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Who Do We Think We Are?

Beyond the Headlines ... with Zrinka Bralo

8 Jul 2022

Michaela Benson [MB] Welcome to Who Do We Think We Are? Beyond the Headlines – the podcast which dissects the major global news stories about contemporary migration. I'm Michaela Benson.

Ala Sirriyeh [AS] And I'm Ala Sirriyeh. In our day-jobs, we're sociologists at Lancaster University, and we work on migration. We've also got our own family migration stories that inspired our research in this area. Join us over the course of the series to hear more about our frustrations with the way that migration is so often reported in mainstream media, and how going beyond the headlines can create the space for thinking differently about migration today.

MB Today, we're really excited to welcome Zrinka Bralo, the Chief Executive of Migrants Organise, where she's been for 21 years, I understand. Migrants Organised, for those of you who don't know, is an award-winning grassroots migrant justice platform. And we're joined by Zrinka the day after she received her honorary doctorate at Exeter University. So, we're really excited about that. And today we're going to speak about a decade of the hostile environment with Zrinka. So, welcome Zrinka.

Zrinka Bralo [ZB] Thank you, and thank you for that very kind introduction. It's Stormzy and I who are now honorary doctorates from Exeter.

MB That's very, very important and super exciting in lots of ways. So, I'm gonna hand over to Ala to talk to you about the headline.

AS Thank you, Michaela. I'm very glad that you dropped in that reference Zrinka. So, the headline that we have chosen today is from the Independent, which is a national newspaper in the UK. The headline says: "Home Office still has no evidence to show hostile environment policy is working, report finds". So, this headline is from around about a week or so ago. The headline is referring to a report from the National Audit Office, which has shown that there's no actual evidence to show that the hostile environment policy, brought into effect in 2012, is actually achieving its aims of reducing what the article refers to as "illegal immigration", or what we might term unauthorised immigration. And so, it outlines a little bit about what these measures were. So, these measures were a set of measures introduced in 2012 to, in Teresa Mays terms, create a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants. And so, the article says a little bit about how these measures have had a terrible impact for people who actually ... "legal migrants", and I'm using my sort of speech marks with my hands there, or citizens. So, looking at the effects on people who it was not actually intended to target. And it really just sets out the fact that there is no actual evidence to support the idea that it's actually had the impact intended. So, what I really wanted to ask or start to ask you is about this term, "hostile environment". So, it goes into it – it says a little bit about what it is, but perhaps it'd be good for our listeners to, to hear your own definition about the hostile environment and what that actually means.

ZB Thank you, Ala. I mean, hostile environment, as a site of immigration – as in immigration policy – I thought when it came out – when Theresa May chose to brand it that way, proudly – I thought that was actually fairly honest of her, because the immigration system has been hostile, always hostile. There's never been a welcoming immigration system. So, immigrants are always seen as outsiders who have to prove ... or refugees are seen as a threat to the society, and they're "guilty until proven innocent", in a sense, until they jump through the hoops and prove to the Home Office that they are from Syria, that actually there is a war in Syria – or in my case in Bosnia – and any other country. So, I thought, okay, well, at least now, the cards are on the table. What I don't really accept [is] the kind of framing for evidence-based policy because it doesn't exist. So, you know, I think National Audit Office has to do their job and look at, you know, how money is being spent and what government is doing or not doing. But I don't think that any spending can justify turning our country into this horrible place to live in. Because hostility, hate and fear, that's like fire – you can't contain that, it spreads everywhere – or like flood. So, what that does, it then penetrates – as Ala, you were parenthesizing the "illegal" and "legal" – it spreads to everyone. So, what it did is it sort of exposed the structurally racist nature of many of our systems in our society; which, you know, through the Macpherson inquiry, we actually knew and we had evidence that we have institutional racism in this country, and then we have to work really hard to deal with it. And we then, you know, fast forward, end up with Windrush; which again, exposed the structural racism. But where this is dangerous and horrifying as a way to run a society is when my friend came to the emergency room in one of the London hospitals with a, you know, no-severe nosebleed – he was asked "where are you from?". And it's not only about all of us who look different, or sound different, or have foreign sounding names, but it's also about doctors, and teachers, and university lecturers, and employers, and landlords, and police officers – everyone who first has to check your immigration status. You're destroying the fabric of our society, and these are the urgent services. So, when we are the most vulnerable: when we're victims of crime, when we are victims of exploitation, when were ill. And we had so many horror stories of, you know, people who were on ventilators in hospitals who were getting bills, because the assumption was that they must be foreign because they're black. So, these are the horrible things that are happening as a result. That's hostile environment to me.

MB I think that's really ... you've described there really well the way in which that has become so everyday in many, many ways. And I think, you're kind of ... I really liked that description of saying, "well, at least they were being honest about it". But of course, one of the things that they did more recently was they rebranded it again, and they rebranded it as a "compliance environment". I think that you've really done a really fantastic job there of introducing people to the dangers of that – of the hostile environment and its longitudinal, its longer term, presence in our lives, that, I suppose, one of the things that really stood out to me when we were chatting before was ... Actually, you know, you've just described there a whole set of ways in which that kind of hostile environment impacts on the day to day lives of a whole range of people in society. But there's another side of it, too, isn't there, which has to do with the way in which we reproduce it, even in the ways in which we talk about migration and refugees.

ZB Yes, I mean, the danger with some of the narrative of "hostile environment" is that it became normalised. And, a lot of the time, that is the kind of invisible power of narratives that penetrated everyday language or that we just don't ... we're not equipped to analyse it critically and see it. So, one of the examples that I use is how anodyne the language is around Rwanda deportation. So, people who were put on a flight or who were told that they might be sent to Rwanda, they received "notices of relocation". And that sounds so, you know, unthreatening.

MB Yes, that sounds very polite, doesn't it?

ZB Very, very "polite", yes ... We're only going to come and handcuff you and put you in prison and you're not going to have legal representation, and nobody will know, and we're going to kidnap you and take you to another country 4,000 miles away, and we don't care what happens to you afterwards. So that's the ... [inaudible].

MB I like that interpretation a lot better.

AS It's much more direct, it's the point, isn't it?

ZB Yeah, it's very polite of you to call me direct. Other people had different ... [all laugh] ... different descriptions of my directness. But, but there is a more insidious way in which this works. As a Bosnian, I really hated it when people refer to murder of hundreds and, you know, thousands of my people as "ethnic cleansing". I found that enraging. Because there was nothing "clean" about the process. Women were raped, children were murdered. And then, maybe it's just me, but I tend to see some of these things in ... you know, and kind of have "X-ray vision" about some of the language that is being used for things that are not being said. So, you know, you ... the government, again, with a hostile environment and the example of the Rwanda sham, rather than the plan, that we're using the narratives: "Oh, we only want to break this model that, you know, the human traffickers and gangs that you see" ... Well, you can break the model, you can set up a decent protection system, and that is accessible to people who are fleeing from all over the world. And you can step up and take your international responsibility seriously. That's an option.

AS I was gonna say ... it seems, I mean, through that ... through that example, it's very much using that logic to hide their culpability in producing structures, which leads these horrific deaths, and sort of shifting that blame onto a very easily identifiable target.

ZB But that's because this whole notion that people are crossing the Channel has become so normalised as a gang. There is no discussion or analysis, or when there is, it's a kind of in a very corner of the long read somewhere in the newspaper. But it's not in kind of ... in the orbit of all of us as to why people have to cross the Channel. And I think, for me, the most plastic example is the most recent arts project about Little Amal, which is a fantastic arts project to raise awareness about unaccompanied children who have to walk from Syria, escaping the war, throughout the Europe and to come into the UK. And you can read quite a lot about Amal, and she's back again and was in Liverpool yesterday. And people love seeing the puppet and there is a bit of a – at least in in the UK – the carnival atmosphere welcoming, and it's a good story for children, like, here's a refugee child running away. But I could not see – and that's why I wrote about it – I could not see anywhere in the media coverage any questions asked about: Why is Amal walking? Why can't she fly? Because we have completely normalised this notion that refugees cannot come to any third safe country, they have to stay "next door" – which may or may not be safe – that they are not supposed to exercise any choice about destination of their journey, which could be for all sorts of reasons. It could be, you know, having friends and family, speaking the language, having any other cultural-economic ties to that space. Or the fact that the governments in Europe, over a period of time, they've introduced so many barriers. The carrier's liability. So, you cannot buy a tickets and board a plane from Turkey, or, you know, ferries cannot carry people over. So, you can watch the ferry going from Turkey to Greece and back and forth. But refugees from Turkey are not allowed to board that ferry. So, that's what's been gradually normalised so that we no longer even ask the question. And then for me, the point of art is to raise the issues for us to ask those questions, to look at what are the ... What are we missing here? What are the silences? And why? And then look for structural reasons as to why this is happening. And then look for solutions.

AS It's sort of ... as you describe it, it's kind of starting the story at like "chapter two" or "chapter three", but making that sound like that's the beginning – that's "chapter one" of the story. Yeah. Which I think you bring across really clearly.

ZB It really is the "Emperor's New Clothes", where you kind of see something obvious, and then you're sort of looking around and thinking: What? How come no one's asking this question? And I think there is a lot to do with our own sense of disempowerment and inability to change things for ourselves. Because ultimately, what's happening to refugees and migrants is happening to all of us. In many ways. We feel that we're losing our power, our ability to govern ourselves through democratic means, because of the way this government has just taken it and is running away with it. So, we are all feeling the kind of democracy deficit at the moment.

MB I think that's a really important point Zrinka. And I think that using that example of Little Amal to kind of show how, really, a useful way into thinking about this in the longer term in some respects. Because, I think, where you've just ended there – on the kind of democratic deficit – is also a signal around thinking about how we've got to this stage after a really long and drawn out process. So, I was wondering, why you think it's important that we turn our attention back to that longer process?

ZB Because all change happens over a long period of time. So, we must not give in to this idea that we can just be activists or clicktivists, or whatever the terms are, and write a couple of petitions and things will go away. My favourite example is always how the narrative around Rosa Parks action is reduced to this old lady who was tired and just sat – she was no longer going to sit at the back of the bus. Whereas Rosa Parks was actually the secretary of NAACP since 1943. She was an organiser. And she put in years and years of local organising and, you know, working on and building confidence and power. And this act of civil disobedience was organised. And it continued to be organised. So, this idea that we all somehow spontaneously combust in, you know, actions for social change, I think, is one of the biggest dangers that we might end up perpetuating. So, we all need to buckle up for a very long period of time, get ourselves organised, connected, work in solidarity, get over ourselves and our differences, and build progressive movements for climate justice – because if there's no planet there is no us. So, you know, goes that thing. And also exercise all the legitimate power that we have. I mean, one of the dangerous things that happened in May is that a whole cluster of legislation was passed, not only Nationality and Borders Act, which can take away citizenship from 6 million people like me and many of our listeners, because we might be entitled to dual citizenship, and they don't have to tell us about it, and we don't have a right of appeal. I just let that sink in. We also have a Voter ID bill – or Act now – which means that a lot of people will show up to vote and they will not know about it, and because we don't have IDs in this country, they may not have a passport, they may not have a driver's licence ... If they're over 65, their bus pass will be accepted as an ID, but if their students, their student ID card will not be accepted. 

So, um, now I've sort of spoken about it. I'm hoping lots of people who listen will take action to make sure that they register and vote and be more active beyond that. But these are just some examples of how, you know, our right to protest has been curtailed. How much power, through different sets of legislation, is being taken away from the Parliament into the hands of the Home Secretary. How our Prime Minister, every time when he's caught breaking the rules, next day, he's changing the rules so they're unbreakable for him. So, what happens to immigrants is just a dress rehearsal to what happens to all of us. And if we're not awake, and alerted and acting, the human rights are going to be taken away from us, and we're not going to be paying attention.

MB I think what you've listed there, Zrinka, is a whole set of bills that have been passed and are becoming Acts of Parliament over the course of the last few months. So, that includes the Nationality and Borders Bill, as you said, the Elections Bill, but also the Policing, Crime and Sentencing Bill. And I think, you're also referring to that Bill of Rights Bill that was in the news earlier on in the week. To your mind, what does recognising and bringing all of these together tell us about the state that we're in, and what can it help us to understand in terms of immigration in that longer frame?

ZB So, the reason why I see this as very dangerous is because, to me, in many ways, these now Acts of Parliament are the legal stage of fascism, because there's so restrictive that take away power from the parliament. And the ones that you listed first are now Acts of Parliament. You know, if you can take away citizenship from 6 million people without having to tell them, and without them having a right of appeal, I have no other words for that kind of piece of legislation. The most recent example that we all have, that could relate to, is Trump's America where, you know, there is this fear that's being spread through certain communities – what he had was a Muslim ban, and that ended up with the 6th of January, and his whole presidency was about hate and exclusion. And we've seen, you know, the deaths and, in terms of uprising, the Black Lives Matter and George Floyd that sort of had ripples around the world. So, that is for a reason. That is for a reason; because people were experiencing increased hostility, hate, discrimination, attacks and death. So, I think, where we have to be – and I'm not doing this kind of off the cuff gratuitous comparison to Nazism – but we have to remember what we've learned from our history. Nazism didn't happen in 1941. There was a slow, gradual build up since the First World War. And, you know, when Hitler came to power, he was passing different pieces of legislation – Nuremberg Laws being one of them – that were taking away citizenship from German Jews. So, we would be stupid not to reflect on that. It would be irresponsible not to reflect on that.

AS I think this also circles back to what we're saying right at the beginning, when I very politely called you direct, and the importance of calling things what they actually are to avoiding this use of euphemisms, which we see so much in the immigration debates.  But this sort of ... in terms of that creeping, creeping slowly move towards fascism, which you've described, it's really vital in terms of directing people's attention to what is going on. And I think what I was ... as you listed those implications of those bills for our lives, or many of our our lives, I just wondered from your perspective, do you think that people are aware of what is actually going on? Or what what these implications might be? Do you think there's that general awareness out there?

ZB I mean, "I don't know" is the answer. And I think, you know, I hope that they ... that everyone is taking things seriously. And I think everyone will have their own red lines and endpoints. I was relieved with a very broad coalition that was formed around the deportation flight to Rwanda. Because it was everyone from Archbishop to royalty and celebrities and artists, and the UN and trade unions and civil society. People who don't know the ins and outs of the legal aspects of judicial reviews and challenges. They kind of all felt on a visceral level that this is wrong. See, even from just the top headlines, there was a very broad coalition of people who came together and said "this is wrong", and I find that encouraging. And we'll see how this debate on Human Rights Act versus Bill of Rights; because the Bill of Rights is going to be only for citizens, whereas Human Rights is for all humans. So, there's a clear agenda here to cut out migrants from protections that are extended to us through the Human Rights Act. I'm just simplifying here. But there are many other dangers that are in this proposal. So, I think, there's a danger also when people try to minimise it, calling it "dead cat" policy or "it's never going to happen". Because there's a bit of a ... almost like a ... it's hard to compute and for people to accept that this is happening to us in this country – because, of course, we'd like to think of ourselves as a democracy and, you know, where there's a rule of law. But I think, all those institutions are being undermined, because the language when I first read about these announcements about the Bill of Rights, it was all about preventing refugees taking their cases to high court, but also because judges are overreaching. And going back to our point about language. Overreaching? What does that mean, for judiciary to be overreaching? And for a politician to be telling them that they're overreaching?

MB Yeah, I mean, I think that that's a really ... you've described really clearly there how that focus in the Bill of Rights does a whole series of things to further entrench those distinctions between who should have access to rights and who should not have access to rights, which so often in the UK seems to fall between, you know, the migrant and the citizen, putting the citizen first. But also, I mean, and I'm sure I'm not alone in this, I had anticipated that as soon as the ECHR kind of put in place that stay against the Rwanda flights, that what would happen is that they would use – the government would use – that as another reason to really urgently address these questions around rights. And of course, you know, a bill doesn't come out of nowhere. It's been produced over a series of years through a set of debates, and in inverted commas-parenthesis "consultations". So, it just became a hook, really, for them to hang this thing on, that they were going to bring out anyway. And I think those of us who are concerned about human rights or about migrant rights, are really finding ourselves at the moment faced with such an array of challenges to address. I suppose this is a kind of a question to you as in your role as CEO of Migrants Organise. Because it seems to me that there are so many pressing challenges that we have to address. How do we move forwards, I suppose, what's the next step, Zrinka?

ZB I agree that it can sort of feel overwhelming and pressing and urgent, but to me, all these challenges are interlinked. So, to me, where we as an organisation, the direction we're travelling – although legally and technically we're a charitable organisation – within our powers, we are advocating and working for justice. So, I think where we all need to ... and this became clear to me when Grenfell happened, because our office is next to Grenfell Tower, we felt that as a very personal grief and tragedy because we lost people and members, and many of them were displaced. But we also see this show at the time, in 2017, this outpouring of generosity, and that was completely misplaced. In a sense that people were making donations, we had tonnes and tonnes of donations of, you know, somebody showed up with a van full of bottled water, I mean ... and we're in North Kensington, which is the richest borough in the world. And it became very clear to me there and then that charity is very much about us doing it to other people – what we can and what we feel that we should be doing. And instead where ... what Grenfell tower victims and survivors needed was justice. And that's what ultimately we all need, because justice restores our dignity. And, ultimately, the core of all human beings is our sense of dignity and how we are treated in the world and accepted for who we are. And I, you know, I'm very encouraged, like wherever I go these days, from supermarkets to streets. We're in a Pride Month, and wherever we go these days, you can see the rainbow and/or, you know, from the street crossing in London to supermarket. And every time I look at it I feel inspired, because I know there's still a long way to go for us to do proper equality and inclusivity. But when I first came to this country, being gay was still considered to be a mental illness. So, we made huge progress. But that only happened through hard work of organising, of grassroots organising. So, that's what we need to do. And it's not ... so, it's about people with firsthand experiences, but also allies and supporters, and then expanding it broader into the community. So, it's a kind of gradual work of bringing everyone into the conversation and then making changes. And, you know, we've been through a horrible two years of pandemic, so many losses – the loss of human life that we haven't really dealt with properly, I don't think, and the trauma that we've all been through. So, I think we need some healing, but also, we need a lot of organising. And we need to reframe ourselves from this charitable model of doing to others, into organising model of not just working with the people instead of working for the people, but being with the people in a way we were with each other in the early days of pandemic through the mutual aid, in the way we treated migrant workers as essential workers, which we are. So, there's so much good out there that we should be shouting about. That doesn't mean we should stop being critical about the bad in the world. But we need to find the energy and knowledge and resilience in ourselves to create a movement that is going to be building bridges instead of building walls. And just get on with it, one day at a time. Because this ... we have to take a long look back, learn from our history, but also, we need to have a long view into the future. I always say Nelson Mandela didn't know if and when he's ever going to come out of the prison, but he was working every day and building for that better future. And then he says, or as said, "it always seems impossible until it's done". So, we need to find strength and inspiration in each other, and work together collectively to overcome everything that's being thrown our way. And, you know, hostile environment is manmade. And it can be remade into hospitable environment, not compliant. So, there's always another way. And in organising, we define our power; we take dictionary definition of what power is. And the dictionary definition of power is "an ability to act". So, we're all powerful when we have ability to act, when we take that action. And there's plenty of action for us to do.

AS Thank you, Zrinka. That's so helpful saying that, as actually documenting that long term work that is involved – it's not that quick reactive response of the bottles of water to Kensington, without that more kind of thought through long term dialogue and work that is involved. And I think also, as you were talking, it was making me think about sort of what you mentioned earlier about the interlinked nature of so many of the kinds of crises that we have to respond to at the moment, and that being really disturbing, but also the kind of hope for organising that lies within that. So, you said about, you know, the response to the Rwanda deportations, or kidnapping, if we're using correct terms at the moment, that it was bishops and Prince Charles, or people from all walks of life. And so, thinking about the kind of different challenges that we face that perhaps there is that prospect then that there is a lot of people to do this work, and to come together to do this work.

ZB Absolutely. And I think there is a ... if we look at the problem structurally, who is the source of all these issues and challenges? So, rather than thinking ... or how we unpick this threat ... how, you know ... and we have the government that has massive majority and feels that they can get away with everything, but there'll be another election. So, we need to start preparing now. And again, have a look at the ... what happened with teal revolution in Australia and how they've obliterated liberals that, you know, they're probably never going to recover. But that's because ordinary people stood up and started organising, and they were just not going to take it anymore. And there are many other examples around the world in history that we can learn from and then move on.

MB I think that's a really hopeful note to end on in some respects. But before we go, Zrinka, could you tell everybody a little bit about where they can find out more about you and your work?

ZB Obviously, we're all over social media. So, Migrants Organise is on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, but we also have a website if anyone has time, and it's; and "organise" is spelled with "s", and it's plural. So, do come and check us out. And there are many opportunities for actions. We also work collectively, under the banner of Solidarity Knows No Borders, which is around 60 communities and groups around the country. So, you can check out the FIRM charter where we also ... it's a Fair Immigration Movement charter where we collectively spelled out what we think needs to happen to have a better system and for everyone. And also, you can find out what are the meetings and collective actions that are happening where you are and how you can join in.

MB You've been listening to Who Do We Think We Are? Beyond the Headlines – a podcast series produced and presented by Ala Sirriyeh and Michaela Benson. Thanks to Emma Houlton and Andy Proctor at Art of Podcast for production and post production support, and to George Kalivis for our fantastic cover art and much more. If you like what you've heard, follow and rate us on your preferred podcast platform. Check out our show notes for further resources, transcripts and our socials. And you can also find us at That's all for now, but we'll be back with another headline next month.

[End of transcript]

In May 2012 Home Secretary Theresa May vowed to create ‘a really hostile environment for illegal migrants’, heralding in a set of policies which require landlords, employers, healthcare workers and others to check people’s immigration documents, which creates a barrier to accessing work, housing, healthcare, banking and other services. Most of these measures were introduced through the Immigration Act 2014 and expanded in the Immigration Act 2016. But what has been the impact of the decade-long political project to make the UK ‘tough on immigration’? 

In this episode Michaela Benson and Ala Sirriyeh are joined by Zrinka Bralo, CEO Migrants Organise. From a starting point of recent headlines focussed on 10 years of the Hostile Environment, they discuss how this made visible structural racism within the UK, brought borders into the everyday lives of migrants, and how it has become normalised, working insidiously through the language used to talk about migration. From the Rwanda plan and channel crossing pushbacks, to the public welcome of little Amal and outpouring of charity around Grenfell, Zrinka calls for migrant justice and the need to build bridges not walls.

You can access the full transcripts for each episode over on the Rebordering Britain and Britons after Brexit website.

In this episode we cover …

  1. The Hostile Environment
  2. Everyday bordering
  3. Migrant justice

What happens to immigrants is just a dress rehearsal to what happens to all of us. And if we're not awake, and alert and acting, the human rights are going to be taken and taken away from us, and we're not going to be paying attention.

— Zrinka Bralo

Where can you find out more about the topics in today’s episode?

Find Zrinka on Twitter at migrants organise an award winning grassroots migrant justice platform or in this article on ‘Little Amal, Channel deaths and cruelty by design’

For more about the hostile environment:

Our headline ‘Home Office still has no evidence to show hostile environment policy is working, report finds’ by May Bulman was published in The Independent 17 June 2020

Find more from Michaela on the Windrush Deportation Scandal in this episode of Who do we think we are?

To discover more about the concept of everyday bordering we suggest this article by Nira Yuval-Davis, Georgie Wemyss and Kathryn Cassidy.

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