5a. Histories of resistance

sometimes you will see someone [a refugee without status] saying ‘You see, [people from your country], they will not deport you, your case is strong’, but it’s not true. My role is not just to tell to them [that it] is not true, we are still in danger. But also to explain to them when someone is doing this kind of thing to you, even [though] you are an asylum seeker…you still have your rights in this country. So for example if you are entitled to have accommodation, you need to have a suitable accommodation. (refugee woman, arrived in Britain in 2005)

The context for increased attention to refugee organisations by the state was resistance by refugees and their supporters against the actions of the state, particularly in opposition to deportations and also, at times, targeting the use of vouchers for subsistence payments and the practice of immigration detention.[1] From the mid-1980s, the Viraj Mendis Defence Campaign and other high profile campaigns against the deportations of particular individuals drew wide support, engaged in active street campaigning, formed alliances with people engaged in other anti-racist and working-class struggles, and received backing from trade union branches, religious leaders and some Members of Parliament.[2] In Newcastle, such campaigns included opposition to the deportation of Surjit Singh Lally away from his family to India in 1988, in a campaign involving Benwell Law Centre and supported by local MP David Clelland, which collected more than 6000 signatures and won one year leave to remain in Britain, after which he could apply for permanent leave to remain.[3] In 1994, the Tahir family in nearby Blyth were deported to Pakistan despite a campaign supported by thousands of people, including 170 MPs, but later managed to return to Britain and were granted the right to stay permanently.[4] In 1998, protests against the deportation of Greg Otigbah to Nigeria, which involved ‘Youth Against Racism in Europe’, forced the transfer of the flight from Newcastle to Teeside airport.[5] On 30 September 2000, the North East Campaign for Asylum Rights (NECFAR) organised a march through Newcastle from the quayside to a rally in the Bigg Market, involving local, national and international campaign groups and trade unions.[6] In 2004, the Croatian Bamburac family, who had come to live in Newcastle in 1998 and had been refused their asylum application in 2003, secured the right to stay following a campaign and petition submitted by MP Nick Brown signed by 1,400 ‘friends and neighbours’.[7] These examples, which represent just some of the most public manifestations of ongoing resistance, demonstrate the recurring difficulties experienced by the state in trying to implement its immigration controls in the face of organised community-based opposition, even in areas with relatively small numbers of migrants, where it might be thought  there would be fewer opportunities for solidarity.

As the numbers dispersed to different areas increased and networks developed and matured, so did forms of resistance. For example, Eskovitchl[8] reports collective resistance to deportations of refugees in working-class communities in Glasgow, including community patrols to look out for immigration raids. Many of the refugees arriving in Britain in the late 1990s and early 2000s came from a greater diversity of countries than earlier periods of migration from former colonies in South Asia and the Caribbean, and in some cases were dispersed to different parts of Britain than earlier migrants. As a result, they were often outside the scope of established ‘race relations’ structures that the state had nurtured over decades to ‘manage’ black people’s responses to racism. This was a contradictory consequence of refugees’ marginalisation, as they were excluded from vital rights, services and official political channels, but were also less liable to have their struggles immediately neutralised and their leaders co-opted. With a peak between 2005 and 2008, refugees across Britain began to mobilise in a new wave of collective opposition to deportations, often around a shared country of origin, including in Newcastle significant mobilisations at different points by groups of refugees from the DRC, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Iran, Turkey and Iraq, sometimes organising together with non-refugees, for example as part of Tyneside Community Action for Refugees, and sometimes in separate organisations, some of which were directly connected to opposition parties or other organisations in refugees’ countries of origin. These mobilisations took place at a time of transition in the dominant approach of the state to ethnic minorities, from limited recognition, mostly in terms of cultural difference, to a harder-edged assimilationism, which provoked political and conflictual forms of mobilisation. Some mobilisations by members of ‘new’ migration flows began to link ethnicity to class and gender, such as in collective resistance among immigration detainees and in organisation within low-paid and insecure workplaces.[9] Such connections have a long history, but had not been prevalent in the recent period in Britain. These new migrant mobilisations posed a distinct threat to the state because of their potential to form alliances with other sections of the working class, and as a consequence received special attention from the state in order to neutralise their struggles.

[1] Sales, R. (2002). ‘The deserving and the undeserving? Refugees, asylum seekers and welfare in Britain’. Critical Social Policy, 22(3), 456-478.

[2] VMDC Viraj Mendis Defence Campaign (1986). Viraj Mendis Must Stay. London: Larkin Publications; Webber, F. (2012). Borderline Justice: the fight for refugee and migrant rights. London: Pluto.

[3] Welford, G. (1988). Father wins battle to stay with his family. The Journal, 17th November, 9.

[4] Gledhill, V. (2004). Family’s joy at return to the UK. Evening Chronicle, 8 December,

[5] Ford, C. (1998). Deportation flight switch. The Journal, 30 June,

[6] Kennedy, S. (2000). Refugees want a humane deal. Evening Chronicle, 2 October,

[7] Evening Chronicle. (2004). Family wins right to stay. Evening Chronicle, 23 June,

[8] Eskovitchl, J. (2006). ‘Asylum seekers organise in Scotland’. Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!(190 April / May).

[9] Però, D. and J. Solomos (2010). ‘Introduction: migrant politics and mobilization: exclusion, engagements, incorporation’. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 33(1), 1-18.


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