes a present in which the state and many ordinary people place no value on the lives of millions of their fellow beings, and are not only willing to allow death en masse but often violently to attack those who act, symbolically or materially, to preserve the lives of all alike.


Angelo Martins Junior is a Research Associate in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. He is working on the ERC research project ‘Modern Marronage: the pursuit and practice of freedom in the contemporary world’. This is an edited version of a longer blog that appeared in Discover Society on 23/04/20.


Research in extraordinary times

Bridget Anderson introduces our new blog series, Letter from Afar, in which we invite colleagues from across the world to tell us about their life and work in times of Covid-19. Answers welcome!


Dear Friends,

I hope you are well – Covid-19 has turned that platitude into a genuine wish – I truly hope you are well.

I am writing with news from a virtual Bristol. In fact, I’m writing from Newport in South Wales, where I’m staying with my elderly parents who are particularly vulnerable at this time. Right now in the UK we are being strongly discouraged from going outside other than to shop for necessities and take an hour’s exercise. As I write we’re seven weeks into lockdown, and it’s proving tough. It’s tough enough for me, and I’m in the privileged position of having access to a garden. I keep thinking of people in flats with toddlers and teenagers. Like in many other countries, domestic violence is on the rise. We need some pushback on the assumption that home is a safe place. But others don’t have a home to go to. It’s particularly difficult for migrants who have ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ (NRPF) as one of their visa conditions, or who are undocumented or asylum seekers. The Government has advised Local Authorities to (temporarily) house everyone including NRPF people, but it is not clear where the money will come from.

The University of Bristol has shut all offices so we can’t access books and papers, and we are all adjusting to working from home. There are clearly financial fears and the vulnerabilities of precarious working in the sector have been exposed. Budgets have been frozen and staff laid off: similar processes are happening at other universities.

There are also consequences for research, as I’m sure you too are experiencing. Together with colleagues Jon Fox, Therese O’Toole, David Manley and Natalie Hyacinth I was about to start fieldwork on the Everyday Integration project in Bristol. We were going to deploy innovative methods including flash focus groups on buses and Uber rides, none of which are possible now. At a time of ‘social distancing’ we are actively being told to ‘dis-integrate’ for our own health. We are re-thinking how to proceed, perhaps by observing the period of ‘re-integration’ that we are all going to have to go through when we emerge from lockdown. ‘Integration’, whatever was meant by that term, is going to look very different now. Yet at the same time connections between us are being revealed (who knew we would be connected to a bat in Wuhan – talk about a butterfly flapping its wings!) and new ways of connecting are being forged. I’m on a mission to change the language from ‘social distancing’ to ‘physical distancing’, for we are not socially distant at all.

In the UK, as in many places, the pandemic is also revealing the crucial role that migrants play in our societies – disrespected ‘low skilled’ workers have turned into ‘key workers’ and many of them are migrants. So focussed have we been on the impact of migrant workers as an abnormal phenomenon that affects an otherwise normal labour market, that the politics has missed the fact that in some sectors migrants are normal and are needed to keep things ‘normal’. But at the same time as being key to socio-economic life, migrants are marginalised in state responses to the crisis. If you missed the EUI webinar on this then you could take a look at the recording here. These discussions are important as we need to be prepared for the tsunami of nationalism that appears to be building. Did you see that a couple of days ago in Australia there was a call for migration restrictions?

It is worth reflecting on how some of our experiences are a pale reflection of what migrants have endured for years. It is partly to do with separation from loved ones – I can’t bear speaking to the children by Skype when all I want to do is hug them – but it is also to do with time. We are inhabiting a kind of ‘precarious migrant time’ – stuck in a permanent temporariness that makes thinking about the future very difficult.

I don’t want to fall for the ‘we are all in it together’ kind of line, given how this virus is exposing gross inequalities that are, quite literally, sickening. But we do need to build our intellectual and affective community so we can learn from and support each other. So here I am, writing a letter, and hoping to hear back from you.

In solidarity and with affection,


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


The relevance of luxuries during a global pandemic

By Tamar Hodos 

In these extraordinary times, I have made a contribution to society by providing a timely news story that does not involve the current global pandemic. This is the results of a study that forms part of my ongoing research into the production, distribution and socio-cultural significance of luxuries in past globalising contexts. One might well question the tact of highlighting luxuries at a time when human life and economic stability are at tremendous risk, however. 

Carved ostrich egg with hole in top
Decorated ostrich egg. © Tamar Hodos, University of Bristol (with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum)

In the interconnected world of the ancient Greeks, Phoenicians, Assyrians and Egyptians, ostrich eggs were turned into highly decorated vessels, and they were coveted by elites across the Mediterranean and Middle East. The project, in collaboration with colleagues at the British Museum and Durham University, has explored where eggs were laid, whether the mother was wild or captive, and how the eggs were worked. The journal publishing the results timed its release to coincide with Easter. The research has received global attention. 

It might seem frivolous to discuss luxury good production methods when everyone is affected by Covid-19. Luxurious objects are the preserve of the wealthiest, who can afford them. When so many people have lost their jobs and rapid economic recovery prospects are bleak, it may even appear crass to emphasise materials beyond reach for so many. 

Luxuries impact upon many more than their elite consumers, however, and in this lies their wider relevance to society, both past and presentOur study has revealed that decorated ostrich egg production in antiquity was a particularly complex affair. We established that the eggs were acquired from wild, rather than captive, birds. As a result, we can suggest that the production process begins with trackers, who had to find nest sites and steal eggs by one means or another.

Ostrich nests are difficult to spot because they are dug into the ground amid grasses such that they are invisible from across the landscape. The female’s colouring further camouflages the site during the day, when she incubates the eggs; the male’s colouring does the same at night, when he keeps the eggs warm. An ostrich will lay its head flat if it senses a predator, which is the origin of the notion that ostriches bury their heads in the sand. But do not take that as passiveness: the birds can kill with a single kick.  

Faint carving of ram's head on shell
Detail of a ram’s head. © Tamar Hodos, University of Bristol (with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum)

Acquiring eggs entailed risk to the tracker. Firstly, it could take days to find nest sites, since a male ostrich’s territory may extend up to 20km2, and nest locations seem to have no relation to nest sites from previous seasons within a territory. Secondly, other predators equally dangerous to humans inhabit the same landscapes as ostriches. Even if the tracker chose to kill an ostrich rather than merely steal its eggs, the bird itself was not the only threat. 

Furthermore, it transpires that just because you could source an ostrich egg locally, it does not necessarily mean that you did. In antiquity, ostriches were indigenous to north Africa and today’s Middle East. Using isotope analyses, our study was able to determine different environmental zones across this expanse where the mothers roamed during ovulation. But this raises new questions such as whether fresh eggs themselves were traded as source material, and if eggs from different areas had different perceived values. Who was involved in these exchanges? 

We also learned that an egg needs to dry out naturally for an extended period of time after blowing (emptying) before the shell is suitable for carving. This necessitates safe storage, which has economic implications as storage creates a longterm investment before reaping payment.   

Only once an egg was suitably dried could highly skilled craftsmen undertake their decoration. In this lies a social interpretation complication, for artisans were mobile during this era. For example, Phoenician craftsmen were known to be in the employ of Assyrian kings in Assyria. So, should we consider a product made by such an individual as a Phoenician or Assyrian object 

Furthermore, what does it mean when a deceased Etruscan king in Italy is interred with a decorated ostrich egg? Or a Phoenician residing in Spain? How do those meanings overlap and differ? As the eggs were imports to both regions, what does this tell us about the varieties of connectivities between cultures using ostrich eggs? This line of questioning is valuable to our own era, because our identities cannot necessarily be understood simply from how we style ourselves, especially as our choices are often contextually significant, and when objects, dress, style and people are highly mobile. 

Faint carving of lotus flower on eggshell
Detail of a lotus flower motif. © Tamar Hodos, University of Bristol (with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum)

The ostrich egg study used the mobility of objects themselves to learn about the variety of people involved in production and exchange in the past, as well as shared and divergent social practices of materials in common, but its relevance does not lie just in learning more about the ancient world for diverting news stories. This approach is applicable to society today because of our own social relationships with the material world. Today, the same object may concurrently have overlapping and different social or symbolic meanings for diverse populations, while its production and distribution connects people in complex ways across time and place. Understanding the relationships between our social lives and material worlds helps us foster better relationships with one another, especially with regard to social and cultural differences. Objects ‘belong’ to many more than just their final consumers. Luxuries extend across the full spectrum of society.   

Unfortunately, so does Covid-19. 

Tamar Hodos is Reader in Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Bristol and a unit director on the MSc Migration and Mobility Studies.


Lessons we’ve learned from COVID so far

By Bridget Anderson 

Far from being ‘all in it together’ COVID-19 is exposing the mechanisms that promote and maintain inequality within as well as between states. In the UK, Sweden and the USA, among other countries, evidence is emerging that Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people are disproportionately likely to catch and die from coronavirus. Increased susceptibility is in part because of poorer living conditions and long-term health inequalities, but also the likelihood of working in ‘forward facing’ and essential jobs.

These discrepant vulnerabilities and their association with race and class divisions are acknowledged, but citizenship status has so far been overlooked in reports and data on those who have caught and died from the virus. In a recent EUI hosted webinar, Friedrich Poeschel illustrated that non-citizens account for a substantial share of employment in many sectors that are now defined as essential.

Ambulances wait in the street
NHS ambulances collect COVID-19 patients in London. Photo by Joe Kibria on Unsplash.

This includes health professionals: in the US 25% of doctors are non-citizens, in Switzerland 34%. In the UK, Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care tweeted on 17th November 2019: ‘It’s the National Health Service not the International Health Service. Everyone should make a fair contribution towards our NHS so after Brexit we’ll extend the NHS surcharge to all non-UK residents.’ But the staffing of the NHS is international: 37% of hospital doctors gained their qualification outside the UK. Furthermore, a report by the Migration Advisory Committee found that migrant nurses are paid 22% less than their UK national colleagues. The NHS surcharges Hancock is so pleased with are currently imposed on all non-EU citizens, meaning that nurses, doctors, care workers and others on the frontline have to pay a £400 annual ‘NHS surcharge’ for themselves and for each of their family members.

The second reading of the Immigration Bill was postponed on Tuesday. Perhaps the appetite for the crackdown on ‘low-skilled workers’ from abroad is flagging. The COVID crisis has exposed how many of the jobs on which our everyday lives depend – the hospital cleaners, supermarket shelf stackers, retail workers, drivers, carers and agricultural and food-processing workers – are low waged, low status and undertaken by BAME people and migrants. It suggests we have to go further than seeking to expand definitions of skill and challenge whether skill is an adequate measure of value at all.

One of the consequences of the focus of immigration policy on skills is that non-EU nationals working in these essential sectors may be on spousal visas, visitor visas, cultural exchange type visas, with permanent residence or simply working illegally. This is likely to be particularly true for the precarious workers in the gig economy who work via platforms such as Deliveroo, Instacart and Uber. It is notoriously difficult to measure the gig economy, and migrant participation in it is even more difficult, but evidence from the US and Europe suggests that migrant workers are a significant proportion of this labour force.

The vast majority of workers in the gig economy are vulnerable. This is not only because they do face-to-face work, but also because they typically have no employee benefits. Researchers in France surveyed bike delivery workers two days before and two days after lockdown and found that those workers with incomes under 1,000 Euros a month were most likely to keep on working.

Man rides a bicycle carrying a large bag containing a food delivery
Takeaway food delivery. Photo by Patrick Connor Klopf on Unsplash.

Migrant workers are made additionally vulnerable because they often have no safety net at all. In the UK, for instance, many legally resident and legally working migrants have a condition of No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF). This means that they cannot claim Universal Credit, which is the basic safety net for people who cannot work. There is a public health risk to having people in a situation where they are compelled to work. If the COVID-19 crisis has taught us anything it is that what is bad for migrants is not good for citizens, in fact we are seeing it is very bad for citizens as well.

One of the perceived advantages of migrant labour on migrant worker visas is that migrants are not only often lower waged but also easier to hire and fire as temporary workers. Time is an important factor in demand and supply of migrant worker visa holders, who usually enter on temporary programmes. COVID has exposed the taken-for-granted access to low-waged seasonal migrant labour with its flexibility and poor wages that relies not just on them wanting to come, but on international transport infrastructure, and sending states permitting their citizens to move.

These labour supply chains are not as resilient as imagined. The obvious example is seasonal agricultural workers. Producers in Canada, Australia, US and the European Union are seriously concerned about labour shortages and the European Commission last week called on member states to allow seasonal agricultural workers to travel within the EU as essential workers. Even at this time of lockdown in the UK, large farms have been chartering planes to bring in temporary workers and labour providers and last week requested the UK government to charter planes for labour supply.

One alternative to employing migrant labour and to improving employment conditions has been offshoring. But offshoring can reduce supply chain resilience. We are learning the hard way about the perils of fragile and long supply chains in vital supplies. The UK government might say that it makes more sense to import strawberries than to be dependent on seasonal agricultural workers. But that does not mean that British consumers are not dependent on low-waged migrant labour – they are just dependent on low-waged Moroccan labour working in Spain, instead, where the UK government has no levers of control over supply.

Let’s re-think how we value work, both in terms of money and status. And may the lessons from COVID last.

‘You Clap For Me Now’ – The coronavirus poem on racism and immigration in Britain.

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


No more ‘back to normal’ – ‘normal’ was the problem. Thoughts on corona

By Bridget Anderson 

(Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash)

We are facing an unprecedented challenge and opportunity that we are not simply observing as social scientists but experiencing at personal, institutional and professional levels. We are living a natural experiment whose reagents include multiple types of mobilities, clashing across different scales.

The COVID virus is a human infection of animal origin, and the outbreak is likely to have originated in a market selling dead and live wild animals as food. It is very important we appreciate the political, economic and geographic factors that collide in such markets and challenge lazy assumptions about cultural practices and finger pointing at China. Across the world, big business has undermined local food security, pushing smallholders off their land and fisherfolk from their fishing grounds, increasing the cost of food and making subsistence more difficult. As the price of protein has risen the urban poor have turned to ‘bush meat’ and rural people have moved to land that is more difficult to cultivate, sometimes encroaching on areas previously uninhabited by human populations, exposing them to new animal harms and disturbing previously resilient ecosystems 

Factory farming too has driven the emergence of new diseases. The mass ‘production’ of livestock crowds together millions of farmed animals in breeding grounds for disease and species jumping. Most recently Rob Wallace has co-authored this must-read article that describes brilliantly how, for viruses to survive, they must let their hosts live long enough to enable them to spread, but that in factory farming they must jump to the next host before the first host is slaughteredand the next host is genetically the same, further facilitating spread. Livestock production and multinational agribusiness are owned and controlled by a handful of multinational corporations – JBS, Tyson Foods, Cargill and Smithfields (the last owned by the Chinese WH Group) 

The multiple intersections of (im)mobilities of capital, of food, of humans, of animals, of the microbiological have produced the contemporary situation where the ‘cure’, it seems, is human immobility. This is only a temporary cure, though, and ultimately, we will have to attend to the connection between the socio-economic and the biological that lies at the heart of human reproduction, but which has become, quite literally, toxic. Wallace et al. describe how human epidemics, including Ebola and SARS, have been multiplying and will continue to do so unless we change the structure of global food production. 

To see the virus as originating in China, therefore, is to miss the powerful transnational forces at play. This is not to let the Chinese government off the hook. In a really interesting article the Chuang collective argues that China’s unregulated industries, rapid urbanization and low public spending on health, combined with the massive growth in livestock production (the world’s largest dairy farm is the Mudanjiang City megafarm with an acreage roughly equivalent to Portugal!) and the formalization of the wild food sector all contributed to the emergence and propagation of the virus.  

But we desperately need a politics that sees through and beyond the scale of the national. The national is implicit in appeals to citizenship and the ready mobilising of images of being ‘at war’: this not only obfuscates the sources but also the consequences of the virus. Western media attention has focussed on the rich world, but it is people in areas of the world that have long borne the burden of resource depletion, exploitation and global inequality, who are set to carry the cost of COVID-19. Their conditions risk being further worsened by global, national and camp specific lockdowns, the cessation of donations, the impossibility of moving for livelihoods. Spare a thought for the Rohingya people under lockdown in camps in Bangladesh and Myanmar and remember that those who are malnourished or who have diseases of poverty have compromised immune systems, which mean they are more likely to become seriously ill. Those ‘migrants’ from the Global South who are resident in the rich world may fare scarcely better think about the refugees in Lesbos expected to wash their hands but sharing one tap between 1,300 people.  

The scale of the national does matter, of course. It is crystal clear that where we are living matters, as national governments are responding quite differently to the public health crisis. But this does not mean that those residing on the same territory are ‘in it together’. True, in the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Prince Charles have both tested positive. The virus does not recognise passports, wealth or power. Yet it is precisely this that highlights the existent inequalities that mean that some of us are more likely to develop mild symptoms than others. Some of us are also far more protected from the economic ravages that this epidemic will cause 

There are so many ways in which the current crisis is related to our work at MMB and we will be exploring them in future posts – so please get in touch with Emily ( with texts and ideas. We will see how we can take this forward in a different format in the coming weeks so watch this space. Some starters for our research challenges these are what are crossing my mind as I write – some ideas to put out there: 

Trade Labour Capital: we can think about the movement of animals and the movement of people. And let’s not forget the movement of capital. After the 2008 financial crisis Goldman Sachs bought into Chinese poultry farms – reservoirs of avian flu.  

Bodies Borders Justice: we can think about how human movement into new areas has affected zoonotic transmission (importantly let’s not blame the ‘migrants’ here but look at the forces behind such movement). Frustratingly MMB have had to cancel the activity we planned to hold jointly with the Bristol BioDesign Institute and the New School for Social Research on ‘Biomia’, exploring microbiological mobilities – seems we were ahead of the curve on that one! 

Control Conflict Resistance: we can think about the surveillance and mobility controls being ramped up and normalised across the world – what is the risk of these ‘sticking’ after this phase has passed? 

Imagination Futures Belonging: how can we think relationally, enabling us to locate the origins of the crisis not in a single animal in a wet market in Wuhan, but in entanglements whose ‘knots’ are not only in Beijing and Hong Kong but also in global cities like New York, London and Paris? 

In the recent uprisings in Chile one of the slogans was ‘We won’t go back to normal because normal was the problem’. Normal was indeed the problem. What can we start learning from the current situations to move towards a better, more just, normal? 

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


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).