Cities of Sanctuary in environments of hostility
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Blog post by Aidan Mosselson, University of Edinburgh, UK

During a period of fieldwork carried out in Sheffield, the UK’s first City of Sanctuary, between April 2018 and November 2019, I volunteered with a charity supporting asylum seekers. Part of my volunteer duties included sleeping at a shelter providing emergency accommodation for refused asylum seekers who have been made homeless. Usually the mood in the shelter was friendly; because it is the space that people sleep in, occupants make efforts to get along with one another. At certain times, however, people’s patience became frayed or they were agitated or tense. In one of my earlier visits to the shelter, trying to make conversation and get to know people better, I naïvely asked one of the residents how long he had been in the UK. This question was triggering for him and he understandably became increasingly upset and angry as he recounted that he had been in the country for 13 years and was still prevented from working, accessing housing or securing the right to remain. Although he was not threatening, his anger was disturbing to himself as well as others using the accommodation, and for the rest of the night people kept their distance from him. This incident served as a clear reminder of the ways in which the trauma induced by forced migration processes and the continuing hostile stance of the government intrudes constantly into people’s states of mind and can be a source of tension, distress and division between individuals and those around them. It affirmed that the hostile environment is an ever-present emotional reality that people are forced to endure and that intrudes into numerous spaces, including those designed to support forced migrants.

In this piece, I outline how the hostile environment is not simply a set of policy stipulations, but is an everyday reality that marks migrants’ lives in the UK. As an everyday reality, it is encountered in a range of different settings, infrastructures and interactions. It is also, as the above example shows, an emotional reality that travels with people and that intrudes into and interrupts practices and spaces designed to offer solidarity, comfort and care. As such, racialised hostility towards migrants is part of all social interactions and relations, and is something that is easily and frequently re-enacted, even by seemingly well-intentioned activists and volunteers. As this piece will make clear, practices that do not openly interrogate and challenge whiteness and colonial hierarchies of personhood and race run the risk of, and frequently do, reproduce the very patterns and forms of difference that they attempt to challenge.

I carried out this research and write from the position of someone racialised as white. Although I am not a UK citizen and am myself subject to the vicissitudes and vagaries of the UK migration system, this positions me as powerful and privileged within the dynamics and hierarchies that I am attempting to critique. This privilege undoubtedly influenced the encounters that I had during my research and shaped the ways in which I engaged with different people. Within the charity that I volunteered, I was perceived as authoritative by forced migrants. This means that the interactions that I had were never neutral or equal, but were always marked by racial hierarchies and privilege. Adopting a critical perspective, I was able to be aware of these hierarchies and attempt to mitigate some of the social differences that they created, but as the incidents that I describe below show, this was not possible on a structural level. In carrying out volunteering duties, I recreated and reaffirmed differences, and participated in a system in which I was clearly siding with and enjoying the privileges of whiteness. With this in mind, I attempt to highlight how this racial privilege plays out and to push others who may be in similar situations to analyse their own practices and privilege.

The phrase ‘hostile environment’ is widely used to describe the British government’s current approach towards migration. Antipathy towards migrants and people of colour is ingrained in the UK’s migration policies (El-Enany, 2020). However, the phrase came to prominence in 2012 when then-Home Secretary Theresa May announced the government’s intention to create ‘a really hostile environment’ for irregular migrants. In this moment, she introduced a system designed to make everyday life untenable for people deemed to be in the country illegally. The most conspicuous iteration of the new hostile environment were vans that were driven through areas with large ethnic minority populations, emblazoned with the warning ‘In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest’. However, the hostile environment also manifests in more subtle, but no less damaging, ways. Under these policies, checks on migration status have become part of everyday life, with people required to prove they have the right to live and work in the UK in a range of everyday interactions and settings. Proof of immigration status is required when opening bank accounts, applying to rent properties, attending job interviews, registering for university or college and even accessing medical treatment. The hostile environment has thus given rise to a series of everyday bordering practices, and turned medical personnel, landlords, employers and educators, amongst others, into border guards (Yuval-Davis et al., 2018). It therefore creates a general ambience of unease and actively divides the general population, introducing tension, suspicion and friction into a whole host of everyday interactions. It not only effects people with irregular migration status, but actively polices the entire population, particularly people of colour. The Windrush Scandal is a direct result of the hostile environment, as people’s immigration status was (incorrectly) called into question, leaving them destitute, unemployed, homeless and unable to access healthcare.

Outside of everyday bordering practices, the hostile environment also shapes daily interactions, experiences, relations and emotions. It is not only a set of laws and policies, but has come to create a generalised atmosphere of racialised antipathy towards migrants (forced and others). It has its roots in national policy, but also takes on the form of a specific urban reality in Sheffield (and other cities around the country), as it is enacted and encountered through various practices, experiences and affective relations. Together, they constitute an everyday reality in which migrants are never settled or at peace, but are constantly made to feel uncomfortable, isolated and unwanted.

Urban spaces and landmarks can also be considered part of the hostile environment. A building named Vulcan House sits at the centre of the migration infrastructure operating in Sheffield. A large yet inconspicuous glass-fronted office block, Vulcan House is located in West Bar – a redeveloped former industrial quarter of the city, situated on the banks of the River Don. The building is unobtrusive to those who are unaware of its function, and is surrounded by renovated luxury apartment blocks.

To those who are aware of its function, Vulcan House is a site of anger, fear and dread, as it is the Sheffield headquarters of the Home Office Visa and Immigration Service. People registered as asylum seekers have to report regularly to the Home Office at Vulcan House. The frequency of mandated visits varies, from fortnightly, to monthly, to every six months and even only once a year, depending on individual cases. No matter their frequency, these visits are marked with anxiety. In numerous cases, people have reported to Vulcan House, which has cells inside the building, and have been detained. However, activists also use Vulcan House a staging ground to challenge the hostile environment. During my time in Sheffield, protestors gathered outside of the building to demonstrate against the detention of several people from Zimbabwe (see Figure 1 below). Activists, including forced migrants, from the organisation These Walls Must Fall also staged a football match in the courtyard outside the building (Figure 2 below). Here, they were intending to disrupt the space and turn it into site of solidarity, unity and inclusion instead. In both cases, activists, like others around the UK, attempted to counter the pernicious migration regime by creating alternative forms of publicness and solidarity. Whilst intermittent and ephemeral, they represent different forms of space, relationships and affect.

Housing is also a site through which the hostile environment is both enacted and resisted. Until 2019, housing for forced migrants in Sheffield and other cities around the UK was provided by the global security company G4S. This arrangement is part of a larger system that has turned immigration detention, incarceration and housing into a lucrative business (Bhatia and Canning, 2020). The conditions in houses provided by G4S and Mears, the company that replaced them, have been shown to be dire. People are confronted with mould, rat and insect infestations, decaying structures, broken heating systems and leaking ceilings. Through these conditions, people are put in a position in which they are never able to settle or feel at peace. Rather, they are made to always feel uncomfortable and unwanted and the hostility which their presence in the country elicits is constantly communicated. Significantly, in the case of housing, hostility is exerted in private, domestic spaces. It is hidden and hard to see. However, activists have organised around these domestic spaces and sought to make them public. Several public demonstrations were organised in Sheffield to put pressure on the local council to end its association with G4S. Adopting the slogan, ‘Don’t let prison guards house asylum seekers’, campaigners sought to highlight the inappropriateness of allowing the same company that guards borders, runs prisons and (mis)manages detention facilities to also provide housing for vulnerable people who have lodged asylum claims. Activists have also documented the dreadful conditions of asylum seeker housing through numerous publically accessible articles and reports. They have thus created sites of visibility and legibility that allow the public to peer into carceral, hidden spaces (see Cassidy, 2020). Like protestors who repurpose the space around Vulcan House, they turn a privatised, individualising infrastructure into a public one, and use this to gain leverage in their attempts to secure better housing situations for asylum seekers.

The shelter with which I began this piece is also a site in which the hostile environment comes to life and in which divisions between those who are cared for (migrants who are people of colour, predominantly from formerly colonised countries) and those who administer care (overwhelmingly white, British people) are reproduced. Volunteers are given responsibility for even the most basic activities, such as switching lights on and locking doors. These rules and hierarchies reduce the agency of people who use the shelter and render them as passive subjects to be looked after, even in the space in which they sleep every night. They ensure that bordering processes and practices are maintained and re-enacted, even if inadvertently. Although I made concerted efforts to downplay the authority I was given and allow people sleeping there to make their own decisions and do what they felt comfortable with, I was always looked to as the person in charge and the status quo endured. In this arrangement, then, forced migrants are not treated as equals, but remain the objects of white charity (Danewid, 2017). It is thus a system that, although offering protection from the harshest effects of the hostile environment, entrenches, rather than challenges, colonial hierarchies of race and personhood (Pallister-Wilkins, 2021).

Bordering processes were also recreated at a multi-agency drop-in centre at which I volunteered. Working at a helpdesk providing sign-posting services, referrals to foodbanks, emergency cash payments and places in emergency accommodation, I observed and participated in actions that mimicked and reinforced the hostile environment. In order to assist people, volunteers had to ascertain people’s migration status. Due to limited resources, the charity prioritises people whose asylum claims have been refused. We were able to provide advice, sympathetic listening, friendship and signposting to others, but could not assist with financial support or emergency accommodation. A routine developed in which people would approach the help-desk with their forms of identification in hand. Often, especially during busy periods, making note of people’s identification numbers and migration status was more important that learning their names, demonstrating how governing and regulating migration and enforcing divisions becomes a task falling even to those who are actively trying to mitigate the effects of the hostile environment.

The charity also maintains an online database that records the details of people whom it supports. Whilst this database is an important tool that allows the charity to function smoothly and helps volunteers maintain records of people’s health and well-being and track any changes in their behaviour, legal situation and physical and emotional states, it also acts as a bordering tool that mimics databases maintained by border agencies. Being able to access the database confers a governmental gaze on volunteers and allows them to read up on people’s histories, physical and emotional states and make notes about their behaviour. I am in no ways suggesting that people ever misused this power, but it does clearly conform to and perpetuate the hierarchy between those who are cared for and those who administer care, again showing how bordering practices and hostility become normalised and make themselves felt, even in spaces attempting to provide care and support. Frequently, people approaching the helpdesk became suspicious when asked to provide identity documents or when volunteers entered information in their computers. Here again, experiences of border regimes and the hostile environment are carried with people into other spaces, reinforcing divisions and hierarchies that make solidarity difficult, or even impossible.

I don’t make note of these experiences and practices to unnecessarily criticise charities and individuals working with forced migrants. The work they do is vital and is often the only thing keeping people in destitute situations alive. However, it is also crucial to retain a critical and reflexive perspective and be aware of how practices of support and care, as much as they are acts of resistance, are also implicated in the divisions, hierarchies, inequalities and systemic racism that define British society. Like the hostile environment, this racism is the backdrop against which efforts to create cities of sanctuary and spaces of care unfold. They both have to be constantly guarded against, questioned and challenged, particularly by those whose whiteness and citizenship status protects them from the worst and most damaging effects.


Bhatia, M., Canning, V., 2020. Misery as business: how immigration detention became a cash-cow in Britain’s borders, in: Albertson, K., Corcoran, M., Phillips, J. (Eds.), Marketisation and Privatisation in Criminal Justice. Policy Press, Bristol, pp. 262–277.

Cassidy, K., 2020. Housing, the hyper-precarization of asylum seekers and the contested politics of welcome on Tyneside. Radical Housing Journal. 2, 93–117.

Danewid, I., 2017. White innocence in the Black Mediterranean: hospitality and the erasure of history. Third World Quarterly. 38, 1674–1689.

El-Enany, N., 2020. Bordering Britain: Law, race and empire. Manchester University Press, Manchester.

Pallister-Wilkins, P., 2021. Saving the souls of white folk: Humanitarianism as white supremacy. Security Dialogue. 52, 98–106.

Yuval-Davis, N., Wemyss, G., Cassidy, K., 2018. Everyday Bordering, Belonging and the Reorientation of British Immigration Legislation. Sociology. 52, 228–244.