My work with refugees and asylum seekers began nearly 30 years ago when I was an undergraduate at Sussex University and when migration was, believe it or not, an issue of limited interest to academics, politicians and the general public. Recently I stumbled across my first ever academic paper entitled ‘The Refugee Crisis in Western Europe’ which was published in 1993. What shocked me most about finding this paper was not the reminder that my student days were so long ago but that even at that time the movement of people in search of protection had effectively become a ‘touchstone’ issue around which politicians were able to mobilise the fears and insecurities of their populations to secure political support and detract from the ‘crisis within’.
Since that time I’ve undertaken research with literally thousands of refugees and asylum seekers in my research and I’ve done so in many different institutional contexts: within the UK Home Office, at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), with international organisations such as UNHCR, and within academia, most recently Coventry University. But whilst there has been huge variation in the stories of those I have spoken to about their lives in their countries of origin, their experiences of conflict, human rights abuse and persecution, their journeys to Europe and their experiences in the UK and elsewhere, one story has remained the same: migration as a ‘touchstone’ issue for a whole range of other concerns and interests that often have very little to do with migration itself and almost nothing to do with the lives and aspirations of those who move. This positioning of refugees, asylum seekers and – increasingly – migrants more generally as what Stanley Cohen describes as modern day ‘folk devils’ has been the backdrop to much of my work over the past three decades. And I’ve become increasingly interested in the deep seated inequalities that these experiences and narratives reflect: inequalities that shape access to food, water, shelter, healthcare, the right to be who you are and want to be; inequalities in the opportunities to migrate safely and legally; inequalities in the possibilities for people to live their lives free from the racism and discrimination that limits human potential.
This interest in the relationships between migration and inequality lies at the heart of my current role as Director of MIDEQ, a huge international comparative research project which explores these issues in the context of the countries of the Global South. This work, like everything else, has been fundamentally changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since March 2019 the movement of people around the world – including me and my research team – has virtually stopped. The dynamics of international migration have been turned on their head, with the vast majority of airlines grounded and travel restrictions confining people to their homes and neighbourhoods. From Ghana to Nepal, Brazil to Jordan, virtually everyone, regardless of nationality or colour, gender or class, has been told to stay home.
People have been forced to change the way they organise their lives. To stop.
For me, the opportunity to stop, to reflect, to breathe and to take stock of what has been going on in my on life and in the world around me has been a huge relief. I became a mother for the first time as a teenager whilst I was completing my A-levels, went through University with three small children, have constantly been juggling my own expectations and those of others and, increasingly, caught on a treadmill of work and travel, sometimes visiting three continents within the space of a month and finding very little time to fully engage with the people and places around me. Being grounded for the last five months was exactly what I needed and this collaboration with Laura has provided a perfect opportunity to reflect on my identity as an academic, a woman, a mother, a wife, to better understand my role and place in the world and how to address the issues I care about and to which I have devoted so much of my personal and professional life.
For others of course, and most particularly migrants, the consequences of COVID-19 have been catastrophic. In Malaysia migrants have been struggling to maintain their livelihoods or rounded up and detained, spreading the virus on the pretext of curbing it. In Haiti and Ethiopia there are growing concerns that the reduction in remittances will negatively impacting the livelihoods and health of families and communities dependent on money sent to them by family members working elsewhere. COVID-19 has not been ‘the great leveller’ as some have suggested, we are not all ‘in the same boat’. Instead the pandemic has acted like an x-ray, exposing the deep seated inequalities that are a feature of the world in which we live.
COVID-19 has been likened to an X-ray revealing fractures in the fragile skeleton of the societies we have built. It is exposing fallacies, and falsehoods, everywhere. The lie that free markets can deliver health care for all. The fiction that unpaid care work is not work. The delusion that we live in a post-racist world. The myth that we are all in the same boat. Because while we are all floating on the same sea, it is clear that some are in super yachts, while others are clinging to drifting debris.Anthony Gutteres, UN General Secretary, July 2020
The challenge to all of us – and one that has been reflected in so many of our conversations during this collaboration – is how to do things differently. Many of us care passionately about fighting the injustices and inequalities that we see around us yet often find ourselves working alone, ploughing our own furrow, becoming increasingly frustrated and exhausted by the struggle to change anything. What this collaboration with Laura has taught me above anything else is that, despite our seeming differences, we have #moreincommon than either of us had ever imagined when we set out on this journey together. These points of commonality, of shared experience and interest, of creating and making and sharing despite the inability to physically be in the same place, have the potential to create new forms of solidarity, building resilience, energising new conversations and partnerships. As Arundhati Roy has so powerfully suggested:
[The pandemic] is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.Arundhati Roy, April 2020
Working with Laura has helped me to imagine what another world could look like and its one for which I am ready to fight.