In search of the political by Professor Bridget Anderson

This text was written by Professor Bridget Anderson, University of Bristol and presented as a keynote presentation at the IMER-seminar 2017 on the theme Identifying the Political: Migration, racism and class society held on 24th of November 2017 in Örebro.The IMER-association is proud to present Professor Andersons presentation in text here:

In search of the political by Professor Bridget Anderson


Mobility, xenophobia and racism have a long history of dividing labour and dividing differently excluded and marginalised populations. Today this is given a particular formulation as ‘migration’. The story is one of unparalleled movement and huge demographic change driven by international and in the Global South, by rural-urban migration. In the Global North this is often presented as a direct threat to sovereignty and security. In Europe migration is seen to pose a ‘tragedy of commons’ for national welfare states as well as scarce city resources of housing, transport and water. This longstanding anxiety has become a key policy concern with austerity cuts undermining support for free movement for EU citizens. It reached fever pitch with the ‘EU migrant/refugee crisis’ in the summer of 2015[1] when the UNHCR estimates that more than one million people entered Europe by sea in 2015 and at least 3,700 drowned. The vast majority of entrants were from the world’s top ten refugee producing countries including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan (Holland 2015).

For over twenty years the outsourcing of migration controls has meant that European publics have been protected from the practical reality of forced displacement and economic desperation that is now showing up on holiday beaches. Agreements with source and transit countries, readmission agreements, the creation of migration management policies and facilities in countries of origin have kept the consequences of war and global inequalities out of sight. In recent years they have become more visible, polarising public opinion. The election of Donald Trump as US President, the Brexit victory in the UK’s 2016 referendum on EU membership, the rise of anti-Muslim, anti-immigration populism across many EU states, seem to confirm migration as a significant fracture dividing societies. We have all seen the marches, the fire bombings as well as the low-level abuse that undermines and isolates, conveying the message, we don’t want your type here.

Anxiety about migration has effectively been mainstreamed, mobilised by the right and the far right and a recurrent problem for progressive politics. ‘Migrants’ have been set against, not just citizens but ‘the real people’. Those who demonstrate solidarity with migrants are not ‘real people’. This is a very effective way of silencing any critique of anti-immigrant xenophobia. What do you know about life – you are not the real people. There is a claiming of a particular kind of national authenticity which claims to speak on behalf of an oppressed white working class that has been silenced by too much tolerance of immigration.

Migration is unavoidably political: who is in the community, who belongs, what are their duties and responsibilities, what values do we promote and what binds us together now and across the generations? These are all fundamentally political questions that underpin contemporary responses to migration. Yet one of the responses to take the sting out of migration has been an attempt to depoliticise it: ‘Don’t worry, not many will come’ or ‘Migrants are good for the economy’. These attempts to make migration not disruptive are increasingly difficult to sustain and do not challenge the underlying bottom line that ‘we’ are frightened about too many of the wrong kind of people. But how do we repoliticise migration – or perhaps better, mobility – and make it into the right kind of problem? That is, not a problem of foreigners coming to take jobs, houses and children?

I’m going to begin by considering three of the ways in which migration is depoliticised: de-contextualisation, technocracy, and humanitarian borders. I’m then going to consider how migration can be re-politicised that takes us beyond the ‘anti-migrant’ ‘pro-migration’ dichotomy. I will consider how citizens are affected by immigration controls, how citizens’ mobilities and temporalities are also governed, and that we need to find ways to challenge the constructed difference between the migrant and the citizen in part by unsettling the citizen.

De-politicising migration

One of the challenges of being a scholar of mobility, citizenship and migration is that whenever the ‘migration’ bit is on the news my heart sinks. Most academics feel excited when their topic is covered in the press, but my response is increasingly – why do they keep talking about ‘migration’? This is not because I don’t care about migration – obviously! –  but because it is never put in context. Movement has been a future of human existence from the earliest times else we would still be living in East Africa. Human movement is only contingently constituted as ‘migration’ and the term ‘migrant’ is not an innocent descriptive. British people who move for employment or retirement tend to label themselves ‘expats’ rather than ‘migrants’ (Knowles & Harper, 2009). The European Commission also rejects the term when it is applied to EU citizens. Yet at the same time it is  not considered remarkable to refer to racialised groups as second or third generation ‘migrants’ even though they have never in their life crossed an international border. Who sheds and who retains their migrancy is bound up with nationally specific ways of encoding and remaking of race. Who counts as a migrant is framed by assumptions about race, gender, class and nationality. ‘Migrant’ is a term that is used of those whose mobility, or whose presence, is regarded as inherently problematic. That is, what is invoked when we use the term migrant is a political figure.

The scale and shape of human movement today is very much a consequence of historical and contemporary relations. The representation of migration typically disavows these global connections, seeing only foreigners in search of the good life and jobs, and more particularly seeing too many people chasing too few resources. ‘We are here because you were there’ asserted Sivanandan a propos of post-war migration to the UK from former colonised states, but one might equally say it of the movement to Europe by Syrians, Iraqis and Afghanis. And it is not simply a response to foreign policy. To paraphrase Sivanandan: ‘Migrants are here because global capital is everywhere’.

European and North American standards of living – our standards of living –  continue to be dependent on the resource exploitation and cheap labour that marks so many areas of the world and that is deeply embedded in our history. John Smith argues that goods are affordable for impoverished workers (and non-workers) in what he calls the ‘Global North’ because of a system of resource extraction, outsourcing and arms-length super exploitation in the Global South. However one views the bifurcation of North and South, we are living at a time of the highest level of global inequality in human history, when on some counts 67 people are as wealthy as the world’s 3.5 billion poorest people (Oxfam, 2014) and the poorest 50% of the world have 6.6% of total global income. According to the Global Rich List, a website on global income inequalities, an income of around US$32,400 or just over 275,000 Swedish kroner is enough to put a person in the top 1% of global income earners ( In 2011 the World Bank estimated that three quarters of inequality could be attributed to between country differences (Milanovic, 2011). One might quibble about the methodology of these estimates, but the fact remains that today for most people in the world, what is key to life chances is where one lives.

But let’s be frank $32,400 is not a lot of money. In this context, it is scarcely surprising that there is anxiety about migration in wealthier states. Debates about migration are caught up in anxieties about safety nets and austerity, as the migrant or the refugee is set up as a competitor with the citizen for privileges of membership, whether these are for jobs, education, housing or health care. This is horribly illustrated in the responses to the deaths at the borders of Europe. The tourists sharing beaches with exhausted refugees, complaining they can’t eat in restaurants because of the hungry people outside, are an example of the ways in which we are being confronted with global inequalities in new ways, and it is these inequalities and their histories that from an important part of the context for some migration.

Related to the decontextualisation of migration is its technocratisation: migration becomes a problem that can be solved by experts. A certain amount of migration, the public is reassured, is good for us. We need it to address demographic imbalances and structural labour shortages. We just need to calculate the right numbers and then explain to people why this maximises efficiency and productivity. The hostility to immigration is a problem of ignorance of facts. The public is responding emotionally rather than reasonably. The UK government has very much majored in this approach, setting an arbitrary number – under 100,000 – as a target for ‘net migration’ and establishing a Migration Advisory Committee which advises the government on how to address employers’ demands for migrant labour. Depoliticization through technocratisation can backfire. One reason for it backfiring is the measurability of failure: UK has consistently failed to reach the net migration target, and only 0.26% of migrant inflow falls under the remit of the Migration Advisory committee. But it also feeds into a populist antipathy to ‘we know what’s best for you’ which could indeed be read as a suspicion of depoliticization. In the Brexit referendum one of the key claims was ‘The British people are sick of experts’ – experts on the economy, experts on Europe and, above all, experts on immigration.

The third mechanism of depoliticization is the humanitarian border, immigration enforcement as being at the service of migrants. Rather than taking the economic migrant, the agent and actor, as its starting point, this starts with the migrant as victim, and often as acted upon. In 2015 this was mobilised in claims about the vulnerability of migrants to modern slavery, turning the border into a site of humanitarian intervention, with immigration enforcement a means of protecting migrants’ human rights. Italian Prime Minister Renzi called for migrants to be saved from the ‘slave drivers of the 21st century’ (Reuters, 22nd April 2015) and FRONTEX, the European agency charged with co-ordinating the management of the EU’s external borders, railed against ‘latter day slave merchants’ (Frontex 2014). At one stage some EU governments were even proposing to use force and bomb boats to prevent them from leaving Libya, saving people from the ‘slave trade’ but confining them to Libya, riven by warring factions, corruption, violence, and racist hostility and violence. Northern League leader Matteo Salvini put it this way on his facebook page: ‘Help them, rescue them and take care of them, but don’t let them land here’ (Agence France Presse 2015). The European Commission, the Parliament, EU member states, the media, religious groups, trades unions, right and left alike all abhor slavery and want to stop the appalling suffering it generates. Yet while the images of slavery may be startlingly similar to those used by anti-slave trade activists of the 17th and 18th centuries, the experiences and contexts of the people involved are quite different. These boats may be crammed and overcrowded, but the people have not been kidnapped from their homes. They have often paid thousands of euros to escape war and violence in Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea, or they have undertaken dangerous journeys from Niger and Senegal in search of more opportunities and more sustainable lives. They want to move. And the movement across the Mediterranean today is, in contrast to the 18th century transatlantic slave ships, an illegalised movement. The mobility of transatlantic slaves was an involuntary but legal movement, while the mobility of people across the borders of the European Union is a voluntary but illegalised movement. The role of the state and the law is quite different in each case. To not acknowledge this is to depoliticise past and present both.

Repoliticising migration

So how can we re-politicise migration, take the challenge of mobility seriously, without making ‘migrants’ into a problem? This goes to the heart of activism and of critical, politically engaged academic work. It is an issue that social theorists have long grappled with: how to both work with, and challenge socially constructed categories? The identification of a population and investigation of its associated problems draws even those researchers who strive for analytical objectivity into participation in politics and governance. Bacchi (2009) has argued that social policies do not simply respond to an already existing problem, but are often critical to the production of the phenomenon as a ‘problem’ in the first place and one could make a similar argument for social research. Thus researchers and activists find themselves implicated in the construction of categories that are themselves the cause of many difficulties for their research subjects.

Yet activists in particular may find themselves cast as part of the problem – as encouraging movement and as therefore endangering migrants. One of the distinguishing features of citizenship as a legal status is supposed to be that citizens are NOT subject to immigration controls. But while it is the case that citizens cannot be deported they can find themselves criminalized through anti-immigration measures, with the rise in what the Institute for Race Relations has called, ‘crimes of solidarity’. Sea rescue, giving lifts to people within as well as across borders, provision of food and water and medical care, are all becoming offences. Across Europe criminal laws designed to target organised crime and profiteers are applied to fit an anti-refugee agenda. Those who assist people who cross borders are being accused of smuggling, trafficking, and even being ‘slave-traders’. This also serves to legitimise far right harassment of those supporting people in difficult situations.

In fact, in many states the criminalisation of citizens via immigration laws has been the case for some time as the responsibility for immigration enforcement has been rolled out to a whole range of different non-immigration actors: in the UK not only employers but drivers, landlords, registrars, public service providers, even academic lecturers, are required to check that people are complying with immigration requirements. If they fail to do so they can be fined and in some cases even found guilty of a criminal offence. This everyday bordering is pernicious not only because citizens find themselves criminalised by enforcement, but also because it contributes to creating intensely nationalised subjectivities. Strong enforcement not only reminds those migrants who are not deported that they are deportable, it also reminds those citizens who enforce, or who are subject to enforcement, that they are not deportable. Everyday bordering does not only cause fear in migrant communities, it serves to tell citizens that citizenship has a value.

The effect of this normalisation of immigration enforcement is to reify citizenship and seemingly stabilise the privileges of formal citizenship status. It presents a fantasy citizenship of full social inclusion. The current obsession with immigration as a problem turns attention well away from the gendered, classed and racialized borders within formal citizenship, depicting all citizens as fully and equally included. Yet immigration enforcement is one of the mechanisms that helps to create differentiated citizenship, by bearing down disproportionately not only on minority ethnic citizens, but also on those who don’t have money. Consider the income demands that are now standard across most EU member states that require citizens to have minimum earnings before being able to be joined by third country national partners and by their children. In the UK nearly two thirds of British women in employment do not earn enough to be joined by a third country national partner, let alone children. A right to family life that has been denied low waged or unemployed citizens.

Re-politicisation requires re-contextualisaton and the recovery of relationalities and interdependence. This is of course about better appreciating the relations and forces that drive many people’s mobility to Europe, recognising that while migration is seen as a problem from the point of view of European institutions and member states, for the  people who move migration is the solution or at least a response to colonial histories and post-colonial presents that structure civil war, violence, and economic systems that in turn render the lives of many people in the world unsustainable and impoverished. While this is played out at the border, to see this complex interaction of pasts, presents and futures as a problem of migration is impossibly limiting. Uncovering these deep economic and historical systems of connections between groups and individuals who seem unrelated is vitally important.

But perhaps too we could turn our attention away from ‘the migrant’ and towards ‘the citizen’ and the promises of fantasy citizenship. Citizenship is a legal status associated with rights but also a social status associated with honour. It seems to me that some of the claims against migrants, and the sense of injustice that are levelled against the so-called elites are indeed about honour, about recognition, and the location of honour in the nation and for some, also in whiteness.  Whiteness is not stable or homogenous and it becomes visible under certain conditions and for certain groups – I don’t know about in Sweden, but in the UK we talk a lot about the political issues raised by the ‘white working class’, but very rarely about the issues of the ‘white middle class’ – who in fact are far less likely to marry outside their ethnic group than are working class people. In the hierarchy of whiteness Roma, gypsies and EU nationals from poorer countries are considered ‘white’ yet still may be classed as undesirable ‘migrants’ and subjected to discriminatory labour conditions and racialized violence –  as we have seen in the UK post-Brexit. In repoliticising migration then we must be attentive to class and think carefully about the relation between immigration, race, nationality and class, how they reinforce each other and are contested in the current conjuncture and how, in practice, this complicates the migrant/citizen binary.

One way of connecting the exclusions from formal citizenship and the exclusions within formal citizenship and the relation between citizenship and honour is to make visible the worker citizen. Europe has a long history of attributing a strong moral value to labour from all sides of the political spectrum. Not working is associated with not having a purpose, not making a contribution, in short it is deeply dishonouring. The unemployed are often considered not mobile enough. Stuck in housing estates or rural areas, not prepared to get on their bike they must be prodded off their sofas and into employment. However, at the same time, if they move for work they are likely to find their access to welfare benefits restricted. Across Europe access to certain benefits requires a period of local residence: even before the introduction of welfare states, in many European states poor relief was limited to parish residents and the poor were liable to be ‘moved on’ if there was any suggestion that they might become unemployed, stay long enough to make a claim on the parish, or have a baby that would be born in the parish and therefore the parish’s responsibility. Today, in a move that is highly reminiscent of old poor laws, access to the welfare state has replaced the levers of immigration controls in efforts to control the mobility of certain EU citizens. To deter non-earning people who do not have the resources to support themselves, complex restrictions on access to certain non-contributory benefits are imposed. Importantly returning nationals are not exempt from these restrictions – they may be legal citizens but they are no longer local residents.

But it is not only those citizens who cross an international border who are turned into migrants. In some areas of the UK citizens who cross a local authority boundary and claim social housing are also referred to as ‘migrants’. They are subject to the kinds of complaints we are accustomed to hear levelled against international migrants: taking housing away from locals, just coming for our generous benefits, bringing crime etc. This can be resolved through a period of residence often combined with ‘good behaviour’ – volunteering, going to the gym, even spotting smoking. That is, these dishonoured citizens are effectively turned into migrants and must find a means of recovering their status in ways that parallel the requirements put on naturalising migrants.

Furthermore, while a citizen may have a right to be present on the territory that does not give them the right to be in any public space. Citizens who are homeless or who beg can be prohibited access to certain spaces or moved on. In Croatia people who are apprehended for begging may be expelled from the area for up to six months. In the UK people can be ejected from certain specified areas if they break local rules (walking with too many dogs, in the centre of Oxford for example, drinking in public, sleeping in doorways etc). In Barcelona, begging by citizens can be prosecuted as obstructing the “peaceful free movement” of citizens. To allow some citizens their rights of free movement, others are immobilised. Anti-begging legislation and homelessness concerns are being used across Europe to control the mobility of unwanted populations, including but not limited to migrants (Fekete, 2014). Rough sleeping can result in removal either out of the area or out of the country, depending on whether one is an internal or international migrant.

Thus in the EU, citizens, both national and EU too are subject to mobility regimes. While mobility of the unemployed for purposes of work is encouraged and at times even demanded, mobility is frowned on for the purposes of accessing the welfare state, and this includes mobility within a state as well as across its borders. Seeing past the figure of the migrant does not mean discounting mobility but rather considering migration as one of the multiple ways in which people’s movement has been guided and constrained over the centuries and has materialized within sets of material, racial, geographic, and gendered conditions in a way that, as Hagar Kotef notes, allowed some subjects to appear as free when moving (and as oppressed when hindered), and others as free when still and oppressed when moving. It helps us see that while immigration controls are fundamentally structured by nationality, a lens of wealth and poverty rather than nationality status alone, can offer new perspectives on mobility regimes.

IF one way of uncovering connections is by examining mobility as well as migration, another way is to think temporally as well as spatially. States govern through time and the intense focus on migration as movement across international borders has tended to mean that the ways in which states exercise control over temporalities has been overlooked. Many political theorists are agreed that migrants accrue rights over time, and that deportation becomes more egregious as one develops connections (Carens, 2013). The ways that states exercise control over time is intrinsic to immigration controls and to the moving of the border inside of territory. States impose temporal limitations on residence through time limited visas, intervening in migratory processes and life stages to cut them into temporal chunks and migrants typically have to reside legally in a state for a set number of years before they can claim certain rights. Bureaucracies may also subject applicants (for asylum, visa renewal, citizenship) to long periods of uncertainty and suspense. Without a time frame or anticipated future to work towards, people can struggle to cope and find it difficult to make progress or invest in themselves.

But it is not only the lives of the mobile that are temporally governed, but also the lives of citizens, and citizens too are experiencing temporal shifts. The idea of an overly powerful present and prolonged youth for people with uncertain futures has been noted by others in non-migration contexts. Craig Jeffries for instance has written powerfully about ‘timepass’ the increasing numbers of people subject to chronic waiting where promised access to social goods, economic resources, settling down in some way, is always coming soon but never quite there. Even in the rich world, as jobs are more precarious, homes more expensive, pensions more fragile, the sense of permanent temporariness and unsettlement is more pervasive. Furthermore, it is not only migrants who are subject to qualifying periods before they can access certain rights. As migration researchers we have explored the different ways in which immigration controls shape migrants’ relation to the labour market, and how temporary visas often push them into to highly precarious work.  Yet more generally, for migrants and citizens alike, qualifying periods structure the standard employment relationship for example, meaning a worker can only make certain kinds of claims on an employer – for maternity leave, unfair dismissal holiday, if they have been employed for a particular period. Despite their apparently marginal status, qualifying periods are a key part of the legal apparatus enabling and encouraging ‘the structural expansion of contingent employment’ (Peck and Theodore, 2012, p.742).



The challenge is to draw out the connections between the crises of increasing European poverty and associated popular anger and resentment on the one hand, and immigration controls on the other. Fantasy citizenship further benefits from the affective pull of the nation, from which the state derives legitimacy. In an age of precarity it seems that the nation has an even stronger affective pull, and worker solidarities can be difficult to generate in a gig economy and an era of accelerating inequalities at all scales. Thus the coupling of economic squeeze and immigration is always in danger of being reduced to a simple message: ‘we’ must look after our own first. We must first attend to the housing, benefit and health needs of our population. Sorry chaps. There is not enough to go around. Challenging this logic, that sets up citizens and migrants/foreigners as engaged in an unfortunate but necessary competition for scarce resources should be of critical concern to those advocating progressive politics. Promises of strong control over immigration appeal to the hope of a national labour market and economy, a stable cohesive national society and representative democratic politics. These hopes are eminently understandable, but they will not be attained by exerting ever tighter control over immigration. Indeed, the risk is that the obsession engendered by immigration only increases exploitation in labour markets, destabilises neighbourly relations and caricatures democratic politics.

I have looked at how migration is depoliticised and argued that one way of constructive repoliticisation is by looking at citizenship as well as migration. This is in part because it enables us to unearth shared ways of being governed, through immigration enforcement, through non-migration mobility controls, and through the governance of time.

OF course, recognising that both migrants and citizens are made not born does not mean that we can imagine those differences away. Legal status and social status are bound up with one another, and legal status makes a huge difference to experiences and relations. But people find ways of challenging these distinctions. A few weeks ago I was listening to an activist from The New Sanctuary Coalition in New York. One of the remarks she made in passing was that their group refuses to use the term ‘migrant’, preferring ‘friend’. It was really striking what a difference this made, listening to her talk about ‘friends in detention’ or ‘friends who have been deported’. But it was particularly notable for me because only a few weeks before at an event in Athens a person from Syria had talked very eloquently about how their self-organised group rejects the term ‘refugee’: ‘when they see us they see us as only refugees, not as artists or comedians, or teachers. We are not refugees, we are internationals’. Both were rejecting the terms themselves: refugee and migrant. Migrant as a signifier of problematic mobility, refugee as a signifier of rightless victim. ‘friends’, ‘internationals’…. How about ‘international friends’ (I have to say that this appeals to me because I have often as a thought experiment tried to imagine how states would manage a ‘friend’ visa. Why does this seem so impossibly and delightfully disruptive of immigration systems?

Mobility and international migration are indications of our interdependence, the challenge is how to make these interdependencies not just ‘readable’ but into a good story. Perhaps we can start from the insight that what is bad for migrants is not good for citizens, indeed, it is often bad for citizens as well.

[1] There was some debate about whether this should be called a ‘migrant’ or ‘refugee’ crisis. The terminology of ‘crisis’ might also be challenged, given that mass movement from the region was not unanticipated and is likely to continue into the future.


Carens, J. (2013). The ethics of immigration. Oxford University Press.

Fekete, L. (2014). Europe against the Roma. Race & Class, 55(3), 60-70.

Frontex. (2014). People Smugglers the Latter Day Slave Merchants.

Knowles, C., & Harper, D. (2009). Hong Kong: migrant lives, landscapes, and journeys. University of Chicago Press.

Kotef, Hagar (2015) Movement and the ordering of Freedom, On Liberal Governances of Mobility. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Milanovic, B. (2011). Worlds apart: Measuring international and global inequality. Princeton University Press.

Peck, J., & Theodore, N. (2012). Politicizing Contingent Work: Countering Neoliberal Labor Market Regulation… from the Bottom Up?. South Atlantic Quarterly, 111(4), 741-761.