Arts Festivals and the ‘Hostile Environment’: the Need for More Nuance

Tuesday, 21 August 2018 5-minute read

Recent cases of writers and artists who were due to attend arts festivals in the United Kingdom being denied a visa to do so have invited further criticism of British immigration policies. These policies are depriving British cultural life, as African musicians attending the WOMAD Festival or a dozen writers attending the Edinburgh International Book Festival are unable to enter the country. The bureaucratic ordeals that it puts these artists through are oppressive, humiliating and Byzantine. However, commentators who have engaged in this discussion have mischaracterised these cases of visa refusals as part of the wider ‘Hostile Environment’ that the Home Office pursued over the last several years. Deirdre Brock, MP for Edinburgh North and Leith, raised the issue in Parliament that Edinburgh’s festivals are being damaged by the Hostile Environment. Likewise, Ian Birrell in his article on WOMAD says that African artists have fallen short of the Hostile Environment. Nick Barley, director of the EIBF,  has made the same point on Twitter:

To make these issues about the Hostile Environment is to conflate different issues around immigration being faced by different constituents of people. This lack of nuance does a terrible disservice to those involved in the conversation and those hurt by the policies.

To begin with, the Hostile Environment targets migrants already in the UK on a visa but are attempting to acquire settled status. It aims to deprive these people of their rights because they are perceived an existential threat by xenophobic parties and interest groups. Its objective is to deny them access to their rights in order to force them to leave the UK voluntarily.  In contrast, artists attending festivals are only visiting Britain temporarily on short-term visas, and are regarded as contributing to the country in a way that is profitable. The Hostile Environment has nothing to do with them.

I have written about how the Hostile Environment is a form of structural violence in a previous post, and elaborated in another piece how the policy co-opts civilians into doing the state’s dirty work of policing other people’s immigration status. The consequence of this is that banks, landlords, employers, charities, and even the National Health Service police the immigration status of people who depend on them, and withdraw access should their status be complicated. It is designed to deprive people access to their rights by denying them the ability to seek legal recourse to defend them. One cannot pay for immigration solicitors, for example, if one is being evicted from their flat, has their bank account frozen, and is unemployed at the same time. It is difficult to make a stand against a system, but next to impossible to resist an entire climate where civilians and state services are coerced to conspire against you.

However, this is different from the bureaucratic hurdles that prevent artists from attending festivals. The Windrush scandal was caused by the ‘deport first, appeal later’ attitude towards verifying immigration status and the systemic barriers that stopped people from accessing legal support. Visiting artists are not whisked away to detention centres under cover of the night. It is often just as humiliating or oppressive for artists compared to the migrant residents facing the Hostile Environment and the policies are just as cruel and atrocious. But rather than forcing private individuals, banks and civilians from policing people’s immigration status, the visas for artists are still handled by the state bureaucracy. It is possible for MPs and interest groups to take this up, lobby the Home Office or embassies, and reverse these refusals, in a way that is not possible when an individual is cornered on multiple fronts and forced out of the country because of dispersed and invisible forms of oppression.

The two categories of migrants have different degrees of vulnerability: migrants applying for settled status are isolated by the system and left to rely on their own resources, while these artists have the support of some of the largest and most lucrative arts festivals. The EIBF is the world’s largest celebration of the written word and publishing, while WOMAD (which stands for World of Music, Arts and Dance) has a global presence in many countries. These festivals have significant reputation, clout, and the ability to generate headlines, and are able to rally political capital for their guests in a way that long-term migrants struggling against the Hostile Environment cannot.

The Hostile Environment is motivated by the same xenophobia that is the basis of the rest of British immigration policy. However, when certain narrow issues represent the wider politics of immigration, we run the risk of framing these debates in ways that are indifferent to the rights and dignities of the people affected. When, for example, the difficulty of acquiring spouse visas was an issue in the press, the debate on immigration was confined to British citizens’ right to have a family with a foreign national rather than the indignity and oppression the foreign spouse had to face. Likewise, the problems faced by arts festivals in bringing in artists are centred on Britain’s cultural life, the business and success of festivals, and the British public’s access to world literature and music, rather than the consequences for people affected by xenophobia.

This framing contributes to the stereotype of the ‘good immigrant’, which forces immigrants to constantly justify their existence to be treated with dignity. It is part of a utilitarian reasoning that only welcomes those immigrants whose labour and contribution can be exploited by society and capital. The resistance to the Hostile Environment should not solely be about those who have the privilege of being married to a UK citizen or are a world-renowned artist. We need to have solidarity and support across all categories of migrants facing the Hostile Environment, however this solidarity should not come at the cost of attention to the nuances and specificities of the challenges faced by the people most adversely affected by this xenophobic climate.