The poverty of the ‘migrants contribute’ argument

One of the most prominent arguments against the racism and nationalism of border enforcement is to draw attention to the contribution that migrants make to the UK. A botched attempt to make it was made on question time last night and it back-fired big time. While I adopt a pragmatic approach to arguments in general (if it works, use it!) here are some reasons to be wary of it.

1. Analytical problems of the migrants contribute argument

a. It reduces people to their economic contribution
The migrants contribute argument participates in the ‘common sense’ idea that we should value each other based on their contribution society, however, often this is code for economic contribution. This neoliberal logic grounds a person’s right to citizenship in their participation in a national economy – usually through work and taxation. But this logic unduly celebrates work as a means of valuing ourselves and others. At the same time, it obscures the diverse ways that people participate in communities and families including ways that the majority in a community might not recognise.

b. It mischaracterizes the ties that connect migrant labour to European wealth

Europe’s relative wealth, including the development of the Welfare State, has been built using the labour of slavery, the accumulation of colonialism, the maintenance of neo-colonial and imperial power and racist labour exploitation based. The idea that people without British citizenship contribute both presents this history as a cosy, consensual agreement, drastically underplays the dependence of the European state on the labour of Black and Brown people and obscures the cost and conditions of the migrant labour.

2. Strategic problems: It is unlikely to gain support and it does not go far enough to achieve pro-migrant ends

a. Who does migration benefit?
Claims that migrants contribute in general beg the question of who they contribute to. On the one hand, we know that society isn’t organised to foster prosperity for all and the widespread feeling of being unjustly excluded from the riches of neoliberal growth is deeply entwined with emboldened nationalism and border-racism. So when we value migrants because they make profit or make coffee – it will not convince someone who doesn’t benefit from these activities.

On the other, it reinforces the kind of us-them thinking that the border is premised upon. We should not encourage people to require that their lives or country is being contributed to by someone in order for me not to want them to face everyday racism, be put in immigration detention or forcefully removed.

b. The trope of the good and deserving migrant

In order to create a socially just society, we need to be challenging the ‘legitimate’ social exclusion of people who are unemployed, homeless and those with criminal convictions. These are social problems that require social solutions – yet arguments based on how migrants contribute will always draw attention to those that don’t ‘contribute’ expected ways.

c. It invites questions of who contributes more?
In order to form discourse that builds a consensus around free movement, we need to build narratives that value everyone – both communities who have moved and those who are relatively static. The notion that migrants contribute, in conditions of austerity, industry collapse means that those who need to be included in a progressive vision of the future are excluded. Focusing on migrants doing important jobs dovetails with the classism and snobbery that British working class aren’t doing the jobs they are supposed to be doing.

3. There are better arguments

a. Free movement as a right that states have a responsibility to protect
The freedom to move and build lives and communities of one’s own is an essential part of human life. Recognising and fighting for the inherent value of the freedom to move and stay in new places is necessary to bring into view socially just futures. It is on this basis that we need to convince people to support the development of the open societies and infrastructure needed to enable less border control.

 b. Focus on the violence of border control
A focus on migrants contributing means that we silence the main instrumental reason we should be rejecting border control. Arguments that are based on harm done by the individual foreground the experiences of those who are the victims of state violence and adopts the stand that our collective liberation is dependent upon ending the violence and domination dealt out by the state where-ever it occurs and whoever it occurs.

For these reasons, we should be very wary of using claims that migrants contribute in order to pursue anti-border goals. It is both analytically misleading, strategically misguided and there are better arguments to use.

The Removal Men: Immigration Detention, Activism and Art

CN: sexual violence, Immigration detention.
I have just seen a play called the Removal Men written by M. J. Harding and directed by Jay Miller. The play is centred on the lives of immigration detention guards and their feelings about their work and the people they detain. I arrived at the play sceptical: I was interested in it as a way of bringing the detention to the consideration of new audiences but I felt uncomfortable about how it was marketed as a ‘love story’ between a guard and a woman in detention. I had the following questions circling in my mind:
  • What is the range of acceptable, interesting or politically useful artistic responses to the violence of Yarl’s Wood?
  • What is the difference between participating in and normalising the racism and sexism of immigration control and helpfully re-presenting the racism and sexism of detention for the examination of new audiences?
For anti-detention activists, the importance of unambiguous condemnation of detention and deportation, of sexual conduct between border guards and people held in detention is important. Because of the political and social exclusion faced by those in detention, it is important that detainee voices and experience are represented and shared as much as possible. And plays that obfuscate, confuse and revel in the controversy of detention serve to normalise detention and extract financial and social capital for the artists without challenging audiences into political action against their existence.
For the artist, developing a play that embodies what is repulsive and oppressive about detention could be a laudable aim. The play reflects back at the audience a vision of detention and of themselves as caught up in logics that enable oppressive violence of detention to occur. Because guards are racist, sexist and homophobic, the characters can say racist and homophobic jokes. Because detention excludes people, is racist and violent, it is legitimate and perhaps politically useful to embody these by for example, failing to depict the detained woman who is in the relationship with the main character.
It is interesting that the artists, I think rightly, decide not to justify the play on the basis of liberal free expression to explore any such story about detention. Instead, their argument justifies the ambivalent depiction of detention on the basis of its instrumental effect that to prompt questioning and further inquiry for the audience about detention. Yet for this to be successful it must be the case that the elements that make the play repulsive and offensive are those things that make detention repulsive and offensive. It would be a failure if the play was repulsive and offensive in ways that obscure the ways that detention is. If this were the case, one couldn’t argue that the audience was being asked to interrogate their relationship to the oppressive institution reflected back at them.
The play explicitly interrogates a number of themes. Through the play’s central characters, Mo and George, the play explores white masculinity that the detention centres themselves embody: insecure in their identity and place in the world, fragile and prone to lashing violently out, and yet placed in positions of power over others. By channelling ‘The Office’ style humour and repeated references to ’empathy workshops’ for the guards, the play explores the ways care, love and empathy are mobilised to facilitate the operation of imprisonment and deportation in ways that empty these words of meaning. The soporific music and dream-like sequences instil a sense that the people working in detention have to remove themselves emotionally from their jobs and, perhaps, leaves the audience examining their own detachment from, and therefore complicity in, detention.
The plot is driven Mo’s ‘relationship’ with a character named Didi who is never present on stage. When Mo is tasked with letting Didi know she is about to be removed, he tries to prevent her removal by cutting her with a broken mug and raping her resulting in Didi becoming pregnant. These are the clearest words to describe what happened, but the play is less than clear about what actually happens. How Didi responded to Mo’s apparent wish to disrupt her removal is unclear because it happens just off stage. Mo thinks she actively consented, the detention centre manager is disgusted at what Mo has done and there is a dreamy music sequence in which the actor playing the detention centre manager seems to take on the voice of Didi persuading him not to try to ‘help her’. It is left ambiguous about what actually happened.
The play was uncomfortable and intentionally so. The line between indulging in the white fetishisation and sexualisation of the absent black women in custody and representing it to a new audience to critique is difficult to discern. And without a way for audiences to digest and get direction, the play seemed to revel in this indistinction and nihilism. While I had attended an aftershow discussion that helped the audience digest the political content of the play – this discussion was an exception and was only put on in response to the open letter by activists.
Art does not need to be didactic and it can usefully explore any of the stories that intersect with detention. I found much of the play’s use of ambiguity quite effective. It was necessary to attempt to think about the social conditions that enable people to work in places of detention. And it is necessary to explore what I took to be the play’s key thesis: that one of the reasons why detention is so concerning is the destruction it does to fundamental human emotions and instincts.
Yet, on the subject of sexual assault of women in immigration detention, I would question whether the same argument can be made. Here, the fact that there is sexual assault in detention is clear – one only has to listen to the people in detention, former detainees and activists that have worked hard to gain recognition of abuse. The ambiguity only results from the exclusion from political participation of people in detention and the culture of disbelief that surrounds both sexual assault and people who make immigration claims. The play, therefore, fails to achieve what the artist wants: represent detention for the inspection of new audiences. Instead, the play’s inability to clearly re-present these stories participates in the damaging cultural trope that maintains ambiguity around sexual assault. On this subject, the maintenance of ambiguity and the mirroring of exclusion of voice fails to support the people who have suffered in Yarl’s Wood and who have provided the subject matter for the play.
It is also unclear that the inclusion/exclusion of Didi a character who was so central to the plot but never represented as a character in the play by an actor aids in re-presenting to the audience problems of detention. I was quite sympathetic to the artists’ argument that by representing people in detention through one person in detention and by refusing to add to the depictions of suffering black bodies was a way to a avoid problematic politics of different kinds. However, I was less sympathetic toward arguments that the play was again mirroring the realities of detention since the absence of voice is difficult to feel without it being confronted directly.
The absence of Didi’s character was made more problematic by the ambiguous presentation of sexual assault, discussed above, and the way the marketing revolved around the question of whether a ‘love story’ could exist in detention. In the pos- show discussion, no responsibility was taken by the writer or director for the marketing of the play. But the framing of the play is an important resource through which an audience will approach the play and it is indicative of how the play understands itself. The fact is we cannot ask whether ‘love’ can exist in detention without a depiction of the agency of the woman in detention because a love story is not an emotion felt by a white man but suggests the collaboration and consent of others. This focus on the emotions of Mo his ‘love’, the indulgence of his white guilt in the last half an hour of the play, I feel took us further and further away from a confrontation with detention and its problems.
In all, reproducing the repulsive reality of detention is a useful pursuit. However, it is important to recognise the fine but definite lines between re-presenting the violence of detention and reproducing the social conditions which enable the violence of detention to exist.

2017: How to build on the growing Shut Down Yarl’s Wood demonstrations?

The Yarl’s Wood Demonstrations have been massive for the anti-detention movement. Indeed, the tireless work of Movement for Justice and others has created the movement. The demonstrations are not just shows of solidarity with women detained in the centre, but a reminder that the day to day of anti-detention work is not carried out in isolation and a sign of the growing strength of anti-detention sentiment.Two things struck me about December’s Yarl’s Wood Demo. Firstly, as I entered the demonstration and walked to the far end of the field, there were so many pockets of song and organisation, each expressing their outrage and love in overlapping yet distinctive ways. A coalition of groups representing

Two things struck me about December’s Yarl’s Wood Demo. Firstly, as I entered the demonstration and walked to the far end of the field, there were so many pockets of song and organisation, each expressing their outrage and love in overlapping yet distinctive ways. A coalition of groups representing organisational capacity to do more and more to resist detention.

Secondly, that when MFJ enabled women in detention to take to the microphone – there was a unifying respect and discipline: everyone was there to listen, to respond and to work alongside the women in Yarl’s Wood to shut it down. This unified display of political intention, to me, shows a movement learning a common way of doing politics together.

The question for 2017 is how can this movement expand and escalate from Yarl’s Wood demonstrations?

An answer, for me, must include growing a base of support against the men’s detention estate.

This is important because we know the dangers of movements that select groups of people subject to oppression as deserving of support. While policy changes may be made, the effect is to solidify the appearance of the fairness of detention without diminishing the numbers of people incarcerated and deported.

We urgently need to recognise the intersecting racist and sexist violence that occurs in Yarl’s Wood that manifests many ways, not least the numerous allegations of sexual assault committed by guards and the large numbers of survivors of rape that are held there. At the same time, it is important to resist becoming a campaign that falls into the trap of pitting good categories migrants against bad migrants. This is important especially in the context of widespread gendered and racist representations about black, male adults as threatening and expendable. Black men are both vulnerable to the violence detention and deportation and worthy of mass mobilisation against their incarceration.


I hope the Yarl’s Wood demonstrations continue and expand. But my hope for the movement is that it can draw strength from them and expand resistance across the detention estate.