1a. The research behind the pamphlet

This pamphlet draws on research I began in 2005. It is only possible to give a brief outline of some of the findings here, for a more detailed and nuanced account I refer readers to my book, Refugees, Capitalism and the British State: Implications for social workers, volunteers and activists, published by Ashgate in 2012, and to the website https://refugeescapitalismstate.wordpress.com. I also draw on comments and discussion following talks and presentations I have given since the book’s publication, in Newcastle, Durham, Middlesbrough, Leeds and London, and reviews the book has received to date. I am very grateful for all of the feedback I have received.

Several factors lead me to start the research behind this pamphlet. From 2005, I was involved in organising with refugees in Newcastle, primarily against deportations. This increased my awareness of the extreme hardships facing refugees as a direct consequence of state policies in Britain. These hardships include direct repression, systematic and forced destitution, a separate and substandard welfare system that some have described as apartheid,[1] and levels of insecurity that breed widespread fear and anxiety. In 2005 I was also working as a professional youth worker. I was aware of the general contradiction within youth work, social work and similar professions, between a duty of care and a mission of social control; this seemed particularly acute in work with refugees without status because of the apparent hostility of the British state toward this group. Through my professional contacts and my campaigning, I knew people who were struggling with the expectations imposed by their professional roles and employers that at times contradicted their personal and professional values and limited how far they could go to support refugees. The British state has increasingly expected welfare professionals to monitor the immigration status of people they work with, share information with immigration officials and other arms of the state involved in direct repression, and use immigration status as a basis for granting or withholding resources and services.[2] I focused on the voluntary sector to explore the grey areas between direct state control and independent action.

Once I began the research, I quickly realised there was a very significant amount of work being done in the voluntary sector by refugees themselves that was essential to the functioning of the asylum system, most of it unpaid and much of it done by refugees without status. This posed a question: why were people helping to deliver a system that oppressed the group they were part of, with no direct material incentive? To try and answer this question I focused my research on refugees working in unpaid roles. Once I started to read the academic literature, several questions seemed to be posed repeatedly, with no apparent answer:

  • why were refugees without status prohibited from doing paid work, when many had skills needed by British employers, and even while the government was actively recruiting overseas through a ‘highly skilled migrants programme’?
  • why was the state treating refugees in such an inhumane way, in apparent contradiction to its claims of liberal democratic values?
  • why was the asylum system reported so frequently to be inconsistent and lacking in transparency and fairness?

I was already a Marxist when I started this research, and Marxism seemed to offer an approach that could start to answer these questions, beginning with the social relations of production, in other words the way production and reproduction are organised in our society. The Marxist approach suggested the need to ask questions such as:

  • In order to understand the the reception of refugees in Britain, what is the particular character of British capitalism? Where does Britain fit in to the international capitalist system?
  • How does the British state relate to this, as the ultimate governor of national citizenship and asylum claims? What is the relationship between the British state and British capital?
  • Are there any connections between British companies, the British state and the situations that force people to become refugees?
  • What role does migration play in British capitalism in general, and how do refugees fit in to this?
  • What can be learned from the longer history of migration and asylum in Britain, to help us understand the current situation?

My approach to these questions was influenced by my background as an activist, which gave me an interest in the relationship between national and global processes and the individual and local level where grassroots organising takes place, and my background as a practitioner, which gave me an interest in developing radical practice in the spaces between the intentions and the outcomes of capitalist state policy.[3]

Below, I summarise some of the main conclusions of my research. I begin with the contradictory tendencies of contemporary capitalism, which both produce situations that force people to flee regardless of demand for their labour, and require migrants to act as units of wage labour under strict labour market discipline. In this context I consider the political role played by UK asylum policies since 1999, including detention, forced dispersal, prohibition of paid employment and a decision-making process that is formally fair but in practice set up to fail the majority of refugees. I conclude by exploring how refugees and those seeking to support them have responded to this situation, and propose implications for action.

[1] Mynott, E. (2002). ‘From a shambles to a new apartheid’, in From Immigration Controls to Welfare Controls, edited by S. Cohen et al. London: Routledge.

Humphries, B. (2004). ‘An unacceptable role for social work: implementing immigration policy’. British Journal of Social Work, 34(1), 93-107.

[3] Shaw, M. and I. Martin (2000). ‘Community work, citizenship and democracy: re-making the connection’. Community Development Journal, 35(4), 401-413.

NEXT: Capitalism and the creation of refugees

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