When I first started telling colleagues and friends about Migrants and Solidarities: Negotiating deservingness in welfare micropublics (Solidarities), I was often greeted with the response: “Great project, but what on earth do you mean by welfare micropublics?” The concept of “deservingness” is familiar to anyone living in migranthood, as well as to those researching and working in the sector. Evaluating situations to understand who is considered deserving, or not, of services and support and the very material impacts of these ideas, is what migrants have to navigate on a daily basis in dynamic, diverse, and often hostile migration regimes. Solidarity may be a slippery concept, as members of our project Academic and Stakeholder Advisory Boards have made clear in previous postings on this site. Even so, solidarity has a long history and is part of everyday conversations, even – or especially – when it is absent. ‘Welfare micropublics’, on the other hand, are not the stuff of picnic or pub talk, at least none that I have ever been to.
The term ‘welfare micropublics’ builds on the work of Mette Berg and colleagues (Berg, Gidley, and Krausova 2019). It flags up some important ideas that potential, if inadequate, synonyms (such as local authority, social services, and civil society) do not. In working with this concept in Solidarities, we attend to the way that deservingness and solidarities are fluidly ‘made’ through social action rather than being unyielding entities with inherent and eternal characteristics or even simply delivered from on high. While many policies about welfare support and services, settlement, and citizenship are made at the national or supra-national level, they are interpreted, enacted, and contested ‘on the ground’.
The concept of ‘welfare micropublics’ can help explain why there are such differences in people’s experiences based on which local institutions and local authorities they interact with. For instance, in some schools, destitute children in families with ‘no recourse to public funds’(NRPF), who are the focus of Case Study 4 in Solidarities, are provided with free school meals (FSM) while others are told they do not qualify. Some schools and local authorities direct their budgets to support these children regardless of whether FSM are funded by central government. The rules around entitlement to FSM for children with NRPF have been challenged by local migrant and grassroots groups, campaigning organisations, as well as lawyers, particularly as conditions of enforced destitution and debt came to the fore during the pandemic. This activism led to changes in national policy and local authority practices, albeit largely as short-term changes tied to the impacts of the pandemic.
As this example shows, contestations in welfare micropublics can involve migrants themselves, frontline workers (including teachers, social workers, police, and so forth), and advocates (including those involved in individual case work, community-building activities, and/or more transformative activism). These are not mutually exclusive groups; one person may belong to all three groups. As a result, we don’t use ‘migrant’, ‘front-line worker’, or ‘advocate’ as a way of talking about individual identifications or to reduce people to a singular identity category. Instead, these refer to social positions and their interactions. Early on, we agreed that a ‘welfare micropublic’ emerges any time at least two of these groups interact about support and services. We also agreed that focusing on differences and similarities across welfare micropublics is an important way to surface assumptions being made about deservingness, consider how different micropublic conditions lead to more inclusive or exclusive forms of solidarity, and – importantly for me – to learn from and amplify conditions that can and are promoting conviviality, horizontal forms of internationalism, and social and economic justice.
Now that we are further along in the Solidarities research, I continue to think that ‘welfare micropublics’ provides an important way of framing our research. But, I have also come to see that the concept is more complex and nuanced than I, at least, originally conceived it.
The ‘publics’ in the concept and our focus on frontline workers (sometimes called ‘street-level bureaucrats’ (Lipsky, 1980)) imply civil servants within government institutions engaging directly with residents. Yet, the migration regime in the UK is heavily outsourced, meaning that many of the frontline workers that migrants and advocates engage with often work for private, for-profit companies. In the UK, this may include companies such as Serco who are contracted for ‘housing, transporting and providing a range of other welfare services to around 20,000 asylum seekers living in more than 5,000 properties asylum housing’ as well as immigration detention. Retrenchment of the (never universal) welfare state following the 2007/2008 financial crisis has also led to an increase in charity organisations providing support and provision, a legacy of former Prime Minster David Cameron’s vision of an outsourced ‘Big Society’. For instance, there has been a dramatic increase in food banks in the UK, with the Trussell Trust charity distributing 2.5 million emergency food parcels in 2020/2021, an increase of 33%.
A connected point is that our original conceptualisation of the six Solidarities case studies implicitly imagined micropublic interactions as direct and proximate encounters. Yet, as my colleagues Eve Dickson and Mette Berg are finding in their research on dispersal and asylum housing in Yorkshire (Case Study 1), welfare micropublic encounters are often heavily mediated rather than face-to-face. Artefacts such as letters from the Home Office or the ASPEN card, a form of debit card which is meant for support for destitute asylum-seekers, are often as close as migrants get to frontline workers. This has been exacerbated by COVID where encounters with social services (for instance with unaccompanied children seeking asylum or for families with NRPF seeking support) have largely been moved online or on the phone.
The fact that micropublic negotiations of welfare deservingness are taking place across increasingly diverse sites, organisational models, and actors, and often in very mediated ways, renders decision-making and complaints processes opaque and labyrinthine. For instance, when management of the ASPEN card system was moved from one outsourced company to another in May 2021, there were multiple problems and many asylum-seekers were left hungry and penniless, without even the basic £39.63/week financial support. In seeking remedy, asylum-seekers had to call Migrant Help, a third sector organisation which is contracted to provide an asylum hotline, in order to rectify a situation caused by the rollout of the new cards by Home Office subcontractors Prepaid Financial Services. The complexity of welfare micropublics also demands more nuanced strategies for local transformation as pressure points or supportive actors with the capacity to make ‘on the ground’ changes are increasingly fragmented and obscured.
A final point relates to the ‘micro’ or local scale of welfare micropublics. While this provides a helpful corrective to understandings of the state as co-terminus with national or central government, it would be a mistake to respond by simply centring the local. Welfare micropublics are overdetermined by geopolitics and (neo)colonialism, amongst other forces. When discourses around deservingness are framed around a false division of ‘protecting our own’ over and against migrants, this is based on nativist understandings of resources and welfare. As decolonial scholars point out, the wealth and possibilities of the welfare state have been made possible not only through the labour of locally-based workers, but through British colonialism and ongoing racialised extractivism (Bhambra, & Holmwood, 2018; El-Enany, 2020; Gilbert, 2020).
My point then is that as fruitful as it is to look at local welfare micropublics to understand how deservingness is constituted, explanatory power, and the political projects for inclusive solidarities this can engender, lies in understanding the ways that local encounters are mediated, contextual and historicised.