Blog post by Melanie Griffiths, University of Birmingham, UK
Political rhetoric around migration is often febrile. This has been especially evident in the UK in the last few years, with frequent talk of ‘crisis’ and ‘invasion’. Indeed, a government source in June 2023 described the small boats crossing the Channel as a ‘ticking time bomb’ threatening the UK’s social and economic security. Such discourse reflects an emotional turmoil of outrage and indignation, fear and panic, mistrust and repulsion.
Alongside such splenetic rhetoric, however, the political response to irregular migration is also one of callous indifference and disregard. We see this lack of care demonstrated in the UK’s massive asylum backlog, with 170,000 asylum seekers now awaiting an initial decision. It is also reflected in the UK government’s plans to warehouse asylum seekers on boats and in military barracks, and to automatically banish new arrivals to Rwanda.
These contradictory emotional displays act as a spectacle distracting from government failures to manage the immigration system effectively, but they have real-world impacts. This includes seriously and detrimentally affecting those navigating the immigration system, as well as wider societal impacts, with evidence of growing xenophobia and racially-motivated offences.
My new Identities article, 'The emotional governance of immigration controls', focuses on people working within the UK’s immigration system to examine its emotionality. It draws on 15-years of research across the UK’s immigration and asylum systems to explore the circulation of emotion across multiple scales and spaces. I use the concept of ‘emotional governance’ (the government of the emotions of the self and others) to ask how emotions within the immigration system are controlled, managed, manipulated, required and denied; and how in so doing political subjectivities and power hierarchies are sustained. I argue that from policy to decision-making and operational practice; from Home Office administration to immigration detention centres and judicial appeals; the immigration system is at once garishly emotional and yet (seemingly) emotionless.
Four key emotions
In my article, I argue that four emotions are particularly prevalent. Although immigration systems are invariably presented as rational bureaucracies operating through neutral policies and employees, they present a highly charged affective register. For example, be it political rhetoric or individual-level encounters, the system abounds with varying intensities of anger. From ‘fiery’ immigration judges losing their temper, to rude Home Office personnel; antagonism, hostility and aggression are endemic. Likewise, the immigration system is saturated with anxiety. This is true of those working within the system as well as those subject to it. Immigration Judges worry about Tabloid attacks, Home Office staffers are afraid of the repercussions of missing targets and Ministers suffer chronic fears of being criticized as too ‘soft’.
Feelings of distaste or revulsion are also evident amongst those operationalizing border policies. Sexuality-based asylum claims may be especially prone to aversion, shame and humiliation. But equally, housing new asylum arrivals in isolated barges and barracks reflects underlying feelings of contagion and repugnance at people deemed offensive or contaminating. They also demonstrate practitioners’ ingrained mistrust of migrants and their narratives, documents, identities and emotions. A pervasive ‘culture of disbelief’ frames migrants as necessarily liars and cheats; although feelings of uncertainty are so pervasive in all directions, they can be considered core techniques of the immigration system.
These four emotions - anger, disgust, suspicion and fear – are so dominant across the breadth and depth of the UK’s immigration system that they should be considered not only characteristic of it, but as actively producing the system.
Alongside these intense emotions, immigration systems operate through chilling coldness and disinterest. Practitioners may prohibit or ignore migrants’ emotional displays, and dispute or disregard their purported emotions. Those deciding spousal visa applications, for example, question the veracity and strength of love, whilst those assessing refugee claims query applicants’ fear and honesty.
It is not only migrants’ emotions that are overlooked within immigration systems. Through both individual tactics and structural mechanisms, such as outsourcing and layers of middlemen, immigration practitioners are insulated against the emotionality of their work. Through emotional suppression or avoidance, unbearable feelings are blocked-off and responsibility shifted. But rather that suggesting emotional absence, this points to the heavy ‘emotional labour’ required of immigration practitioners.
Migration politics are emotional, and emotions are inherently political. Despite the facade of overarching legal rationality, migration bureaucracies are deeply affective atmospheres. They employ emotional governance as a technique of subjectification and disenfranchisement, endowing migrants with emotional content that produces racial categorization and domination. This affective register is foundational to the rationale and functioning of mobility governance, creating people deemed simultaneously threatening, polluting and irrelevant.
By recognizing the relationship between the circulation of emotions and the materialization of power, we can interrogate the ways the mobilization and suspension of emotions sustain social stratification and subjugation to produce deportable and disposable persons.
Read the Identities article:
Griffiths, Melanie. (2023). The emotional governance of immigration controls. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2023.2257957 OPEN ACCESS
Read further in Identities:
Feeling race: mapping emotions in policing Britain’s borders OPEN ACCESS
‘Back in order’: the role of gatekeepers in erecting internal borders in Barcelona
Ambivalent feelings: ‘filotimo’ in the Greek migration regime
The views and opinions expressed on the Identities Blog are solely those of the original blog post authors, and not of the journal, Taylor & Francis Group or the University of Glasgow.