Seeking Sanctuary: Exploring the Changing Postcolonial and Racialised Politics of Belonging in East London

by Dr Shamser Sinha
Institute of Primary Care and Public Health, London South Bank University

Sociological Research Online 13(5)6

Received: 11 Jun 2008     Accepted: 3 Sep 2008    Published: 30 Sep 2008


This paper explores the changing postcolonial and racialised politics of belonging in East London. In particular it draws on research with multi-sector professionals and 15 to 18 year old young separated migrants. Separated from parents, these teenagers include those who had applied for asylum and were living under social services care as 'unaccompanied' and those living with their extended family. It also includes separated migrants wanting sanctuary, but who had insecure immigration status because their asylum claim had failed, or because they had not yet applied for asylum and had no other visa status. The research focuses on healthcare issues and the broader life-situations of young separated migrants as a way to examine the changing politics of belonging in East London. Features of this politics include a rise in popularity of the Far Right, the impact of immigration and healthcare legislation and practice, and racial hostility. As well as looking at this, there is an exploration of resistance to this racialised political context by teenagers and certain professionals, and the struggle for a convivial multiculture that is a feature of their resistance. The argument here is that the changing racialised politics of belonging in East London:

(1) show how underdevelopment, geo-political and postcolonial forces contribute to shaping local experiences of racism

(2) sometimes involves, rather than aggressively targets, British citizens from NCWP (New Commonwealth and Pakistani) backgrounds and their descendants, as skin colour becomes less of an articulated symbol of 'otherness' than immigration status

(3) therefore excludes 'new migrants' and especially those seeking sanctuary, such as the young people in this paper, from belonging

(4) faces local resistance. However resistance to this politics might be better informed by a greater understanding of how postcolonialism shapes local racism and militates against a convivial multiculture, with sociology playing a role in accomplishing this

Keywords: Asylum; Refugees; Racism; Multiculturalism; Health and Social Care; Belonging


1.1 In March 2006, the UK Government's Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued a White Paper (2006) on its changing international priorities for the next ten years. The overt assumption made was that events abroad would have domestic effects requiring political consideration. The flow of information, bodies and ideas across borders was a major concern that required governmental surveillance and new policy formulation. Underdevelopment and linkages to migration, religious extremism, terrorism, political destabilisation, overpopulation and the spread of both HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis (TB) were at the centre of this White Paper.

1.2 During the General Election of 2005 and the local elections of 2006, political campaigns and commentary linked asylum seekers to exactly these issues both nationally and in East London (Tempest, The Guardian, 15.02.05; Browne, The Times, 16.02.05; Doughty, The Daily Mail, 07.03.05; Craven and Wright, The Daily Mail, 14.04.05; The British National Party 2005; The British National Party 2006; Lowles 2005; Lowles 2006; African HIV Policy Network 2006). The influx of these migrants, alongside their supposed predisposition to have babies, was purported to cause overpopulation. Such overpopulation and also the 'welfare scrounging' these migrants were associated with was understood in much media and political commentary to contribute to the draining of scarce health, housing, social and welfare resources to which asylum seekers were often seen as having preferential access. This influx was also seen as increasing unemployment and lowering wages. Additionally, these migrants were portrayed as a public health risk through HIV/AIDS and TB infection and a safety risk through terrorism and religious extremism. All of these phenomena were linked to social and political destabilisation. Foreign geo-political anxieties were reflected in national and local racialised politics through the figure of the asylum seeker.

1.3 Fears of overpopulation and issues connected to it such as the overfertility of 'others', low wages and unemployment alongside perceived infection risks have a racialised history in East London targeting those wanting refuge since the 19th century (Foot 1965; Porter 1979). Similar accusations were also made against post-war migrants from the 'New Commonswealth' (Fryer 1984; Bryan et al. 1985; Brown and Feree 2005). According to Alexander (2002), terrorism is a relatively new topic in racialised discourse, more associated with Muslim settlers. The difference in contemporary times is that these older tropes, like newer ones such as terrorism, operate against a changed globalised and geo-political context. Gilroy (2004) argues this context is characterised by the 'War on Terror' and 'underdevelopment' and shapes contemporary racist formations. As such the idea of the 'local' itself is compromised by a supposed need for protection from the 'outside' world and therefore the global and local are not discrete.

1.4 This is reflected in the changing local racialised politics of East London; various commentators writing on the history of race relations in the UK describe post war migrants' encounters with racism and how communities and activists reacted by forming political consciousness and solidarities around the category of 'black'. This suggested a commonality of interests amongst those living in countries governed by the British Empire who then experienced a shared racism as 'black' people when settling in the UK. The category 'black' subsumed non-white migrants and their descendants from what was often termed the New Commonwealth and Pakistan (NCWP) (Anthias and Yuval-Davies 1992; Solomos 2003). It was argued to be a reaction to a racism that marked 'others' by skin colour, although also loaded with cultural and racial stereotypes, and which was in some accounts indivisibly linked to capitalist exploitation (Sivanandan 1976:367).

1.5 In the late eighties and nineties commentators increasingly described emerging racisms and religion-based abuse and discrimination against Muslims. This was argued to be less to do with skin colour than culture and religion and to affect some outside of, and some within, the NCWP formation (Modood 1988). Questions around whether the category 'black' really reflected the diverse experiences of Muslims were raised. Particularly, the question was asked 'Would those people seen as black necessarily oppose(or perhaps support)exclusions and discrimination targeting Muslims or even see particular phenomena as racist or Islamaphobic?'(Miles 1993:4).

1.6 Recent times have seen a new racial narrative emerging. This continues to not only place less emphasis on skin colour and the targeting of 'black' people from NCWP groups, but builds on the idea that some from NCWP groups might share some of the anti-immigrant sentiments in racist politics. It does not mean that racism against non-Muslims from NCWP groups does not exist but that a novel form of targeting is occurring. This targets 'new migrants' and also Muslims as not belonging and casts those from ex-Empire countries and other largely UK passport holding post-war migrants as 'new natives' who belong (see Ahmed and Begum in this volume for discussions of Muslims and belonging). The General Election of 2005, the subsequent year's local elections and the London elections for Mayor and the Greater London Assembly in 2008 involved attempts by the Far Right British National Party (BNP) to gain support from both white Britons and also non-Muslim settlers with varying skin colours and backgrounds. This complements the BNP's drive to be seen as more 'mainstream', which some argue has gained a level of success (Copsey 2007; Pitcher 2007). Evidence for this might be found in the record number of seats (12) the BNP won in the local elections of 2006 in Barking and Dagenham in East London and the election of the first BNP representative of the Greater London Assembly, Richard Barnbrook, in 2008.

1.7 The BNP constructs 'new migrants' and Muslims as 'others' its supporters should mobilise against, whilst attempting to rescue itself from charges of racism because its mobilisation is supposedly not racist because it is not based on colour. Other features of this drive included, variously: using Rajinder Singh, a Sikh 'community leader', in its media campaigns; having a half Turkish Cypriot from Hackney called Lawrence Rustem stand (successfully) for election in the 2006 Barking and Dagenham elections; and the reported participation of certain people with backgrounds from South Asia and different Caribbean islands in transporting party members and leafleting in East London (BNPtv 23.02.06,; BBC, The Politics Show, London 20.04.06; Lowles 2006; Ryan, The Guardian, 10.12.2006; BBC News, 03.05.06).

1.8 It is in this context that, more recently, the Labour MP for Barking and Dagenham, Margaret Hodge, wrote that: 'We should look at policies where the legitimate sense of entitlement [to social housing] felt by the indigenous [emphasis added] family overrides the legitimate need demonstrated by the new migrants' (Hodge, The Guardian, 20.05.07a). Her counter-position of those she calls the 'indigenous' with the lesser claims of 'new migrants' dovetails with the changing racialised politics of belonging. This is by targeting people on the basis of their recent migration rather than older models of exclusion symbolised by skin colour that focused on NCWP groups. Although her comments were welcomed by the BNP, her position in the article differs from theirs as she does not overtly question the access rights of asylum seekers per se to social resources. Nonetheless her words were criticised by groups representing asylum seekers (Watt, The Guardian, 20.05.07b). In their view, her comments only contributed to the existing racialised politics and anti-asylum seeker sentiment in East London by adding to the wider questioning of new migrants' rights to entitlements. Her elision of skin colour as an articulated symbol of racial otherness in favour of migration status was also reflected in how the BNP and local UK citizens of different skin tones and histories themselves were able to disavow racism at the same time as targeting asylum seekers: 'My friend is black and she doesn't want asylum seekers on the estate either', as one white woman told me.

1.9 Castles and Davidson (2000) argue that citizenship in one sense symbolises belonging with a passport being its certificate. We might add that the opposite is also true as belonging is symbolised through citizenship too. In East London racialised politics, notions of citizenship and belonging underpin how British citizens of NCWP and white British backgrounds are counter-posed with 'new migrants'. Nonetheless, the idea that citizens belong and can make greater claims on 'their' society than 'new migrant' non-citizens such as those wanting refuge, both nationally and in their local communities, helps shape local racialised politics. However, as Ware (2007) illustrates, belonging is also about people's life experiences of inclusion and exclusion in the places they inhabit, as well as citizenship. These contestations over belonging and citizenship and reported life experiences underlie this paper's examination of local racialised politics. These experiences are reported through fieldwork with young separated migrants in the neighbourhoods where these teenagers live and in terms of the health and social care support they receive or do not receive. The young people involved in the research are under 18 years of age and either seeking asylum, or with insecure immigration status and separated from parents and usual carers [1]. Health, youth and social care practitioners working with these teenagers also participated to add their perspectives. Through interviewee accounts we can begin to see ways in which these young people are seen as 'other' and how their otherness means they are subject to abuse; how this 'othering' disqualifies them both formally and informally from access to health and social care resources and subjects them to particular forms of governance not faced by UK citizens. We also see attempts to resist this.

1.10 The argument here is that the changing racialised politics of belonging in East London:

(1)show how underdevelopment, geo-political and postcolonial forces contribute to shaping local experiences of racism

(2)sometimes involves, rather than aggressively targets, British citizens from NCWP (New Commonwealth and Pakistani) backgrounds and their descendants, as skin colour becomes less of an articulated symbol of 'otherness' than immigration status

(3)therefore excludes 'new migrants' and especially those seeking sanctuary, such as the young people in this paper, from belonging

(4)faces local resistance. However I will argue that resistance to this politics might be better informed by a greater understanding of how postcolonialism shapes local racism and militates against a convivial multiculture, and that sociology can play a role in accomplishing this


2.1 Data presented are based on research exploring issues of sexual health, pregnancy and young parenting, alongside healthcare access and the broader life-situations of young separated migrants. Fieldnotes were kept from research with youth groups, young parents groups, welfare support groups, community legal teams and community centres working with young separated migrants. Additionally, 16 young separated migrants between 15 and 18 years of age, and one who was 23[2], were interviewed through semi-structured interview. Topics covered in interview included: how long young people had been in the UK and what they thought of it; where they lived; education; peers; employment; experiences of health, social and welfare services; and knowledge and experience of health systems, GPs and sexual health services. All the young people approached for interview were offered interpreters and six young people took up this option. Young people are identified by pseudonyms they chose to maintain their anonymity while allowing them to recognise their comments in project outputs. Ethnic categories were self assigned. The table below includes their details.

Table 1

Country of originFemaleMaleTotal
Sierra Leone11

2.2 Interviews were also conducted with ten professionals working in health, education, social and youth sectors with job responsibilities relating to policy development and/or frontline work with this client group.

2.3 All interview data were recorded and transcribed. A Framework Approach was used for data analysis (Ritchie and Spencer 1994). This involved doing preliminary readings of the data to identify a framework of key patterns and themes. These themes and their sub-categories were then used to code the data.

Redrawing Racism

3.1 In certain articulations of contemporary racialised politics in East London people from multi-ethnic backgrounds mark as 'other' those who have migrated into local spaces and are seeking refuge. This was reported by young separated migrants to result in hostility and social isolation. In the following interview the fact of migration and asylum seeker status is the issue and is signalled through accent rather than skin colour. Skolo lives in Hackney and is a 17 year old young separated migrant from Sierra Leone who has been in the UK for three months and is claiming asylum. He reports antisocial behaviour and harassment by peers of varying skin colours whom he describes as targeting him because he was not 'from here', was new and as they guessed correctly in this case, was seeking asylum:

…you know because most of the kids, when I went to the lifts, they always urinating there, and some kind of funny things, spitting right around. I don't like spitting…No, I'm just coming to the country, the way that I speak, you understand?, So they normally provoke you, so actually, you are definitely going to have a problem with them.

3.2 Skolo feels isolated and describes wanting a girlfriend:

But I think I'm a young boy you understand? To have a girlfriend because without having a girlfriend you gonna sit in lonely…but I really want a girlfriend you understand because I want to know much about this style of loving in England, really.

3.3 There is a young woman on the estate that Skolo likes. However, he is reluctant to approach her in case she is involved with anyone living there. The abuse and hostility that he is treated with because of his status adds to a fear of physical violence and acts as a barrier to approaching her:

Well, actually if I'm going to approach her, you understand?, and if actually, she have another boyfriend, and if actually if that boyfriend knows I am in love with the lover [with her], he is gonna kill me.

3.4 There is evidence of the possible salience of his fears regarding neighbourhood hostility and harassment in the murder of Mr Stevens Nyembo-Ya-Muteba who, like Skolo, lived in Hackney (Judd and Brown, The Independent, 20.10.06). He was a refugee from Congo killed by his multi-ethnic neighbours after objecting to what he saw as their aggressive behaviour.

3.5 The way 'othering' appears to work has parallels with what Back found in his study based on fieldwork between 1985-89 in South London. He (1996:53) describes a process he terms 'neighbourhood nationalism' where 'the nation is shrunk to the size of the neighbourhood' and debate framed around belonging, nationhood, identity, culture and racism on a national scale gets played out locally. In one neighbourhood he researched, this involved black and white young people drawing lines of belonging and not belonging with themselves on one side and Vietnamese refugees on the other. This left these refugees subject to 'the worst forms of racial abuse' because they had migrated into the estate from 'outside' and were not seen to belong (Back 1996:241). Similarly, Skolo describes facing aggression and abuse perpetrated by multi-ethnic peers because he has migrated into a local space from outside and is seeking sanctuary there.

3.6 Elements of the changing racialised politics that Skolo faces are embodied structurally in immigration and also healthcare legislation. The National Health Service (Charges to Overseas Visitors) (Amendments) Regulations 2004 draw lines between the care rights of those multi-ethnic UK citizens who belong and those 'persons with insecure immigration status' (PIIS) who do not (Department of Health 2004). PIIS includes those who have had their claim for asylum refused and have no other residence status, as well as migrants in the country unofficially - rather than those who, like Skolo, have their asylum claims pending. However, in common with the dimension of 'othering' faced by Skolo, skin colour is not directly used by the legislation to discriminate; rather the fact of migration and residence status is the issue. Indeed it is this particular variant of a continuing focus on residence status facing some of those wanting sanctuary (specifically here PIIS) that makes discrimination legally acceptable in contrast to discrimination on colour, ethnic or religious grounds forbidden by successive Race Relations Acts.

3.7 The Amendments provide a moral and practical lead for services not to cater for persons with insecure immigration status as they have no legal right to free health treatment, except for Accident and Emergency[3][4]. They were introduced as a response to global-local fears (echoed by the Foreign Office) of asylum seekers, 'illegal immigrants' and other migrants entering the UK and spreading sexual infections and tuberculosis as well as overusing maternity, sexual health and other healthcare services (Pollard and Savulescu 2004; African HIV Policy Network 2006). The BNP sought to further capitalise electorally on these fears which are now backed by a legislative response through The Amendments. Hargreaves et al (2005) argue this response results in the refusal to provide healthcare becoming a tool of immigration control.

3.8 Beth is a 17 year old from Congo who has been in the UK for four months. She is a separated minor and was initially a PIIS because she entered the UK without detection from official authorities. The Amendments mentioned above provide a disincentive to design services or deliver them to PIIS as they, including those under 18, have no legal right to free healthcare. Alongside inabilities to access GPs and hospital care, a lack of outreach services and its detrimental effects have been identified by some local practitioners as one consequence of The Amendments(City and Hackney Sexual Health Management Group 2005).

3.9 Beth was living with a man whom she became pregnant by when trafficked to the UK. As she was not officially in the country and did not have an immigration status she had no right to treatment under The Amendments and was refused access to GP care and hospital treatment. Beth was dependent on the father of her baby for accommodation. After becoming pregnant he arranged alternative accommodation for her with his friend. However she was made to leave this after the father unexpectedly disappeared:

You know, my, my, my daddy baby, mmm? He give me friend house, so he go, he say, 'go buy baby clothes', no come back. So I stay with friend, so friend say, 'go, go, go - your husband no come back no more, you go'.

3.10 Invisible to state authorities, Beth went into labour while walking the streets after leaving her previous accommodation:

So I said 'fine, I go'. I walk street on my feet, I, I, I cried my stomach, stomach pains here, she [a previously unknown passer by] take me hospital, take me emergency. Emergency, take upstairs, leave. I give a baby. I stay in hospital.
Subsequent to giving birth, hospital authorities alerted social services to her presence, so she came under their care and has now lodged an asylum claim.

3.11 Kelly and Stevenson (Kelly and Stevenson 2006) argue that The Amendments have wider effects in making professionals uncertain about who has a right to free healthcare. In keeping with their analysis, these data suggests inequalities in healthcare access for young separated migrants who did have an official residence status as asylum seekers, as well as those with insecure immigration status. This is even though the former, as asylum seekers, have full legal rights to NHS healthcare. It should be evaluated in conjunction with other research arguing that asylum seekers face discrimination in healthcare access, whether this is to do with professional uncertainty or not (Clark et al 1998; Dar 2000; Hampshire 2001; Le Feuvre 2001; Heptinstall et al. 2004). These barriers risked exacerbating health issues that were themselves compounded by inabilities to access care because of underdevelopment, war, trafficking and so forth in pre-migration countries or en route to the UK (Kohli and Mather 2003; Thomas et al. 2004).

3.12 Young separated migrants who have sought asylum but are not living with their usual carers, parents or extended family should be classified as 'unaccompanied' and be living under the care of social services. Social services are responsible for linking them in with GP and other health services, through, for example, providing official documentation that is accepted by health services as a legal basis for healthcare access. However, young people frequently reported that this requirement was breached: 'When I went to the health service, the GP, to the surgery, I presented the letter from social services but they told me that without a passport, they're not going to register me' (Aicha 17 year old young woman, Guinean). Beth (17 year old young woman, Congolese) told us how after being taken in to care a social worker arranged for her to visit a nurse at a health centre when she had no GP. This nurse mentioned there were two surgeries with vacancies she could try but reported that one would not accept asylum seekers: 'She [the nurse] gave me two addresses, but she say, "Go this one, go this one, they not give you, you go this one they give you"'. Emma (18 year old young woman, Kosovan) describes being less fortunate:

Before I been in Wood Green. It's not easy. It's not easy. I been to eight GP – nobody take me. They say to me, 'we're not registering anymore'. And I'm going again to Social Service, and Social Service, they give me another address for GP, I'm going there.

3.13 Lily (17 year old young woman, Vietnamese) mentioned how she had an infection and tried to access a hospital-based sexual health centre but was reportedly told: 'Because I don't have my own doctor, so you have to find your own doctor', before she could get referred for care there. She recounts repeatedly being directed from health centre to hospital and back again and how she felt about this:

I had to cry because it's too difficult for me because I, I think I have some infection because I have talked to my friend about some problem about teenager problem. Like period, but I think you know period? I think I have [inaudible], I suspect I have some infection. Yeah, inside my…So I leave the doctor but no one help me so…And now I find one. But…mmm, I don't know if they help me or not.

Local Resistance

4.1 Global anxieties and fears about the 'Other' are transported into local environments through the figure of the sanctuary seeker and 'new migrant' and this impacts on changing forms of racism. However, there is also a grassroots resistance to the effects of this on young separated migrants from the young people themselves as well as from certain education, health, legal, welfare, social care and youth professionals. Agamben (1998) maintains that situating individuals outside of the citizenry their status is reduced to something less than fully human – 'bare life' in his terms. Grassroots resistance to processes of 'bare life' make claims on universal notions of humanity but oppose the conditions that devalue human life by positioning young separated migrants outside of the citizenry. Through analysing this resistance the fragments of an alternative politics begin to be articulated, as we can see in the following examples.

4.2 Majid is an 18 year old separated minor from Afghanistan who at the time of the events described was studying enthusiastically for his exams at sixth form college in East London. This account comes from fieldwork notes and illustrates young people and professionals working to resist the immigration mechanisms employed to incarcerate and remove him from the UK. His name has been changed to one he chose to retain his anonymity just like the other young people directly quoted here. Majid's claim for asylum had failed and his visa giving him definite leave to remain had expired. This meant he could be detained and deported. Without warning Majid was suddenly detained by immigration authorities at an Immigration Services Reporting Centre that he had to attend once a week. Professionals worked within and across professional disciplines to free him. This involved an informal coalition of various community, youth, welfare and legal support groups and teachers at his sixth form college.

4.3 Amongst the activities engaged in to assist him were telephone calls to find out where he was and his condition, and the compilation of a legal case to re-open his claim. College friends also visited Majid when he could be located and friends from a youth group wrote letters and made telephone calls to him. Unfortunately, this was hampered because he was moved from detention camp to detention camp without solicitors and support workers being notified. This was compounded by letters and official documents between Majid and his supporters (and back) often not reaching their destinations. He was twice put on 24 hours notice of deportation to a country where he feared he would be killed and his legal documents required for re-opening his asylum claim were lost by state authorities. Additionally, on one occasion solicitors were misinformed that he had already been deported leading them to almost close the case. Furthermore, he was not given appropriate healthcare even after repeated suicide attempts. Similar patterns of institutional inefficiency affecting separated teenagers and others seeking sanctuary have been documented by NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and reported by professionals and teenagers (Dennis 2002; Bhaba and Finch 2006; Stringer and Lumley 2007).

4.4 Without notification, Majid was suddenly released by a detention centre. No reason was given by the Home Office for this and none is required of them. Support workers experienced in these matters suggest this would not have happened without the pressure they had built, contrasting it with other cases where such co-ordinated help was not available. Majid is now living in East London but his longer term future remains uncertain.

4.5 At times, professionals in East London articulated a concern to treat young separated migrants as humans in the face of the sometimes dehumanising obstacles that those like Majid faced. One youth professional was involved in delivering services to young separated migrants who were both living under social services care and seeking asylum, as well as those who were PIIS. She emphasised how these young people wanted to be treated as human beings and as individuals. Part of this meant getting to know the young people personally and calling them by their name. She said, 'They do want us to say they're human beings, they just a person. That's why we have a name' (Youth professional). Another ran a group catering for young parents. It drew on a specifically multicultural, multifaith and human rights ethos in both its publications, its activities and the pictures on the walls. It also catered for young separated migrants. However, the workers running the group were constantly struggling against the legal and institutional effects that status as either an unaccompanied asylum seeker, or young separated person with insecure immigration status, conferred on an individual. One of these was possible deportation. The youth professional running the group relayed an incident about a young separated migrant who had just turned 18:

There was one case, she had her baby, two days later she was sent back with her baby and her case threw me against the wall, and I thought 'oh my gosh'. I didn't even get to say 'hello' to the woman properly. I met her two weeks, was ready to bring her in to meet the young mothers' group to see what support she could get, and I couldn't find her! I heard that she was sent back and I was amazed of the insensitivity because where she was from, a lot of people were being raped and killed.

4.6 Some professionals resist treating individuals differently – refusing to reduce their humanity because of their immigration status – by acting outside the boundaries of existing social policy and in doing so put their careers at risk. In reference to the previously mentioned restrictions on healthcare under The Amendments one stated:

Now what do we do about it? The government says that we can't treat them, really, because they're illegal but er, we, we tend to ignore that. [laughs]
However, others providing healthcare in hospitals and in young people's sexual health centres in East London reported being stopped by their line managers from caring for those whom The Amendments dictate have no right to free care.

4.7 At points, young separated migrants wanted to assert notions of humanity in their comments about unequal treatment. Amy (17 year old young woman, Guinea) had problems similar to those mentioned above in accessing a GP. She maintained that she should not require paperwork to access healthcare anyway and felt that under the existing system 'paper is more important than human'. On these difficulties Yan (17 year old young man, Congolese) said, 'Ah, because, it's not because we're refugees [that they should have services] but because we're human beings. So it should not be different'.

4.8 Lefebvre (2000: 92) argues that everyday life is saturated with politics even though our conception of politics is often confined to privileged moments such as elections. He particularly stresses how one aspect of this saturation is the impact of the State apparatus, administration and bureaucracy on individuals. This observation is pertinent for young separated migrants and the web of immigration, healthcare and welfare legislation and institutional procedures they are subject to. Lefebvre also adds that everyday life is constituted through the totality of this apparatus, social relations and their impact on the human. This impact is then expressed in human activities and emotions with him singling out 'friendship, comradeship, love, the need to communicate, play' as examples of this (2000:97). De Certeau (1984) argues that resistance in everyday life takes place when people create and exercise agency within the structures imposed on them. We can see elements of what Lefebvre and de Certeau were writing about in how young separated migrants themselves reported being involved in trying to make the best of the circumstances they find themselves in.

4.9 As such, these young people described being supported by community organisations in getting involved with playing football, photography, drama and so on. Moreover, one might regard young separated migrants going to college, attending youth groups and simply carrying out banal and seemingly everyday routines as forms of resistance to the inhumane effects of their differential immigration status on their life situations. An example of this is Lily (17 year old young woman, Vietnamese):

I like it to study GCSE and then A-Level and then I want to go to university but I think it's very difficult for me…your English has to be…very fluent, like English person. So very difficult, I just dream that, to go to university.

4.10 Professionals reported recognising educational efforts with one reporting how the young separated migrants she taught were: 'hard-working, really well-mannered, really sweet, really dedicated, and er really good people to work with' (educational professional). Nevertheless, a social service professional described reluctance amongst certain sixth form and FE colleges to admit separated teenagers. She also identified how if a young person is only granted leave to remain in the UK for a limited period, although a subsequent visa may be applied for, it: 'doesn't qualify them to go off and get a loan or get any help from local authority' and adds 'sometimes I feel really bad when they've completed it [A Levels], they're saying, "I wanna go to university" [and they cannot]'.

4.11 Emma is a 17 year old from Kosovo. She was interviewed at a young mothers' group. This group aims to cater for vulnerable teenagers and had a multicultural ethos evidenced by educational posters promoting this on its walls, and events such as special evenings where people bring food to share. The group provided an opportunity to meet young mothers from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds and to make friends with other young people. Emma had made friends with Beth, a 17 year old young woman from Congo whose experiences were described earlier in this paper. Emma wanted to go to university despite ongoing uncertainties about detention and deportation. These fears were heightened for her as she was approaching 18 when she expected to find out the results of her asylum application. The ongoing uncertainty was causing her stress:

I don't know… if I'm, I'm not have some answer or something, I'm gonna be crazy! I want some, you know, I want something to be sure, I'm gonna stay here. [bangs her fist on the desk] and I'm, I'm not gonna leave this country yeah?

4.12 She describes her fear of removal:

You, you waiting day after day, you know? Oh, today they come and they gonna say to me 'Go to your country', you know and it's not…it's not…good and easy. And stress everything.

4.13 In the face of existing uncertainties she expressed a determination to do well in college and go to university for herself and her UK-born baby:

Because when my children, when they grow up and they gonna ask me something, and I'm gonna say, 'I don't know about anything', it's not good, so I have to learn for the, to answer any question to my children.

4.14 Emma faces further obstacles in her attempt to build a life in the UK as the 2005 Immigration and Asylum Bill abolishes the category of ILR (indefinite leave to remain) replacing it with temporary leave to remain (TLR) for those asylum seekers subsequently granted refugee status. It results in them having to reapply for residence at least every five years post 18, which means their permanent residence is not guaranteed (The Refugee Council 2006). It was introduced against the backdrop of government efforts to be more restrictive of who was allowed to enter and stay in the country (Home Office 2002). Alongside this, NGOs are also concerned about reported new government efforts to formulate schemes designed to forcibly and systematically return unaccompanied asylum seekers to their country of origin before they turn 18, when currently they are almost always given leave to remain until at least this age. (Lewis, The Guardian, 18.08.06). Such measures would further hamper the chances of young people like Emma building a life in the UK.


5.1 DuBois (1989:29) famously asserted that 'the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour line'. According to Les Back, racism in the 21st century is changing. He contends 'that the problem of the 21st century is the problem of the 'immigration line' (Back 2007:31), prefaced as this is by issues including rapid population growth, displacement and economic inequality. Those wanting refuge are at the centre of this as they seek to cross the 'immigration line' and belong, as equals, in local spaces. However, the existence of the 'immigration line' means those seeking sanctuary are not citizens in the countries they want to live in and are treated differently from those who are.

5.2 Agamben (1998) maintains that the language of sovereignty draws distinctions between citizens whose lives matter and the 'bare' lives of others who do not. The implication being these lives are and can be treated as of lower worth. For Back (Back 2007:34) this resonates with the condition of those wanting refuge in the UK. Bauman (2004) shows how the construction of asylum seekers as criminal, welfare scroungers and terrorists accomplishes the lowering of their human worth and provides a spurious justfication for their coercive treatment. He refers to asylum seekers' cheapened lives as 'waste'. Gilroy (2004) maintains the racialised construction of 'others' as different and threatening, dehumanises sanctuary seekers (and others such as prisoners detained in Guantanomo Bay) to such an extent that they are socially positioned as lesser humans or 'infrahumans' as he terms them. This is used to justify the exceptional forms of government those wanting sanctuary face. Their lower status means human standards which apply to citizens do not apply to them because their lives are somehow worth less.

5.3 The positioning of sanctuary seekers as 'others' whose lives matter less because of their difference to us as 'citizens' affects young separated migrants in terms of a local and communitarian politics in East London. Keith (2007) maintains that communitarian politics, in different cities globally, is played out on the political terrain of rights and responsibilities. He underlines how such politics is engaged with who belongs to a community, how resources are allocated and which groups get to shape and 'own' what geographical spaces. He adds that communitarian politics can cover the same questions but come from radically different perspectives in answering them. We see this here in how a form of resistance politics responds differently to concerns about community resources and spaces than an exclusionary racialised communitarian politics that directs itself against those wanting refuge and to belong here.

5.4 This exclusionary version of communitarian politics suggests that the citizenry includes the 'old natives' and NCWP 'new natives', all of whom have rights and belong in stark contrast to those wanting refuge. Distinguishing between the 'legitimate' claims of the old and new 'natives' to be treated as citizens from those seeking sanctuary leaves sanctuary seekers open to exceptional and coercive forms of government permissable by their status as non-citizens. These exceptional measures are sometimes formulated at a national level but have local effects and involve legislation discouraging immigration, reducing access to benefits and healthcare, limiting length of stay, and more speedily removing from the country those whose asylum claims have failed (Bloch 2000; Solomos 2003; Schuster and Solomos 2004). Hostile national media coverage (ICAR 2004), and the local East London communitarian political scene involving BNP propagandising and responses to it by parliamentary politicians such as Margaret Hodge contribute to this as argued by some NGOs such as The Refugee Council (Watt, The Guardian, 20.05.07b).

5.5 While policy initiatives such as Every Child Matters articulate universal entitlements in health and social care for all minors, discrepancies have been reported in the extent to which this applies to those wanting refuge (Stanley 2001; Crawley 2006; Dunkerely et al. 2006). These discrepancies are indicative of young separated migrants' positioning as subject to exceptional forms of government and practice. Asylum and immigration legislation carrying with it the threat of removal (even for those such as Emma's baby born in the UK), as well as the detention procedures Majid experienced, are examples of these exclusionary practices that are part of the political communitarian contestation of who belongs within local spaces and who does not. In healthcare this exceptional governance also includes The Amendments and existing professional and institutional practice denying universal human standards to young separated migrants and policing access to local spaces and resources. This had real effects for young people in terms of, for example, Beth going into labour while walking down a street and Lily reporting distress because she was repeatedly refused access to healthcare. A further dimension of this local and racialised communitarian politics is the hostile 'neighbourhood nationalism' affecting Skolo that although he lived in a multi-ethnic neighbourhood, exerted a hostility towards him and the space where he lived but was not seen not to belong. This hostility carried with it possibly dangerous consequences.

5.6 There was resistance to this racialised politics of belonging that was also communitarian which focussed on who belongs to a community, how resources are allocated and which groups get to shape and 'own' what geographical spaces. Professionals reported working to open up spaces and distribute more resources for young separated migrants in health and social care, education and elsewhere. Attempts to co-ordinate access to GPs and education are part of this. At times, local activists and practitioners made reference to universal notions of humanity in informing their actions when attempting to access resources or improve conditions for the young separated migrants they work with. Similarly, some young people drew on notions of humanity when arguing for better treatment. Such a politics recognises what Gilroy (2004:167) calls the 'clanging self-evident sameness of suffering of humankind' and attempts to resist conditions devaluing human life.

5.7 We can see resistance, both overt and covert, amongst multi-sector professionals and activists in terms of new, and sometimes unofficial, formations against injustice. These involve individuals within organisations working with each other and also interprofessionally with those in other bodies. One example is the communitarian politics working to free Majid, engaging various community, education, youth, welfare and legal organisations. Sometimes professionals' activities are in contradiction of line managers' instructions and institutional procedures that are themselves backed up by legislation such as The Amendments. Such resistance risked professionals' job security and future prospects. It is communitarian in its focus through attempting to open up local resources and spaces for these young people that are contested by an exclusionary communitarian politics and neighbourhood nationalisms.

5.8 The struggle for humane treatment integral to this communitarian politics directs itself at an acceptance of a diverse multiculture. Seen with Majid for example, it argues that these teenagers should belong within the local constitution of the community and mobilises against the deportations which physically enforce the idea that young sanctuary seekers do not belong in 'our' local and national spaces. The organisations involved in freeing Majid and the young mothers' group(that Emma and Beth were a part of) and that one professional mentioned when talking about the sudden deportation of one young mother, were multi-ethnic and multi-faith in both their clientele and workforce. They exhibited a multicultural ethos attempting to embrace and form bonds across diverse cultures, ethnicities and religions. Such community alliances exhibited not only multiculture in their make-up but also friendships that young people like Beth and Emma had made both with each other and with UK citizens in the organisations they accessed. This was an aspect of a convivial multiculture in that people worked with and through difference in the daily interactions of their lives in ways that confound the social construction of different ethnic groups as discrete, radically 'different' and dangerous to the nation (Gilroy 2004).

5.9 In this context, belonging in a community embracing a more diverse and convivial multiculture means young separated migrants being able to perform everyday routines and having aspirations for the future despite the inhumane state apparatus and social relations they face (de Certeau 1984; Lefebvre 2000). Existing research comments on the resilience of separated minors (Kidane 2001; Dennis 2002). This was evident here too. Young people like Emma and Lily were resisting the uncertainties in their lives, particularly the possibility of detention and deportation that their immigration status subjected them to. This was by performing daily routines like going to college and having future ambitions such as studying at university, which they were working towards in trying circumstances.

5.10 However, the racialised politics of belonging affecting these young people occurs in the context of a postcolonial dispensation that treats the lives of some of those it targets as 'bare' rather than fully human. It subjects them to specific measures such as possible detention and deportation in the UK and often gaping wealth and social disparities in their pre-migration countries (UNHCR 2004). If communitarian resistance to this politics of belonging is about multiculture, conviviality and humanity, then an understanding of how these young people are positioned as infrahuman both in East London and abroad becomes more urgent. One way we can see this is in healthcare.

5.11 Either through circumstances in their pre-migration countries such as underdevelopment and war, or racialised politics in East London, young people faced barriers to posited universal entitlements to healthcare (UNHCR 2004). Medecins du Monde is a non-governmental organisation that usually operates in crisis situations outside the borders of the West, but now also operates in East London to deliver healthcare and provide advocacy for those who otherwise cannot access it. Amongst the groups it caters for are those wanting refuge. When seen in this light, difficulties accessing healthcare requiring the intervention of Medecins du Monde in East London reflect a postcolonial linking of underdevelopment abroad to local racialised politics within. In both cases those wanting refuge might not get the healthcare understood both in United Nations and Labour government rhetoric to be a universal human entitlement (The Guardian, 25.09.07).

5.12 A range of writers on postcolonialism argue in various ways that destabilisation in parts of Africa, Asia and elsewhere is linked to 'Western' economic and geo-political interests and is a cause of inequalities in wealth, healthcare and so forth (Membe 2001; Zeleza 2007; Monbiot 2007). Destabilisation results in displacement whether this is through direct military action by 'Western' powers in countries like Afghanistan, corporate interests or neoliberal structures such as the G8, World Bank, USAID and the International Monetary Fund (Monbiot 2002; Bakare 2007; Sinha 2007). The politics of destabilisation abroad alongside anti-immigrant racism practised locally exemplifies the interconnections between global political processes.

5.13 This finds further expression in common concerns about overpopulation and resource drain, terrorism, infection and political destabilisation linking global fears in the previously mentioned White Paper with local racialised politics. In its local incarnation it requires that earlier generations of NCWP migrants and their descendents are integrated into a notion of belonging that is subsequently unquestioned and contrasted with the claims 'others' make to belong as well - with disruptive and conflictual consequences for local spaces and resource distribution. 'Belonging' and these resource claims are linked to citizenship with the immigration line demarcating who does and does not belong (Back 2007:31). This local politics is continued at a national level and can be seen starkly by the British government's handling of, for example, the The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). It negotiated a reservation for itself allowing the withholding of migration/deportation and citizenship rights for non-British citizens under 18 (Stringer and Lumley 2007). Again young separated migrants are exempted from the human rights entitlements of citizens.


6.1 The notion of some lives being cheaper than others and the demarcation of this proposition through the immigration line is important. It means that the inequalities of underdevelopment and 'bare life' outside our borders matter less than if 'our' lives were at stake because 'others' are not as human or as capable as us as 'evidenced' by these inequalities in the first place (Sinha 2007). Sanctuary seekers are positioned on the wrong side of the immigration line even when in local spaces in the UK, as postcolonial arrangements compromise the discrete categories of the global and local. The process of 'othering' involves the social construction of 'them' whether abroad or in the UK as causing terrorism, overpopulation and carrying infection. It is seen to impact on local housing, health and welfare resources in exclusionary communitarian politics. The local and national racialised politics of belonging designates those wanting refuge as lesser humans exempting them from having rights to universal human standards. This positioning of them in local spaces as well as in the countries from which many migrate as of lesser worth 'justifies' the separate conditions under which they live. It can be counter-posed with the superior resources, access and humane treatment citizens in the UK might expect.

6.2 As postcolonial discourse provides a racialised explanation for the inequalities of 'bare life' abroad, it provides the government with an opportunity to scapegoat 'others' for social ills at home and a justification for heightened security arrangements because of the threat 'they' pose to 'us'. In recent times, multiculturalism has been associated with a threat to a coherent Britishness and a cohesive society. However, postcolonialism and its reflection in the changing local racialised politics of belonging endangers social cohesion through its construction and treatment of those wanting sanctuary as 'other'. One aspect of this is increased support for the British National Party. Fieldwork presented here indicates how a local multicultural politics of resistance elevates an ethic of humanity and solidarity rather than the radical difference of 'otherness'. Sociology can help this by illuminating the postcolonial local and global cartography responsible for the devaluing, scapegoating and exploitation of human life, and by helping inform the processes by which resistance might be better organised. This paper is an attempt to contribute to this and an argument for further politically committed research.


Thanks to Shruti Uppal, Nilufar Ahmed, Vron Ware, Max Farrar, Halima Begum, Aisha Phoenix, Vicki Harman and all the research participants.


1 The term 'separated' rather than 'unaccompanied' is used when describing those under 18 and not cared for by parents or their usual carer. This is as The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR 2004:2) suggests. Like the term 'unaccompanied' preferred by the government, this covers asylum seekers under 18, not cared for by parents or their ususal carer, and looked after by social services. It also includes those separated from usual carers or parents who are either seen by social services as part of extended famillies and not requiring their support as 'unaccompanied' or whose care arrangements are unknown to state authorities.

2 This young person was 23, separated from parents, waiting on the outcome of her asylum application and not in touch with social services. Although outside the target age range, she very much wanted to participate and it was felt that she might add insight into the transition from being cared for by social services as 'unaccompanied' and leaving care and receiving less support.

3 Compulsory psychiatric care, family planning and certain care for communicable diseases are exempted from this (Department of Health 2004). Treatment for HIV is not exempted from this with only the first diagnosis of HIV and connected counselling sessions charge free.

4 Ameliorating the effects of the Amendments, on Friday 11 April 2008, The High Court ruled that PIIS whose asylum claims had failed should be considered by law to be ordinary residents and entitled to full NHS care. The court gave the Department of Health the right to appeal this decision to the House of Lords and the government is reportedly considering its position (Boseley, The Guardian, 12.04.08). Limitations on access to healthcare for PIIS who remain undetected, including those undetected, separated and under 18 and without documentation remain.


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