At the London Catalyst AGM on 13th July 2022 our trustees and guests welcomed Jeffery Samuelson and Nanou Thassinda from the campaigning charity Migrants Organise .
We were also delighted to have Dr Malte Gembus and Tamlyn Monson from Coventry University’s Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations to present the initial findings from a social research project on ‘Arrival infrastructures and migrant newcomers in European cities (AIMEC).1
The AIMEC project looks at three ‘arrival cities’, London, Brussels and Dortmund, all characterised by ongoing immigration over many decades.2 Each has typical arrival neighbourhoods with long established ethnic minorities and migrants, overlayered by new immigration and an emergent arrival infrastructure which can be defined as:
‘those parts of the urban fabric within which newcomers become entangled on arrival, and where their future (…) social mobilities are produced’ (Meeus, et al. 2019). 3
Research has identified where people go for help when they first arrive, a curious list of contact points which includes community organisations, religious sites, libraries, internet cafes and mobile phone shops.
Social networks and the internet are extremely important for establishing social relationships which are vital for migrant arrival and settlement. Examining arrival infrastructures (AI) reveals the places where people might go when they first arrive and, in time, how a social ecosystem of facilities and resources emerges between which signposting can take place.
The AIMEC project poses four key questions:
- How do people find these places?
- How do newcomers access information about resources – housing, education or jobs?
- Who helps them?
- What is the role of differing national welfare and integration regimes in shaping AIs at a local level?
There is an important role for those informal high street places that people routinely use. Hackney council’s own research on how migrants found information highlighted the importance of chicken shops and barbers. Pharmacies too were often approached by newcomers seeking information about health care, whilst builders’ merchants became informal job centres. All play an important role as first points of access to information and resources. AIMEC has mapped high streets surveying local business and service providers to capture how they help people. Participant observation and interviews with local stakeholders and migrants provide a further layer of detail on places important to migrants on their arrival.
Collaboration between civil society and local government is vital to ensure the needs of current and new residents can be met. This includes removing barriers to resources and demonstrating how best to spread information, notably about rights and entitlements. Showing how people make their way into the city and where they find help and information identifies gaps and exposes negative outcomes, such as exploitative labour conditions and substandard housing. This can assist the targeting of positive connections, for example, to English classes and welfare support.
Mapping the trajectory of arrival illustrates how new arrivals can become negatively entangled. This helps identify who functions as ‘brokers’ (Hanhörster and Wessendorf 2020) 4 and at what point participants come into contact with civic institutions and statutory services.
‘Marina and her husband have been in the UK for 3 years and arrived from Romania. Marina’s husband had a couple of acquaintances who came to the UK some time ago and the couple joined them in Stratford Shopping Centre where they were sleeping rough in groups, sharing food and money. After 4 months they met a pastor from a local Stratford church who was doing outreach at the centre, he told them about available services and introduced them to the Salvation Army day centre close to Stratford Park which the couple started to frequent. From here they were referred to Crisis who then organised a more permanent accommodation for them in a hotel by Wanstead Flats. Here they were able to make a late application for the settled status scheme and be referred to English classes at the Renewal Programme. ‘
This case study shows an infrastructure that was immediately available to the couple on arrival. However, this infrastructure did not facilitate settlement, rather it served to maintain them in an enduring and precarious state. It is hoped that the research project will identify how information and knowledge can be shared effectively between the institutionalised and the informal sector.
Marina and her husband benefited from a chance encounter, however, it is possible to make a first contact with services when they are more visible.
The GLA has developed the notion of ‘social front doors’, publicly visible services that look welcoming to everyone.
In Newham, Green Street library attracts a particularly large range of individuals from many backgrounds. It is located on a busy high street, has large window posters showing events and activities and crucially signals it is accessible to everyone. In one English class of 15 learners, all found the classes just by walking in and asking.
One of the librarians emphasized that people come in with all kinds of questions and that the library was there for everybody and for all kinds of enquiries, ‘the library is like a mother ’ (Wessendorf 2022). 5 The value of a first contact with sympathetic, informed and trained staff that encourage social relationships should not be underestimated.
Nanou described her involvement in the women’s peer support group and the support she had personally received as a volunteer and that her current role allows her to give back to the charity. She wanted to emphasise the value of mutual support and how by simply having a voice she is regaining some of the power lost in the appeal process. Nanou mentioned a friend reluctant to register with the GP, even though she had been legally in the UK for many years. It was suggested that her reluctance was an example of how some have internalised the narrative of the hostile environment.
Nanou described her work in the campaign to abolish reporting conditions. These are often restrictive and unnecessary as Nanou said ‘we aren’t going anywhere.’ They can be difficult to adhere to for those in hotels and hostels and reporting to a distant office is costly when most are living on £8.24 week (contrast this with the £70 a week threshold for destitution for a single working age adult). The reporting requirement acts like bail for a crime not committed. Above all Nanou felt that giving hope to people is the most important thing she can offer.
Migrants Organise supports some of the most vulnerable people in society. Those whose personal experiences and precarious status negatively impact their health and life chances whilst a punitive system appears designed to keep them in an institutional limbo. (Even at a time of acute labour shortages 6 and a 12 month wait even for skilled workers in shortage occupations.) 7 As Nanou and Jeff suggest, the real and pressing needs are simple and basic; access to services, to be safe and feel at home.
In a world beset with the fallout of war, famine and a climate crisis it’s all too easy to find scapegoats on which to yoke simple solutions to complex issues, exemplified by the movement of people and the migrant experience. The research into arrival infrastructures suggests migration into cities is a continuous and dynamic process facilitated by formal and informal civic structures. If managed positively it can build social capital and improve social relationships and,as Migrant Organise demonstrate, despite hostile rhetoric, social isolation and economic restrictions, provide hope and opportunity and see what people can do.
- Further reading ‘Arrival City’ by Doug Saunders
- Meeus, Bruno, Bas van Heur, and Karel Arnaut, ‘Migration and the Infrastructural Politics of Urban Arrival. In Arrival Infrastructures’ in Migration and Urban Social Mobilities, edited by B. Meeus, K. Arnaut and B. van Heur (London, 2019)
- Hanhörster, Heike, and Susanne Wessendorf., ‘The Role of Arrival Areas for Migrant Integration and Resource Access’, Urban Planning, 3, (2020).
- Wessendorf, Susanne, ‘‘The library is like a mother’: Arrival infrastructures and migrant newcomers in East London.’ Migration Studies (2022)
- Adult Health & Social Care vacancy rate in May 21 was 5.9% and rose to 10% in April 22. Guardian 03/08/22
- https://righttoremain.org.uk/ online guide to the UK asylum and immigration system