Migration, informality and violence: A reflection at the AAG 2016 San Francisco

By Arshad Isakjee

On March 26 2016 I presented a paper with colleagues Dr Thom Davies (Sociology, University of Warwick) and Dr Surindar Dhesi (Environmental Health, University of Birmingham) on the informal refugee camp in Calais. Since joining IRiS in 2015, I have been working as part of an interdisciplinary team of researchers on an ESRC funded project uncovering the appalling conditions of the camp and the way in which those conditions affect the lives of camp residents (covered in the guardian here).
The paper we presented used detailed findings of health conditions to argue that they constituted acts of violence on migrant bodies. By providing only one insufficient meal a day to camp residents, the inactions of the state lead directly to residents being hungry. By not providing adequate toilets facilities, residents are forced to endure having to use open spaces around them instead. Combined with a lack of handwashing facilities, residents are more likely to pick up gastrointestinal illnesses, which were common among camp residents. By failing to provide facilities to wash bodies, clothes or bedding, scabies has come to affect approximately one in four residents. By keeping residents combined to sleeping in the space of the Calais camp, migrant bodies experience feelings of extreme cold and heat. By not assisting migrants address the mental impacts of fleeing war and conflict, a psychological violence manifests in feelings of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

The damage to migrant bodies is avoidable through a modest provision of food, social infrastructure and health services. Yet neither the French authorities nor their British counterparts have the political will to ensure such provisions reach Calais residents. In this way, our paper argued, state inaction has consequences that are violent. And by definition, such violence is structural.

After presenting our paper, the discussant Professor Reece Jones made an interesting contribution. He observed that the conditions of the camp reminded him of another manifestation of informally lives: the homeless encampments in Hawaii, where Professor Jones works and teaches. In discussions after the presentation we began to discuss these different refugee destitution and state-sanctioned homelessness as similarly violent manifestations of state insouciance. And at this point our attention turned to the place we were in: San Francisco itself.

As in many large American cities, homelessness is a visible social phenomenon. The most recent State of Homelessness Report published in 2015 estimated that on a given single night in January 2015, over 570,000 US residents were homeless, with over 177,000 of these living in sites not meant for human habitation. In the UK too, the homeless charity Crisis has pointed to steep rises in homelessness since 2010, with 54,000 people accepted by the government as homeless in 2015, and with over 3500 estimated to be sleeping rough on any given night. As with the residents of the Calais refugee camp, living in conditions which do not allow for adequate shelter will inevitably have detrimental health consequences. A lack of reliable sanitation, sufficient nutrition and exposure to the elements combine to create conditions which damage the bodies of those living informally, and create the potential for poor health over the life course.

However the violence suffered by those sleeping rough is not always slow or stealthy. For one homeless resident of San Francisco, the experience of homelessness on the streets of San Francisco reached a tragic denouement: on April 7th 2016 Luis Gongora was shot dead by San Francisco police in disputed circumstances, just a mile away from where the international conference was taking place a few days earlier. This incident has pushed the issue of destitution to the fore, in a city which now has the greatest income inequality in the US.

In both California and Calais, authorities in two of the world’s wealthiest countries have sufficient resources to ensure that destitution and informal living need not be a reality for any extended period of time for inhabitants. Nonetheless, it is the political identity of these disposable ‘others’, maligned by either their migration statuses or by their position within the socio-economic hierarchy that allow states and authorities to legitimise the strategy of state withdrawal, of failing to assist meaningfully , and in ensuring that the violence experienced by these groups continues unhindered.

Events in Calais and San Francisco also pose questions for us as academics. In each case, focussing on the environmental health conditions of marginalised groups can help uncover the dangerous effects of destitution. Moreover it is also important to acknowledge the political nature of environmental health research. Just as academics may seek to use research to advocate for migrant or homeless rights, political agents can seek to use research findings to justify camp demolitions and evictions on the basis of health, with inadequate replacement provision in either the short or long term. It is for these reasons that we need to be concerned with both the bodily structural nature of social problems associated with destitution and abandonment of vulnerable populations. But at the same time we cannot ignore the political forces of exclusion and marginalisation that legitimise state inaction, and violence or suffering upon these groups.


For preliminary academic analysis of the ongoing research in Calais, please see this article published in Political Geography here (Davies & Isakjee 2015). The full environmental health report from the Calais camp can be freely accessed here (Dhesi et al 2015). The researchers are grateful to the support of the ESRC and the help of Doctors of the World.




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