‘Forced to Flee: Stories from Hull Refugees’ Exhibition’; Monday 20 June to Sunday 17th July

Isabel Arce Zelada

PhD student, Living with the Consequences of Slavery Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull


As well as a programme of events this week, the University of Hull is hosting an exhibition of refugee stories in the Art Gallery. This is Isabel’s.

My so-called interest in the asylum courts in the UK was not born in this country. It was born in the waiting areas of Migrationsverket in Sweden where my mother, my grandmother and I used to sit and wait. Wait for my grandmother’s name to be called, wait for the interpreter to come, wait while looking at the people around us who had come from all parts of the world only to be stuck here, with us. Migrationsverket dealt with all the asylum concerns and migration troubles that you might have encountered yourself in Sweden. They were the ones that at the end of my grandmother’s asylum process told her she was going to be put on a plane and removed to Cuba where she would inevitably be branded as a traitor for overstaying her visa and potentially become a political prisoner. My grandmother simply said that if she was put on a plane she would jump out of it, to which the horrified employee of Migrationsverket told her not to threaten them. She calmly said that this was just a fact, not a threat.

Description from The Ones We Love Shop: ‘The Ones We Love Are Enemies Of The State, this line [is] from Antigone as translated by Seamus Heaney [and] is accompanied by an original line drawing by Cult Days. The Alicorn is a spear headed beast of eastern myths, not the delicate creature of [E]uropean stories. Our love[d] ones are targeted by the state, whether for their race, religion, ethnic origin, or gender expression. We love them and this [is] a mascot for all the fights required to keep loving them.’

When approaching my PhD project I was very aware that while I had experience of an asylum process I did not have personal experience of the asylum process in the UK, which meant that I needed experts in this area. My next dilemma was how to conduct research in a way that would not reproduce the violence and tediousness of the several interviews that people are put through by our immigration authorities. Through the Critical Border Studies direction towards art, poetry, music and other creative methods to talk about the experiences of migration I started to develop what would result in 11 weeks of workshops with some of the most insightful and funny artists I have ever met. We discussed abstract concepts of home, justice, embodiment, but also of specific experiences with the UK asylum process, finding common ground in the ways that the courts and people had treated us.

One of the themes that was uncovered was the assertion that each person there had decided to leave. The threats were there, they were going to die if they did not leave – but nevertheless they had to see how their families were going to survive, keep their kids entertained and tend to their deteriorating mental health until they could find a semi-permanent place to rest their heads. In between recounting hard times there was an ever present humor, a way to keep spirits high in the cruelest environments, a humor that often derailed me and took me places that uplifted me too.

I titled the project Who We Are as an attempt to build a space in which we could discuss personal experiences but also where we could create a different kind of belonging – belonging to each other, in brief moments of time. It was in part inspired by Julie Otsuka’s book The Buddha in the Attic which talks about the experiences of Japanese women migrating to the US as a collective in which each of the experiences is told as a community, highlighting the differences and similarities in their experiences. We were by no means a community from the get-go, but we did have a starting point that unites us: Who We Are is intended not only to answer the questions about our migratory existences but also to create a We where there is so much division.

In The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri, she talks about the ways in which our stories are used and how this unites our experiences:

Our stories were drumming with power. Other people’s memories transported us out of our places of exile, to rich, vibrant lands and to home. They reminded us of the long, unknowable road. We couldn’t see yet, fresh from our escape, but other sharp turns lay ahead. We had created our life’s great story; next would come the waiting time, camp, where we would tell it. Then struggle for asylum, when we would craft it. Then assimilation into new lives, when we would perform it for the entertainment of the native-born and finally, maybe in our old age, we would return to it, face it without frenzy: a repatriation. (p.6-7)

Only one of the artists already had her own shop and social media set up. Some had great enthusiasm and drive, approaching the canvases and instruments with confidence, others were cautious, thinking of the prices of the canvases and paint, thinking carefully about what to paint on them. The project was always designed to have a book or exhibition at the end of it, as a way to have something substantial from our creativeness and production in the project. When the University was looking for artists for an exhibition during Hull Refugee Week it was a great opportunity for us to showcase what we had created and cement the fact that we were all artists in our own right.

To be part of this collective has been one of the great joys in my research and I hope we find ways to keep it alive after this exhibition. If you would want to hear our stories and hear the insightful reflections from people who know about what it is like to be human in the most extreme moral dilemmas come along to this Exhibition at the Brynmor Jones Library. Although not part of the Who We Are project, you can also meet the Dirar family who are exhibiting their fantastic interactive artworks that we had the pleasure of housing at the Wilberforce Institute in 2018.

Slaves in the Asylum System

Jeff Morgan

Honorary Research Fellow

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull.


Jeff Morgan, one of our newest Honorary Research Fellows, is a Trustee of the City of Sanctuary Movement and former Medical Officer to Hull University. In this blog he offers his thoughts on attitudes to asylum in Britain.  

It has often been claimed that Britain has a ‘proud historical record’ of welcoming refugees. There are instances when such a boast is justified. It is possible, though, to lift the veil of patriotic smugness to reveal a rather different reality. Thus, it is not too great a surprise that current attitudes across the UK to those seeking sanctuary are found to be nuanced.

In the light of conflicting beliefs, consequent legislative controls and media responses, I contend that the lot of those seeking asylum here now fulfils many of the criteria defining ‘modern slavery’.

As far back as 1517, angry Londoners rose up against refugees lodged around St Pauls, where they had sought a new chance in life. The Evil May Day Riot of that Spring ended with scores beaten and burned out of their homes by over a thousand unemployed apprentices. The fiery preaching of a Dr Bell had lit the fuse. Claiming that foreigners ‘eat the bread from poor fatherless children’, he beseeched all Englishmen ‘to cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens.’  

Evil May Day Riots in Cheapside, London, in 1517

In the seventeenth century, King William III floated the idea of free naturalisation for refugees. Sir John Knight, MP for Bristol, thereupon declared: ‘Let us first kick the Bill out of The House – then the foreigners out of the Kingdom!’ Mr Speaker did order this particularly xenophobic speech burnt, while its prime victims, the industrious Huguenots, mostly went on to prosper in England. Nevertheless, the English nursed mixed feelings, some offering a genuine welcome to the incomers while others harboured deep resentment.

There are also numerous twentieth century examples in which the attitudes of the British can be called to account. While Britain held the Palestine Mandate (1920-1948) the entry of Jewish refugees into ‘The Holy Land’ was fiercely restricted by our maritime patrols and British agents based in Greek and Italian ports. Measures intensified once war broke out and the flow of persecuted Jews fleeing Europe swelled.  A confidential memo prepared by the Foreign Office & Colonial Office in January of 1940 reveals the objective then at hand ‘As it is obviously impossible to touch the main source of the traffic which is in German territory, the objective of the countermeasures must be to prevent the transit and embarkation of parties of Jews in countries bordering on Germany.’(D. Scott Fitzgerald, Refuge Beyond Reach, 2019, pp 25-32)

In 1951, in the wake of the enormous wartime displacements, Britain signed the UN Refugee Convention. Its core principle was ‘non-refoulement’. We committed never to return an asylum-seeking individual to a country where he/she has a well-founded fear of persecution.Yet years of involvement in the lives of very many sanctuary seekers have led me to a personal perception of the thrust of our nation’s Asylum System. In the effort to prove that applicants’ well-founded fears have no basis, it would seem that subtle means are employed to configure them as ‘lacking in credibility’. Such allegations are frequently based upon matters unconnected with, or only indirectly related to, the main incidents of persecution suffered in their homelands.

UN Refugee Convention, 1951

Asylum seekers are not allowed to work. When a decision is long delayed, however, they can apply for a ‘Shortage Occupation’. For the jobs so listed, (famously including ‘Male Ballet Dancer’, ‘Senior Nuclear Waste Engineer’ and ‘Paediatric Neuro-Radiologist’), they are invariably unqualified. Refused leave-to-remain, they usually fall into destitution and homelessness. Despite the modest payments under Sections 98, 95 and 4, they exist in a state of legal, social, occupational and psychological limbo. ‘Contingency’ and ‘Dispersal’ accommodation can be shifted at short notice to anywhere in the country. A substantial drifting population of hopeless, rootless and unintegrated victims awaits final decisions on status, detention or deportation. Such decisions can sometimes take fifteen years to resolve.

Meantime, individuals lack agency over so many freedoms taken for granted by the rest of us. Their destinies lie totally in the gift of the Home Office. They can choose neither their billets nor control their daily lives. They endure the ‘unfree labour’ of forced unemployment. They are effectively denied access to education, banking and elements of state healthcare. Their dignity is eroded by institutional disbelief in their accounts of maltreatment, lack of appreciation for their former social or professional positions, achievements, skills and qualities and by the politically-generated ‘hostile environment’.

The proposed Nationality & Borders Bill will tighten the grip of that hostile environment. It will add criminality to the burden borne by those who enter by non-legal routes. It will demand of terrified new arrivals the full disclosure to British officials of every shameful detail of their torture, because  delayed revelations will become inadmissible. For the entire period while their claims are determined they will be confined to substantial ‘Accommodation Centres’, excluding any understanding of British culture or integration into local communities otherwise willing to welcome them.

Furthermore, I believe that those seeking sanctuary in this country are potentially at risk of exploitation and abuse by those who would take them into enforced servitude ‘under the radar’.

It is my contention that those seeking sanctuary in this country have much in common with the slaves of previous centuries. Displaced far from their homelands and robbed of any agency over their present or future existence, they are rigorously controlled over periods of unpredictable duration by all-powerful and uncompassionate authorities.

The War That is Asylum: The Duty to Disobey

Isabel Arce Zelada

PhD student, Living with the Consequences of Slavery Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull


Asylum as an institution has existed since antiquity, deeply interwoven with laws around war, citizenship and political hierarchies. There have been attempts to push its history back to the origins of humanity by rebranding it as solely a humanitarian act of offering shelter. However, this can hardly be called asylum as it is missing the main components of rejection and submission. As part of the practices of the western world, asylum has taken on at least two crucial functions – to reject the border-crosser and to criminalize their migration. Not only does this process portray ‘repatriation’ as an acceptable course of action but it also has the ability to push the boundaries of ethics when we are dealing with other human beings.

The thousands of deaths at the borders of our nation-states are not treated as national emergencies. Instead they are used as excuses to make the crossing of borders for some even more hostile as a deterrent. Those who do risk their lives to save people crossing borders are now also targeted as criminals, as the boundaries of legal-ethical lines are pushed, creating geographical spaces where individuals can be killed with impunity. During warfare the killing of another person is sanctioned by our respective nation-states: no one is going to be shocked to hear that a soldier has killed an ‘enemy’ while his or her country is at war. Granted, war takes on many disguises, many events are kept hidden from the general public and war crimes, killing civilians for example, are still seen as illegal.  But asylum is not a war, we are told, it is humanitarianism.

In this sense asylum is not just the guardian of a geographical border but also the creator of ethical guidelines for citizens. If an asylum case is refused it becomes acceptable to discard the person who was applying for it. But if an asylum claim is accepted the person is entitled to support and advocacy from citizens to show what a humanitarian society we have cultivated. The difference between the two people is one judgement from a court room that might not know or comprehend all of the person’s lived experience. Then there are people seeking asylum in the UK who get stuck in the system for years, awaiting a decision or appealing while being required to exist on a lower income than Britain’s 10% poorest households.

Carving out the citizen was and is a colonial project, designed to cement an allegiance between the individual and the nation-state. It creates duties for both parties, criminalizing the individual that betrays the nation-state and invoking protests from the nation over civil rights when the nation-state fails to uphold them. In this relationship, however, we invisibilize the non-citizen: the stateless; the asylum seeker; and the Indigenous. These  are all excluded from the nation-state project and outside the contractual relationship that the citizen should have. When we speak of radical movements, particularly liberation movements, we need to then ask what kind of radical liberation we are striving for?  Are we looking for the full gain of promised civil rights, or for the dismantling of the citizen relationship all together; in other words should we break the monopoly on humanity that the citizen has?

As of today large parts of humanity are citizens, and so the question should also be what are the duties of the citizen in relation to this bordered violence? By law, in Britain, we can still all commit treason, and those with precarious British citizenship (who have been naturalized or whose parents have been naturalized) can have that citizenship stripped if this is the case. But citizenship duties go well beyond the duties to the nation-state. In fact, the exploration of citizenship duties by Thoureau and Walzer focuses on the duty that the citizen has to disobey. While we are being fed a notion of morality by asylum courts today, one that claims to distinguish between criminal and victim, it is the citizen’s duty to refuse the legal system’s monopoly on this judgement. On the 9th of November 2021, citizens locked themselves to the road that was meant to transport people in detention to another Jamaican charter flight. Whether they are to be tried by the British legal system remains to be seen, but in acts like these the citizen exercises the right to reclaim morality and humanity.

This example is not meant to obscure the constant activism of non-citizens. Indigenous peoples have a fundamental practice of consistent resistance against the assimilation of the land and their people into the nation-state. Targeted migrants have consistently carved out paths for ourselves geographically, practically and legally to survive. When it comes to asylum, the representative of the Secretary of State will stand (or sit) in court citing the safety and wellbeing of the “public” in Britain as a cause for the person seeking asylum not to be granted refugee status. The duty to disobey these border regimes is also rooted in refusing to be complicit in their violence; disobeying is the only way to acknowledge the humanity of the non-citizen.

Caption: ‘Silence is compliance – A protester with a message standing on a window ledge in Whitehall.’ Photo courtesy of Alisdare Hickson at https://www.flickr.com/photos/alisdare/31903348794/

Modern Slavery and Conflict: The Drivers and the Deterrents

Dr Alicia Kidd

Postdoctoral Researcher

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull


Dr Alicia Kidd, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Wilberforce Institute, talks about her forthcoming research monograph, Modern Slavery and Conflict: The Drivers and the Deterrents, after securing a contract with Oxford University Press. Her book will run in the Clarendon Studies in Criminology series.

This book developed out of my PhD thesis on the relationship between conflict and modern slavery, which I completed at the Wilberforce Institute in 2019. I had come to the subject in response to my experience as a practitioner in the field where I identified a real gap in research and knowledge regarding the root causes of modern slavery. In bringing an academic focus to practitioner experience, my book injects new material into the field of modern slavery, which is an area in which interest continues to grow amongst academics, practitioners and members of the public alike. This growing interest in modern slavery has also led to large public debates about immigration and asylum which are topics that my book engages with, particularly in relation to the discrepancies between the UK government’s declared intention to lead the way in defeating modern slavery whilst simultaneously imposing a restrictive and hostile environment on those seeking asylum.

By looking beyond just the individuals involved in cases of modern slavery – the victims and the perpetrators – my book will consider the ways in which states facilitate, and sometimes even actively encourage, situations of modern slavery to occur. While there is growing visibility of modern slavery, the portrayal of modern slavery cases inevitably focuses on an unwilling victim, tricked or deceived into exploitation by a criminal perpetrator looking to benefit from the victim’s misfortune. My book will challenge this conception of modern slavery by questioning the common assumptions that a) victims of modern slavery are all entirely distanced from the fate that awaits them and b) that modern slavery is a relationship simply between a victim and a perpetrator.

With a broad definition of conflict as an organising concept, I consider the ways in which conflict can facilitate modern slavery by generating unsafe conditions, disrupting support networks and encouraging displacement. Using first-hand accounts, comparisons are made between those who fled conflict to the UK in relative safety, and those who fled but then experienced modern slavery. My book contextualises these stories in order to understand why some people appear to be more at risk than others when escaping a conflict situation. The book also considers the lives of people after they have fled conflict and arrived in the UK. With the belief that they have left danger behind, arriving in the UK brings hopes of safety. However, by drawing insights from interviews with those who have experienced the UK immigration system, I am able to make observations about how the UK government and its restrictive and hostile immigration policies actually put people at increased risk of modern slavery once they are in the UK.

The strength of my book lies in its unique empirical focus on a comparison between first-hand accounts of people fleeing conflict to safety, and those fleeing conflict and experiencing modern slavery. It offers rare personal insights into the experiences of asylum seekers, refugees and victims of modern slavery and the specific aspects of their journeys that made them vulnerable to exploitation. I hope to have the first edition available in print in 2022.

In this blog, Professor Oldfield talks about the collaboration he was involved with between the Wilberforce Institute and the British Library.

Living with the consequences of slavery

Isabel Arce Zelada

PhD student on the ‘Living with the consequences of slavery’ cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull


Jen Nghishitende

PhD student on the ‘Living with the consequences of slavery’ cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull


Mavuto K. Banda

PhD student on the ‘Living with the consequences of slavery’ cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull


Five months in, our three newest PhD students, Isabel Arce Zelada, Jen Nghishitende and Mavuto Banda, reflect on their collective agenda and their individual research projects so far.

We started our PhDs in the midst of a pandemic and as a cluster we have had little opportunity to work together and understand how our projects interlink. However, through various zoom calls and physically distant interactions we are beginning to understand where we belong in this cluster as a team as well as individually. As a cohesive unit we found that we each speak about the way various institutions constantly ask groups of people with different experiences of exploitation to present themselves as victims. This establishes a uniform ‘humanitarian’ response to problems that involve a multiplicity of experiences, and in the process creates and recreates the model of what a victim is and what they need. At the core of all our projects are individuals who constantly have to prove themselves to be victims in order to get some level of assistance. As such, we are, as a collective, critically investigating what we mean when we say ‘victim’ and what solutions we need to achieve to assist this group of individuals. 


In asylum processes the idea that the nation-state is providing safety to a person seeking persecution has a long and complicated history. As an institution asylum has always led to wide networks of power in which many other institutions are involved. In the UK, the rise of nationalistic sentiments, detention centres and hostile environments have led to an awkward paradox in which the UK saves the asylum seeker, yet also condemns them for a role in the demise of the British nation. At the same time, the asylum system keeps its humanitarian role by supposedly saving the true refugee. I am therefore researching the many violent tactics of distrust and retraumatization that are present in the UK asylum process. 


My research deals with women and children who have survived modern slavery in the UK and as such, I will be focusing on those people who have already either been accepted or rejected as ‘victims’ by the UK Home Office. In recent years, the spotlight has been placed on survivors’ accounts, their tales of slavery and their eventual escape or rescue; scant attention has been placed on what happens to survivors after slavery, especially in the long term. My research will therefore examine the long term trajectories of survivors in the UK, all the while looking at the laws, policies, and processes that are in place to assist them with rehabilitation and reintegration into society in order to  regain their rights and dignity.


My research looks from a different perspective at the children that have become the victims of modern slavery. In adhering to Fairtrade standards and safeguarding their corporate image, Malawi’s commercial agriculture has banned the employment of under-18 year olds in its plantations, as it seeks to prevent and rescue children from the evils of ‘child labour’. Once the work of under-18 year olds in commercial tea and tobacco plantations had been defined as ‘child labour’ this ban became necessary. My study therefore aims at exploring the impact of ‘child labour’ bans in commercial tea and tobacco estates with respect to youth employment and livelihoods in rural communities of Malawi. It will try to understand the socio-cultural dynamics of life in Malawi, and how communities view children’s participation in the labour market.

Henry Ford once said, ‘Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.’ Our continual working relationship will therefore lead to the collective success of our cluster as well as our individual successes in our research projects. We also look forward to hopefully meeting and working with everyone soon in person at the Wilberforce Institute. Our shared hope for the future is that victimhood, with the pressures of presenting oneself as the perfect victim, is scrutinized, and the assistance that is needed is given without requesting trauma as payment for it.

Protective medical mask on laptop. https://www.flickr.com/photos/156445661@N02/49799314177