Identity and its influence upon the extent to which we can attain liberation and live liberated lives is an integral part of politics.
Movement is one medium through which we feel the effects of our identity, the experiences of migrants & asylum seekers exemplifying this.
SISTAH zine explored these ideas below.
Maya Goodfellow is a writer & academic, and the author of ‘Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats.’ Her work to problematize the border and reframe the narratives around migrants and asylum seekers, is liberatory work. SISTAH zine was thrilled to be able to discuss these ideas with her.
SISTAH: A key idea that you’ve put forward in your writing is that the ‘problem’ is borders, not the people trying to cross them. Could you speak a little more on that idea? How would reframing the narrative to acknowledge the true site of the ‘problem’ be liberatory for migrants/asylum seekers?
MAYA: I think it’s a really good question. I suppose a lot of what I think about is related to the UK context. If you look back at the history of how immigration has been understood in the UK, or maybe more broadly how movement has been understood, there is this consistent problematisation of the figure of ‘the migrant’ and that figure is obviously gendered and racialised.
I spent a lot of time looking at the history of the UK’s immigration debate and there is a really rich literature on this. After years of doing that, I realised there is a problem in simply thinking about this figure of ‘the migrant.’ Whilst we want to deconstruct these narratives and show how they are racialised and gendered, I think we need to focus on the things doing the harm. That is the border and the process of bordering. This is taken for granted in the political realm. There is this idea that borders are given and necessary for safety. If we think more about the border, we should think “who is the border protecting and who is it endangering?’
IN CONVERSATION WITH MAYA GOODFELLOW
I think too often we just think the border demarcates the nation state but really what we know, particularly with the hostile environment in the UK, is that borders are far more expansive and insidious. They are within our country, demarcating our access to public services. If we spoke more about that, we would be able to have a more expansive understanding of what we want to change and then what we want to achieve. By problematizing ‘the border’, it allows us to think about the border itself, who is controlling it and who is being harmed by it and work from there.
The question I often come to is “why do we want to organise our world like this?” Who is it benefitting and who is it harming? So, coming to your point about a liberatory politics, by thinking this way, we would think about how the immigration system itself is inherently exclusionary and how the process of bordering is built on exclusion. If we shift that framing, it might allow a more expansive understanding of what we want to achieve with our politics.
Images courtesy of Max Brucker
SZ: What would a government policy that prioritises the humanity of migrants/asylum seekers over the “business model” of border controls look like?
How far away from that ‘ideal’ are we now and how optimistic are you about whether we would reach it in the near future?
M: There are a number of policy changes that could and should happen: reducing fees, making sure there is legal aid, making the system less bureaucratic. But that doesn’t really get to the heart of your question. Those policies speak to a more reformist agenda and although we should not sneer at that, as it does create real change for the people subject to those policies, we should spend more time reimagining this altogether. Maybe because I’ve been reading a lot of Stuart Hall recently, I think we do need to consider the vision. So, we need to imagine what that world that contains an ideal immigration policy would look like and how we articulate it to one another. Then, there would be policy steps to take us there. That work needs to be done.
There needs to be more work pushing back on the ‘common sense narratives’ on bordering. These are the narratives, totally taken for granted, that say borders are right, fair and there to protect. I don’t have the answer to the narrative that would replace that but more work needs to be done to develop that alternative narrative, as a long-term project. Stuart Hall writes about the narratives about culture and presenting visions of the world that people can relate to. I want to think about this more and I think this is something that people are thinking about too.
In one sense, I feel really pessimistic. The right has a very clear and successful narrative on immigration. It does a lot of damage and produces harm and death. We can’t ignore this. But, there are people all around the world rejecting these narratives and organising against them.
Images courtesy of Max Brucker
One thing that simultaneously gives me hope and fear the narrative around key workers at the height of the UK lockdown. For example, many workers previously dismissed as low-skilled were revealed as key workers. This was not just doctors and nurses, but supermarket workers and many more. In that moment of public outpouring of support for key workers, there was also a recognition that many of them were migrants.
One of the ways this manifested itself was the agitation about the NHS surcharge. The government did succumb to that anger, removing the surcharge for some workers. However, many migrants still pay it. So, even that reform was caviated in so many ways. That shows us the limits of the reformist approach. It shows how a narrative can shift, but also shows that if you aren’t imaginative enough to create alternative narratives, the wins are too small. This was also the same for the Windrush scandal. Unless you have a politics that says everyone’s rights matter, you still reproduce the structures you are trying to critique.
That being said, there are a lot of people doing important campaigning work that I really don't want to invisibilise. A friend said to me “the seeds of change are being planted now.” We should be realistic but travel hopefully. If we aren’t hopeful for the possibility of change, it is simply debilitating.
SZ: SISTAH zine wants to create a platform that demonstrates where women are creating spaces for liberation whilst also highlighting where barriers to liberation still exist.
So, considering specifically women & femmes now, how does the political situation with regard to migration affect them specifically and their ability to be liberated?
M: This is a major issue and has been so historically. Immigration policies in the UK have been formed on the basis of hugely gendered relations. For example, when men came from countries like India, it was considered okay for women to come and join them so that these men didn't marry white women. In this way and others, South-Asian women have been used as pawns. The most horrendous example of this in the UK was the virginity-testing of South-Asian women. Virginity tests would take place to ensure the women were coming to marry the men as they were claiming. One of the worst examples of this today is the way migrant women who are experiencing domestic violence have been treated by the state, particularly minority migrant women - those who are undocumented, with no recourse to public funds (NRPF). Access to refuge from violence has been made so difficult because of things like NRPF. Living in a country so hostile to immigration has a particularly gendered outcome here. It means that you are scared to seek access to services or speak to public bodies. It makes it so difficult to escape an abusive situation.
There is an organisation doing great work in Manchester called Safety4Sisters, and Sandy Scharmer, one of their founders, has spoken extensively about this. Some women are reliant on their partner for their VISA. This is a barrier to escaping the abusive relationship: the very real fear of deportation. The government might cite certain routes that these women can apply for in these circumstances that do not necessarily lead to deportation. Access to these, however, is so difficult and this, summed with the ever present potential for deportation, is a barrier to leaving the abusive relationship.
When we talk about liberatory politics, this so clearly highlights the problem. When we are thinking about a liberatory politics, we need to think of the most marginalised - in this case, undocumented women. When people advocate for change, it is far too often just for the “good migrant”, rather than the most marginalised. A liberatory politics requires the most marginalised to be at the centre of the discourse.
As an example, the discourse about the Domestic Abuse Bill, which recently passed, was so problematic. It was extolled as an example of how Parliament should work, how cross-party collaboration can work and, in this case, produce results that protect and empower women. And yes, the Bill will do some important things for some women, but it actively excludes women on the basis of immigration status. That undermines exactly what the Bill is claiming to achieve, the protection of vulnerable women, as the most vulnerable women are left in greater danger.
IN CONVERSATION WITH MAYA GOODFELLOW
Images courtesy of Max Brucker
SZ: To young people that are involved with activism or are politically active, what would you say on how we best work to support the liberation of migrants and asylum seekers when the political situation created by borders isn’t conducive to this liberation?