Global Development Institute Blog

This blog originally appeared on the Manchester Migration Lab website

Blog by Dr William Wheeler, independent scholar

Migration, it is agreed, is intimately connected with hope. As we heard from Gulwali Passarlay, a refugee from Afghanistan and author of Lightless Sky, who talked eloquently of his perilous journey to the UK as a child, “It was hope kept me going.” But Passarlay went on to explain that it was when he reached the UK, when he found his story and even his nationality disbelieved by the Home Office, that his hope was crushed.

Conference papers from around the world suggested that Passarlay’s encounter with the UK’s border regime was far from unique in the contemporary world, in which border walls are proliferating and the border is becoming increasingly present in daily lives. For conference attendees – scholars, activists and campaigners – this raises a question: As bordering technologies and practices work to crush migrant hopes, where does hope lie for those concerned, in various ways, with migrant rights?

Despite the bleakness of the present conjuncture, there were plenty of hopeful visions on offer at the conference. In a Brexit-oriented roundtable discussion of campaigners from the 3 Million, Asylum Matters and Migrant Rights Network, the UK’s current state of flux, while deeply discouraging overall, also emerged as a moment of opportunity for positive engagement with policymakers. In a workshop about the sinister policies connected with the UK’s “hostile environment”, two lawyers from Wilson’s Solicitors in London encouraged us to move beyond rage at the outsourcing of border control across British society, and to think about practical actions that conference attendees, whether academics or activists, could take to contest the “hostile environment”. Most strikingly, Laura Hammond’s keynote account of an EU-funded research project about the Horn of Africa suggested that researchers do not have to be co-opted by policy-makers – in this case, in a project addressing the “root causes of irregular migration” – but could redefine the terms of the debate, questioning instead the conditions that force people to undertake irregular migration. In different ways, such participants saw hope in engaging with, resisting, contesting emerging border policies.

A very different sort of hope emerged at the end of Rebecca Yeo’s harrowing account of Kamil Ahmad, a disabled asylum seeker left vulnerable when his immigration status excluded him from key state support and protection, who was, ultimately, murdered. Before his death, he had told Yeo that his life felt like “being stabbed” by the Home Office, and Yeo’s conclusion was uncompromising – that although the actual murderer was convicted, it was the system that created the conditions for Ahmad’s murder. The hopeful vision that Yeo proposed was in direct proportion to the grimness of the story she had related: a vision not of engagement and reform, but of radical transformation.

A parallel contrast emerged in Miriam Ticktin’s keynote. Ticktin chillingly explored how emerging border technologies not only exclude, but in the process of exclusion turn the excluded into a different sort of being. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, this vivid portrayal of a dystopian present, Ticktin closed by reimagining a radically new role for borders in a transformed world, calling for political programmes that go beyond the debate between open and closed borders.

Hopeful visions, then, were not in short supply at the conference, suggesting various programmes for action. But further discussion could ask how to put these programmes in dialogue with each other. Might legal struggles for migrants’ rights risk inviting, as Ralph Wilde suggested, further repressive backlash from states? Does engagement with policymakers about specific legislation risk reinforcing the common sense of the nation-state system? Conversely, what value do utopian visions have to individual migrants whose hope is crushed, like Passarlay, by repressive border regimes today?

The utopian hope that Ticktin’s address ended on was fittingly juxtaposed with a performance by the choir of Manchester-based Women Asylum Seekers Together. As one singer explained, they sing “while we are waiting in this incredibly harsh system of the Home Office”. The songs went far beyond simply waiting. The first song affirmed their rightful presence: We are here now. In another song, individual hopes flowed into a wider hope that the system might change: We want Rosa to stay/We want Yarl’s Wood to close. In the final song, the boundary between audience and performers was dissolved as listeners were invited to dance with the singers; a utopian transformation was both imagined and performed: We will be alright some day/We will live in peace some day/We will all be free.

The challenge for scholars, activists and campaigners is how to coordinate these hopeful programmes for action – those that focus on individual rights, on systemic reform, and on utopian transformation.

Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.