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Moria’s male refugees need help just as much as anyone else

The recent fire that razed refugee camp Moria in Greece has left around 13,000 refugees homeless and fleeing once again—this time to an unknown destination where they hope to find safety at most, or temporary shelter at the least. While humanitarian aid organizations have scrambled to provide aid to the destitute refugees and Europe’s leaders have assumed a cold and calculating approach, it seems that refugee men are being forgotten. Dorothea Hilhorst argues that all refugees, regardless of age or gender, should be helped and that the plight of young men, who are often not considered ‘real’ refugees, should also be highlighted.

Camp Moria, housing 13,000 refugees mainly from Afghanistan, burnt down on 8 September. The tragedy has been long in the making—Europe has failed the migrants in Moria for years, forsaking them to a sub-human non-life in overcrowded refugee camps. Those of us who hoped that the dramatic fire would act as a wake-up call have seen little progress this past week in the wake of the fire. Europe, except for Germany, has so far responded in a cold and calculating way.

The little response we have seen has mainly focused on unaccompanied children and to a lesser extent on families. The Netherlands, for example, has offered to receive a few hundred families from Moria. The ‘offer’ is even less generous than it appears, as their number will be deducted from the total number of vulnerable refugees to be received by the Netherlands on the basis of a standing agreement with UN refugee agency UNHCR, much to the dismay of the agency.

The focus on unaccompanied children plays into the primary feelings of sympathy of many Europeans. A Dutch woman who started a campaign to collect sleeping bags for Lesbos told a reporter from the national news agency in the Netherlands: “I am a mother. When I see children sleep on the streets, I must do something, no matter what”. It may be natural for people to respond more to suffering children than to adolescents and adults, but surely politics should not only be dictated by motherly instincts alone?

It remains important to unpack the thin policy response to the fire in Moria. The focus on children and families makes a false distinction among refugees that makes it seem as if only children are vulnerable. It is a cheap, yet effective trick that puts 400 child refugees in the spotlight to distract the attention from the almost 13,000 others that live in similar squalid conditions.

Unfortunately, we have landed ourselves in a time where official politics are not guided by cherished and shared institutions like the refugee convention, which stipulates that people fleeing from war are entitled to be heard in an asylum procedure and, while the procedure is pending, received in dignified circumstances. Instead, policies seem cynically oriented towards one goal only: deterrence. The underlying idea of policy comes across as something along the lines of “[l]et 13,000 people suffer in front of as many cameras as possible so that desperate people will refrain from crossing the Mediterranean to seek shelter and asylum in the affluent countries of Europe”.

While 13,000 people suffer, the gaze of Europe singles out several hundred children for our solidarity. The distinction between these children and the other refugees rests on two equally weak arguments.

Firstly, it is implied that children are more vulnerable than other refugees. Whereas this is true in some respects, the level of despair and hopelessness experienced by all people in Moria is shocking. During my visit to Lesbos last year, aid workers told me that many refugees in Moria—children, adolescents and adults—suffer from a triple trauma. The first one was caused by the violence that triggered their escape, the second by the long passage to Europe and the crossing of the sea, and, finally, new trauma arising from the dismal conditions in the camp, the permanent state of insecurity, and the lack of future prospects. A vast majority of the people in Moria qualify to be seriously considered in asylum procedures because they fled from the violence of war and are extremely vulnerable.

Secondly, the focus on children leans on an idea of ‘deserving’ versus ‘undeserving’ refugees. Children cannot be blamed for their situation and are presumed innocent. The same applies to women in the eyes of most people. Adult men, and especially single (young) men, on the other hand, are looked at with a multitude of suspicions. Men are associated with violence and often suspected to be culprits rather than victims of war. They are also distrusted as they may be associated with sexual violence against women that is indeed widespread, but certainly does not hold true for all men. Finally, they don’t solicit feelings of sympathy because they are considered strong and capable of managing their own survival. Or worse, they are considered fortune seekers instead of bare survivors of war.

However, it is a myth that men should not deserve our sympathy! In situations of war, men are more likely than women to be exposed to violence – killing, torture, arbitrary arrest, or forced subscription in a regular or rebel army. Traumatized and destitute, they find themselves in a situation where they do not qualify for many of the aid programmes that are based on the same gender biases and reserve their resources for women and children. Quite a lot of young men see no other option than to prostitute themselves in order to survive.

Singling out unaccompanied children therefore is delusional. It seems to be designed to placate the large numbers of Europeans who want to act in solidarity with refugees. Our politicians keep telling us that social support for refugees has dried up, but while they listen in fear to right-wing populists, they are blind to the wish of equally large constituencies that want to welcome refugees.

As we are left in anger and shame, let us not step into the false dichotomy of deserving/undeserving refugees. Policy should be guided by legislation, not by false distinctions that are based on and reinforce popular sentiments. All refugees in Moria, irrespective of their gender or age, should be able to tell their story while being sheltered in dignity. All these stories need to be heard in proper asylum procedures—without prejudice.

About the author:

Dorothea HilhorstDorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here.

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When outright racism triggers migrant precarity: Britain’s Windrush Scandal and the need to move beyond arguments on legality by Anna Cáceres

[Versión en español abajo]

In 2018 Britain once again made news headlines, this time for the Windrush scandal that saw scores of British citizens with migration backgrounds wrongly detained and deported. Almost all were migrants from Commonwealth countries who had migrated to Britain after the Second World War and because of a series of policy changes starting in 2012 were no longer recognized as citizens by 2018. The scandal is important for two reasons. First, it demonstrates the importance of viewing ‘citizenship’ as a fluid, and indeed socially constructed, category, rather than a binary legal designation. Second, it shows how racism, when coupled with racially exclusive constructions of national identity, can be a more important trigger for migrant precarity than legal status.

The UK’s increasing flirtation over the last decade with right-wing populist discourses on migration has been well-documented and came to a legislative climax with the passing of a migration policy package known as the Hostile Environment (HE) by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2012. HE policies ostensibly sought to increase the ‘voluntary return’ rate of undocumented migrants in the UK, but in effect acted to flip the burden of proof in migration cases. Whereas previously it was up to migration enforcement officials to prove the undocumented status of an individual, HE ensured that it was now up to an increasingly random array of non-specialist civil society actors to police the migration status of their fellow residents. Such actors came to include employers, benefit officers, healthcare providers, and landlords.

It was not until 2018, when The Guardian exposed the treatment of legal migrants under HE, that criticism started to gain real traction and several internal investigations were launched. Central to this coverage was a portion of British residents known as Windrush Migrants (WM)—Commonwealth citizens who migrated to the UK between 1948 and 1973. This group was severely and systematically swept up in the HE despite having the legal right to reside in the UK.

In essence, the HE acted to reintroduce migration-related precarity into the lives of WMs, individuals who had lived in the UK for decades and no longer viewed themselves as ‘migrants’. In the literature on precarity, it is emphasised that migrants experience both traditional socioeconomic precarity—i.e. low-pay, inherently unstable work—and migration-specific forms by virtue of being non-citizens. Problems with legal status, ‘deportability’, and everyday discrimination are all common examples. However, the focus on ‘citizenship’ is limiting, as it is typically defined as a binary legal construct: one either is, or is not, a citizen.

WMs pose a unique example of a group who were citizens and then became non-citizens. Here, the history of Windrush migration is exceedingly important: most WMs had equal citizenship status to British-born residents at the time of their arrival. The passage of the British Nationality Act of 1948 had granted citizenship status, including permanent residency rights, to all subjects of the Commonwealth. These rights were progressively stripped back with the passage of several immigration acts in the 1960s and 1970s, which began differentiating between Brits born on mainland Britain and those born outside of it.  By the time the Immigration Act of 1971 came into force in 1973, individuals from the Commonwealth had been downgraded from ‘British citizens’ to ‘foreign immigrants’. The case of WMs thus shows that citizenship is a fluid category, which can and is reconstructed as suits the needs of the politics of the day.

Even more importantly, citizenship as experienced by WMs was in the eyes of the beholder: white British residents. All of the WMs who were swept up in HE policies had a legal right to reside in the UK, and indeed would have been eligible for full British citizenship, had they even been aware that they didn’t have it already. Many individuals reported feeling stunned by their sudden designation as ‘undocumented migrants’ and indeed even felt betrayed by a country they perceived to be their own. Thus, Paulette Wilson, born in Jamaica but resident in the UK since 1968, had the following to say:

“I don’t feel British. I am British. I’ve been raised here, all I know is Britain. What the hell can I call myself except British […] I’m still angry that I have to prove it. I feel angry that I have to go through this”.[1]

Two things were at play in facilitating the reclassification of WMs as illegal outsiders under the HE. First was a shocking ignorance of the history of migration to Britain and the policies that governed it. Whilst this is not surprising when discussing the myriad members of the public who were being asked to police migration, specialists at the Home Office itself appeared to be blissfully unaware as well.

This collective amnesia about the legal rights and cultural significance of WMs was facilitated by the second factor: structural racism. By asking British residents to trigger immigration checks of their fellow residents, HE opened the floodgates for the harassment of ethnic minorities based entirely on non-specialist judgements of who ‘looks foreign’. That WMs were systematically perceived as ‘foreign’, despite having all the trappings of long-term residents—cultural knowledge, fluency in English, local accents etc.—is a reflection of racially exclusive construction of the British identity in popular memory.

This is to say that in cultural discourses, the historic presence of, and indeed significant impact made by non-white individuals in Britain has been written out at a systematic level. We see this in the all-white casts of British WWII films. We see it, too, in the violent hostility to Britain’s first black female MP, Dianne Abbott, who in a parliamentary career spanning over 30 years has been on the receiving end of the most abuse received by any female parliamentarian. Finally, we see it in a national History curriculum, which in the limited areas where migration is even mentioned does so in the context of ‘race relations’, effectively glossing over the agency of these individuals in favour of reconstructing the perpetually foreign migrant victim.

Windrush migrants present a uniquely fertile case study for migration scholars of all disciplines because of what it reveals about the interplay between citizenship and racism. More importantly however, the injustices of HE have flourished in a climate of wilful ignorance. The more scrutiny this case receives, the better.

[1] Amelia Gentleman, The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment (London: Guardian Faber, 2019), P.40.

Selected literature:

Gentleman, Amelia, The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment (London: Guardian Faber, 2019).

Olusuga, David, Black and British: A Forgotten History (London: Pan Macmillan, 2016).

Paret, Marcel and Gleeson, Shannon, ‘Precarity and agency through a migration lens’, Citizenship Studies (2016), Vol.20, issues 3-4, pp.277-294. 

Williams, Wendy, ‘Windrush Lessons Learned Review’, Independent Review for the House of Commons (March 19, 2020) [online] Available from: [Accessed on, April 1, 2020].

Anna CarceresAbout the author:

Anna Cáceres is currently finishing her ResMA in Migration History at Leiden University. Her research focuses on migration and the British public healthcare system since WWII. She is particularly interested in the historic roots of contemporary migration discourses and the role – or lack thereof – of history in national identity.


Title Image Credit: Steve Eason on Flickr. The image has been cropped.

Cuando el racismo abierto produce la precariedad de inmigrantes: el escándalo de Windrush en el Reino Unido y la necesidad de sobrepasar el enfoque sobre legalidad por Anna Cáceres

En el 2018 el Reino Unido estaba de nuevo en los medios, esta vez por el escándalo de Windrush que vio a cientos de ciudadanos Británicos con antecedentes migratorios incorrectamente detenidos y hasta deportados. Casi todos eran inmigrantes de países de la Mancomunidad[1] que habían inmigrado al Reino Unido en los años siguientes a la segunda guerra mundial, pero que en 2018, bajo nuevas políticas introducidas a partir del 2012, no eran más reconocidos como ciudadanos Británicos. El escándalo es importante por dos razones. Primero, demuestra la importancia de concebir al “ciudadano” como una categoría fluida y construida socialmente, en vez de una designación binaria legal. Segundo, demuestra cómo el racismo, cuando se encuentra mezclado con construcciones de la identidad nacional que son racialmente exclusivas, puede ser un catalizador para la precariedad de inmigrantes más importante que el estatus legal.

En la última década, el creciente alineamiento del Reino Unido (RU) con los discursos populistas de derecha sobre la inmigración ha sido ampliamente documentados, y llegando a su clímax legislativo con la aprobación de políticas sobre la inmigración llamado el Ambiente Hostil (AH) por la coalición Conservadora- Liberal Demócrata en el 2012. Las políticas del AH aparentemente buscaban aumentar la tasa de ‘retorno voluntario’ por los indocumentados, pero en actualidad sirvieron para invertir la carga de prueba en casos de migración. Mientras antes era la responsabilidad del oficial migraciones aprobar el estatus indocumentado de las personas, AH aseguró que ahora una jurado aleatoria y no especialistas de miembros del público,   estaban a cargo de vigilar el estatus migratorio de sus compañeros residentes. Este jurado llegó a incluir empleadores, oficiales a cargo de subsidios estatales, proveedores de servicios médicos, y propietarios.

No fue hasta el 2018, cuando The Guardian expuso el tratamiento de inmigrantes legales bajo el AH que las críticas ganaron verdadero apoyo y varias investigaciones internas fueron iniciadas. Una de las piezas centrales de esta cobertura mediática fue una porción de residentes Británicos conocidos como los Inmigrantes del Windrush (IW) – ciudadanos de la Mancomunidad que llegaron al RU entre el 1948 y el 1973. Este grupo fue severa y sistemáticamente marginalizados por el AH, aunque tenían el derecho legal de permanecer en el RU.

Esencialmente, el AH sirvió para reintroducir una situación de precariedad de inmigrante a las vidas de los IW, personas que llevaban décadas viviendo en el RU y ya no se veían como ‘inmigrantes’. En la literatura sobre la precariedad, se pone énfasis en que los inmigrantes sufren una forma de precariedad atada al estatus de ser inmigrantes, además de la precariedad tradicional, económica – es decir sueldos bajos, y empleo inestable –  a causa de no ser ciudadanos. Dificultades legales, la posibilidad de ser deportados, y la discriminación cotidiana son todos ejemplos comunes de la precariedad de los inmigrantes. Sin embargo, el enfoque sobre la ‘ciudadanía’ es limitante, porque en general la ciudadanía está definida como una designación binaria y legal: uno es, o no es, un ciudadano/a.

Los IW son un ejemplo único de ciudadanos que fueron convertidos en no-ciudadanos. Aquí, la historia de la inmigración del Windrush es sumamente importante: El Acto de la Nacionalidad Británica del 1948 dió estatus legal equivalente a los residentes natales del RU, incluyendo derechos de residencia, a todos los sujetos de la Mancomunidad, y entonces también a la mayor parte de los IW. Estos derechos fueron poco a poco revocados con el paso de varias políticas de inmigración en los años 1960s y 1970s, que empezaron a diferenciar entre británicos nacidos en RU y los nacidos afuera. Cuando llegó a promulgarse el Acto de Inmigración del 1971 en el 1973, las personas de la Mancomunidad ya habían sido degradadas de ‘ciudadano Británico’ a ‘inmigrante extranjero’. El caso de los IW demuestra que la ciudadanía es una categoría fluida, que se puede y es reconstruida para servir los intereses políticos del día.

Aún más importante, la ciudadanía experimentada por los IW era condicional y dependía de la aprobación del observador: en este case los residentes blancos del RU. Todos los IW afectados por las políticas del AH tenían un derecho legal a permanecer en el RU, y hasta hubiesen sido aptos para solicitar la ciudadanía británica completa, si se hubieran enterado que ya no la tenían. Muchos de ellos reportaron un shock terrible al darse cuenta que de repente estaban designados como indocumentados, y hasta se sentían traicionados por un país que percibían como el suyo. Así, Paulette Wilson, nacida en Jamaica pero residente en el RU desde el 1968 dijo lo siguiente:

“No me siento británica. Soy británica. Fui criada acá, todo lo que conozco es Gran Bretaña ¿Qué diablos puedo decir que soy sino Británica? […] Todavía estoy enojada que lo tengo que demostrar. Me siento enojada que tengo que pasar por esto” .[2]

Dos factores facilitaron la reclasificación de los IW como extranjeros ilegales bajo el AH. El primero fue una escandalosa ignorancia sobre la historia de la inmigración al RU y las políticas que la rigieron. Mientras esto no es sorprendente cuando consideramos la miríada de miembros del público que fueron reclutados para vigilar la inmigración, miembros del ministerio del interior también aparentaron estar felices con su ignorancia en el tema.

La amnesia colectiva sobre los derechos legales y la significancia cultural de los IW estaba facilitada por un segundo factor: el racismo estructural. En pedir que los residentes Británicos inicien investigaciones migratorias contra sus compañeros residentes, el AH abrió las puertas al acoso de minorías étnicas basado exclusivamente en el juicio de no-especialistas en quien “parecía extranjero”. Que los IW estaban sistemáticamente percibidos como “extranjeros”, aunque tenían todas las características de residentes de largo plazo – conocimiento cultural, fluidez en el inglés, acentos locales etc. – es un reflejo de la construcción popular de una identidad Británica que es racialmente exclusiva.

En los discursos culturales en Gran Bretaña, existe una amnesia colectiva sobre la presencia histórica, y el impacto significante creado por personas no blancas. Esto los vemos en los repartos completamente blancos de las películas Británicas de la segunda guerra mundial.  También lo vemos en la hostilidad violenta dirigida a la primera parlamentaria negra del país, Dianne Abbott, que en una carrera que ha durado más de 30 años ha recibido más abuso que cualquier otra mujer parlamentaria. Finalmente, lo vemos en un currículo nacional de historia, que en los pocos lugares donde se menciona la inmigración, se hace solo en el contexto de las “relaciones raciales”, efectivamente encubriendo la voluntad de estas personas en favor de reconstruir un inmigrante perpetuamente victimizado.

Los IW presentan un caso únicamente fecundo para investigadores de la inmigración de todas disciplinas por lo que demuestran sobre el intercambio entre ciudadanía y racismo. Aún más importante, las injusticias del AH han florecido en un ámbito de ignorancia intencional. La mayor atención que se le dé a este caso, mejor.

[1] La Mancomunidad de Naciones es una asociación de países que formaban la mayor parte del imperio Británico. Se inauguro en el 1926, cuando empezaron las primeras holas de descolonización y ha sido una forma de mantener influencia británica en estos territorios.

[2] Amelia Gentleman, The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment (London: Guardian Faber, 2019), P.40.

Literatura Seleccionada

Gentleman, Amelia, The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment (London: Guardian Faber, 2019).

Olusuga, David, Black and British: A Forgotten History (London: Pan Macmillan, 2016).

Paret, Marcel and Gleeson, Shannon, ‘Precarity and agency through a migration lens’, Citizenship Studies (2016), Vol.20, issues 3-4, pp.277-294. 

Williams, Wendy, ‘Windrush Lessons Learned Review’, Independent Review for the House of Commons (March 19, 2020) [online] Available from: [Accessed on, April 1, 2020].

Anna CarceresBio de la autora:

Anna Cáceres está terminando su  ResMA en Historia de Inmigracion en la Universidad de Leiden. Su investigación se concentra sobre la inmigración y el sistema de salud pública en el Reino Unido a partir de la segunda guerra mundial. Está particularmente interesada en las raíces históricas de los discursos actuales sobre la inmigración y el rol – o no, como sea el caso – de la historia en construir la identidad nacional.


Crédito de la imagen del título: Steve Eason en Flickr. La imagen ha sido recortada.

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