brixton market
Brixton Village indoor market in south London

This article is a preview from the Autumn 2018 edition of New Humanist

The recent public hand-wringing about the Windrush scandal, in which thousands of British residents were wrongly told they must be deported, conceals a more difficult reality within our current anti-immigrant times. Until recently the question of the “Windrush Generation” was considered resolved. The people who sailed from the Caribbean to Britain 70 years ago were not migrants. Rather, they were citizens returning to the Empire’s motherland. As the UK cut its ties with former colonies, they were made first into “immigrants”, and then “ethnic minorities”.

The scandal is indicative of a long-term trend to stem postcolonial movement. Theresa May might have coined the phrase “hostile environment” when she was Home Secretary, but its foundations were laid by her predecessors. After Jean-Marie Le Pen’s surprise gains in the French presidential election of 2002 – an early flowering of anti-immigrant populism in Europe – the British sociologist and New Labour theorist Anthony Giddens wrote in the Guardian that “policies have to be developed which are ‘tough on immigration but tough on the causes of hostility to immigrants.’”

May’s hostile environment is an extension of the racism that has shaped the policies of successive Home Secretaries from David Blunkett to Amber Rudd. It seems telling that, in the midst of arguably the most aggressive period of immigration surveillance and policing in British history, Conservative MP Sajid Javid has been appointed the first Home Secretary from a Muslim background. In some respects this replays a scene described so eloquently by the anti-colonial philosopher Frantz Fanon where some servants of empire can be assimilated and elevated at the same time as the subjugation of the vast majority.

The cheerleaders of globalisation, like the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, argue that in a hyper-connected world “we are all immigrants”. However, it is more accurate to say that we are increasingly all immigration enforcement officers in this globalised age. University lecturers, doctors, crèche workers, health visitors and even librarians are drawn into the work of monitoring immigration status, policing the line between those who can or cannot remain here. So the sense of public shock and horror about the latest victims of anti-immigrant times is ultimately hollow, because if we had really been paying attention we would have seen this coming. In the opening pages of his 1952 book Black Skins, White Masks, Fanon calls for a “new humanism” that confronts the social damage of racism. For him it is the inhumanity of racism that mortifies or “amputates” the possibility of humanity itself. His call must be heard again today.

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For the past ten years the authors of this piece have been recording what it means to live through such times from the vantage point of 30 young adult migrants living in London. Our work, recently published as the book Migrant City (Routledge) documents the story of young people who are on the move, encountering division and regulation in a city that orders and ranks the life chances of this globally mobile generation. We used collaborative methods including digital photographs, poetry, creative writing and scrapbooks to work with young migrants rather than merely doing research on them.

The experience of movement today is much more than the cheap availability of travel by air, land or sea. We live our lives “on screen” through our mobile phones and personal computers, linking our most intimate moments to events around the globe or relatives and loved ones living in other places. The experience of being young now is to live with this unprecedented mobility and connectedness. However, this connectedness has not reduced the divisions between people. Rather, there is a distinction between those who are free to move at will and others whose ability to travel is blocked, controlled or “managed” (to use the deceptively benign rhetoric of immigration policy). We call this a world of divided connectedness.

The experience of divided connectedness, particularly for the young, is paradoxical and troubling, because it combines both opportunity and confinement. These openings offer the possibility for young people to expand the parameters of what is “normal”, while at the same time new limits and restrictions are being placed on them.

Throughout the 20th century imperial connections provided the main conduits through which international migration patterns were channelled, between former colonial powers and the hinterlands of empire. As George Orwell pointed out in 1939: “What we always forget is that the over­whelming bulk of the British proletariat does not live in Britain, but in Asia and Africa.” The British Nationality Act 1948 gave citizens of the United Kingdom and its Colonies the automatic right to settle in the UK. Over the years those automatic rights have been curtailed and conferred only on those who have taken steps to secure leave to remain. This is creating profound difficulties for young people who have longstanding family and post-colonial connections with Britain but are excluded from entry.

The experience of Nana, who is now in his 30s, demonstrates the reality of the UK’s relationship with “its” Commonwealth, in terms of migration. Nana’s mother lives in London, as do his father, sister, three uncles and two aunts. He was conceived in London, where his mother carried him for the first seven months of her pregnancy. Nana’s mother decided that she wanted to give birth to him in Ghana. At the time she was studying fashion and Nana’s grandmother had offered to nurse him so that his mother could complete her studies. His mother wanted him to be schooled in Ghana. She is a British citizen and indeed all of his close family except for one of his uncles are permanent residents in Britain. He came to Britain for a year and a half when he was nine years old and went to school in East London. He came back to Britain on a visitor’s visa; he has tried to become a citizen but is waiting for his claim to be processed. He had no access to state benefits and was totally reliant financially on his family and his wife for long periods. “I want to observe the legitimate process. I want to do everything legally but the whole system drives you into illegality. I would like to say to the people in the authorities – whatever I am you have made me.” Officially an “overstayer”, he describes himself as “very British”.

Before 1981, children born in Britain would in most cases automatically receive British citizenship through the principle of jus soli, i.e. the fact of being born in the territory. Otherwise, children born outside the UK could acquire British citizenship after ten continuous years’ residence. But the 1981 Immigration Act abolished those rights, and Nana missed this automatic status by three months.

Because his parents were Commonwealth citizens he did not qualify for citizenship under jus sanguinis (citizenship by bloodline or descent). Nana summarised the situation in the following terms. “People who were colonised by Britain are now the people in London who are really being scrutinised . . . now the colonial relationships are weaker than the EU relationships.” This too is now being dramatically revised, in the wake of Britain’s vote to leave the EU.

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The connected nature of our world goes hand in hand with the proliferation of borders, both physical and legalistic. This means that, on the one hand, border control spreads outwards: a matter of blocking, slowing down and holding people in detention centres and transit zones, at a distance from the political spaces in which their presence is unwanted. But it moves inwards too.

Checks no longer only happen at Heathrow or Calais when we fumble for the passport in our bags. Rather, border control is being in-sourced. Landlords, doctors, health visitors, teachers, university lecturers and more are all being asked to pass on information, through monitoring student attendance or documenting home visits. Willingly or not, they are enlisted as affiliates of border control, which is is moving into the heart of our social and professional life.

A central principle at the heart of UK immigration policy is that, in the words of the Home Office, “those who benefit from immigration must play their part in controlling it”. This engages a much wider range of people in surveillance and regulation. As a result, a lecturer’s class register becomes a checkpoint, as do other everyday encounters such as a visit to the doctor or to the bank. Border policing is also being privatised. In September 2012, the services company Capita won a contract from the British government to find and remove the estimated 174,000 migrants who have overstayed their visas.

Several of our participants commented that they feared travelling on London Transport because immigration enforcement officers would be alongside ticket inspectors as they checked passengers on buses and the Underground. Nana, who came to London on his visitor’s visa in 2004, survived for long periods working under an assumed name and lived in fear of being caught. Working two jobs, he did the dirty work that makes the capital function: one was an evening job as a cleaner in the City of London. “You would see people in their suits and I knew in many cases I was more qualified than them. People would come in to use the facilities that I just cleaned and they left it in a state whilst I am there. It’s like, ‘Oh the cleaner is there – it’s his job to do it.’” While the cleaners were treated like invisible people they were also witnesses to the City’s basest secrets. What he described could have been a scene from Martin Scorsese’s film The Wolf of Wall Street.

Nana was arrested there in 2006. “I had finished my full-time job and I was doing a 6-8pm shift cleaning in the office. I was putting the rubbish out and a police van drove past.” The van pulled over and a policeman asked him what he was doing. He was searched for his identity documents. “I knew I was in the clear but I was scared, I didn’t have my papers at the time and my heart was racing. The weekend before, me and my sister were at a wedding and my sister didn’t have her purse. She asked me to hold her bankcard. I also had my uncle’s bankcard: because I didn’t have any papers he was letting me use that account for my money. The police found my sister’s bankcard and my uncle’s and that made them suspicious.

“Then they went into the building to check if the security guard knew me – but he was a temp and he didn’t know me . . . A colleague of his walked past – recognised me but he didn’t have any papers and he didn’t say anything either . . . The name I used to use is Michael. ‘Michael has been stopped, what is happening?’

“The workmen [were] there all looking on. It was summer, I remember, and I was doing the building work in the evening. They were saying, ‘Take him away, take him away he’s a dodger.’” The police took him because they found the two bankcards in different names on him. “They took a swab and my fingerprints and I felt like the worst criminal ever. I was asked if I wanted a solicitor but I called my mum and she was worried. It was in the summer of 2006. My uncle and my mum came in to verify the story. It was a very terrifying experience. That place still gives me the chills.”

As part of our research, Nana returned to the place where these events unfolded and took some photographs. They included a picture of the 25 bus; at the time, a “bendy bus” design which was relatively easy to board without paying the fare and was therefore subject to regular ticket inspections. Inspectors would often work closely with police and immigration enforcement officers. “I used to get the 25 bus to go to work and there was always a risk: would it take me to work where I could earn my living or would it take me to deportation?”

Nana’s life following his arrest was dominated by the long and protracted wait for his immigration status to be reviewed by the Home Office. His life was effectively on hold while his case was being processed – he could not work legally or plan for his future. Every day he kept up with his friends in Ghana who were working, falling in and out of love and building lives. The fact that he was in contact through his iPhone with the unfolding lives of friends and loved ones – in real time – exacerbated his own sense of being trapped in the present. In John Berger and Jean Mohr’s classic study of migrant “guest workers” in 1970s Europe, A Seventh Man, the torture of “double absence” for migrants is not knowing the life that is unfolding without them. Here it is replaced by the constant reminder of the contrast between his constrained life in London and the unfolding lives of his friends “back home”. For Nana the digitisation of social life transforms the relationship between his life in London and Ghana, without lessening the negative consequences of being caught between.

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It is important to stress that these kinds of constraints and limitations do not apply to all migrants. In 2011 the Home Office launched a Premium Sponsor scheme whereby, for £25,000 per year, large companies could buy a faster visa service for their employees. Being a Premium Sponsor speeds up the process of reviewing and gaining a skilled worker’s visa and under this scheme passports are returned within 48 hours of receipt by the UK Visa and Immigration Service. Small companies can also pay £8,000 per year to receive priority treatment in relation to changes in their sponsor license, ensuring that decisions are made within five working days.

By contrast, non-elite migrants like Nana are simply made to wait. The implication here is that “faster” means the prompt refusal of claims. However, correspondence with the Home Office often involves interminable wrangles over errors of detail. “You wait to receive a letter from the Home Office and so often they make mistakes and get things wrong,” Nana complained, showing his huge folder of correspondence with the Home Office. This frustration with the slow and labyrinthine nature of the immigration bureaucracy came through in many of the participant responses. As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman put it, migrants must be “told they are, and kept living, on borrowed time”. Elite migrants and globe-trotting celebrities buy their way out of confinement with money or fame; a good example of this was the decision to overturn the initial decision to grant dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei a 20-day visa in summer 2015, when Home Office officials ruled that he had failed to disclose a criminal conviction. (Although Weiwei was detained by the Chinese government for 81 days in 2011 he was never convicted of an offence.) Theresa May, who was then Home Secretary, intervened directly and a full six-month visa was issued along with a written apology.

There is a disjunction between the constant hustle and bustle that pervade so much of London life and the dead time of waiting we have described. This dead time is not empty idleness. Young migrants like Nana struggle to make the hands on the clock of their life move. Years of eventless waiting on an immigration decision can suddenly become rapid action, such as enforced and sometimes violent deportation. This experience of time is produced by the world of divided connectedness that we have tried to describe and within which young migrants are compelled to live.

For those who lie in wait this time can be used to think and plan. Many of the migrants in our study have endured the dead time and used it to improve their situation. Nana finally won his struggle with the Home Office and received leave to remain in 2012. He was married for a time and established a successful career in car park management. Shoppers visiting a mall in East London would never know that he is the person who makes it possible for them to find a parking space.

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In January 2018 we checked in with Nana one last time and asked him what he thought of the work we did together. He reflected in an email: “Thanks for including me . . . I am humbled and grateful. I hope this will be a gateway to improving some of the issues surrounding immigration.” Although this study is only a small contribution to the ongoing conversation, there is a link between the experiences shared by our participants and a radical humanism of the kind advocated by Fanon, as well as other philosophers such as Sylvia Wynter and Paul Gilroy. It is a humanism that recognises the vulnerabilities and violations produced by the legacies of colonisation and racism, be they in the form of state policy or anti-immigrant populism. Human vulnerability connects us all, and yet the hierarchies imposed on humankind distribute those vulnerabilities unevenly. All of the people we worked with had painful direct experience of racism, but all rejected the dehumanisation that hatred can bring.

As Zee Zee, another of our participants, told us: “I cannot put hatred in my heart.” Having spent much of her young life as a refugee fleeting war and genocide, she refuses, in Fanon’s words, to be “possessed by the tool”.

Her curiosity about cultural differences replaces anxiety or phobia – be it the sound of an unfamiliar tongue in the Underground carriage or the look of a stranger at the bus stop. Confronting this world requires a radical humanism that identifies the nature of the offence, but also fosters openness and a capacity to put yourself in another’s place.