Climate movements and the hostile environment

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Maya Goodfellow: 'There are people all over the world organising against borders and imagining another world.'


Maya Goodfellow's Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats is an essential book about the multiple injustices inflicted on immigrants in the UK by politicians, the media and the UK’s imperial history.

In her book, Maya gives an excellent and detailed description of how prejudices against immigration are created through political action, rhetoric and historical legacies. 

In this interview, Maya discusses the features of the anti-immigration debate and alternatives to anti-immigration politics, as well as the relationships between climate change and migration and why it’s important that the climate movement is aware of these issues.

Maria Sakellari: First of all, could you explain how the book came about and what the ‘hostile environment’ means in practice?

Maya Goodfellow: One of the reasons that I decided to write this book was that after the EU referendum, there was a sense that the Brexit vote had turned the UK into a place it had never been before.

But while it is important to recognise the specific forms of marginalisation, racism and discrimination that exist in the UK and that were tied up with the referendum, to think that this country had never been unwelcoming prior to 2016 is to ignore or erase a lengthy history of anti-immigration politics.

Therefore, one of the aims of the book was to uncover, explain and analyse this history. The UK has been a hostile environment for immigrants for decades.

The book also looks at the contemporary hostile environment, which is a set of policies introduced through the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts and that are designed to make life unbearable for people without the correct documentation.

In practice, that means people who cannot prove that they are legally in the UK are locked out of housing and work and cannot access certain healthcare. It turns doctors, nurses and landlords into border guards – forcing them to check people’s documentation – and many people are left destitute, without some of the most basic things they need to live. 

MS: Racism is a big theme in your book. You write about how it is structuring the debate around immigration. You explain in the book how immigrants are mispresented as disruptive to the stability of the country and that very few public debates are concerned with how difficult it can be to an immigrant or refugee.

In this broader anti-immigration environment, do you think there is a way to challenge the racialization of immigration and help create new meanings about immigration in the public sphere? How can the voices of immigrants be best integrated into public debates around immigration?

MG: It is possible to counter the racialisation of immigrants and part of this is about rejecting the anti-immigration narratives that blame people coming into the country for all of the UK’s ills.

The idea that immigration is bad for the economy or for ‘culture’ must be challenged. Many of the people I interviewed for the book, who were having to navigate the immigration system, said they felt incredibly frustrated and upset by these narratives.

However, we also need to better understand UK history. If we learned about and made sense of Empire and how colonialism functioned then we might – as Professor Gurminder Bhambra told me – see that many people who came to the UK in the post-war period, came not as immigrants but as citizens from colonies and former colonies.

People like my mum who moved here from India would then be seen as not ‘outsiders’ but as part of this country’s history. This would allow us to challenge and change how immigration and immigrants are understood in the contemporary moment, as we would begin to see that the UK has never really ‘gone it alone’, but has long had complex and often exploitative relationships with other parts of the world.

Understanding this would also allow us to get to grips with how race was constructed during Empire to justify subjugation in the colonies and how race now functions in the debate as a way of casting certain groups of ‘migrants’ as a threat to the UK.

MS: You describe in the book how left politicians and left-leaning governments - for example, the New Labour government - perpetuated mainstream xenophobic policies. Looking at how the left has helped to sustain anti-migrantion norms, how can progressive policies around immigration prevail? How can we, as citizens, help to defy anti-immigration policies?

MG: I felt it important to look at how there was complicity across the political spectrum in reproducing anti-immigration politics. Racist pieces of immigration legislation, for instance, were not only introduced in the sixties and seventies by Conservative governments but by Labour governments too.

That isn’t to say there hasn’t been powerful and important resistance to this politics, but rather that anti-immigration views are not natural or born in a vacuum but situated in a context where immigration has been broadly problematised for decades.

The left, I think, needs to put migrant justice at the heart of its understanding of class struggle. By doing so, anti-immigration norms could be further challenged and this would help pave the way toward less violent policy. 

As well as that, volunteering at or donating to local immigration support centers is a crucial way to resist some of this anti-migrant politics – not out of charity, but solidarity. Some of those on the frontlines of our public services can resist the hostile environment, as organisations like Docs Not Cops remind us. 

MS: You concentrate on the Brexit referendum in the book and talk about Remain advocates - such as former British Prime Minister David Cameron - who spent years blaming immigration for crumbling public services and further criminalised migration.

You explain in the book how people’s concerns about immigration were treated as ‘legitimate’ by both Remain and Leave advocates and how this helped lay the groundwork of the central anti-immigration messages of the Leave campaign.

What do you think will be the future of immigration politics after Brexit? Is there a way out of this approach?

MG: For years politicians in the UK have been saying we need an ‘honest debate’ on immigration, but they don’t usually mean a debate that considers the forms of exclusion that have met people when they’ve arrived in the UK and the mistruths that have been spread about immigration.

As I write in the book about these politicians: “Though they’d be loath to admit it, when they talked about honesty, the subtext was that we needed to listen to people complain about immigration in whatever way they like, with an advance assurance that – regardless of what they say – they won’t be accused of prejudice or racism.” 

Locating where race is in the debate and in policy is essential to having a less restrictive form of immigration politics in the UK.

Under the current government, from the limited amount they’ve told us, it looks as if they will bring EU migrants into what is already a discriminatory, difficult and costly system for non-EU migrants. This is why the left must refuse to adopt this kind of politics and continue to advocate for the levelling up, not down, of people’s rights.

Also, what often happens is you get these quite one-dimensional stereotypes of people who are moving. There are efforts to humanize some of the debate. However, there's often a problem with that - people can be stereotyped and seen as ‘the migrant voice’ or they are reduced down to their immigration status and everything else about them seems to cease to matter.

To change that, we have to consider what more nuanced reporting looks like, who is doing reporting, who's being talked to and who isn't. I mentioned in the book that I've done a bit of work and volunteering with Migrant Voice. This organisation does get immigrants to speak for themselves in the media and that is about power, that is about creating a fuller picture, humanizing the debate and allowing people to speak for themselves.

MS: You also explore the climate change and migration nexus in the book. The Pacific islands nations, South Asia and African countries are most affected by climate impacts, but they contributed the least to climate change. A long history of colonialism, exploitation and neglect has helped to make these countries more vulnerable to climate breakdown.

Still, racism and xenophobia are also structuring the debate around climate-driven migration. For example, the former US Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking at a recent Guardian event, warned Europe of migration chaos if immediate actions are not taken to address climate change effectively.

In a global environment where migration and refugee policies are becoming increasingly restrictive, what do you think will be the future for climate migrants?

MG: The fact is that certain discourses about climate migration rely on  images of the ‘other’ and on forms of demonization and racialization of immigration that are historically rooted.

Anti-immigration discourses exist in a lot of different areas of life and so they've become common sense. Thus it is not surprising these ideas also exist in parts of climate discourse.

To tackle this, I think we have to understand the roots of those discourses. It’s all tied up with how climate change and the environment are understood in relation to colonialism. This idea that it is the colonizer - people racialised as white - that can master the environment and make use of it in a way that is good for the economy, meanwhile the people who are seen as ‘at one with the environment’ - Indigenous communities and people who are being colonized - are seen as not having those capabilities.

The future at the moment looks incredibly worrying. Even with the 1951 Refugee Convention – which doesn’t cover climate refugees – people fleeing war or persecution are being forced to take incredibly dangerous journeys, risking and some losing their lives in the process. This is due to an incredibly securitised border regime at the shores of Europe, the UK and elsewhere in the world.

These borders are justified by politicians and public figures who claim that certain groups moving to the UK are a threat to safety, the economy and ‘culture’, but also by those who claim the country is ‘full.’ Many of these broad demographic arguments carry eugenicist undertones.

Against this backdrop, it is hard to see how without a change in the debate and the development of international protections for climate refugees, many of the people who are forced to move because of climatic changes won’t be left destitute or forced to make increasingly dangerous, life-threatening journeys.

MS: In high-level climate change policies, migration has also been introduced as a climate adaptation measure. The rationale is that people from vulnerable areas move to wealthier regions to find labour, support families and become resilient.

However, in the framework of adaptive migration, people affected are treated as economic migrants. As such, they risk becoming prone to discrimination and exploitation. Their political agency, their efforts to defend homeland and culture and redress owned to them by high polluters remain neglected.

Does the climate crisis represent a lost opportunity to reframe the narrative about immigration in general?

MG: It does not only provide an opportunity. It is a necessity that this happens. The debate about ‘economic immigration’, for instance, often overlooks global inequality; it implicitly seems to treat poverty as if it is natural or the fault of people who are in poverty.

In a deeply unequal global economy, countries like the UK as a whole benefits (though not internally, given the high rates of inequality we have). This is steeped in colonial histories, where extraction and exploitation of the colonies and people within them helped power the UK’s ‘development’.

We should see people moving, then, not as illegitimate and problematic but as making an understandable decision when there are limited options available to them and in a world that is incredibly unequal. We can and must challenge these ideas and we can do so by understanding that climate change, for example, is right now impacting people who are least responsible for emissions.

People affected do have agency, and they do make decisions about how they want to live in the world. Generally, people all over the world move for all kinds of reasons – including adventure, a change of scenery, for work or loved ones. This is why people should not always be cast as passive victims, a lot of different things can feed people’s decision to move.

But for some people, they say “this was not my first choice.” What is often ignored in the debate about climate migration and migration in general is what can be done so that people can stay where they are. The idea behind all of this is not to ‘protect’ European or the British people from immigration but to re-organize our economies in a way that people have the choice to stay where they want, as well as to move when and where they want.

A lot of voices are ignored in the debate about climate migration. If you look at some of those climate talks, what you see is indigenous communities organising, demanding better agreements, saying a lot of the agreements that are reached are a death knell for nations around the world. 

It's often marginalized indigenous communities or people in the global South who were erased a lot from the discussion. And I think it does come back to this idea of whose life is valuable and whose is not; whose voice is seen as important and whose not; who is seen as having legitimate knowledge and who is not. And so it is related and tied up again with I think a lot of these colonial discourse about who is seen as the human being and who isn't.

MS: Recently, concerns were raised about the lack of inclusivity in climate activism, while those experiencing the most severe impacts of climate change, including forced migration, are people of colour and people from the global South. For instance, Extinction Rebellion have been characterised as white middle-class people protesting about climate change, and have previously legitimised beliefs about borders and threats from overseas due to climate-driven migration.

Grassroots community action offers some hope, nevertheless it appears that the climate movement is out of touch with its public base.

How do you think can climate activism take a new direction towards climate justice and help to break the ground for fair and inclusive policies for immigrants? 

MG: Parts of the climate movement must listen to existing activists and demands from indigenous communities and people of colour all around the world.

This means identifying the role of colonialism in the climate crisis and contemporary forms of exploitation, and centering those who are most impacted at the moment. It is also essential that people within the climate movement do not reproduce anti-immigrant tropes that treat movement as a threat.

We need global climate movements. We need people to be forcing governments to change policy on climate. But they should learn from what already exists and build from that.

That's not to say that everything that already exists is perfect, but I think there are lots of people doing really good work around climate groups. Some of the materials are already there. It is just about bringing that into some of these bigger movements and making sure that horizontal structures don't just reproduce the same power imbalances that exist in broader society.

MS: You write in the book that there is no such thing as progressive borders and that borders are ideological.

I believe that this is more than evident when we talk about climate change, climate injustice and climate-driven migration.

Are there any rays of hope out there that people and democracies will overcome these ideological barriers, extend beyond the ‘us' and ‘them' dichotomy and ensure human rights and justice for all, host communities and migrating people alike?

MG: One of the main fallacies of the immigration debate is that anti-immigration feeling is an inevitability – that it’s a natural reaction to ‘too much’ change of a certain kind.

During the research for my book, I found examples that proved this wrong, people on council estates in Glasgow organising together to stop people seeking asylum from being deported and groups demanding ‘no one is illegal’.

There are people all over the world organising against borders and imagining another world. This should give us hope and we should learn from and listen to these people. 

I think that the solution is to learn from the people who are already doing that work in an intersectional way. You have parts of the climate movement around the Green New Deal, for instance, or indigenous movements that are incorporating an analysis that includes things like racism, gender discrimination and imperialism into an understanding of climate and how you move forward with that.

These Authors

Dr Maria Sakellari received her PhD in environmental communication from the University of the Aegean in Greece. Her research focuses on climate change, media and communication, as well as environmental education and policy issues. Her project IKETIS, on the communication of climate migration in the UK, was awarded a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship.

Dr Maya Goodfellow is the author of Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats.  She has written for the New York Times, The Guardian, the New Statesman, Al Jazeera and the Independent. She received her PhD from SOAS, University of London.

Image: Global Justice Now. 

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