The Home Office, Kafka and immigration policy

Dr Miwa Hirono, University of Nottingham (photo:

Dr Miwa Hirono, University of Nottingham (photo:

David Barrett on The Telegraph reports on the Japanese academic and UK Government’s foreign policy adviser who is forced to leave Britain because in 2009-2010 she had spent too much time overseas. Dr Miwa Hirono, originally from Japan, has been living in Nottingham for seven years since taking up a position at the University of Nottingham as RCUK research fellow. She has a one-year old boy and an Australian husband who quit his job to join her in the UK.

In whose interest is the Home Office acting forcing Dr Hirono to leave the UK? Certainly not the national one, many would argue, including the University of Nottingham that issued the following statement:

“The University of Nottingham is extremely disappointed that one of its most promising and talented academics, Dr Miwa Hirono, will be leaving the UK to take up a post overseas following  the Home Office’s decision that she and her family are no longer welcome in the country”.

In a globalised world where most top jobs require extensive travelling and international mobility, subjecting right to stay in the UK of an expert of foreign policy – one could argue that a high degree of international mobility is a requirement for the job itself –  to physical presence in the country is a sign either of bureaucratic idiocy or political short-sightedness.

In the first case, one would privilege an explanation based on the Kafkaesque workings of the immigration apparatus, blaming therefore a zealous immigration officer looking for a performance-related gift voucher. How could one otherwise explain the decision to reject the application for visa renewal for an international expert funded by the Research Council UK who had worked extensively for the British government and who is punished for working too much abroad for the organisation she consulted for… the government?

In the second case, the explanation is to be sought in the Home Office leadership pursuing electoral point-scoring and questionable and extensively criticised net-migration policy goal against long term national interest, in which case it is Theresa May that should be blamed.

The truth lies probably in between these two explanations. Either ways, there is a nasty message sent out to resident immigrants and potential new ones.  What the Home Office’s bureaucratic and political narrow-mindedness seems to fail to appreciate or simply discard because not relevant to Theresa May’s portfolio is that immigration governance is much more than just talking to national electoral constituencies and has significant reverberations across national borders. In the era of global communication it is naive to think that the criminalisation of immigration in the UK would not trigger a response from powerful foreign partners (eg. India and Brazil). Will we see another mending intervention by Number 10 or the Foreign Office as in the case of the David Cameron’s trip to India when he reassured Indian students that, despite what gets said in the UK, the country still wants them?

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Brilliant map but it misses a few important points

Map by reddit user JimWillFixIt69 - widely circulated by @brilliantmaps

Map by reddit user JimWillFixIt69 – widely circulated by @brilliantmaps

This map has had a wide circulation lately, retweeted and shared hundreds of times. It has that ‘easy to understand’ quality that makes a good map successful but, I argue, it is also misleading on a number of levels and, ultimately, part of the problem that it is trying to cast light on.

It naturalises one of the fundamental socio-political constructions of our time the equation ‘one person = one nation-state’ and reduces migration to mobility across national borders – what about IDPs or internal migrants in China (one of the largest contemporary migration)? This map – but there are plenty of others circulating around, including on migration textbooks! – is problematic on many accounts, but for sake of briefness i’ll mention just two: a) it reduces individual stories to a national flag. How would you feel if you were a Kurd persecuted by Turkish police to be reduced to a Turkish flag? or if you were a Roma who experiences state discrimination on a daily basis in Romania? Postcolonial scholars may call this epistemic violence; b) it misses completely the point about contemporary migration: one can no longer reduce migration to the Turks in Germany, the Indians in the UK, the Algerians in France etc etc; what is terribly interesting and to many extent unprecedented about migration today (arguably since the end of the Cold War) is the level of diversification it brings in terms of demographic profiles, migration histories, geopolitical ties, and languages. This map, and many like it, not only completely misses this point, but contributes to hide it. In academic literature, we often speak on ‘methodological nationalism’ to refer to studies that take the nation state as a given framework of reference for research on migration and identity, this map is a brilliant illustration of why map makers should also think outside the nation-state box!

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EU to consider (again) offshore asylum/migration processing centres

The Guardian, 5 March 2015

The Guardian, 5 March 2015

The Guardian reports that the European commission wants to open offices (or using existing ones) in third countries to process asylum applications. The article validly points out that similar proposals have been tabled in the past but never reached the implementation stage. The new EU commissioner for home affairs, Dimitris Avramopoulos, signals a u-turn on the matter… but for how long? Proposals like this are easier to write on paper than implement in practice and would require a significant devolvement of financial and human resources. The ‘side effects’ of such a move also involve some more in-depth thinking.

If one were to use the information in The Guardian article to make a judgement, it would seem that the EC is still a long way to go to move from the policy announcement to a serious policy development and impact assessment. The article refers interchangeably to asylum and immigration processing centres, is this what the EU policy makers are saying or is the result of a journalist with little appreciation of the difference between forced and economically-driven migration? I frankly don’t know at this point.

For now, as everyone who has tried to migrate or even just visit the EU from most of the countries listed in the article know, a visit to a EU consulate often hundreds of kilometers away from one’s home is a requirement for applying for a visa. Long queues, bribes and frustration are common experience for aspiring migrants. Some EU member states, like The Netherlands, even require people to undertake language tests before ever set foot in Europe. Incidentally, it would be fascinating to find out how many Dutch language teachers are available in sub-Saharan Africa (especially outside of capital cities). So, in many ways, offshore migrant processing centers already exit and there is plenty of evidence that indicate that are often dysfunctional if not corrupt and, more importantly, don’t really provide a response to the demand for migration of the majority of aspiring migrants – ie people will just continue to try their lack on rickety boats. Given their track records on migration, it would be cause of great concern if these offices were to be tasked with assessing also asylum applications. If the proposals are about asylum only, there are other considerations that may ultimately lead the EC to abandon the initiative. It is no secret that the aim of the policy is to decrease illegal crossings in the Mediterranean, would such initiative address this policy goal? In short: No. It is over ten years that similar proposals championing externalisation of asylum processing are on the table but they never fully reach implementation stage. The most obvious risk for forced migrants is that by opening asylum processing centres abroad EU member states will make access to asylum procedure impossible at home – ie everyone who manages to reach EU shores or airports may see his/her asylum application automatically rejected because if he/she was a ‘genuine’ refugee would have applied abroad.

This risk may be cause of concern for migrants and activists but not enough to stop the proposal from happening. What may succeed is exactly the opposite scenario. Assuming that it may be possible through a sustained effort of NGOs and campaigners to force a decent monitoring system on these asylum centres (which is not easy), the most obvious risk for EU countries is that if they open asylum processing centres and they comply to minimum standard of decency if not fairness in the way they handle asylum applications, this could ultimately lead to an increase of refugees in the EU as more people would have access to the application process once the obstacle of a very dangerous and expensive journey across the Mediterranean is removed, and this is not what the EU member states want.


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Who are you? Grayson Perry’s identity journeys

The Ashford hijab by Grayson Perry 2014

The Ashford hijab by Grayson Perry 2014

Channel 4 ‘Who are you?‘ series* by/with Turner-Prize Grayson Perry is a fascinating exploration into contemporary portraiture and society, as one alone was not already a big enough challenge! the series follows Perry’s creative journey to the production of portraits that capture individuals (not the usual portrait sitters)  at a time of some kind of identity crisis – linked, for example, to gender transition, religion, fame and loss of status. In some ways, it could be argued that his sitters embody superdiverse Britain or perhaps ‘we’ (yes, I’m associating myself with some kind of British ‘us’, how strange and uninvited!) have always been superdiverse but before the pressure to put people into one-dimensional identity pigeon-holes was stronger, so what is superdiverse now is the eye of the observer. Either way, Grayson Perry is the ideal person to take on the task of telling these identity journeys and he does it with mastery and tremendous insight, successfully conveying the mundane and minute and yet heroic struggles every person goes through – to different degrees and at different times – throughout their life. It is a struggle that not necessarily surface, but it is through it that our own masterpiece, who we are, is forged as something multifaceted, imperfect, and ontologically unfinished, something intimately and uniquely personal and yet collective in many ways.

Members of the Jesus Army sitting for portrait (episode 2)

Members of the Jesus Army sitting for portrait (episode 2)

For Perry this ontological instability is what we are, and in no way a problem. With an unusual degree of perceptivity, this series captures in ‘traditional’ portrait format  a range of  identity struggles and there is no better place to show them than the National Portrait Gallery – the home of the great and good or simply of the ultra-rich and powerful – where the portraits are currently exhibited.

The ‘Earl of Essex’ aka Rylan Clark who came fifth in the talent show the X Factor in 2012 and won Celebrity Big Brother a few weeks later in January 2013 sits among royalties of various sort, the statue of the black transgender boy is among colonial masters and servile slaves, the broken pot of the fallen politicians among the evergreen political elite, the silk hijab portraying the life of a young working class Muslim convert among various pious and wealthy women.

Merging together his British Museum’s celebration of craftsmanship to the Channel 4’s class rugs series, this latest work confirms once again Grayson Perry’s standing in the UK’s art and public landscape. His reflections on identity are never banal. The series is a skillful combination of words, images, photos, body language and nervous laughs that craft a narrative that is unstable, fluid, and honest. The production (the making) and the final products are of stunning beauty as one and in separation. The portrait of the elderly couple coping with Alzheimer and the slow but inexorable loss of identity that it inflicts on the sick person and on the couple as a whole is especially powerful and moving.

*The series was broadcast in October 2014 but I bumped into it on a flight to New York in February 2015. It doesn’t really matter as it is still available on 4 on demand and the art work is still on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London (admission free).


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