Living on the Margins


Living on the Margins engages with undocumented workers within London, exposing the contradictions in policy and rhetoric which criminalise and marginalise migrants. But through first hand interviews, the writers demonstrate how undocumented workers still play an active role in shaping their personal and working lives.

In March 2016 I attended a demonstration outside the Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre in Bedfordshire. Over two thousand people from several cities came to protest against the centre, with the call to ‘Shut Down Yarls Wood’ making it clear that the protests went far beyond the inhumane treatment of the detainees—predominantly women—who are kept in the center. The mood, although emanating courage and resilience, was also bittersweet. The waves, flags and calls we received from the inch-high openings of the center windows were heartening but also terrible. These centers treat people horrifically, and several speakers who had previously been incarcerated within Yarl’s Wood testified as much, speaking of denial of medical facilities and assistance, and experiences of abuse, physical, psychological, and sexual,  at the hands of the largely male staff.

Video: News report from demonstration outside Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre, UK, in March 2016.

This is the endpoint for many people who brave the Calais crossing into the UK. Journeys here differ but for many the destination is not the safe-haven they hoped for, but a vicious prison. Alice Bloch and Sonia McKay in Living on the Margins: Undocumented Migrants in a Global City (2016), discuss the stories of those who did make it, those who managed to evade death, torture and incarceration to try to build a life in London. They tell the story of the undocumented migrants who face a different struggle. 

In their introduction they state that their aim ‘is to present the realities faced by undocumented migrants in London, who live under the constant shadow of insecurity and the fear of being caught and deported’ and that they wish to convey ‘how being undocumented shapes experiences, from the initial reason or reasons for migration right through to everyday lives’ (page 2). They do this, presenting the real stories of over fifty undocumented migrants living within London, incorporating large chunks of first-hand accounts to present a flavour of what life in this city for those without the basic safety nets and rights can entail.

They go further, illustrating how the war on migrants is part of a broader scheme of neoliberalism, as the needs of advanced economies for flexible low paid labour both necessitates undocumented migration whilst also profiting from the immigration industry in itself. Undocumented migration has grown, they argue, as a result of neoliberal labour market deregulation and the increase in casual employment, sub-contracting and informal sectors. The informal sector is key to the lives of undocumented migrants, both in understanding their working lives and the vulnerabilities and pressures attached to this sector, such as obvious leeway for discrimination and abuse. They use a framework of the legal changes to the rights of undocumented migrants in UK policy to explore the realities of their everyday lives, focusing predominantly on workplace relations and the benefits and detriments of social networks and ‘enclaves’, exploring in great detail the concept of social capital through networks.

Refreshingly, they refuse to fall into the trap of the discursive dichotomy between the worthy vs the unworthy migrant, recognising time and again that the reasons for migration are myriad, and there is not a discrete category of the refugee. They do this by recognising the macro forces which affect the movement of people, such as globalisation, global inequality and the movement of capital. They emphasise that while an individual may move for supposedly ‘economic’ or ‘political’ reasons, these motivations do not exist in a vacuum and in fact are consequences of broader forces of power, which the British state and capitalist institutions play a key part in upholding and developing. 

The interviews are key to this humanisation and recognition of the complexity of migration. Often sections of analysis start with, or points would be emphasised with reference to, long chunks of directly transcribed speech, as one of the named interviewees offered their perspective on the issue at hand. They debunk many of the myths of ‘lazy’ migrants or false asylum claims as the interviewees describe the risks associated with attempting to work officially, or with claiming asylum in the first place, as explained by Feng, a female migrant from China: “I was afraid that if I went to claim asylum, I’d be detained and sent back to China’ (page 8). These vicious cycles of undocumentation are explored with sympathy and noticeable exasperation with the bureaucratic traps set for vulnerable people. 

Image: The book Living on the Margins does an excellent job of challenging the stigma in the media, and perhaps within ourselves, through their quiet yet bold observations, and by reminding us of the need to be ‘reasoned, thoughtful and compassionate’ in relation to undocumented migrants.

However, there are also obvious drawbacks to this method  which include the necessity of drawing conclusions based largely on the encounters with these 55 individuals, whom the authors admit were chosen specifically due to the different experiences they expected the Bangladeshi, Chinese, and Turkish and Kurdish migrants to have. The authors frequently draw generalisations based on areas of employment that these different ethnic groups fall into, which is a necessary analytical tool. But we must never forget the silent parties: those who were not able to be interviewed, or who deemed it unsafe; those who are employed in even more precarious or even illegal trades. These voices were not heard, understandably, but their absence was perhaps not noted as significantly as I would have liked. 

This absence leads me to my most significant critique of the text: that its gender analysis is lagging far behind that of class and race. I recognize the authors’ praiseworthy investigation into the journeys migrants make to get here, the different workplaces they end up in, and even their social, emotional and personal lives, as part of the best chapter of the book—Social Networks and Social Lives. However, I feel that distinctions based on gendered experience were not drawn in enough detail or frequently enough. The main example of this was when the authors discuss the different means of travelling to the UK. They assert that the means of arriving differ due to gender without discussing these motivations, or exploring why this may be. They are also surprisingly uncritical of the role of the smuggler and the potential for violence, which we know exists on these journeys. The lack of discussion of gendered violence, specific workplace experiences, and mere cursory mention of the difficulties involved with forced to stay in an abusive relationship due to the lack of welfare and social service safety nets was disappointing. This extract of an interview with Chun from China, is illuminating, yet too briefly discussed: “my boyfriend and I quarrel all the time. We quarrel all the time for this and that, sometimes even over trivial things. He tells me to move out. I said to him ‘where should I move to?’ he said: ‘you must move.’ But I can’t move. I have nowhere to move to…” (page 144). 

A framework which more deeply encompassed gender would have enriched the text and added further depth and humanisation to the people the authors engaged with and discussed. While recognizing that a book based on interview sources will have such drawbacks as obviously people will be reticent to discuss more personal elements of their lives, I feel that the authors could have endeavoured to access those who are the most silenced, perhaps by reaching out to migrant sex-workers co-operatives or women’s mutual-aid groups, which can be found within London. 

A key strength in the text is their discussion of social networks. While they make room for the benefits of groups and solidarity and support, they do not tend towards romanticisation, and are carefully critical of the negative aspects of these social groupings, recognising the potential for unofficial pressure in workplaces, coercion in assistance, vulnerability in living with your employers, and the broader concern of reinforcing marginalisation among an already socially stigmatised social grouping. However, they also recognise and support the positive aspects, such as truly understanding friendships, assumptions of support in housing, work lives and personal problems, thus labelling the grouping generally as one of ‘mistrustful solidarity’. This point underpins one of the most heart-breaking elements of the analysis which is that, as an undocumented migrant, life will never be free of suspicion. The threat of deportation hangs continually over one’s head, colouring every social interaction, every decision- on workplace, friendships, and relationships. It determines how much can be risked, because the amount one can lose is so much greater: “I might be deported. This thought harm[s] me a lot; you get panic[s] about the future. Even if I am robbed, what will I do?” (Bahar, from Turkey, page 166). This exploration of deportability, strongly supported by sad but strong personal accounts of limitations in free time, friendships and engagement in broader society, is one of the most important messages this book delivers.  

Throughout their book Bloch & McKay never lose track of their broader social message and the daily realities people face in London. Their analysis is sound, clearly written and well signposted, and they repeatedly reflect on the bitter truth of the ‘migrant crisis’: that ‘undocumented migrants will continue to be paraded as scapegoats for the economic crisis that they did not cause and will remain as the excuse for further attacks on welfare’ (page 190). We see this happening now, as much as in 2015 when they wrote this book. Yet, this is not cause to give up. Resistances to these conditions are happening daily; if not in the vocal and well-publicised demonstrations like that I attended at Yarls Wood, then in smaller ways, local ways. People are resisting immigration raids in their communities, they are sharing information on their rights and joining groups which can collectively campaign on their behalf. People are coming together, and fighting back. By documenting the undocumented, Bloch and McKay raise the voices to the voiceless and contribute to the myriad ways in which people are protesting against the current migration situation, in London and across the globe.  

This is a timely and much-needed book, and I think they do an excellent job of challenging the stigma in the media, and perhaps within ourselves, through their quiet yet bold observations, and by reminding us of the need to be ‘reasoned, thoughtful and compassionate’ in relation to undocumented migrants. Yet, despite their warmth, they do not lose sight of the sad reality, which is that ‘such an aspiration remains a distant hope in the current UK and wider European context and one that needs to be urgently remedied. Not just for the sake of undocumented migrants, but for society as a whole’ (page 190). What is vital to reflect upon, is that this situation at hand is no unhappy accident. The state of migration and the poor quality of life afforded to those who manage to make it to London are a deliberate construction by the corporations and governments who profit daily from the exploitation and suffering of flexibly, precarious labour. It is only when people begin to recognise this that the many occasions and attempts to fight back will be successful in engendering real, permanent change.