Migration and Hostile Environments

New Series: Volume 3, Issue 2

3 April 2023

Editorial: Immigration, Off-Shoring and Resettlement – the lived realities of Britain’s hostile environment

Louise Ryan

This issue of Discover Society brings together discussions of groups who are often considered separately, in order to explore how anti-immigration policies and discourses operate across and within national and ethnic groups.  The authors are all leading researchers and thinkers in their field and use empirical evidence to bring novel insights into this timely and highly topical social issue.

Linking the Windrush scandal, Brexit, asylum regulations and recently proposed ‘off-shoring’, the papers offer a searing critique of how immigration policies are impacting on migrants across a wide range of ethnic, racialised and national groups, as well as impacting on wider society including the UK economy.

The special issue begins with Brad Blitz’s analysis of Off-Shoring policies and critical assessment of how such policies have failed to work when previously implemented by Australia and Israel. Next, Alessio D’Angelo examines the inter-play between the UK and wider EU immigration policies as fortress Europe is invoked once again.  Both these papers demonstrate how deals with other countries are being used to detain and deter migrants from reaching British shores and making asylum claims in this country.

Turning to migrant experiences in the UK, Louise Ryan, Maria Lopez and Alessia Delceggio draw upon their on-going research with Afghans who were dramatically evacuated from Kabul airport in 2021, to assess how the much promised ‘Warm Welcome’ is being developed in practice. As thousands of Afghans still remain in temporary hotel accommodation, they, consider how these refugees will manage in the current cost-of-living crisis.  Sticking with the theme of migrant experiences, Umut Erel, Don Flynn, Erene Kaptani, Maggie O’Neill and Tracey Reynolds reflect on the lived realities of those who have no recource to public funds.  Drawing upon their theatre-based workshops with women migrants, they consider how the hostile environment is negotiated on a daily basis by families who have no access to public funds.

Several papers examine the fundamental contradictions at the heart of immigration policies, as migrants are vilified as ‘invading swarms’, while simultaneously providing much needed labour in the UK economy. Bringing together analysis of Brexit and the Covid Pandemic, Anna Gawlewicz, Kasia Narkowicz and Sharon Wright discuss the vital role played by Polish migrant workers, especially in health care. While their contribution as ‘key workers’ was applauded during the lockdown, their immigration status became uncertain and contested in the post-Brexit context. Tens of thousands of unfilled vacancies within UK health and social care cannot be disconnected from the impact of Brexit.

In recent years, Albanians have emerged as one of the most vilified groups of migrants entering the UK. The paper by Iraklis Dimitriadis uses demographic data to examine the complex and contradictory positioning of Albanians in immigration rhetoric. Although over 100,000 Albanians are settled in the UK, having arrived as EU citizens from other member states before Brexit, negative stereotypes of criminal gangs, people traffickers and drug smugglers continue to shape the public imagination.  The ways in which hostile policies and negative public discourses can impact even on seemingly settled communities is also powerfully revealed through the Windrush scandal. In their paper, Tracey Reynolds, Dave Hockham and Pamela Franklin use rich qualitative data from focus groups with older Caribbean-born residents in London, to show the impact of the Windrush scandal on the everyday realities of people who have lived in the UK for most of their lives. Moreover, Reynolds et al, also show how, as the years go by, the government is pulling back from the promised compensation schemes.

Together, these papers demonstrate the growing hostility towards migrants, including long term residents, as well as recent arrivals. Once again, we see, that as governments come under pressure in difficult economic times, migrants become an easy scapegoat to blame for societal ills. In the run up to the next general election, it is important for researchers to use informed debate and empirical evidence to challenge the negative and inaccurate portrayal of migrants in political and media discourses. This special issue grew out of a symposium hosted by the British Sociological Association in January 2023: Sociological Perspectives on Migration and the Hostile Environment.

Louise Ryan is Senior Professor of Sociology and Director of the Global Diversities and Inequalities Research Centre at London Metropolitan University. She has been researching migration for over twenty years and during that time has published numerous highly cited articles in leading international journals. In 2015 she was awarded a Fellowship of the Academy of Social Sciences for her contribution to migration research. Her books include Gendering Migration (with Webster, 2008), Migrant Capital (with Erel and D’Angelo, 2015) and her most recent monograph is Social Networks and Migration (2023). Louise is currently chair of the British Sociological Association.

Header Image Credit: S.T.A.R.S Adobe Stock


Ryan, Louise 2023. ‘Editorial: Immigration, Off-Shoring and Resettlement –  the lived realities of Britain’s hostile environment’ Discover Society: New Series 3 (2):

Out of sight, offshore, and over there: a disturbing ambition in UK asylum management

Brad K. Blitz

On 13 April 2022 the UK Government agreed a Migration and Economic Development Partnership with the Government of Rwanda. This included a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for an asylum partnership arrangement. The central aim of the MoU is to provide a mechanism for removing asylum-seekers from the United Kingdom to Rwanda where they will be permitted to apply for asylum in Rwanda, and not the UK.

This experiment in offshore asylum management has antecedents, to varying degrees, in other settings, including in Australia, Israel, and the USA. Overwhelmingly, these experiments have met with failure. In spite of this evidence, the UK aims to contract out the task of asylum to developing states, including Rwanda, as heralded by the March 2023 Illegal Migration Bill. This article seeks to examine the development of current UK policy against this backdrop.

Experiments in Offshore Asylum Management

The introduction of restrictive immigration partnership agreements is not new. The EU-Turkey ‘deal’ of 2016 precipitated the creation of asylum processing centres or hot spots, some of which became long-term detention centres. The island of Lesbos, in particular, housed thousands of asylum-seekers who lingered in sub-standard conditions where they routinely saw their rights abused. More relevant to the Rwanda model, however, is the creation of asymmetric, development partnerships, most notably in Australia, where the phrase ‘stop the boats’ was coined.

Australia famously introduced the Pacific model whereby boat migrants would be detained on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru for processing.  While many arrivals were from refugee-producing states including Afghanistan, Iran and Myanmar, Australia contracted out any responsibility for them, and militated to prevent them from entering Australia. The Pacific experiment also had devastating consequences for the wellbeing of the detained asylum-seekers and their families.

In Nauru, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) recorded mental health suffering among the worst it had ever seen and reported that children as young as nine were found to have suicidal thoughts, committed acts of self-harm or attempted suicide. Following reports from whistle-blowers, the centre on Manus Island was closed, and residents left in precarious conditions in Papua New Guinea.  The model, though discredited, has left 6 refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru, and 92 held in Papua New Guinea – mostly in Port Moresby.

In the USA, immigration policy under former President Trump was characterised by a series of policies inspired by the Australian model, but with some notable differences. Much has been written on the Remain in Mexico program, where asylum-seekers would stay in Mexico while their claims were heard by US courts. More relevant, however, were the bi-lateral security programmes that emphasised containment.

Using the threat of heavy tariffs on exports and remittance fees which would disadvantage hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans, the US government strong-armed the Guatemalan government to enforce US immigration and asylum policies by means of a new international agreement.  The US government unilaterally designated Guatemala a ‘safe third country’ in July 2019 and pressed it to process asylum applications for nationals from Honduras and El Salvador.  Under this agreement, nationals of those two countries must apply for — and be denied — asylum in Guatemala before they can apply for asylum in the USA.  In a similar vein, Guatemalans need to apply for and be denied asylum in Mexico before they can apply for asylum in the USA.

The rhetoric behind the US and Australian policies is remarkably similar to that used by the UK government now. The former US president suggested that this policy signalled a way to ‘put the coyotes and the smugglers out of business’ and to ‘provide safety for legitimate asylum-seekers, and stop asylum fraud and abuses system (sic)’. In practice, it turned Guatemala into a major receiving state, while thousands of its own citizens sought sanctuary in the USA, leaving some to challenge the notion of Guatemala as a safe third country. 

Indeed, the U.S. State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council recorded that Guatemala remained ‘among the most dangerous countries in the world,’ and was plagued by organised crime, gender-based violence and has an ‘alarmingly high murder rate’. Moreover, like Rwanda, human rights authorities argued that Guatemala has an ‘embryonic’ asylum system characterised by a shortage of lawyers and a small presence of UNHCR staff.

With respect to Rwanda, the most important prior example is the tried, tested, and unsuccessful experiment led by Israel.  After initiating a voluntary departure programme, Israel concluded agreements with Rwanda and Uganda, to remove refused asylum seekers, again with the promise of documentation and access to the asylum system in the receiving state. Yet, Amnesty concluded that such promises were empty, and that these former deportees were only given a temporary migration status which left them at risk of detention, unable to work, and at risk of refoulement to their country of origin. Research conducted by Shahar Shoham, Liat Bolzman and Lior Birger found that returnees were denied the opportunity to apply for asylum in Rwanda. Not surprisingly, the deportees opted to leave.

The UK Context

The introduction of a MoU between the governments of the UK and Rwanda, raised many initial questions, not least, why Rwanda, a country with limited experience of asylum?  UNHCR figures up to 2021, recorded just 204 applications submitted in the previous year. Data on refugee status determination was even less impressive: in 2019, some 62 individuals were granted refugee status, while 124 were refused. Out of 24 appeals, only 2 saw their decisions corrected.  A slightly improved number received refugee status in 2020: out of 489 decisions, 285 individuals were recognised as refugees (58%).

The small number of successful asylum applications raised further questions, when considered against the 127,369, people of concern as reported by UNHCR for 31 May 2022. In the context of Rwanda, the greatest trend in refugee protection has not been asylum, but rather the return of tens of thousands of Burundians, further to a voluntary repatriation agreement between Rwanda, Burundi and UNHCR, which was restarted in 2021.

Other returns have also outpaced the number of successful applications for asylum. We note in particular the trend in resettlement to third countries: some 260 Eritreans and others from Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, and South Sudan, have been resettled from Rwanda mostly to Sweden, and just over a quarter to Canada. A small number were sent on to Norway, France and Belgium.

In spite of this track record, the MoU sets outs ambitions for the expansion of the Rwandan asylum system, which though improving, remains underdevelopment. The Rwandan government has insisted that deportees from the UK would be well treated and given opportunities to seek asylum. It also promised that upon receiving refugee status, refugees would be eligible to secure jobs including in the government. Yet, a quick review of the Country Policy and Information Note (May 2022), which contains notes on Home Office visits and interviews with Rwandan authorities, records that to date asylum-seekers have only been offered temporary protection, renewable after three months. They do not have the right to work, but rather to apply for a jobseeker visa.

The UNHCR and refugee support organisations criticised the UK government, over the lack of guarantees including in the MoU, and noted that transferring states still had obligations over refugees sent on to third countries, at the very least ensuring respect for the principle of non-refoulement. The UNHCR further added:

‘Arrangements should be aimed at enhancing burden- and responsibility-sharing and international/ regional cooperation and should not result in burden-shifting. Such arrangements need to contribute to the enhancement of the overall protection space in the transferring State, the receiving State and/or the region as a whole. Transfer arrangements would not be appropriate where they represent an attempt, in whole or part, by a 1951 Convention State party to divest itself of responsibility; or where they are used as an excuse to deny or limit jurisdiction and responsibility under international refugee and human rights law.’

The UNHCR concluded that the arrangement failed to meet these standards and specifically found that it ‘did not contribute to burden- and responsibility-sharing, nor enhance international cooperation or enhance the protection space in any State’.

In spite of widespread criticism, in spring 2022, the Home Office under the direction of the former Home Secretary Priti Patel, accelerated the Rwanda removal project. The Home Office issued Removal Directions for 14 June 2022, and a charter flight managed by Privilege Style was waiting on the tarmac. The prospect of removal looked imminent. Last minute legal interventions had proven unsuccessful: the High Court had refused the applicants’ request for interim relief, and the Court of Appeal also rejected an application to appeal against the initial decision.

The UK government was ultimately blocked following an application for Rule 39 (interim measures) by the European Court of Human Rights in N.S.K. v. the United Kingdom (application no. 28774/22), (formerly K.N. v. United Kingdom) and following an appeal from the UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, especially women and children, Siobhán Mullally.  However temporary, the decision from Strasbourg was a crucially important victory for both the Iraqi appellant, and the other asylum-seekers who were due to follow him onto the deportation flight to Kigali. Their removal was then stayed by additional last-minute injunctions by the Court of Appeal and Upper Tribunal, and, to date, none of the targeted asylum-seekers has been removed to Rwanda.

The decision by Strasbourg also allowed for the possibility of further judicial review and set a timeline that there should be no removals until three weeks after the conclusion of domestic proceedings, which have continued in the intervening months.  On 19 December 2022, the High Court ruled that the removal plan was lawful. Lord Justice Lewis and Lord Justice Swift ruled that the decision itself was lawful since the Home Secretary had conducted a “thorough examination” of “all relevant generally available information”. In so doing, the court set aside the substantive criticisms made by the UNHCR, Asylum Aid and Care4Calais.  

Since the December 2022 decision, the prospect of removals has been incorporated into the Illegal Migration Bill which increases the state’s powers over detention, the housing of unaccompanied children including in hotels, reduces protections for migrants to seek bail, and as the Immigration Law Practitioners Association (ILPA) notes, strips out almost all protections for victims of modern slavery and trafficking who are targeted for removal.  Most important, in the absence of functioning resettlement schemes, the Bill effectively bans the right to seek asylum in the UK, in favour of third country agreements.

New Directions, Hardened Attitudes

In addition to the Rwanda arrangement, the UK has reportedly explored similar agreements with Peru, Paraguay and Belize.  While Rwanda has made recognised progress on matters of asylum, Paraguay has only recently adopted a comprehensive law on asylum while Peru has passed a range of legislation, some of which would severely restrict the rights of the over half a million asylum-seekers on its territory. The UNHCR records that in the first six months of 2022 the Peruvian Congress passed 14 bills into law, six of which sought to amend the Migration Law (Legislative Decree No. 1350) and curtail the right to housing, and permit immediate expulsions and restrictions to work, among others; though other bills would provide greater access to justice and protection for women and girls’ survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.  Belize, which houses just 4000 asylum-seekers, many of whom have waited 10 years for their applications to be decided, rejected the UK’s offer.

With the introduction of the Illegal Migration Bill, the UK government has signalled its willingness to row back from its existing human rights commitments (see also contributions by D’Angelo, Erel et al and Reynolds et al, in this special issue). Specifically, the Bill disapplies Section 3 of the Human Rights Act 1998 and commits only to complying with the European Convention on Human Rights, ‘so far as it is possible to do so’. Immigration and asylum experts have scrutinised the draft legislation, and reported multiple threats to the Rules-Based International System. The suggestion that the UK is not only prepared to remove asylum-seekers to Rwanda, but potentially also to states in Latin America which have even worse human rights records, should set alarm bells ringing. In the case of Rwanda, the suggestion that the UK can pass off its responsibility to receive and review asylum claims, further suggests a dereliction of the duties expected of a liberal democratic state.

Brad Blitz received his Ph.D. from Stanford University and is a Professor of International Politics and Policy at University College London Institute of Education, and Head of the UCL Department of Education, Practice and Society. Until June 2019 was Director of the British Academy/DFID Programme on Modern Slavery. His research focuses on displacement, governance and human rights.

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Blitz, Brad K. 2023 ‘Out of sight, offshore, and over there: a disturbing ambition in UK asylum management’ Discover Society: New Series 3 (2):

The fortress and the garden: borders and civic stratification in Europe and Britain

Alessio D’Angelo

“Europe is a garden… Most of the rest of the world is a jungle. The jungle could invade the garden.” Josep Borrell, EU Foreign Policy Chief, October 2022

Since the fall of the Berlin wall three decades ago, European countries have built nearly 2,000 kilometres of border walls and fences around themselves. Still, the arrivals of migrants by sea continue to represent one of the most visible and controversial elements of the European migration regime – probably because – as many European politicians have repeatedly observed “we cannot build walls in the sea”.

The defence of the ‘European garden’ has led not just to the erection of physical barriers around its frontiers, but also to the externalisation of borders – most notably in Libya and Turkey – and to an increasingly hostile environment for people living in Europe: targeting migrants, but affecting many more. Behind the surface of political propaganda, this ever-tighter ‘Fortress Europe’ – a term which is regaining popularity – reflects very specific socio-economic models, whereby the stratification of migrants’ rights is the pillar of wider inequalities between and within states.Europe as a walled garden

Borrell’s ‘garden vs jungle’ analogy has been at the centre of a major controversy, with critics arguing his talk at the inauguration of the new European Diplomatic Academy in Bruges (available here) smacked of xenophobia and neo-colonialism. The international backlash forced him to write a blog to clarify his position and strongly – though superficially – distance himself from any form of racism and Euro-centrism. Still, Borrell’s speech – and the concepts and images at its centre – got so much social media traction precisely because they perfectly encapsulate the European approach to international relations and migration policies, past and present. For this reason, it is worth unpacking these a bit more.

The metaphor is not new, going all the way back to the Medieval concept of ‘hortus conclusus’, the walled garden symbolising an ideal of perfection, and the need to keep it impenetrable to the outside word to preserve its purity. In fact, the EU head of diplomacy acknowledged – seemingly with some regret – that “walls will never be high enough in order to protect the garden”; and that is why “gardeners have to go to the jungle”. In Borrell’s view, a plea for more diplomatic engagement; for his critics, a dog whistle call for a new postcolonial effort. In Europe “everything works”, claims Borrell, “It is the best combination of political freedom, economic prosperity and social cohesion that humankind has been able to build – the three things together”. It is to defend these three principles that the European garden is worth defending. How ironic, then, that each of these finds its mirror image reflected in the policy regime erected as a defence wall: freedom vs tight borders and hostility, cohesion vs civic stratification, prosperity vs sheer economic inequality.

Bordering freedom

For a long time, the European project has been founded on the idea that tightly closed external borders are necessary to ensure freedom and prosperity within the Union, and are indeed the prerequisite for one of the boldest European achievements: freedom of movement between member countries. Allegedly, we need to build walls around Europe to remove the walls within it. Since the so-called Mediterranean ‘Refugee Crisis’ of 2015, this approach has seen an acceleration, with the defence against irregular migration becoming the priority of the EU agenda on migration.

Frontex (the European Border and Coast Guard Agency) has seen an exponential growth in size and resources, with its dubious human rights record receiving increasing criticism from international NGOs and the same European Parliament, culminating with the resignation of its Director Fabrice Leggeri in 2022. At the same time, however, we have also witnessed an increase of border tensions between European states, including ever more frequent suspensions of the Schengen area; not to mention the diplomatic strain between France and Britain along the Channel, both before and after Brexit. In other words, the fortress is creeping into the garden, supported by an ever-growing sense of crisis.

As I have argued previously (D’Angelo 2019), if there is a migration crisis this is not in the numbers: it is a manufactured crisis of migration policies and humanitarian values, serving some very specific political and economic objectives. In my own research I have been focusing on two national case studies which are seemingly very different, but which allow us to identify some important elements of convergence: Italy and the United Kingdom.

Italy: the ‘illegality factory’

Italy continues to be the main European country for the number of sea arrivals. After the peak of the 2014-2017 period (with between 100,000 and 180,0000 arrivals each year), the official statistics have registered an average of 34,000 yearly arrivals till 2021, to then see a significant increase in 2022 (105,131). The considerable number of people entering ‘illegally’ is due to the lack of legal pathways for asylum seekers and economic migrants from the global South; something which has got very little to do with Italy’s reception capacity – and indeed its economic and demographic needs.

Nonetheless, media and political discourses have been characterised by xenophobic hysteria, with growing hostility towards NGOs undertaking search-and-rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean and a de-funding of the national refugee reception system since 2018. Strong anti-migration stances have been the defining trait of the main political parties now in government: president Meloni’s ‘Brothers of Italy’ and Matteo Salvini’s League. The dramatic shipwreck of February 26th, off the village of Cutro (in the Calabria region) has marked a new low point, with the Italian authorities under criticism over delayed responses and poor international coordination on search-and-rescue, alongside an ever more tone-deaf communication strategy.

Beyond the anti-immigration rhetoric, however, the outcome of the past few years has not been a reduction in the number of arrivals, but an increased civic stratification of migrants’ rights (Morris 2002). Through tortuous and highly risky journeys, people continue to reach the Italian shores, but are then kept stranded in a legal limbo for a long time, often deprived of rights, including the right to work, the right to access welfare, the right to be visible. This pushes many towards a life ‘off the radar’ and towards illegal employment.

It is a well-documented fact, for example, that a considerable part of the Italian agricultural sector is able to function only thanks to the migrant workers employed in exploitative, largely illegal conditions. It is a system that – whether by accident or by design – creates a direct connection between the so-called migration crisis and the specific socio-economic characteristics of the areas of arrival: something which previously I labelled ‘the illegality factory’ (D’Angelo 2019).

At the same time, Italy has seen the increasing implementation of administrative barriers to access public services, even for those who are present in the country in full accordance with national legislation. Specifically, this has taken the shape of a systematic (mis)use of the status of ‘resident’, which local authorities often deny to asylum seekers as well as migrants and other minority and marginalised people they deemed undesirable. As discussed elsewhere (D’Angelo and Gargiulo 2021), a mix of discretionality, muddled regulations and the nurturing of systemic hostility has produced civic stratification and ‘residential bordering’ for increasingly large populations.

British hostility and a very European Brexit

Brexit is widely understood as a major rupture within the European system: strongly linked to a rejection of the EU migration regime, and triggered by growing hostility towards large-scale immigration following the EU enlargement of 2004 and, later, the moral panic regarding the ‘refugee crisis’ (who can forget UKIP ‘Breaking Point’ posters?). See also Gawlewicz et al in this special issue. Such animosity was not framed simply in terms of xenophobia but, rather, as welfare chauvinism: the long-standing belief that welfare benefits should be restricted to citizens – and that some people are more deserving than others (D’Angelo, forthcoming).

Targets may change; over the years Black people, Muslims, refugees, Eastern Europeans have all been at the receiving end of this, with varying degrees of intensity and media fixation (see also Ryan et al, in this special issue). Following Brexit – with concerns about EU migration largely exhausted – discourses of hostility almost naturally shifted towards migrants crossing the English Channel. The crisis discourse deployed by the Government and right-wing media since late 2018, even when the numbers of yearly arrivals were barely in the thousands, was strikingly similar to what we have witnessed across the Mediterranean for nearly a decade. This includes the declared attempts to externalise borders, in this case with the controversial Rwanda Plan: unworkable, but nonetheless integral to the narrative (see Blitz in this special issue).

Beyond any shift of target, however, the wider objective remains the same: reinforcing the stratification of access to welfare and public services in terms of migration origin, race, gender and class (see Erel et al, in this special issue). This is implemented not so much through external borders controls, but through processes of internal bordering involving all aspects of everyday life and mobilising all sorts of public and private actors, including employers, landlords, banks and the National Health Service (Yuval-Davies et al, 2018).

In turn, welfare chauvinism represents one of the key corollaries of ‘austerity’, the guiding political principle of UK politics for over a decade. The idea that public expenditure should be systematically cut and public services rolled back has its roots in Thatcherism, but has characterized a long era of social policy throughout Europe. In fact, despite the myth of the UK as a reluctant member of the EU, constantly trying to push back and diverge from trends of Europeanisation, another reading is possible.

The history of the past four decades has been marked by major British influences on the European regime. Ideas of ‘Third Way’ welfare models, the vision of a geographically differentiated ‘knowledge economy’ – with the stratification of the European and global space – and the diffusion of practices of ‘internal bordering’, all originated – or first reached the mainstream – in Britain, to then become highly influential in policy discourses and processes across the whole of Europe (D’Angelo, forthcoming). One could go as far as seeing the UK as a trend setter in European policy, and specifically in the redefinition of the migration-welfare nexus – with Brexit the paradoxical results of taking some of these ideas to their extreme consequences.

Needless to say, the UK is also the place where the very term ‘hostile environment’ was coined, and the country in which – because of the Windrush scandal (see Reynolds et al, this special issue) – we have seen more clearly the pernicious effects of chauvinism not just on migrants, but also on people born in the country, or arrived at a very early age in full accordance with the law. To borrow another expression from Borrell, borders and hostility have a “strong growth capacity” (though he used this phrase with regard to “the jungle”). Even when originally deployed to target migrants, they end up infesting every aspect of society and have the potential to affect everyone. In this respect, for example, the recent results of the Civicus Monitor annual global index of civic freedom should come as no surprise. The UK has been downgraded as a result of the country’s “increasingly authoritarian” approach on public protests and the creation of a “hostile environment”, not specifically against migrants, but towards campaigners and civil society organisations at large.

What is the fortress for?

Looking at Italy and the UK it is possible to identify some wider elements of European convergence. Here, like elsewhere, hostility towards migrants is promoted in terms of race, social stability and sovereignty, and it is maintained by finding (or manufacturing) recurrent ‘crises’ – with sea-crossings as a key focus over the last decade. This generates political support which is then used to increase stratification, welfare restrictions and labour precarity.

As I have discussed elsewhere (D’Angelo and Gargiulo, 2021), civic stratification, underpinned by ideas of ‘deservedness’ and a rejection of universalism, pushes the minimum common denominator to the bottom, producing restrictive effects not just for migrants, but for everyone, with exclusionary redefinitions of denizenship and citizenship. Whilst the basic requirement to pursue this is the conditional regulation of rights for those who live within a country, ever-tighter external borders – and, even more so, the rhetoric of ‘Fortress Europe’ – are not just instrumental to this model, but part of its ideological and symbolic foundation.

If Europe is – or could aspire to be – a garden, it is not so much the outside world – ‘the jungle’ – that threatens it, but the ‘fortress’: those ideas of internal and external bordering which erode freedom, cohesion and indeed prosperity at local, national and global level. It is a fortress of which Britain has been and continues to be one of the key architects (though by all means not the only one). Not even Brexit has been able to challenge this continental convergence yet. To rethink the European space, more than ‘gardeners’, we need wall-breakers.


D’Angelo, A. (forthcoming), ‘The road to Brexit: intra-European migration and welfare chauvinism in the United Kingdom’, in Finotelli and Ponzo (Eds.). Contesting the North-South Divide: from model convergence to blurring boundaries in migration regimes. Springer

D’Angelo, A., Gargiulo, E., (2021) ‘Residential Bordering: The (Mis)use of Residence Status to Control Migrants’ Welfare Rights in Italy and the UK’, in Autonomie locali e servizi sociali, Quadrimestrale di studi e ricerche sul welfare, 2/2021, pp. 371-39.

D’Angelo, A. (2019) Italy: the ‘illegality factory’? Theory and practice of refugees’ reception in Sicily, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 45:12, 2213-2226.

Morris L., (2002), Managing Migration: Civic Stratification and Migrants’ Rights, Routledge, London.

Yuval-Davis, N., Wemyss, G., & Cassidy, K. (2018), ‘Everyday Bordering, Belonging and the Reorientation of British Immigration Legislation’, Sociology, 52(2), p. 228–244.

Alessio D’Angelo is Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham. He has extensive experience in conducting research on migration, ethnicity, social inequalities and access to public services, with a particular focus on the role of community organisations. Most recently he has been working on EU and UK funded projects on Refugee reception, intra-European migration, the changing shape of diverse neighbourhoods, and the experiences of recently arrived young migrants in Europe. His work employs quantitative, qualitative and mixed methods, including innovative approaches to data mapping and Social Network Analysis. At the University of Nottingham, he is a member of the IcPSP (International Centre for Public and Social Policy) and the ICEMiC (Identities, Citizenship, Equalities and Migration Centre). He is also an associate member of the Global Diversities and Inequalities Research Centre (London) and a member of the scientific committee of the ‘Dossier Statistico Immigrazione – IDOS’ (Italy). He is editor in chief of the Journal, Social Policy and Society.

Header Image Credit: Wikimedia


D’Angelo, Alessio 2023. ‘The fortress and the garden: borders and civic stratification in Europe and Britain’ Discover Society: New Series 3 (2):

Leaving Kabul – what happens next? The experiences of recently arrived Afghans in London during hostile times

Louise Ryan, Maria Lopez and Alessia Dalceggio

In the summer of 2021, both the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and Home Secretary, Priti Patel, promised a ‘warm welcome’ for refugees evacuated from Kabul airport and brought to the UK under the Afghan resettlement scheme. Meanwhile, Afghans were also among the largest groups arriving in small boats on British shores. Thus, in both political and media discourse, Afghans were simultaneously praised as heroic allies of Britain in Afghanistan and vilified as an invading ‘swarm’ of ‘illegal’ migrants (Lopez and Ryan, 2023).

Over recent years the government has introduced a raft of immigration measures to address the humanitarian crisis following wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine. Yet, it seems that such schemes are rushed through on an ad-hoc basis, without any obvious evaluation of their effectiveness and with little evidence that the government is learning any lessons from these resettlement programmes.

Against the backdrop of the ‘hostile environment’, whereby the government is primarily concerned with attempting to control and reduce migration, there seems little appetite to develop effective schemes to support refugees (see contributions by Erel et al; Reynolds et al and D’Angelo in this special issue). When wider geo-political events force the government to act quickly, as in the case of the Afghan evacuation, the results appear chaotic, ill-planned and extremely expensive. 

In 2022, we undertook a research project in partnership with two Afghan community organisations in London, to understand the experiences of recently arrived people from Afghanistan (Ryan et al, 2022). In 2023, we started a new project to understand how evacuees are getting on two years after leaving Afghanistan (Ryan et al 2023). We examine how the Afghan resettlement schemes are working in practice.  

In this article, we begin by briefly reviewing the government’s recent immigration policies, focusing specifically on the Afghan resettlement schemes, and on the protracted periods that evacuees have spent in temporary hotel accommodation. We then present the stories of some research participants to illustrate the impact of such prolonged insecurity. We conclude by arguing for a more coordinated, efficient and effective approach to supporting refugees by properly evaluating previous schemes and learning lessons across these programmes.

A broken asylum system

The UK asylum system has been described as shambolic, ‘broken’ and chronically dysfunctional. Under the hostile environment, the development of policies and legislations that criminalise and stigmatise people seeking asylum, such as the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, and the pursuit of forced removal policies (e.g. Migration and Economic Development Partnership with Rwanda – see also Blitz in this special issue), led to a “significant regression” in the protection of people seeking safety in the UK (Commissioner for Human Rights 2022).

Meanwhile, inefficiency and understaffing in the Home Office caused a dramatic increase in the backlog of cases with 166,000 people awaiting decision, two-thirds of whom have been waiting for more than six months. These protracted waiting times impact not only on the mental and physical health of applicants, but are also extremely costly. In 2022, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak admitted the cost to accommodate asylum seekers in hotels was £5.5 million a day (Institute for Government 2023).

In an attempt to clear the backlog, the PM announced a new ‘fast track’ system, which will apply to people coming from countries with a 95% asylum grant rate, i.e. Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Under this widely criticised system, 12,000 people will forgo the customary asylum interview and will instead receive an allegedly lengthy and complex form to be completed with evidence of their asylum claim. This system will affect those Afghans who are currently in the asylum system.

However, it was understood that Afghans would be resettled through specific schemes under the government’s ‘Warm Welcome’ operation, i.e. the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) and the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS). These schemes, aimed at resettling Afghans who worked for the UK government/armed forces and other at-risk people, have to date granted Indefinite Leave to Remain to 12,527 individuals, 6,235 under ARAP and 6,292 ACRS Pathway 1 respectively (Home Office 2023). Although the government claimed the focus of ACRS would be on people who remain in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries, so far only 22 people have been resettled under Pathway 2; meanwhile, the number of Afghans arriving in the UK through unsafe routes, including cross-Channel migration, amounted to 8,633 in 2022 (The Guardian 2023).

Instead of finding sustainable solutions to address the shortcomings and deficiencies of the asylum system, as well as providing functional safe routes of passage, the government is continually establishing new, seemingly improvised, resettlement schemes, without a proper evaluation of their impact. We argue that such measures highlight a lack of long-term strategy in relation to asylum and humanitarian response and instead reinforce the government’s commitment to the hostile environment.  

Life in Hotels

While those evacuated from Kabul Airport in August 2021 were moved to bridging hotels, including 5 stars hotels in central London which were empty due to the pandemic, Afghans who arrived around the same time, via unofficial routes, were accommodated in ‘contingency hotels’, often cheaper and lower quality accommodation, with far fewer support services (Ryan et al, 2022). One of our key informants from a local authority suggested that these processes have created ‘two types of Afghans’ when, in reality, there is no difference between them:

‘while those living in bridging hotels will be allowed to work and claim benefits… the others are stuck in limbo, in a hotel where meals are provided with £8 a week’.

Our study participants in bridging hotels expressed their gratitude to British authorities for providing accommodation in comfortable hotels in nice areas of London. There was also praise for NGOs promptly mobilising to assist new arrivals. Visiting bridging hotels, we observed NGOs, including Afghan organisations, providing advice and support.

However, as months passed, participants became increasingly concerned about being moved around the country from one hotel to another at short notice. For example, Liqman, who was living in a hotel room with his pregnant wife, heard from the Home Office that they may be relocated to other hotels in Aberdeen, Leeds or Manchester because London hotels were very expensive. Indeed, through follow up emails, we found that many interviewees had been moved to hotels outside London at short notice disrupting their study and work plans, as illustrated below.

When we completed our first round of interviews in the summer of 2022, both our participants and ourselves were surprised that people were still in temporary hotel accommodation 12 months since the evacuation.

At the start of 2023, 18 months since the evacuation, the numbers of Afghans still remaining in hotels was around 9,000. There is clearly a push from government to remove people from expensive, central London hotels. However, rather than housing people in permanent accommodation, there is evidence that many Afghans are being moved to cheaper hotels in other parts of the country. The Guardian recently reported that 40 Afghan families, who had lived for 18 months in a Kensington hotel, were given only a few weeks’ notice that they were to be moved to another hotel near Leeds, which meant that 150 children suddenly had to move schools.

Since the summer of 2022, the Home Office has encouraged many hotel residents to find their own privately rented accommodation. However, this is difficult because private landlords are reluctant to rent to people on universal credit. Moreover, there is a lack of available properties, especially for larger families, due to the as London already has a housing crisis in London.

The lack of transparency and information from the Home Office about when they might move out of hotels caused issues and further worries among our participants. Slow processing times and uncertainty added to our participants’ anxieties about having left their home country hastily, leaving family and close friends behind. The speed of the evacuation has meant rapid and dramatic changes in our participants’ lives. Nasreen, a law student in her 20s, explained that she tried to keep herself busy to avoid getting too anxious about her situation:

‘In Afghanistan, I was always busy with my training, my studies … It is so hard for you and it’s a new country, new people, nobody is friendly to you… I try to continue and work hard. I try to move forward.’

In March 2023, we followed up with another participant, Liloma, a Hazara woman in her 30s who was evacuated alone. Eighteen months later, she is still living in a hotel. In July 2022 Liloma was moved from her central London accommodation to a cheaper hotel in a small commuter town, south of the capital. Liloma has tried to rebuild her life, attending a course run by a nearby college and securing a job working in the local hospital.

Moreover, Liloma is also desperate to be reunited with her young son. When she was evacuated in 2021, her child stayed behind with her estranged husband, who at that time, was reluctant to let the son leave. Now, as conditions worsen in Afghanistan, especially for the Hazara minority community, her husband has finally relented and agreed that the boy can join his mother in the UK. Liloma hopes her son will be able to come through the ACRS programme, but the process is extremely slow, complex and bureaucratic. Liloma has been waiting many months for a Home Office decision about her son without any indication of when the outcome will be known.

Moreover, Liloma is aware that her stay in the hotel, albeit protracted, is temporary. In line with recent Home Office policy, she has been advised to find her own privately rented accommodation. Liloma is keen to stay in that area to be close to her new job, however private rentals in her town are high and well beyond what she can afford on her salary; as a result, she feels caught in a financial bind.

Malala, a student in her 20s, followed Home Office advice and moved to private rented accommodation in London. However, she informed us, she is now experiencing anxiety about not being able to afford the high costs:

‘I wish I knew the living situation before moving in’.


Our findings highlight that hastily planned, ad-hoc refugee policies are not efficient or effective from a financial perspective, while also heavily impacting on people’s ability to make any plans for their future. Despite high costs, the government appears to favour working with private agencies, rather than coordinating with public bodies and statutory services. Keeping Afghan evacuees in hotels is costing around £1 million per day; instead of being paid into the pockets of private hoteliers, this funding could have been given to local authorities to invest in securing more cost-effective, long-term accommodation. Not only would such a strategy have saved money, it would also have given Afghans a more secure start to rebuilding their lives. Lack of sustainable solutions, coupled with a lack of transparency and information about relocation outside of hotels, add to the protracted uncertainty and anxiety experienced by our Afghan participants.

Issues related to displacement and resettlement are complex and require thoughtful planning. There is an urgent need to learn lesson. Of course, as the recent events in Ukraine illustrate, it is not always possible to predict when and where the next humanitarian crisis will occur. Nonetheless, history has a habit of repeating itself. During the 1960s and 1970s thousands of Asian migrants arrived in the UK fleeing the Amin administration in Uganda (including the parents of Priti Patel). Beyond the ideology of ‘hostile environment’ and the apparent determination to reduce migration, the reality is that, in the coming decades, wider geopolitical events, as well as the climate crisis, are likely to increase the number of displaced people in the world. Therefore, it makes sense to plan ahead and be ready to address these challenges instead of pretending they can simply be legislated to go away.


López, María E., and Louise Ryan. ““What are you doing here?”: Narratives of border crossings among diverse Afghans going to the UK at different times.” Frontiers in Sociology 8 (2023): 1-11.

Ryan, Louise, Maria Lopez and Alessia Dalceggio (2022) Afghan Migrants in London: Accessing Support in Hostile Times.

Ryan, Louise, Maria Lopez and Alessia Dalceggio (2023) An evaluation of the Syrian and Aghan resettlement programmes in Islington.

Louise Ryan is Senior Professor of Sociology and Director of the Global Diversities and Inequalities Research Centre at London Metropolitan University. She has been researching migration for over twenty years and during that time has published numerous highly cited articles in leading international journals. In 2015 she was awarded a Fellowship of the Academy of Social Sciences for her contribution to migration research. Her books include Gendering Migration (with Webster, 2008), Migrant Capital (with Erel and D’Angelo, 2015) and her most recent monograph is Social Networks and Migration (2023). Louise is currently chair of the British Sociological Association.

María López is a Reader in Sociology at the School of Social Sciences and Professions and Deputy Director of the Global Diversities and Inequalities Research Centre at London Metropolitan University. She is deeply committed to voicing the needs of gendered, sexualised and racialised communities in hostile global environments, such as the LGBTQ+ community in Cuba, women migrants in Mexico, and Afghan and Syrian refugees in the UK. She is the author of journal articles, book chapters and two books, Homosexuality and Invisibility in Revolutionary Cuba (Tamesis, 2015) and Gender Violence in Twenty-First-Century Latin American Women’s Writing (Tamesis, 2022), co-authored with Stephen M. Hart.

Alessia Dalceggio is a PhD student at the School of Social Sciences and Professions and an awardee of the Vice-Chancellor PhD Scholarship at London Metropolitan University. Alessia’s research focuses on the experiences of forced migrant students in higher education and how they navigate the hostile environment.

Header Image Credit:


Ryan, Louise, Maria Lopez and Alessia Dalceggio 2023. ‘Leaving Kabul – what happens next? The experiences of recently arrived Afghans in London during hostile times’ Discover Society: New Series 3 (2):

No Recourse to Public Funds Policies: Hostile to Families

Umut Erel, Don Flynn, Erene Kaptani, Maggie O’Neill and Tracey Reynolds

Imagine you come home from a holiday to see your family far away, who you hadn’t seen for many years, to find that your landlord has raised the rent and you can’t afford it anymore. You seek help from your local authority – after all, you have three children and have been working for more than ten years, yet can’t afford renting on the private market. Instead of helping you, your local authority turns you away and says you are a migrant and have No Recourse to Public Funds- they say they can’t help you at all. Instead, they send you from pillar to post – you are sent to a local library to ask for advice, the local library have no idea how they might possibly help you.

You are sent to a refugee organization, even though you are not a refugee and have been living in the UK for more than ten years. Eventually you find a migrant support organization that can offer you the advice you need. You find out that even though you have been living, working, bringing up children in this country with a legal immigration status, you are told that now that you find yourself in an emergency situation, there is no safety net.

With a bit more information from the migrant support organization –  and a lot of advocacy from them –  you find that at least, because the council has a duty to protect children under the Children’s Act, you can access some support, but this is at a much lower level than that available to people who are not migrants. You are given temporary accommodation, which means you have to sleep on a sofa in the kitchen, while your children share the one bedroom. You get up every morning, get your children ready for school, take two buses, get stuck in traffic because the accommodation is so far from your children’s school. You don’t want to disrupt their lives even more and vow to at least keep them in the same school. On some days you run late. After dropping off your children you get on another bus for an hour to your zero-hours contract job as a carer. In the afternoons you take your children to the library, the swimming pool, to try to give them as much normality as you can.

But because of the distance, your youngest child is still late for school sometimes. The teacher thinks that you are late because you don’t care about your children’s education. They assign you to a parenting class. At the parenting class you are told how best to play with your children. One day there is a fire in the house next door. The fire is put out, but your flat is full of toxic residue. You are worried about your and the children’s health  and ask the local authority for help. You are told that there is no problem as the fire was in the neighbors’ home, not in yours – it takes months to persuade the local authority to find you new, temporary accommodation.

When you tell people about these experiences, they think that you have brought this upon yourself: ‘Why didn’t you stay with your husband?’ ‘Why didn’t you find better accommodation?’ ‘How come you are not earning more?’ ‘Why did you even have children in the first place?’

Sounds grim? We have heard stories like this from many of the mothers we worked with in our research on the ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ policy. This policy means that migrants who are subject to migration controls cannot access a range of public services and financial support, including housing and income support – effectively meaning that the safety net – thin and tenuous though it is for everyone – that citizens can access is withheld from migrants.

This rule has existed for decades under both Labour and Conservative governments, but in 2012, Theresa May’s introduction of the Hostile Environment towards migrants meant that this policy was widened to affect anyone without indefinite leave to remain, refugee status and some other exceptions. It applies to migrants with a legal residence as well as those who are overstayers or undocumented (see also papers by D’Angelo and Reynolds et al, in this special issue).

Yet, achieving indefinite leave to remain is a long and costly process,  and can take many years. Even though migrants can achieve these statuses officially in 5 or 10 years, if they miss a deadline, for example because they have not managed to raise the necessary fees, they are sent back to the start of the 5 or 10 year route.

Does this sound like a horror story, exaggerated for effect? You might be forgiven for finding all of this hard to believe. And you will find yourself in good company which includes the then prime minister Boris Johnson who was questioned about the detrimental effects of the No Recourse to Public Funds policy by Stephen Timms, Chair of the Work and Pension Committee, in May 2020. Timms drew attention to the nearly 1.4 million people, including 175,000 children, living with no recourse to public funds at the time, going through the pandemic. Johnson responded that he did not know about his own government’s NRPF rules.

We started working with migrant mothers with No Recourse to Public funds during the Participatory Arts and Social Action Research project. This project used participatory theatre and walking methods to learn about the effects of the NRPF policy on migrant mothers and their families. We also used these methods to enable the women who are affected by this policy to engage in a dialogue with practitioners and policy makers.

As migrant families affected by these policies are often pushed into precarious living conditions, including poverty, destitution and homelessness, our participants’ priorities were to ensure their own and their children’s survival, finding and negotiating accommodation or money. This meant they had little time and energy to even consider reflecting on and engaging with practitioners and policy makers to share their lived realities and challenge this policy. In addition, the condition of NRPF often created feelings of shame, and made them vulnerable to exploitation.

All of this made it particularly difficult to talk about their experiences, increasing their social isolation. Coming together in a group with other mothers in the same situation was an opportunity to share their experiences, reflect on them collectively and with the researchers. Using participatory creative methods helped to share these experiences. The methods allowed the mothers  to sidestep and challenge prevailing public discourses which blame migrants and exacerbated racist and sexist stereotypes. You can see some of this work  on our website, especially the short film ‘Black Women Act!’.

The research project was a participatory action project, which aims not only at generating understanding of the issues faced by research participants, but also at contributing to change beyond academic debates. In this context the research team decided it was important to also engage more with migrant communities and migrant support organizations. In a follow on project, the participants shared the short theatre scenes with migrant community organizations. These short theatre scenes were an opportunity to generate a conversation about their experiences as well as resistance against the policy and the societal and state racism in which it is embedded.

Alongside this, we worked with migrant support organizations to find out more about the effects of this policy and the challenges they faced in advising and supporting migrants, as well as campaigning against this policy. We produced a short animation and a report. Some of the key findings of this report were that the NRPF policy creates severe poverty and destitution for migrants. In addition, it exacerbates intersecting inequalities faced by migrants (Reynolds et al forthcoming), particularly affecting the following groups

Racialized migrants from the Global South.

Migrants with very limited savings, assets or social networks of support – this can include both those considered skilled and unskilled.

Migrants with dependents, particularly children.

Women, particularly single mothers.

Migrants experiencing domestic violence and violence against women and girls.

Migrants with disabilities.

Migrants with caring responsibilities for family members with disabilities.

The policy has long term effects by making it more difficult for migrants to achieve secure immigration status. It also has long term effects on the parents and children whom it deprives of the basic necessities of life, such as safe accommodation or food. While no one should be deprived of these necessities, it is worth considering that many of the children affected are likely to eventually become British citizens, so this policy not only creates inequalities for migrants, but also creates inequalities amongst future British citizens. 


Reynolds, Tracey, Erel, Umut and O’Neill, Maggie (forthcoming) ‘Racialised migrant women resisting the intersecting oppressions of the Hostile Environment Policies’, Critical Social Policy

Umut Erel is Professor of Sociology at the Open University, UK. She has widely published on migration, ethnicity, gender and class. She is interested in how these issues play out in practices of citizenship, differentiated along gender and ethnic lines. Recent projects include Participatory Artsbased Methods for Migrants’ Civic Engagement, PASAR – Participation Arts and Social Action in Research, funded by the ESRC. She led the Open University’s collaboration with Counterpoints Arts and Tate Modern ‘Who Are We? Project’ investigating citizenship, migration and belonging through a collaboration of arts, academia and activism whoareweproject.com

Don Flynn has worked in the field of migrant rights since the mid 1970s when he worked as a legal caseworker for a community law centre in London. He continued with a long stint as policy officer for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.  He became involved with the broader context of immigration policy in the role as chair of the board of the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants and as a representative of UK civil society involved in the organisation of sessions of the Global Forum on Migration and Development.  In 2006 he founded the Migrants’ Rights Network and was its first director until 2016.  He now continues this work in a voluntary capacity as a member of the board of the Status Now.   

Erene Kaptani is an anthropologist, participatory theatre artist and dramatherapist with expertise in applied theatre/arts for social research, community building and public impact. She devises performances and arts events to question constructions of identities, institutional and public communications. She was research fellow in the PASAR project and is currently completing her PhD in Social Sciences at Greenwich University.

Maggie O’Neill is Professor in Sociology & Criminology at University College Cork.  Maggie’s research focuses on migration, asylum, borders; sex work; and creative methodologies. Her research publications demonstrate expertise in critical, cultural and feminist theory as well as inter-disciplinary, participatory, biographical, creative & walking methods and the development of policy-oriented praxis – working with communities to create change. Maggie is on the executive board of the European Sociological Association. Her latest co-authored book is Criminal Women: Gender Matters (Policy Press).

Tracey Reynolds is Professor of Social Sciences and Associate Dean for Research and Knowledge Exchange at the University of Greenwich. Tracey’s research areas focus on Black and racialised migrant families and communities. Tracey’s projects involve research collaborations with neighbourhood community organisations using creative, participatory and co-produced projects to explore migrant family’s community resilience and the impact of hostile environment policies; and to co-produce creative tools, and training resources for community leadership and local actions for change. Tracey’s achievement was recently recognised in a national exhibition Phenomenal Women: Portraits of UK Black Female Professors and Talk at South Bank Centre, Oct-Nov 2020. This exhibition showcased 45 Black female Professors in the UK (out of a total of 21,000 Professors).

Header Image Credit: Still from ‘Nowhere else to go’   Animator Maryam Tafakori


Erel, Umut, Don Flynn, Erene Kaptani, Maggie O’Neill and Tracey Reynolds 2023. ‘No Recourse to Public Funds Policies: Hostile to Families’ Discover Society: New Series 3 (2):

Heroes or villains? Migrant essential workers and combined hostilities of Covid-19 and Brexit

Anna Gawlewicz, Kasia Narkowicz and Sharon Wright

Villainised in populist discourses, migrant workers – especially those doing essential work – gained some positive attention in the context of Covid-19. Considered to be heroes and being clapped weekly has however been short-lived against the increasingly hostile immigration politics of the UK. How have the combined hostilities of Brexit and the pandemic affected migrant workers from Eastern Europe? Were they heroes just for one day? We look at the case of Poles who constitute one of the UK’s largest foreign-born populations.

Hostile environment comes in different forms and guises as the articles in this special issue powerfully demonstrate. Since 2012, when it was first introduced as a set of policy measures to tackle undocumented migration in the UK, the term hostile environment has gained a much broader meaning and is now used to describe the policy and practice of sustained inhospitality to migrant, minoritised and indigenous populations in various national contexts and historical times (Gawlewicz and Yiftachel 2022).

In this contribution, we focus on European Union (EU) migrants in the UK who, until recently, were legally protected from the effects of the hostile environment policy given their special status linked to EU citizenship. However, after decades of relative (though contested) privilege, this was put to an end in January 2021 in the aftermath of Brexit.

Following Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic further disproportionately impacted on migrant workers in the UK. Here we draw on a study on migrant essential workers and how they have been affected by Covid-19 in terms of health, economically and socio-culturally (see project website).

Migrant essential workers played a critical role in keeping the UK economy and society going during the pandemic and in Covid-19 recovery. Their contributions to key sectors such as health care, food production and transport are tremendous. Yet their structurally disadvantaged and often precarious professional and personal circumstances –  the fact that many are employed on temporary or zero-hours contracts, work in unsafe conditions or have limited or no recourse to public funds (see Erel et al, in this special issue) – has been largely underappreciated.   

To do justice to complicated positionalities, and to explore experiences with an adequate level of nuance and detail, we decided to focus on one EU migrant group as a case study. We opted for Polish migrants who constitute one of the most numerous and prominent non-British nationalities in the UK and are employed in a broad range of essential work roles and sectors, including 10,000 in the NHS. Although many Polish people work in lower-paid and lower-skilled occupations, a significant (and growing) number do medium- and higher-paid jobs with considerate professional responsibility. This is complicated by a distinct and well-documented history of discrimination and racism associated with the imposed ‘white but not quite’ Eastern European identity, including in the context of Brexit (Narkowicz 2023).   

To explore their lived experiences, we surveyed 1,105 Polish essential workers and interviewed 40 of them to dig deeper into their stories. We also spoke to 10 representatives of voluntary sector organisations providing support to migrant workers in the UK. 

We established that Polish essential workers were severely impacted by the pandemic with 55% of survey participants reporting that their mental health deteriorated and 40% reporting a worsening financial situation. The reasons for that varied but there were strong patterns linked to increased pressure at work, greater exposure to Covid-19 as well as redundancies, pay cuts and rejected benefit applications. These impacts were compounded by the sense of isolation, helplessness, or long-distance grief due to inability to visit loved ones in Poland. 

Importantly, these impacts were very uneven with people being affected in different ways and to a different degree. We found that women with caring responsibilities, single parents and people in the health and teaching sectors were affected most. Our interviews helped us tease out some of the important nuances here, for example we spoke to women who had to give up their jobs to be able to provide childcare during the lockdown. We heard from participants who found working in healthcare during the major health crisis emotionally draining and deeply scarring.

But our main finding is that the most vulnerable migrant essential workers –  those on lower income, with pre-existing health conditions, restricted access to support and limited English proficiency – were at most risk. This type of vulnerability is not new, of course; there is a long and well-researched history of migrant disadvantage with precarity and insecurity being ingrained in the migrant worker status, especially in lower-paid and lower-skilled sectors (Lewis et al. 2015).

However, what is new is that these vulnerabilities were amplified by the anti-immigration campaign that unfolded around the 2016 Brexit referendum and were reflected in the rise of hate crimes towards migrants, including Poles. The experiences of Brexit-associated hostility and discrimination among EU (and other migrant and minoritised populations) have been widely reported in academic research (Rzepnikowska 2019) and may partly explain why as many as 34% of our survey respondents planned to leave the UK or were unsure about their future place of residence.

This is a consequence of being caught up both by Brexit and then Covid-19. In this unprecedented context, migrant workers find themselves pulled between conflicting public personas as pandemic heroes on the one hand and migrant villains on the other. There is also a ‘new’ narrative that we noticed – of unwanted guests – which is symptomatic of the combined hostilities of Brexit and Covid-19.

Historically, migrants have tended to be constructed as villains, in particular in times of austerity. In the UK, tabloid media and hostile political discourses have significantly contributed to these portrayals with stories of migrant job takers, health tourists and benefits scroungers mushrooming throughout the economic crisis of the late 2000s, the Mediterranean crisis and then Brexit. In these stories, migrants continue to be presented as a threat to the British economy, integrity and its ‘way of life’ (whatever it means). They are constructed as different and other, and are systematically racialised, homogenised, and de-humanised (as noted by D’Angelo and Dimitriadis in this special issue).

Covid-19 has complicated this portrayal for migrant essential workers. They were suddenly put on par with heroes for risking their own lives to deliver key, oftentimes lifesaving, services in the face of a major crisis. The value of their work – providing care, producing and delivering food or keeping public spaces clean and safe – seemed to be finally appreciated. Whether this appreciation comes from the place of respect or exploitation remains contested, though. In 2021, Bulgarian and Romanian workers were flown to the UK to help address major labour shortages in the food production sector. This occurred during the full lockdown while borders were closed off for most people with purely economic motives taking precedence over health and safety.   

Navigating between the heroes and villains narratives was tricky for Polish essential workers in our study. At best, they were confused about their status. At worst, they experienced ovations one minute and racism the next. Importantly, while positive on the surface, the heroes narrative was seen as equally problematic as the villains narrative. First of all, it does not account for multiple insecurities that Polish essential workers experienced, especially in terms of precarious employment, unsafe work conditions, clustering in the so-called ‘3D jobs’ (i.e. dirty, dangerous and demeaning), limited access to support, but also exclusion, discrimination, and often profound isolation from family. In doing so, they felt this narrative did not do any justice to them, as captured by one of our interviewees below: 

I haven’t felt any difference after being labelled as essential worker. It hasn’t affected me in any [positive] ways. (…) There have been no financial benefits either. The only recognition that we received was through clapping [for carers]… once a week, I don’t even remember now. (…) I did not understand that. I saw no reason for doing that because it changes absolutely nothing for me. (Stanisław, care assistant, in his 30s)

Secondly, there was also a sense that the heroes narrative was short-lived, with a gradual return to the dominant portrayal as villains, especially by the tabloid media. Needless to say, it is these stories (rather than the heroes ones) that gain greater traction and tend to primarily affect public attitudes towards immigration.

Against this backdrop, migrant workers continue to live with uncertainty in the aftermath of Brexit and Covid-19. A growing body of research shows that this clearly correlates with migrants’ sense of identity, belonging and future plans (e.g. Grzymala-Kazlowska & Ryan, 2022; Guma and Dafydd Jones 2018). This is something that our interviewees also felt strongly about. Below a representative of a support organisation, a Polish migrant herself, reflects on these identity struggles.   

What Brexit has done… [quoting] ‘Poles take British jobs.’ ‘There are too many Poles.’ ‘It’s all our fault that there are no places in schools and hospitals.’ This made Polish migrants feel like unwanted guests. (…) It used to be: ‘Wow! So hard working!’ Now it’s: ‘You folks lower our [salary] rates, you take jobs from us.’ (…) I think that in order to deal with these insecurities some Poles turn to nationalism and the far-right. Like: ‘Oh, they don’t want us, they criticise us. Well, we’ll be proudly Polish’. (…) It all happens because we’re unwanted and badly treated and called names. (Polish migrant support organisation)

The interviewee shares her understanding of attitudes towards Polish migrants in the past 20 or so years. From being welcome for filling gaps in labour shortages, to being blamed for taking jobs, Polish people remain at the forefront of public attention. The conflicting narratives that they are exposed to, she suggests, may be pushing some to find refuge in toxic nationalism, which is highly problematic in its own right. Although Covid-19 is not explicitly mentioned here, the interview was structured around it and the sentiments that the interviewee discussed attest to the combined and mutually reinforcing hostilities of Brexit and the pandemic. 

Related to this is an issue of settlement plans. As mentioned, 34% of our survey participants either planned to leave the UK in the next few years or were unsure. We established that Covid-19 – as an isolated circumstance – did not seem to affect these plans to a great extent. However, Brexit featured strongly in migrant interviews with stories of discrimination, exclusion, and feeling underappreciated and, indeed, ‘unwanted’. It was clear that it is the combination of Brexit and Covid-19 that created a hostile environment for Polish migrants in the UK. Covid-19 seems to have reinforced pre-existing borders that Brexit had created for Poles. While the nature of this hostile environment may be different to the hostilities experienced by the Windrush generation (as noted by Reynolds et al. in this special issue), Afghan refugees (see Ryan et al.) or those subjected to offshoring (see Blitz), the human cost and the consequences in terms of lived experience have had an overwhelmingly negative impact on migrant workers.

The article draws upon the research project Health, social, economic and cultural impacts of Covid-19 on migrant essential workers in the UK funded by UK Research and Innovation via the Economic and Social Research Council grant ES/V015877/1.

Project website: www.migrantessentialworkers.com

Twitter: @MigrEssentWork  


Gawlewicz, A. and Yiftachel, Y. (2022) ‘Throwntogetherness’ in hostile environments, City, 26:2-3, 346-358, DOI: 10.1080/13604813.2022.2056350

Grzymala-Kazlowska, A., & Ryan, L. (2022). Bringing anchoring and embedding together: theorising migrants’ lives over-time. Comparative Migration Studies, 10(1), 1-19. 10.1186/s40878-022-00322-z

Guma, T. and Dafydd Jones, R. (2018) “Where are we going to go now?” European Union migrants’ experiences of hostility, anxiety, and (non-)belonging during Brexit. Population, Space and Place, 25: e2198. DOI: 10.1002/psp.2198

Lewis, H., Dwyer, P., Hodkinson, S., and Waite, L. (2015) Hyper-precarious lives: Migrants, work and forced labour in the Global North. Progress in Human Geography, 39(5), 580–600. DOI: 10.1177/0309132514548303

Narkowicz, K. (2023) White enough, not white enough: racism and racialisation among poles in the UK, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (early view), DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.2022.2154913

Rzepnikowska, A. (2019) Racism and xenophobia experienced by Polish migrants in the UK before and after Brexit vote, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 45(1): 61-77, DOI:10.1080/1369183X.2018.1451308

Anna Gawlewicz is Lecturer in Public Policy and Research Methods at the University of Glasgow, UK. She researches migrant integration, responses to hostile immigration regimes, and how urban and rural communities are shaped by migration.

Kasia Narkowicz is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the Middlesex University in London, UK. She works on issues of race/racialisation, borders and migration focusing on Poland and Poles in the UK.

Sharon Wright is Professor of Social Policy at the University of Glasgow, UK. She researches migrant essential workers, Universal Credit, welfare conditionality and poverty. 

Header Image Credit: iStock


Gawlewicz, Anna, Kasia Narkowicz and Sharon Wright 2023. ‘Heroes or villains? Migrant essential workers and combined hostilities of Covid-19 and Brexit’ Discover Society: New Series 3 (2):

Albanian migration to the UK: changing migration routes in turbulent times and the criminalisation of asylum seekers

Iraklis Dimitriadis

Arrivals of Albanian asylum seekers to the UK by small boats have elicited a good deal of political and public debate. Although an increase in asylum requests by Albanians has been a well-established trend since 2012 (Figure 1), media coverage of dangerous journeys across the Channel in the last year, and border policing enforcing immigration law, has fed narratives on the illegal nature of immigration. This has contributed to the criminalisation not only of newly arrived people, but of the entire Albanian immigrant community in the UK.

Source: The Migration Observatory

“Invasion on our southern coast”, “illegal migration problem”, “very harmful, serious and organised criminality” are only some of the phrases used by Britain’s Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Home Office’s representatives to describe (and criminalize) the arrival of Albanians, who made up the largest proportion of any nationality (28%) of arrivals to the UK in 2022. This vilification and demonization of Albanian people by some politicians and parts of the media are also promoted through a distinction between genuine and fake asylum seekers, as almost 85% of the Albanian arrivals applied for asylum. Depicting Albania as a “safe and prosperous European country”, the British PM Rishi Sunak and members of his government vow to combat those “who are deliberately gaming the system”, mainly targeting young male asylum seekers.

In examining why Albanian people engage in these risky crossings, this article shows that new arrivals should be seen as a part of the dynamics of Albanian migratory processes in Europe. These occur through different, and sometimes intertwined, times of crisis, as well as social problems and criminality at home and in other countries.

Albanian emigration from the 1990s to 2000s: three extraordinary events triggering the big “exodus”

Contemporary Albanian migration started after the fall of the Communist regime at the beginning of the 1990s. Large numbers of young male Albanians left the country (around 800,000 nearly – 25 per cent of the country’s population at that time) to escape poverty and unemployment. They moved mainly to Greece and Italy due to their geographical proximity to Albania. Although some of those first migrants have been recognised as refugees (mainly in Germany, France and Italy), irregular migrant status was typical for the majority.

Two other crises triggered migration of Albanians across Europe. In 1997, the collapse of ‘pyramid’ investment schemes generated unrest in Albania, and the Kosovo war from 1998 to 1999 also precipitated movement. While the preferred destination countries among these migrants remained Italy and Greece, an increasing number applying for asylum were registered in Germany, Switzerland, the UK and Belgium.

Although irregularity of immigrant status continued to be widespread in both Italy and Greece, regularisation programmes and family reunification contributed to socio-economic integration. However, such advances were only temporary for many of them (particularly those living in Greece) due to the effects of the Great Recession on Southern European economies. As shown in the next section, the economic crisis of 2008 was a key unsettling factor that shaped subsequent migration routes and patterns.

Changing migration routes in 2010s: increasing mobility, return, onward migration and new destinations

The Great Recession can be seen as a historical event that reduced income and created unemployment and precarious employment conditions in sectors in which Albanian migrants had been employed in Greece and Italy. The construction sector was hit hardest, as analysed in my recently published book. Under these circumstances, many Albanian migrants engaged in different forms of migratory mobility. Those who had obtained EU citizenship (or long-term EU stay permit, to a less extent) have been able to migrate onward to Germany, Austria, Belgium and the UK (before the implementation of Article 50 TEU), facilitated by social ties to those already settled in those countries.

In contrast, Albanians without the possibility of access the formal labour market have been engaged in work trips to European countries, which enabled them to increase their incomes. Getting jobs in the informal economy, through networks of fellow nationals, was a solution to get by. Such movement, as well as seasonal migration and work across Europe, have been facilitated since 2011, after Albania’s adhesion to Schengen Convention.

Another option for many unemployed and underemployed people was to return back home. This solution was most common among Albanian migrants in Greece. However, return to Albania was not always the final stage of their migration project but part of another journey. Return might be either a strategic option for individuals and families (e.g., to save money) before a new migratory movement was undertaken to a new European destination or, once again, back to Italy or Greece. A new migratory movement was often the result of difficulties in returnees’ re-integration in Albania due to limited employment opportunities, poor infrastructure and corruption.

In this context, a new pattern emerged as a growing number of Albanians applied for asylum in EU member states (largely in Germany, the Netherlands, but also the UK), considering it as a possible entry channel in Western Europe. These people were from the poor segment of the Albanian population, whereas many of them were returnees (especially from Greece) who faced unemployment at home.

In light of the changing patterns and routes characterising Albanian migration, a more detailed account not only of the economic conditions but also of the social challenges in contemporary Albania can contribute to valuable insights on asylum seeking among Albanians in the post-Brexit UK.

Albanian asylum seekers in the post-Brexit UK: understanding complex migratory processes and the need for protection

Albania continues to be one of the poorest European countries and has the highest per capita rate of migration. According to the World Bank, in 2021, Albania’s GDP per capita of $6,492.9 is seven times less than the UK’s ($45,510.3). More than 50% of the Albanian population is at risk of poverty and social exclusion in 2020, while the rate of youth unemployment (aged 18-34) is estimated around 60%. Poor performance of the Albanian economy has been highly conditioned by the Great Recession (mostly indirectly due to the decline of migrant remittances from Italy and Greece).

Many people’s incomes was also reduced because of the impossibility to engage to seasonal and circular migration in the period of the Covid-19 mobility restrictions. Limited social welfare support and weak public healthcare system, as well as housing problems, are some other factors impacting on socio-economic well-being, too. This image, of course, is in large contrast to narratives reproduced by some British politicians and media who represent Albania as a ‘prosperous’ Balkan country.

Under these circumstances, asylum seeking to the UK (and other European countries) can be seen as a way to access (precarious and informal) employment and accumulate financial capital (also through the daily allowance that asylum seekers receive) in the hope to access legal status, as recent research on Albanian asylum seekers in Germany shows. Asylum seekers can also create social networks perceived as potential facilitators of future work trips or migration. In this respect, it should be noted the significant role of the presence of a well-established and growing (due to the arrival of EU naturalised Albanians migrants from Greece and Italy) Albanian immigrant community of almost 140,000 in the UK in contributing to the perpetuation of migration.

At the same time, Albania cannot be readily characterised as a “safe country”. Trafficking of persons into sex, forced labour and criminality constitutes one of the greatest scourges of contemporary Albania. Exploitation, abuse and coercion concern vulnerable people (women, men and children) from impoverished rural areas who can be also trafficked across Europe. UK-based Albanian-origin organised crime networks have particularly strong ties with criminal organisation in Albania. Moreover, blood feuds are considered another problematic aspect of Albanian society that still persist today, albeit to a less extent than in the past. Many men and boys are exposed to risks when some of their family members commit a crime against another. The family of the victim may seek to harm or kill a member of the murderer to avenge honour. Another issue is that, although LBGT+ and ethnic minority rights (e.g., Roma) are secured by Albanian law, actual implementation and acceptance of diversities in the socio-economic sphere are not always guaranteed. Trafficking, blood feuds or discrimination give rise to people’s  need for protection – unaccompanied children included as recent research reveals.

Increasing numbers of Albanian asylum seekers may also reflect some Brexit effects on asylum policies, interstate relations and economy. The fact that the Dublin Regulations no longer apply to the UK means that asylum seekers cannot be transferred to the first country of entry. In other words, once asylum seekers enter the British territory, their application has to been examined by the British authorities. Long waiting times to receive an initial answer (at least two years for two-thirds of the applicants) (see also contributions by Blitz in this special issue) can be seen as a way to accumulate resources (e.g., income, acquaintances with other migrants and employers).

Second, weaker links and information sharing between British and French authorities mean that accessing data and, consequently, making decisions on Albanian asylum seekers have become more complicated. Third, labour market shortages in the post-Brexit period can be seen as an opportunity to move to the UK (see contribution by Gawlewicz et al in this issue). All these aspects can be well-known to potential asylum seekers through social media.

All in all, high rate of positive decisions on female asylum seekers’ applications, and in general, higher acceptance rate than other European countries (regardless of people’s demographic characteristics) may shape people’s decisions to seek protection in the UK. In this respect, rejected asylum seekers in France and Germany who are not deported might also be among those who would again try to apply for asylum.

Albanian migrants and refugees in the UK, the effects of criminalisation, and the need for future research

The presence of Albanian migrants and refugees in the UK can be therefore seen as the result of various factors and complex processes throughout different periods of crisis and across multiple localities. The Kosovo war at the end of the 1990s, the naturalisation of Albanians as EU citizens, unemployment in Southern European countries due to the Great Recession, persistent socio-economic problems in Albania, but also the Brexit and COVID19 pandemics all have contributed to the formation of an established Albanian immigrant community in the UK and increasing arrivals of asylum seekers in the last years.

Yet, incendiary xenophobic rhetoric leads to the criminalization of the whole Albanian community in the UK and creates a hostile environment for asylum seekers, which can result in unfair decisions on deportations. (see also the contribution by Reynolds et al, in this special issue). Even in the case in which asylum seekers are not victims of trafficking, blood feuds or discriminations in their homeland, demonization discourses contribute to further marginalisation and social exclusion of poor people who live without dignity in a country that is prosperous. Such narratives can be seen as a way to justify failures in migration and asylum governance and justify asylum policies (e.g., the UK’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda) that constitutes a breach of human fundamental rights (see contribution by Blitz in this issue).

Overall, a couple of recent and ongoing research projects on Albanian migration in the UK should be just the beginning of a new research agenda, as there is a need for more comprehensive and deeper insights into contemporary Albanian migratory processes in the UK.


Dimitriadis, I. (2022). Migrant Construction Workers in Times of Crisis. Worker Agency, (Im)mobility Practices and Masculine Identities among Albanians in Southern Europe. Palgrave Macmillan Cham. ISBN: 978-3-031-18797-1.

Gëdeshi, I. & King, R. (2022). Albanian Returned Asylum-Seekers : Failures , Successes and What Can Be Achieved in a Short Time Albanian. Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies, 24(3), 479–502.

Gemi, E. & Triandafyllidou, A. (2021). Rethinking Migration and Return in Southeastern Europe. Routledge.

Keskiner, E., M. Eve, & L. Ryan (Eds.) (2022). Revisiting Migrant Networks. Migrants and their Descendants in Labour Markets. IMISCOE Research Series. Springer, Cham.

King, R. & Gëdeshi, I. (2020). New trends in potential migration from Albania: the migration transition postponed? Migration and Development, 9(2), 131–151.

Iraklis Dimitriadis holds a PhD in Sociology and Methodology of Social Research and works as post-doctoral researcher and adjunct professor of the course “Welfare and Immigration” at the Department of Sociology and Social Research of the University of Milano-Bicocca. His current research focuses on the effects of digital labour platforms on informal work, while in the recent years he developed research on migration governance and asylum crisis in Italy at the local level, labour migration and integration in the EU. He is the author of the book Migrant Construction Workers in Times of Crisis published with Palgrave MacMillan. He is part of the editorial board of the journals Frontiers in Sociology and Mondi Migranti.

Header Image Credit: Flickr – www.istockphoto.com/ (under Licence) by Dragon Claws


Dimitriadis, Iraklis 2023. ‘Albanian migration to the UK: changing migration routes in turbulent times and the criminalisation of asylum seekers’ Discover Society: New Series 3 (2):

Windrush Scandal: By Accident or Design?

Tracey Reynolds, Dave Hockham and Pamela Franklin

The decision by Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, in January 2023 to scrap the pledge by the Government to implement key reforms of Windrush Lessons Learned review exposes the shameful history of successive UK governments towards Caribbean people. This involves decades of immigration law and policies, and the ongoing racism, racial inequalities and injustices that older Caribbean migrants –  the so-called Windrush Generation – and their descendants continue to experience  (Runnymede Trust, 2018).

The hostile environment legislation, which in 2012 sought strict enforcement of immigration controls, revealed that the government did not have a clear understanding of the impact of its immigration policies (Quershi et al 2021).  The hostile environment affected tens of thousands of the Windrush Generation, Caribbean Commonwealth citizens who arrived in UK between 1948 and 1973 on invitation from the UK government to take up jobs and re-build the NHS and other key sectors following the second world war.

The Windrush Scandal first emerged in 2017 after news reports showed that Caribbean older people, were being wrongfully detained, deported and  denied basic human rights (Gentlemen 2019).  They included victims who were denied cancer treatments through the NHS, despite paying decades of national insurance contributions, because they could not show ‘documentary evidence’ that they had lived in the UK continuously since arriving from the Caribbean as a child or young adult in the post-war period (Goodfellow, 2020).

Following widespread public condemnation of inhumane mistreatment of these Caribbean older people, the Windrush Compensation Scheme was set up in 2019 to compensate victims that suffered hardship and loss as a result of not being able to demonstrate their lawful citizenship status.  However, campaigners supporting the victims criticised the government of further compounding the racial injustice experienced by them because of the slow and over-complicated process to apply for compensation. To date, only 5% of victims have been successfully compensated in the last four years despite a government promise to redress those wrongly classified by the Home Office as illegal immigrants. Within this period many have also died (often from health complications resulting from their wrongful classification) before receiving payment.  

As noted by the various scholars assessing hostile environment policies, the Government is hardening its approach to immigration policies, including promising to fast-track the detention and removal of illegal migrants and undocumented workers (see Blitz; Erel et al; Ryan et al and Gawlewicz et al, this special issue). The victims of the Windrush Scandal are once again the recipients of this hard-line anti-immigration rhetoric.  In the past two years, compensation pay-outs to victims have significantly stalled, with an increased number of claims being refused. In 2022, for example, there was nearly twice as many refusals (735) or zero sums offered as pay-outs compared to 453 refusals in 2021 (Independent 2022).

Engaging Caribbean Older People in research

The impact of the Windrush scandal on the Caribbean community, particularly among Caribbean older people has been unprecedented.  This impact and its legacy on Caribbean communities was explored with Caribbean older people in two studies. The first study involved focus group discussions with 9 Caribbean older people (6 women and 3 men) who attended weekly lunchtime drop-in sessions at a south-London branch of Age UK in 2022.  The purpose of this study was to undertake a needs assessment of services following a return to in-person services after the COVID-19 pandemic.  We use the discussion to reflect how the hostile environment reinformed negative stereotypes about Caribbean migration to the UK, which overlooked their long contribution to this country.

A second study, Let our Legacy Continue Project, in 2020, involved research collaboration with Caribbean Social Forum, a community organisation providing social, health and cultural support for Caribbean people aged 50 years old and above in South London. It currently has a membership of 600 people. Our project involved eight co-created online weekly research workshops, with a group of 12 Caribbean older people. We explored Caribbean migration to the UK, and its legacy and impact. The personal stories and artefacts shared led to a live gallery exhibition in October 2020 and an online gallery launched November 2021 (Hockham et al, 2022).  The study took place during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. Consequently, workshops were conducted over Zoom and, for the exhibition, we had to find new visual representative ways of discussing issues of ‘race’, racism, and themes of representation that emerged out of the Windrush scandal.  


A main finding to emerge is how this scandal challenged participants’ experience of what it means to be settled in a country, despite living here for 60-70 years.  They expressed fears that their UK citizenship status could be removed without notice, and their access to health and social care and state benefits, their pensions, and homes. The following quotation by Dorothy, age 74, a retired nurse, highlights this concern:

My dearest wish is to go home to Grenada, [to] visit my brother and my nieces and family before I die. But I can’t travel because first it was COVID that stopped me from travelling and now we are hearing all these stories of people going home for a holiday and they can’t get back into the country when land at Heathrow [passport control], or they are deported. This has made me scared to take the chance as I don’t want any problems.

The Caribbean older people in the ‘Let our Legacy Continue’ study, noted the care and attention taken to share the stories, documents and co-curate the materials for the exhibition. This is in direct contrast to how immigration records of Caribbean people held by UK government were destroyed, ensuring that people were unable to get documentation to prove their immigration status. 

Participants shared the view that the destruction of documents was not an accident or unintentional action by the Home Office as media reports concluded when the scandal was exposed. Instead, this represented a wilful, and deliberate act by the Government to prevent citizenship claims by Caribbean people; underlying the fact that racism lies at the heart of the immigration policies and the laws governing Caribbean migrants’ application for UK citizenship.

They shared personal experiences of how immigration laws are actively used against Caribbean and other racialised migrant ethnic groups to remind them of not belonging in the UK, despite living and actively contributing to society for many decades.  The state endorsement of immigration policies, which act as a barrier to Caribbean people exercising citizenship rights, also encourage racist attitudes, behaviour  and discrimination from members of the public and across a broad spectrum of societal institutions.

One example of this, emerging during the focus groups and workshops discussions, was stories shared about the 1981 British Nationality Act, and how this immigration legislation was designed to prevent Caribbean people from securing citizenship. It would eventually lead to the Windrush Scandal. The previous legislation, the 1971 Immigration Act, confirmed that the Windrush generation had, and have, the right of abode in the UK. But they were not given any documents to demonstrate this status. Nor were records kept. They had no reason to doubt their status, or that they belonged in the UK. They could not have been expected to know the complexity of the law as it changed around them. By the early 1980s, then PM Margaret Thatcher expressed concern that “people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture”. This resulted in the 1981 British Nationality Act requiring citizens from ‘new Commonwealth’ territories who had settled in the UK to register to become British citizens.  

The participants recalled that the application process for registering for citizenship discouraged members of the Windrush generation from exercising their time-limited right to register as British citizens, meaning that Caribbean people lost their right to remain.  Many people did not realise the change in immigration law directly impacted them, primarily because they arrived on passports which had ‘territory of UK’, so they thought change in legislation did not apply to them.  Also, adults who arrived in UK as babies and children on their parents’ passports, and had never travelled, did have not passports or documentation confirming their citizenship status.

Speaking to Caribbean older people about this period, they recalled this policy change was not well promoted or publicized by UK media and Home Office; instead, those that have re-applied for citizenship were made aware of the need to do, primarily by news of the important change to immigration status travelling by word of mouth and people’s social networks. This meant that others who did not have the contacts and networks missed out on this news.  A common viewpoint shared by the participants that the lack of public attention was motivated by racist immigration legislation, specifically the Government’s agenda to reduce the UK’s non-white population. This belief was further strengthened by the political and social environment. Following the 1981 Brixton riots, the national mood was hostile against Caribbean people, and so there was a lack of public outcry or wider support against this injustice.

Fear and suspicion by Caribbean older people were also now embedded in everyday interactions, with health social and welfare providers. Following the declaration of a ‘hostile environment’, those working in these agencies have been turned into enforcement officers, policing racialised migrants’ citizenship status and their access to public services.  Findings suggest that Caribbean people are now less likely to turn to support from these agencies.  This is particularly worrying because COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the way in which structural racism, health inequalities and increased social isolation and loneliness impact BAME older people. They are therefore more likely to need health and social care services. If they chose not to access public services, a knock-on effect is the additional demands on community services and voluntary providers to address these needs.

However, voluntary and community sector are already overstretched, a legacy of the government’s austerity agenda, resulting in cuts to funding level and service provision. Yet, In the face of hardening immigration legislation towards migrants, local voluntary and community organisations are being increasingly asked to step in to provide additional care services, that previously provided by statutory care providers.

This also meant pivoting their services to support victims and their families impacted by the Windrush scandal. For instance, both Age UK, and Caribbean Social Forum, offer free legal advice and services to help victims of the immigration scandal apply for compensation. They also offer advice and information to family members, who are supporting these victims. This includes bereavement service, to supports family members who have ‘lost’ individuals because of deportation to the Caribbean.  There is also a concern for physical and psychological impacts on older people detained and deported. Not only are they separated from their family and community networks in the UK, but they are deported back to countries, places they might have migrated from years ago, with no family ties or cultural connections to the place they left.

We also used the theme of legacy to relate the Windrush Scandal and its impact on the descendants of Caribbean older people. One aspect, often overlooked in research, is that future generations have been trapped within the system because of hostile environment policies. This includes the Windrush Kids, young people born to undocumented parents, and who only become aware of their irregular migration status when they reach 18 years old, or apply for university or for a job. A report by Coram Children’s Legal Centre highlighted that as many as 100,000 undocumented young people are unable to prove they are British citizens, despite them being technically UK citizens, who are born, and grew up in the country. The complexity of the immigration systems, and high costs to regularise their status prevents them getting the paperwork to prove their citizenship, leaving them in legal limbo.

To conclude, there is compelling evidence to indicate the Windrush Scandal was not an accident, as suggested by policymakers, but was created by design as the deliberate and inevitable action to make life impossible for racialised migrants in UK, and to remind them that no matter how long they reside or settle in UK, they are considered as not completely belonging here.  What clearly emerges as a legacy of the Windrush Scandal is that Caribbean older people and later generations, can never be deemed as truly settled because of the way they continue to experience a fragile and precarious relationship to UK citizenship.


Gentleman, A (2019) The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment, Guardian Faber Publishing

Goodfellow, M (2020) Hostile Environment: How immigrants Became Scapegoats, London: Verso

Tracey Reynolds is Professor of Social Sciences and Associate Dean for Research and Knowledge Exchange at the University of Greenwich. Tracey’s research areas focus on Black and racialised migrant families and communities. Tracey’s projects involve research collaborations with neighbourhood community organisations using creative, participatory and co-produced projects to explore migrant family’s community resilience and the impact of hostile environment policies; and to co-produce creative tools, and training resources for community leadership and local actions for change. Tracey’s achievement was recently recognised in a national exhibition Phenomenal Women: Portraits of UK Black Female Professors and Talk at South Bank Centre, Oct-Nov 2020.This exhibition showcased 45 Black female Professors in the UK (out of a total of 21,000 Professors).

David Hockham is a Senior Lecturer in Theatre and Scenography and Associate Head of School for Student Success in the School of Stage and Screen at the University of Greenwich.  As a Scenographer, David is interested in the process of creating worlds on and off stage, thinking through how social and material components come together to form activities,  structures and systems within differing contexts: education, work and beyond.  Alongside this, David is co-director of internationally touring theatre company, Dead Rabbits, which tells stories from often under-represented perspectives. 

Pamela Franklin is registered disabled and the Chair of the Caribbean Social Forum a group formed to support the social and wellbeing of the Windrush Generation aged 50+.    The Chair and the committee work at creating various programmes to keep members engaged.  This includes working in partnership with establishments that are looking at increasing their older and ethnic majority audiences or learning about individual history from leaving the Caribbean to settling in the UK.    Pamela is also a trustee of St Georges Garrison Church and was recently given an Honorary Doctorate of the University of Greenwich. 

Header Image Credit: Ingrid Pollard and Caribbean Social Forum


Reynolds, Tracey, Dave Hockham and Pamela Franklin 2023. ‘Windrush Scandal: By Accident or Design?’ Discover Society: New Series 3 (2):