Features Published 30 October 2019

Climates of Hostility: A Migrants in Culture Roundtable

In this roundtable, members of Migrants in Culture discuss the impact of the Hostile Environment, and why it’s time for the arts sector to act.

Migrants in Culture

Key findings from Migrants in Culture’s research survey

Migrants in Culture is a new organisation which is researching the experiences of migrants working in the arts. Results of its survey of over 600 workers from across the cultural sector are released today; key findings are that.

  • 90% respondents feel angry and/or fearful about the Hostile Environment
  •  25% of migrant respondents are thinking of leaving the country
  • 45% people of color are racially profiled
  • 79% of migrants do not receive support in their places of work or study
  • 59% of respondents in positions of senior management or governance lack knowledge about the Hostile Environment and its impact on the sector

In this conversation transcribed by Helena Loyd, host Kris Nelson is joined by Season Butler, Xavier de Sousa, Joon Lynn Goh, Amal Khalaf and Diana Damian Martin to discuss the impact of living and working in the Hostile Environment, and why organising is key.

Joon Lynn Goh:
Migrants in Culture began as a failed project in autumn last year. I was trying to initiate skills exchange between migrant cultural workers and migrant organisers. But it was evident that before any exchange could take place, our sector needed to be better organised. So we began to ask ‘What are the common experiences we share as migrants working or studying in the cultural sector?’ By articulating a shared experience of financial and legal precarity, an increase in racism and racial profiling within and outside the cultural sector, and the lack of support and/or acknowledgement from our places of work or study, we began to frame our experiences as part of the same structural oppression, The Hostile Environment. So what we are trying to do now as a network of migrants and allies is to find ways in which we can organise to make our sector more accountable, and how we as cultural workers can be better allies to a wider movement opposing the Hostile Environment.

A screenshot of members of Migrants in Culture, in conversation

Kris Nelson: So what would be the way you distil down what the Hostile Environment is? Who would like to take a crack at defining that?


Season Butler: This is isn’t me kind of confidently asserting that I think I can describe “the Hostile Environment,” but I think that there is a perverse aptness to the phrasing the Hostile Environment, because it exposes itself as something that’s not about individual actions or individual demands on people’s lives; but rather how this austerity-driven, racist government has created this entire atmosphere that pervades every part of everything we do, that generates a system of conditions that makes life itself less possible. It reminds me of the ways in which when the three-fifths rule was applied to chattel slaves in the United States, the way that your legal status made you count less. These measures that threaten your ability to get on with life are quite literally dehumanising…

Xavier de Sousa: During one of the Tory conferences in 2012, Theresa May announced that she wanted to create a Hostile Environment for all migrants living in the UK so that they would voluntarily go away, and deport those who wouldn’t. Which is essentially creating an atmosphere where every aspect of living makes people take that jump. They don’t feel welcome or they don’t feel a way that they can participate on an equal footing with everyone else. You see the ramifications of it in every kind of interaction with the public sector, with public services. Beyond that, you have the sort of language used around migration at street level; the sense that it’s an individual’s responsibility to make sure that migrants within their immediate surroundings understand that they are migrants and they are not citizens.

Amal Khalaf: For me it’s been effectively like a militarisation of a nation, with some amorphous enemy – migrants. For me, having an Arab passport has never been easy. As soon as September 11th happened, I have been in airport jails, and all kinds of things. Things have happened with this passport and I’m not even male or even read as an Arab. There is a certain fear and a certain sweat and a certain anxiety that happens as you approach the border. For me, Hostile Environment means that it becomes part of every interaction of your day, it’s not something you can forget about as soon as you’re on the tube at Heathrow and wait for the next time; it’s kind of like having a load of anxiety.

Diana Damian Martin: It’s a case of embedded immigration and outsourced immigration controls, that rely on profiling in various ways. It is government sponsored hostility that is socially and politically embedded. That means it is very difficult to tell the difference between what it is legislative or administrative control and what is a form of social control or regulation.

Amal: Yeah! Many people don’t have literacy around this umbrella set of policies. They understand how Prevent is discriminating against Muslim students or Muslim populations for example; and maybe institutional racism is impacting people throughout society; or they know about deportation or detention centres, but they don’t understand that actually hovering above this, is an architecture of the Hostile Environment. In the results of the Migrants in Culture survey that we did, there were very low levels of literacy [around the Hostile Environment], in general, from British but also migrant people. I think they’re trying to keep it quite hidden and we need to make that much more apparent, much more visible…

Kris: Diana – what do you think has changed since Brexit? What have you observed?

Diana: I think it’s made visible the moralising around good and bad migrants, a colonial aftereffect that has maintained hugely problematic ideas about Europeanness (and the fiction upholding Eastern Europe), that’s trafficked in the idea that the EU is synonymous with Europe more widely. This is made visible in a complex, racist immigration system that was there before Brexit- these issues very much precede it. But I think it’s made the relationships the UK has with Europeanness, with migrancy, with cultural diversity and anxieties around foreignness and international exchange much more evident and much more difficult, by adding a kind of layer of precarity and uncertainty, but also by programming particular voices over others. One of the things that we were talking about when we were looking at the results of the Migrants in Culture survey is how some institutions have started to provide support for EU migrants and not for non-EU migrants. It’s a strategic move that conceals the wider effects of the immigration regime and of the Hostile Environment.

Kris: How has the current climate and the Hostile Environment affected how you’re making art? Season?

Season: When people don’t know if their home will still be their home in a week, or a month or a year, they won’t be as effective and productive in their work. There are also of course some very specific questions around funding and funding streams. While the way that we work as artists generally, if we’re lucky, can be quite international, a lot the way our funding is set up is very much consistent with the nation-state model. A specific area where there’s difficulty is at border control. I remember this flaring up in a sort of severe way in 2010, when the Conservative led coalition government came into power. We found that artists from outside the EU, with all the proper paperwork in place, were being turned away at the border. There is stiff regulation but also an element of discretion that border control is able to defer to, meaning that things like programming for festivals etc, couldn’t happen in any kind of predictable way.

Kris: And you Xav, you have you’ve made work specifically about your Portuguese-ness. Do you think that work was influenced at all by the precarity of your status as a European living in the UK?

Xavier: The impulse to do the work started before the Brexit vote was announced, when the national conversation about nationality was starting to come up, around 2014. My show POST is about belonging and national identity. Obviously migration has a lot to with it but it’s not about the act of migration at all, or about Brexit at all. But the context has put that kind of expectation and in many ways a block onto it.

Kris: … a block in terms of how you make it? Or a block in terms of the work’s potential to advance or-

Xavier: I think in terms of a block in people’s expectations on personal levels, but also on sort of on the industry. So when I tried to sell the work to some regional spaces for example, a few times what came up was “oh we’ve already got a show that’s about migration, done by regional British people.” So just because I’m not a regional British person, I didn’t get programmed. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t talk about migration as an act of resistance to that, for instance. But there is that block that got put in my ability to sell the show in a way that is truthful to it. Which comes into a little bit about what you Diana were saying – about visibility I think. I know many accounts of artists that have gone through the same thing, which is when venues or festivals or marketing teams are pushing towards tapping into specific conversations that might not be representative of the actual work. There’s another point about how certain venues or institutions are supporting European migrants to secure some extra funding in the future, instead of focusing on the whole issue. Is that were you were going Diana, about tokenism?

Diana: I was talking about misconceptions of Europeanness which stand for a restricted set of Western countries, as opposed to Europe as a whole, because European Union has been made to be synonymous with a whole continent. This restricts discussions about cultural diversity and Europeanness, which in turn, dominates discussions about migration, which are presented as completely distinct from a global crisis of displacement that returns to domain centres of power and ecological shifts.

Kris: Yeah, and also you pointed to a ranking of good immigrants- like you pointed to the scale of good or bad or less desirable migrants…

Diana: The moralising of migration!

Kris: It’s definitely something I experienced when I moved here. Brits and non-Brits alike were all saying to me, ‘you’ll be fine, Canada is a good country, Canadians are the favourites of the UK’, the privilege of the Commonwealth, all that. Amidst the stress and the worry during the visa process, I became hyper-aware of that privilege, and realised how much I was counting on that special status as a Canadian for the process to come through successfully.

Amal, what about the art you’re planning in the curatorial process? In what ways are you responding to or ignoring the climate of the Hostile Environment?

Amal: The programme I run connects artists to community organisers to develop co-research projects and collaborative work. One of these is Implicated Theatre, which is a political theatre group made up of migrants and has a focus on migrant justice. The project began in 2011 in response to immigration raids on Edgware Road, and for eight years now, it’s been developing toolkits and performances responding to the Hostile Environment. Implicated Theatre also worked with ESOL teachers to learn Theatre of the Oppressed, so that teachers have tools to bring political conversations into their classrooms.

The post-Brexit migration bandwagon that many museums and galleries seem to be on can be a little cynical because the majority of the people I work with are non-EU migrants who have been badly affected by a whole slew of legislation that happened BEFORE 2016. It seems that the art world only wants to talk about migration now, when we should’ve been talking about it for the last decade! I’m interested in how cultural producers can work with social justice organisers to create tools and methodologies for resisting and surviving in the ‘Hostile Environment’.

Kris: Right, thank you. There’s something remarkable where all of a sudden all of these people have become migrants of a different type and join in; and then it becomes this movement or then it becomes this other awareness which defies being cynical and also has momentum.

Amal: Yeah and I mean it in a positive way too because now we have a whole new potential movement of cultural workers who traditionally aren’t that political becoming organisers and getting involved.

Kris: I wondered if you could talk about the museum and gallery sector. It has a huge amount of migrant workers, not only in management but also in Front of House. I’ve been hearing extraordinary things, like Front of House staff in major galleries and museums facing increased verbal abuse from the public and even harassment after work.

Amal: The Serpentine is based in Kensington Gardens so the audience is diverse, from art world people to passers by walking their dog or jogging in the park as well as tourists from inside and outside the UK. The gallery programme addresses questions of migration or racism; the summer shows after Brexit featured Grayson Perry directly talking about Brexit and Arthur Jafa talking about race and representation. These contexts create spaces for debate and I have heard of many instances where Front of House have to answer and to deal with a sometimes hostile public.

Kris: The focus can often be on who’s managing or who’s leading and who are the artists making the work. But when there’s controversy, it’s up to the box office to deal with it, it’s that team of people that are representing the organisation to the public. There are so many migrant workers across the commercial theatre sector – and definitely the museum and gallery sector – who might not have a platform to articulate their experience. Diana, what would you want to say about the experience in the academic world around this? Has funding changed around studying migration or is there a feeling for enhanced precarity in an already kind of precarious field?

Diana: My perspective I guess is influenced by moving between academia and artistic practice (they are also not always distinct), but it’s worth stating that in academia the experiences of migrant students, particularly non-EU, as well as staff (although non-EU tend to not be able to get permanent staff positions and work in precarious roles), has been appalling. Unis Resist Border Controls have highlighted how government outsourcing applies not only to deportations and removals of student status or funding, but also to visa monitoring, sharing and profiling. Universities want international students, who pay double the fees, yet there is structural discrimination, racism and active policing and regulation.

I don’t know if I feel able to say what has happened around funding for migration. Certainly there’s been more funding streams that have been explicitly around migrancy and work with migrants, as opposed to by migrants, and there’s topicality around certain issues that is problematic. But access to that funding is policed too -if you cannot prove that you can live in this country for a number of years, you’re mostly not able to apply for funds, same if you don’t have an institutional affiliation. There is EU funding which is integral for humanities and social sciences, exchange programmes like Erasmus and government-agenda led networking programmes. The implications, I think are much larger. Within theatre and performance studies, it’s quite similar to what Xavier was saying earlier – a problematic fantasy of Europeanness, Brexit occluding nuanced conversations on migrants, cultural difference, anti-racism, multilingualism, whiteness- this is a sector wide, rather than a discipline problem, and there’s certainly research projects actively connected to community organising and social justice.

Kris: Joon Lynn, you were recently awarded and turned down an MBE and wrote quite eloquently about the experience. Do you want to talk about that in light of Migrants in Culture?

Joon Lynn: The MBE was for services to equality in Bristol, which was tied to my organising work with Citizens UK Bristol, and our efforts, as a group of citizens and migrants, to lobby for and establish a Syrian refugee resettlement programme in partnership with Bristol City Council. I think I was quite clear in the gal-dem article on the reasons why I felt I couldn’t accept it. It actually didn’t feel like an award at all. It felt hypocritical for the government to give awards for migrant organising with one hand and enact violent immigration policies with the other. On the day that they announced the Honours List, I found out that the main person who oversaw the Windrush scandal and the Hostile Environment policy was being knighted. This was conclusive evidence that this was indeed a club, a club of crooks that I didn’t want to be part of. I think the process of working with Citizens UK was very instructive for me because it made me value my skills as an organiser, and it allowed me to understand that these skills can be mobilised in very different social spaces. Similarly with Migrants in Culture, I like to think that we as cultural workers are highly skilled individuals and collectives, and that if we migrate our creative skills into different areas of life, we can actually have a huge impact on the kind of society and culture we want to shape and nourish.

Kris: What’s next for Migrants in Culture, practically and philosophically?

Joon Lynn: It’s a really interesting point in time for us because the first six months were very much about finding what our common ground was. We wanted to test our experiences and aggrievances, and we did that by producing a survey asking for the experiences of cultural workers around the impact of the Hostile Environment on the cultural sector. By the end of 6 weeks, we received over 600 responses. We are now going through a process of analysis and deep listening to the voices and stories that have arisen from the survey, and it is this process that will allow us to prioritise what actions we need to take. What’s next for us will very much involve finding allies that we can work with to test practical and tactical ways to make the sector more accountable to migrants and people of colour. In some ways, the flip side of Brexit or the Hostile Environment is that it’s become a catalyst for us to organise and to learn how to organise together. For me that’s the most important thing, because once we are organising together, wild ideas start to become possible.

Kris: Who do you want to join Migrants in Culture?

Xavier: Every single migrant that works in the cultural sector.

[The group laughs]

Kris: And what do you want them to do?

Xavier: I think the most important thing is for people to really learn how this Hostile Environment kind of permeates all aspects of the industry and our lives as we’ve been saying. We should also really be alert about the fine print and the small intricacies of what it means to be here. There are funding streams or festival roles, for instance, where we can see in the fine print restrictions on who can apply. Sometimes migrants or people from disadvantaged backgrounds kind of get caught in the middle, not being able to access specific things. So be aware of that, and if you can’t make a stand or say something out loud, at least tell someone who might be able to.

Kris: Season, as a UK citizen and a supporter of Migrants in Culture but is not someone who is a fully-fledged member, how do you think British support, British citizens can support Migrants in Culture?

Season: I think one thing that’s really necessary and helpful is for people to become aware of their privilege and their bias. And to really gain some literacy around self and difference. That’s the basic corner stone of political allyship anyway. I think that there are some things that Joon Lynn was saying before that are really important to keep in mind: that The Hostile Environment is an environment in which we all live. That doesn’t mean that the colour of your passport makes you somehow not a part of this. Resist and support actively rather than thinking certain issues have nothing to do with me. Okay, so I will go ahead and quote a silly anti-terrorism thing but.. erm… ‘when you see something, say something’ (group laughs). When you notice that an institution has had all white seasons for as long as you can remember, drop a letter. When you see that the newspaper that you read is um expressing the word ‘racist’ in scare quotes, write a letter to the editor and tell them that it’s unacceptable and that we need to call racism what it is. I think that there are a number of ways in which we can go forward, in terms of the ways we think of citizenship and belonging, that aren’t purely motivated by the fear of our personal loss of privilege. I think that this has been too perversely prevalent in strategy, particularly in the past three years and I think that we can do better.

Kris: Diana, what do you want to call in the sector to do?

Diana: In order for us to create a cultural sector that is welcoming and accountable to migrants and people of colour, we need to have more migrants and people of colour in the cultural sector. We need to move away from the idea that there can only be one migration discourse, and that it has to look in a particular way. Until we diversify how we think about cultural difference and difference in general in the cultural sector we can’t, we won’t be able to move past that. Thinking about plurality is really, really key. It is okay if a season has work by many different migrants without having to always speak to an essentialist idea of migrant experience, or to migrancy at all.

Kris: Is there anything else that you’d put on the prescription list for the cultural sector?

Diana: We need to move beyond centre-periphery binaries, and work in allyship to listen and facilitate bold visions of diverse cultural sectors by migrants and people of colour. Discussions about citizenship and anti-racism, climate change and migrancy, are all interconnected, it’s very important to account for that. Migrants are not only those seeking to enter, they are also those already here.

Season: I guess I would just add that we need to look at the sector as a whole. I really like what’s been going on in some of the UCU actions recently in terms of bringing cleaning and security staff in-house and recognising that outsourced labour is exploitable labour. In some cultural institutions that is happening, for instance the National Gallery, as well as other places. We do need to be really thinking about things like pay ratios. People who work in the cultural sector who don’t always think about cleaners and security staff, and become actual leaders in the sorts of equality that we would like to see elsewhere in society.

Kris: Joon Lynn any final thoughts to bring it on home?

Joon Lynn: I just want to extend an invitation. Migrant in Culture’s monthly meetings are public, and we welcome anyone who identifies as a migrant or an ally or someone who wants to ask ‘Why should I care? Why is this important?’ If they came to a meeting, they’d start to see the connections; they’d start to understand how a culture of hostility infects us all; and they’d start finding energy in the fact that we can do so much more together than we think.

For more information on the Hostile Environment, read Liberty’s A Guide to the Hostile Environment. Read the full Migrants in Culture Research Report and find out ways you can get involved here


Kris Nelson is Artistic Director/CEO of LIFT. Before moving to London he was Festival Director of Dublin Fringe Festival. He founded the performing arts agency Antonym in Montreal through which he represented some of Canada’s leading contemporary theatre and dance artists. He is Canadian, and has been in the UK since April 2018, arriving on a tier two visa. His first experience of moving to the UK was through the immigration system, and the shadow organisation which runs the visa process (and that was very, very stressful). There were complications in the process, a lot of doubt throughout and no way to get real answers. 

Season Butler is a writer, artist, dramaturg and lecturer in Performance Studies and Creative Writing. Her writing, research and art practice centre around intersectionality and narratives of otherness, isolation and negotiations with hope. Her recent art work has appeared in the Baltic Centre, Tate Exchange and Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art. Her debut novel, Cygnet, was published in spring 2019. She is from Washington D.C and came to the UK on a students’ visa. That became a spouse visa and then definite to leave and remain, and she  acquired UK citizenship three years ago.

Xavier de Sousa is an independent performance maker, curator and producer based between Brighton and Lisbon. His practice explores personal and political heritage within the context of discourse on belonging, nationalism and migration. As well as making his own performance work, he is curator and producer at performingbordersLIVE and New Queers on the Block. Xavier is from Portugal, and came to the UKfourteen years ago to study drama at Kingston University. He didn’t have to register before applying or arriving here – just got on a plane and came. Xavier  came to study and the idea was to come back to Portugal at the time after studying but got a job straight away.

Joon Lynn Goh is a cultural producer, organiser and member of Migrants in Culture, a network that is currently mapping the impact of the hostile environment on the cultural sector. Joon Lynn came to the UK with a commonwealth visa almost 14 years ago, and went through many different rounds of visa applications.  As part of the process she was supported by a close network of friends who loaned her money to get me through the process.

Amal Khalaf is an artist and curator and currently Director of Programmes, Cubitt Artists and Projects Curator, Serpentine Galleries. Amal came to the UK through a student visa in 2000, and then again in 2007 to study. Amal was supported by the British government for a year through a Chevening Scholarship . She did a spousal visa route and got British citizenship with her first ever vote, because she is from Bahrain where you can’t vote.  

Diana Damian Martin is a writer, educator and researcher. Her creative-critical work sits at the intersection between performance, political theory and migration. She is a Senior Lecturer in Performance Arts at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Diana is a mixed ethnicity Romanian and came to the UK as a non-EU citizen on a student visa, supported by a local scholarship programme. Her EU status was regulation by transitional measures imposed on Romania and Bulgaria in the UK between 2007-2014. Diana received her permanent residency just before the Brexit referendum and currently holds settled status.

Helena Lloyd is an artist currently studying at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.


Migrants in Culture is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine



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