Book Review: Nothing Personal? Geographies of Governing and Activism in the British Asylum System



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Guest post by Sarah Hughes, Doctoral Student with the Department of Geography at Durham University. Her research brings into conversation literatures on creativity with debates on resistance within the liminal spaces of the UK asylum system. Sarah is on Twitter @Sarah_Hughes90.

Review of Nothing Personal?: Geographies of Governing and Activism in the British Asylum System by Nick Gill (John Wiley & Sons, 2016)

Nick Gill’s Nothing Personal? is an important and timely contribution to debates on the United Kingdom (UK) asylum politics. The book accounts for the construction of indifference towards suffering amid contemporary practices of UK immigration control. Gill engages with (and advances) the conceptual frameworks of Max Weber, Zygmunt Bauman, Emmanuel Levinas and Georg Simmel, combines these accounts with rich empirical material, and places these novel conversations around morality, suffering and compassion at the centre of research on the British asylum system.

Nothing Personal? argues that there are multiple mechanisms by which indifference is produced in the UK asylum system. Gill deploys the concept of ‘moral distancing’ to forward his exploration of the production of indifference. Moral distancing, for Gill, cannot be simply equated with the figure of the impersonal bureaucrat. Instead, indifference is partly produced by the spatial, moral or cultural distancing of immigration officials from encounters with subjects. Yet Gill does not argue for a celebration of the proximate, instead exploring how when functionaries of the asylum system meet, he claims that indifference can be exacerbated by intimacy with suffering. Through the alienation of subjects away from those exercising control, Gill argues that ‘bureaucracy and sensitivity are woven together in subtle and insipid ways’ (p.8) resulting in a strengthening of bureaucratic methods of governance. To construct his argument Gill draws upon his four research projects which, beginning in 2003, have utilised a variety of methods (including focus groups, surveys, interviews, ethnography and document analysis) to interrogate the contested spaces of the UK’s asylum system.  

The book begins by outlining the story of Alex Dvorzac, an 84-year old man detained at Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre who, despite doctors’ reports declaring him unfit for detention, died in handcuffs. Gill uses the many deaths that take place within immigration systems to begin his interrogation of the state’s ability ‘to engender, within employees, levels of indifference that allow them to overlook the suffering of subjects right before their eyes’ (p.4). It is this important and uncomfortable provocation that Gill turns to explore throughout the book. The second chapter ‘Moral Distance and Bureaucracy’ outlines the core of Gill’s argument, looking at how the recent restructuring of the UK asylum system has reduced the likelihood of any spatial proximity between decision makers. The following chapters elaborate this point, drawing upon a wealth of empirical data to advance the understandings of the construction (and implications of) this potential for moral distancing between parts of the asylum system, including during asylum interviews, immigration removal centres and the NASS (National Asylum Support Service) phone system. In this way the apparent relationship between indifference and lack of emotions is refuted: the anxiety pervasive throughout the asylum system is explored to suggest that it prevents the imagining of alternative futures. Gill ends his analysis by cautioning against activist movements that attempt to nurture compassion between bureaucrats and asylum seekers stating that the ‘spectre of co-optation’ haunting these efforts may ‘serve to strengthen the system itself’ (p.17). In this section he develops a critique of a particular form of activism and sets forth what he finds to be meaningful political action in this area. I wonder here, whether more could be brought out on the potential for progressive politics beyond such an oppositional approach.

Gill’s argument is delicate and carefully detailed, developing into the powerful critique of British asylum politics that he lays out in this work. It is predominantly in the conclusion where this political agenda rises to the fore, with an explicit call for states to dismantle their international borders, and to stop dealing with immigration as a crime. Gill, perhaps anticipating the comments that this is likely to bring from some readers, moves to refute any claims of idealism: ‘The trouble with utopian ideas such as the dissolution of international border controls is that they can be dismissed as unrealistic by ‘men of state’ who think in terms of the existing status quo, and who cannot think beyond it’ (Lefebvre 2009, 54; Gill 2016, 188). However, whilst Gill does acknowledge claims of idealism, he does not fully address them. The conclusion could have better articulated how this vision of a borderless world corresponds to the claims made in the book. Does a world without international borders have no bureaucrats? How do we mitigate against other boundaries drawn along race, gender and class when international borders are dismantled? What happens to those who do not fit with the stable (masculine) activist subject, able to remain coherent and oppositional to the state? Whilst Gill does touch upon these concerns, they perhaps lack the careful conceptual attention given to the rest of the volume.

Nothing Personal? applies a novel theoretical approach to argue for an attention to the construction of indifference within the British asylum system. The book is empirically rich and rigorous, with a detailed methodological appendix articulating the nuances of his four research projects and the associated co-investigators that have allowed for the development of the book. The book is itself a personal account, with Gill using accounts from years of research engagement in this field to place himself and his politics firmly within the pages. In sum, this book is an important, imperative read both for practitioners who work in this area, and those across academic disciplines who want to better understand the workings of the British asylum system.

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