On being British

I have been looking forward to today’s elections for a long, long time. After all, it is the first time I am eligible to vote in this country that I call home. But as I read the newspaper this morning, I was immediately faced by the news that net migration rose by 177,000 from the previous year. You could feel  politicians preparing to be outraged. Nigel Farage did not disappoint, and commented on the immigration figures as he voted this morning:

“is just impossible, We cannot go on with numbers like that”

But the problem is not Nigel Farage. All the leading parties are essentially the same when it comes to immigration.

As I walked to the polling station, I reflected on the fact that I am both British and an Immigrant.

For years I was subjected not only to the painful whims of the immigration system, but to the toxic rhetoric against immigrants coming from both the media and the government. All I could think of during the naturalisation ceremony was that this was all over. I was no longer an immigrant. I was now a British citizen.

But I have learned that you do not stop being an immigrant when you have a British passport. It is hard to shake it away when your family is still subject to immigration control, when the rhetoric continues, when new denationalisation proposals will target people like me. It is so hard to feel like you belong when at every step of the way you are reminded that just a few months ago, you didn’t.

But I don’t want to shake it away, and I don’t have to. 

I can be both.

Immigration has always been part of Britain. As Robert Winder shows in his brilliant book, Bloody Foreigners, immigration has been happening since Caesar first landed in 53 BC. Diversity is not new either. Archaeological work in York has uncovered evidence of a Roman city with a population mix much similar to contemporary Britain. I have much to thank to Medieval People of Colour, a blog that works tirelessly to counter the falsehood that historically, Europe was ethnically homogenous. Phillippa of Hainult, mother of King Edward III, was described as being ‘brown of skin all over’. The ethnicity of Queen Charlotte is a hot topic in art history, with some scholars claiming that she was a descendant of the black branch of the Portuguese royal house. One of the knights of the Round Table, Sir Morien, was black. King James IV of Scotland, Henry VII and Henry VII of England employed several African drummers and choreographers. Black people were part of everyday life in Elizabethan times . In fact, they were so prominent that Elizabeth I tried – and failed – to have them all deported. Further, Voltaire exclaimed in the 1700s:

Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian transact together

Immigration and diversity are part of these islanders and we should not pretend otherwise. This is not what the current political climate wants us to believe, I am both an immigrant and a British citizen. This is not an oxymoron. Historically, there have been others like me. We are and have always been part of this country and part of its history.

Turnout is expected to be low and there is widespread apathy in the political process. But it means something to me.

This morning, I cast my vote with a sense of rebellion. I did it as a British and an immigrant, in the name of all before me who have felt unwanted and rejected by our country of choice.

And in the belief that things must change.

Yes, I know it is likely that they will get worse. I know to expect low turnout, I know about the general apathy.

Mine was a small, prosaic act of defiance and belief in the political process, but we all have to start somewhere.

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Mental Health in Academia and the Kobayashi Maru

A blog post on the Guardian Higher Education Network seems to have hit a nerve in the academic community. The post, about how widespread mental health issues are in academia, has been widely shared and as I first read it, it felt very familiar. The Guardian followed up on the blog post by reporting on research done by the University College Union on just how endemic mental health problems are in academia.

I am not surprised that the research is showing that there is a very high rate of mental illness in academia. I can see how it would happen.

For example, there is a seminar for PhD students, where, in theory, we are supposed to present our work-in-progress and get, again, in theory, constructive feedback from academics. For years, I have seen how badly this seminar affects  PhD students. I myself was badly affected by my experiences there, feeling depressed and discouraged for a long time afterwards. And I know I am not alone in feeling this way.

It took me a long time to figure out that this seminar was very much like the Kobayashi Maru. To you non-star trek fans, the Kobayashi Maru is a simulation test given to students of Starfleet Academy where they need to decide whether or not to rescue the civilian vessel Kobayashi Maru in a simulated battle with the Klingons. If students choose to attempt rescue, the simulation is designed to guarantee that the ship is destroyed with the loss of all crew members.

The Kobayashi Maru is a test that no students can pass. It is deliberately designed to make students fail. Its real goal is not teaching students about rescue missions, but about dealing with failure.

This seminar is also designed to make students fail. Students are supposed to present unfinished, often uncertain work, to an audience that more often than not consists of people who are not really there out of choice. That in itself is not bad, as training to deal with a bad presentation and an indifferent/hostile audience can be invaluable.

But where the seminar differs from the Kobayashi Maru, is that it does not directly teach students to deal with failure. The goal of the seminar is supposedly constructive criticism, but on the very first day, students were told by an academic that “we’re not here to be nice”, and to be as critical as possible. But criticism for criticism’s sake is hardly ever useful. There is a key difference between receiving constructive criticism, and just being critical for the sake of it.  Crucially, constructive criticism is not supposed to be mean-spirited.

As a result, many students have a horrible time in this seminar. Just yesterday, a friend was recalling her recent experience in this class and said:

“How can it be constructive criticism if it makes me want to kill myself?”

Not all students have a hard time, not all audience members are mean. Not all seminars are the same. This is at best just an anecdote in the wider debate about mental health in academia. Universities must have a duty of care for their staff and their students. If sessions that are supposed to help student progress are instead causing so much distress, then something must change.

Academica has a lot to learn from the Kobayashi Maru.

I don’t have to present in this class anymore, and can’t begin to tell you the relief I feel.

I feel free.

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We Need to Talk About Syria

Or more specifically, about what the government is doing and not doing about Syria.

There is no doubt that there is now a humanitarian crisis, and a civil war with no end in sight. So what is the government doing and not doing?

Theresa May has now stripped 20 British citizens of their nationality because they went to fight in Syria.  The head of counter-terrorism at the Crown Prosecution Service, Sue Hemming,  said it was a crime to fight in another country and Britons doing so could potentially face life-sentences on their return. Charles Farr, head of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, said the size of extremist groups in Syria and the number of Britons joining them had become “the biggest challenge” facing the police and intelligence agencies. Everywhere you look, you are more likely to be reminded that the conflict is a breeding ground for terrorists than a humanitarian crisis.

The ‘British Girls Inspired by Jihad’ Splash is a good example of the alarmist coverage on the conflict.

British Girls Standard

The story was about two 17 year old British girls who were arrested in Heathrow over suspected terrorist offences. This was used as a preface to comments by Scotland Yard’s counterterrorism office, Richard Walton, who pleaded for British Muslims to help stop children turning into terrorist:

“We’ve had a number of teenagers both from London and nationally who’ve been attempting to go to Syria,” he said. “That’s boys and girls unfortunately. It’s not just the odd one. It’s shocking they’re such young people.

The exaggerated concern with girls and women being involved with terrorism was obvious, not only in the headlines, but also in the text of the articles. There are mentions of two women being charged with financial support of terrorism and a stark warning to the Muslim community:

“We don’t want to alarm the Muslim community that their girls are all going out to fight — they are very small numbers, but nevertheless we can’t deny that it is an issue and a concern.” He said wives and girlfriends here could also be “complicit” if they remained silent about men going to fight.

The numbers of women involved in terrorism, is by their own admission, very small. However, that does not stop the alarmist tone, which chimes in with the wider coverage on British Muslim’s involvement in Syria. These pieces serve to increase the suspect population and to scare the public into thinking that the number of potential terrorist has increased dramatically, because now women are also involved in terror.

(I don’t know why there is surprise that women are also involved in terrorism. I know that males generally are more involved in political violence, but women’s involvement is only really surprising if you assume the traditional gender roles where women are passive and unlikely to get radicalised. I personally don’t buy this.)

Most importantly though, is the constant reference to the two British girls that were arrested at Heathrow, which was touted as evidence of the increase in British Muslim radicalisation:

Commander Walton said the involvement of females was a disturbing new development: “This is not simply a problem for British male Muslims, it’s also an issue for some of our British Muslim women as well. We have made arrests of teenage girls going to Syria.

At the very bottom of one of the pieces, there is the following line:

He said that although the two  17-year-old girls — who were arrested this month — had been released without charge, he was particularly concerned about  the numbers of young Britons becoming radicalised.

The girls were released without charge. Without charge.

Whether or not there is a increase in British Muslims fighting in Syria, which I don’t dispute, planning an entire alarmist story over two girls that were released without charge is irresponsible and further tarnishes the British Muslim community as suspect and problematic.

Moreover, it reinforces a narrative where Syria is being constantly linked with terrorism, rather than as a humanitarian crisis which deserves British help. Further, ministers have now claimed that they might need new legislation to deal with the terrorist threat from Syria. As someone whose research is on the UK terrorism legislation and policy, I am both horrified and curious. What else can the government do? How much further can they go?

In my opinion, it is this frame, coupled with general hostility towards asylum-seekers and immigration, that is behind the indifference towards the government’s lack of enthusiasm with actually providing refuge to Syrian refugees.

Yesterday, Free Movement revealed that the government is removing and detaining Syrian asylum-seekers, rather than providing them with the asylum they need. This was not met with any kind of media attention, which is appalling.

Appalling, but not surprising, when the media and the government are so busy framing the conflict as a national security issue. This is not to deny the potential terrorist threat but to recognise that there are real humanitarian concerns which should be at the very least as urgent as potential national security threats. But the current discourse is not doing that.

So we need to talk about Syria. Because what the government and media are not doing it right.

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Yes I’m British. Get used to it. Fast.

I honestly thought I was done. When I received my British citizenship last year, I thought I was finally done with immigration control and all the hoops I had to cross as a foreigner.

I thought that after almost 15 years of being a foreigner, that I finally, finally belonged somewhere. That I had a home.

Today I went to the post-office to apply for my British passport, only to have my application turned away due to little mistakes. Which had happened before. Oh, and I also needed to submit all my passports, including the one used when I first entered the UK. This was stolen almost 10 years ago. 

This prompted a frantic dig through old immigration folders at home, searching for the paperwork to do with the theft.

My rational mind told me that all of these things are things every British person has to do when applying for their first adult passport. Which is true.

But as I hunted through my immigration history, my heart, my heart was angry, my heart was furious. 

It was remembering all the little reminders that they, this government, MY government, don’t really see me as truly British.

All these little nothings, pinpricks, that collectively make your eyes water.

The new denationalisation proposals, the suspicion that, because I wasn’t born here, and because my parents weren’t born here, I am not  as loyal as everyone else. And what is loyal anyway? Is it unquestionable support? Is that what you want? Conformity? 

Well, to this I say, TOUGH..

I am British. You may not like it. You may question my allegiance, or whatever you want to call it. Hell, you will probably hate me when you find out how critical I am of this government, but that’s just tough.

I am British. I belong here.

I have earned my citizenship. 

Born abroad, with a different skin, but still British,

It does not matter how many small barriers you put between me and you.

I am the same as you. 

You might not like it. You might even hate me.

But I am British. 

And you better get used to it.


Because I’m not going anywhere.

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This Academic Wears Pink


Katherine Hepburn

There is an academic I know who has, for years, had issues with me.

His negative comments were endless, and his derision and condescension palpable.

I thought it was just me. That there was something seriously wrong with me or with my research to warrant that kind of response.

But I casually mentioned this to a colleague. And then to my supervisors. And the response was unanimous, and surprising.

This academic has issues with women in academia.

That possibility wasn’t even on my radar.  I never for one second though he had issues with me because I was a woman. Not only that, but a woman who constantly disagreed with him.

I was mulling over this as I prepared for a presentation I had to give. He was going to be there. As I walked towards the seminar, I suddenly became very conscious of what I was wearing:

A white shirt, a black skirt with pink and yellow flowers, black tights, pink shoes, and a tiny pink flower in my hair.

I wondered if maybe my presentation would go down better if I was wearing something different. Something less feminine perhaps?

And then I thought of the presentation the week before, delivered by a male student, dressed in old ripped jeans and our uni’s sweater. And the week before that, another male student, in jeans and a football jersey.

When I started teaching, I was concerned about the students taking me seriously as I look much younger than I actually am. The advice I got: dress differently, less girly.

I didn’t think that was fair. Because surely, what matters is what is coming out of my mouth when I speak and my fingers when I type. My research matters. My knowledge of the topic I teach matters.

Not my outfit.

So I went to that presentation, with my pink shoes and the flower in my head.

And I teach wearing red converse shoes, and a yellow skirt.

And I write about national security, human rights, terrorism, torture, all wearing golden shoes and red lipstick.

I’m not naïve, I know people will judge me by what I wear. But that does not make it right. If I just conform, things will never change.

So maybe you will see me, in a 1950s blue dress and pink high heels, and look taken aback when the program says I am the one speaking on national security.

But hopefully, once I start speaking, you will forget what I look like, and hear what I have to say.

Because in the end, that is all that should matter.



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Outside the Home Office #Setherfree

Because of the topic of my research, I spend a lot of my time reading about depressing things.




Yarl’s Wood

Control Orders/TPIMS



Immigration Bill

Indefinite Detention



It can be hard not to lose hope or focus, and not to drown in the sheer bleakness of it all.

Especially when you are alone with your papers, behind a computer screen, on your own desk.

But yesterday evening, I left my work behind and went to join the Women for Refugee Women protest against indefinite detention of women asylum seekers outside of the Home Office.

I heard inspiring words from former asylum seekers, campaigners, and even the voice of a woman from inside Yarl’s Wood.

The setting was strange, as that massive building is a source of so much grief, heartache and abuse against humanity.

But, outside the Home Office, what I felt was hope, and companionship.

Even though I was silent and own my own, I was one of many standing up for the injustices.

It felt as if my work was connected to an entire movement towards ending the inhumanity that is so at large in this country.

Yes,  there is much horror and abuse going on in the world at this very second.

But there is also hope.

And that is worth leaving my desk for, even if I am one of many, blending in the background of a protest.


If you haven’t already, please sign the petition.

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When the Big Door Closes- New Report on Detention of Women Asylum Seekers

On Monday, a new report by Women For Refugee Women detailing the conditions of female asylum detainees was released.

The report consisted of interviews with 46 women about their experiences in Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre.

‘When the big door closed it brought back everything that had happened to me back home when I was in prison. I thought that I was going to be raped. The fear overtook me.’

There were widespread reports that women were followed into the bathrooms and showers by male guards.

Half of the women interviewed reported that they had been verbally abused by the guards. 85% of the women interview had been victims of either torture or rape in their home countries. One women revealed that she had been sexually abused in detention.

‘I was having a shower when they opened the door. It was a woman and a male guard.

I was naked.’

This is not the first instance of allegations of sexual abuse at Yarl’s Wood. In September of last year, it was alleged that the guards at Yarl’s Wood, which is run by private security company Serco, were sexually abusing female detainees, often offering to assist with immigration cases in exchange for sex. Serco denies the allegation. When a woman claimed that she had filed an official report, Serco responded that they had not received any.

Rather than conducting an official investigation, the government deported several of the witnesses involved in the above claims.

‘I thought that the male guards were going to do to me what the soldiers had done to me back home.’

A few months later, we have this new report, telling us the same story. Women who were raped and tortured are detained, with the validity of their statements questioned, perpetuating the cycle of abuse where victims of sexual violence are constantly accused of lying. Women who have fled human trafficking and forced prostitution.  Extremely vulnerable women are detained, violating the government’s own guideline of not detaining torture victims.

‘When I left detention, Yarl’s Wood followed me to Manchester. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a trance, I feel I hear the footsteps of the officers, I hear the banging of the doors and the sound of their keys. Even though I’m out of detention, I’m not really out – I still have those dreams.’

And yet…. there was no splash. No scandal. No government official distancing itself but condemming what happened. No public outrage. No calls for a public enquiry. It was not even reported on the BBC. Talk about public service broadcasting. Save for a little attention from some media (The Independent, The Mirror, The Courier and the Belfast Telegraph).

In fact, the government claims that detention it’s a vital part of its immigration policy (which is highly problematic, and a topic for another post. Mary Bosworth calls is ‘governing through border controls’).

It seems the Big Door of public interest is well and truly closed on this issue.

I don’t understand why there is so much indifference when such clear suffering is happening within our borders.

Some of you will say that these are just stories and allegations. But allegations should be investigated. We shouldn’t dismiss allegations as fabrications. This will only slam the door in the face of the women in Yarls’ Wood, none of which are criminals. They are asylum seekers. They are vulnerable and need help.

There is petition to bring this case to Theresa May. Please, let us all sign it and help push the door open just a little bit.

Thank you.

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