Why we are working towards a world where everyone is free to move, and no one is forced to move

Published: 3 April 2024 
Author: Letícia Ishibashi 
Four women are on a stage. Behind them is a red banner, with words that aren't readable. Two of the women are calling out at the same time, with one woman in front of a microphone with a raised fist
Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST)

Letícia Ishibashi, our Head of Programme – Migration, explains what has led us to our new vision and what this means for our grant-making.

For a few decades now, Paul Hamlyn Foundation has been supporting the migration field in the UK. From our initial programme to provide support and advice for children and young people who had insecure or undocumented status through to the establishment of our dedicated migration fund in 2015 – the Shared Ground Fund – we have awarded over £35 million in grants to this field steadily increasing our grant-making from c. £1.4 million to c. £5 million per year.

During this time, we have had a few iterations of the fund. These responded not only to our learning as a grant-maker in the space but also to the needs and vision of those working on migrant justice. Nowhere is this clearer than in our last theory of change. Launched in August 2021, this document set out the aspiration for the Shared Ground Fund, our analysis of how positive change might happen and our contribution to this through our grant-making.

For the first time, we openly named the economic extraction, systemic racism, increasing militarisation and discrimination upon which the UK’s immigration system was and continues to be built on. We discussed our concern that immigration policy in our country was being shaped by populist narratives – as opposed to evidence, human rights, and justice. We noted that its highly centralised and unaccountable decision-making was forcing communities into poverty, destitution and exploitation, undermining migrants’ ability to thrive and creating division and polarisation in our communities.

Current context

Unfortunately, the situation we are in now is even more dire than it was three years ago. Over the last few years, the UK government has introduced several legislations that remove rights for migrant, diaspora communities and their families – the Nationality and Borders Act, Illegal Migration Act and Safety of Rwanda Bill being a few examples. It also changed rules related to family reunion for workers on specific visas and increased the minimum income threshold for families to stay together in the UK placing many at risk of being separated if they are unable to meet the new financial criteria. Despite all evidence that these proposals are inhumane and will create further risk for those in and coming to the UK, these changes have been approved with limited space for influence and disregard to evidence-based decision-making.

Those working towards social justice are exhausted, fighting what feels like a relentless system that refuses to listen. They are fighting new laws which restrict rights to protest and risk censoring freedom of speech. They are trying to manage the consequences of years of austerity and pressure across all public resources. And the global context, which is of course of central to every story of migration, is even more impacted by war, violence and the effect of a warming planet than it was in 2020.

Building a shared vision for the future

It is within this context that we started a consultation with those working towards migrant justice and related fields. We wanted to understand what vision they held for their work beyond the specific changes they are seeking right now. What kind of world are they trying to build? We consulted with over 80 people working across the UK, and met with activists, organisers, organisations, and funders working in the United States and mainland Europe to understand how we can progress towards a better future for all of us.

This broad consultation has led us to the new shared vision for our fund: a world where everyone is free to move, and no one is forced to move. This new and longer-term vision acknowledges that people have always moved – migration has been a part of human history before borders were drawn up, the nation state or immigration policies were even created. Our new vision is an invitation to imagine a future in which we have not only achieved positive changes to our immigration system, but also built a world in which we no longer want or have one.

Imagining a better future

We recognise that this future may seem remote or even unattainable for some. We have been asked whether this future is naïve or idealistic. While we understand these concerns, we believe that it is important to set this intention and not be constrained by the status quo. However, our shared vision is no different from the visions that are universally accepted and supported in so many other areas, such as ending hunger or ensuring that every child has access to education.

Like most things in society, from race to class to gender, concepts around migration and belonging have been created by people. And if they were imagined and put into practice, we can also challenge their existence and work towards dismantling the oppression they (re)produce.

Many social justice movements that focused on securing equal rights for all were perceived as radical at one time or another. Think about movements to end racial segregation and apartheid across the world. At the time, many people – especially those who benefited from the system – felt these movements were too radical. And yet, most countries now have legislated to end racial segregation and have put in place accountability mechanisms to enforce these laws. While the system is still flawed, it has normalised the notion that no one should be discriminated or isolated based on their race, ethnicity, and other personal characteristics.

There are many other examples of ideas that were perceived to be radical, which are now normal’ to us. In fact, the establishment of the European Union was considered radical at one point. Could countries that have been at war with each other several times over hundreds of years actually manage long-term peace, freedom of movement, common values and institutions? Turns out, they could and have. While the European Union is far from perfect, it demonstrates that it is possible to live in a context in which borders do not limit where we go, live, study or work. And while the premise of the European Union was built on a limited and exclusionary white European’ identity, we believe it is possible to imagine and work towards a future in which we share the planet on the basis of our humanity and not the passport we hold.

Why borders limit our lives, and why it doesn’t have to be this way

When talking about migration, it is important that we talk about borders. For those born in the UK, who hold a British passport and are free to come and go, visit other places and return home, borders may not feel like a big part of life. They may solely allude to the often annoying bureaucratic processes one must go through when entering and exiting another country, or when applying for a visa to visit, study or work elsewhere.

However, for many people – especially those from former colonised countries – borders are defining. They limit one’s ability to even consider travelling elsewhere, with some nationalities facing exorbitant fees and long bureaucratic visa processes to visit other countries – especially those in the Global North’. For this group, the world becomes smaller and less accessible – they cannot travel to places they would like to see, move or work elsewhere, or even visit friends and family living abroad.

It is with that in mind that we are proposing this new shared vision. We think it is important to recognise that the borders that separate us today are not natural – they have been imagined, implemented, and militarised. When we treat borders as constructed and not a natural part of life, we open space to consider why they exist, who they serve, and question the harm, violence, and dehumanisation they normalise.

Borders have expanded beyond physical check points’ to impact many aspects of life – from schools, workplaces, hospitals to other community spaces. Even without us realising it, borders are already present in our day-to-day. From when you are asked for a passport or for a proof you have the right to live in the UK’ in order to access the NHS, to register for university, rent or buy a property, and after being offered a job. All these checks have been put in place because of our border system. They were not always there, nor do they have to continue to exist.

Too many examples demonstrate the unfair and disproportionate impact that borders have on racialised communities. From those in the Windrush Generation who after a lifetime in the UK became destitute, lost their jobs and died as a direct result of our dehumanising border system, through to the people of colour who are denied a place to rent because they look’ foreign, to the young people who grow up in the UK dreaming of attending university only to find out they are not entitled to student financing, cannot register for their courses or even work.

Beyond this, the violence perpetrated by borders affects people’s bodies and minds, creating long-lasting effects to their health and wellbeing. There are countless examples of the life-changing effect these policies have had on people. From young people who struggled with depression following the devastating impact their lack of status has had in their lives, those who became ill and destitute due to the emotional and financial stress caused by our border system, to those who have ended their lives while facing indefinite detention in immigration removal centres across the country.

All of these are avoidable, and yet they have become a common part of our border system – and migrants’ lives. If we want to achieve a socially just future, we must contend with the uncomfortable reality that borders are built on and reinforce systemic forms of oppression. This is clear when you examine who is welcome and who the government wants to stop from joining our communities. Borders disproportionately affect people who experience racism, anti-Blackness, ableism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, gender and class discrimination, especially when they are from the Global South’.

More broadly, borders act to reinforce the extractive and exploitative social, political, and economic systems that prioritise profit over people’s lives, normalising and strengthening (neo)colonialism and economic extraction. If our goal is to build a world in which everyone is equal and able to thrive, then we must interrogate and ultimately dismantle the systems and structures that prevent this.

Our hope for the future

We acknowledge that this new shared vision may spark feelings of fear and uncertainty. We are made to feel like society has always been this way and, therefore, there is very limited room to significantly change things. But this is not true. When you find yourself wondering whether something is unrealistic, naïve or too radical – ask yourself why’. Why do we limit our ability to imagine a better future for us? Why are we so comfortable envisioning apocalyptic scenarios and so uncomfortable having hope for a better world? Who benefits from our division, polarisation and fear of one another?

This new shared vision is an invitation to imagine and build a future in which we are no longer defined by our legal status – citizen, documented, undocumented, asylum seeker, refugee. Where no one is forced to move due to fear, war, economic deprivation, climate destruction; and everyone is free to choose where they want to live.

All major social justice movements were built on hope. We want to contribute towards a better future for migrants and diaspora communities by funding work that builds on this hope to implement stronger protections and entitlements for those who move in the here and now’, while building knowledge, solidarity and power in our communities and supporting those who are imagining, rehearsing and practising the future we want to see for all of us. We would love for you to join us in this journey.

Thank you to everyone who has shared their time, expertise, and insight to help us shape the next iteration of PHF’s migration fund. We could not have done this without you.

Read a summary of the findings from our consultation with the migration field in this short report.

Letícia Ishibashi
Head of Programme – Migration