All migrants deserve support, not just “good” ones

Three months ago, I was told I was very likely to be deported. After six years living and working in the UK, I received a letter that said my visa had been refused, and I wouldn’t even be allowed to begin a new role at the University of Leicester. Naturally, I have been living in limbo ever since, pressing pause on my life and career while I seek a resolution.

This isn’t the first time a case like mine has sprung up – recently the Cambridge sociologist Asiya Islam was told she may have to leave the UK by the end of January. Several other international academics have also been refused UK visas this year, either for themselves or their children.

My case was featured in this newspaper, and in the hours that followed I was inundated with messages I could not keep up with: outrage, solidarity, so many questions, and media requests from far and wide. In the weeks since, I have received support from my union, as well as MPs and representatives from several universities, and even had my case raised in the House of Commons. All this is very much appreciated and not taken for granted. It has kept me going and served as motivation to see this through to the end.

But on a personal level, the past month has also brought about deep reflection and critical evaluation of my relative privilege. When I first decided to go public with my story, I emphasised that I did not want to be seen as a “good immigrant” set apart from other migrants – an academic whose deportation was unjust by virtue of my profession or class. As Nikesh Shukla and other writers of colour have pointed out, it is dangerous to suggest that certain histories of work make any person more “deserving” of citizenship. Both an academic and an unemployed person who has fled conflict have equal right to appeal for a place to live.

Nonetheless, many of the talking points surrounding my case have focused on my academic career. Many well-meaning people have expressed their disbelief that the work I have done – in research, teaching and writing – has not spared me this experience. I am certainly proud of my academic achievements, scholarship, outreach, science communication and writing around issues in higher education and healthcare. I also still believe I have more to offer academia in the UK. But at the same time, I know that these achievements do not position me as being more worthy of immigration justice than the many other migrants who become caught up in the system for years.

My story, and those of other migrant academics in similar precarity, are not the first cases of injustice within the UK immigration system, and they certainly won’t be the last. Since my situation became public, many others have reached out to share their experiences. Some have been academics and some have fled from conflict in their countries. People have told me about how they have spent years pursuing documentation, accruing thousands of pounds in fees, as well as enduring the implications that all of this can have on a person’s career, family, emotional state and physical health. I have also met grassroots activists who help migrants integrate into their communities, making me aware of how my case fits into the hostile environment more broadly.

It is heartening to see greater public awareness around the injustices migrants face, but our outrage is still often selective. This is partly because we overlook important considerations, such as the foundational role colonialism and present-day coloniality play in migration. Ambalavaner Sivanandan once succinctly stated: “We are here because you were there.” Meanwhile, homophobic laws, which in many countries are a colonial import, may lead to people seeking refuge in countries with more inclusive laws. “Western geopolitics” have also contributed to the destabilisation of some of the countries from which migrants flee. When we divorce these historical narratives from our everyday conversations around migration, we ignore the real reasons why so many people with less privilege than me are forced to migrate.

To have these conversations responsibly and critically, we need to reflect on why we view cases differently, interrogating everything from who gets to be called an expat rather than a migrant, to our lack of education around global history. The potential impacts of this differential approach cannot be overstated. We know that some people’s cases are swiftly resolved after media attention – but what about those with whom the media and the general public do not always sympathise?

I still do not know if I will be deported in the coming months. My current situation is immensely strenuous. But it is also an opportunity for me to take the solidarity I have received, and to pass it forward to those who have been pushed even further into the margins.

It is my responsibility to use my voice and any platform I have to challenge our collective thinking about exactly who we believe should be afforded safety and citizenship. My situation is unjust – but we shouldn’t forget that all migrants deserve the right to justice.