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Reimagining Migration Narratives


When I was a child I wanted to be a librarian and for some reason that entailed writing on the title page of books: Bridget Anderson, my table, my bedroom, 9 Stow Park Avenue, Stow Hill, Newport, Gwent, South Wales, Wales, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, Europe, the world, the solar system, the milky way, the universe. Thanks to COVID I’m now hunkered down in my parents’ house in Newport, Gwent, South Wales etc. and I suspect I’m not alone in being thrown back into that Russian doll-type imagination of how I inhabit the world. Notably, the microbiological was not on my list. COVID-19 potentially throws these scales into confusion pointing to different ways of understanding how we live with, in and against the world. How can we harness the microbiological to re-imagine migration?


Milton Friedman wrote: ‘Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around’. One of the most powerful ideas lying around today is the nation. The language of immunology has long drawn on the imagery of the body as a nation state defending its borders from viral intruders (Martin 1990) and conversely the language of politics has drawn on the imagery of the nation as a body. The nation and the body map on to each other. To quote Prime Minister Johnson’s speech when he left hospital: ‘We will defeat this coronavirus and defeat it together. We will win because our NHS is the beating heart of this country. It is the best of this country. It is unconquerable. It is powered by love’. Despite the planetary reach of the pandemic, the nation is being mobilised powerfully through images of war. In the UK every day we are given updates in Georgian panelled rooms framed by Union Jacks. ‘We’ are enlisted to fight a ‘national battle’ and ‘frontline’ staff who die are spoken of in quasi militaristic terms as ‘fallen heroes’. The National Health Service (NHS) indirectly but powerfully invokes solidaristic nationalism and it exemplifies the exclusions engendered when we take citizenship status for granted. ‘National’ sounds inclusive, but it is not universal. Health Secretary Matt Hancock himself has drawn attention to the exclusivity of the NHS, tweeting on 17th November 2019: ‘It’s the National Health Service, not the International Health Service…after Brexit we’ll extend the NHS surcharge to all non-UK residents’. 


Across the world there are multiple reports of racism and nationalism and brutal state crackdowns on people on the move: boats crammed with people left to drift in the Mediterranean and on the high seas, mass confinements in dangerous camps, deportations and abandonments. And ‘migrant’ easily morphs into racial and ethnic discrimination. Hungarian President Orbán has shut down universities allegedly because it is not possible to distinguish between foreign and Hungarian students. The ready association of ‘foreign-ness’ with disease and impurity has a long and shameful history (Adida et al. 2017) that is replicated in different contexts and disciplines: ‘while seemingly of different orders, invasive others – whether people, plants, pathogens, or ideas – are often described in similar ways, and patrolled and controlled through similar technologies, logics, and policies, and that these overlaps have real consequences’ (Ticktin 2017, xii). 


Attitudes to migration in the context of COVID-19 draw on fear of invaders and the need to wall ‘them’ out. To preserve ourselves we must erect and police borders, retreat into the innermost Russian doll. I am not disputing that the prevention of movement and interaction can be, in circumstances such as we are facing today, an important emergency public health measure to contain infection. But turning an emergency measure into a long-term strategy hung around international borders makes little practical sense and indeed is deeply dangerous. One has only to think about the stories emerging from refugee camps, care homes and prisons to see that by themselves barriers do not keep infections out, nor lock them in. Such an approach is also impracticable in our connected and joined-up world. Strong efforts are being made to facilitate the movement of seasonal agricultural (migrant) workers across Europe even as we are in the midst of the pandemic, and Trump’s recent immigration ban did not include the hundreds of thousands of temporary workers that provide the labour that drives the economy. 


The idea of the nation may be lying around, but it drives impoverished responses that depend on the logic of separation. It is precisely that logic, of separation to preserve purity, that the microbiological contests. In his examination of the Zika virus outbreak in 2015 Hupert asks: 

‘What if the host-pathogen battle is no more than an epicycle off the main issue, namely that we are no longer in a war against a them but rather against ourselves? Fundamentally, the emergence of Zika forces us to ask whether we are entering a phase of anthropogenic impact on global ecosystems in which the complexity of human-environment-pathogen interactions makes any dyadic metaphor insufficient to capture the reality of the situation.’ (Hupert 2017, 87)


The assertion of the national and conflict-based metaphors promotes a framework of ‘us vs them’ that maps viral pathogens and migrants on to one another. Hupert analyses how the mosquito carriers of Zika have flourished in an environment that is warming and heavily ‘plasticized’ and argues that we need to look beyond the ecological framework of ‘us and them’ to ‘us = them’. The national framing militates against this and facilitates a quite different kind of politics. This is perhaps most visible in the politicisation of the ‘origins’ of the virus. The World Health Organisation strongly recommends against using geographic locations in disease names because of its stigmatising consequences. But it is also deeply misleading. It trains us to miss how the multiple intersections of (im)mobilities of capital, of food, of humans, of animals, of the microbiological, have produced the contemporary situation. Rob Wallace has written brilliantly about how across the world, big business has undermined local food security, pushing people into difficult to cultivate areas, and turn to eating wild meat as a protein source. He has also looked at how the mass ‘production’ of livestock crowds together millions of farmed animals in breeding grounds for disease and species jumping (Wallace et al. 2020). Livestock production and multinational agribusiness are owned and controlled by a handful of multinational corporations and invested in by finance capital. These are the forces shaping the interface between the socio-economic and the biological, an interface that has turned so toxic. The microbiological is pointing to the importance of relational thinking that is quite different from my childhood address listing, and that locates the origins of the crisis not in a single animal in a wet market in Wuhan, nor in the movements of super spreaders within populations but in entanglements whose ‘knots’ are not only in Beijing and Hong Kong but also in New York, London and Paris. 


Attention to the microbiological teaches us too that the world is in us. We are not hermetically sealed. We ingest and excrete. Our bodies typically contain rather a mass of about 0.2 kg of microbes and we host more microbial than human cells (ratio 1.3:1). Our microbiota harbour fungi, bacteria, viruses and archaea. Our bodily systems depend on them, they support our digestive and immune processes, protect us from certain cancers, we co-developed with them. Some argue that animals and plants are not discrete entities but holobionts – a bio-molecular network in an intimate, co-dependent relationship with microbes (Bordenstein and Thies 2015). We are entangled with the microbial in highly complex ecologies whose relations point to ‘pluralities and transformations, interdependence and innovation, reciprocity and mutuality’ (Parasecol 2017, 186), living with, not apart from. And the microbiological teaches us too that we are the world. We are not simply porous but we stretch beyond ourselves, located in ‘cloud bodies’ that, for the moment, require us to keep two metres apart (Brown 2019) and that two meters is not a hard bubble surrounding us, as we leach into our world, whether we like it or not. 


The microbiological confounds purity, integrity and stasis. It also exposes the impossibility of disconnecting the socio-economic from the biological and the biological from the socio-economic. Our metaphors, our analyses and our politics demand a total reset, and re-imagining human movement and its relationalities across all kinds of scales is one of the right places to start.


*  *  * 

This paper draws extensively from the Invasive Others conference I was privileged to attend April 20-21 2016 at the New School in New York. The conference resulted in a special issue of the journal Social Research 84 (1) published in Spring 2017. I am grateful to Miriam Ticktin for inviting me and to the Transatlantic Mobilities Network for our ongoing conversations that have informed my thinking.


An expanded version of this keynote will be available in late July in Parker, M. (ed.). 2020. Life After COVID-19. The other side of crisis. Bristol: Bristol University Press.

References cited

Adida, Claire L.; Dionne, Kim Yi; and Platas, Melina R. 2018. ‘Ebola, elections, and immigration: how politicizing an epidemic can shape public attitudes’. Politics, Groups, and Identities.


Bordenstein, Seth R., and Theis, Kevin R. 2015. ‘Host Biology in the Light of the Microbiome: Ten Principles of Holobionts and Hologenomes’. PLoS Biology, 13(8).


Brown, Nik. 2019. Immunitary Life: The biopolitics of Immunity. London: Palgrave-Macmillan.


Hupert, Naomi. 2017. ‘Who’s Invading Whom? Zika and Intergenerational Public Health’. Social Research, 84(1), 83-105.


Martin, Emily. 1990. ‘Toward an Anthropology of Immunology: The Body as Nation State’. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, New Series, 4(4): 410-426.


Parasecoli, Fabio. 2017. ‘Global Trade, Food Safety, and the Fear of Invisible Invaders’. Social Research, 84(1), 183-202.

Ticktin, Miriam. 2017. ‘Invasive Others: Toward a Contaminated World’. Social Research, 84(1), xxi-xxxiv.

Wallace, Rob; Liebman, Alex; Chaves, Luis Fernando; and Wallace, Rodrick. 2020. ‘Covid-19 and Circuits of Capital’. Monthly Review, 72(1).

Bridget Anderson

Bridget Anderson is the Director of Migration Mobilities Bristol and Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship at the University of Bristol.


Bridget has a DPhil in Sociology and previous training in Philosophy and Modern Languages. Her work explores the tension between labour market flexibilities and citizenship rights, and pioneered an understanding of the functions of immigration in key labour market sectors. Her interest in labour demand has meant an engagement with debates about trafficking and modern day slavery, which in turn led to an interest in state enforcement and deportation, and in the ways immigration controls increasingly impact on citizens as well as on migrants. Bridget has worked closely with migrants’ organisations, trades unions and legal practitioners at local, national and international levels. 


She is the author of Us and Them? The Dangerous Politics of Immigration Controls (Oxford University Press, 2013) and Doing the Dirty Work? The Global Politics of Domestic Labour (Zed Books, 2000). She co-edited Who Needs Migrant Workers? Labour Shortages, Immigration and Public Policy with Martin Ruhs (Oxford University Press, 2010 and 2012), The Social, Political and Historical Contours of Deportation with Matthew Gibney and Emanuela Paoletti (Springer, 2013), and Migration and Care Labour: Theory, Policy and Politics with Isabel Shutes (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

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