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Challenging Hostile Environments

Challenging the Hostile Environment

Civic engagement to counter anti-migrant discrimination

In 2012, then Home Secretary Theresa May announced that her aim was “to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants”. Led by Dr Hannah Jones, researchers uncovered the lack of evidence at the core of government policies on migration control, and the widespread effects of government communications about immigration on both migrants and British citizens. The project brought community groups together to help them build a stronger, united front against racism. From the local to the international level, the team's findings have supported the work of social justice organisations and educated the public.

The challenge

In 2013, there was widespread outrage when the Home Office drove advertising vans around some of the most diverse neighbourhoods in the UK carrying the slogan “In the UK illegally? Go Home or face arrest” – with the phrase “go home” echoing racist catcalls of the past. Researchers at 7 universities came together with migrants rights and anti-racist civil society organisations, in a project led by Dr Hannah Jones, to investigate whether such government publicity really made a difference to people’s lives – the lives of different groups of migrants and British citizens. Their research found that government publicity about immigration control is not founded on evidence, and that government publicity on immigration has increased anger and fear, including among people opposed to immigration.

Our approach

The team carried out detailed research in England, Scotland and Wales, capturing data through:

  • Focus groups in 8 areas
  • Interviews with local organisers and activists, and with national policy practitioners
  • Public feedback sessions in each of the 8 areas, where further responses were gathered
  • A nationwide Ipsos-MORI survey

The research was designed from the start in collaboration with civil society organisations, who identified what it would be useful to know about the effects of government campaigns in their local areas, regionally and nationally. The university research team ensured that the methods to collect and analyse the data were both flexible and robust, and worked with civil society partners throughout the process. Importantly, civil society partners were paid for the contributions they made to co-producing the research (for example, helping to organise focus groups).

Our impact

The research by Dr Jones and the team has had impact at local, national, and international levels, changing how local authorities, schools and other agencies engage with migration, discrimination, and shifting borders, building community networks and solidarity, and supporting empowerment to change prejudiced attitudes.

Children who took part in a ten-week drama project learned about the research and about immigration control, responding with empathy and gaining confidence in their ability to take part in civil society. Teachers reported increased confidence in teaching issues that had previously felt “taboo”. Dr Jones contributed a section based on the research to ‘Our Migration Story’, an award-winning resource for secondary school History lessons used in teaching the National Curriculum.

Civil society groups also gained from the project with many reporting that participating the project gave them a greater ability to challenge divisions and develop research skills and political engagement within marginalised communities. The research also gave them a source of credible evidence of community concerns which they used to negotiate with local agencies.

The project research was used by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Racism. After visiting the UK in 2018, their report criticised the “racially disparate impact of immigration laws and policies”, directly relating their findings to MIC’s evidence.

The project website, Twitter presence, public events and press coverage (including in the Financial Times, the London Review of Books and BBC radio) made its learning accessible to a wide range of people and organisations, including all of the major migrant rights and anti-racist organisations in the UK. The project was relevant internationally, with the project website receiving 19,800 visitors from 150 countries over 6 years. A book presenting the research findings from the project was published as a free e-book alongside the paperback, and was downloaded at least 1,200 times from at least 45 countries in its first 16 months, increasing the reach and application of learning from the research.

Read the UN Rapporteur's report in full

Discover the "Mapping Immigration Controversy" project site

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