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Who Do We Think We Are?

S3 E8 Fortress Britain?

18 Jan 2024

Michaela Benson [MB]: Welcome to season three of who do we think we are? The podcast that debunking taken for granted understandings of migration and citizenship in Britain today. In this season, we'll be considering the role of migration in the Making of Global Britain, as the UK redefines its borders and seeks to reposition itself on the world stage following Brexit. I'm Michaela Benson, a sociologist specialising in citizenship and migration and your host. For this season, I'll also be joined by co-host Nando Sigona, whose research expertise includes international migration and forced displacement. Join us as we challenge public and political narratives of migration to and from Britain today, and encourage you to think differently about some of the most pressing issues of our times, charting a new understanding of Britain's migration story, after Brexit.

Nando Sigona [NS]: What we've seen with Brexit is a more significant structural change that has given new meaning to the supporters. So with Brexit in many ways, the UK has moved out of the burden sharing mechanism of the European Union, it has come out of the border, has sort of become more significant but also has become more vulnerable in many ways because some of the groups that, for example, attempt the crossing or facilite the crossing are well aware that, for example, there are new difficulties from the point of view of the British government to remove people that successfully manage the crossings. While in the past, there were mechanism with the European Union that would make this more more difficult, various forms of cooperation, both in terms of security, but also in terms of removal or return, like the Dublin regulations.

Thom Davies [TD]: Like every border in history, if you close down one route, then another often more deadly route emerges. And in the English Channel, this has meant crossing using small boats. The small boat phenomenon more than anything then, is a product of harsh border enforcement. But the whole thing we must remember, is underpinned by a lack of alternative, safe legal routes to reach the UK.

MB: We heard there from Nando, and from Thom Davis about the importance of thinking differently about the small boats crisis. And for those of you who don't know what this is, this is a current preoccupation of the UK is conservative administration, with the number of people who are attempting to enter in the UK, via crossing the Channel between France and the UK in small boats. And what they're trying to do is to arrive in the UK so that they can claim asylum. Now, in the past couple of years, the numbers of people attempting to do this have risen significantly, and the administration, that's a conservative administration, headed up at the present by Rishi Sunak have committed to stopping the boats. It's a key priority for them. And we've heard a lot about it in the news over the past year. Now importantly, Nando and Thom's interventions there, set the stage for this episode where we're going to be focusing on fortress Britain. They both communicate how shifts in policy but also an enforcement and international cooperation are complicit in making this phenomenon that has been in the headlines almost daily. Thom is a political geographer based at the University of Nottingham and we'll be hearing more from him and his co-author, Arshad Isakjee, a political geographer based at the University of Liverpool later in this episode. Now, I just wanted to say we took a little bit of a break in December to recharge our batteries, but I hope you'll agree that this episode is definitely worth the wait. First, we'll be hearing from Elena about why migration researchers use the phrase irregulararised migrant and the importance of identifying the processes by which some people crossing borders are made irregular and therefore without a legal status in their country of residence. We'll hear more from Tom and Arshad about their research on borders, race and migration in Fortress Europe, from Calais and the channel crossings to land crossings in Croatia. As they highlight borders, the infrastructures and technologies used to enforce these are harmful and brutal. They're sites of racial violence that can lead to mass death, and which almost exclusively keep out those deemed not to be European. And they draw out powerfully the relationship between liberal values, cosmopolitan ideals, and border violence. And Nando and I bring it around to think about the relationship between Brexit, rebordering on the production of fortress Britain. We focus on changes in the UK's approach to humanitarian protections, and in particular the introduction of a new suite of so called safe and legal humanitarian routes that include the Hong Kong BN(O) and Ukraine visas. Situating these in the context of the increasing criminalization and politicisation of asylum, we consider what the UK's post Brexit approach to humanitarian protections makes visible about the future of asylum within and beyond the UK. But first, let's hear more from Elena about what we mean when we talk about irregularisation.

Elena Zambelli [EZ]: Around the world, many middle and higher income countries are home to tens, or even hundreds of thousands of irregularised migrants. But who exactly is an ‘irregularised migrant’? An irregularised migrant is a person whose conditions of entry and/or stay in a country different from their own, does not comply fully, or in part with the laws of the land where they moved. The term irregularised may appear to be unnecessarily complicated, compared to the more familiar term irregular. In Migration Studies however, these two terms have distinctive meanings. The term irregular reflects a fixed status or condition, it does not consider the processes by which some of those migrating come to be classified as such. As a result, their condition of irregularity is naturalised, as if it was an attribute belonging to some specific groups of people: them. By contrast, the concept of irregularisation highlights that it is power and law that makes people irregular. Irregularisation therefore, is a concept that centres on the social and legal construction of irregularity, and the role of state and society in the creation and reproduction of such irregular statuses. Irregularisation may take place at different times in a migrant's trajectory. Some become irregulararised due to the condition of the entry and/or stay. For example, they may have crossed international borders without proper documentation or permission, as is the case of many people reaching Southern Europe or Britain in unseaworthy thingies. Others may have entered with a regular visa, but overstayed once it expired. Other migrants may become irregularised, if they' contravene the basis for their entry and stay in a country. For example, people entering with a tourist visa and then doing paid work instead, whether it be on the formal or informal labour market. As these examples show the distinction between regular and irregularised migrants is not a rigid dichotomy. In fact, people's status may change over time, depending on the conditions governing their entry and stay in their chosen destination country, as well as personal circumstances. More broadly, this distinction varies in time and space, reflecting state's changing national and geopolitical interests and concerns, as reflected in their issuance of more or less restrictive migration and asylum laws. Whilst key, however, migration and asylum laws are not the only factors that intervene in the social production of migrants irregularisation other laws matter, too, such as labour and welfare laws, but also public opinions and perceptions matter, not least because they may influence the views and practices of people that are institutionally called to implement these laws and policies: immigration officers and street bureaucrats. It is here at the micro level, that irregularised migrants face the everyday barriers to their full and equal participation to the society where they leave. One of these barriers is economic insecurity. Irregularised, migrants are often excluded from formal employment, especially in countries such as the UK, who require employers to verify that their non British employees have the right to work in the country. Consequently, irregularised migrants end up working predominantly in low wage precarious and informal jobs, which make them particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Another barrier to irregularised migrants' inclusion is their condition as deportable and detainable subjects leading to a state of permanent fear of being identified by immigration authorities and a life thus lived as much as possible under the radar. This also means that should they experience any form of abuse they would unlikely have the means to redress it. These barriers also interfere with irregularised migrants’ enjoyment of their family lives - something that we have discussed in our previous podcast episode entitled 'Families at the borders.' Irregularisation impacts migrants' lives differently based on many factors, such as gender, race and age. Racialized male migrants, for example, are more likely to be stopped by immigration or police forces at the border or on the street than female migrants with differential impacts on people's sense of safety when moving in public spaces. Overall, however, irregularisation is a major source of anxiety and destitution, which leads to truncated lives and higher degrees of vulnerability to different forms of abuse, and exploitation.

MB: We heard there from Elena about why it's important that when we're thinking about those without legal status in their places of residence, we consider them as irregular migrants who've been subjected to processes of iregularisation. But what about the people who haven't made it to those places of residence yet? What about those processes, which are intent on keeping people out - processes of border enforcement that present major and sometimes deadly obstacles to those who are crossing borders with the hope of seeking humanitarian protection. And this is where we bring in Thom and Arshad to reflect on their research on racialized border violence in Europe.

TD: Refugees and borders are one of the most important issues of our age. And since 2015, we've been researching Calais in northern France. When we first visited, just after the so called 'jungle camp' became established. I think it's fair to say that for us, this was a really confounding moment in understanding the level of harm, the level of brutality, the level of violence that European states, rich countries, like the UK and France in particular, were willing and are willing to inflict against people on the move, and how that violence is not always direct, it can sometimes be hidden. And what we ended up doing, together with Surindar Dhesi, doing the first environmental health survey of the camp. And we describe the situation then as demonstrating what we called the 'violence of inaction', how the refusal to support the very basic needs of migrants can deliver profound harms and injury against racialized groups at the English Channel. And since then, we've tried to make a conscious effort to work with groups who are resisting border violence in various ways. So I guess something that drives our research is understanding border violence in its many guises, but also the political forces that render that violence acceptable by liberal society.

Arshad Isakjee [AI]: So, I think that at times, we can be guilty of reducing anti-immigration politics or, indeed, anti-immigration policies that are deadly as being some sort of isolated form of discrimination or kind of irrational forms of xenophobia, the antidote to which is usually a banal set of moral politics that we need to be nice to each other. But this type of analysis really ignores the way in which race and so too material politics actually operate as rationale for the violence and death that's meted out by EU nations through its border policies, which target racialized migrants from the Global South with forms of death that simply wouldn't be delivered to European migrants. In fact, the stark contrast between Ukrainian refugees over the past year and a half, compared with the treatment of migrants and refugees fleeing from similar conflicts oftentimes from the Global South demonstrates this all too well. EU policies of externalisation and depleting the capacity of rescue in the Mediterranean, it does lead to mass death. We know that. And from our research of the in the Balkans of the last six years, we know that when there's no sea to passively drown migrants, then those Global South migrants might take land routes into Europe. They are violently beaten in ways which are quite shocking if you see them for the first time. And they've been pushed back through broad brutal forms of violence in places like Croatia and Hungary in their tens of thousands. And that the border technology, the border infrastructure, which is necessary to intercept migrants, and to push them back in this way, is, you know, largely EU funded through Frontex. So the EU has oversight of this, while it's been happening. One of the problems of developing an understanding which is conscious of race and its operation is that the EU carries with it this kind of liberal self image. And that's particularly the case I think, actually in the UK, that it's a kind of cosmopolitan space and non-racist space. And Hans Kundnani's recent book, actually, on Eurowhiteness is a very good critique of that notion. The notion of Europeaness has historically been constructed around racialized and colonial understandings of the world. Moreover, liberalism itself ideologically also carries with it a racial understanding of the world because it operationalizes the notion of civilization, that we Europeans, in our liberal ways, are civilised. And if that's your starting point, that it's easy to imagine others who are not European as being uncivilised, as being barbaric, as being backwards. And it's through this understanding through this illusion, that we end up with a racial exception, that colonialism is justified through liberal thought, because we're helping civilise other people, or these people, you know, those same rules don't apply to them, because there is not as advanced as we are, right. And it's this same type of kind of racial exception, which I think allows for mass death to be delivered by self-proclaimed liberal nations and institutions. What still kind of basking in this kind of liberal and cosmopolitan self-image.

TD: Yeah, I guess just picking up from what Arshad was saying about the role of colonialism and coloniality. First and foremost, it's really important to acknowledge that virtually all of the people currently trapped at the borders of the UK and Northern France, are from countries that were once colonised by European nations, particularly the UK and France. Now there are exceptions Albanians, Iranians, for example, but even there, you could, you could argue that coloniality was playing a role too. But this is not just the people who are crossing and the links they have and the ties they have with the UK, but also can see this in the government's response to channel crossings where this coloniality emerges. So take for example, the fantasy of the offshore, as I suppose a solution to dealing with refugees which Priti Patel and now Suelle Braverman are forwarding through their Rwanda policy. Sending people overseas, in other words, to offset political responsibility. When looking at Channel crossings today, it's really important to zoom the camera right back historically and geographically. So from dumping enslaved people overboard, to the use of prison hawks, which we see echoed again with the BB Stockholm scandal at the moment, to the threat of sea-based deportation as a form of colonial punishment, the offshore has long played a vital role in the colonial imaginary of Britain. And today when these colonial logics and contemporary border politics come together, their entanglement really becomes quite hard to ignore. So I guess a big question is why have more people started crossing the Channel? Why have boats become a big phenomenon, small boat crossings? Well, this is for a number of reasons. In recent years, there have simply been more migrants arriving into Europe, especially after a dip during COVID-19. And so the number of people heading to the UK, although vanishingly small compared to the rest of Europe, has also increased in line with that. But most importantly, the last few years, decades even, has seen a huge amount of money spent on strengthening the physical border in Calais. Whereas years ago, not that many years ago, it was possible, though, always very dangerous and always very deadly, to travel in the back of a lorry, or perhaps get onto a train and go to Dover or Folkestone, today, it's simply much harder. There are security measures and body scanners at ports, and a whole infrastructure of border enforcement in northern France that simply wasn't there a few years ago. And like every border in history, if you closed down one route, then another often more deadly route emerges. And in the English Channel, this has meant crossing using small boats. The small boat phenomenon more than anything, then is a product of harsh border enforcement. But the whole thing we must remember, is underpinned by a lack of alternative safe legal routes to reach the UK. But again, this is not the full picture either. The border enforcement in Calais is not just a story of barbed wire, and sniffer dogs. What we found in our research since the so called jungle was demolished in 2015, is that the environment and environmentalism is being used by the French state to exclude to harm and erase the presence of migrants and refugees from Calais.

AI: So when thinking about the various border regimes between Britain and the European Union and Australia, there are similarities and differences. In terms of similarities. I mean, European policies have tended towards a move away from kind of humanitarian rescue in such a way which has caused you know, a huge amount of death and suffering when then inevitably boats and ships then sink right. It's also practised expansive forms of externalisation. The EU- Turkey deal, the funding of Libya's regime in Tripoli to prevent migrants from leaving North African shores and a similar deal signed for more recently with the Tunisian Government, even funding border infrastructure in eastern Turkey designed to repel migrants back towards Iran, which is a very dangerous place for people to be returned to in that particular border. And Australia's policies of turning back boats and incarcerating migrants on islands also share similar logics right? The attempts by the UK's government to offshore migrants to Rwanda obviously bear some similarity with this. At times, the UK officials and the UK Government have explicitly drawn on the Australian governance of migrants as a blueprint for the designing of their own policies. So Australia have this kind of famous or rather infamous 'turn back the boats' policy, the British government in recent years, have tried and failed to develop or implement kinds of tactics that are similar to turn back boats towards France. And they've been a number of sort of, I guess, policy fantasies, I think we describe it as policy fantasies, that the construction of a floating wall, a sea barrier, the notion that wave machines can be used and implemented to repel boats. And this has all been mooted at various times by government ministers or by politicians and made it into the press. So this is fantasies that are developed that where we can have something similar here. But one of the important things to also remember is that the channel is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. So those fantasies of offshoring sometimes collide with the material and economic realities of the importance of sustaining sort of free-flowing trade in the channel. I think it's also important to contextualise border policies around the broader political projects that they are constructed around. So this is constant interaction between policies around welfare, economic policies, and policies around governing migration through sort of border regimes. There's a link really between four different forms of neoliberalization. And this is part of a broader project, which basically often tells populations that there's only so much that governments can do for citizens at large. But one thing that they can potentially promise is that non-citizens won't get any of those benefits. And that's the that that there is a construction of a particular type of political project, which I think it's important to interrogate.

MB: You're listening to Who do we think we are? Presents Global Britain, a podcast all about migration and citizenship in the UK after Brexit, hosted by me, Michaela Benson and my co host Nando Sigona. If you like what you've heard, follow and rate us on your preferred podcast platform. This means that you'll be the first to hear when our episodes drop, and it also helps more people to discover the podcast. What we've heard from Thomas and Arshad is about an understanding of border policies and racial violence rendered through that distinction between Europeans and their others. And they're arguing that the discourses here around the idea of civilization or who is civilised is very much tied to liberal values. And the channel for them really is a site for that struggle to be playing out. This has come starkly into view, I think in the UK case through the so called 'small boats crisis', which I think you and I Nanda would argue is a political crisis for this conservative administration. And just before we move on, I just want to stress that we're recording this on the 15th of December 2023. So goodness only knows what will have happened between now and when this actually goes out into the world

NS: Probably three acts of parliament and a few policy papers in the meantime.

MB: Maybe I mean, it's Christmas. so maybe everything will go quiet. But anyway, I don't think this one's going to go away is it? So. And we've mentioned this political crisis before. But I think, more significantly, what we would like to suggest is understanding this as being at the heart of current moves to shift the UK's approach to asylum, including through the Rwanda plan. But before we kind of get deep into conversations around the criminalization of asylum and what's happening to humanitarian protections in the UK, where does Brexit fit in this story Nando.

NS: Brexit fits in, in many way. We've written in the past about how the border between France and UK or how the channel crossing has become meaningful within the context of the migration systems. As a result in many ways of Brexit. Obviously, we are all familiar with Calais over the year, the decades and gaps today, the militarization of the border in Calais, that Arshad and Thom clearly referred to, but I think that we have, what we have seen with Brexit is a more significant structural change that has given new meaning to this border. So with Brexit, in many ways, the UK has moved out of the burden sharing mechanism of the European Union, it has come up to, the border has sort of become more significant, but also has become more vulnerable in many ways, because some of the groups that for example, people who attempt the crossing or facilitate the crossing are well aware that, for example, there are new difficulties from the point of view of the British government to remove people that successfully manage the crossings, while in the past there were mechanism with the European Union that would make this more more difficult, various forms of cooperation, both in terms of security, but also in terms of removal or return, like the Dublin regulations.

MB: I mean, I suppose what you've just described there about what's happened since Brexit is quite literally, kind of ties to the ideas we've been working with around rebordering, and Brexit as a process of rebordering because there is a border between the UK and France in the channel in ways that might not have existed or didn't manifest in the same way, when the UK was part of the European Union. But what I think's really fascinating about this, and you know, not to blow our own trumpet, but we were talking about this early on in 2023. We wrote about it in Political Quarterly, I think, or was it in The Conversation? Open Democracy, I think it was. And now when you start to listen to people talking about the channel, our understanding has become common sense, because of the breakdown of the cooperation between France and the UK that was brought about through Brexit, and particularly how that manifests in the channel around who has responsibility for the people who are trying to cross in small boats has really become, as I said, common sense, lots of people are talking about it now. Whereas when we first put it out in the world, I think people were a bit like, really, is this Brexit?

NS: Yeah, I mean, a lot of people at the time were used to point towards the pandemic and blame the pandemic, which had an effect, I mean, pandemic played the role in terms that make there was the, it makes some people to try the root, something that hadn't happened in the same way up until that point, I mean, one thing which are often referred to is that we just need to look at the data or in terms of the irregular crossing at the time of the, the 2015-16 refugee crisis, comparing with with now, one thing that is immediately striking here is that, while now, Britain experience something similar to what Italy has been experiencing now for decades in terms of the irregular crossing the Mediterranean, at that time, there were almost no arrival through small boats actually at the terminal, but not even recorded by the British police, the arrivals, they only start in 2019 which is already quite telling. But the other thing also that it may be worth to come back to is this idea that why Brexit also matters a lot, because from the point of view, and this is why we talked about a political crisis of the Conservative Party, and particularly of the Brexiteers of the Conservative Party, is that if we accept the idea that Brexit has had a huge impact or contributed to create this border crisis, it's somebody that basically goes back to the, and in a sense counter to what they had promised, their pledge, which was taking back control of migration, closing the border, stopping migration, etc, etc. So in a sense, undermines one of the core pledges of the Brexiteers. And this is also why I think we see now this obsession with Rwanda. We see that there is a continuous attempt to refocus attention of the public debate on migration on the Rwanda plan or on the BB Stockholm, as an attempt to shift the attention away, so the vulnerability had been produced from, as a result of Brexit.

MB: I mean, I suppose that there are a couple of myths here that it would be useful to kind of put paid to, because while all of that focus is there, on the Rwanda plan, and on the small boats, we also know that ultimately, the number of people coming to the UK via small boats, of the overall people who enter the UK is really, really miniscule. Similarly, the number of people who come to the UK to claim asylum doesn't even really touch the sides of the overall numbers of people moving to the UK at this point in time. And finally, I suppose what we're seeing as a legal challenge or not, is it's becoming very, very clear that there will be limits, quite serious limits on how many people they could remove to Rwanda in the first place. So it's kind of, you know, they're focusing on on things, which are very small numbers, really, and will have very limited consequence, I suppose for for their numbers. I mean, obviously, they'll have huge consequences for the people who were touched by those policies and those legislations.

NS: No, this is the point. I mean, why actually, the conversation on migration has become so surreal. I mean, the facts, the data, the history of this mobility is completely lost in this messaging that is becoming more and more detached from the reality. I mean, I totally agree with the fact that you can interpret the data in different ways, you may have a different spin on it. But here we have a conversation, which is completely going away from understanding the causes, the drivers of the phenomenon, and also really very much understandings of the way, the significance, also of the phenomenon from a numerical point of view, obviously. So just to give you an example of this, I mean, obviously, as you pointed out, the number of asylum applications has gone up, that is evident in the last couple of years, we have seen an increase in a number of irregular crossings, but actually in the last year, this is basically already going to start to decrease. Which is interesting, because if you are a government, like the current one who is obsessed by stopping the boat and this irregular crossing, you should celebrate this, the decrease in terms of the arrival, I mean, something that they've been doing is working. And the Rwanda plan is not part of this measure. I mean, the other plan, we have been talking about it, but actually clearly it had no impact in terms of neither people who have been removed, but also you could argue even as a deterrence has had no impact, because everyone who was travelling, is seeing that actually, they could not manage to implement it. So something is working. What is working, in a sense is what Sunak has started to do is to reconnect with the European partners, a start to reconnect with France, to put more resources into patrolling the different shores and investing in cooperation, in stopping, for example, the network of smugglers, but it's also done another important thing, he has managed to sign this agreement with Albania, a bilateral agreement, which has basically stopped what was the single group that last year really shifted the statistics on arrivals. So things are moving in a certain direction. What is unclear is why we started and we continue to talk just about Rwanda, which really makes up to me, it's actually quite mysterious. I mean, I can understand it if I shift my categories away from migration, you know, in terms of what are the priorities here, but it's yeah, definitely fascinating.

MB: Yeah, I mean, that's an interesting question, and probably one that we don't have space or time to go into here. And we'll probably be speculating about about that issue. But I suppose kind of thinking more generally about what the news relating to what we broadly refer to about migration is at the moment what the policy agenda seems to be focusing on or was at least, you know, over the summer, it kind of signals to me I think this longer standing politicisation of asylum, and how that is now being mobilised on a daily basis for the purposes of reforming the UK's approach to asylum and refugee provisions. Now, I should say, I am not an expert on this by any stretch of the imagination, this really is your area, Nando, so could you break that down a little bit more?

NS: It's now a few years I mean, even, we can go back to the time of the Labour Party, were gradually will be seen as the the obligation by the British government to provide international protection to people seeking asylum on the basis of the Geneva Convention in 1951, gradually been restricted. Restricted in the sense, for example, in terms of welfare entitlement, restricted in terms of where people were allowed to live, if they wanted to receive some forms of state support, etc. So there has been, the process though, has been gaining a lot to speed in terms of this restriction of the rights of the asylum seekers and the refugees, certainly since the Conservative government, so in the last 12 years or so, maybe even more since the Brexit. One thing that became clear, for example, when Priti Patel launched and championed the New Plan for Immigration was this attempt to, for example, further restrain and cursorily curtail the rights of asylum seekers, if they came into the country through irregular means is interesting, because actually in Geneva Convention is the right to claim asylum should not be affected by the means by which person reached the country where they're applying for asylum. But in a way, by repeating, repeating this message, they seems to be basically now generally accepted. And what we saw happening even since the New Plan for Immigration, Priti Patel one of the point was, the emphasis was very much about well, if you come through irregular crossing, we will give you less rights as an asylum seeker but we will still assess your case in Britain. The next step with the introduction of the Rwanda plan is this huge change. So if you come in UK without, through irregular means, through irregular crossing, you're no longer allowed to apply for asylum here. And actually what we do, we send you to Rwanda and Rwanda deals with your asylum application. And if you get it, well, you receive your refugee status in Rwanda. There is no obligation for the country to get people back.  Yeah. But I think it's important alongside this because I think there can be particularly when you start to talk about Brexit, or particularly when you start to focus on migration in the UK, this weird tendency to kind of exceptionalise it. Whereas the UK is not the only place that's criminalising asylum at this point in time, is it?  No, that's the other point that we need to always to remember, that in many ways what we see in terms of the criminalization of the asylum, itt's something that is shared by many of the EU member states, by the EU that over the last 10 years in a way also shifts the position from a more kind of humanitarian narrative around asylum, despite the attempts to restrict it in some ways, to a much more securitarian one. I mean, we've seen with the increased role given to Frontex, the EU Border Agency, but also with all this attempt to build the relationship or reinforce the relationship with countries in the north of Africa. We discuss this, for example, in the episode on migration diplomacy.

MB: Yeah. And I suppose the question then is, where does humanitarian aid go? Or, humanitarian protections go. And I think this is, this is one of the areas that we've seen play out in quite a pronounced way in the UK through the provision of humanitarian visas. And I wondered what you thought about where they sit in that system or where they sit within that politics.

NS: This is an interesting point to reflect. There is a very clear juxtaposition between, we restrict the right to apply for asylum because we provide safe and legal routes for the means. And at the time, the reference was the streams that were provided for the resettlement, for example, of Syrians, or Afghani nationals that were, but since then, we have seen and many people were pointing out to how the safe and legal route were actually just nominal, the actual number of people that were coming through those routes was very small, and certainly not everyone was coming from Afghanistan or from Syria. What happened more recently, in particular with the introduction of the humanitarian schemes for the Hong Kong BN(O)s, but also for the Ukrainians, is that actually from a numerical point view, we saw the country to offer very significant numbers of, of humanitarian visas, so-called. The problem, one problem that is still there is that well, not all people seeking international protection are from Hong Kong or from Ukraine. That's one, but also, I think, is how now the government says, and continues to say, also with the strength of the number, that, well, we're doing our humanitarian job, our international production obligation, vis-a-vis the international protection of these people is fulfilled by those schemes. And this is partly why we feel legitimized to constrain the asylum process in the country.

MB: It's really interesting, isn't it, but at the same time, it's we've got this kind of heightened politicisation of people arriving through certain routes that you end up with opening up these other routes for other people, who are then kind of trotted out in legislation in political debate, and everything as evidence of a track record in terms of humanitarian protection.

NS: In our new report on the new humanitarian visas, I think this is one of the aspects we point out isn't it? I mean, in a sense, what we've tried to do is to deconstruct and unpack a little bit, also, this idea of the generosity of the British government vis-a-vis those that they think they're treating so well, isn't it?

MB: Yeah, definitely. And this idea that people should be grateful, and the kind of the production of people who are relatively docile, because of the terms on which they were able to come to the UK. And the contrast, of course, there is to the people who don't make it or to the people who they want to be able to deport to Rwanda, who they present as kind of unsolicited entrance, and uninvited, and at the moment, they present them as being out of control beyond their control. But this is evidence of quite a significant shift, I think, in terms of who controls the conversation about who is eligible for humanitarian protection?

NS: Yeah, I mean, it's very much this idea of, if we sort of withdraw from our commitment to the Geneva Convention, and to the human rights framework as it established from those norms, it becomes very much an ad hoc system. I mean, what what I mean, is that as it was before the Geneva Convention was written and signed by the larger majority of the member of the of the UN. So the idea that people were receiving some forms of support in case of war, but normally only from a country that we perceived as hostile. So there was this idea that it's perfectly fine to be generous with some and less generous with others. And that creates a lot of uncertainty, I think, because one of the elements, we also found out in our report, is this idea that people feel very much that the protection they receive is, well is either subject to a fee, as in the case of the Hong Kongers, or is protection but without rights in the case of the Ukrainians.

MB: Yeah, absolutely. So you're seeing further stratification there as well. So humanitarian protection is not the same for everyone, whether that's in terms of the time length of their visas, or in terms of the rights that they have once they're living in the UK. And I think that that's something that will be, we are, we do explore more in the report that's, that's hopefully coming out around about the time that this podcast launches. But let's turn back to the consideration of what's going on in the channel, and particularly how we make sense of this and how we discuss it as scholars who work in this area, because there's this phrase, and Elena talks a little bit about this in her 'What do we mean by' section for this episode? But I think it would be helpful just to explain a little bit more about why we talk about irregularisation rather than assuming that migrants themselves are irregular.

NS: You're right, Michaela, because I mean, we even put the term 'irregularisation' in my new project, 'I-claim', exactly because we think that is fundamental to, amd particularly at this time in which we see gradually there is the closing down of the route for regular migration particular for some group of people or from some countries, that the process by which some groups may become irregular, irregularised, is given much more emphasis much more attention to, so the point is, well, no one, everyone knows no one is illegal by itself, illegal may be the process by which someone cross, or irregular or undocumented. But the point here is also to remember that sometimes the person is just moving like they were doing a week ago or a month ago or so. But the rules and the norms around this mobility changed and shifted. So this is where the irregularisation comes in. So in a sense, the process of irregularisation is also the byproduct of the new laws and legislation through which we define which kind of form of mobility is acceptable or regular or welcome. And so it shifts the the attention away from the individuals, from blaming the individual, to the processes by which this individual becomes constructed as a negative figure and unwanted as a Christian Joppke used to say.

MB: Yeah, and I think that when we start to think about irregularisation, we can start to see what function those humanitarian protection visas might be playing in the process of irregularising others. So you could start to see that tension playing out there. And the policy landscape, I mean. But of course, even that process of irregularisation, some people are more prone to it than others. And it's quite uneven. So, Thom and Arshad have talked about how, you know, very often these people are not Europeans. But that's not entirely the whole story, is it? From what we're seeing in terms of what's happening after Brexit,

NS: Before the big enlargement towards the central eastern Europe or to Romania, Bulgaria, one of the largest group of irregular migrants in Britain were Romanian and Bulgarian nationals, and Polish. With the enlargement from one day to the next they became citizens of the European Union and therefore entitled to freedom of movement and to reside regularly in Britain. So this is quite an interesting shift in the sense of thinking nowadays, what we see is that with Britain outside the European Union, some of the those groups that were more vulnerable, before the enlargement, come back to be among the most vulnerable. I mean, you've wrote about this, when, about a year ago, actually, even more than a year ago, when you looked at the data on removal, don't you?

MB: Yeah, definitely. And I mean, I think so this is always my question that there have been numerous newspaper reports about how EU citizens are being stopped at the border, denied the right to enter the UK, there have been numerous reports, but what they very, very rarely do is highlight that some among them are more, more likely to be stopped. And what's really, really striking, as you were just saying, is the extent to which those with Romanian passports make up, like I think, always over 50% of the total number of EU nationals who are removed or stopped at the borders. And I think that's a conversation that needs to be had. But it also links to something else that was happening before Brexit, which has to do with what happened when the UK government and other governments started to enforce the conditionality of free movement. So when they started to think about who actually might be eligible for the rights of free movers, you know, access to welfare, access to healthcare, those kinds of things. And while you can't, they couldn't deport EU citizens, they could deny them access. And we know that that was happening in the UK, as it was in some other European countries. And again, you see those populations that you've just described as, as as even before they joined the European Union, they more likely to be irregular also being in that situation of not having access. So how do we explain that?

NS: Yeah, I mean, it's a very important question, which we see more and more coming on to the surface as a result of the current sort of hyperpoliticisation of the debate around migration. There is another point, though, around this irregularisation, which I'm really sort of very keen to discuss. And it's this idea that why is so important that when we talk about irregular migrants or irregularisation, we don't, we don't look at them as a group that is fixed and bound, you know, as we just discussed, you know, people can become irregularised as a result of shifting borders or shifting regulations, etc. But I think there is also another way that this irregularisation functions, and it's actually through the so-called legal routes becoming more precarious, more conditional. The fact has become and this is something that we are really working on in with I-claim is really to understand the extent to which in different countries, the the possibility of losing your status, it's something more or less real, and it's more or less at the front of your experience. I was just a couple of days ago in a meeting with a lot of migrants rights organisation in London. And what they were talking about was about the extent to which the Rwanda plan is producing a wave of fear among regular migrants. You would think that it doesn't make any sense, why if you are regular you should even be worried about the Rwanda plan, I mean, you may be opposed to it, you may think is terrible, it is a violation of human rights, but you won't feel it on yourself. And instead, people are saying, well, this is actually people feel much more close to themselves, because they feel that there is a very much a push within the current by the current government's towards making legal status much more conditional and easy to remove in case people cannot afford the fees or violate some aspects of the norm, so maybe, and this sort of is making basically this irregularisation something that is much more spread as an experience among the migrant population in the country.

MB: Yeah, I mean, we've seen this all the way through the work that you and I have done on with Europeans living in the UK, we've seen who are worried about we're worried about even the Windrush deportation scandal, and what that made visible about people who should have citizenship. So you can you can feel it, can't you when you speak to people, their sense of, the sense that they know that their status is not secure. But that kind of an overall sense that nothing is nothing is forever, I suppose it's really, really entered into how people experience their lives in the UK. And you can see it all the way across this thing, even if they know logically that they're not likely to be the people who are most affected by these kinds of changes. So yeah, so it is really part of that precarisation of migration status.

NS: It is not part of today's episode, but I think is one of the reason why increasing number of people are looking into naturalisation as one of the options for them, in the sense of securing a long term status in the country, not as because it's a sign of integration on anything, actually it is a sign of them feeling more precarious and more vulnerable. So naturalisation is an option, but it's also why I think we see an increasing push by the governments towards making access to naturalisation more difficult, more expensive, and in a sense, excluding people from, by class income and a particular group making more difficult the bureaucratic requirements or higher expectations in terms of the understanding of how the IT system work or forms, bureaucracies, etc.

MB: Yeah, I think that's a really, really good point. And it certainly links with the main themes of the project overall, doesn't it? You know, that continuum, from having a citizenship all the way through to being irregularised, that having that sense of, even for those who are naturalised there is a level of uncertainty about the security of their status that we've also witnessed too. But I think that's probably a good point for us to end on today. Thank you very much.

NS: Thank you.

MB: Who do we think we are? Presents Global Britain is a podcast produced and presented by me Michaela Benson and Nando Sigona as part of the research project 'Rebordering Britain and Britain after Brexit', that's funded by the Economic and Social Research Council via their Governance after Brexit initiative. And you can find out more about the project at That's And that's where you'll find our new report on new humanitarian visas. It's not there just yet, but it will be available to download from there from the 30th of January 2024. A big thank you to our guests on this episode, Thom Davis and Arshad Isakjee, a special thanks to Emma Holton at Brilliant Audio for her production and post production support to Elena Zambelli for the additional research and to George Kalivis for the cover art. If you head over to you'll find transcripts and enhanced shownotes that include active listening questions, our podcast picks, and where you can go to find out more about the topics we discussed. And just a last call. If you're new to the podcast and like what you've heard, check out our back catalogue. We're now in the third season. So there's plenty of content on race, migration and belonging waiting for you over on the website. Do get in touch with us via socials to let us know what you've learned from listening or what you'd like to hear more about. But that's all for now and we'll be back soon with another episode.


What’s Brexit got to do with the ‘small boats’ crisis? What does racialised border violence in the Channel tell us about 'Global Britain’? And what can we learn about the UK’s approach to its borders from the Hong Kong BN(O) and Ukrainian visas? We discuss all of this and more as we turn a lens onto Fortress Britain.

Elena Zambelli explains what we mean when we talk about migrants’ irregularisation. We’re joined by Arshad Isakjee and Thom Davies talk about their research on the racialised border violence enacted by Fortress Europe and why we need to turn our attention to how this relates to the EU’s liberal values. And Nando and Michaela turn the lens back onto UK and its post-Brexit borders as they discuss the new suite of ‘safe and legal (humanitarian) routes’, and what these signal about the future of asylum within and beyond the UK.

You can access the full transcripts for each episode over on our website Who do we think we are?

In this episode we cover …

  1. Irregularised migration
  2. The ‘small boats crisis’
  3. New humanitarian visas

Find more about …

Thom and Arshad’s work on the EU border regime as a form of liberal violence and illegal pushbacks as border violence

Nando and Michaela’s research on Brexit and the ‘small boats crisis’ and which EU citizens are being turned away at the UK’s borders

The iClaim research project

How to expand and diversify migrants’ regularisation mechanisms and programs in the UK in this report

Our podcast picks for this episode are

Arshad and Thom’s interview on Surviving Society

The Civil Fleet

Crossing Continents on Surviving Greece’s migrant boat disaster

How to cite this episode:

Benson, M., Sigona, N., Arshad, I., Davies, T. and Zambelli, E. (2023) Who do we think we are? Presents ‘Global Britain’. S3 E8 Fortress Britain? [Podcast] 18 January 2024. Available at:  [LINK] (Accessed: add date here)


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Active listening questions

  • When and how do migrants become irregularised?
  • What do you understand by the concept of border violence? And what examples discussed in the episode particularly stand out to you?
  • What are the UK’s ‘safe and legal (humanitarian) routes? And what is distinctive about these in comparison to provisions for asylum and refugees outlined in the Geneva Convention?

View all active listening questions