6. Implications for action

The contradiction between the British state and refugees outlined above implies that strategies aiming to defend the rights of refugees need to take into account the need for active struggle, based on alliances that are independent of the state. For much of the voluntary sector this has not been the case, and many organisations have instead operated on the assumption that the state’s treatment of refugees is based on some combination of incompetence/ignorance/indifference/media pressures, but not an active hostility rooted in powerful material interests. Consequently much of the activity that has been motivated by the wish to support refugees – and has played a vital role in helping many individuals to survive – has at the same time helped to perpetuate and manage their oppression. This situation has been intensified by the state’s direct or indirect influence over funding, and by the insecurity of funding for many organisations.

Social workers and other practitioners who are not refugees can support the development of links between refugees and other oppressed groups, offer information on both the underlying interests and the technical workings of the British state, and engage with refugees in building collective anti-racist movements. Integral to this must be respect for the right of refugees to determine their own forms of struggle and to organise separately when they consider it necessary. It is important to reassert the political agency and conscious decision-making of refugees and other migrants. This is particularly urgent at a time when policy has shifted to ‘victims of trafficking’ as a new priority among migrants for state assistance, in a conception that includes requirements of extreme victimhood and ‘helplessness’ as a condition for state support,[1] as part of a wider objectification of migrants. Bandana Ahmad suggests that ‘For social workers, it is often an easier option to focus on the symptoms of oppression than on causes of oppression’, leading to an approach equating ‘disadvantage’ with clients and therefore working to ‘help disadvantaged blacks’, rather than working with clients to challenge the causes of their oppression.[2] There is not necessarily a conflict between starting from the contradiction between the capitalist state and refugees and engaging in forms of action that respond to immediate survival needs in the context of destitution, or legal battles for status. Initiatives taken by the anti-austerity movement in Greece in the recent period, to provide free healthcare and facilitate direct exchanges between farmers and urban residents,[3] or the survival programmes of the Black Panther Party,[4] provide good examples of how activities to meet immediate needs can be conducted as part of a conscious struggle against the state.

Professionals need to decide whether they are on the side of the state or of refugees, and to acknowledge the fundamental conflict at the heart of the state’s relation to refugees as a collectively oppressed group, rooted in the character of the British state as fundamentally capitalist and imperialist. This implies that the effective development of trust and engagement with the state may be to the extreme detriment of refugees. Social workers and other practitioners can also play a role in building awareness and support for the struggles of refugees among other sections of the working class and wider society. This could lessen refugees’ isolation and their consequent dependence on the state, extend their influence and increase the collective resources available to them. In some cases constraints from funders, employers and others may place paid practitioners in a poor position to take the most effective action. This should not be used as an excuse for taking action which is detrimental to refugees’ wellbeing, but may mean that sometimes the most effective action social workers and other professionals can take is to step aside and allow others to act.

Refugees’ direct experience of the asylum system offers unique insights, which others need to learn from. Refugees who combine reflection on their personal and collective experience with an analysis of the root causes of refugees’ oppression might play a vital leadership role, similar to Antonio Gramsci’s concept of ‘organic intellectuals’.[5] Bernard Davies identifies potential for volunteers to provide a politicising and critical voice within organisations and an organic link to users.[6] This potential could be seized on by refugees as volunteers, to use their position in the organisation to extend links with, and between, refugees as users, with the aim of increasing the accountability of the organisation to refugees outside, over and above the priorities of funders or the state. Some refugees could consider more carefully the basis on which they engage with the British state and the relative risks and advantages of different alliances, and, when engaging collectively, whether to accept money from the state, which may be tied to particular forms of activity.

Everyone concerned with the rights of refugees needs to press for an end to the criminalisation of asylum and migration by the state. As argued throughout this pamphlet and in more detail in my book, racialised oppression and exploitation are not the product of arbitrary policy choices, but are fundamental to the imperialist capitalist system. Effective action for change in Britain’s asylum and immigration policy therefore needs to be combined with action to transform the wider economic, social and political relations, within Britain and between Britain and other countries.


[1] Anderson, B. (2010). ‘Mobilizing migrants, making citizens: migrant domestic workers as political agents’. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 33(1), 60-74.

[2] Ahmad, B. (1993). Black Perspectives in Social Work. Birmingham: Venture Press.

[3] Saliba, A. (2013). Greece: what the potato movement did next. New Internationalist. Available at: http://newint.org/features/2013/01/01/greece-potato-movement/ [accessed: 14 April 2013].

[4] Hilliard, D., Ed. (2008). The Black Panther Party: Service to the People Programs. Albuquerque, NM, University of New Mexico Press.

[5] Gramsci, A. ([1929-1935] 1982). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

[6] Davies, B. (1996). Volunteering versus Professionalism. Leicester.

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4 responses to “6. Implications for action

  1. I’d be interested to respond to this discussion from the perspective of women in particular as an oppressed group of people who like children can be oppressed by people who are in turn oppressed by the state and the machismo attitude towards politics in the hierarchy of the importance of the need to focus on economy at times at the expense of a common sense of humanity which directly relates to rape, abuse, violence and conscious acts of negation that are deliberately targeted towards the most discriminated, excluded and oppressed women and children within the whole stinking asylum process!

    • Thank you for your comment Jacqui. The particular oppression faced by women refugees is something I discuss to some extent in my book, and I’ll take your comment in mind when I’m reviewing the pamphlet text to make sure it is raised there as well. I think it’s extremely important, although I don’t think there’s necessarily a contradiction between a focus on economy and discussion of gender. One of my primary aims is to expose how the organisation of our society gets in the way of people acting based on our common humanity, and that the logic of the capitalist system produces inhumane outcomes even if people in positions of power have the best of intentions. Capitalists don’t have to wish to exploit people, for example, they only have to act in line with their immediate interests within the logic of the system and this will be the outcome.

      I would argue that the oppression of women has a material, economic, basis under capitalism, centring on the role of unpaid labour performed by women in the home. This impacts on relationships within families, both structurally oppressing women even if this is not the intention, and breeding attitudes that are actively sexist and abusive. The particular way this plays out for different people is influenced not only by their class position but also factors such as culture and the conscious choices of the people involved. And added to this of course we need to consider the particular ways UK immigration policies affect women, such as the lack of recognition of gender based and domestic violence as a legitimate cause of flight, the lack of consideration of availability of refuges and other support for women experiencing domestic violence when decisions are made about dispersal, and policies structured around the ‘primary claimant’, which meant for instance that many women asylum seekers were denied the right to take paid work even before 2002, as this was only extended to the primary claimant in the family who was often a man.

      • I would direct you to the following article written by Niclas Hagen, although I do not entirely agree with all that it states I think the gist of what it is saying is correct although I would add that it is THE most oppressed, excluded, negated people, the majority of whom are women Worldwide, but not exclusively of that gender, who will lead the way, we need to learn from and engage with the theorists of the global South and especially of Latin America to think and reflect about what strategically we can do to bring about social change and then it becomes clear that the oppressed of the World will lead the way, however we cannot have a revolution if no-one can understand what we mean from the bottom up and we need to stand in solidarity together despite if not because of our differences in order to make this happen together. We also need to take account of the need for the changes that happen to be lasting and resilient. . http://www.marxist.com/women-and-the-crisis-of-capitalism.htm

  2. Apols am reading Niclas Hagen’s bioculture blog at the same time and wrongly attributed the article mentioned and linked in above, to him, it is actually Dan Cooper in an article published on Marxist.com

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