Jones, Gunaratnam, Battacharyya, Davies, Dhaliwal, Forkert, Jackson and Saltus et al – Go Home? The Politics of Immigration Controversies (Manchester University Press)
The social sciences should be reactive and responsive to their surroundings rather than simply writing for and within their particular disciplinary cocoons. There is a need for what Les Back terms ‘live sociology’ and it requires being historically situated and attentive to the changing and often chaotic nature of the social world. Live sociology is a call to be inventive, reflective, and partisan.
As Les Back and Nirmal Puwar argue, new strategies and ‘live methods’ need to be developed and, ultimately, this not only means arguing for an alternative future, but crafting one into existence. Go Home?: The Politics of Immigration Controversies, published by Manchester University Press, is an exercise in this sort of academic practice.
The book, which is authored by eight academics and activists, was the result of research formed in direct response to the UK Home Office’s ‘Operation Vaken’ in 2013. Vaken was a pilot operation intending to increase the number of ‘voluntary departures’ from the UK and combined hard-edged immigration enforcement with a media strategy that included journalists accompanying officers on immigration raids and the Home Office tweeting images of the arrests under the hashtag #immigrationoffenders.
Perhaps the most notorious aspect of the operation were the so-called ‘Go Home vans’ which were driven around six London boroughs carrying billboards that read, ‘In the UK Illegally? Go Home or Face Arrest’. The text was accompanied by an image of handcuffs. As the authors write: ‘The moment of the Go Home van seemed to us to be a turning point in the climate of immigration debates – a ratcheting up of anti-migrant feeling to the point where it was possible for a government-sponsored advertisement to use the same hate speech rhetoric as far-right racists.’
This heightened level of state-funded vitriol was disturbing and in the context of increasing border enforcement across education, healthcare and housing, the deployment of the vans also raised the issue of how changing immigration laws and practices become entwined with public feeling and discourse. A central question the book takes up in response to Operation Vaken is ‘how do we map the variety of perspectives and stories surrounding immigration enforcement?’
The impetus behind this question – and the book – emerged as academics and activists connected over social media platforms to discuss, debate and respond to the Go Home vans. Immediate and unfunded street surveys were carried out to capture, as quickly as possible, reactions to Operation Vaken. Focus groups were held in cities across the UK, from Bradford to Glasgow to London, and included recent migrants, long-settled migrants, and ethnic minority and white British citizens. And an Ipsos MORI poll on perceptions of immigration enforcement was also commissioned. The research that underpins this book was undertaken across physical and virtual sites, from the London street to Twitter and this raw and multi-method approach is apparent throughout.
Each chapter begins with an example of ‘living research’, whether conversations between activist groups and researchers, debates with a professional research organisation over the exact wording of survey questions, or difficult and ethically-charged moments that researchers encountered during their fieldwork. All of these examples of ‘living research’ challenge notions of a stable and fixed research field and continually raise questions about method and practice and ethics.
My own PhD research, alongside destitute and refused male asylum seekers living in Manchester, coincided with Operation Vaken. One afternoon, in the early summer of 2013, I was sitting in the front room of a house in south Manchester with a young lad who had recently had his asylum claim rejected and was now being housed by a local charity. The television was on and a piece on the Go Home vans flashed up as the headline item on the BBC news.
The message of the vans was ostensibly aimed at him – a refused asylum seeker who was now expected to leave the country. ‘What do you think of this?’, I asked. ‘It’s just a show’, replied, seeing it as a sort of publicity stunt. His comment reflected some of the cynicism that this book’s authors were encountering across the social and political spectrum while conducting their research.
Yasmin Gunaratnam’s focus groups in Barking and Dagenham included anti-immigration UKIP supporters and a former electoral candidate for the far-right British National Party. The former BNP candidate, and others, regarded the vans as a public-relations game saying that the government was just ‘trying to give the impression that they’re doing something about it [immigration]’.
Some of this ‘popular scepticism’, as the writers term it, reflects a wider antipathy towards ‘elites’, ‘technocrats’, orthodox economics and government initiatives. Immigration becomes an empty signifier for all sorts of socio-economic issues and this is read through a broader shift away from liberal forms of governance in which statistics and macroeconomics tended to be the ultimate arbiters of ‘good policy’ towards a ‘postliberalism’ that appeals to displays of ‘toughness’ in regards to immigration, as well as notions of security, belonging and national identity.
Yet, despite all of this scepticism, there seems to be an ongoing, dialectical relationship at work: the far-right expresses distrust over government initiatives against migrants at the same time that the state moves away from evidence-based policy formation and begins to adopt the very language and rhetoric of the far-right.
The question of who the Go Home vans were actually aimed at seems unclear: migrants or the far-right? Were they an exercise in stoking fear or political appeasement? It’s likely both and this lack of clarity was part of the effectiveness of the Go Home vans, because despite all the scepticism this sort of performative politics, with its associated hardened policies, creates raw and real effects.
Phrases like ‘Go Home’ are not just located on government-sponsored billboards but are part and parcel of a historic and ongoing racist discourse. With the ‘Go Home vans’ there was no clear separation between official discourse and everyday racism. A visceral fear emerged from some minoritised focus group participants, regardless of citizenship or residency status, when discussing encounters with public displays of border enforcement.
Emotion and fear, cynicism and distrust, racism and rhetoric, and the physical violence of border enforcement all form a tangled web – a vicious complexity that can easily bear down on people in malign ways. There is another crucial and difficult issue addressed in the book: the distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ migrant.
It drills down through discourse and policy, distinguishing the citizen from the immigrant, the ‘wanted’ migrant from the ‘unwanted’ migrant, the ‘good’ migrant from the ‘bad’ migrant, and the ‘illegal’ from the ‘legal’. It’s a toxic form of moralising that apportions blame on those considered ‘other’, separating those considered to ‘belong’ and those who do not, those who are deserving of rights from those who are not. It’s a discourse that lies behind policy formation and it sits there in the open as seen in the Immigration Minister Mark Harper’s letter to the Daily Mail justifying the Go Home vans (which is quoted in block form in the book).
But, it’s also a mobile discourse, utilised by different groups in different ways. It is not just a discourse operating from a privileged centre to the margins, but also part of the fight for moral worth by those who experience marginalisation. In focus groups researchers found that some participants, who were migrants to the UK, adopted the deserving and undeserving distinction in relation to other migrants while an activist from Southall Black Sisters who was engaged in anti-border enforcement protests reflected on negative responses to her work from her own community.
The deserving and undeserving distinction raised itself in my own research too. The destitute men I was spending time with in Manchester sometimes spoke out against benefits claimants who were seen as lazy and spending their money on drugs and alcohol, while also occasionally complaining about other refugees, who were seen as liars who falsified their claims and took the place of those who had been wrongfully rejected. The deserving and underserving distinction is seemingly all pervasive. And it’s not simply an object of study for me as it flashes up in my own family history of migration.
For the authors of Go Home? the deserving and undeserving distinction is the product of long-standing anti-immigrant rhetoric and a neoliberal economic and social frame that holds individuals responsible for poverty and inequality rather than institutions and structures.
‘Neoliberalism’ is a big slab of a term that can be all-too-easily deployed by academics as something they can position themselves against in text, but here it emphasises the context in which the deserving and undeserving distinction becomes an all-pervading discourse, deployed in multiple ways against multiple people. The authors do not leave it here. They also look for moments that disrupt and breakdown this discourse. These are not only high profile moments of resistance, such as the 2013 ‘Chinatown Shutdown’ in which businesses, staff, anti-racists and cultural organisations closed shops and took to the streets of London’s Chinatown following a series of heavy-handed immigration raids fishing for migrants working illicitly, but also more mundane moments where ‘seemingly banal comments about warmth, hospitality, and love could be profound in a context where migrants were struggling against the daily strictures of immigration controls that are material, social and emotional’.
The dehumanising actions and rhetoric of immigration enforcement need to be countered with humanising actions and rhetoric. There is work to be done. And it is being done. It’s being done in the emergent City of Sanctuary movement which has its origins in Sheffield – bringing local communities and those seeking asylum together. It’s being done by multiple activist and community groups across the country. The strength of Go Home? Is that it takes the singular moment of the Go Home vans to expose all sorts of issues, from sweeping and historic political shifts to everyday experiences of immigration enforcement and all the vicious material and emotional and discursive knots that connect the two. This is ‘live sociology’, responsive and partisan and necessary.
– Mark Rainey